CHIBA – Hiromu Inada is by no means your average 86-year-old.
Inada is the oldest triathlete to complete what many consider to be the most difficult race in the world — the ironman triathlon — at the world championships. But with his steely resolve, the Japanese senior aims to keep proving he can move mountains and that age cannot stop him from achieving what his heart pushes him to do.
While the standard, Olympic-distance triathlon race consists of a 1.5-km swim, a 40-km ride and a 10-km run, the ironman requires competitors to complete a race more than three times as long under a given time limit.
The grueling event requires athletes to swim 3.86 km and bike 180.25 km before running a full marathon.
“It’s an extremely tough race for an old man like me. But there’s a part of me that wants to challenge myself and see how long I can keep competing,” he said. “And if there are people rooting for me, then I think it’s my obligation to meet their expectations.”
Inada, a retired TV reporter, has taken part in the race for his age group at the annual world championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, for eight straight years. He has completed the race three times — and set a record for the oldest finisher in 2016 before rewriting it again last year when he crossed the line in 16:53:49 in the sub-17 hour race.
“The race is all about endurance and gunning persistently until the very end. You also don’t really need the explosiveness,” he said. “Having three parts gives me a chance to make up for one segment with another.”
Inada is aware his physical challenges are mounting and acknowledges the fact that his body is “crumbling down” with age — his battle with injuries seems endless. Yet, he considers these years to be the best of his life, even compared with his youth.
Inada’s day usually starts before the sun rises in Chiba. He arrives at his gym at six in the morning, six days a week, and sometimes works out until after sunset.
On a chilly day in March he went straight to a 50-meter pool at the Inage International Swimming School and swam lap after lap, completing over 3 km in the next hour or so.
Without taking a long break or showing signs of fatigue, Inada rushed into the training room where his bike is located and took part in a workout session alongside other, younger participants.
“Even though I have the same training (regimen) as young people, it takes me twice as long to complete it,” he said. “But I find training very fun. I also am encouraged by watching the training of young athletes. I think it’s good how we motivate each other.”
He said he enjoys trying out different methods, concentrating on his posture or breathing, so he can race more easily and without the physical limitations that naturally come with age impacting him too severely. He tries out methods that his coaches tell him about or based on what athletes on TV competing in other sports say they are doing.
“When I try out new things, sometimes I’m like ‘this works for me’ or ‘I might be able to finish the race faster if I do this’ and it’s so fun when it clicks,” he said.
He sticks to a strict diet, consuming food that he believes will boost his overall performance. He tries to balance proteins and carbs, while cooking soup with 14 ingredients to eat for breakfast.
“In my case, my bones are thinner and my muscles are weaker. And I need to supplement that through my diet,” he said. “My life centers around the ironman. And diet is a part of that.”
Triathlon shifted from being a hobby to his “obligation,” he said, after his world championship race in 2015 that left many viewers riding an emotional high.
Following the swim and the bike segments, Inada finished the race after having collapsed twice in front of the finish line. He stood up, tottered and made the finish, only to find out later that he was disqualified for not making the 16-hour, 50-minute time limit by just five seconds.
He said he received more than a thousand messages via social media from people who were moved by his performance. The race organizers also had messages sent to them asking that Inada not be disqualified.
“I was about to pass out. I thought I finished the race in good shape, not without falling,” he said. “I used to think that I could quit whenever I want. But finding out that people are actually expecting things from me led me to think that I need to complete the race no matter what.”
He made the cut the following year, and in 2018 he overcame his “lonely battle” against feeling ill and sudden rain to win the 85-and-over age category — a group newly created for him.
Inada’s passion for triathlon began relatively late for his age.
He worked as a reporter for NHK until he retired at the age of 60 to take care of his wife, who had fallen ill.
In retirement he made swimming a regular part of his routine with three swims per week. He later took part in aquathlon, which combine swimming and running. He first raced at an Olympic-distance triathlon meet when he was 70 — and he gradually worked his way up to make his debut at the Ironman World Championship in 2011.
“I didn’t imagine myself doing triathlon until this age,” he said. “Once I got over 80 years old, I suddenly felt weak. In a way, I even think I was very young at 70. I think my body would’ve got weaker faster if I hadn’t started triathlon.”
He has also been a source of inspiration for younger triathletes who train alongside him.
“He is a legend. His very existence is just purely amazing,” said Satoshi Namekata, 52, who joined Inada for a bike session in March. “He is someone we all look up to — a goal.”
“Everybody wants to be like him. Well, I don’t think I can be like him though,” he said with a laugh. “But he motivates us all whenever he shows up at training.”
Inada aims to finish the next world championships in October in style, while inspiring his own generation to achieve their own goals, even late in life.
“At any case, I want to finish the race this year because I think I’ve evolved through my training,” he said. “I have this dream that I might even finish faster than I did (last) year.”
“I hope everyone can see and be encouraged that you can do the same things as the younger generation even when you age.”