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Taking Up Triathlon After 50: An Interview With Inspirational Triathlete Pam Stokell

Triathlon is a multi-discipline sport, consisting of a swim, bike ride, and run – although there are different distances that you can compete in. For this blog post, we interviewed triathlete, Pam Stokell, and talked about starting a new hobby after 50, competing with a lung condition, and how the sport has changed her life for the better.

Pam in a black t-shirt and pink hoodie, wearing a medal and holding a small trophy
All smiles after a tough race.

Three Little Birds (TLB): Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How old are you and what

category do you compete in?

Pam: Oh crikey… well I’m 57. I’ve been dithering with trying to qualify for the World or European Championships the last couple of years. My times are competitive at that level because of my age. but I haven’t. I have to say by the time you get to 57, there aren’t many women doing triathlon, which means usually, no matter what race I enter, no matter what level it is, I usually end up on the podium.

TLB: And what is your favourite distance?

Pam: My favourite distance? I suspect it’ll be half ironman, but I haven’t done one yet… I have one coming up next summer – it’s been cancelled twice due to COVID, so I really hope it happens next year. The swim is around 2km, the bike ride is 90km, and the run is a half marathon – that’s 21km. And I think that would be my most comfortable distance – it’s a bit more sociable, you’ve got time to talk to people going round. A sprint, which is 800m swim, 20km bike ride, and 5km run is just too frenetic, and then a standard distance (1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run) is quite a nice distance to get into your stride. But I prefer longer distances.

TLB: Can you tell us about your first triathlon? How old were you?

Pam: My first triathlon was 2015, so I would have been 51. I was reasonably fit, but I wasn’t race-fit. I would cycle around a little bit, I used to go out running a little bit. That first triathlon was really hard work. It was an odd kind of standard distance. It was a 800m pool swim, the bike ride was 37km, and the run was 12 km and it was quite up and down – it was billed as a friendly triathlon suitable for all abilities, but I wouldn’t have recommended it for a first time – not with that run at the end.

Pam in a black wetsuit and yellow swimming cap, running out of a lake.
Pam participating in an open water triathlon, ready for the bike ride.

TLB: And how did you prepare?

Pam: Haha, I didn’t really, not properly… I used to swim anyway, just for relaxation, so an 800m swim wasn’t a fast swim, but it was a comfortable swim. As far as the bike ride, I’d ridden the distance the week before, that was it, and I knew I could ride the distance. And for the 12km, it wasn’t a very fast run, but I knew I could do, you know, about 8 or 9km, so I thought I could probably do 12km… So, I was reasonably fit but not race-fit. It wasn’t very well paced; I didn’t know what I was doing. I was exhausted by the end.

I joined the triathlon club afterwards – it would have been about October or November of the year after I did my first triathlon.

Many medals from various triathlon and running events.
Pam's rather impressive medal collection.

TLB: What made you want to do a triathlon in the first place?

Pam: I think it was denial at being 50, I thought to myself, I can’t be 50, I’ve got to do something to prove to myself that I’m not actually that old… And triathlon came to mind because our youngest son, Dan, did triathlon when he was little, and I had stood by the sidelines cheering him on, thinking ‘I could do this’… because it’s swimming, it’s cycling, and running, I knew I could do all of those.

TLB: I think seeing you as a successful triathlete, with competitive times for world championships and whatnot, people might be surprised to learn about your health background- are you comfortable talking about that a bit?

Pam: Yeah, I’ve had bad asthma for years, for decades, it’s a longstanding thing. And then I have bronchiectasis, which is a condition whereby the surface area available for your lungs to exchange gases is much reduced. What that means is that I can’t get enough oxygen to my muscles, or I can’t get as much oxygen to my muscles as I would if my lungs were healthy, which means the muscles don’t work as well. The sign I’ve come to recognise to mean I’m not getting enough oxygen to my muscles, and I need to slow down is that my fingers start hurting. If my fingers start to hurt, then I know that there’s not enough oxygen getting to my muscles, and I need to slow down.

TLB: When were you diagnosed with bronchiectasis, and what was your health like when you were?