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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?

Pam: Oh, I was in a dreadful state. I was still stubbornly going swimming, but I could barely swim two lengths before I had to stop and catch my breath. It took them ages to diagnose me with bronchiectasis. I had a really bad lung and throat infection back in 2008, and the damage was done then. I had such a violent cough that it actually broke my ribs in three places, so that was very painful. They kept sending me for scans thinking it was lung cancer but they would come back clear. I think it was about 2 years before I did that first triathlon that I was diagnosed with bronchiectasis. They put me through a series of different antibiotics until they found one that managed to kill the infection that had been in my lungs for years, and then over a course of 2 or 3 months, I started to be able to breathe properly again. It was like a new lease of life.

Pam dressed in black, with a white helmet, riding uphill with a smile on her face.
Pam completing the 2021 White Horse Challenge - a 145km bike ride with 1600m of climbing!

TLB: Do you feel that triathlon has helped with the bronchiectasis?

Pam: Um, well that was another big reason for taking it on. I was looking for something to do because the consultant at the hospital had said to me basically, I need to be using the whole of my lungs in order to be able to clear them on a regular basis and keep them clear. Normally when you’re walking around, you’re only using the top third of your lungs. So he said to either join a choir or do some really hard aerobic exercise… Now I can’t sing to save my life so I wrote that idea off at the moment he said it, so I was quite relieved when he said ‘or do some aerobic exercise’. I thought, ‘now I can do that’.

Pam running next to a lake in a black tri-suit, wearing race number 324.
When you reach the run, you know you're nearly there...

TLB: So it’s clearly had a massive impact on your physical health, but has triathlon had an effect on your mental health and overall wellbeing?

Pam: Hugely. I had never really thought of myself as sporty, not particularly. I used to enjoy running, I did a bit of rock climbing for a while, but I didn’t think of myself as sporty. Just joining the triathlon club has really opened up a side of me that I never considered was even there. What they say about the benefits of exercise, I think, are very true. I do miss it when I can’t do it for whatever reason. It helps put things into perspective, it gives you a space that’s just your own, yeah, it’s had a really positive impact on my mental health. More so than when I used to – because I know I said that I was relatively fit before – but being fit at this level, at my age, it just feels so good! I’ve had the opportunity to raise money for causes close to my heart as well – I did my first open water triathlon for Young Minds, and just ran the Oxford half-marathon for Oxfordshire Mind, so I’ve been able to raise upwards of £2000 for charity, which feels amazing. The social side of it, as well, I hadn’t anticipated how important that was, I’ve made wonderful friends through the triathlon club.

Pam smiling, holding trophy at her triathlon club's Christmas meal.
In 2019, Pam was honoured as her club's triathlete of the year.

TLB: What advice would you have for anyone looking to do a triathlon, or join a triathlon club?

Pam: In terms of doing your first triathlon, make sure that you can do the distances before you – well not before you enter, but certainly before the race, and not just the week before, like I did with the bike ride on my first one. Triathlon in general is a really welcoming inclusive sport, that’s something that I hadn’t realised. You see people of all shapes and sizes and ages doing triathlons. I would have worried that I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. The thing that made me realise that I’m not actually the slowest person out there was doing the Park Run – I did my first Park Run, realised I finished in the middle of the pack, and thought ‘ooh, that’s a surprise… I can do this!’ Following on from that I did my first 5k, then a 10k, then the triathlon, and then I joined the triathlon club. It was a gradual progression like that. But I needed to know, myself, that I could do it, and I guess in some ways I must be a bit insecure, because that not being the last really mattered to me. I do see people joining our triathlon club who are not particularly fast, and they still join and I think ‘gosh I wish I had that…’ I know that they are really nervous about joining, but it’s that strength to give it a go anyway, even when you think ‘I’m probably gonna be last but I’m gonna try it anyway’.

Definitely look around for a club. I was very lucky in that the club that was closest to me happens to be one of the loveliest, most supportive, most inclusive clubs that I’ve ever come across. Some clubs are a bit more competitive, and it’s worth having a look around to see what is out there. If you’re wondering about trying a club, just do it. Don’t be like me, that had to prove to myself that I wouldn’t be last before I joined – because the club would have been every bit as welcoming and helpful. I wish I had known and understood that because I would have joined sooner.

A huge thank you to Pam for agreeing to speak with us for this blogpost!

If this post has inspired you to try out a Park Run, you can find one near you by clicking here.

If you’re interested in trying triathlon, you can find triathlon clubs near you using this search tool from British Triathlon.

Did you enjoy reading Pam's story? Do you know any inspirational humans willing to be interviewed for a blog post? Let us know and help us start an open discussion about mental health and wellbeing.

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