Completing a triathlon — no matter the distance — is far from an easy task, no matter your age. However, it could be argued that the older you get, the more impressive this feat is. After all, if you go to any race in the world and take a look at the field, you’re likely to see the same breakdown of age groups. There will be a small to medium-sized group of athletes that still have a one at the start of their age, a massive population of people aged 20 to 60, and then a steep decline as you look at older and older age groups. By the time you hit the 80-plus age divisions, there are only a handful of athletes at any given race. Charlie Barnes of Guelph, Ont., is one of the few triathletes from that select group, and he is still charging forward at the age of 85.
Barnes’s athletic career
Barnes has been a runner for most of his life. He ran in high school and at McGill University, where he studied back in the 1950s. After he finished at university, he kept running, but he says he never really raced.
“I didn’t really get into any competitive stuff until I started in triathlons in 1999,” Barnes says. “My daughter and my niece were both doing triathlons, so they convinced me to join them.”
Like many triathletes, Barnes kicked off his career with a try-a-tri, then a sprint and eventually graduated to a half-distance race in 2008. That was his lone long-distance effort and, since then, he has found plenty of success in sprint triathlons.
“I’ve been to four world championships,” Barnes says. He missed out on the podium in 2011 in Beijing, and again two years later in London, placing fifth on both occasions. Then, in 2017, he got his first taste of a world championship medal after running to a third-place finish in the 80-84 age group in Rotterdam. Last June, in Montreal, Barnes took the next step up the podium, winning silver at the sprint world championships in a time of 2:31:56.
“Lots of people have told me, ‘Charlie, you’ve gotta keep going, next up is the gold,’” Barnes says with a laugh. Going for the win and rounding out his medal collection is not out of the question for Barnes, but he admits that, despite his continued success, he does struggle with motivation to keep pushing.
“It gets tougher when you’re older,” he says. “You feel like a lawn tractor on the highway. All these young guys and women are passing you, cycling and running faster.” His finish in Montreal didn’t help with his confidence, either.
“It was tough race,” he says. “I was really struggling. I got across the finish line and a doctor from the American team grabbed my shoulder and asked if I was OK. That’s the worst I’ve ever felt at the end of a race.” Over a month later, Barnes is still unsure when his next race will be, as he says he needs to “get re-motivated to go again.” Of course, he’s lacked motivation before, but his drive to train and race has always returned soon enough.
Barnes says that, for him, the key to being able to race well into his 80s comes down to motivation, which is fuelled in two ways. “A huge factor is winning,” he says. “When I turned 75, I was the fastest 75-year-old in Ontario. Over the last six years or so, I’ve come in first and second in every triathlon. Coming back and trying to win my age group in those races is a huge motivator for me.”
Barnes’s other source of motivation is fundraising for various causes, which has been a big part of his life for 30 years. “When I was 55, my daughter’s first husband died of hypoglycaemia,” he says. “He was a type 1 diabetic. Three weeks later, my grandson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.” Following those two moments in his life, Barnes started fundraising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and, over the next 15 years, he raised more than $100,000 for the organization.
“Fundraising was, and still is, a big motivator for me,” he says. “I’d send out emails and ask people to support my runs.” Whether he is riding 100 miles in California, biking across Canada or competing in a world championship triathlon, Barnes always makes sure to use events as ways to raise money for diabetes research and, in more recent years, the Tour de Guelph, a cycling race that supports the Rotary Club of Guelph and Guelph General Hospital.
“These causes gave me a reason to take all that time training,” Barnes says. “I wasn’t just training for a race, I was training to raise money.”
Training as an 85-year-old
When it comes to training, Barnes says he realizes that he is lucky to be in such great physical shape and to be able to train as much as he does. He notes that “the car’s engine” isn’t as strong as it once was, but the body of the vehicle is still all in one piece. “Fortunately, I don’t have any joint or muscle issues,” he says.
In the months leading up to Montreal, Barnes would complete a full sprint triathlon on his own every week. “I would swim in a pond on our property, then bike 20K and run 5K,” he says. “I can do all three sports right from my home.” He started this weekly at-home triathlon in late April this year, filling in the rest of the week with a swim (sometimes in the pond, other times at a pool), a ride and a run.
Now, everyone who reads about an 85-year-old triathlete must think the same thing: “What’s the secret?” Barnes says there isn’t one. Besides being lucky with his lack of injuries, he says it all comes down to living “a balanced life” and finding a “why” when it comes to racing. Whether that’s the drive to win, the desire to fundraise or anything else, finding that why is the key to anyone out there hoping to be like Barnes and still race past the age of 80.