Canadian Bob Knuckey took his fourth Ironman World Championship in style in Nice yesterday – the amazing Canadian wasn’t only oldest athlete to finish the race, his 14:57:40 finishing time not only won the 75 to 79 age group, but would have put him in third in the 70 to 74 category, too.
The challenging Nice course included 2,400 m of climbing on the bike, followed by a hot run that challenged even the world’s best multisport athletes.
While Knuckey’s time was slower than last year’s Kona winner (Switzerland’s Max Hochstrasser went 14:12), there’s no comparison between the courses – seven men finished the category on the Big Island. Knuckey was the only one from that age group who even finished.
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The 75-year-old age grouper from Caledon, Ont., Knuckey only got into triathlon in his 50s, but he was a runner long before that. Over his athletic career he’s finished more than 400 races. He started running at the age of 15, and over the years he developed into a tremendous athlete, eventually hitting a lifetime best of 2:28:53 in the marathon. It wasn’t until his 50s that Knuckey made the transition from only running to multi-sport racing.
“I started with duathlons,” Knuckey says, noting that it took some convincing from his longtime coach Barrie Shepley to get him to add a third sport to his arsenal. “He got me into swimming and triathlons from then until now.”
Shepley, head coach of the C3 Canadian Cross Training Club, recalls his first encounter with Knuckey—a chance meeting almost 20 years ago.
“Bob happened to run into the end of a C3 workout,” he says. After chatting a bit and realizing they both lived in Caledon, Shepley invited Knuckey to join some cycling and running workouts with the club. “I was immediately impressed by his endurance, training strength and enthusiasm to train.”
Shepley saw Knuckey’s potential and pushed him to try a triathlon.
“Forty years of marathon running had created a world-class aerobic base for Bob,” Shepley says. “He has an amazing capacity to both train and absorb the pain of intense racing.”
In 2007, Knuckey finished his first Ironman in Wisconsin. While Ironman Wisconsin was originally meant to be Knuckey’s introduction to the distance, a prostate cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery dashed those plans. Knuckey underwent surgery just three months before Wisconsin, but he ended up travelling to the race anyway, although only to support a teammate who was racing the Ironman.
With an entry in the race, Knuckey brought his gear, but he didn’t plan to compete. At most, he thought he might fit in a training swim with the other athletes and perhaps take a stab at part of the bike.
“I had only done two bikes and two swims after my surgery,” he says. “But the night before the race, I saw the cow medal and had to have it.”
So, the next morning, Knuckey—three months removed from surgery—dove into his first Ironman. He says the swim and the bike were fine, but it was the run that was toughest so soon after surgery. He started running one mile and walking the next, then switched to 10 minutes of running followed by one minute of walking.
“Then I just wanted it over, so I very painfully ran the rest,” he says. He ended up sixth in his age group, crossing the line in 15:36.
That was the first tremendous result of Knuckey’s long-course racing career, but it was far from his last. In 2013, he took home his first world title, flying to the win in the 65 to 69 age group at the 70.3 worlds in Las Vegas. Twelve months later, he found his way back to the top of the 70.3 world championship podium, this time winning the 65-year age category on home soil in Mont-Tremblant. Later that same year, Knuckey raced in Kona for the second time (he made his Ironman World Championship debut in 2011) and finished in fifth in the 65 to 69 age group, crossing the line in 11:58:05.
It was another four years before Knuckey returned to Hawaii’s Big Island, but he made that visit count. Racing in a new age group in 2018, he flew to the win, becoming the first 70-year-old to break the 12-hour barrier in Kona with an 11:55:03 result.
Once again, there was an extended wait for Knuckey’s much-anticipated return to the world stage. This time he took on the incredibly tough Nice course.
Shepley has worked with countless athletes, including Olympians and elite Ironman racers—household names in the world of triathlon—but he says that, for him, Knuckey stands out from the crowd.
“Nobody has been more impressive than Bob Knuckey,” he says. “I have the honour to work with one of the most impressive endurance athletes in the world.”