Enduring Beyond Barriers: The Harriet Anderson Story

by Team Athleta 178

Harriet Anderson - 2009 Ironman World Championby Kathleen Burke Jensen | When Harriet Anderson crossed the finish line at Kona — the Ford Ironman World Championship — in October 2009, there were a few reasons she stood out. At 74 years of age, she was the oldest female competitor to complete the race. At 11:53 p.m. she finished, just seven minutes before the cutoff. And the reason she’d taken longer than usual? The arm taped to her side was a clue. She’d broken her clavicle at mile 80 of the bike ride when another cyclist bumped into her. Did that deter Harriet? No. She picked herself up, finished the next 32 miles on the bike, and promptly walked the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon.

Meet Harriet, the Women’s 70-74 Ironman World Champion.


What makes a person push and endure beyond barriers? There’s not one noticeable moment in her history that would make someone think that Harriet was destined to be an Ironman champion in her 70’s, and that’s the beauty of her story. Harriet grew up in Los Gatos and spent the summers with her sister on the beach in Santa Cruz. In college she spent a summer in Yosemite hiking long distances without stopping. “The guys I was hiking with were impressed that I just kept going,” says Harriet. “I guess I was just born with the endurance gene.” She married Gary 50 years ago—they celebrated their golden anniversary this month—and raised two kids.

As a school nurse Harriet understood the value of good health. When their kids left home, a friend encouraged Harriet and Gary to join an exercise class at Canada College. “We met three times a week and focused on strength training and running,” explains Harriet. Then someone suggested a 10k race. Which she did. And then a half marathon. She did that too. In 1986 she decided to tackle the Honolulu Marathon.


This path of racing one distance and then doing longer races is familiar to most athletes who get hooked on racing. Triathlon caught Harriet’s eye, but she wasn’t a strong swimmer. So she joined a master’s swim club at the community center and then tried her hand at a couple of sprint distance (750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run) triathlons. That went well and she had fun, so when some friends planned to do the Wildflower Long Course distance race (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) in May 1989, she signed up too.

Wildflower is well-known as a fun race with a super challenging half Ironman course, not generally forgiving for first timers. And yet 53-year-old Harriet won her age group. And with the win came a slot to race in Kona that October. There are certain races considered qualifiers for the world championships where first-place finishers in each age group are given automatic entry, and Wildflower is one of those races.

Harriet Anderson - 2009 Ironman World ChampionHarriet had three weeks to decide. Three weeks to make up her mind about whether or not to spend the next four months training for the Ironman World Championships—a distance twice as long as anything she had ever attempted. “My sister Kathleen said I should try it, so I did,” says Harriet softly, in her trademark way of downplaying the enormity of the commitment. The result? “I wasn’t fast, but I had good endurance and I finished.”


That was 21 years ago and Harriet has raced Kona 18 times since. A few times she missed the race while dealing with the inevitable injuries that eventually sideline every endurance athlete. “I’ve learned to not push the envelope in training because it’s simply not worth the downtime to recover from injury,” she shares. “If my legs are feeling too tight from a run, I make sure to alternate the next day with a swim or a rest day.”

Over the years Harriet has refined her training and racing schedule. Family comes first and training takes a decent chunk of time so she opts to do most of her racing, with the exception of Kona, locally. “I only do local races unless it’s Nationals or Worlds and even then I limit travel to the Western part of the states,” she explains.

And that leaves time for non-triathlete activities she enjoys. Like teaching second graders to knit, something she’s been doing for years. “The teacher feels it teaches the kids perseverance and I like that,” Harriet says with a grin.


Being a naturally early-riser has its benefits and Harriet wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most mornings, which means that Monday, Wednesday and Friday you can find her on the spin bike at 5:15 for a nice 35 minute warm-up before the class starts. “I like to sit on the bike and spin and read,” Harriet says, adding that she’s working her way through the collected works of Nevada Barr and Isabelle Allende. She does Pilates a couple of those days too, noting that core strength really helps on long bike rides.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are dedicated to masters swimming and yoga. She credits yoga for keeping her naturally tight hip flexors more flexible; a key way to avoid running injuries down the road. She loves the groups she trains with at the Peninsula Community Center and says that the people are what keep her going. Well, that and the daily massage that someone who trains as much as Harriet has to work into the training schedule.

In addition to these organized training sessions Harriet runs three times a week, preferably on trails which are easier on the joints. Her recent running schedule included a 12 mile run, a 14 mile run and then a 13 mile run—all at Sawyer Camp Trail, which meanders alongside the Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo County. The abundance of available port-a-potties make this route particularly useful for a long run.


Harriet Anderson - 2009 Ironman World ChampionHarriet eats a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and dark chocolate. “The dark chocolate bars at Trader Joe’s are the best,” she says with enthusiasm. Her fuel choices for training and racing include Clif Bars (her favorite is apricot), Clif Shots and Accelerade energy powder. She notes that over the years she’s definitely seen changes in her body. “After the age of 65 you lose muscle every year, and I can feel that hilly runs are more difficult for me now. But then I feel stronger on the bike than before.” These changes illustrate the ongoing challenge of triathlon training; finding the balance of proper nutrition and enough—but not too much—training. And then adjusting it all year to year.


After not being allowed to swim while her clavicle healed from the 2009 Ironman World Championships, Harriet is happy to report that she’s back in full training. She’s doing the Wildflower Long Course again in May and participates in century bike races on the weekends when they fit her schedule. This endurance athlete is well on the way to her 19th Kona Ironman race this October. Look for Harriet to finish strong and happy.

KATHLEEN BURKE JENSEN loves to write, ride her beautiful horse, and train for her favorite sport—triathlon. She’s constantly looking for ways to do all three things; if not simultaneously, then at least back to back throughout the day. For more on her adventures, visit her blog Forging Ahead »