November 19, 2022 5 min read 4 Comments
Photos courtesy Mike Gearhart. A triumph for the aged in Greece.
*Mike Gearhart competed in one of the world's most grueling races at 66.
*His training started at 60 with a simple hike.
*He discovered the best medicine for pain is exercise.
*Great pictures at the end of this story.
By Ray Glier
Mike Gearhart, 66, was on top of a wall, but he felt like he was on top of the world. He was in Sparta, Greece, competing in the grueling Spartan Race Trifecta World Championship last weekend and a 30-35 year old competitor looked up at Gearhart climbing over the eight-foot obstacle. The young man was wonderstruck:
“I can’t believe you are doing this. I’m hoping I do this at your age.”
Gearhart said the young man was shouting at him, as if it was a proclamation to be heard by all.
Mike said the man's exuberance almost brought him to tears. Gearhart was one of the oldest competitors among the 2,000 from 78 countries participating in the three-day event. Spartan Race competitors might look like they grind in isolation, but they really don't. There is powerful sanction from others and Mike felt it over and over, Friday to Sunday.
At another point in the race, Mike was going backward on a parallel bar, which is extremely challenging. Many lose their grip and fall. Gearhart maintained his grip and a voice below him called out, “At your age! That’s awesome.”
Not once in Greece did Gearhart think he was exposing himself to risk of shame competing against men half his age. He had thrown off those mental shackles. The reward were those hosannas.
Here is what is most important about Mike’s quest to compete.
He was not a lifelong, dutiful, full-blown athlete. Instead, Mike said he was a practicing “couch potato.” He only started lifting weights and taking his fitness seriously in 2016 when he was 60 years old.
Many of us can be like Mike, if we take that first step, and make it a touchstone to a routine.
“I was just pursuing my career and my family and wasn't doing anything athletic, then I decided to do some hiking, and it just kind of spiraled,” Gearhart said.
It happened just like that, Mike said. A modest first step.
For Gearhart, spiraled is an understatement. He followed that simple hike with a longer hike, and then another. It wasn't long before he took his first epic hike, this one up Mount Kilimanjaro when he was still 60.
There was no decoding going on in his mind about what was appropriate for a 60-year old. Within a year of finding the resolve to exercise more regularly, Mike was hiking up the highest single free-standing mountain in the world.
“After that, I just kind of got this attitude that I want to do something epic every year, whatever it may be, it could be athletic, it could be something else,” Gearhart said.
"Something else" epic was participating in a Spartan Race. In his first attempt on a local course north of San Diego, Mike said he couldn't do a single pull-up on the obstacle course.
Now look at him. After competing in 29 Spartan races, Gearhart leaves a trail of gawkers. There is nothing performative about mixing it up with the muscle-bound youth. It's not for show. Mike is real. He has his own muscles.
"I get thrilled when I hear people say stuff about my age out there because that's what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to encourage people to continue pursuing an active life, even at our age," Gearhart said.
The Spartan Race Trifecta is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and covers 28.6 miles with 75 obstacles. Mike and another 66-year old were the oldest competitors to complete all three days.
“I was probably 100 yards from the finish line in the last race, but I had to do some burpees as a penalty because I couldn't complete the last obstacle,” Gearhart said. “And this young guy comes up to me, maybe in his 30s, and says ‘Man, you are one bad a—. I’m really inspired’.
“I kind of choked up and said ‘thank you’."
What Mike has accomplished is not out of reach for the rest of us. It is true that Mike started lifting weights every day when he was 60 with his younger brother, Brian, but he did not immediately supersize his workouts and try and recreate his younger self all at once.
To train for this Spartan Race, he started running a half mile and it felt exhausting. But he followed the 10% rule, which is to do what you can for a week and be happy about it, then come back the next week and try and do 10% more. Mike did not crack down on Mike and demand 20% or 30% from himself week to week. He stuck with the 10% rule and built himself into a better athlete with care.
“I find that by doing that, I don't hurt myself, which is one of the things I'm very conscious about,” Gearhart said. “I have to train in a way that does not hurt me because I want to sustain my health. And so if I don't hurt myself, I don't discourage myself.”
It’s the opposite of the ancient Spartan bromide from mother to son before Thermopylae, the battle that made the Spartans famous:
“Come back with your shield, or on it.”
Mike was not going to die trying to be a Spartan.
Gearhart’s story should resonate on many levels, but particularly about the pain medicine that is exercise. He is old enough to have infirmities—a chronically sore back, and sore knees—but the pain has dissipated with workouts, he said.
“I took a break a couple of years ago, and I focused on studying for a while and my pains were starting to come back,” Mike said. “And once I started working out, they went away again.”
Gearhart has pictures of he and his wife on a hike wearing knee braces six or seven years ago.
“I realized my leg wasn't strong enough,” he said. “So after strengthening my leg, I haven't worn a knee brace.”
Quite literally, Gearhart is throwing away the crutches of age. “Too old” was tossed in a ditch with the help of youngsters in Sparta and their salutes for the graybeard Mike.
The kids were rightly impressed. How cool was it for them to see a man, who could have been their father, crawling under barbed wire for 60 yards, or dragging a weighted sled 50 yards, or—for goodness sakes—doing burpees?
Mike’s North Star is his faith and he called on it on Day 3 with eight miles to go. His legs felt like the logs he had to lug in parts of the Trifecta. But his resolve got supercharged because his faith told him he was there for a purpose. Mike finished and flew home to San Diego with another epic win and renewed purpose.
Gearhart got some looks from people in Greece who were fearful for his health, him being a Geezer, and all. He could shrug it off, which is what people on top of the world can do.
Mike Gearhart, 66, crawling under barb wire in Greece last week.
Who else can smile like this carrying a log in a race?
Mike on the move in The Spartan Race.
Mike Gearhart makes the climb over one of 75 obstacles he faced in three days.
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