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Island Challenge: 75-year-old Santa Fe County resident prepares for Ironman Hawaii

SANTA FE - On the morning of Oct. 9, Hunter Temple plans to be in Kailua Bay in Hawaii with about 1,800 other people to begin one of the biggest sports challenges around: Ironman Hawaii.

He has been twice before - first in 1990, when he placed fourth in his age division; the second time in 1997, when muscle cramps prevented him from finishing. This time, he says, will probably be his last.

That's partly because Temple will turn 76 years old three days after the race.

"I'm going to keep doing triathlons," says the Santa Fe County resident who retired to New Mexico in 2001 after a long career as a headmaster of private schools. But trying to get to Hawaii again might not be one of his goals.

Even this time, Temple says, "I don't care if I place or not. I just want to finish. It's a dream."

Tens of thousands of triathletes try to qualify for Ironman Hawaii, officially known as the Ford Ironman World Championship, each year. About 1,600 do. Each age division - there are typically about a dozen for men and a dozen for women - has a certain number of slots and qualifying events are held worldwide. About 200 more competitors are allowed in through a lottery system and a few slots are auctioned on eBay to benefit charities, says Catie Case, PR coordinator for the Florida based World Triathlon Corp.

Temple qualified for the 2010 event in the 75-79 age division. The oldest person to ever finish Ironman Hawaii was an 80-year-old man who accomplished the feat in 2005, according to Case.

On race day, the competitors begin with a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay, jostling each other for position as they also fight the currents. Once out of the water, they hop on bicycles for a 112-mile ride. After that comes a marathon, literally. The final stage of the triathlon is a 26.2-mile run.

So many experiences

Temple, who has been married for more than 50 years and has three children and five grandchildren, says he was a "reasonable" high school athlete but didn't participate in college sports at Colgate, where he obtained his undergraduate degree. He later earned a Ph.D. from Stanford.

He says smoking led him to where he is today as an athlete.

When he was about 40, Temple says, he took up running as a way to stop smoking. "I've always had somewhat of a compulsive personality," he says.

Then one day he picked up a triathlon magazine, started "thumbing through it and thought, 'this might be kind of fun.'"

With a borrowed wet suit and a "clunker" of a bike, he entered his first triathlon. "I broke a spoke and had to carry (the bike) up the hills and pedal down," he recalls. Nonetheless, he was hooked.

Temple says he enjoys the sport because it's "singular."

"It's me against myself, or the elements, or whatever. It's age appropriate and it's singular. I like to ski; I bike - they're all singular."

He says he's attracted to it also because "your body goes through so many different experiences. In swimming, you're trying to breathe. On the bike, it's the experience of speed. The run is a different kind of experience. It's three different challenges, experiences."

He adds that triathlons allow a person to be "average" in a couple of areas and still do well.

His forte, he says, is the swim. "I think I have the body type for swimming," says Temple, who is tall and lean. Every other day, for 40 to 45 minutes, he swims against the current in an endless pool that he had installed in a room attached to his garage five or six years ago.

On days he doesn't swim, he works out with weights.

Other training at this point involves bike rides. "I'm retired, so I can get on it when I want to." He also will compete in a few events before October.

What he doesn't do much of is run, thanks to knee replacement surgery in 1998.

"I don't run," he says of his training regimen. "And if you would see me in the event, you would think I'm not running then either."

Temple says he "shuffles" instead and modestly contends he only does as well as he does in triathlons now because of his swimming ability and because he's in an age group with few other competitors (the number of people he'll be up against in October isn't known yet but Case says eight men started the race in the 75-79 age division in 2009).

Temple says he'll ramp up training for Ironman Hawaii in August.

'Nothing like it'

Temple left the sport for a while after his knee surgery. "I thought it was the end of triathlons," he says.

To fill the void, he took up flying, but he says he missed the competition.

He was forced to take another break a few years ago when a growth was discovered on his pancreas. Surgeons couldn't remove the tumor because it was connected to a blood vessel but did determine it wasn't cancerous, he says.

Still, "that stopped triathlons" for about a season.

Temple says he lost 35 pounds during the ordeal and was on a feeding tube for months.

To motivate him to regain his strength, he says one of his daughters pinned a competition photo of him to a new wet suit and hung it from his IV pole.

She is also a triathlete who has been to Ironman Hawaii twice. She is hoping to qualify again this year, Temple says. "Her vision is to swim, run, bike with me so we can finish together."

Temple, who is also a certified EMT, says there is nothing like the Ironman world championship, during which competitors often face intense heat and wind in addition to the grueling length of the event.

When he raced in 1990, Temple finished in 12 hours and 49 minutes. Participants must complete the race within 17 hours. "The first year I did it," says Temple, "the crosswinds were so strong a woman was blown right off her bike." In 1997, he recalls, whipping winds made the swim a choppy experience. That year, he had such severe cramps he had to be taken to the medical tent during the run instead of continuing the race. Despite the obstacles, Temple looks forward to October.

"There is nothing like it in this world," he says, explaining how it feels to go from running - or shuffling - along the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, alone and exhausted in the dark, to the finish line, where throngs of people wait to cheer for the athletes.

"You turn to come into town ... the lights, thousands of people. It is the most thrilling experience you can imagine."

And, he says, few people push their bodies the way triathletes do.

Which is especially true at age 75.

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