Roger Little’s thoughts are in Kona, Hawaii, even when he isn’t. But pina coladas and sunbathing are far from his mind.
The 80-year-old St. Petersburg resident is focused on the race. He knows every bump in the road under his bike tires, the precise three-quarter mark in the Kailua Bay, the exact amount of breath he can use to — playfully — tease the other runners as he rounds a bend.
“It is like the star that you’re always trying to get to,” Little said. “It becomes a total obsession, qualifying for Kona.”
Kona is the site of the annual Ironman World Championships, a grueling tripartite event that features a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride — capped off by a full marathon.
Little will be the oldest person to compete in the race come October. It’s his 19th time qualifying for the World Championships.
“I don’t know if people are surprised when they find out what I’m doing,” said Little, who spends half of the year in Massachusetts. “Do they think I’m crazy? Maybe.”
A few years back, Little stopped competing in Ironman triathlons. But then his wife passed away six months ago.
“I am just trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life,” he said. “So I said, well why don’t I go back and jump into triathlons? That’ll give me complete focus and keep me totally busy, and get my head out of losing her.”
This is who Little is: He isn’t fixated on winning or — save from a desire to get to Kona — reaching a particular goal. He moves forward, like leaves pushed gently down a river, or the wheels that turn on his bike. (In their own time, they’ll map out 150 miles this week.)
It’s how he knows how to live.
Ironman triathlons have long attracted senior competitors, according to Ryan Lobato, spokesperson for the Ironman company. The race has grown up with them.
“We didn’t have an over-80 age group 10 years ago,” Lobato said. “But every year, we regularly move up the categories because we have people getting older.”
Three people will be competing in the over-80 category at this year’s world championship, according to the Ironman Group, which oversees the event and is headquartered in Tampa.
Turning 81 in September, Little is the oldest, and the only senior in his age bracket representing the United States.
He’ll be joined by Fidel Rotundaro, a 79-year-old Miami resident competing for Venezuela, and Tadashi Horiuchi, 80, who lives in and represents Japan.
But for Little, this year’s race isn’t about beating the competition, or even improving a personal best.
“At my age and rate of speed, right now I’d just be happy to finish the damn thing,” he said.
These days the Ironman races have cutoff times. It wasn’t always like this.
Little participated in one of the first ever Ironman triathlons, in 1982. Broadcast on TV, the race featured triathlete Julie Moss’ famous crawl across the finish line, ushering Ironmans into the zeitgeist and inspiring many others to compete in future events.
“And pretty much after that, I was hooked to triathlon,” Little said.
Since then, he has competed in 40 Ironman races over the last four decades as well as roughly 100 half-Ironmans and hundreds of other triathlons.
An early entrepreneur in the solar energy industry, Little would often schedule meetings with clients abroad to align with nearby Ironman events.
“I had customers in Korea, so I’d say what the hell, I’ll go to Korea for a week and then I’ll jump on a plane to Perth, Australia, for the World Championship this year,” he recalled. “I did this my whole life. I raced everywhere in the world, all the time.”
Things are different now. Little has scaled back his running from 80 miles a week to 45, and he sees fewer of the familiar faces he’d grown accustomed to greeting annually, each competition like “a big family reunion.”
Little doesn’t think he deserves any special accolades — he doesn’t know why his body is able to do what it does. Steadfastness is just his nature, he said.
“My whole life has been more of a way of just keeping going in a straight line, rather than a targeted life,” he said. “I ran a business for 50 years and I never blinked.
“So to be able to train the way I did for 40 years and to still be doing it — I mean, I guess that’s just a character flaw,” he adds with a chuckle.
This year, he’ll have to finish within 17 hours to successfully complete the race.