Reporter: Karl Stefanovic
Producers: Nick Greenaway and Hannah Boocock
STORY – KARL STEFANOVIC: In the pre-dawn chill, more than 1,600 athletes are steeling themselves for the inaugural Melbourne Ironman. Among them, husband and wife Kellie and Gary Pitman. 6am, not long now. How are you feeling?
KELLIE: Yeah, pretty nervous. There’s a few mixed emotions there, Karl, you know?
GARY: Yeah, butterflies are trying to get out so, just want the thing to start and -
KELLIE: Get it over and done with.
KARL STEFANOVIC: What lies ahead is truly brutal, a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride, topped off with a 42km run. Good luck guys, travel well.
KELLIE: We will!
KARL STEFANOVIC: It’s an endurance event most of us would regard as torture, but not Kellie. Her first ever ironman is a 40th birthday present to herself.
KELLIE: This is pretty, pretty up there I think, you know? It’s saying ‘Hey, I turned 40 and I did an Ironman’. What’d you do, sat on the beach, drank pina coladas?
KARL STEFANOVIC: You’re not looking at me are you?
KELLIE: No, no, no, no. Not at all, Karl.
KARL STEFANOVIC: You seem to be making lots of assumptions.
GARY: Yeah. Oh sorry, Bacardi Breezers.
KARL STEFANOVIC: This Melbourne family isn’t exactly in need of extra activity. Between raising three kids, Gary’s job as a sales manager and Kellie’s as a theatre nurse, just getting through the day burns off an awful lot of calories. Yet, Kellie thought she was sliding helplessly into middle age.
KELLIE: Before I actually started on this mad journey, I was always quite tired. I did feel a lot heavier than I was. I did feel really sluggish. I guess I do like what I see in the mirror, that’s why I do this. You do feel more confident. But yeah, physical changes – I’m definitely a lot smaller than I used to be.
KARL STEFANOVIC: But it’s not without hard work – a lot of hard work. Getting fit for the ironman has meant nearly 20 hours a week pounding the pavements, churning through the laps, and spinning her wheels to prepare for this one day. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to do an ironman for your 40th birthday; it is another thing altogether to actually do it.
KELLIE: It’s like this Karl, once you advertise it, you can’t go back, you know? I’ve put it out there.
GARY: You’ve put your name out there.
KELLIE I’ve got to do it now. You put yourself out there, you’ve got to do it now. I can’t go back. I’m a pretty determined person, and I’m not going to go back on my word.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Who’s going to -
KELLIE: I’m going to do it.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Who’s going to care though?
KARL STEFANOVIC: If you thought middle-aged competitors like Gary and Kellie are an exception in such a gruelling day of competition like today, then think again. There are more athletes in their early 40s sweating it up today, than in any other age bracket. In fact, what we are seeing is a revolution in the way Aussies have a mid-life crisis. Across Australia, on our beaches, or our bitumen. Everyday, middle-aged Australians are defying their weakening knees, dicky shoulders or aging hearts, and embracing hardcore exercise. A growing army of weekend warriors. It sounds like a really nice mid-life crisis.
MARK: It’s almost an anti-crisis really. It’s saving me from buying a convertible and running off with a 20-year-old - which would be much more expensive.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Hugely more expensive, and damaging possibly to your health.
MARK: Completely damaging, that’s right, that’s right.
KARL STEFANOVIC: At 49, Mark Ashburn is a mild-mannered superannuation executive who morphs into a ‘MAMIL’ - a middle-aged man in lycra. But he was once 120kg and could barely break into a jog.
MARK: I was in my mid-30s. I was at Auskick with my daughter and my son and couldn’t really run across the paddock to participate in Auskick with my kids.
KARL STEFANOVIC: How did you feel when you realised you couldn’t keep up with your kids?
MARK: It’s profoundly sad.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Righto.
MARK: You’ve scrubbed up all right, Karl. You actually look like a cyclist.
KARL STEFANOVIC: So now, at a trim 80kg, Mark Ashburn and his tribe of ‘MAMILs’ gather to ride and to race every week.
MARK: Karl thinks he’s fitter than what he is but we know that he can’t ride so after a couple of laps.
KARL STEFANOVIC: And I’ve accepted their invitation to be initiated, albeit with a little bit of trepidation.
MARK: We’re going to put the pedal down and Karl is going to get blown out the back, alright? He’ll be gone, but he is going to try and prove us wrong.
KARL STEFANOVIC: I’ll tear you all apart. The camaraderie matches the competition here at Melbourne’s Sandown raceway, but it could be anywhere across the country when you realise that there are now more bikes sold than cars in Australia.
MARK: It's really about the exercise, the atmosphere, it’s about being in the tribe.
KARL STEFANOVIC: This is hard work, mate. This is very hard work.
MARK: Push it up, come on! How old are you mate? Jesus.
KARL STEFANOVIC: It’s like getting sledged on a mass level. After a couple of laps I was gone, so had to bid the mob good day. Righto boys, off you go. I’m buggin’ out. Thanks boys. I’ve always thought that I was kind of reasonably fit. Done a bit of running, bit of gym work. Two laps of this course and the worst of the riders have just gone past like I’m standing still. Oh well, let’s keep going. Meanwhile, back in the Melbourne Ironman, Kellie is halfway through her bike leg. Husband Gary is already 30 minutes ahead of her, and looks in great shape. He’s lost 30kg in his mid-life quest for competitive fitness, but - and it’s a big but - you’ve got to know your limits.
GEOFF: We see every year in this area, people, young males or middle-aged males drop dead suddenly.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Dr Geoff Allen was almost one of them.
GEOFF: No swelling?
AFL PLAYER: Building up the quads and the hamstrings nicely and haven’t had any swelling so far.
KARL STEFANOVIC: As sports doctor to AFL’S premier team, the Geelong Cats, Geoff was, himself, a superbly fit marathon runner. But two years ago, Geoff had a massive heart attack in Adelaide – and only survived because an ambulance was there at the footy ground, standing by.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Never occurred to you that something like this would happen or something physically like that?
GEOFF: No, and it’s quite ironic. You see people who you know well who are overweight or who smoke and you think they’re going to have a heart attack. And there I was and I - you know - tried to drop dead.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Geoff didn’t know it, but he had heart disease - a narrowing of the main left coronary artery doctors call “a widow-maker”. It can block suddenly and catastrophically. So putting your doctor’s hat on, what did you do wrong leading up your heart attack?
GEOFF: Obviously not recognising the signs that my heart was struggling. For me that was probably a slight decrease in the amount of exercise I could do, and also this bit of chest discomfort I was getting. Even though it was only intermittent, they’re the warning signs, the red flags that you need to be checked up. Don’t do what I did. I tried to run through it and nearly died as a consequence.
KARL STEFANOVIC: It is the surprising dilemma – even danger - facing the hordes of mid-life runners, peddlers and paddlers: that their newfound fitness raises false expectations about what their hearts, knees, hips or backs can actually handle.
GEOFF: Anyone in their 40s and 50s has got to realise that they’re not 20 anymore and do moderate exercise frequently, but maybe not try to think they’re 20.
KARL STEFANOVIC: But hang on, this is the whole point of it. This is the whole point of keeping yourself young and fit and defying age.
GEOFF: That’s right. You can go and get some Botox and do all that too. But no, I don’t think it’s good for you, and really moderate exercise is great, but probably extreme exercise in middle age isn’t that great.
KARL STEFANOVIC: That helps you slip through the water doesn’t it?
MARKUS: Yeah, do you want some?
KARL STEFANOVIC: Yeah, slippery stuff.
MARKUS: Got to share bloody zinc cream with my bloody arch-rival!
KARL STEFANOVIC: The good news is that if you do strike the right balance in your 40s – you could be exercising for the next 40 years. Just ask these blokes - Markus Hanley and Jo Ward. Marcus will be 80 this year, Jo is a year younger.
MARKUS: Oh gosh, all these bloody sheilas swimming over me.
KARL STEFANOVIC: They’re pin-up boys for keeping fit, getting regular heart check-ups, and steering well clear of overly ambitious ironman events. The far less taxing Noosa Triathlon is enough for them, and both of them are quite content bringing up the rear.
JO: We were too busy following the other girls.
MARKUS: Now you’re talking!
KARL STEFANOVIC: So that’s the real reason why you do triathlons - for the girls?
MARKUS: Yes, of course. Have you ever sat on a bike and race and sit behind these beautiful young women?
KARL STEFANOVIC: Just a couple of old pervs!
JO: Yes, exactly.
MARKUS: Bloody oath!
KARL STEFANOVIC: But the biggest motivation for any of these weekend warriors is just to finish. 9 hours and 46 minutes into the Melbourne Ironman and Gary Pitman is powering to the end in a personal best time. His wife, Kellie, is two hours from fulfilling her dream - turning 40 was never going to be a mid-life crisis. Rather it was something to confront head-on.
KELLIE: I’m going to finish, Karl. If I have crawl across that line, I’ll crawl it. I’ll walk it. The only way I won’t finish is if they pull me off that course
KARL STEFANOVIC: What seemed impossible a year ago is now a reality. In just under 12 hours, she crossed that line with raw determination and raw emotion.
KELLIE: I didn’t think I could do it and I knew I could do it, but I didn’t think I could do that time. Absolutely rapt. I did it!
KARL STEFANOVIC: What is it like to have fulfilled a dream?
KELLIE: I don’t know. It’s like, ‘What do I do next?’ Like how do you top that?
GARY: Karl, I’ve had better dreams than that mate, for sure.