At 70 years old, Paul Butler is in the best shape of his life.
Of course, Butler at 70 is in better shape than most of the rest of us have been at any peak point in our own lives. After all, the ESi owner and chief financial officer from Ridge Spring, S.C., just fulfilled his dream of completing THE Ironman of all Ironmans in Kona, Hawaii, last Saturday.
“It’s been my dream for 10 years, and I’ll tell you what, it lived up to my expectations totally,” said Butler. “I had an absolute dream month.”
The man who signed the contract to bring the ESi 70.3 Ironman to Augusta was too busy living that dream month in Hawaii to participate in the most recent event at home. Butler went to Hawaii on Sept. 15 and rented a house big enough for his whole family for a month.
For the first three weeks, however, he was out there all by himself training and becoming intimately familiar with every inch of the gruelling 140.6-mile Kona course. It was essential for an international business executive who had racked up 400,000 Delta air miles this year but not nearly enough on a bike to be ready for the granddaddy of all Ironmans.
“My training has suffered,” said Butler, who spends more time in Abu Dhabi and Singapore these days than Augusta as he expands ESi globally. “So I was alone there for three weeks killing myself training in Kona on the bike, run and swims courses. Training four to five hours a day. I abused my body but it was worth it. Did nothing but concentrate on my training, eating right and sleeping right.”
To understand what drives Butler, you have to understand how he became an Ironman triathlete at age 60. A retired Lt. Col in the Army’s Special Forces, Butler has always been fit. He was an accomplished marathoner before his son drew him at age 55 into the world of adventure racing – a team endurance pursuit that incorporates various skills like running, trekking, kayaking, mountain biking and repelling into extended 48-hour to 10-day races. His team won the 72-hour Florida coast-to-coast race from the Gulf town of Crystal River to Daytona Beach.
“I was 25 years older than next guy on team,” he said.
Then one night in 2002 after being awake for 42 hours and mountain biking a very technical trail through forests at 2 a.m., Butler started hallucinating with all the helmet-light streams flickering among the trees.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to kill myself if I keep this up,’” he said. “I had the strength of the other racers and the endurance of the others, but as you get older sleep deprivation hits you a lot harder than younger folks. I knew my adventure racing career was over at 60.”
So Butler decided it was time to dial his fitness hobby back a bit, scaling it down to Ironman size.
“The point was you could do it all in one day,” he said. “I’d always dreamed of doing an Ironman, but wondered when I am ever going to have the time to actually spend 3-4 hours a day training.”
Butler started swimming at Fort Gordon and training on a different style of bike. In March 2003, he competed in his first Ironman in New Zealand and finished comfortably with two hours to spare. He decided he wanted to compete in all 16 official Ironmans around the world, and starting ticking off events on every continent at a pace of about two per year in France, Brazil, South Africa, the Canary Islands, Japan and Western Australia as well as U.S. venues in New York, Florida and Wisconsin.
Ironmans, however, have expanded since into numerous new markets.
“I don’t know the number any more but I just know my dream of doing them all is impossible,” he said.
The biggest goal left was Kona. The official world championship of Ironman on a demanding course exposed to harsh elements through the lava fields of Hawaii’s Big Island, Butler has long had his sights on qualifying or being selected in the lottery.
“For somebody who loves the Ironman the way I do, the ultimate is to go to Kona,” he said. “You keep trying and trying to do anything to get into it. I got very fortunate and was awarded a slot.”
After weeks of training up to 80 miles a day on the 112-mile bike course, Butler thought he was prepared for anything last Saturday.
“I thought I’d seen every wind condition that Kona had to throw at you,” he said. “But the winds (during the Ironman) were ferocious. Pros who do this every year were finishing 45 minutes longer on the bike course.”
Even so, Butler got through the 2.4-mile open-water swim and the bike portion with 8.5 hours to spare.
“You can crawl a marathon in that time,” he said.
He ran the first 10 miles in less than two hours before walking up the famous hill that leads to the Queen K Highway.
“I never could quite get back in rhythm,” he said. “It was a mess after that – a lot of running but too much walking.”
Butler still finished in 16 hours, 11 minutes, 53 seconds – 16th of the 24 participants in the 70-74 age group. He did the swim in 1:43:47, the bike in 7:21:15 and the run in 6:42:01.
“I surprised myself and finished quite well,” he said, laughing off that the 80-plus winner from Japan beat him by about a half hour.
So what’s next after fulfilling his dream in his 20th career Ironman?
“I’m just going to relish the moment,” Butler said. “I have said to others that I don’t know whether I’ll do another full Ironman. I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m in better shape at 70 than I was at 50 because of doing everything right for three straight weeks. I’m in the perfect shape. I’ll always stay fit. But I don’t know if I can devote another six months of at least 2-3 hours a day to do another one.”
Then, of course, Butler hedged.
“By the same token, I don’t know whether I can resist doing another one. When you get to be my age, you never say anything is going to be the last one.”