BANGOR, Maine — Dr. Stephen Pfister had no specific plans to compete in seven half-triathlons last year, let alone be the world’s best Ironman competitor at that distance in his age group.
“It was just a way to see the country, to go to places and do races,” said the 66-year-old Pfister, a pathologist with Dahl-Chase Diagnostic Services. “I’m getting a little older and am thinking about retiring in three or four years. I just thought I’d do some more races. I had no intention of winning races.”
Pfister won five of the seven Ironman 70.3 events he entered around the country during 2017, competitions that involve a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. Each racer’s top three finishes during the calendar year counted in the standings, and Pfister’s status as the only triathlete in the men’s age 65-69 age group to win three events placed him atop the standings at the end of the year.
“I didn’t know about the ranking until I got an email from Ironman saying to look it up,” he said recently. “I looked up the ranking and said, ‘Jeepers,’ look at that. How did that happen?”
While Pfister’s ranking may have come as a surprise, his affinity for triathlons is longstanding.
The Harvard-educated physician swam competitively early in life, then competed in seven full-distance triathlons — including the world-famous Ironman event in Hawaii — during an eight-year period while living in Colorado three decades ago.
Pfister eventually relocated to Maine, and while he wasn’t as prolific a triathlete as he had been before family life took priority, he remained active athletically whether in an occasional triathlon, running the Boston Marathon “a few times” or just running, biking or swimming.
Four years ago he re-took stock of his physical condition, specifically the various aches and pains he had accumulated, and opted to begin regular workouts at the Union Street Athletics fitness club in Bangor.
Those early morning workouts quickly became not only a focal point of his day, but also an impetus for his resurgent triathlon endeavors as well as such other activities as cross country skiing.
“He’s always been very consistent in his training,” said longtime Union Street Athletics personal trainer Scott Kahkonen. “When he started here he was in very good aerobic shape, but a lot of the injuries he was having were because of the repetitive pounding of running and cycling and the position you hold in cycling.
“To train that hard for that long you get repetitive-motion injuries, so we started more cross training to get the heart rate up as high as you need to while strengthening the muscles you need to be able to use to do the individual sports better.”
Pfister typically works out for 60 to 90 minutes each weekday morning, with a longer bike ride outdoors or a good swim workout on the weekend. He’s also added jumping rope to his regimen.
“The whole science behind it is if you can raise your anaerobic threshold that will raise your aerobic threshold so he can work at a higher intensity for longer when he’s out on the triathlon course,” said Kahkonen. “He has just decided to train himself in a way that will allow him to work out smarter, not harder, and then when he’s in his races he’s able to maintain a faster speed than most of the other competitors can maintain at that same heart rate.”
Pfister regained the triathloning bug after competing in an event in Louisville, Kentucky, on the 30th anniversary of his Hawaii Ironman. He then decided to blend travel and competition more frequently in 2017.
“This wasn’t any master plan, it just sort of happened by chance,” said Pfister of what turned out to be a schedule of seven half-triathlons between mid-March and late October.
Pfister won his first Ironman 70.3 competition of the year on March 18 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then was best in his age group three weeks later at Haines City, Florida.
A third-place finish at the North American Pro Championships in St. George, Utah, followed, along with a fourth at at Cambridge, Maryland, in early June.
“I was getting tired doing those two,” he said, “so I took two months off and then did three in a row, and by the third one in October I was getting tired again.
“If someone ran seven half-marathons in eight months you might say they were crazy.”
Buf Pfister claimed age-group victories in each of his final three events, the first at Old Orchard Beach in August followed by stops in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September and Miami in late October.
The Maine and New Jersey efforts produced not only quality efforts for competitors ages 65-69, but for the triathlon field at large. He placed 127th overall among 2,463 finishers at Atlantic City with a season-best time of 5 hours, 9 minutes and 20 seconds after a 5:32 clocking at OOB three weeks earlier.
“I’m kind of proud I went that fast in those two races, I did a 1:50 half-marathon in both,” said Pfister. “(Atlantic City) was by far my best race.”
Pfister doesn’t foresee entering as many triathlons in 2018, though he likely will mix competition with some sightseeing in September as he has qualified for an international 70.3 triathlon championship in South Africa.
He’s also looking forward to a cross country ski trip to Norway in March as well as his training at Union Street Athletics, where he also teaches spinning (indoor cycling) classes.
“I get up at 5:15 every morning and do a bike class or a GRIT (fitness) class,” Pfister said, “and that’s really the basis of all the training I do. I feel better when I exercise and feel fit.”
That Pfister is able to maintain such a schedule while continuing to work full time and earn a No. 1 world ranking in 70.3 triathlons in an age group where most of his competition is retired may have much to do with the reality of his professional surroundings.
“I consider myself extremely fortunate in life overall, and given what I do I really understand the fragility and how transient health and life are,” he said. “I see a lot of cancer every day. Five to 10 times a day I see biopsies on people that are life-changing events, so I do understand how through no fault of your own things can change on a moment’s notice.
“Getting to 65 or 66 without that happening is somewhat a matter of luck so I understand how lucky this all is, and as far as the triathlons just finishing one is a significant physical accomplishment and for me that’s the whole point, just to be part of it.
“I never had any anticipation I would win,” he added, “or that it would mean anything.”
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