Acting his own age: St. Joseph native, 72, makes his mark with triathlons

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Fred Hemsath is cut from a different cloth than the rest of us.

While some were participating in their first triathlon Sunday at this year’s Maytag Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Triathlon in Benton Harbor, Hemsath was revisiting a pastime he has kept going back to for the last 34 years. Finishing one triathlon is hard enough, but Hemsath has competed in more than 350 triathlon races.

Hemsath knows Southwest Michigan, having retired from Whirlpool Corp. in 2000 after 38 years. During his time with the Benton Harbor-based company as a logistics engineer, Hemsath found a passion through the triathlon that brings in thousands of participants to Jean Klock Park every year.

The most startling aspect of Hemsath’s work comes at an age when most slow down. At 72 years old, he has completed 365 triathlons, including 13 Steelhead 70.3 events – making this year’s Steelhead his 14th race.

His preparation has remained the same for the most part. Swim three miles, bike 110 miles and run for another 25 each week.

To go back to his first triathlon, you would have to visit the early 1980s. It was there where Hemsath discovered how great – and how difficult – triathlons could be.

“To me you just have to do the training and you have to pace yourself,” he said. “You can’t blast yourself in one part because you know the other legs are coming. It’s fun, it’s challenging and it has a great social aspect to it. I also do a lot of volunteering at the events as well, which is very rewarding.”

The portion that always surprises Hemsath is the transition from the bike to the run portion.

“You’re spinning your legs real fast, which they call rip work. When you go from bike to run, they call it a brick workout cause your legs feel like bricks,” he said. “But part of that is mental. It’s a transition and you can easily be injured in that transition. The other big thing is to make sure you take nutrition seriously.”

And yet, more than three decades later, Hemsath still gets quizzical looks from strangers when they’re told he still competes at his age.

“There are two reactions. First they say man, I wish I could do that, which they can, but I’m old and slow so they make it a big deal that I’m doing it,” he said. “And then the other thing people tell me is that I ought to act my age. My answer is I am acting my age. A lot of older people just don’t do stuff and they should be, even if it is just a walking program.”

At the end of Sunday’s triathlon, Hemsath finished second in his age division with a time of six hours, 41 minutes and 11 seconds.

Next week he will be competing in a triathlon in Goshen, Ind., which will then lead him to another in Three Rivers.

Through his time competing and training, Hemsath remains an advocate of daily exercise.

“I want to encourage everyone to be active, even if it’s just walking,” he said. “They say these days that walking is the best thing for you. I encourage people of all ages.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 10, 2015)

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