Southern California native Robert Hamilton Owens has always been active: He was a lifeguard, played water polo, rowed crew and was a Pararescueman in the Air Force.
Despite all his activity growing up, Owens would not consider himself a great athlete. “I was always an average athlete,” he says. “I never stood out. I was never the guy to get first place or be a team captain. But I was just good enough to stay in the game and good enough to know that I had talent—and that I could be a general multipurpose athlete.”
Owens completed his first Ironman triathlon in Honolulu in 1980—when Ironman was only 3 years old and Owens was in his 20s.
“Then I took 20 years off and had five kids,” Owens says. “My son told me I was really old when I turned 50. So I said, ‘The gauntlet has been thrown and I’m going to make a comeback.’”
In 2000 at the age of 50, Owens completed his first Ironman in two decades—and he has done an Ironman almost every year since. (He’s missed three because of injuries—being hit by a car and two shoulder surgeries.) But Owens does not train like a triathlete.
“I try to be a conditioned guy who can do anything that I put my mind to versus just trying to be a triathlete,” he says. “I don’t train the way that everybody else does. I’ve never ridden a bike before any of my Ironmen. I just try to get in good enough shape to do it.”
Owens trains as both an anaerobic athlete—short bursts like wall balls, box jumps and burpees—and an aerobic athlete—running marathons. The now 66-year-old, who has worked out at 24 Hour Fitness for more than three decades and works with his trainer, Albert Thinh, to prepare for his events, is constantly pushing his limits. For his 66th birthday, Owens decided he wanted to do something “extraordinary or epic or audacious.”
“I thought I’d try these five different events that were over the top—three of which I would be the oldest guy to ever attempt or finish them,” Owens explains. “When guys told me I was too old, that was the carrot. I began to train to see if I could really pull it off because I wanted to know if age is really a factor in all these things.”
So Owens signed up for—and completed—these five audacious events.
The 300 of Sparta Endurance Race: Owens trekked 238 miles across Greece in eight days, from Sparta to Thermopylae (like the Spartans did to fight the Persians). He went through mountains, ocean and snow for a Navy SEAL fundraiser.
Pier-to-Pier Quest: Owens entered this lifeguard challenge and memorial event in Southern California for the lifeguards who have died in the line of duty. “It’s a marathon run and swim from the San Clemente Pier to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, California. You run down the sand, then you swim around a rock. And then you run down the sand and you swim around the rock. And you do that for 25 miles. It takes you about nine hours,” Owens says. “It was really a trip, you know to be with these 16-year-olds to 30-year-olds and try to keep up with them.”
SEALFit Kokoro 50-Hour Endurance Challenge: “It was brutal,” Owens says. “It’s all Navy SEAL instructors, and I’m the first Air Force guy to ever do it. Plus, they told me I couldn’t do it because I was too old. So now that, now I’m the oldest guy that’s ever done it and ever finished.”
Ironman in Mexico: This triathlon combined a 2.4-mile swim race, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2-mile marathon—and it was Owens’ 12th.
World Marathon Challenge: Owens ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents —starting on Antarctica. “It’s 20 below zero. We had to get right back on the plane and fly six hours back to Cape Town,” he recalls. “And when we landed in Cape Town, we had to immediately run marathon No. 2. So we ran two marathons in 24 hours. But when we ran in Cape Town, it was 90 degrees above.”
From there, the group flew 11 hours to Australia and completed a night marathon as soon as the plane landed. Another 11-hour flight took them to Dubai for another night marathon, and then on to Portugal, where they ran on wet cobblestone while it rained. Then they took another 11-hour flight to Colombia for a run through the old walled city, only to hop back on the plane for a quick flight to Miami for the last marathon.
The motivation to move
As a senior athlete, where does Owens find the motivation to complete these epic events? “I want to be the experiment,” he says. “I want to test and see if I can overcome the mental challenge of the situation. Everyone says, ‘You can’t do this’ and ‘You shouldn’t do this’ and ‘Why are you doing this?’ If there’s a mountain, somebody ought to climb it, so I think, I’ll see if I can do this. If I fail, I fail. But I think that if I’m smart enough, I can survive it and I can win.”
Owens isn’t keen on slowing down anytime soon. He wants to be the longest active Ironman in the world, but he says his current training focus is shifting from endurance to events that require agility and balance. (Who knows, he may even have his sights set on “American Ninja Warrior.”)
But at the end of the day, Owens says it’s about aging on his own terms—not someone else’s.
“All of us have a choice on how we age,” Owens says. “How do you want to go out? Do you want to go out sickly or weak? We have 24 hours a day; give an hour a day to invest in your health and then enjoy the other 23. And if you invest in yourself in your 40s, 50s, 60s, you can live better.”
Photo credit: Nathaniel Taylor Photography (2); Courtesy of Robert Hamilton Owens; Nathaniel Taylor Photography