No Slowing Down

Editor’s note: If you are a man, 50 or older, make an appointment with your doctor. Then read this story:

Omaha couple embarks on fourth decade of triathlon competition.

Ken Deman of Omaha, Neb., learned how to swim at age 45, just so he could compete in triathlons with his wife. He learned 20 years and hundreds of races later that feeling good isn’t necessarily a sign of good health.

Deman, 72, is the oldest athlete registered (as of March 26) for the June 12 age group races at the Hy-Vee Triathlon. Perhaps just as impressive, his 70-year-old wife, Carol, will compete on the women’s side.

The couple — Ken is retired from an electronics manufacturing company; Carol is a former secretary for a retail chain — compete in up to 10 triathlons each year. Then there’s the occasional half-marathon, long-distance canoe race or annual bike ride across Nebraska, which this year will finish a day before the Hy-Vee event. Friends will pick up the Demans at the end of the ride and shuttle them to Raccoon River Park in time for the Hy-Vee start.

“We love the sport,” Carol, a former collegiate swimmer, says. “We’ve been at it a long time.” The Demans competed in their first triathlon 30 years ago at Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs. But it was their second event, at Offutt Air Force base near Omaha, that stoked their collective fire for endurance sports.

Ken couldn’t swim, so he backstroked his way through the water course and managed to be competitive in his age group. Carol finished in the middle of the pack. “We were hooked after that,” she says.

The couple works out —running, swimming, weight-training and stints on a stationary rowing machine — six days a week. They watch their diet (Carol more closely than Ken) and keep their competitive juices flowing with trips around the Midwest. Both have competed in national events against the best in their age groups. Both have finished all three previous Hy-Vee triathlons and say the race has quickly become a favorite.

“It’s a very well-run event,” Ken, a sub-3-hour competitor at the Olympic distance, says. “The competition has gotten better. Of course, at our age, attrition has kicked in. But as the event’s reputation grows, I think you’ll see the age-group competition get even stronger.”

Demans at Hy-Vee TriathlonIt’d better get stronger, because Ken is. Sure, he’s been slowed by minor injuries, like the time he pulled a leg muscle at the start of the 2007 Hy-Vee race. I couldn’t walk very well, but I jumped in the water and felt OK,” he recalls. “I even felt fine on the bike. I told myself I would walk the run if I had to. “Turns out I had to.”

But it was a visit, at Carol’s urging, to a free prostate cancer screening in 2004 that threatened to sideline Ken permanently. He had “actively avoided” checkups and was convinced that his athletic lifestyle — he and his wife also played softball, volleyball and basketball — was enough to keep any disease at bay.

The results of the screening triggered a follow-up exam, which revealed an advanced form of cancer. Ken learned quickly that feeling good is not always proof of good health.

An estimated 230,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. Thirty thousand of them die. “Some prostate cancers grow quickly and, unless treated, they spread to other parts of the body,” Ken’s doctor, Steven Koukol, says. “But most prostate cancer is not uniformly aggressive or lethal.”

Ken and his doctor decided on a treatment that used tiny radioactive “seeds” implanted in his prostate.“That most the most non-invasive option,” Ken explains. The treatment worked, but it kept Ken off the course for more than a year. “It slowed me down, but I healed, and I managed to come back,” he says. Now he’s trying to shave a few seconds off his time in the 10k run.

“I don’t know what it is, but once you get past 65, your running times really drop off,” Ken says with a laugh. “With biking, it’s different. I might even be faster now than I’ve ever been.”

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