There was supposed to be a one-in-a-thousand chance that Donley Simpson would finally quit and say “enough is enough”. More realistically, Simpson was expecting a two-in-a-thousand shot that a 77-year-old man from Nebraska would finish the 72-hour “Super Sprint Triathlon” that he had been competing in for over a year.
And although the world’s oldest triathlete left life on Earth several weeks ago after a protracted illness, the 78-year-old and the fellow two-man crew that accompanied him on the mission are still in operation. According to Simpson’s Facebook page, he took part in the original race last year in Lincoln, Nebraska, from the incredible centre of La Crosse, Wisconsin – which is home to the largest Hellenic Island in the world – but this year he was joined by a 77-year-old friend to complete the journey (and there is an appendixist and orthopaedic surgeon who also joined the team) and completed the gruelling 80km circuit in an astonishing 56 hours, nine minutes.
Donley Simpson before one of his training sessions. Photograph: Donley Simpson Triathlon/Instagram
The last legs of Simpson’s journey had involved walking for 12.2km over three times regular summer thunderstorms, before taking four hours to enter the basketball arena for the finale. And although it had been the most extraordinary challenge of his life, it had not been as challenging as an 11-hour round-trip on the 202km Boardwalk Trail from Northborough Park, Massachusetts, to Hyde Park, New York, in August this year. Although Simpson had trouble with the rough roads and climbing it nonetheless saw him complete the second most difficult swim in triathlon, in 16 minutes and 47 seconds, and he easily finished the 39km bike ride in almost six hours.
The greatest challenge for Simpson, however, was one of health – while he did not want to retire, he had also become aware that the health situation of his friend, over on the American side of the border, was deteriorating. “We want to go to both ends of the states to see how he’s doing,” Simpson said in July. “It’s like a race but there’s no winners, it’s more like a tour.”
Yet his dream had turned out to be a rare thing indeed: a genuine rarity. Despite Simpson’s record, there are only 3.3 million people in the US living past the age of 75. Perhaps that is why he continues to race at 85.