Ten Questions: Linda Garrett
Taking on a triathlon at 67 – on national TV
By Erin Bell

Semi-retired from her job as a school nurse at Durand Academy in Woodbury, Linda Garrett could have settled for a quiet retirement. Instead, the Haddonfield resident decided to reset her life by applying to CNN’s “Fit Nation,” a series of health segments hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. She became the show’s oldest ever participant (by a decade), and after months of training, completed her first triathlon last month.

What is Fit Nation?
CNN Fit Nation was started six years ago by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He invites viewers to submit a short video saying why they should be chosen to “hit the reset button” on their health. Six people per year are chosen from all parts of the country to start training for the Nautica Triathlon in Malibu. All the applicants are new to triathlon. We trained, together and apart, for nine months, and then finished the triathlon together. And all of it was filmed for CNN.

With all the fitness programs and TV shows out there, why did Fit Nation appeal to you?
Fit Nation is different because it changes your life, from your nutrition to your mindset. It hits reset; you pause, and you reset yourself. Your mindset changes. Your diet doesn’t change radically, but you make better choices. You exercise more. I wanted to see what a 67-year-old body could do. So it was fairly spur of the moment when I submitted the application video. I collected my thoughts, recorded them and hit send. I said I was interested in doing it as a challenge to myself to see how far I could go.

IMG_1699Can you describe your training?
It was like Christmas, with lots of working out. CNN paid for everything we needed to train for a triathlon: a year’s membership to a health club, a specialized road bike, uniform, wetsuit, nutrition training and two training trips – a week in Atlanta in January and a week in Laguna Beach in May. On the trips, we did strength training, and we did trail running. I got to know the other teammates that week, and we got along instantly, even though I’m 23 years older than the next oldest. That’s what I was afraid of; I didn’t want to be the mom or the grandmother of the group. We got along as equals. And we built each other up with lots of encouragement and support.

At home, we received our training schedule from our coach, April Gellatly, a professional triathlete. Our schedule consisted of strength training, swimming, biking and running. We had different drills and sets for different durations. Time spent training each week ranged from about five hours a week to 11 or 12 hours.

What was it like to work with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta?
He’s as likeable as he appears on TV. We met him in Atlanta in January, and he was a presence throughout the trip. We got to go to an Atlanta Hawks game in the CNN box, and Dr. Gupta came with one of his kids, and we sat and chatted. We played a pickup game of basketball against some of the Atlanta Hawks staff, and he was in there playing with us. He also did a yoga class with us and interviewed us one-on-one about our lives. He’s easy to talk to. He’s a doll.

CNN paid for Garrett’s new equipment and training trips to Laguna Beach and Atlanta

CNN paid for Garrett’s new equipment and training trips to Laguna Beach and Atlanta

What was the hardest part of your experience?
The trip to Laguna Beach was much more intensive than that first week in Atlanta. We got our wetsuits and went into the Pacific. I have to say it was ugly for me. I don’t like the unpredictability of being in the ocean. As a kid, I did what all the kids do: I dove under the waves. But as an adult, going to the beach meant sitting on a chair in the sand with a book. I’ve heard people say, “Are you afraid of what’s under you? Are you afraid of sharks?” No, I was just afraid to dive under a wave. And the water was cold – putting your face under 57-degree water, it takes your breath away. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to breathe. The swim coach in Laguna basically said, “Dive under and swim,” but I wouldn’t go under at all, so I was just battling my way through the waves, which is tiring.

How did you get over your fear?
I made it my goal: when I came home from Laguna I would get past my fear. I worked with Bruckner Chase of the Ocean City Swim Club. He took me out in the ocean and slowly talked me through it: “Feel the ocean. The ocean is the ocean; you can’t control anything about it. Learn to appreciate it.” He was very soothing. He dove under a wave and said, “You got the next one. When I say ‘Go,’ go.” And I did. And when I came up, I thought, “That’s what all my fuss was about?”

Tell us about the setback you had along the way.
It was the last day we were in Atlanta. We went up a big hill called Stone Mountain, and climbing down, I jumped, and something went kaflooey. I got home and went to an orthopedic surgeon and had surgery in February for a torn medial meniscus. I wasn’t nervous; I just wanted to put it behind me so I could get back to training. Throughout the whole process, I felt like due to my age I couldn’t afford to lose time, because I had to stay on track. With this torn medial meniscus, running was off the table. I’m 67. I knew I wasn’t going to be blazing fast. I was hoping I could jog the four miles of the triathlon, but I had to listen to my body.

My surgery was part of Fit Nation too. The producer called me about a week before and said, “Hey, how about if we send somebody down and do a segment on it?” and I said sure. So a cameraman came down from New York and did a segment – he talked to me before the surgery, talked to the surgeon, went into the OR and did some filming there. My husband recorded me when we came home and I was limping around. All of that was put together for a segment.

openIMG_2827How did Fit Nation change how you think about your health?
This program has shown me that I can do so much more than I ever thought I could accomplish. I’ve been a pretty clean eater all my life, and I worked out three or four times a week, but it wasn’t quite enough. Fit Nation has really pushed me, and I’ve been able to do it. I’ve been able to keep up. I learned that I can do it, which is pretty amazing for someone my age. I’ve dropped some sizes and I feel wonderful, which is the important thing.

I have a lot of energy. I’ve never slept better in my life. But I don’t weigh myself – I don’t even have a scale. As a younger person, I was never slender. I would weigh myself and get obsessed with that number. It can kind of make or break your day. That’s crazy. I want to feel good.

What feedback have you received about being on TV?
Throughout this process, everywhere I turn there has been support and encouragement. People my age are generally in two camps: the camp that says you’re nuts and the camp that says go for it, why not.

After completing Fit Nation, what advice would you give others?
People have said, “I could never do what you’re doing.” Well, nine months ago I couldn’t do it either. But, slowly, over time, my endurance improved, and one day, I was able to swim, bike and (sort of) run.

I would tell people in their 60s (barring any health issues like arthritis and heart problems) that it’s hard to get started, but in the end it’s so worth it. Start small. Walk at a comfortable pace for 10 or 15 minutes and increase gradually. If you prefer, join a gym and consult a trainer for appropriate workouts. Swimming is awesome for people my age, because it’s easy on the joints and it’s an excellent workout. The energy you get from this – you just feel good. People notice the changes. I have lost weight and have become more toned. After the May trip, I had lost 10 pounds and 3 percent body fat.

At this point in life, if you stop you’re going to stop for good. You’ve got to get out of the rocking chair. You have to keep moving to keep moving.

October 2015
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