When Robert Hamilton Owens’s father was 75, he gave his son some advice. “He said, ‘You know, son, the sad part is when you get old they just put you on a shelf and you become irrelevant. Fight to stay relevant. Fight to stay in the game, otherwise they will write you off.’ ”
Owens took his father’s words to heart, by physically pushing himself way beyond what most people half his age have ever done. At 66, he has completed a dozen Ironman races, along with other grueling physical competitions such as SEALFIT (a 50-hour Navy SEAL hell week for civilians) and a recent endurance event in Greece that involved running 238 miles in eight days.
Later this month he will embark on perhaps the most insane trial yet: the World Marathon Challenge, where he will run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. After starting in Antarctica, participants will sleep on a chartered plane and wake up each day to run another 26.2 miles — in Cape Town, South Africa; Perth, Australia; Dubai; Lisbon; Cartagena, Colombia; and Miami — 168 hours of nonstop running and flying.
Of the 54 participants this year, Owens is only the fourth-oldest; the oldest is 73. It costs 35,000 euros to enter, or about $43,000; in his case, friends and sponsors donated.
Owens has been pushing his body to the edge since he was a Southern California surfer trying to get out of the Vietnam War. At 18, he says, he slammed his arm into a concrete wall hard enough to “make it mush” and avoid the draft.
But afterward, as he watched others his age go off to fight, he felt guilty.
“I was really convinced that I had screwed up, that I had not done my part as a young man,” he said. That started him on a journey of redemption. “I was going to church, talking to God: What was the plan for me?”
His solution was to join the U.S. Air Force Pararescue special operations team, which rescues Navy SEALs and Army Rangers during war. At age 27 he also participated in his first Ironman race, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon, all in one day.
Owens didn’t end up going to war, but with the special ops team he found a calling that he says “really suited my personality.” Helping people on the outside led Owens to want to help people on the inside, and he enrolled in theology school.
To cure the boredom that he felt in school, he began working for a group called Open Doors Ministry — smuggling literature and biblical materials into Eastern Europe, and smuggling out material showing violations of the Helsinki Accords.
He became a pastor, spending over two decades counseling troubled college kids at the University of Nevada at Reno, many of whom reminded him of his younger self, and he started a nondenominational church in Reno called the University Family Fellowship. He got married and had five children, and while he continued to exercise daily, the intensity of his workouts ebbed.
But then he turned 50. “My oldest son said, ‘Dad, you’re really old,’ ” he recalled. “So I decided that after 23 years off I’d do an Ironman.” And, he told his children, “you guys are going to come watch.”
He enjoyed it. “I liked being in that kind of shape again,” he said. “Once you get used to going over the edge physically, you get used to things that other people say you can’t do.”
And now that he was older, he began to see himself as a role model for older people.
“I think there’s a lot of people my age who have so much to give, they just don’t feel that they have a platform from which to share it,” he said. When running seven marathons in seven days, he said, “I think you have to have a why, and the why has to be strong enough — Why am I doing this? My cause is being a senior. My cause is I’d like to speak to seniors about healthy living and about fitness and about ‘What’s your excuse? You can get it together enough if you try.’ ”
Not everyone wants to run 183.4 miles in a week, but Owens says “there’s lots of things seniors can contribute, especially in mentoring.”
A decade ago Owens’s life shifted beneath him when the Great Recession hit — his church closed, he lost his house and his marriage collapsed. “I crawled out of town a broken guy,” he said. He is now back in Laguna Beach, near where he grew up, and he recently married for a second time.
He acknowledges that he has been fortunate with his health. Along with swimming, cycling, running and doing CrossFit, he coaches young athletes and consults executives internationally on leadership and management.
The California boy is, admittedly, a little anxious about running in Antarctica, where the average temperature will be around 0 degrees (last year it was -32 degrees Fahrenheit). “How do you keep your feet from freezing?” he said.
“The first time you do anything is the worst,” he said, “because you don’t know how to budget your emotions, you don’t know how to budget your energy.”
But he figures it will all click when he lands. “You just get off the plane and you start running.”