Anyone who has competed in triathlon in South Dakota for even a short period of time will soon begin to recognize a familiar face that appears at a handful of sprints across the eastern part of the state. With his twinkling eyes and constant smile, Howard Bich is hard to miss. He’s the toughest 74-year-old we have seen in our sport, finishing every race he’s ever started.
Bich’s career in triathlon began not by his own aspirations but via his son’s influence. Brian Bich, an accomplished age-grouper now, was attending graduate school at USD when a friend convinced him to try triathlon. He experienced success almost immediately. Howard went to a few of Brian’s events, and as a natural athlete himself, thought the whole experience looked like fun.
So he signed up for one.
Bich did not know how to swim. He could dog paddle with the best of untrained swimmers, but even the dog paddle will only get a triathlete so far.
Thus in 1995 it all began in tiny Eureka, one of South Dakota’s best small-town triathlons. Bich, in his own words, nearly drowned. And he finished last, but he finished.
Two years passed.
In 1997 Howard decided to try Eureka again. By this time, he had taught himself to do the side stroke, so while Howard finished last again, this time he enjoyed himself. So he kept on competing.
Shortly thereafter Bich swallowed his pride and asked the swimming instructors at his local indoor pool in Wagner to teach him to swim. He claims this was the hardest thing he’s ever had to learn athletically.
To date Bich has competed in somewhere around 170 triathlons. He has completed every single one despite some pretty daunting circumstances. Bich cites a couple of triathlons with incessant rain, wind, and downright cold conditions. In one event (a May triathlon in Watertown) Howard claims the warmest part of the day was the pool swim thanks to temps in the 40s and a stiff north wind.
Bich has become more than just “the old guy doing triathlons.” He is one of the best ambassadors our state can have for this sport we all love. His excitement for the sport and love of the environment is palpable. Healthy people and a positive environment keep bringing him back to events. “It’s hard to find someone with a frown at a triathlon,” he states. True story.
Furthermore, Bich understands the health benefits of the idea that made cross-training a sport. “It’s a really good way to keep in shape,” states Howard. He goes to explain how a person can swim with little health risk (other than drowning) and can bike with little impact on the joints. In fact, Bich doesn’t even really train for races. He follows a fairly regular pattern of playing basketball on Monday, riding bike on Tuesday, swimming on Wednesday, and then taking Thursday and Friday off to prepare for triathlon on Saturday. “That way you don’t get bored,” he states.
With such a cache of triathlons under his belt, Bich has some pretty great memories. In particular, the first race where he did not finish last–his sixth triathlon–stands out to him. He realized halfway through the run that he might be able to pass the runner in front of him. So he put the afterburners on and caught up to the athlete with only 50 yards left. This race meant Bich had met his second goal: to not finish last. And it also solidified something for Bich: that he could complete something he had formerly thought impossible.
The senior national games in Pittsburgh also stands out, but not with the same pleasant memories. But this particular story reveals Howard’s mettle. He and his wife Arlene had traveled to Pittsburgh for the national senior games, and he had qualified in triathlon. At this race Howard experienced something that to date he has only had happen once: a flat tire. The tire went down within one mile of leaving transition, so, showing his South Dakota tenacity, Howard hefted the bike up and carried it while he walked and ran back to transition. He had brought a spare wheel with him, so he changed out the wheel, went back out, and once again, completed a race despite his position.
Howard has never not finished a race.
A genuine ambassador for South Dakota triathlon, Bich brings a breath of fresh air and genuine perspective to the sport. He competes because he clearly loves just about everything about it. “I love the people – before the race and after the race. The swim, bike, and run – I don’t know whether that’s fun or not,” he states.
He must. After retiring from teaching and moving from Wagner to Sioux Falls, Howard and his wife Arlene founded the highly successful Dakotaman triathlon (taking place this Saturday). They’ve been running the race from their home as a committee of two since the beginning, with each one complimenting the other. Howard claims Arlene is the brains behind the operation, and Arlene claims Howard does all of the heavy lifting work. They really do work well together.
So anyone who ever even has an inkling about doing a tri, consider Howard. Think you’re too old? Bich didn’t start until he was in his 50s, and he continues to race into his 70s. Think you’re too slow? Bich finishes every race despite his placing. He clearly loves the sport. In fact, he encourages other triathletes with one short piece of advice: “Jump in and do it. I’m sure you’ll have fun.”