When Ann Dillon was about to turn 60, she wasn’t ready to coast into retirement.
Recently divorced and emotionally bruised by the death of a close friend, she began working out regularly and hired a personal trainer to help her do it right. She had tried running before but had injured herself each time. She had cycled frequently in the past but stopped.
“I was really down and looking for guidance on how to get back into a healthy frame of mind and body,” Dillon said. “Sixty sounded so old. I wanted to learn something new. I wanted to see what I could do physically.”
Dillon’s initial effort took her on a path of self-discovery and surprising accomplishment that led her to become one of the nation’s top triathletes in her age group, excelling in the competition that features swimming, cycling and running.
Now 62, the North Yarmouth resident is a member of the U.S. team that will compete later this week in the grand finals of the 2013 World Triathlon Series in London. She’s scheduled to fly out of Boston late Tuesday and compete just before noon on Friday.
To attend the competition, Dillon will take two paid personal days and three unpaid days from her position as a music teacher at North Yarmouth Memorial School and Greely Middle School. She’s also the founder and former executive director of the Wescustago Youth Chorale.
She’ll be traveling to London and competing with her teammate and former trainer, Beth Birch, 72, of New Gloucester, who has settled into more permanent roles as Dillon’s mentor and friend.
Dillon and Birch are among several Mainers competing in the London finals, which include 12 events over five days. More specifically, they’re among more than 5,000 amateur athletes scheduled to compete in the Standard and Sprint Distance Age-Group World Championships.
Dillon and Birch have signed up for the Sprint competition. Dillon is one of 16 U.S. women in the 60 to 64 age group. Birch is one of three U.S. women in the 70 to 74 age group.
They face a three-legged course in the heart of Hyde Park that features a 750-meter (half-mile) swim, a 20-kilometer (12-mile) bike ride and a 5-kilometer (3-mile) run. The course is comparable to other triathlons, Dillon said, but a bit more technical, including hairpin turns.
London will be Dillon’s sixth triathlon and first international competition, after qualifying last year at a national event in Burlington, Vt. She finished in 1 hour, 41 minutes and 41 seconds.
Birch, who’s something of a legend among Maine triathletes, has done more than 100 triathlons since she started competing in her 50s. This will be her fifth world event.
Given her experience as a competitor and trainer, Birch saw something in Dillon when she first started training with her at the Pineland YMCA in New Gloucester in 2010.
As Dillon set out to improve her cycling skills, Birch suggested that she consider training for a triathlon. Dillon initially recoiled at the thought of it.
“She came across as someone who had a lot of drive,” Birch recalled. “But I dropped it because I could see it was too big of a concept for her.”
Then Dillon heard about the Maine Cancer Foundation’s Tri for a Cure fundraiser. She decided to participate in memory of a close friend, Betsy Tiemann of North Yarmouth, who died of breast cancer in 2009.
She started training and participated in her first triathlon, Tri for the Y, a fundraiser for the YMCA of Southern Maine, in May 2011. Her first performance gave her confidence to continue.
“When I won my age group, it was like, Oh my God, I can really do this,” she recalled.
She did the Tri for a Cure that July, placing fifth out of 14 in her age group. Then she finished first in her age group in the 2011 Mainiac Triathlon, which qualified her for the nationals in Vermont last summer.
“It’s been amazing to start running at 60 and have the success I’ve had in my age group,” Dillon said.
The experience has been transformative for Dillon, as it is for many triathletes.
“I look very different,” she said. “I have more muscle and less fat. I’m two sizes smaller and my clothes fit differently. And I have a lot more joy in my face and energy in my life.
“I don’t know what 62 is supposed to feel like, but I feel younger than I did when I was 40.”
She also pared down her lifestyle, recently selling the 1,800-square-foot house where she and her former husband raised their daughter, Mariah, 28, who works with children at risk in Santiago, Chile. She also sold many of her belongings and moved into a 900-square-foot condominium.
“I don’t want to clean, mow and shovel snow,” she said. “I want to swim, bike and run.”
There’s a huge spiritual component to being a triathlete, Dillon said, which makes her grateful for her own health and determination. At the same time, she’s mindful of loved ones who haven’t been so blessed.
Most recently, she’s been inspired by her late sister Karen Pfaffenbach of East Hampton, Conn., who died unexpectedly in April of a heart attack and stroke at age 57.
Her sister’s presence was palpable at the Tri for Preservation last month in Cape Elizabeth, where she came in second in her division.
“It was almost like I was connected to her while I was running and biking, and doing something she couldn’t do,” Dillon said. “They played the national anthem at the beginning of the event and I just started crying. Karen was right there in my heart.”
Dillon’s growth has impressed but not exactly surprised Birch. She has seen it happen often among triathletes, whose individual success depends on supporting one another in training and in competition. Oftentimes, just finishing means winning.
“You learn you can rely on others for support,” Birch said. “You come to realize, ‘If I can do this, there are plenty of other things I can tackle.’“
Triathletes also learn to break down a competition into component parts, so it’s not such an overwhelming challenge.
“It’s a strategy that works in all areas of life,” Birch said. “Taking things one step at a time.”
Birch said she’s proud of Dillon and looking forward to sharing the world competition experience with her friend and former pupil, including the opening ceremony Wednesday night and the closing ceremony Sunday night.
Dillon said she’s looking forward to the opening ceremony, too, especially the Parade of Nations, though she’s not expecting to place in the competition.
“It’s just going to be so thrilling to walk in a parade of athletes from all over the world,” she said. “It’s going to be so powerful.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: