Hilary Topper grew up next to the ocean, but she didn’t swim in it. It wasn’t until age 48, after years of physical inertia and emotional upheaval, she immersed herself in fitness and, since 2014, has swum in waters from New York to St. Croix.
She is still striving to improve her performance, but her goals now include inspiring others to get in top shape, too, no matter their age. She keeps a blog, has become a certified triathlon coach and recently wrote a book about how she did it.
“I want to show people that, as much as they get pushed down, if they reach within themselves, they can pick themselves up and do amazing things,” said Topper, whose new book, “From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete,” was published by Meyer & Meyer Sports.
In her book, Topper, 60, of Merrick, who owns HJMT Public Relations in Long Beach, shares details about her difficult childhood and how she overcompensated through academics and career — then discovered physical fitness.
“People tell me, ‘You can’t.’ I’ll keep doing it until I can,” Topper said of her approach to various goals through her life.
Growing up in Long Beach, Topper said, she only casually rode her bicycle on the boardwalk with friends and didn’t learn to swim because her “overprotective” mother wouldn’t let her go more than knee-deep into the ocean.
After high school, she moved to New York City to attend Hunter College and later Baruch College, where she got a master’s of public administration in nonprofit management. At 25, she married Brian Topper, whom she had met on a bus in Long Beach when they were in middle school, and the couple returned to their hometown to start a family.
At 30, Topper also found herself immersed in starting her own business. “It was just about work and the kids, and that was it,” she said. “I never focused on myself.”
Eighteen years later, Topper took stock of herself: She was about 20 pounds overweight, closing in on 50 and she knew longevity didn’t run in her family.
“I was getting really nervous that if I wasn’t going to start to change my life, that I would go down the same path,” Topper said.
Exercise, she would learn, could also help her cope with a string of personal losses, from her mother’s death in 2012 and her sister’s in 2018, to caring for her father, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2021.
“I had a lot of trauma from childhood on with my family, and I needed something to help me work it out,” she said, adding that she had also started psychotherapy at 20.
Her first step toward fitness was joining New York Sports Club in Long Beach and working with a personal trainer. “I go on the treadmill, and I don’t even know how to turn the thing on,” Topper recalled.
Over time, she progressed from walking on the treadmill to running and walking on the boardwalk, increasing her mileage enough to run her first half-marathon in New York City in 2011 with Brian. To train, she ran a 5k race in Oceanside, then a 10k in Long Beach. Races in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, through New York Road Runners, and a Brooklyn half-marathon followed, as did the New York City Marathon in 2016, which she finished in just under seven hours.
Getting her feet wet
Once she became a runner, she considered triathlons, which include swimming, cycling and running — but when she attempted to swim 25 yards at the Long Beach Recreation Center, just three strokes made her sick. “It was a total disaster,” Topper said.
But she kept swimming in the pool, at first in the slowest lane, and over time progressed to interval training: alternating periods of intense exercise with periods of less intense activity.
Topper’s coach told her about Open Water Swim Long Island, a group that swims regularly in the Connetquot River and elsewhere to help people become better swimmers. OWSLI coach Bryan Krut taught her to blow bubbles underwater and encouraged her to wear nose plugs.
Distance workouts in the open water helped her perfect her strokes and increase her stamina, she said.
“I love the open water, because there are no boundaries,” she said.
At the same time, Topper was working on her cycling. She had to learn to conquer hills, use gears efficiently and clip into her pedals on a bicycle to prepare for either a Sprint triathlon (a 500- to 750-meter swim, 10 to 15 miles of cycling and a 5k run) or an Olympic triathlon (0.9-mile swim, 26 miles of cycling and a 10k run).
With that goal in mind, in 2015 she hired West-Islip based triathlon coach Danielle Sullivan, 45, of Iron Fit Endurance, who helped her finish a half-century (50-mile) ride and is helping her train for a metric mile (1,500 meters) and a full century (100 miles).
“Now I’m at the point where I want to go longer and I want to get faster,” Topper said.
Sullivan said Topper “always pushes herself to do something great and big, and something that might have been what she would have thought was out of reach.”
The value of Topper’s book, Sullivan said, is in “inspiring other people to look at what she did and say, ‘OK, well this is someone who’s like me, and I could do this too.’ ”
In her book, Topper also tells the story of her near-miss finish in the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross Bay Swim from Fire Island to Bay Shore.
Competing in August 2021 in the six-mile annual fundraising competition, Topper enlisted her son, Derek, to guide her in a kayak and supply her with food and water, sometimes via a fishing line. Between one and two miles into the swim, Topper recalled, the current pushed them off course. “We were really far out, and the current was strong, and the waves were high, so I couldn’t really see in front of me,” she said.
Before long, another volunteer kayaked out to lead them back.
Meanwhile, Topper’s GPS watch had shut off, so she had lost track of time. The volunteer also warned her that she was close to being disqualified for going over the four-hour limit. With 20 minutes left, she swam as fast as she could, clocking in at just about the four-hour mark.
“I was the last one in,” Topper said. “And I won the endurance award.”
There were about 100 people — competitors and spectators — at the finish, said Derek, 25, a data scientist who lives in Nashville. “And she comes in and she’s the last one, and everyone’s cheering for her,” he said. “It was a very special moment to see her actually complete it.”
Becoming a coach
As part of her rigorous exercise regimen, Topper is out of the house at 5:30 nearly every morning to bike along Ocean Parkway to Jones Beach (or Captree) and swim at Tobay Beach. She trains from one to three hours, alternating running, cycling and swimming, and concentrating variously on time, intervals, hills and other factors, though meniscus surgery has limited her running since October. And some weeks, she takes a day off.
Wanting to educate herself about competitions and to help other people, Topper got certified in 2019 as a USA Triathlon Coach.
Since January, Topper has been coaching New Hyde Park resident Rich Lamia, 64, a retired chief financial officer who works as a contract employee, for his first half-
Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run) in September in Timberman, New Hampshire.
Since he has run several marathons, Lamia approached Topper for help with cycling, which he hadn’t done much, and swimming in open water, which he’d barely done.
“She started me off slowly, and now we’re just building it up,” Lamia said, adding that he rode 200-plus miles in July and is aiming for at least 300 in August.
“I’m very tentative about swimming in the open water. She’s very good in allaying any fears,” Lamia said. The pair recently swam together at Tobay Beach, with Topper staying close by to offer guidance.
Through WeREndurance, Topper’s running-walking group, she leads Sunday morning sessions teaching the run-walk-run method of former Olympian Jeff Galloway that she followed when she was training for her first New York City Marathon. She also works with a triathlon group that meets virtually and includes experts in the field.
Noting that one woman in her training group ran her first half-marathon at 72, Topper said, “People like that inspire me.”
In the near future, Topper plans to do a 5k swim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and start training for a half-Ironman competition. Soon she’ll start running to prepare for 2023 races.
She also hosts “Hilary Topper on Air,” a podcast that promotes personal and professional growth, and writes a blog called “A Triathletes Diary,” which boasts 50,000 monthly visitors and was the impetus for her book.
She said she also loves skiing, traveling, eating out, exploring museums and “just being” with her husband and kids.
Said her husband, Brian, 60, an attorney: “I am constantly amazed by her enthusiasm, her energy and her ability to get up early and do more by 9 o’clock than I do all day, practically.”
Witnessing her mom’s commitment to fitness has inspired her to run and take spin classes, said Zoey Topper, 30, who works in public relations and lives in Manhattan. “I definitely credit her in helping me find that passion,” she said.
Recalling lazy days on the couch watching “Survivor” with his parents, Derek says he’s amazed at how far his mom has come. “If you asked me 15 years ago if I thought my mom would be doing six-mile swims from Fire Island to Bay Shore … I would have told you you were crazy,” he said. “It kind of shows if you put your mind to something, you can really do anything.”
Topper says training has become a way of life.
“I love getting up early, watching the sunrise and working out,” she said, adding, “Today I swam two hours in the open water alone and was in my happy place.”
Hilary Topper will be reading from and signing copies of her new book, “From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete" (Meyer & Meyer Sport, 2022), at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at Barnes & Noble at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove; barnesandnoble.com; 631-724-0341.
Getting into shape
With steady effort over months or years, women over 50 can get into shape and compete in triathlons and marathons, says Amerigo Rossi, an incoming associate professor at NYIT in Westbury and president of American College of Sports Medicine of Greater New York.
Noting that exercise makes people feel happier and more energetic, improves mental processing, sleep and libido, and results in fewer chronic diseases and a longer life, Rossi offers the following advice:
- Find a workout that’s fun for you.
- Be patient and go slowly to prevent injury, and use the FIT principle (frequency, intensity, time) to ramp up workouts.
- Try to make goals that are actions (e.g., taking two Zumba classes a week), which are more controllable than outcomes (e.g., losing 30 pounds).
- Include weight training in your routine for bone and joint health and muscle maintenance.
- If possible, work with a personal trainer or certified health coach.
- If you have an underlying medical condition, consult a physician before beginning any new exercise program.