In 1962, an MIT professor visited the graduate class of Bill Linder SM ’65, PhD ’68 graduate class at the industrial design school he was attending in Germany after leaving the U.S. Army. Linder, who had already earned a degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1956, was so impressed with the professor that he transferred to MIT to study civil and environmental engineering. The decision would profoundly shape his life both personally and professionally.
At MIT, Linder and his classmates worked on solving engineering issues with computers, a very new idea at the time. “It was civil engineering, but really, they were computer projects,” he says. “That was very remarkable.”
After graduating, Linder, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, wanted to return home and teach at the University of South Carolina. Soon he was hired as the university’s first full-time computer science professor. After 12 years on the faculty, he went on to serve as a county treasurer, a computer consultant, and an adjunct professor before retiring in 2002, eager to pursue his new passion: Ironman competitions.
Ironman races consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. To date, Linder has completed more than a dozen Ironman races, including two Ironman World Championships, the race held annually in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. When he competed in it last year, he was one of just five participants 80 or older. Unfortunately, a strong headwind derailed Linder and his fellow octogenarians. None of them finished the swim and bike portions within 10 hours and 30 minutes of starting, which would have qualified them to advance to the run. The wind was so strong Linder was sometimes riding his bike in his lowest gear, going only 4 or 5 m.p.h.
Years ago, he didn’t have to worry about finishing in time; he simply exerted all his energy and usually had hours to spare. But as he has aged, his slower pace has erased those extra hours. “There’s not much slack anymore,” he says.
Linder, however, remains undeterred. Now 81, he wants to become the oldest finisher of the Ironman World Championship. To do that, he will have to complete the race as an 82-year old next fall. “No one thought this was possible, that older people could do the Ironman. I want to keep it up as long as I can,” he says.
If he’s not swimming, biking, or running, Linder is probably at home in Columbia with Lynne, his wife of 47 years, or spoiling their three grandchildren.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.