From Mail to IRON Man
How a retired post-master earned the IRON in his name
IRONMAN is a registered trademark of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). No pictures may be reproduced and the IRONMAN trademark is the sole property of the WTC.
Growing up as a young boy and teen no one thought I had any special athletic talent. The only thing that singled me out from the other kids was that I was one of the smallest on the field. I played organized Little League Baseball but only backyard neighborhood football and playground hockey. My fledging sports career pretty much ended when I quit the high school hockey team as a junior – I wasn’t getting any playing time and wasn’t willing to put in the necessary effort to get regular ice time.
My reoccurring theme as a youth regarding any facet of life, be it academics, sports, or Boy Scouts, was to quit if I had to work too hard, or to quit if I thought I might fail. This attitude carried me from my teens well into my 20’s.
My only exercise as a young man was walking my mail route as a letter carrier for the US Postal Service. Typically, I would start my day off with a breakfast of Hostess Cupcakes with a Coke to wash them down. I smoked at my letter case in the office while setting up my route and during frequent breaks out on mail delivery. Whatever I gained from walking my route was lost by stopping by the bar after work for a few beers and more cigarettes.
Mike and his wife Beth as newlyweds
My life trajectory changed forever on Nov 7th, 1979, when my wife and I both quit our pack-a-day smoking habit. I started running and actually enjoyed the feeling of breathing hard, closing the gap of NO regular exercise since high school. I also discovered that I enjoyed the feeling of pushing myself to the limits for the very first time. This “pushing myself” transferred into my career and other parts of my life as well. Somehow a switch was flipped and I started to challenge myself, failing more than succeeding, but willing to pick myself back up and try harder.
I jumped “full on” into the running boom of the late 70’s at the age of 29; ramping up from daily 3 mile runs to 7 or 8. Ready to test my newly-honed running skills, I signed up for my first running race, the 5 mile St. Patrick’s Road race. Lining up in the 2nd row, right behind the elite runners, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Coming through the first mile at 5:15 the guys following me said “if you’re not going to run get out of the way”! Crushed and completely blown up, I limped, walked, and shuffled to the finish – it seemed like I was passed by the whole field. Guess I wasn’t quite ready to run with the big dogs! “Just wait”, I said to myself, “I’m going to work my butt off and show those guys!” To improve, I did speed work and hills - punishing workouts that led to better times. I started winning my age group - 10k’s led to 10 mile races and to THE race of all races...the marathon.
When the media announced the inaugural Twin Cities Marathon to be held in the fall of 1982, I jumped at the chance and quickly registered. I bumped up my long runs to twenty miles, picked up the intensity, and started a structured training plan. My goal was to run a fast marathon and break 3 hours, based on my recent training runs.
Mike Colaizy at the finish of the inaugural Twin Cities Marathon in October, 1982
Marathons were smaller then, populated with mostly men in their 20’s and 30’s. 10% of the field broke the 3 hour barrier and only a few finished in over 4 hours. It was all about performance rather than participation. I figured I was ready to join the elite runners, which at the time was sub-3 hours. I was confident and cocky - “I was going to kill it!”
Well, surprise again! After cruising through the 20 mile mark on a sub-7 minute pace and telling my supporters “it’s in the bag”, I blew up spectacularly, ending up walking and jogging to a 3:13. Disappointed but not beaten, I trained harder with more determination. Every spring and fall for the next ten years I towed the line at various marathons, ready and confident to break the magic three-hour barrier.
Despite all the focused training and my determined “run to you drop attitude”, I was never able to achieve my goal. I went on to finish close to 40 marathons - from New York to Chicago, as well as Grandmas in Duluth, MN and a dozen more Twin Cities marathons. I came close, running some half a dozen in under 3:10. My best chance slipped away at Twin Cities one year when I overheated and crossed at 3:01 – ouch that hurt!
At the age of 43, I finally realized my fastest times were behind me. I won’t lie, I was very disappointed but found satisfaction in the fact that I had given the marathon my best efforts for over a decade. I learned a profound lesson that it’s about the journey and daring greatly –succeed or not, I was all in!
This “all in” attitude transferred into hardcore pack bike racing, where races of 30 to 50 miles ended in dangerous all out sprints and crashes, only to be decided by fractions of a second. I came close to winning several times but also suffered spectacular crashes with broken bones as well. What a guy will do for fun! Maybe I was doomed to always being that guy who comes close to his ultimate goal, giving it his all, but just can’t seem to get it done!
Mike and his cycling buddies in the mid-1990s
Now, to the rest of the story….
In 1986, at the age of 36, a friend of mine told me about this new cool sport of triathlon. Combining swimming, biking and running, it was starting to catch on as a mainline sport and the ultimate test of fitness and athleticism. At the time there were only 2 basic distances, the International and the Ironman. We decided to sign up for the Madison International Distance Triathlon - .9 mile swim, 25 mile bike and 10k run. We figured it would take about 3 hours of racing to complete. We brushed up on our swimming to make sure we could swim the distance, took our newly purchased road bikes out for a few 1 hour rides and ran our usual 6 mile loop.
Mike completing the 1988 Minneapolis Aquatennial Triathlon
How hard could this be?
Well turns out, very hard!
My friend almost drowned in the swim, hyperventilated, and had to be pulled from the water. I made the swim but used up a tremendous amount of energy thrashing for my life in the water, mashed hard on the bike, and barely ran/walked the 6 miles to the finish in well over 3 hours...totally exhausted. My statement to my buddy that day was “What did you get me into? NEVER again!”
But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about my experience – “I’m going to find another one and try again - swim better, and learn to run after getting off the bike”. I loved the variety in training for 3 sports. Because each used different muscle groups one could train hard 2 times per day. What’s not to like about training 2 times per day? It lined up perfectly with my “more is better” personality. Improvements could be seen and tracked. I continued to get faster and stronger even into my late forties. In that decade, I went from making the podium, to winning my age group, to setting age group records! I lived and breathed this sport – I was an official tri-geek!
Then came the IRONMAN , the ultimate test of human endurance in sport. What started out in 1978 as a bet in a bar over the possibility of an athlete completing the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), around–Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles) for a total 140.6 miles all in one day, transitioned from a stunt into today’s respected IRONMAN World Championship Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.
My road to Kona:
In 1999, at the age of 49, I signed up for the inaugural Ironman USA, in Lake Placid, NY. I wasn’t getting any younger and besides I had had all this success with the shorter distance triathlons – how hard could this be? I was an experienced athlete with countless mile swims, 100 mile bike rides and over 40 marathons –just add them all together, pack a lunch and plan for a long day exercising.
It turns out covering over 140 miles without stopping is...hard!
Mike's first Ironman Triathlon, Lake Placid, August 1999
On a picture perfect day with blue-bird skies, flat water, light winds, low-humidity and temps in the low 70’s, I glided through the 2.4 mile swim like I was in the swimming pool. Feeling refreshed and ready to go to work, I hammered on the bike, passing people like they were standing still; feeling invincible for the entire 112 miles! Coming off both my adrenaline rush and the bike simultaneously, I realized I had overcooked it. Too late! Trashed from the bike, I was only able to run a few miles, walking the last twenty miles to finish in the dark. Seems like the entire field passed me after my foolish "sizzling" bike attempt. “Oh well”, I said to my wife, still delirious and shaking from dehydration the next morning at breakfast, “Now I can cross this crazy thing off my bucket list!”. And for a few years, I let it go.
However, in 2005, at the age of 55, I retired from the US Postal Service. Still relatively young and with new found time to train like a pro, I decided to try Ironman again at Madison, WI. On a hot, humid mid 90’s day, I barely finished the bike and by the 2nd lap of the run became dizzy and nauseated; feeling like I was going to pass out.
End result---- DNF! (Did Not Finish)
Seems like my learning curve wasn’t improving much. Badly beaten again, I announced to anyone and everyone who would listen, “Never again, I’m done with this madness in madtown.”
No sooner had the next day broken, when I began to regret my words and with each passing day I stewed over my decision. Deep down I wanted to give it another shot. So, two months later, I swallowed my pride and paid $1,000 for a charity spot and signed up for the next year, 2006.
This time I respected the distance, raced with caution, and actually ran the full marathon distance to the finish line. I did it. I remember telling my wife, "I finally got this monkey off my back!” Success led to total surprise, when I found out later that night that I had just missed a coveted spot to Kona, Hawaii, by finishing near the top my age group. Wow, I thought, with more training and a little faster swim, maybe I could qualify for Kona. Qualification to race in Kona is by far the most difficult ticket to punch for an amateur athlete, for any sporting event. To snag a spot, most athletes have to podium (1st through 3rd) at another Ironman or the few remaining ½ Ironman’s with qualifying spots. One has to not only be able to race fast but be able to outlast the field with events that last from 10 to 12 hours (for elite amateurs).
My wife just rolled her eyes and said “you just said you were done with this craziness!” I said, “I guess I just changed my mind!”
Over the fall I began to draft my detailed plan to qualify for Kona in 2007. My plan began with a sneak attack to pick up a spot at the St Croix US Virgin Islands Half Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run = 70.3). St Croix was one of the few Half Ironman races with qualification spots to Kona. Who else would fly over the ocean for an early attempt to qualify on a hot, steamy island? The answer is, athletes from all over the world - some 1500 of them showed up to race for a spot. For the first time ever I faced international competition. The world class athletes in my division, 55-59, looked lean and mean, ready to race with a vengeance. I was totally intimidated! I felt like little Danny DeVito standing next to them at registration.
The next morning on the island of St Croix, USVI, broke hot and steamy, and I was sweating in the porta potty changing into my racing tri-suit. I lined up on the shore with my age group and ran into the surf when the horn sounded, “Game on!" I shouted to no one in particular. I immediately found myself at the back of the pack. “Wow, these guys can motor”! I jumped on some feet to draft and somehow hung on to the tail end of the swimmers. Coming out of the water, I felt the pressure of knowing I was behind and needing to catch up to the leaders on the bike if I was going to podium.
Mike attempting to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii at the St Croix USVI Half Ironman in May, 2007. To qualify for Kona you have to win your age division in a qualifying Half Ironman.
The bike course consisted of narrow, twisty, two-lane roads that were either going up or down – well suited to my road racing background. I slowly started making my way back up through the field passing rider after rider. After making the one mile signature climb over the spine of the island, I descended and held my place, neither passing or being passed into transition. As I headed into transition and dismounted from my bike, a group of spectators informed me I was in second place in my age division. They said the leader was about two minutes ahead of me on the run.
Just like adding gasoline to a fire, I took off in hot pursuit realizing if I could pass the leader and win I would be going to Kona! I spotted the leader about half way through the run at the turn-around. “This is your one chance so don’t blow it”, I said to myself quoting the lyrics from Eminem’s Lose Yourself. I stalked him like a wild animal for about a mile, loading up with relaxed running. I had a heart to heart talk with myself. “OK, this is it – once you pass don’t look back and go hard all the way to the finish”. I took a deep breath, picked up the pace, passed the leader and ran strong to the finish with only a peek behind at the last turn to the finish.
No one behind me! “I’ve got this!”
“I did it” I shouted and collapsed after the finish and was helped to the medical tent by volunteers. As I was lying on the cot receiving an IV, tears came to my eyes thinking, “I’m going to Kona!”
WRONG! Nice try Mikey, but no cigar! I was informed by the race announcer that another athlete in my age group had finished 10 minutes before me. Seems he had either rubbed his age group number off his calf or it had come off by itself so no one had noticed him. Big turn of events - from flying high to being crushed and defeated! After a couple of hours feeling sorry for myself I realized, here I was with my wife, on a beautiful Caribbean Island, “get over yourself” I said and proceeded to have a great time with my lady enjoying the water and sun putting my defeat in the rearview mirror.
After a few days at home, I began to plot another attempt at getting my coveted Kona slot. “Hey Honey”, I said, “how about another vacation to Lubbock, Texas in June?” “Lubbock? What the heck is in Lubbock?” she said. I gave her my patented smirk and proudly announced “another shot at a Kona slot!” “Whatever, I guess somebody has to be there to keep an eye on you!” Only a women who really loves her man would follow him to west Texas in June – hot and dry with oil wells, cotton farms and cattle- hardly a vacation destination. Who else would come to this forsaken place in search of a Kona slot? The answer is 1500 athletes from all over the world!
The race proceeded as usual, falling behind in the swim, fighting back on the bike and then giving it everything I had on the run. About half way through the run there was an out and back section where I could see other runners coming back and get a feel for where my placement was. I recognized one other athlete in my age group ahead of me – I looked at my watch and tracked the time it took me to get to the turnaround. I did the math and realized I would have to make up over two minutes in the last six miles to close the gap to overtake the leader, win my age group, and get my slot to Kona. I put my head down and pushed my body as hard as it could go in the extreme desert heat. Coming into view of the finish, I could see the leader crossing “No!!!! – close but no slot today!”
I finished out the year competing at the World Championship Ironman 70.3 in Clearwater, Florida, where once again I competed with a lot of the same athletes again from all over the world. This time I competed well with a podium finish and top American in my age group. 2007 ended without my spot to Kona, but I went into the off-season knowing and believing that I had the stuff to make it there. For the year, I had completed five half Ironman’s and either won or finished on the podium. I just needed one good race and a little luck! I still had hope after all this time.
The next year in 2008, my plan was to redouble my efforts in speed work. I kept up my normal volume but ramped up the intensity with hard two hour runs and three hour bike rides. I decided to go all in at Lubbock Texas again, knowing that the long grueling climbs out of the dry hot canyons on both the bike and run suited my strengths. This was going to be my ticket to the big show at Kona! It was now or never.
The race once again started out as usual with me coming out of the water behind, only to kill it on the bike – riding hard on the climbs to make up my time deficit so I wouldn’t have to push myself on the run later in the day when the temps were well into the 90s. Once again the race came down to me chasing the leader to the finish line and coming up short AGAIN!
Mike receiving IV fluids after finishing the Lubbock, TX Ironman in June 2008
Feeling dizzy, I checked into the medical tent for an IV (this was starting to become normal procedure). As I exited the tent feeling physically better but broken in spirit, my age group winner came up to me to congratulate me on my race and...
...offer to give me his spot to Kona.
Seems he had already earned his spot at a previous race and per the rules, if no one claims the spot, it rolls down to the next competitor in line.
That would be me folks! I could hardly believe my luck. I still did not let my emotions go as I had been disappointed so many times before.
That night after the banquet, the race director started the awards with handing out race slots to Kona. When your name is called, you have one minute to claim your entry and pay the $600 fee on the spot, or the next in line is called. When my age group winner was offered his spot, I held my breath – he declined and my name was called as the runner-up. I rushed the stage and threw my arms around the age group winner and gave him a kiss on the cheek! The crowd went wild with laughter and applause. This time it was for real, I was finally going to KONA!!
A jubilant Mike after finally getting his spot to Kona! Lubbock, TX, June 2008
I now had three months to train for the biggest race of my life. All I had to do was keep my fitness and stay healthy, as my goal was just to finish.
With six weeks to go before the big race, my plan was to do one more local Half Ironman at Square Lake, MN and then begin my taper. I felt especially strong throughout the race with a good swim and solid bike to get the party going. Jumping off my bike miles ahead of all the local competition, I flew out of transition in hot pursuit of not just an age group win but an all-time age group record. “Surely this will really set me up for a good performance at Kona!”
Just as I was finishing my record-breaking run, I felt a dull clunk in my knee. As soon as I finished I began limping and after sitting around for a while after the race I could hardly walk to the car.
Having connections at the local clinic and a doctor from the gym, I arranged for a MRI the following day. The doc met with me later in the day to share the results. I could tell from his facial expression and body language the verdict was not good. Seems I had developed a pretty serious bone bruise on my femur, the top of which was slowly being eaten away.
No running for the foreseeable future...maybe never again, he said.
Knocked flat again, I bummed out and felt sorry for myself for a few days and decided to fight back. “Come on”, I told myself, “I just have to be able to run one last marathon”. With that in mind I began pool running – boring, but an effective way to keep running fitness. I rode my bike hard but never stood up out the saddle to jam up hills. I even had to take it easy kicking in the pool. For the last five weeks I adjusted my training and hoped for best.
After decades of preparation, here I was. October 11, 2008. The date of the Ironman World Triathlon Championship in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Landing in Hawaii, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and could still feel a little soreness in the knee – not a good feeling when you are staring down a 140.6 mile journey of a lifetime. With determined purpose, I pushed my apprehensions away and soaked in the new sights and smells. I was going to enjoy this experience no matter the outcome.
Allowing for a few days to acclimatize to the heat and humidity, I took in the sights and toured with friends and family, but always the self-doubts were hanging over my head about being able to complete the course with a bad knee.
The night before the race I had my final meal out with my group and as I exited the restaurant, I envisioned myself in the role of Sean Penn in the movie Dead Man Walking - leaving his cell for the last time on the way to his execution. When we returned to town, I made good on my promise to a fellow athlete and joined him at the iconic historic church that stands guard over the start of the race course.
There was a prayer service going on and athletes were coming forward to be prayed over, asking for strength and endurance for the big race the following morning. Being a believer but uncomfortable with stepping forward for prayer, I struggled. Finally, I came forward and asked for prayer for my fragile knee. Walking out, I definitely felt a peace about the next morning; ready to take whatever came my way and somehow make the finish in the 17 hour cutoff.
Ironman participants have exactly 17 hours to finish and not a minute more. 17 hours to finish a 2.4 mile swim; a 112 mile bike; and a 26.2 mile run.
Race day started in the early morning darkness with a hurried breakfast, body marking and lining up for the swim with 1800 other athletes. As we were all treading water and waiting for the canon to go off, the loop from the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” circled in my head; “You have one opportunity, one chance, don’t blow it”...BOOM! And off we went, a moving washing machine of arms and legs flailing. After a couple of minutes, things quieted down because most of the field had pulled away. “Man these people can move”, I thought. Focused, but staying in my comfort zone, I followed the buoys for the one mil