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?