When Michael Nicholas made the podium for the first time in an endurance sporting event — finishing third in the 30-34 age group at the Heart Breaker Half Marathon in Oregon — he wasn’t able to attend the awards ceremony.
He was instructed to leave the race immediately to return to his inpatient treatment center.
Nine months earlier, a homeless Nicholas could be found under a steel bridge in Portland injecting heroin. He had been dealing, arrested and was facing a potential jail term. He had started running to help with his recovery, and it was the Heart Breaker Half result that ultimately gave him the idea to sign up for a triathlon.
Now 40, Nicholas will be competing at the 2019 Toyota USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in both the Olympic-distance triathlon on August 10 and sprint on August 11.
“Triathlon has taught me self-efficacy,” Nicholas said. “It’s taught me self-confidence. It’s taught me to work through adversity. It’s taught me that failure is okay, as long as I learn from my mistakes and how to work through problems and be real with myself.”
Nicholas has been training on the “Dirty 30” highway outside Portland, named for its notorious debris on the road left behind by truckers. It has been a grueling and dark journey to the Dirty 30 for Nicholas to get to this point in his triathlon career, decades after running away from home as a teenager.
“I’ve always struggled with addiction and a substance-abuse disorder,” Nicholas said. “When I was 16, I had run away from home, and that was an introduction to the streets and harder drugs. At that time, my drug of choice was meth. Eventually, I got myself off the streets and weed became my drug of choice, and it was easier to maintain a job and stable housing at that time. But no matter how hard I tried to maintain it, my disease would always resurface. I’ve had periods of stability in my life, but I would always find myself back at the bottom trying to crawl my way out of a hole. It wasn’t until I got involved with heroin that it took me to a place that I had never gone before.”
It wasn’t until he was 24 that Nicholas enrolled in his first 12-step meeting, and 32 that he finally recovered.
“That first half marathon was a big deal,” Nicholas said, reflecting back on the race that would ultimately change his life. He ran that half marathon in 1:38.12. That’s an average mile place of 7:29, and it happened just four days after he had quit smoking half a pack a day.
From there, AA Sports, the organizers of the race, helped put him in touch with triathlon coach Dean Hinchcliff, who became his mentor. Hinchcliff agreed to coach him for a reduced fee during his recovery and helped transform Nicholas “from a 33-year-old boy into a 37-year-old man.”
Now, when not training or competing, Nicholas works for a local nonprofit organization, mentoring those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
He’s also back in school part-time, working toward a bachelor’s degree in social work.
His outlook these days has been to take life in small chunks and set attainable goals for himself.
“I’ve become stronger out of failure because I was willing to learn from it and not make excuses,” Nicholas said. “Life happens, and it wasn’t until I got offered the chance to do these triathlon events that I got involved in them. And they truly changed my life.”