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The road to 300: how a birthday present became a passion

By Steve Michelini | Oct. 25, 2019, 4:16 p.m. (ET)

steve michelini

I competed in my first triathlon in response to a playful gift from my wife on my birthday in 2004. She had cleverly boxed a bunch of small boxes inside a larger box, each with elements and training equipment needed for triathlons. There was a box with swim goggles, another with running shorts, another with bike shorts, a box with bike shoes, and many more boxes full of whatever I might need to compete in a triathlon. I had just turned 54, and it was quite a unique present. In retrospect, my wife may regret that group of presents because she now must share her husband with the sport on a daily basis. I am frequently competing in triathlons—nearly every weekend—and I have averaged no less than 20 triathlons annually since 2005.

It took me about 6 months to train for my first triathlon. I was fit, but I was not “triathlon fit.” I competed in my first triathlon in the summer of 2005 and never looked back. After the race, I immediately signed up for two more triathlons in 2005, on my way to completing 3 that year. In 2006, the number increased to 18 and has continued to increase every year, generating an average of 20 triathlons annually. 

I have seen, learned, and experienced so much during this time of competition and healthy fun. I was even able to talk two of my daughters and two of my grandchildren into competing in their own triathlons with only one credo: they had to finish ahead of me. Competing in triathlons is a lifelong experience that has become part of my soul. I race against myself and not the other athletes—winning or placing is a bonus. I want to do well, and I can always feel when I’ve had a good or great day. It’s about each individual event as much as the whole.

I’m not as fast as I once was, but I am just as determined to get out there and race. When I reached my goal of 200 triathlons, I set a new goal of 300, and I’m very close to that now—297 races as of October 2019. Several of my early triathlon records have been misplaced, but I am still determined to get to 300.

Triathlons, and the training that goes along with them, mean a great deal to me. I am grateful that I am able to finish; triathlons are the best substitute that I can imagine for golf or fishing. Many wonder why I keep doing them when so many others quit. It’s simple, I want to get better and do better in spite of age. I once thought that as you “age up” the competition would change, and it does—it gets harder. Those that stay in the triathlon circuit get better too. The group of participants may get a bit smaller, but their zeal does not. It is very rare to find a first timer in my age group. Everyone is a veteran.

I’ve seen and experienced so much during this tenure. Triathlons have always been a challenge to me. I’m not the fastest, but I am determined and consistent. During one race, I lost my timing chip on the swim and had to turn around and find it floating in the water. I then had my bike chain lock up, tossing me headfirst downhill. My helmet split in half, and other bikers had to swerve around me. All this in the same race, and I still placed. On another race, the waves were so rough that the race buoys drifted and only 3 triathletes completed the course. I was one of them, even after my swim cap was ripped from my head by the waves. I have seen some amazing things at triathlons, not the least of which is the camaraderie and helpful assistance provided by fellow athletes. One of the most amazing testimonials of triathlons is the participation by physically challenged athletes.

I have seen a man pull his disabled son on a raft through a rough water swim, then ride his bike with his son in tow and then run the course with his son in a running jogger over a sandy beach. I have seen a woman who could neither walk nor run without a back brace get in the water, swim, get out of the water then put her back brace on, bike and run the best that she could to finish the race. I have seen a young woman dedicate her performance to the military by swimming, biking and running the entire course in full military backpack and gear in the 95-degree Florida heat. These are the folks that make you stand up and applaud. These are the true everyday heroes. 

When I see physically challenged athletes who keep going, then I know that I can too. My hat goes off to those who overcome missing limbs and physical limitations brought on by accident, illness and disease, but who still compete and finish. They are the true CHAMPIONS. Regardless of who you are, your condition, or your age, the distance is the same for all of us. It never ceases to amaze me that they can complete the same course and never give up. I use it as a constant reminder whenever I begin to feel tired or challenged; it provides a boost of enthusiasm. If they can do it, how can I complain? 

Several years ago, I injured my back and was told by my doctors that “my triathlon days were over.” I was scheduled for surgery, and I began to think about my condition. I could not walk for 3 days and had great difficulty sleeping or performing any physical necessities. I needed assistance to do everything. Regardless, I was determined to return to a better condition and even return to triathlons. My temporary disability reminded me of the difficulty faced by others who have permanent ones. It was a humbling and eye awakening experience. I was hurt in October 2015 and worked diligently to return to triathlons, which I did in January 2016. It was very difficult, and required a great deal of focused concentration.

My first triathlon back was painful, but I finished and went on to complete 22 triathlons that year. I cancelled the surgery and worked on my own rehabilitation program with the assistance of individuals like Myrna Haag (my triathlon trainer). I was in a great deal of pain and found it difficult to even operate on a basic level, much less work out. I suspended my traditional workouts and concentrated on swimming daily. Once I got to swimming one mile daily I added other exercises, and then added others until I felt like I could go back to a full-fledged workout program and subsequently triathlons. 

Triathlons are about constant preparation, mentally and physically, for the race. I look around and see so many people who could be more fit, in better health, and exercise more for their own improvement in life. I go to my class reunions and wonder, “who are these people who are so sickly, and on so many medications?” Fortunately, I am not on any regular medications and enjoy a very healthy lifestyle. My medical check-up amazes the physicians when they realize that I not on ANY medications at all—my vitals are those of a much younger individual. 

Two of my daughters and four of my grandchildren ran or were pushed in strollers while I finished the run on a triathlon. It was a memorable event, and when my youngest granddaughter ran up to me at the finish line to give me a kiss and hug, I felt overwhelmed with pride. She stood with me as I received the 1st place trophy for the 3-race series. For me, staying healthy means being able to share these otherwise once in a lifetime experiences with my family.

Triathlons require training and focus. Because I still work full time, I must fit training time into my work schedule; I don’t have the luxury of a lot of free time. My typical training program includes twice a week triathlon training with Myrna for 90 minutes, and I also try to bike 90 minutes or attend spin classes for 60 minutes weekly. I don’t have time to run much, but I do manage to get in a training run once a week. Swimming is on an occasional basis whenever I can fit it in, so my total weekly workouts are 4-5 days a week with a race on Saturday.  

Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don't. Success is built upon failure. The point is having the determination and courage to get over it and pick yourself up when you don't succeed and continue trying until you achieve your goal.  Frequently that is a long-term objective. Sometimes you never achieve your goal, but through the process you become better than you were yesterday. 
Nothing worth having is easy. There are no free rides—you have to earn it. I have known many "natural athletes" who have much more talent than I have, but having more determination will carry the day against overwhelming obstacles and a lot of natural talent. 
The real challenge is being determined and committed to making a difference for you. Everyone has different abilities, so it becomes about the effort necessary to improve regardless of ability.  Set achievable goals, meet them, then set another higher goal, meet it, and then set another and another and another. Give it your best and you will get the best in return.  I wish you all the very best to be what you can be in 2019 and beyond. 

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