Monday, August 8, 2011

Mike Morris: Racing a Triathlon in Every State and Continent

2010 ITU Worlds - Budapest
Michael Morris (58) is a business owner, CPA, triathlete, and past race organizer from Roanoke, Virginia with an ambitious goal – to complete a triathlon in all 50 states and 6 "inhabitable" continents before turning 60. He is currently at 36 states with VT, CN, UT, and AZ (plus some local races) still to come this season.  Mike will represent the US at ITU Worlds in Beijing on September 10-11.

Mike has been a triathlete for 26 years and has competed in 5 Ironman races, 5 Worlds, and somewhere around 2-300 triathlons.

I met Mike during a race just this past May and our paths have continued to cross. He is directly responsible for talking me into going to Age Group Nationals. He's an excellent ambassador/arm-twister for the sport :-) and I thank him for his encouragement.

I was intrigued by his quest and what drives him and thought others might be too, so on to the interview!

What is your athletic background and what got you involved in triathlons?

I started running in April 1982. My first goal was to run 3 miles nonstop by my birthday in October. Then everyone I knew was doing a 10 mile run up Mill Mountain to the Star. My next goal was a marathon. I completed the Paul Bunyan Marathon in Bangor Maine in July of 1984, then the Marine Corp Marathon in November, then decide that I wanted to do a triathlon next year. I started swimming in January and did my first triathlon in May of that year. After doing some races including a half Ironman in September of 1986 called the New England Tinman in Wellsley, MA, I set an Ironman goal for 1987 and in September I completed the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon(iron distance). I believe less than 5000 people in the world had done Ironman at the time and there were only a handful of them around. With a young family this was the only one I could drive to.

Mike in 1987

I cut back on triathlon to spend time with my kids and build a house. I coached Little League, softball, football, basketball and helped with lacrosse. I started back in 1995 and entered the Disney marathon then returned to triathlon in August of 1996 which was the first race in NC for Set Up Events. Since then the sport has experienced explosive growth. There were very few races when I started back and now there is one on almost every weekend day in VA, NC, and SC thanks to Set Up.

Mike, when I first met you at the Appalachian Power Smith Mountain Lake Sprint Triathlon in May of 2011, I discovered you had a hand in starting that race. What is your involvement?

I became involved with the Commonwealth Games of VA while competing in the Summer Biathlon (running and shooting). I went to Smith Mountain Lake to do a 5K swim. We took our bikes, rode off the course and ran the run course after the swim. Next I worked with Pete Lampman who I had met in connection with the biathlon and suggested a triathlon as part of the state games. We chose instead to make it an independent event so we could give out medals to non-Virginians. It became one of their biggest fund raisers. We had 135 people in 1998. I did manual timing and we did all the setup. I introduced Pete to Bill Scott, with Set Up Inc and they have done the hard part of the event ever since. It was the only triathlon in the area for a few years. The “Y” fall race was started a few years later. We have had a field over 500 participants until recently with the proliferation of races.

Meeting Mike on the run course in May 2011
What inspired you to take on the challenge of a triathlon in every state? When did you start, and where do things stand now?

I was sitting in an airport and had a copy of USA today and was looking at the state news section. After doing the crossword I had a pen in my hand and I started marking off states I had raced in and decide that I could do them all. I had done 20 at the time. That was a few years ago. I was at 27 at the end of this year and the closer I get, the more it becomes my “white whale”. I should do 13 states this year with 4 “double race weekends”. I will do 20 multisport events if all goes as plans, five more than I have ever done before in one year. That leaves 10 states and 2 continents to complete my goal of states and inhabited continents (6).

Red states have been completed to date

What have been some of the more unusual things you have experienced or seen as you have raced around the country?

I saw a guy in Michigan going to the swim with his wetsuit on backward and zipped up in the front. A guy was riding the bike with his aero helmet on backward. I saw a guy cut the bike and run course short and collect his award in NYC Tri. Had a snake curled up in the middle of the highway ready to strike in the rain in NC as we rode by on the bike. I was in a naked triathlon!

What are your favorite races? Are there any races you still would like to do?

Kona has always been on the list but at this point in my life, only if I could qualify for it. Wildflower has always intrigued me. I want to complete my continents with 70.3 races in South America and Africa. I will wait until 2013 to pursue those I will be in a new age group.

Your race schedule is crazy, with back-to-back weekends of racing, sometimes racing twice in a weekend. It’s a lot of tiring travel, yet you are a consistent competitor finishing pretty high up overall and in your age group. How can you get into race mode so often? What measures do you take to hasten your recovery?

After 26 years it is still just a swim, bike ride, and run. These weekend doubles started when I was training for Ironman races. What would you rather do for a weekend off, do a sprint on Saturday and Olympic on Sunday, or ride 112 miles on Saturday and ride 90 miles on Sunday and then swim 3500 yards? It was a weekend off so to speak. You will not have a top performance but these are not “A” races. I am experimenting this year with the concept of racing myself into shape. Race morning is the time to get psyched. Anything before that is a waste of energy. I have always trained hard. I think to race hard you train hard. We are triathletes, we do things that would make a billy goat puke. I run at midday. Runners would never wait until 11 AM to start a half in summer heat yet that is what we do in a half. If you do not train for it or harder than what you are going to do, then you can slog through it but cannot race it. You can ask the body to go harder or longer but never longer AND harder. Recovery is a function of age. The older I get the harder it is to recover. Truth be known sometimes you just have to suck it up. Just get it done and shut the F up!

How do you train? What is a typical training week like for you? Have you always been self-coached?

My normal training week without any long distance races is 5-7000 yds swimming, 25 miles of running and 200 miles of cycling. The upper end of that when training for long races is 10-12000 yds swimming, 3-350 miles cycling and 35 -40 miles of running. There were no coaches when I started and who has been doing this longer than me? An independent analysis might be helpful but at this point I know what I can do, how to plan for a big race, and the mental tenacity to complete the plan.

How you maintain an interest and keep up your training year after year to remain competitive in the sport so long?

First you need to understand this is not a sport but a lifestyle for me. My circle of friends are runners, swimmers and cyclists. My social life is my training groups. I also use it to keep my weight in check and to stay fit, but it is more than that. At this point in my life it defines me. I also love to compete and it has always been my yardstick of my progress for all of the hours I put into training. After dragging my big a$$ out of bed in the dead of winter to run, and swim in the cold, the race is the reward. All of those days of training usually translate to 10-12 days of racing. A huge amount of effort for a slim number of reward days, wouldn’t you say?

What is your strongest leg of a tri?

I think my right leg is strongest. Ha ha. I started out as lousy swimmer and running was my strong suit. I learned how to swim in 1998 after wasting 13 years in the sport. I went from coming out of the swim in the lower third to coming out in the top 25% after a weekend of Total Immersion. Biking was always strong because of where we live. As I have gotten older I have slowed down running. Swimming is still good but my cycling has gotten better. Go figure.

You know I love that picture taken when I met you on the run course last May. You clearly have a lot of fun with the sport and that enthusiasm is contagious. In fact, I have you to thank/blame for my decision to go to Age Group Nationals on August 20. Playing devil’s advocate here…what is so great about that race?

Nationals are the essence of our sport. It is the best of the best. The Olympic race with their qualifying standards assure that the field is a field of champions. The transition area is a triathlete’s dream of equipment. Award ceremony of city names from all over the country. It is THE place to race for the serious triathlete. It is our Boston Marathon.

Is there anything else you might like to share with the readers?

One of my greatest moments was the first time at Worlds in HI in 2005. As I did the the 2 lap run course I heard someone in the crowd yell, “Go USA, Go”. I looked around at the guys running with me and I was the only one wearing a US uniform. It then dawned on me that they were cheering for their country but they were also cheering for ME. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I will remember those voices yelling for me along the course until the day I die. I almost did a 3rd5k to hear the cheers again. It happened again in Switzerland. As I ran by a small cafĂ© late I the race almost totally alone on the course, I heard a little voice with a slight accent yell, “America, America”. It gave me chills. They hooked me worlds and China will be my sixth.

Let me also tell you about my heroes. It is not the “gifted” pros. It is the oldest guys and gals in the race. I aspire to be one of them one day. To stay in the sport until my eighties would be my lifelong goal. They are working so hard to keep up the racing and training and the field of athletes cut in half every age group forward from here. Statistically I only have a 1 in 4 chance of making it to the 65-69 age group. It scares the hell out of me. I know one day this will end. I do not know when but I treasure every day that I can still do this.