Culture

#MyTri: Beating The Odds

When Michael Nicholas struggled with drug use and finding a way out, he remembered an amazing event he had seen on TV as a kid: Ironman offered him a way to challenge himself.

We’re bringing back #MyTri—where we’ll be letting triathletes tell their stories in their own words. To submit your triathlon story email letters@triathlete.com with “My Tri” in the subject line.

On a very boring Sunday in 1993, with nothing better to do but stare out at the sheets of rain pounding on the windows of my grandparents’ rickety old house, I decided to take a chance and turn to the only source of modern entertainment—the antique 50s-era cabinet TV.

There was absolutely nothing for a 14-year-old kid to do except maybe play Checkers with his younger brother. I fiddled with the old UHF dial until I managed to wrangle in a channel, hoping for some Loony Tunes re-runs or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All that was on was a Sunday daytime sporting event. Given the choices of battling it out with my cheating younger brother over Checkers or watching the only channel I could find, I wisely chose to watch TV.

This event was unfathomable, unthinkable, and seemed impossible. I don’t know if it was the punk rock antics of pro cyclist-turned-triathlete Chucky V or if it was my amazement at the sheer distance of the race that kept me watching. How did anyone swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, then ride bike 112 miles under the Hawaiian sun, then run a marathon through a lava field and not die? I saw the age group athletes’ determination to finish such a daunting event. They do this for fun? It looked like a lot of pain and a lot of bragging rights for both pros and their age group counterparts who finished. It has been described by some as the single hardest day in sports. Yet, people were doing this just because they can. (Four-time Kona champion Chrissie Wellington describes it as a visceral battle of the mind, the body, and the soul.) I was truly amazed, but shrugged it off as something that I’d never be able to do.

At 16 I ran away from home, I learned how to survive on the streets. I learned to grow up, and grow up fast. I learned to only trust myself and how to be a criminal to survive. I’ve had periods of stability, but my substance use was always there, rearing its ugly head to tear down anything that I managed to build up. I kept finding bottom after bottom. All I wanted was just one more fix to escape the feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and self-pity of my disease. I had no control over my using. At my very lowest I wanted to stop, but I still found myself using—even after telling myself, “Never Again.” Wash, rinse, repeat.

Somehow things came full circle for me in some sort of serendipitous Forest Gump kind of way. The universe decided to put the perfect storm of people in my life. They wanted to see me be successful in my recovery. For a little over four years I got to know myself through some deep internal soul-searching as a process of my recovery. I also got to know myself through countless hours of training.

I’ve gotten up well before the world wakes. I’ve painfully put the hard work, the sweat, blood, and tears into following my dreams. I’ve suffered injury, failure, and fatigue, but I have not given up. Every day I woke up sober at some ungodly hour and I got into the pool, on the track, or on my bike I beat the odds. Every time I completed a 6-, 7- or 8-hour brick I beat the odds. Every time I am of service to my community I beat the odds.

The statistics say I am supposed to relapse, be in a treatment facility, laying in a back alley dead of an overdose, or locked up in prison. They don’t say I should have four years clean. They sure as hell don’t say that I will be an Ironman. None of this is easy, it never was, but I took it a little at a time with grace and humility, courage, and faith. I’ve already been through hell so what is left?

When I stood at the water’s edge at the start of my first Ironman in 2016, I got to take on this challenge. I got to take on this challenge with integrity and selflessness, sacrifice and dignity, pain and sweat. I got to stand at the edge of the unknown—but the unknown isn’t at the edge of the water, the unknown was in my heart. It may not have been Kona, but it was still an Ironman.

As I looked out ahead of me I saw the orange and yellow buoys gently bob up and down. My heart rate was climbing. The anxiety of what was about to happen pumped through my body. I stepped into the river.

The cold water gently filled my wetsuit; its crispness crammed itself between my skin and the wetsuit neoprene. I started to gently scull. Wonder, amazement, and doubt filled me. “Will all the work in training pay off? Will all of the sacrifice pay off? Did I do enough to prepare for this?” I looked at the faces of the other athletes. They were going through the same thoughts, fears, and anxieties. The start horn sounded. My self-doubt subsided. I let fear fade with the first few strokes and I thought to myself, “This is just the beginning of something epic.”

I finished my first Ironman in 12 hours, 5 minutes, and 41 seconds. Four years later, I’m still in recovery and still doing triathlons. It’s a big part of my life. I haven’t done an Ironman since that first one in 2016. For now, I stick to shorter races, it keeps my wife happy. It’s a big commitment to put one’s self on the line. Maybe in a few years I’ll do another one—if I can convince my wife it’s a good idea.