The Ironman Triathlon, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, is a grueling endurance competition that attracts some of the toughest athletes in the world.
The challenge sounds nearly impossible for most of us, but for Lilburn resident Michael Knox, 50, it is a challenge he has met and conquered three times.
For Michael Knox, the journey to the Ironman Triathlon started with a simple and easy walk around the Gwinnett Soccer Association fields. That walked was the small spark that changed his life.
He was attending his son Danny’s soccer practice one day and instead of sitting and watching, he decided to take a walk around the field. At the next practice, the then 275-pound self-proclaimed couch potato, but also a swimmer in high school, walked twice around the field. At the next practice he jogged and “couldn’t move for two weeks.”
Soon he had gained the confidence to run his first race, the Publix 10K. That led him to the Team in Training Program, a program that trains non-athletes for competitive races while raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Not only was he helping the community by raising money for a great organization, he was also doing great things for himself. His healthier choices and more active lifestyle where helping him lose weight and get off blood-pressure medication.
While Knox was running in competitive races, a friend was competing in triathlons. The friend had already done a few Ironman Triathlons and was a source of inspiration for Knox. One day as he sat on Vero Beach, Fla., with his family, Knox decided that he also wanted to compete in the Ironman. He called his friend and the wheels started rolling. Just a few short months later he was training for his first Ironman competition in Louisville, Ky.
Training for such an intense endurance race is no easy task. As a husband and father he sometimes had to get creative to find time to train, but as he puts it “there is always a potential workout.” Rather than driving to the pool to swim, he would ride his bike, swim his laps, and then ride back.
His son’s soccer tournaments were also great opportunities to train. Soccer tournaments can be far from home and last all day, leaving a parent with a lot of extra time on their hands. Instead of driving to the tournament and sitting through the games, Knox rode his bike — sometimes as far as Gainesville — and ran around the fields between games. While most Tour de France viewers watched the event from their couches, he watched from his stationary training bike.
“There are so many times we are not doing anything” he said as he was explaining how he finds time for so much training. Knox’s training sessions slowly built up from 40- to 50-mile bike rides to 100-mile rides, and that does not include all the swimming and running.
“Did it take away from family time, you hate to admit it, but yes, you have to find balance. I never missed a single soccer game or event … unless it was on race day.”
Training can be virtually impossible if you don’t fuel your body correctly. Healthier eating habits were a huge part of his success. Knox explained that as you train, you have to deal with “perpetual hunger; you feel like a teenager again.” His food choices changed gradually — more wild fish and grass-fed chicken and beef. His breakfast went from Special K cereal to homemade granola, which he now packages and sells at the Lilburn Farmer’s Market.
He still indulges in his daily cup of coffee, but the small changes in his eating habits provide the fuel necessary for such intense training.
Knox says his wife — a personal trainer who is "my biggest coach" — has been instrumental in his development, both in training and nutrition.
As intense as the year of training is, nothing can truly prepare you for a day-long race. Pointing to his head, Knox says “it’s all up here,” explaining that if you’re not ready mentally, you won’t finish the race. “You have to know that you want to finish.”
The race is an intense physical challenge. Fighting through the physical pain is hard enough, but Knox described how much more difficult it is as you hear constant sound of ambulance sirens and see people all around you falling to the ground overcome by the fatigue. Keeping his mind in the game was crucial to reaching his goal which was to “have fun and finish strong”.
Having fun was difficult during his first Ironman. With a high temperature of 96 and high humidity, the conditions in Louisville were almost as tough as the race itself. “You’re in control of your race, but you’re not in control over the weather and the mechanics of your bike.” Seventy-five miles into his first Ironman a spoke on his bike busted, leaving him with 42 miles to worry and “wait for his tire to explode.” Luckily his bike “limped across the finish line” as he was able to finish the race, but the experience left him wanting more. “I wanted to have fun,” so he signed up for another race.
Knox has completed three Ironmans. He continues to run in many races, including ultra-marathons, and he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. He explains his desire to complete an Ironman race the year his first grandchild is born, when his newlywed daughter gets pregnant, so that his grandchild can say that his (or her) grandfather completed an Ironman race the year they were born. Maybe one day he will be among the elite few who are eligible to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
Knox now has a badge of honor on his arm, a tattoo of the Ironman logo. He displays the tattoo proudly and referring to it as a “permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”
“But I’m not the real story,” Knox said as he went on to tell many fascinating stories of incredible athletes. There was the story about a man who was undergoing radiation treatment for his cancer and trained for a race by walking 84 laps around the hospital floor to complete 1 mile. He also told of a woman who competed in races after losing a lung and a leg. One of his favorite race experiences was running alongside a 74-year-old man who he called his hero.