The first time I got to know Mike Savage we were together riding on a long climb near Phoenix, Arizona during a weeklong Experience Triathlon spring training camp. We’d already done a couple rides that week along with a run or two and a bit of swimming. Our bodies were starting to get into gear after the long winter away from serious outdoor training.
We both felt great pedaling up the increasingly steep hill out of the Phoenix valley. The residential streets were smooth, our water bottles and nutrition stocks were full and secretly I was thinking of pulling away for the fun of it. As the climb continued I glanced back to see who was behind us and noticed that we’d left much of the group behind. That’s when I glanced over at Mike and wondered, “How does this big guy do it?” I wasn’t dropping him any time soon.
Recently I asked Mike to talk about his sports background and his pursuits in triathlon. His answers reveal both a love of the sport and a practical ability to apply lessons learned from training to performance in races. He’s a multiple-time finisher in Madison’s Ironman Wisconsin, one of the hilliest multisport courses in the country. Here’s what Mike shared about his journey from a D-1 level football career to competing in triathlons.
- As I understand it, your main sport at one point was football. What positions did you play, and where? At what levels?
While I played football, basketball and track in high school, football was my primary sport. I grew up in a smaller town in Michigan (Bay City) which is about 120 miles north of Detroit. Because there isn’t much population north of Bay City in Michigan, all of our games were against larger schools in the bigger cities of Saginaw, Flint, Pontiac, Lansing and Detroit suburbs. In high school, since our team didn’t have too many players (I think we dressed about 35 each game), I played both ways as a linebacker and offensive guard. Our team was pretty good and I was named as an All-State Football Player at Inside Linebacker in the State of Michigan (1979). All three all-state linebackers played in the same conference which is unusual. All three of us (Carl Banks, Jim Morrissey and I) were all pretty highly recruited. I ended up deciding to play out East – in the Ivy League after being recruited by most Big 10, MAC and Ivy League schools. I chose the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
At that time, the Ivies were still in Division 1-A (now they are in FCS instead of FBS level). I played four years as a linebacker and long snapper. At the time, I was an average size linebacker at 6’1”, 225 lbs, 4.8 40 yd speed. Today, I am barely big enough to play D-I free safety.
- You’ve been a triathlete for several years now, what are some of the most significant challenges you’ve faced?
I think I have had a number of challenges – I work probably 45-55 hours a week as an HR executive for Ulta Beauty, so fitting triathlon training around the job can be a juggling act. As a bigger guy (I’m still around the same weight as college but just in different places), I’m a Clydesdale in triathlon and this sport is generally geared toward smaller, faster, lighter athletes. It’s always good to compete against the little guys or the rail thin runner types because when I finish in front of them, it feels really good. I somewhat kiddingly wrote in an Ironman blog that my combined age and weight is almost 290, which probably is one of the largest age/weight combos in any Ironman distance or Olympic distance race.
- Of the three sports, which is the favorite, and which is the hardest to train for?
My favorite is the bike. I have the leg strength and endurance for the bike and on a level or rolling hill course, I can keep up with the pack. I used to dislike running, but the more I run long distances, the more I am getting into it and enjoying it. Running expert Matt Fitzgerald wrote a book “running slower to get faster” which changed my whole outlook on running. In fact, this year I set a PR of 1:52:00 in the half marathon two weeks after I did Ironman Wisconsin. A month before IMWI, I ran 7:20 PR for the mile. Not bad for a 225 lbs old football player!
Swimming is the hardest to train for as I am not a learned swimmer. I had to take “Swim 101” twice as I had never swum correctly – ever. Thankfully, I have had some really good coaching on the swim so now I’m adequate in that event. It’s all about training smart and consistent.
- What role has coaching played in your athletic and triathlon career?
Coaching has played a huge part of my athletic career and especially in my triathlon career. In football, coaching teaches you preparation and takes okay athletes and gets them able to compete with the best. It’s all about learning and improving. Triathlon is a perfect example of a “you perform how you train” sport. Coaching has helped me build and refine my technique and improve my skill, strength, endurance and patience. Good coaches know when to push you, when to let you dog it and when to let you tell them what you need. I think anyone who is serious about triathlons needs some sort of coaching because if not, you run the risk of getting hurt or not adequately preparing yourself for race day.
- How do you mentally prepare for events these days, versus former lives?
I am big about setting goals and building a plan to get there. I set my race calendar by December for the coming spring/summer season. I find my one or two “A” races and then build a training program along with some “B” event that will help prepare me for those “A” races. I think that the mental preparation is as important as the physical preparation. I also find training partners that have similar race event goals and outlook on training and racing.
I’m a Goldilocks training guy – not too hot, not too cold, but something that is just right in terms of intensity, amount of training and attitude. My training partners have turned into terrific friends and we have an engagement that goes behind just riding a bike or running together or swimming laps at the same time. That also goes for many others I have met on rides or on the roads running. Treat all athletes with respect and kindness regardless of ability or results, and it comes back to you 10x what you give. After all, we are all age groupers so let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I like to have fun during training yet take it seriously enough that you can’t blow off workouts all the time either.
- What are some of your favorite brands of gear and equipment; swim, bike and run?
For swim, I like Zoot Predator goggles and Xterra polarized googles. I always wait for them to go on sale and buy a new pair.
For the bike, I am all about being a bike nerd. I need to find things that help level out my size in terms of keeping up with the lighter, faster, younger guys and gals so I look for things that help. I have had a Specialized Shiv (loved that bike until it got stolen off my porch), a Giant Trinity tri bike and now, I’m getting a new Scott Plasma 6 RC w/ carbon wheels and the gizmos that come with a high-end tri bike.
I’m a data geek so I LOVE my Wahoo Elemnt and stare at the data outputs during and after a ride – always trying to eek out an extra watt or two of normalized power. I also like my Wahoo Kickr for indoor training. I have also found that the DeSoto tri-suits are awesome. Easy fit, affordable on sale, wear well and are great at keeping my cool.
From a run perspective, I have worn New Balance 860’s for years and keep on going to Naperville Running Company for a new pair every 300 miles. They know what runners need and take care of me very well. This all leads up to nutrition – which is all about staying fueled. I am a long-time user of Infinit Custom hydration formula and Maurten gels and 320 and 160 mixes for the bottles. These mixes and gels are not cheap but they ABSOLUTELY work and keep me going!!
- Name some of your favorite race experiences, and why?
Ironman Wisconsin is the best. I’ve now done Ironman Wisconsin twice and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I play back those experiences all the time in my head; both the good and the bad when I’m out on a ride or a run or need a pick me up moment or a reality check. Finishing IMWI is so awesome. The feeling of accomplishment and the months and miles of training are all worth it. My next favorite IM race was IM Maine 70.3 which starts with a cold swim in the Atlantic ocean (water was 57 degrees on race day) and right after you cross the run finish, you are handed a plate of lobsters and corn on the cob!
The funniest race experience I’ve ever had was the Pleasant Prairie Triathlon. I entered in as a Clydesdale in the sprint instead of an age grouper in the Olympic distance and when I finished the swim, I got out of transition on the bike and started riding really fast as I usually try to catch those in front of me from the swim.
However, I go speeding down the road and suddenly two motorcycle police officers, pull alongside me with flashers going and then pull in front of me holding about 24 mph. I am thinking “holy crap, what’s going on here?” as in…what did I do wrong leaving transition? Am I on the wrong course? I eventually realize that because the Clydesdale / Athena and relays athletes were the first group to start the swim, I am actually LEADING the sprint portion of the Pleasant Prairie Triathlon. OMG!! I’m in first place and the motorcycle cops are riding with me because I’m leading the whole pack.
Wow. Wow. Wow. For about 2 miles I’m rolling along and they rode with me. I was tucked in my best-ever Clydesdale old man aero position with a toothy grin going from ear to ear. It must have been evident to the cops that this was new to me because the one cop kept dropping back to ride alongside me, looking over and smiling. Soon enough, the young studs in the 20-24 age group came up blowing past me and the cops led those guys on to the remainder of the bike course. But for 5 minutes, I was the race leader. Best moment ever!!!
- Have you dealt much with injuries, old or new?
So playing D-I college football left me with ankles and knees that can tell you when it’s going to rain but thankfully I’ve been fairly injury free. I attribute that to my coaches who build me up and prepare me for the type of race I’m going to swim/bike/run or just bike or just run. It’s all about the training. But I have had my share of occasional hamstring pulls or piriformis muscle issues. Most recently, I hurt my lumbar spine due to sitting in a dining room chair (thank you COVID pandemic) too long and it put me out of training for almost 4 weeks. The best gift I ever got was the Norma-Tec recovery boots to help me recover my legs. My main advice is to always listen to your body. Get a good group of support people to keep you healthy (I recommend Eric@Patriot Training in Wheaton for stretching, Dr. Amanda @ Doctors of PT in Lisle for PT, Dr. Brady McDaniel @ Elite Recovery in Naperville).
- What races would you like to do in 2021?
COVID permitting, I plan on racing IM 70.3 Blue Ridge (Roanoke VA), then either Lake Zurich or Pleasant Prairie Tri, Horribly Hilly Hundred Bike, Ironman Wisconsin and then the Fox Valley Marathon. A busy year but it will be fun.
But the real race I’m looking forward to is in 2022. For 2022, I will age up into the age 60+ Clydesdale group and I will finally race at the USTA Clydesdale Nationals in Chattanooga TN in June 2022 against people my own size, my own age. Prior to this May 2022 race, if I race Clydesdale division, I’m racing against other big guys who range in age from 18 to 59 or I race as an age grouper against guys who weigh 70 lbs less than I do. Finally, we even up the race field a bit.
- Any advice for other taller, bigger athletes like yourself?
Enjoy it while you can. We are fortunate to be able to compete at a high level against other athletes who are usually smaller, usually faster, certainly lighter than we are but we have advantages too. People don’t mess with us during the swim. Everyone loves to draft off you during a long training ride so you seldom ride alone. Going up hills usually suck but going downhill, inertia is our greatest friend. On the run, remember that a 9:30 / mile pace is the same whether you weigh 160 lbs. or 220 lbs. It’s all about endurance and who has a bigger desire to keep a steady pace. So what if we finish in the middle of the pack? That means we beat the other half of the pack and I’m willing to bet a bunch of donuts that I’m older and heavier than they are. For the half of the pack that finished in front of me, I’m also willing to bet that on a weight adjusted finish, I’m a lot closer to the front than those little guys care to think about. Size matters.
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