Why you will want to read this interview:
You just completed your first Ironman and are wondering if there’s a challenge even more difficult.
You just turned 50 and are looking for a massive challenge to celebrate your next half century.
Because… you enjoy reading about people who really like to suffer.
Along with a few thousand other athletes, I recently completed the hardest bike ride I had personally attempted: Colorado’s famous Triple Bypass. It was a challenging, exhausting, and exhilarating event. With thousands of participants, I was rarely alone on the road. There was always someone I could encourage, and I gladly accepted the same from my smiling but equally wrung out cycling colleagues.
To prepare for the Bypass, about four weeks prior to the event, I stepped up my training from my seasonal average of 130-150 weekly miles to 220-ish weekly miles. I was training 12+ hours each week to get ready to ride 106 miles with 10,600 ft of climbing.
12 hours of weekly training for a bike ride. A supported bike ride. With hundreds of people peppered along the miles of roads and bike paths, holding up encouraging signs and cheering you on. This ride is difficult, but with preparation and persistence, most athletes who sign up for this event will finish.
Enter the Swissman
The Swissman is IronMan distance, but not associated with or part of the IronMan series. The Swissman is part of an extreme series of triathlons called the XTRI World Tour. Instead of increasing the distance of the run, bike or swim, they have exponentially ramped up the difficulty. Each location is set in beautiful but harsh terrain (Sweden, Canada, Nepal and others) with all events leading up to the XTRI World Championship: The Norseman. You can only enter through a lottery system and there are only 250 lottery winners annually. Those lucky athletes are awarded the bucket list challenge of their lifetime: a 2.4 swim through a freezing fjord, a 112 mile bike ride with 12,400 feet of elevation gain and full marathon distance run with 6500 feet of elevation gain – ending with a hobbling mountain top finish – that requires a support team member to join you by foot for the last 6 miles.
Take a few minutes to watch the 2022 highlights. You will be awed by the beauty of the Swiss Alps, and the challenge faced by these athletes. Maybe you see yourself on this course eventually?
Did I mention the event is self-supported and you are required to bring your own support team? Did I mention there is no monetary award? This is about the experience, and about pride. These events are akin to the reason to climb Everest: “because it is there”. There is one male winner and one female winner. The rest of the athletes are categorized either as finishers or not. In 2022, 239 athletes started the Swissman, 179 finished.
This is my interview with Mike Anderson. A 55-year-old athlete and coach from Massachusetts, who’s name is sadly not included in the list of finishers. Not this year. More importantly, this is my interview with a 55-year-old father of two adult children who trained an average of 10-12 hours each week for one of the most difficult triathlons on the planet – and he still finished 94% of the event before missing the final time check.
On average, Mike dedicated the same number of hours for this XTRI event that I did for the Triple Bypass – which was only one third of the Swissman. And he almost finished. I wanted to know how that was possible. How was he able to compete at that level, at 55 years of age, with only 12 hours of training each week.
And of course, I would have to ask: all things being equal, if you were only 35 years old during this event, would you have finished? Was Age a Barrier that prevented Mike from being among the list of finishers?
But first – let me introduce you to the numbers behind the man…
50+ years in 50 seconds
When you close your eyes, how old are you? “Younger than 40”
Basic Biometrics: (ONLY what you’re comfortable sharing) “5’9″; 185lbs; RHR = 40’s; BP = 110/60
Occupation when not participating in your sport: Fitness guy; personal trainer; stretch therapist; fitness club manager”
Sports/activities in order of time and preference: “cycling; running; lifting; swimming”
Exactly how much do you love coffee? “too much, as in 6+ cup/day too much
Did you play sports when younger? “Not until I was in 8th grade when a friend talked me into wrestling. In high school I played football and wrestled and toyed around with track & field for a season”.
“Have to” or “Want to”? “Have to stay active; Want to push limits even more as I age. Have to and want to inspire my family to stay active, especially my kids”
Past injuries, fully recovered: “Left shoulder surgery (tear, cyst, reattached biceps tendon); right and left knee scopes.
Past injuries that effect today: “newly diagnosed arthritis in left hip that currently make it impossible to run”.
Age when I stopped recovering quickly from injuries: “50”
Chronic issues you need to manage: “hip arthritis”
Supplements I currently use: “glucosamine”
Dietary choices or restrictions: “dairy, gluten and sugar have all been reduced; mostly follow the Mediterranean diet”
Average hours of sleep: “7-ish”
Do you track your quality of sleep? “I used to with a whoop strap but I found it was more stressful knowing”.
Greatest achievement of being a 50+ athlete: “continuing to compete in long distance triathlons and other endurance races, and looking forward to many more”
Specific to Swissman
Let me set the stage for Mike’s race day: 250 entries have been awarded, 239 athletes have made it to the start, which takes place on the Brissago-Islands. The swimmers are launched in full wet suit off the deck of a ferry, in the dark at 5am. Their only navigation is a blinking light 2.4 miles in the distance.
Once he completes the swim, Mike moves to the bike – his strongest of the three sports. Normally, Mike can complete the bike leg of an Ironman in approximately 6 hours, but this is the Swissman and he’ll be riding in the Alps, so he plans for 8 hours. Maybe the altitude, maybe the bike’s gearing, but it takes Mike almost 10 hours to complete all 112 miles. The cutoff was 6pm, he finishes at 5:30pm.
He is behind schedule and has only 4 hours to complete the last 20 miles of the run. Dave, his buddy and last member of his support team will run with him for 6 miles, then Sam and Jack will bike beside their Dad for the remainder of the 18 miles covered. Pace setting, encouraging – especially on the final stretch – while commenting on the incredible beauty of the Swiss Alps that Dad was probably too focused to enjoy at the moment. Any conversation will help drown out the heart’s rhythmic pounding in his ears. Mike passes the first cutoff at mile 8, and just passes the next cutoff at mile 15.5 – by only 30 seconds. To make the next cutoff, Mike would have to cover the next 4 kilometers in 20 minutes. And this is not a flat road, these are mountain miles. He arrived at the cutoff 15 minutes too late. With 94% of the full Swissman completed, Mike’s day was over.
The founders of the XTRI series claim these xtreme events provide athletes “a journey like no other”. XTRI events are “about people and their differing cultures, it’s about adventure travel, it’s about discovery and digging deep.” Except for the elite few, most athletes are not judging success by comparing their PR’s on Strava. For this event, their success and pride come directly from the preparation leading up to the event, participating in the event, and if humanly possible – finishing.
My conversation with Swissman competitor Mike Anderson
First question I know you are constantly asked: Why?? What makes you look at the Swissman course and say “of yeah, I have to do this”. ? Mike chuckled at this question. I’m sure he has been asked the “why” question as frequently as a classic rock band has been asked to perform their top hits over and again. -“One close friend did emphatically insist ‘you know something is wrong with you, right’? But, I enjoy the challenge, and cannot think of a better way of showing two 20’s year old sons what the body is capable of, even at this age. This type of event is really about setting and achieving goals. Personal goals.”
How long had the Swissman been on your bucket list? –“I completed my first Ironman in 2006, at the age of 39, and have completed 7 more since. After my 50th, I felt the time was right to step up the challenge, but there was no guarantee I would be accepted the first year I applied. I was in the Swissman lottery for 4 years before I was finally selected”.
Any gut check or apprehension once you were chosen in the lottery and held that golden ticket in your hands? Any initial fear of the enormity of the challenge? –“There was no fear, no apprehension. I was absolutely thrilled”.
As I mentioned in my introduction, we invested a similar amount of training time for our respective events – 10-12 hours each week – but my event was less than 1/3 of what you achieved with the Swissman. First: I am stunned and impressed beyond words. Second: I have to know how you could physically achieve this level of performance with a relatively moderate training load? -“Over the years, I have learned to train with more focus, while being more relaxed. For most events such as an Ironman, I’m very content with training 10-12 hours per week and placing within the top 50% of all athletes. Could I devote more time to training? Of course, but I’m not going to miss my kid’s games and family events.
With the exception of one race (Boulder 70.3 in 2019), I have self-coached for all of my races. If you have a good handle on what is required to finish and are just looking to reach the finish line, this is one option – but not necessarily the best option. Looking back, I should have hired a coach for Swissman. As a fellow triathlon coach friend said, “even coaches need coaches”. I contacted a few but they didn’t have the experience coaching for such an extreme race, so I took it upon myself. I should also mention, the same day I found out I had a spot in the Swissman, I began my 2nd season as head wrestling coach for our town’s high school team. My schedule for December through February was going to be very tight: 5 days/week of practicing followed by tournaments almost every weekend. I believe if I had a good coach, I would have been more accountable for making more efficient use of my training time.”
How do you fuel for an event like this? -“I have learned the hard way over 20+ years of racing (and cramping) that I needed significant fluid intake, almost equally divided between water and an electrolyte drink. Like clockwork, I would consume 1 bottle of water and 1 bottle of Gatorade per hour. Add in a gel every 45 minutes and maybe salt tabs every 30 minutes and that combination seems to keep me going. In total, I try to consume roughly 300 calories / hour.
How did being 55 factor into how you trained? If at all. –“Looking back, I would say that my weight may have played a small role in my DNF at Swissman. Was it a 15-minute role? Maybe. I’m 5’9” on a good day and 185 lbs. Not overweight, but probably a little heavy for what I was about to undertake. I cut some calories, tried to eat clean and normally that would do the trick. Pounds would fall away. Not so true once I turned 50”.
For any event this extreme, how much is physical versus mental? –“80% mental, 20% physical. If your mind is not prepared, then physical preparation will only take you so far”.
As I mentioned, I am jaw-droppingly impressed with the enormity of your effort for this event, but how disappointed are you that your name is not listed among the finishers of the 2022 Swissman? –“Not at all. Who else at 55 would even think about doing this event? The Swissman is about personal accomplishments. It’s not relevant how other people perform”.
In hindsight – what would you have done differently? -“Now, having experienced the race, I would have made changes to my gearing for sure. I was working too hard and going too slow to match the effort. I would have cut 15lbs off my weight. I would have spent more time on an indoor trainer working big watts for longer periods of time. I would have been sure to hire a coach. All that being said, I would not have changed this experience of a lifetime that I was able to share with my sons and my best friend.
The question that everyone will be asking you – will you attempt the Swissman one more time? And if yes, how will your age factor into that decision? “I believe I will go back one of these days and finish. Hopefully before I turn 60! The only way my age will factor into that decision is whether or not I can find a team to sherpa me through the Swiss Alps for 140.6 miles”.
Putting on your coaching hat, what would you tell any new clients – over 50 of course – who approach you with the goal of participating in any of the XTRI events? -“Do it! If you’re healthy enough and actually WANT to do an extreme triathlon, then go ahead and sign up, pay your money, tell everyone you know that you’re doing it, and hire a good coach to get you ready. Even after a 16.5 hour DNF, I would not trade that experience for anything.”
Mike – thank you for sharing this journey with all of us! Personally, I am betting you and your support team will be trekking back to the Alps to write your name in the book of Swissman finishers. And, if the lottery takes another 4 years, maybe a great way to celebrate your 60th?
Questions for Mike, or any member of his support team? Volunteer to be a sherpa for his next Swissman?
Include any questions in the comment section below and I’ll forward his reply.