Finding a New Course of Action

Mike Stacks, 52, Birchwood, Tennessee

When Mike Stacks crossed the finish line with the top overall time for the triathlon-by more than two minutes-at the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana, it caused a double-take among many longtime competitors.

Who was that guy? How was he able to eat up those hills and leave everyone behind in the cycling stage?

In fact, at 52, Mike had just become of age to qualify for Senior Games, and it’s logical that younger athletes would log the best times. The remarkable part for the other athletes was that he had only started competing with 5K road races less than six years before his triumph in Birmingham. But, as we found out during the following conversation with Mike, his performance was most remarkable for the way he has turned his life around after sinking into a deepening rut for over two decades.

Not long ago, Mike would have never dreamed of such an accomplishment. In fact, his health and fitness was a tangled mess. He had been smoking and using smokeless tobacco since his teens, and had settled into a sedentary life after starting a family and focusing on his career as an electrician. After he turned 40, the pounds really started to add up, and a regular drinking habit had gotten out of control. He knew that he had to do something about the road he was taking, and that he needed a new course of action.

After continued pleading from his daughter to do something about his drinking, and with the patient support of his wife, Mike finally checked into a 30-day alcoholic rehabilitation program offered by his employer. He started working out to fight boredom, and then on a field trip to a nature area he asked God to help him get back on track. These actions provided all the motivation he needed to take control of his life.

Mike had some high school running experience, and had played football while in the Marines with teams on the bases where he served, but his first thought to stay fit was to simply grab a backpack and seek the solitude of the woods on a regular basis. Then, a friend loaned him a mountain bike, and he started that activity too. Next, his company organized a 5K running team for a charity event, so Mike gave it a shot. When he came in at a respectable time with little race experience, he started to see a pathway. With better finishes in subsequent races, he decided to take on a triathlon to see how he would do. The rest, as we say, is history. In less than five years since deciding to try racing, he was standing on the podium at the National Senior Games receiving a gold medal in one of the toughest sports he could have chosen.

There’s a lot more to Mike’s story, as you will hear in his own words below. Watch Mike cross the finish line in this video recap of the triathlon at The Games, which will set the tone for you to truly appreciate how far he has come.

No one is more surprised than Mike is about the turn of events, and he counts his blessings every day for fighting out of the hole he had made for himself. He wants to be an inspiration by example, and hopes that his story will help others realize that they can overcome similar challenges and achieve an active, healthy balance that can last a lifetime. Mike Stacks has discovered the keys to a Personal Best life.

Mike, you seem to have come out of nowhere to finish first overall in the National Senior Games triathlon. How long have you been competing?

I’m going on six years, and this was my first triathlon at Nationals. So far, besides 5Ks, I’ve done one full 140.6 mile Ironman, five 70.3 Ironman races and several Olympic and sprint distance races. I’m one of the babies. It’s inspiring to see the 70- and 80-year-olds doing this. It just makes me want to stay with it.

The triathlon is one of the most physically demanding sports. Why did you take it on?

I think about that a lot, and part if it is that I get bored quick. With this, you have three different things to train for-swim, bike, run. I’m outside and there’s always something new going on, so I don’t get bored.

Sounds like you are an undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder kid.

Oh, yeah. I’m ate up with it! [Laugh]

Are you a native of the South?

Actually, I was born in Rhode Island. My father was in the Navy, and I was adopted. We moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was five, and then went to Decatur, Alabama four years later when he retired. That’s where my mother was from, and I pretty much grew up there.

Well, that explains how a guy born in Rhode Island gets that nice Southern drawl.

Yeah, and my wife is from Tennessee, too. We met while I was in the Marines in North Carolina, and we got married three months after I got out.

Do you have a sports background that prepared you for this?

I loved to run and jump as far back as I can remember. I had a 10-speed bike, and I thought I knew how to swim. At least I knew how not to drown. [Laugh] I ran cross country in high school, but I really wasn’t that great as an athlete. And even though I ran, I also smoked and used smokeless tobacco.

I went into the Marine Corps ten days after I graduated from high school, and was in for four years. Each base had a football team, so I played tackle football while I was stationed in North Carolina and Okinawa, Japan. I was in good shape and worked out, even though I still smoked and drank some – probably more than I should have. But I enjoyed my time in the service, it gave me structure.

But I stopped all my physical activity when I got out of the Marines in 1987. I got a job, got married, and started a family. We adopted two boys and had one of our own. They stayed active playing baseball, football and soccer. They came first. I reckon I lived my athletic life through them. I got away from being active and started doing nothing and gaining weight. My idea of exercise was push mowing the yard.

So, I was just working most of the time, then coming home and drinking every night. I still smoked and dipped tobacco, and the weight started coming on. It went on and on like that until 2007. Just work, smoke, dip and drink. And gain weight. [Pause] 20 years of doing nothing. 

What turned you around?

This is the part I enjoy talking about. In 2007, I was into heavy drinking. Fact of the matter, I was an alcoholic. I had gotten up to 230 pounds and didn’t feel good about it. My daughter was in the third grade at the time, and she kept saying, “Daddy, you have to quit drinking.” I wasn’t a mean drunk or anything, I just drank and fell asleep. But the reminders finally hit me that I had to do something about it.

I found out about a wonderful drug and alcohol rehab program offered by Norfolk Southern, my employer. I filled out the paperwork and entered rehab the next day. I was there for 30 days and got sober. I’ve stayed that way for over ten years now.

While I was in the program, I had time on my hands so I started to work out in the little gym they had set up in there.  I did some weight lifting and treadmill to pass time. I was so out of shape I couldn’t run, but I walked some.  I rode the exercise bike a little bit, too.  But I got up to doing gym two-a-days and the weight started coming off.

Also, they took us out to Cade’s Cove every weekend for an outing. It’s a beautiful valley in Tennessee that was donated to the public to keep it natural. There are a lot of old structures there, and on the second trip I went out to the sawmill. There was a path going down to the creek with a little bench at the end. I sat down there, and then asked God to turn my life around. And boy, did He! The Lord has blessed me. I give Him all the glory.

So your daughter and spirituality set you on a straight course. How did you then set a course to competitive sports?

When I got out of rehab, I had lost 30 pounds. I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. But what am I gonna do now?’ I needed a hobby, and I had really enjoyed spending time in the woods on those trips to Cade’s Cove. So I started backpacking in the wilderness, and it sorta became my life for the next four years. I put a lot of miles down hiking, and that kept the weight off. I had smoked and used smokeless tobacco for years. I put all that down and started exercising and eating right. I’ve lost a total of 55 pounds now.

In 2011, this guy gave me an old Huffy mountain bike. I thought that was pretty cool activity, so I got my own bike. After doing that awhile, I decided to run a bit, and I enjoyed that too. Then, at work they advertised that the company would donate $1,000 to charity if we got together a team to do this 5K. My first thought was ‘I am not a good runner. There’s no way I can do a 5K.’ But I decided to join in and give it a shot.

The race was in March of 2012, and I started running in January to get ready. All I could do was a half a mile, then I’d have to walk half a mile. But I was able to do the race by March. There were 500 people there, and I ended in 210th place overall, and 12th in my age group. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ That’s when it hooked me.

I went online and found out where the next race was. I placed a little better in that one, and then I did even better with the next one. I started thinking something was happening here, and I’m getting closer and closer to the podium.  That’s when I started taking an interest in triathlon.

But you said you weren’t much of a swimmer. That’s quite a challenge.

Well, it was a challenge. And it’s still a challenge. [Laugh] Our gym had a 25-yard pool, so I got in and tried it. That first time was like ‘Oh no, I can’t do this!’ I was struggling to breathe and really thought I was drowning. Everything was all wrong.  So, I got on YouTube and found some swimming videos. That’s how I learned to swim. [Laugh] 

I’ve done some clinics since then, and I can do it now, but I’m a middle-of-the-pack swimmer. It’s all technique, and I need more coaching on how to be more efficient. But yeah, swimming was a huge struggle when I got started.

Well, the beauty of triathlon is there are three disciplines. If you are good at one or two, it can cover up the sins of the other.

Ab-so-lutely. That happens all the time, people having a weak discipline and a strong discipline. The one I hear people saying they struggle with most is the swim. Now, the upper echelon triathletes don’t seem to have that problem.

My first triathlon was the Run For God sprint race in July, 2012, right down the road in Dalton Georgia. I think I finished in an hour and five minutes and came in 12th place overall.

Not bad for your first one!

Oh, yeah, I loved it. And I had four or five couples come from my church to cheer for me, which really meant a lot. That’s one race I’ll do every year.

My second race, I came in first in my age group. In 2013, I did six tris, and in 2014 I added a full Ironman competition. I guess I’ve done 50 races so far. This past year, I made the podium in all but one race.

You are hitting your stride. And you came in first overall at the National Senior Games in Birmingham. That was a challenging course. Why do you think you did so well there?

Well, my strength is bicycling on hills. I live near Chattanooga. It’s mostly rolling hills, and I train up and down on them every day. The terrain of this course was just like at home, so the race set up pretty good for me. The run was fairly flat, which was a bonus. And the swim, well, that’s always going to be a struggle anywhere. [Laugh]

Take us through your race experience.

When I came out of the water, I figured there had to be five or six people ahead of me. I’m used to being in the middle of the pack, but when I got through the transition to the bike, I didn’t see anyone ahead of me. When I got onto the rolling hills I could see one bike ahead of me, and there was also a guy on a motorcycle, who I figured was a referee making sure nobody was drafting on another and stuff like that. I caught the bike at the turnaround – he’s a super nice guy from New York state, tremendous swimmer- and then I came around a curve and there was that motorcycle again. That’s when it hit me that I was the lead guy. That got me real excited and set up the rest of my game. I got it into my head to try to go catch that cycle. I knew that would happen if I ever got the lead! [Laugh]

Anyway, I gave it all on the biking, which was good because there was a 60-year-old guy who had the fastest run. I was very happy, especially because my wife was there at the finish line. It was pretty cool. You know, the only thing that would have made it better would be if y’all had put a tape across the finish line so I could break through it. [Laugh]

We’ll work on that! Was there anything else special about the National Senior Games?

What really caught me was that there were so many happy people there. When you go to most races, you see almost everyone going around with their competition faces on. These older people are also competitive, but really seem to enjoy life. They don’t quit, and they support each other. That’s what it’s all about right there.

You know, the 87-year-old man who came in last got as big an ovation as you got for coming in first.

I saw that. The majority of the folks there hung around and went to the finish line to cheer him in. That really says something about these games. You know, I looked up that guy, Frank Farrar. He’s been doing this for many years, and he used to be the governor of South Dakota! I had to get a picture taken with him.

So, the older athletes motivate you?

Oh yeah, they inspire me. They’re so full of spirit, and everybody just looks good. I see them and think, ‘I want to be doing what I’m doing now when I’m their age.’ I know how bad I used to feel. I know what I used to look like, and how much hard work it took to get to where I am now. I don’t want to lose that. I want to keep going. Now I know it’s possible.

Are you an inspiration to others at home?

A lot of people know what I am doing, and some do come up to me for advice. But I don’t go out and impose myself on anybody. I just try to live the life and will help others by example to learn what I’ve learned. You know, like a mentor. I’ve even had bodybuilders ask me about cardio work. It feels good to help others.

I thank God every day for hearing my prayer for help when I was sitting on that bench and getting sober. I thank Him every day for keeping me healthy. And I’m praying that I’ve got a long road ahead. My long-term goal is to make it to be 100 years old, and if I can still do a triathlon, that would just be a bonus! [Laugh]

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