To help Michael King reach his fundraising goal for The Leukemia & Lymphona Society, visit www.KingToKona.com.
Michael King isn’t sure what’s next for him, but he knows he’s taking a break.
Three weeks ago, the 49-year-old Buford man completed the most difficult triathlon in the world, the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“They say, ‘What’s next?’ And I don’t know. I did the race of the sport. There isn’t a better race. I don’t know if I can do another one,” King said. “I don’t know what’s next. Right now, it’s like, ‘Let’s talk next year.’”
King had never considered competing in the world famous Ironman competition in Hawaii. He had competed in triathlons — which includes swimming, biking and running — but he remained close to home in Georgia.
But following his fourth Ironman race in Chattanooga, Amy Moore called him with the offer of a lifetime. She asked King if he wanted him to participate in the world championship triathlon on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“I was like, ‘Well, of course I would,” he said. “‘Would I like the dream of a lifetime to happen? Sure, why not?’”
Moore is the Southeast Region operations manager with Team in Training, a program that trains athletes and raises money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She and King worked very closely when he coached the IronTeam that went to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2013.
“Years ago, I remember a conversation with Michael (King), saying it was his lifelong dream to run in the Ironman in Kona,” Moore said. “I kept that random nugget of information in the back of my mind. So when we were thinking about volunteers to consider submitting, Michael was the first person I thought of.”
Because of Team in Training’s partnership with Ironman, the competition reserves spots for TNT volunteers. Other athletes can gain entry through a lottery drawing, winning other Ironman races or other charity organizations, Moore said.
“You can’t sign up on your own,” she said.
King was eligible because of his experience with TNT.
“Each chapter has the ability to nominate somebody,” King said. “So I was nominated for the Georgia chapter.”
“Every penny we raised went directly to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society,” said King, who has been a member of the Georgia chapter of TNT for nine years as a coach and an athlete.
In exchange, he receives benefits such as entry into a triathlon, a race jersey and pre-event inspirational dinner and half of the hotel room cost, according to the TNT website, www.teamintraining.org.
COMPETING FOR HIS FAMILY
King races in triathlons and raises money for LLS for two reasons: his late father, Fred, and his sister-in-law, Susan. Both had Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a rare type of cancer.
King’s dad died from the disease on Sept. 3, 1990, after only nine months of treatment.
“When he was diagnosed, there weren’t really many options for him,” King said, noting this year marked 25 years since his father’s death.
But Susan is a survivor, thanks to a new drug introduced in 2001 and the research dollars raised by LLS.
“She’s one of the original patients on Gleevec,” King said. “Nobody has been on it 14 years. It’s only been around for 14 years. So no one knows what tomorrow is going to bring for her.”
So far, her treatment has been successful.
“I call her Mighty Mouse,” King said. “She’s tiny but she’s strong as can be. She’s such a fighter. She’s such an inspiration to me.”
Susan said King has been supportive of her and her battle since her diagnosis. And he has raised a lot of money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“He is paying (LLS) back for them saving my life,” the 54-year-old South Windsor, Conn., woman said.
His sister-in-law and his father’s experiences with cancer inspired King to keep going when he wanted to take a day off from training or fundraising for Ironman.
“I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, so the last thing I wanted to do was to go in unprepared,” King said. “I was probably the most prepared I have ever been for a race.
“(And) every time I race, (Susan and my dad) are who I think about when I race,” King said. “That’s why my wife and I have done it for nine years.”
But before he could race in the Ironman, the 49-year-old had to get accepted.
APPLYING FOR THE IRONMAN
King applied online, and only three slots were available for athletes with Team in Training. But he liked his chances.
“We said, ‘It’s probably not going to happen.’ There are other people out there with great stories,” King said. “Maybe we’re not going to be picked.”
Luckily, he made it to a list of 12 finalists from all corners of the nation.
“I train with hundreds of triathletes and most of them have the dream of being able to go to Kona,” he said. “And unfortunately some won’t be able to realize that dream, because it’s very difficult to get in.”
His next step to competing in Kona, Hawaii, was a phone interview. Afterward, King felt even more confident about his chances.
“Honestly, I don’t think it could have gone any better,” King said. “(I thought) ‘if I don’t get a slot, it’s not because things didn’t go well; it’s because somebody else is more deserving.’”
But he was. King received the good news from Moore.
“She said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said, ‘Should I be sitting down?’” King said, recalling the phone conversation in December 2014. “She said, ‘You’ve been selected. You’re going to Kona.’”
When his wife arrived home, King told her they were going to Hawaii.
“She looks at me and she goes, ‘Holy crap.’ Like, that’s great,” he said. “And then she said, ‘Holy crap,’ like we have all this training to do, all this fundraising to do.’”
RAISING FUNDS AND TRAINING FOR THE RACE
As soon as his entry was confirmed in December, King started training and fundraising. He also told his family the news at its annual “Christmas Misfits” party in Connecticut.
“My brother immediately writes a check to donate in honor of our dad,” King said. “Everybody was pretty excited.”
Next, King posted his acceptance into the elite triathlon on Facebook. His friends and Facebook followers rallied around him and donated money.
“People really had some wonderful things to say,” King said. “It was very nice to hear how my teammates, my friends, my family were so supportive.”
But they were not the only ones.
Fellow Ironman participants Derek Fitzgerald of Pennsylvania, Khem Suthiwan of Colorado and Jon Bonnell and John Black, both of Texas, created a private Facebook page to discuss their training and fundraising progress.
“We got to know each other, and by the time we got to Hawaii, it was like we were lifelong friends,” King said. “It was really nice to have that bond before we even arrived.”
He also reconnected with old teammates who donated to his cause.
King raised almost $38,500 by October. But his ultimate target is $50,000.
Before heading to Hawaii, King estimated he spent about 20 hours a week training and 10 hours fundraising. On top of that, he worked full time as the director of engineering and operations at Fox 5 Atlanta.
“I really only had time to eat, sleep, work, train and fundraise,” King said. “Thank God my wife, Nanci, kept things running around the house. (She) did all the work, taking care of the animals, cooking and shopping and keeping the house clean, among a ton of other things including helping with the fundraising.”
For a year, King trained. He ran in the summer heat of Georgia and added weights to his workouts to strengthen his muscles. He also swam once or twice a week for about an hour and a half. On Sundays, King ran for 2 or 3 hours. Saturdays were reserved for bike rides with his friend, Freddie Betanzos.
King’s adviser, Andrew Johnston (a Leukemia survivor), developed a strength training and stretching plan for him. He also told King to complete at least 10 century rides. King did 14.
“I picked the number 14 because that’s the number of years my sister-in-law has been on Gleevec and has been a leukemia survivor,” King said. “I said, ‘She’s been on this drug 14 years, I will do 14 centuries.”
A century ride is a 100-mile bike ride, which he would usually do with Betanzos or members of Atlanta’s Triathlon Club.
His training also called for a specialized diet of 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day along with ingesting only gluten-free foods.
“Every two or three hours I (was) eating something,” King said.
His diet mostly consisted of meats, fruits, vegetables and the good kind of carbs. King even kept a fridge in his office to store food.
“I would have a bag of sweet potatoes in my office,” King said. “I’d nuke the sweet potato and eat it.”
SWIMMING, BIKING AND RUNNING IN HAWAII
Once his training was complete, it was time to head to Hawaii.
“I don’t think it could mean any more than it did, because I was there for the charity,” King said. “It was a lot of emotions leading up to the race, but there’s also a ton of excitement. I couldn’t wait for the race to get there.”
On race day, King checked his bike in next to the professionals and took a few photos with them.
“I was just ready to explode,” King said. “I was all prepared and ready to go. I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Then King waded into the water with the others for the 2.4-mile swim, which was the first leg of the triathlon. Then a cannon shot rang out, and the race began.
“It’s like a contact sport out there,” King said. “You’re getting kicked and punched.”
King explained with so many athletes swimming to the finish line, the water was churning. But when he finished, he quickly suited up for the biking portion, which is a 112-mile ride through billowing crosswinds and extreme mountain climbs.
“As soon as you get out of the water, you put your bike shoes on and off you go,” King said. “The wind that was blowing was like a giant hair dryer. It was just hot.”
As he neared the end of his bike ride, rain began to pour.
“At the start of the climb, clouds came in and it started pouring,” King said. “Winds and rain and the roads get slick. I didn’t mind it. To me, I was cooling off.”
Finally, he dismounted his bicycle and slipped on his running shoes to endure the 26.2-mile marathon. The added ailment was the bottoms of his feet were blistered from the swim. But King survived.
“I could’ve pushed myself harder, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to push myself too hard and then not finish,” King said.
The Buford man received a welcomed reception when he crossed the finish line.
“The streets are packed with people cheering,” King said. “Your name is on your bib, so they know your name and they call out your name.”
King stretched out his arms and high-fived everyone he passed.
“When you cross the finish line, (Mike Reilly) says your name and says, ‘You are an Ironman.’... It’s hard to describe, it really is,” he said. “You just can’t describe all the parts that are important about it,” he said.
But now he can describe his plans for the next year.
“I’m taking the year off of triathlons,” King said, noting he will spend his free time with his wife. “There wasn’t a moment she ever complained about my training.”
He also plans to complete his to-do list, which started growing when he started training 10 months ago.
“It takes a lot of sacrifices, but I enjoyed every minute I had preparing for the World Championship,” he said.