Mike on bike at 2011 Ironman Canada

Racing Memories

Having raced more times than I can count since I did my very first multi-sport race back in 1993 (The Thousand Islands Duathlon in Gananoque, Ontario) I can honestly say that I really don’t remember the finish lines of any of my races that vividly. I don’t even remember crossing the finish line in Kona that well. What I can remember is the travel to and from, the before and after race antics and most of all the people that were with me on those journeys.

I have been extremely lucky over my years in that I was able to travel and race in many different locations around the world; Japan, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, The Virgin Islands, all across the United States. The list goes on and on. Some places hold much fonder memories than others, but they all have a story and usually the race is only a small part of it. Since racing is on the back burner at the moment, it has given me some time to reflect on the past and all of the racing experiences that I have had in almost 30 years. I thought I would share a few of my favourites.

One of my earliest training partners was Dr. Carl Weber, my Chriopractor in Kingston, Ontario. We started the sport around the same time in the early 90’s and we were complete “Tri Geeks”. We lived and breathed triathlon and in those early days it was Carl that really encouraged me to try and see how far I could go in the sport. One of my biggest highlights of racing in those days was the Thousand Islands Triathlon and racing Carl (yes, I graduated to doing the swim as well after the duathlon the year before). There is something about going head to head with your training partner in an actual event that can make that race special. Carl beat me in a sprint finish that day, but because of the battle we had after so many days of training together it remains one of the races I can actually remember well.

Traveling to Memphis in May was a very memorable experience. Memphis in May was a big PRO race back in the day. Myself and two of my early training partners in Kingston, Jamie Cleveland and Julie Curwin hopped in Jamie’s pick up truck and made the trip all the way to Memphis from Kingston, Ontario in what one could call an epic journey. I don’t remember much about the drive other than it was long and I don’t remember much about the race other than it was VERY hot and humid and the field was unbelievable. At that time the Memphis in May Triathlon (an Olympic Distance Event) had spots for Kona so you can imagine that there was some big names there. What I do remember very well is that the party after the race was something else. They backed a Budweiser tanker truck up next to the finish line area and it had taps on the side of it so you could just pour beer out of the truck. The local Lions Club or some organization like that was in charge of handing out beers and checking I.D. etc. This only lasted for a couple of hours before the beer checkers were passed out or sitting in the shade and then it was an absolute free for all. Kids getting refills for parents, athletes filling water bottles with Budweiser. All the while an Elvis impersonation contest was happening in the park at the same time. Again, I have no idea how I did in that race.

Escape from Alcatraz is a bucket list race for sure and I am really glad I had the chance to do it once. Traveling there with Michael Brewer and some of the Human Powered Racing crew from Columbus, Ohio was special in itself. Traveling with the Columbus group always produced some great memories. To this day I remember having one of the best coffee’s of my life in a little Italian pastry shop somewhere in downtown San Francisco on this particular trip. I couldn’t tell you where or what the name of the shop was, but I will never forget how good that coffee was. Again, these are the little things you remember.

The special part of this trip and this race was not only meeting Robin Williams, but passing him on the bike IN the race. Robin was part of a celebrity relay team that started with us pros and he had some Olympic swimmer doing that portion of the race so needless to say he was onto the bike before me. Seeing him in the race and actually looking over and thinking “that is Robin Williams” as I passed by was pretty cool. Once again, this had nothing to do with my actual race or the outcome, but it is one of those moments etched in my mind. I do highly recommend doing this race if you ever do get the chance though. The course is absolutely incredible.

The Gulf Coast Half Iron was a special trip every May for the team from Columbus Ohio because it is the race that they focused on all winter. Winters in Columbus, Ohio can be real winter so the thought of escape to Panama City Beach, Florida in May was always a great motivator through the cold and dark days. My journey to this race in May always involved flying to Columbus from Victoria and then doing the 15 hour overnight drive in a convoy of vans with upwards of 20 athletes. You would think that this long in a vehicle a couple of days before a race would not be the ideal race prep, but that wasn’t the case for me. I managed to win the race 5 years in a row and I put it down to the energy and support I got from that crew in the lead up to and specifically on race day.

The Gulf Coast Half bike course was a pancake flat out and back. The energy I would get from team mates passing the other way during the race was definitely an unfair advantage for me. I would ride at a higher level from the lift that I was getting from all of the athlete wearing HPR kit and coming towards me. The wins were great, the prize money was great, but what was truly great about that race was the awards ceremony after. Although triathlon is an individual sport, being a part of a triathlon team and celebrating a win with them is something special and it is something I still cherish about what we have here in Victoria with Human Powered Racing.

COVID 19 has changed the way we have had to live our lives for the past month. What I have come to realize is that it isn’t really the racing that I am going to miss this summer as much as it is the memories that come from the whole race experience. And while things will get back to normal eventually, I hope one thing that becomes evident to everyone as it has to me over this time; memories are what we create each and every day. Make them good ones.

Mike Neill running at Ironman Canada 2011