From couch to 154.5 miles in 24 hours
Mike Henze trades overeating for ultrarunning glory
Mike Henze, of Neenah, Wisconsin, is by no means the first person to swap a compulsion for eating with an obsession for running.
He just might be the most prolific.
His version of a Couch to 5K program became a Couch to 154.5 miles - the distance he ran in one day as a member of the U.S. team that took the bronze medal in the 24-Hour Run World Championship last month, May 13-14, in Brive, France. Only ultrarunning star Scott Jurek put in a better performance for the U.S., covering an American record 165.7 miles.
Henze's story touches on elements of obsession and addiction by someone who once weighed more than 300 pounds and the constant threat that he could easily balloon back to that weight.
"If, in that cupboard, there's a package of Oreo cookies, every waking hour in the house I know those cookies are there," he said, illustrating his struggle.
For runners, though, it's his training numbers that boggle the mind.
Consider the fact that he ran the last 5K of that 24-hour run in 22 minutes.
And that he logged 612 miles of training in February and 938 in March, a month with 74 training runs.
In his training for the 24-hour world championship, he put six 30-mile runs, six 40-milers and two 50-milers, both on a treadmill in his basement. That's 6.5 hours of running, staring at a white wall, listening to music, contemplating.
After the exhaustive recounting of an off-the-charts training volume, the 40-year-old acknowledged, "It was really hard on my wife and kids. She's supportive and enabling of this kind of behavior."
Mike and Jill Henze met at D.C. Everest High School in the late 1980s, and started dating after they connected at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Both went on to graduate from UW-La Crosse.
They have been married 14 years and have two daughters: Erin, 9, and Kate, 5.
They live in a well-tended subdivision a bit west of U.S. Highway 41, about five minutes from Mike's job as a controller and finance executive for Menasha Packaging.
And yes, Jill does support Mike's habit. She's his crew, the person who stays awake for 24 hours to hand him bottles of Endurox and energy gels, and to tell him he looks good and needs to push it when he's been running almost around-the-clock.
"The reason I'm supportive is I've seen the alternative," Jill said, sitting next to him at the family's kitchen table.
"When he's home and not exercising and just eating and unhealthy, he's not happy either," she said. "Even though he was home more, he would be more of a couch potato and just sit there.
"The time we have with him now is much better quality. He's a happier person, more fit, more involved. He's just in a much better place when he's healthy and doing something that's good for him.
"I'd rather have him running than not."
Henze found that better place in the summer of 2003.
A tennis player in high school and solid athlete, he had struggled with weight most of his life. He didn't necessarily eat bad foods, he just couldn't stop. His bowl of ice cream is a gallon.
In another tale of numbers, he weighed 240 in college, 270 on his wedding day and more than 300 when he hit a breaking point during a golf outing in July 2003.
"It was hot, and by the 13th hole I was dragging my bag behind me because I'm out of shape," he said. "I thought, 'who are my skinny friends? The friends that kept the weight off were the people that ran, so I said, 'I'm going to run.
"I started out by running a block and walking a block. I had a four-mile loop and it didn't take very long, probably about three weeks, to be able to make the whole loop."
His approach to food was one he quickly applied to running: "One mile is good, five miles is better, and 20 miles is even better."
Within a year, he was at the starting line of Journey's Marathon in Eagle River, his first, with thoughts of hitting the 3 hours, 15 minutes he needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He ran 3:09.
His early results, including a 2:56 at the Twin Cities Marathon in the fall of 2004, were signs of a natural talent within his 230-pound body. He maximized that with a world-class capacity to train.
"A lot of it is the mental attitude and the work ethic," said Roy Pirrung, a member of the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and manager of the U.S. 24-Hour Run Team. "He's not afraid to go out there and put in the miles, and that's what it takes. I think a lot of athletes just kind of hope to do well, and some do the stuff that it takes to do well."
Going the distance
Henze came upon the unique niche of 24-hour races in 2008, following one of the few periods in which an injury hampered his running. Unable to train adequately that spring to better his marathon best of 2:46, he decided to devote the season to races that struck him as fun, including the Ice Age Trail 50 and Paavo Nurmi Marathon and the FANS 24-hour run around Lake Nokomis, in Minneapolis.
He ran 123.57 miles and won the race, but came up two miles shy of qualifying for the U.S. team competing in the 24-Hour World Championship.
"Everybody's dream is to represent their country in a sport," Henze said.
With his dream within reach, he increased his training in 2009. Every fifth week of his training cycle, he added an extra 30- or 40-mile run, pushing the mileage for that week to 160 or 170. He ran in the morning before work, on his lunch break and again in the evening.
The payoff wasn't just physical, but mental as well. His time alone, whether on the road or on the treadmill, is spent in contemplation and prayer, sorting through life's challenges, draining away tension.
"I usually start out with 'this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad,' and get going that way," he said. "Thank God for what is going on in life; what could I do to be more like what God would like me to be. Sometimes it's 15 minutes and sometimes it's two hours of thought."
In June 2009, Henze ran 147.4 miles in the FANS 24-hour race, set the course record and qualified for the U.S. team. At the event held again last month, the winner came up 25 miles short of Henze's effort.
Doing it for the team
Being married to someone putting in 200-plus miles of training per week is no doubt a challenge. Jill's friends sometimes ask, "How do you put up with it?"
She's proud and happy to be married to someone with the determination and courage to reach the upper reaches of his sport - and to have found a package of clothes with the USA team logo on her doorstep one Friday night.
"I had goose bumps when he was trying them on," Jill said. "It was almost surreal."
In France, Henze ran conservatively, toward the back of the pack in the early stages of the race. Jurek set off in the lead in his quest to set the American 24-hour record.
A report on the race at the halfway point noted that Henze was running as fourth American, "probably too far off the pace to keep the team in the medals should one of the top three falter." (The team competition is decided by the total distance of the top three finishers from each squad of six).
But as dawn broke and the birds began to sing, Henze picked up his pace and moved through the pack of runners.
"My whole goal was to be on a team that made the podium," he said. "It was just all adrenaline. You put off reason and disassociate from the pain. It's almost an animalistic feeling. Any time the pain would come up, I would grunt or growl to push it down."
The spectators lining the course, most of them French, took to cheering "Go big American horse."
When the clock hit the 24th hour, and the officials wheeled out the final distances, Henze was 12th overall. And the Americans placed third.
Pirrung celebrated the first podium appearance for a U.S. squad in the history of the 24-Hour World Championship and the success of a runner with a history similar to his own: once overweight, a former smoker who worked himself into a world-class competitor.
"For guys like us, sometimes the only thing that improves our performance is getting the miles in," Pirrung said. "It's not easy and it's not fun. But it's deciding which end of the spectrum you want to be on, the one that's defeating your body or the one that's promoting your body, and we choose to be healthy."
Tom Held is a staff reporter for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He maintains the "Off The Couch" blog at www.jsonline.com/blogs/lifestyle/offthecouch.html.