At 46, most athletes begin taking advantage of their experience and wisdom, choosing their races carefully and tailoring their training to maximize results and recovery. Command Master Chief Mike Ferreira has acquired a different kind of wisdom—a mantra that life is too short to recover, so get out there and race.
We got a brief introduction to Ferreira on this column just before the 2010 Ironman World Championship, noting that he ran in 19 competitions ranging from 5K’s to iron-distance before Kona. That comes to six age-group wins, nine overall top 10 placings, one slot to Kona and zero DNFs. That’s impressive as it is, but when you consider the day job that takes priority over his training, it leaves you wondering how he gets it all done.
As the senior enlisted member of the Coast Guard’s 14th District, Ferreira overseas Coast Guard operations ranging from law enforcement and environmental conservation to disaster relief and search and rescue. He provides an insightful analogy for the demands the Coast Guard faces. “Imagine if you took all 40,000 members of the New York City Police Department, and gave them the task of securing the entire coastline and the major waterways of the United States,” he says. “That’s what the Coast Guard is doing on a daily basis.” Ferreira has only 2000 of those members to cover the Coast Guard’s largest district across a giant swath of the Pacific Ocean.
As is often the case with extraordinary people, Ferreira says triathlon has enabled success in his military career rather than hindering it. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1984 at the age of 20, seeking adventure and challenge. But after his first assignment to a cutter in Alaska, he noticed he’d put on extra weight in the cold and confines. “I was up to 170 pounds, and a lieutenant on the ship was into swimming, so I started swimming as well to keep in shape,” he recalls. He then requested training and assignment to aviation, working on electronics and helping to navigate the Coast Guard’s C-130 aircraft. It was in these grueling classes that he picked up the next discipline for triathlon. “I found I had to burn excess energy to be able to pay attention in class,” he says. “So I started running about three miles four to six times a week. I kept it up for the next 12 years.”
He kept things recreational until he was assigned to Florida and joined the Florida Forerunners running club. He met his wife while training with the team, and their relationship fostered greater passion for athletic pursuits. “She suggested I try a marathon, and my immediate thought was ‘if I’m not going to do Boston, what’s the point?'” That mentality closed the deal, and he threw himself into it, running his first marathon in 2:45 flat. That run was good enough for a slot in Boston in 2000. “That was my all-time PR,” he says with a chuckle. “I ran in 2:37. Honestly, I have no idea how I did that. I just worked hard. I was running about a hundred miles a week for 10 weeks before the taper. I don’t know any other way to succeed.”
Therein lies the mentality that’s powered Ferreira to the front of the pack and the top of the enlisted ranks. He’s qualified for Kona the last six years in a row (his wife has joined him in the competitive ranks the last four). “A lot of people talk about this ‘less is more’ training philosophy, and I don’t buy it. More is more. The only way I know to get better at running is to run. If I want to be able to run faster, I practice running fast. If I want to go longer, I have to run more miles. Every one of my PRs was on the back of 80- and 90- mile weeks.” Ferreira doesn’t take all the credit though. “I think you have to be a self-starter to succeed in anything, but there are environmental factors. Some of it is happenstance, but the company you keep is a major influence.”
To that end, he owes a lot to his wife’s support. The two are not only partners in service and in life, but in training as well. The interchangeable nature between “play” and “train” is conspicuous in Ferreira’s references to brick workouts and long runs with his wife. They are not two people supporting each other through tough times as much as teammates sharing a common passion.
As much as the other services enjoy poking fun at the Coast Guard, leaders like Command Master Chief Ferreira serve as examples of why they deserve respect. That goes double on the racecourse. When Chief Ferreira is in front of you, there’s no such thing as going the extra mile to catch him—there are only more miles to run.