How this Rochester triathlete went from kidney failure to a 5K to a spot on Team USA
Among the brilliant neon tones of running shoes and technical outerwear at TerraLoco in Rochester, there’s another bright spot: Team USA triathlete, 36 year-old Michael Karau.
Just a few short years ago, though, you’d have been hard-pressed to get him into a shop like this.
“I thought athletes were silly,” explains Karau. “I thought, ‘They wear bright stuff, they look like goofballs, they’re wearing spandex. Who would want to do that?’”
“At that point in my life, I wasn’t really taking care of myself the best. I was using drugs, drinking a lot of energy drinks, drinking a lot of alcohol, just making a lot of bad decisions.”
Then, at 32, he stepped on a nail during yard work. It gave him a staph infection, which led to kidney failure, which led to Karau passed out in a Best Buy while Christmas shopping. He missed his son’s first hockey practice and was promptly re-admitted to the hospital. He was stuck there for two weeks. Relegated to nothing but ice water for his first four days, he soon lost his taste for sugar. A healthy new dawn was breaking.
“Finally, they said okay, you can have some juice with some ice. I was like, ‘This is kind of gross. It’s all full of sugar. I just want more ice water.’”
When he got out, the need to make lifestyle changes was clear. He weighed 250 pounds and had a young son and wife to think about. So he called up a friend who’d been in the military and said he wanted to start running.
“He just kind of laughed at me,” he recalls. “My whole family laughed at me. They were like, ‘You’ve never been athletic, come on now.’”
Undeterred, he went out and bought a pair of jogging shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of cheap running shoes. On his first run, he barely made it around one city block. Eventually, though, he started outrunning his military buddy. Each day he ran farther and harder until, four months later, he told his wife he wanted to run his first 5K race.
On race day, his whole family showed up. Karau remembers feeling scared out of his mind. He positioned himself behind the strollers and walkers before the starting pistol fired.
“We take off and I’m like passing everybody. I’m passing, passing, passing, and eventually I found myself, like, running,” says Karau.
At the finish line, a younger runner approached him with congratulations about his performance. Without knowing it, Karau had placed second in his age group with a 24-minute time. They announced his name, he got an award, and his whole family was thrilled.
“I still have that picture,” Karau tells us. “I had it right in front of my treadmill. To this day it’s still something I look at, still something I remember. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
He’d liked running before, but now that he knew he could win things, he was hooked. He won a few 5Ks, then bumped up into half marathons. He met runners. Got tips. Then he found out about triathlons. Eventually, maybe before he was quite ready, he signed up for the Rochester Triathlon, where he snagged second in his age group, despite flailing through the swim portion.
From there, he entered the USA National Championships in Omaha, Nebraska, which clarified what it meant to run, bike, and swim with the best of the best. Afterward, he went to Maple Grove’s triathlon and won, which qualified him for this year’s national championships in Cleveland, Ohio. There, he placed 40th in his age group. He hoped to use the result to qualify for next year’s world championships in Switzerland, but the universe had other plans.
“I get an email, and I thought it was a joke,” remembers Karau.
It said he’d qualified to run as part of Team USA at this year’s world championships in Australia.
After some heavy decision-making, he signed up for the race. His wife, Stephanie, helped him put together a supportive roster of sponsors, and he set off for the land down under.
When he got there, he was enamored.
“I’m seeing these amazing athletes, I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m in it. I’m here with them, doing this thing that’s truly amazing in this amazing place,” says Karau.
The morning of the race, he woke up on the 20th floor of his hotel, stared out at a sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, and cried. The pressure had hit him: this was a huge race. He got online and made a promise to his supporters: he’d put his heart into the race, no matter what happened. Then he kept his word.
“I actually pushed so hard I blew up. I’ve never pushed that hard. I went out too hard and pushed, but I was trying. I was really trying.”
He wasn’t overjoyed with his ultimate results, but for a guy who’d started the sport three years ago, just finishing ahead of the loser was a massive feat.
“I raced against the best in the world. The best to do it. Guy from Rochester, Minnesota, didn’t get last,” says Karau. “When I went across that blue carpet in Australia and they handed me an American flag, I lost it. If I fell and broke my leg right after the finish line and I couldn’t race any more, it’s okay. This is it. I did it.”
He’s keeping his fingers crossed that his results will get him to Switzerland in 2019. For now, though, you can find him hanging around TerraLoco events or blazing the trails of southeast Minnesota. It’s a lifestyle he hopes he can help more people adopt.
“I think a lot of people get a little scared, a little nervous. I was there. They just have to take that chance. You get out and you see things and you experience things that you just never experienced your whole life and you kind of figure out that you’re missing out on some of that stuff.”
Published in partnership with TerraLoco