GRAND RAPIDS — Growing up in Grand Rapids, Dr. Nick Serratore had to always play second fiddle to his cousins when it came to athletic excellence.
The son of Tony and Crystal Serratore, he was a three-sport athlete at Grand Rapids High School but he did not attain the level of success in athletics like many of his cousins who played Division I sports at various institutions around the country. However, in an occurrence that he could never have predicted, he has become an athlete of a stature that his cousins can only envy.
That’s because Serratore, 30, a 2008 graduate of Grand Rapids High School, got into the world of triathlons almost by accident after high school, but he has become so proficient at it that he has attained the goal that he has strived to achieve for years: to compete in the World Ironman Triathlon.
Serratore grew up in a sports-minded family where his uncles Frank and Ernie (Tom) were head men’s hockey coaches at the Air Force Academy and Bemidji State University, respectively.
“You learn a lot of lessons in athletics,” said Serratore. “Of the Serratore boys of my generation, my cousin Tom played (hockey) for the University of Minnesota, my cousin Tim played for Augsburg, my cousin Matt played for his uncle at the Air Force Academy, my cousin Steve played baseball for Kansas State, so all four of the male cousins from my generation played college athletics. Do you know how many of them are still competing? None. I am the only athlete left.
“I really don’t rub it in their faces all that much. They look at me like I am nuts and they don’t want anything to do with it.”
Serratore played four years of varsity golf for the Thunderhawks along with being a member of the football and boys hockey teams.
“I was never the best football player; I have a very mild manner and I don’t have the proper attitude to be a football player,” he said. “Of the three sports that I played, golf is probably the sport that I excelled at the most.”
He went out for the University of St. Thomas men’s golf team his freshman year and did not make the team. He said it ended up being a blessing in disguise because it gave him study time to earn his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry. He currently works for 3M in the Office of Intellectual Property where he does mostly patent work in protecting the company’s intellectual properties.
Serratore said he had fun in his college years at St. Thomas, and then he moved to Madison, Wis., where he attended the University of Wisconsin to work toward his master’s degree. After a year there, he weighed about 240 pounds which is 50 pounds heavier than his current weight of 190.
“I was significantly heavier and I was not happy with my life,” Serratore explained. So, he transferred from Wisconsin to the University of Minnesota and when he made that switch, he said it resulted in him losing more than 50 pounds.
Then his sister, Nina Deno, told him that she was going to run a marathon in 2014, during a family vacation, and Serratore decided that he would join her in the run although he had never run a distance race in his life.
“I’d never run three miles in my life let alone 26.2 miles,” he said. “That summer of 2014 I trained for that race (held in January 2015) and I ended up picking up cycling that summer. The best and worst things happened to me in that marathon; I didn’t run it as well as I wanted to (4 hours and 20 minutes) and it wasn’t where I wanted it to be.
“So logically, the Serratore in me kicked in and I said I am doing this again and I am going to do it better.”
While working out, he also was going to Lifetime Fitness in the Twin Cities which had an Olympic-distance triathlon series at the time. An Olympic-distance triathlon consists of a one mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and then a six-mile run. Since he was already running and riding a bike, he decided to learn how to swim and compete in triathlons.
A friend of his – Grant Frost – was a swimmer at St. Thomas and he was able to teach the art of swimming to Serratore, teaching him how to proficiently move through the water without effort. Later that summer, he competed in two sprint triathlons, two Olympic-distance triathlons and a half Ironman Triathlon by the end of that summer.
“I did five triathlons that first summer and in June of that year I also did Grandma’s Marathon and I beat my time significantly, lowering it to 3:27,” said Serratore. “I did my first triathlon – the Trinona – in Winona, Minn., and I ended up taking fourth in my age group in a sprint triathlon. So right away I knew I was kind of decent at this and it was fun.”
Serratore then hired a coach – Vicki Ostendorf – in June 2015, and they quickly found that he had some talent. He said his large quad muscles and the muscles used for skating during his hockey career were beneficial for cycling, and that has turned out to be his strongest discipline in the triathlon. By the end of the summer they decided that he should do an Ironman Triathlon.
Doing an Ironman Triathlon means being in incredibly good shape due to the distances needed to be traveled by the athletes. In an Ironman, athletes swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, and then run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. The race must be completed in under 17 hours and the time it takes to move between disciplines counts against athletes.
“In early 2015, somebody told me they were doing an Ironman and they told me what it involved and I thought that they were crazy, it was the dumbest thing I had ever heard in my life,” he laughed. “It is very intimidating. By the time I had done a half Ironman in August, it seemed a lot more real to me that this was something that I was going to do. So I put it on the calendar and I signed up in September 2015, for a September 2016 Ironman Wisconsin.”
Serratore’s training was hindered when he was injured when hit by a car while running. However, he was able to recover and run the Twin Cities Marathon in 2015 with his current best-ever time of 3:20.
In 2016, Serratore did two half Ironmans and two Olympic-distance triathlons along with the big race –the Ironman Wisconsin. In his first Ironman – which he said went well – he completed the course in 10 hours, 18 minutes and 17 seconds. He was 53rd overall in the race which consisted of more than 2,000 people.
“I was elated,” Serratore laughed about completing the race. “It was what I had hoped for and I had a great day. You are beat up – that’s the thing about racing in a Ironman is you are selectively destroying your muscle groups in an efficient way. You swim 2.4 miles and you are destroying your shoulders, get on the bike and it beats the crap out of your shoulders because you are resting on your elbows for 112 miles, but also you are pushing with your quads and pulling with your hamstrings and you are slowly destroying those muscle groups.
“Then you get off and you have to run a marathon and that takes care of the rest of your quads and then you lose your glutes through that too. So at the end of the race you have nothing left.”
During the swim Serratore reminds himself not to kick much because he knows he is going to need his legs for later in the race. Serratore said he feels he is actually recovering some during the biking portion of the race. He said it takes him little more than an hour to finish the swimming portion of the Ironman but he said he isn’t drinking water or taking in calories.
“I am depleting myself with the swim and by the time I get on the bike I am taking in fluids, I am trying to get hydrated and get electrolytes in,” he explained. “I am trying to get calories in, and if you look at my heart rate over the course of the biking, my heart rate actually decreases as I am working harder because I am recovering on the bike, getting ready for the run.”
During the run, he said he needs to hold back for the first half of the marathon, and by the time he reaches the second half of the marathon, he said “it is survival.”
That now brings us to the present, where he said his goal was to qualify for the Ironman World Championships which will be conducted in Kona, Hawaii, on Saturday. The first Ironman was conducted more than 40 years ago and to qualify for the race, an athlete has to place in the top of their age group at a qualifying race of which he said there are at least 25 or 30 scattered around the world. Serratore said it is very difficult to qualify for the race and as an example he said that out of more than 2,000 athletes at a Ironman Wisconsin, only 40 people out of that group qualified for the World Championships.
Serratore said during a typical weekend in training for the Iron Man, he usually works out six hours a day.
“It’s a huge time commitment and it’s a lot of stress on your relationships and your family, too,” Serratore explained. “I didn’t qualify for Worlds in 2016, so I said I will give it another run in 2017.”
Serratore said in the 2017 Iron Man Wisconsin, he got sick while bicycling in the race and he struggled mightily just to finish the race much to the consternation of his parents. He said he had an electrolyte imbalance and shouldn’t have started the race in the first place.
“I started walking the marathon, and I walked all 26.2 miles roughly,” he said. “I finished in 14:51 and by the time I got done with the race, I actually ended up going into hypothermia because my body was so low on energy and I couldn’t walk because I had blisters so bad on the bottom of my feet. But it kind of created a vengeance inside of me that I wanted another shot at this race.”
Wanting to qualify for the Worlds before his 30th birthday, Serratore said things went much better for him at the 2018 Ironman Wisconsin. He said that in the transition from swim to bike in the race, and the transition from bike to run he wanted a combined total of under an hour and 20 minutes.
Serratore was in 302nd place coming out of the water but he then recorded what he called the best day of his life on the bike as he completed the 112 hours in just more than five hours, averaging 22.22 miles per hour on the ride. Coming off the bike, he was now in 17th place overall entering the run.
After his parents told him he was in second place in his age group, Serratore said he ran the first half of the marathon in an hour and 37 minutes averaging around a seven-and-a-half minute mile. However, at mile 16 he was passed by an athlete who eventually took second in Serratore’s age group. Figuring only two racers in his age group would qualify for Worlds, he kept working hard.
“I figured by the number of people that were competing in my age group, I knew that it was guaranteed that two people from my age group would go but I didn’t think there would be three. When I got passed at mile 16, he was running hard while I was losing it a little bit,” Serratore explained. “I knew I was in third place and probably on the outs. On the other hand, I was having a great day and I wanted to beat my goal of 10 hours at the beginning of the race.”
Running a 3:32 marathon to complete the race, he was third in his age group and 24th overall with a time of 9:53.08. Then the next morning during the awards ceremony, he found out that three slots in his age group were given invitations to the Worlds, which means Serratore had accomplished his long-time goal.
“Mom started to cry and I was in complete shock,” Serratore said. “It was indescribable; you just can’t buy your way into this race. It takes a lot to get there and you have to get lucky because you don’t know who is going to be racing against you. I was thankful that it happened.”
Serratore said while it will be special in being in the race Oct. 12, he said it also is a special day in that it is the birthday of his late grandmother, Sandy Serratore. He said he strained a muscle in his high hip in early May during training so he has been struggling with it for the past four months.
“I have hardly been able to run for the past four months but in terms of the rest of my training, I am stronger in the swim and the bike than I have ever been,” Serratore said. “The fact that this race is the hardest race in the world, where I have never swam in an ocean, and the bike course is notoriously windy with a 20-mile-per-hour steady wind coming off the ocean, and it is 80-plus degrees outside on blacktop and black volcanic rock, so I would love to have a race under 10 hours.
“But for the first time in my life I want to be average. I want to be better than 50 percent of my age group, that will be my goal. Everybody who got there had to do what I did so if I can beat half of them, then I am better than half the people in the world that were able to get there.”
Serratore was asked what he thinks he will feel when he completes the race he has worked so hard to participate in on Oct. 12, and he said, “To be able to be there when there are so many people who have tried for years and years like me, so the fact that I am able to do it at my age and to be able to enjoy the experience and have the ability to do it is good.
“Just the idea of doing an Ironman is a crazy thought to most people, but to do it at a level where you are capable of competing on a world stage is unfathomable to most. I will just be taking in every moment of it.”
In the future, Serratore is going to learn how to cross country ski and he will sign up for the American Birkebeiner 50-kilometer race in February in Wisconsin. He also does fat tire bicycle racing in the winter. He added that he will concentrate on shorter distance triathlons in 2020.
“My focus is in increasing my speed and getting stronger in the shorter-distance races,” said Serratore. “I will race in a lot of the local Minnesota races. I have a lot of friends doing this so being part of this is something that I really enjoy.”