Testimony Tuesday: Mike Bissell
Some people struggle to get themselves to the gym to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes, but Mike Bissell found himself on one for 22 hours straight in March of 2012.
Thousands of people gathered in Midtown Village to watch Bissell strive to run for 24 hours or 100 miles straight– whichever came first. But the motivation for this event was not for Bissell’s name in lights, but rather to draw attention to children’s diabetes. The parents of Cole Bramble (one of Bissell’s Tuscaloosa Magnet School students) came to Bissell with concerns about their son’s recent diabetes diagnosis. Later that semester they asked Bissell if he would help them put on an awareness event.
“[Cole] wanted to do a fundraiser and needed a crazy idea to draw attention,” Bissell said. “His mom asked if i would get involved, and of course I would.”
While Bissell considers himself a “yes man” when it comes to helping people in his circle or community, running was not always one of his favorite activities.
Bissel grew up in Massachusetts where he experienced what he describes as a “rough childhood.” He admits he also hated school and was only motivated to stay in school so he could participate in team sports such as baseball, soccer, hockey, wrestling, football, tennis and golf.
“As a kid, sports were the only thing I cared about. I didn’t have any reason to like school,” Bissell said.
Oddly enough, Bissel’s negative experience with teachers was what motivated him to pursue a career in education.
“I felt things could be done differently; I wanted to reach kids who didn’t enjoy school,” he said.
As a teenager, Bissel also disliked running because he associated the sport with punishment- a tactic he said most coaches used in team sports when a mistake was made during practice or when players acted out.
To some surprise, Bissel’s former hate for running turned into what some might consider an addiction. After a serious ankle fracture during a soccer game at 34 years old, Bissell did some contemplating on what the future might look like for him as an athlete.
“I realized I’m not 16 anymore. I can’t keep doing these contact sports,” he said.
That was when he decided to pursue running. He felt that this sport would offer him the opportunity to continue his athletic career outside of contact sports. Six weeks after his reconstructive ankle surgery, Bissell went to New Orleans to run his first half marathon.
“My goals were simple; don’t stop and don't die,” he said with a laugh.
While Bissell did stop once to tie his shoelace at mile four, he did not stop again after that, not even for a water break, which he says is “not advised.” Bissell completed the half marathon with a time of 2 hours and four minutes.
Since that race, Bissell has completed five IRONMANs, seven half IRONMAN, 12 Olympic-distance triathlons, three 200-mile runs, five 100-mile runs, 20 or more 50-mile runs and countless road races.
At one point in his running career, Bissell said he was running 10 marathons a year without ever “officially training.” Though he had no strict regimen, Bissel would run about 50 to 75 miles a week and sometimes closer to 100 miles.
“I don’t run fast, but I run for a long time,” he said.
About nine years ago Bissell’s passion and exceptional running eventually got him noticed by staff at Wagner’s RunWalk, which was called the Athlete’s Foot at that time. Bissell competed in a local 5k road race and was later approached by one of the store’s long-time employees, Ed.
“We were chatting one day and he asked me if I wanted to be on The Athlete Foot’s Racing Team,” Bissell told. “We chatted more and more and more, he introduced me to Matt (the current owner of Wagner’s RunWalk), and I’m pretty much I’m a shoe addict at this point.”
Bissell was eventually offered a job at the store and thrived as a sales associate where he helped customers find the needed shoe for walking, running or just everyday wear.
“It became–and still is– a much more personal experience,” he said about the customer service at Wagner’s RunWalk. “We’re not trying to just to haul shoes your way, but actually trying to help you out.”
During his time at Wagner’s RunWalk he helped hundreds of customers find the correct shoe, but he also went the extra mile and got behind some community-minded happenings such as the treadmill event called, “Mike’s 100 Mile Madness.”
The morning of Mike’s 100 Mile Madness, the store opened at 7 a.m. And Athlete’s Foot staff rolled out treadmills in front of the store that were donated by Planet Fitness for the event. Employees pitched tents to cover the three treadmills and several restaurants set up buffet tables for food. By 8 a.m. the local radio personalities were live broadcasting the event and then Bissell hopped on his treadmill to begin his trek. Phillip Bernardo, a Wagner’s employee, monitored Bissell on the treadmill throughout the night, sometimes advising him to slow down from his eight-minute mile pace.
Throughout the day, thousands of people stopped by the event to observe, donate or hop on a treadmill beside Bissell. He recalls individuals and groups such as the entire Alabama Rowing team; the Alabama Women’s Soccer Coach Todd Bramble; two Jahova Witnesses; Tuscaloosa firefighters, City officials and all of his staff at the Tuscaloosa Magnet School that took time out of their schedules to participate in the fundraiser and cheer him on.
“It was pretty emotional,” Bissell said. “It’s physically exhausting, but emotionally tiring. I'm very invested in my kids.”
A full day had nearly passed– 22 hours–when Bissell completed the goal of 100 miles. The fundraiser also brought in awareness and more than $15,000 for Southeastern Diabetes Education Services, according to Bissell. The success of the event brought about a Type 1 diabetes camp to west Alabama, Camp Sugar Falls –Tuscaloosa.
After completing 100 miles, Bissell briefly celebrated with Cole’s parents, but then decided to hop back on the treadmill to a run 4.8 more miles so he could say he completed four consecutive marathons.
Today Bissell is still heavily involved in the lives of the youth as he works as a curriculum coordinator at the Tuscaloosa Magnet school. He also is a coach for the Homewood Soccer Club for U14 and U13 teams.
“Coaching is the same as teaching, I want to help kids to learn for themselves and to grow,” he said. “Whether school or soccer, I try to address the person not the content, it’s all about establishing relationships.”
Bissell’s motto in the classroom is that the most effective teachers are those who involve learners in the teaching, and that, “it has to be real in order for it to be important.”
“If what you’re teaching them is just content, they really don’t have any reason to care,” Bissell said.“Instead of working with teachers to teach standards, challenge them and ask, ‘what are you teaching them?’ You don't teach history, math, language or science–you teach children.”
While Bissell has a plethora of life accomplishments and literally a tote full of race medals to hold in high esteem, some of the most defining moments in his life are incomparable to anything else he has experienced.
Bissell’s life was altered forever when his parents died in two separate car wrecks ten years apart.
“I like to think it has changed me in a good way,” he said.
His dad was killed in a car crash in 1999 and his mother in 2009.
“It has helped me put into perspective what really matters. The time you have with the people you have can be gone the next day without warning or any indication of change,” he said. “You learn by having experiences, and it’s helped me to value more the people in my life.”
Bissell also noted that his life was changed for the better when his daughters, Kailey, who is now 23-years-old, and Emma who is now 17 were born.
“It's like seeing little bits of me, and quite frankly the good parts of me,” he said about being a parent. “They’re very intelligent and successful at what they do, but most importantly good human beings who are good to other people, and that matters so much more.”
With all Bissell’s life experiences considered, he says he does have one “silly” or “dorky” tag-line that he considers to be a life motto, “give of yourself so that others might see what it takes to be great.”
That quote is so good to Bissell he includes in the signature of every email he sends out each day.
Thanks for reading this month’s Testimony Tuesday blog post featuring Mike Bissell. Feel free to share this on social media or other channels, and stay tuned to read the next one this September!