Race Report: Ironman Wisconsin 2010
So, what is Ironman? Or perhaps the better question, what is it aside from the course description? Over the past year, I’ve spoken with a number of Ironmen and Ironwomen, and we’ve talked Ironman and triathlons; shared training stories, nutrition philosophies, the latest articles, bikes and equipment, and impressions about the race, both pre-conceived, and post-race. The interesting thing is that the answer is different for each person. For all of its cut-and-dried physicality, Ironman is an intimately personal event for every racer. Ironman is what you need it to be. It can be spiritual…or not. It can be the ultimate physical challenge…or just another race. It can be the fulfillment of a dream…or a stepping stone to one even larger. It can be an item on a checklist…or a rite of passage. It can be a statement of faith…a declaration of admiration…the fulfillment of a dying wish…a legacy to, for, or of a hero. Ironman is the proving ground – it’s up to the racer to decide what is to be tested.
For me, this past year has been about one thing: challenging limits. How many times do we change the path of our lives because of limits we feel are imposed upon us? How many times has someone we know or love said:
“You can’t do that.”
“Yeah, I know there are those who could, but what makes you think YOU can?”
“Yeah, a younger person could, but jeez – you’re over 40! Are you nuts?”
Sometimes it’s said without a word being spoken – the rolled eyes, the shaking head, the gestures, expressions, and body language of incredulity, disbelief, irritation, and sometimes, outright hostility.
Even worse, how many times have we imposed limits upon ourselves, without even knowing it? Excuses because of our age, our past, our previous failures, family issues, and things we’ve heard from a variety of sources, that may or may not be factual, and may or may not have any bearing whatsoever on us individually. All of them sifted, processed, and distilled through the history of our experiences until they become the one thing that has the power to control our future:
Interestingly enough, we’re born with only two fears: fear of falling, and fear of loud noises; everything else is learned. Well damnit, if we can learn it, we can UN-learn it.
In the past year (well, just a hair over, no pun intended) I’ve gone from bald to Barry Gibb, two extremes I’d never tried before, and both had some interesting lessons, which I’ll reserve for another venue. I mention them simply because they represent limits I challenged; instances where I stepped outside my comfort zone. Yep, there was positive, and yes, there was negative, both internal and external, but hey – that’s life on ANY day. I wouldn’t trade what I learned for anything.
And then there’s Ironman.
This past year, for me, Ironman Wisconsin has represented the pinnacle of personal challenge. A little over four years ago, I told my employer (a former Ironman himself) that I thought it would be cool to do an Ironman ‘someday.’ But the voice in the back of my head was saying ‘Hah! Yeah, right! Keep dreaming fatso!” It was that quick: a dream was born, and a dream died in the space of an idle thought, and I didn’t know enough or care enough then to mourn the loss.
Two and a half years ago, I ran my first triathlon at Spring Meadow – the Sprint distance. Bozeman and Frenchtown followed – both Olympics, and both VERY challenging…but I finished, and learned a lot. That off season I recovered from injury, swam a LOT, and came back the next year leaner and stronger…and a year after my Frenchtown Olympic, I finished my first half iron. I was totally nuked after, but I finished, and beat my goal time, and in spite of the pain, I still had fun – I was still hooked. Enough so, that I fulfilled my intent, and the next week, signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2010 – a year away. I didn’t believe I could do it, but I signed up anyway. I’ll be honest: part of it was the natural progression of Sprint, to Olympic, to half-iron, to full iron – to skip a step just seemed, well…wrong. And part of it was the Team: I wanted to make them proud, wanted to wear their colors in an Ironman, to go where they had gone, see if I had what it took. And part of it – a very small part – was the re-kindling of the dream I had killed years before. But boy howdy, was I scared. Excited, but scared. What if I failed? What if I DNF’d? What if I couldn’t do it?
Okay, so what if?
I’d heard it said once that if you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.
And the only sure way to fail is to never try at all.
So…long about mid-March, after a stumbling start, the training began. And it became a process of incremental victories: first ride over 65 miles…then 70…then 90…and 115. Not all at once, and not right away, but success bred success… first run over 14 miles….then 17…then 19….and belief began to follow, if slowly. And somewhere around mile 56 or 57 on one of the long rides it hit me: it isn’t about beating the course. It’s not about beating the swim, not about beating the bike, not about beating the run. You can train your body to do ALL those things. It came down to one question.
Are you going to let yourself kick your own ass?
See, that’s the interesting part. In any endeavor, only 10 percent of it is the physical – the hardest part, the other 90 percent, is the mental. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 3K or an Ironman – ten percent of your effort will be spent physically racing…other 90 percent will be filled with the two voices: one saying you can’t, the other saying yes, you can. And THAT was the part I wasn’t sure I could win. How do you hide yourself from yourself? Protect yourself from yourself? Simply put, you can’t; not unless you elect not to challenge yourself at all, and as we’ve already covered, that’s the surest way to lose. So how does someone who’s been told growing up that he’s a loser – and for most of his life has believed he’s a loser – win this internal battle, when he believes he can’t?
The answer was as simple as it was surprising: train. And train. And train. With the training came the incremental victories that started to create belief. Enough belief to do the one thing that could set me free.
That, and associate with people who strengthen that belief. Fortunately, I’ve had the singular privilege of associating with some of the most exceptional people I’ve ever known, all of whom have been supportive, all of whom have been encouraging, all of whom have been wellsprings of positive reinforcement, and all of whom have become the family I never had. Team Great Divide, Helena Sharks, and the Helena Vigilante Runners, I thank you for doing what you do, and being who you are. Individually and collectively you are the most giving, supportive, selfless, competitive, inspirational, loving, devoted, and grounded people I’ve ever known, and I’m not ashamed to say I love you all. I doubt I would have ever tried HALF of the things I’ve gone and done these last couple of years. Ironman certainly would not have happened, and that alone would have been beyond tragic, because in the past year of training, , through new challenges…unpredictable weather…big bricks…good days and bad days….and upon finishing my first Ironman, the last piece fell into place, and I discovered the one thing I needed most of all, the one thing I’ve lacked for most of my 42 years. It wasn’t what I expected…and more than I could have dreamed.
I discovered who I am.
I’m an athlete.
And for a life-long fat kid, that’s nothing short of amazing.
Okay, okay…I see your hand back there. Yes, you, back there by the growlers. So, you want to know what happened in Wisconsin, do ya? Allrighty then….
OMG, where to begin?
Suffice it to say, unlike a local event, Ironman isn’t a decision one makes on a whim, at the last minute. Which is the good news AND the bad news. Good news in that you can’t just stumble into something of this magnitude. Bad news because once you’re committed, you have a YEAR to contemplate the wisdom of your choice.
So, where was I? Oh yeah. September.
I remember being out on Birdseye in late August, well into the taper, and staring incredulously at the darkening sky. “Almost dark? Already?? It’s barely 8:00! When the heck did THIS happen? I mean, come ON, just a couple of weeks ago, I was out riding until almost eleven! It WAS just a couple of weeks ago…wasn’t it?” And yet here I was cutting my ride short, and heading home while the cars on the road could still see me.
Ironman weekend is much the same. For a year you think about it in the long term. “Ironman? Oh, that’s next year.” “My race? Bah, it’s not until September.” It’s always down the road. And then suddenly it’s four days away, and in spite of having been in taper for three weeks, it’s still a shock to realize, “Oh crap! I’m doing an ironman this weekend!” Doubt floods in…panic rises…and suddenly every training ride, run, or swim is re-evaluated, questioned…and found wanting. I’m not ready. A week ago, you were. But now? Panicsville.
Tuesday, September 7th
Went to work for a half a day, and I’m not sure why I bothered. I dang sure didn’t get anything significant accomplished. Went to lunch with the Vig group and watched them run Division Street, my legs twitching in sympathy, WANTING to run, but fearing I could do damage this close to race day. Cheered on the runners instead.
Left there to see my Rolfer and get my pre-race massage – which was AWESOME – and went home to continue packing. At 6:30, I loaded my bike and transition bag in the car and headed for the TGD meeting at Taco del Sol. On a side note, a special thanks to Jane, Laura, and Greg for the support and well-wishing – it was a much-needed boost. After the meeting, I handed off the bike and bag to Carolyn, who, with new husband Kyle, had offered to transport them to Wisconsin, since they were driving out. THAT was a HUGE help, and I thank you both for being willing to do that. That was one less significant stress to have to contend with. Headed back home to finish the last minute packing, and managed to get to bed by eleven. Good thing – alarm went off early.
Wednesday, September 8th
Alarm goes off at 0430, and the reality sinks in…and a new, more potent wave of doubts arise. I did my best to tone them down by focusing on what I still needed to do. 0615 my ride shows, and it’s a last walk-through of the house, load bags, and off to the airport – thankfully without the usual dread I was forgetting something. Check-in went smoothly…and it was an uneventful flight to Minneapolis, a painless layover for about an hour, and a quick hop to Madison. By 1445, I was standing at the bus stop at the airport, waiting for the Number 6 bus to East Towne Mall, and hopefully, if the map was right, close to my first hotel. ( I screwed up when I booked my flight – thought I had clicked on Thursday the 9th..but hit Wednesday the 8th by mistake, so I had to find a room for one night…in Madison…in the week before Ironman…I got lucky and found one, but it was an additional challenge I could have done without).
Bus arrives, and I get a quick, scenic tour of northeast Madison, between double-checks of the bus schedule and route information to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. In short order, I’m delivered to the East Towne Mall, about a half mile from my hotel. I got some strange looks schlepping my luggage down the sidewalk, but it got the job done.
Not a bad hotel, especially for the price. Dropped my bags in my room, changed into running gear, and went for a short taper run. Did a couple of laps around the mall – about a half hour’s worth or so. The desk clerk just smiled his disbelieving smile – crazy triathletes. Went back to the room for my wallet, then walked a mile down to a Target for some basic amenities before returning to my room for some supper and a re-familiarization as to why I don’t pay for television.
Thursday, September 9th
Up at a decent time…had some coffee..a quick breakfast…and then schlepped my luggage back out to the mall bus stop to catch the bus into Madison proper. I’ll say this – Wisconsin is a lush and green place. Lots of trees, flowers everywhere, some of the thickest, greenest grass I’ve seen in a while…there were spots that reminded me of Ohio…some that reminded me of Camp Pendleton..and some that reminded me of Washington State, especially the stretches of Snoqualmie Pass where the trees grow in a canopy over the highway, dappled sunlight on the road, and deep, dense, forest on either side. And it’s a pretty big place. Including the incorporated areas, the data I found showed a population of 561,000. Lots of diversity too, as evidenced by my bus mates on the scenic tour from northeast Madison to downtown. Lots of students (some 35,000 by my research), including the young Chinese kids to my right…the Viking looking biker dude in a red nylon jacket and plaid (?!?) pants talking on the phone to the repair shop from the seat behind me…the young Muslim couple ahead of me, she tending their daughter in a stroller, he reading his Koran, his lips moving as he reads…the single mom looking like she’s already put in a full day, headed to a job interview (overheard in a conversation she was having with the business woman beside her)…The ebb and flow of people and characters that make city life such an interesting experience…it was a people-watching smorgasbord. For all its inconveniences, mass transit was a neat experience.
Bus drops me off downtown on State Street..and I encounter one of the bigger challenges of mass transit: the bus I had planned on taking doesn’t run in the middle of the day…and the alternate possibility won’t arrive for another hour. So there I sit, just me and my luggage, at a bus stop in downtown Madison. And had a ball. No shortage of characters here…and the bikes outnumbered the cars by at least 7 to 1. It is a VERY bike friendly city – even more so than Missoula or Bozeman. Get this: their bike paths have dotted yellow lines. Yep! Lanes on a bike path, with a pedestrian lane to one side to boot.. And pretty well maintained too. Very cool.
Bus arrives, and I get another scenic tour out of Madison, to Middleton, the next town over (though you never really leave the city – kinda like Bakersfield and Los Angeles. You may change cities, but you can’t tell where). I get off at one of the Medical centers, and with bag in tow, walk the mile and a half to the hotel I had reserved last year. Very nice place. The only drawback was there wasn’t a refrigerator. Microwave was in the common area where they set up the continental breakfast. Nice room though, and first floor.
Dropped my bags off in the room, and went looking for a grocery store, and someplace I could get a small Styrofoam cooler. The desk clerks let me know about the mall the next exit south down the highway (closed to pedestrians of course – this ain’t Montana), so I took side streets in a southerly direction until I got there – ‘bout four miles. Browsed the mall…shopped a little at Copps grocery store (great prices on fresh fruit and a killer salad bar)…and lugged my purchases back to my hotel. About that time Mark called to let me know he and Chris had made it to Madison, and we made arrangements to meet for dinner.
Had dinner in town, on State Street, which proved to be a VERY interesting place; a little like a blend of the beach in Malibu, and the Helena Walking Mall…sort of anyway. Suffice it to say it didn’t lack for character. It was a hoot. Had dinner outside in a sidewalk patio at a cute little Italian place. Good gourmet thin crust pizza…a glass of wine…skipped dessert. A little stroll back to the car, then they dropped me off at my hotel. I wasn’t up very late that night.
Friday, September 10th
Up early – and realized almost too late that my Blackberry doesn’t automatically update for changes in time zones. Hadn’t caught it earlier, since I hadn’t used the alarm. Good thing I used the room clock as backup. Mark and Chris picked me up at 0630, and after I managed to get us lost once, we made it to the race venue, parked, and headed down to the site of the Swim portion for a pre-race familiarization swim. On our walk, we watched as two swimmers in wetsuits were pulled from the lake by an emergency crew. They’d gone out and they’d cramped. Everyone got out okay, but it was a little wake-up call for the rest of us. Down at the ‘beach’ (a concrete ramp) we got ready to swim. I didn’t get much of a familiarization – my wetsuit, goggles, and cap were all in my transition bag, and they were still with Carolyn and Kyle who would be meeting us later. Sooo….I had my backup swim trunks…borrowed a pair of goggles from Mark, and headed out into the lake, which was, in a word, ROUGH. Some pretty big rollers for a lake, a few isolated whitecaps, and a nice stiff breeze made for some, um…interesting conditions. The waves tossed you up, down, and all around, the whitecaps waited to strike until you needed to breathe, and the wind blew you off course. Still, at 67 degrees, it was warmer than Spring Meadow, so, hey! Bonus! I got some strange looks, being one of only three folks there without a wetsuit – a gal from Virginia laughingly told me I was insane – but,then, I wasn’t in the water all that long either. Ya know, there is a certain security that comes from wearing a wetsuit – you know you can float if you need to. So, a short swim, and back to the beach.
We got changed into dry clothes, dropped our gear off at the car, and headed for Athlete Check in. The Athlete Guide had said it started at nine, but the volunteers on site told us ten, or a little before, so we strolled down the hall to take a peek at that portion of the Expo. I ended up buying a discount IM Kona hat…an IM Wisconsin Visor…a couple of M-Dot stickers, a 70.3 sticker…and a 140.6 sticker. I figured what the heck – why pay shipping to order it later, while at the same time hoping I wasn’t jinxing the whole deal by buying it before I’d done it. Crossed my fingers and bought it anyway.
Back in line for the check in, which they opened a little early. Pretty efficient process, but then, with over 2900 applications, it had to be, and they did a tremendous job, considering. Step one, check in with your USAT card and ID to verify you were on the list, then on to Step 2: get your waiver form and medical disclaimer card…downstairs to step three, stop and verify your waiver and medical cards..sign them…and head to step four…show the door volunteer that you had signed both cards, then step in and get weighed….downstairs to step five, get your swim cap and race packet with your bibs, chip, chip strap, race guide, and some related info, verify your info again…then on to step 6, get your (swag) race bag with the Transition and Special Needs bags inside, a program, and a poster..then step seven, verify your timing chip. You’re done. Back upstairs to the Expo. Total time expenditure: 22 minutes.
Chris and I hung out to wait for Mark – he’d scheduled his massage for 10, thinking we’d be checked in beforehand, so he had to step out of line, go get his massage, then come back. So Chris and I found a comfortable spot, chatted with other racers and support crews. Mark was done by 1120, and through registration by noon. Carolyn had texted me to tell me they’d be in between one and two, so Mark, Chris and I walked back up to State Street and had lunch in a gyro place – MAN did that hit the spot! Sat and chatted for a while… and then met Carolyn and Kyle a few blocks away…walked back down to the venue…ogled the bike porn…scoped out the bike transition…and when Carolyn was done with her check in, we made arrangements to meet for supper later, at which time we’d take care of the bikes and bags and such. Carolyn and Kyle headed up into town, and Mark, Chris and I went out to drive the bike course.
Getting lost a couple of times kinda sucked, but we managed (roads in Madison can have two, sometimes three names, which makes navigation a challenge all its own). On top of that, the GPS provided by the car rental place proved to be next to worthless – I kept hearing the Tom Tom commercials in my head (…dropped off the radar…wild goose chase)….anyway, we discovered quickly that the hill profile included in the course description really didn’t do it justice…and the athlete reviews we’d read or heard were proving alarmingly accurate. Ironman Wisconsin is thought to be one of the four most challenging bike courses in Ironman, and we could begin to see why. Big rolling hills, false flats, 46 turns – yes, that’s 46 turns – many of them at or on hills, plus a couple of nice steep 10% grades, all combine to make one very challenging course that is almost impossible to anticipate. Still, after some of the rides I had done in training, I was optimistic, but I also knew I needed to be VERY careful not to go too hard out there.
After getting lost one more time, just for good measure and to ensure we caught the Friday evening rush hour traffic, we made it back to town, and met Carolyn and Kyle and a friend of Kyle’s (whose name has vanished into the ether that is my post-race brain) for dinner at a little Afghani place on – you guessed it – State Street. Curry..kebabs…and a local microbrew, not to mention an even MORE startling cast of characters across the street – the tall Goth Abe Lincoln sticks in my head – made for an interesting dinner. Tasty too. We socialized until about seven, then headed back down to the venue for the Mandatory Athletes Meeting. Met the Ford Ironman Everyday Hero, a guy who (long story short) lost his leg below the knee in a farm accident at age eight, and this year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the accident is doing eight Ironmans in eight months (this was number five)…watched a rules video…got our instructions and cautions from the Swim, the Bike, and the Run coordinators…and headed back to our hotels. Mark and Chris headed back north…Carolyn and Kyle gave me a ride back to mine, which was a huge help – thank you both again.
Tina, friend of mine from Helena had flown in from Helena just a bit earlier, while we were at the Athlete’s Meeting. Having her here made the whole weekend feel complete. I’ve known her for 20 years…I have breakfast nearly every Sunday with her and her husband Keith, where I get razzed pretty regularly about my training schedule…and she was there to cheer and take pictures when I did my first tri at Spring Meadow. It was only right that she be there to witness the fulfillment of the journey that began two-and-a-half years ago.
She had texted me from the airport and asked about the car – should she get a Crown Vic or a Prius? Having witnessed Mick unloading his bike from the back of his car at the Avon tri last year, I told her Prius – which proved to be a good choice, especially in and around the venue. It held the bike nicely (with the wheel taken off), and was small and maneuverable. I really kinda liked it! Anyway, she arrived at the hotel about ten minutes after Carolyn and Kyle left…we talked and caught up for a while…then called it a night.
Saturday, September 11th
Slept in a little this morning. Got some coffee…a little breakfast..watched the weekend forecast. Prepped my transition bags…did a mental run-through of the day…called my sister in Wichita…took the bike out for a quick spin to make sure all was well mechanically…then we loaded up and headed for the venue for Bike Check-in and Transition Bag drop off, all of which went without a hitch. Smooth process IF you get there early. Learned real quick that you don’t want to wait until the last minute for ANY of the required steps. Then we headed down to the swim start for another swim, this time with all the requisite gear…and the lake was like glass. Soooooo smooth. Mark had spotted me from the bridge over the transition area, and met us down at the lake. We swam for a bit, got out…photo op…then changed into dry clothes and headed back to the venue, chatting about tomorrow. I happened to ask why it was recommended that the tires on the bike be flattened, or at least softened the night before, and the description of folks who didn’t, and double flatted the next morning, was enough to convince me I’d better soften mine before we left. So we headed back up to the transition area…and were told by the security guard that transition was closed, and no one, not even athletes, would be allowed in. Uh oh. Not good. On the bright side though, it was a BIG transition area…and I was able to sneak in at a gate about halfway down, and let some air out of the tires. Whew! Stress bomb diffused.
Headed back to the hotel for a quiet in-room supper, some TV….and slept like crap.
Sunday, September 12th – RACE DAY
Alarm goes off at 0330. Managed to get a whoppin’ four hours of sleep last night – and that was after taking a Benadryl before bed. Not nearly as rested as I wanted to be, but it is what it is, today is race day, and you’ve got a job to do. Coffee helped clear my head…water got things moving…I did the last prep work I needed, showered, shaved, put in contacts, grabbed my wetsuit bag, my swag bag with my bike supplements and a cold water bottle, my Bike Special Needs bag, and my Morning Dry Clothes bag and we headed out.
What am I doing? I am SO not ready. I’ve never felt more undertrained or under-prepared.
Found a great parking spot near the venue – again, early bird gets the worm – and I headed up into transition right as it opened at 0500. Loaded nutrition bottles 1 and 2 with the Perpetuem/Heed mix (bottle 2 had the ice), double checked the bento box and contents, borrowed a pump to air up the tires, gave the wheels a spin, and headed out of transition…dropped off the Special Needs Bag…and headed to the Swim start. Scarfed and tried to enjoy my pre-race breakfast of Ensure and a banana….truth is, I hardly tasted it. Tina tried to be encouraging, but my head was so full of doubt and apprehension, I barely heard it. Mentally, I was out in the lake already. I was in my wetsuit by 0615 after one last bathroom stop. Swim opened for the pros at 0620…opened for all others at 0630. I was in the water by 0635. Swam out to get limbered up, and tried to find a good position. Several IM Wisconsin veterans had told us that they lined up between the red buoy (marking the northwest corner of the swim loop) and the off shore water ski ramp. Sooooo….I lined myself up along the ramp, and tried to seed myself far enough back that I shouldn’t get trampled, swamped, or otherwise mutilated in the start, and wide enough that I should have essentially open water to my right as we swam (it’s a counter-clockwise 2-loop course).
Two problems: first, there were folks positioned on the OTHER side of the ramp, between the ramp and the beach…and second, when the cannon went off – BOOM! (more of a dull thump with my earplugs in) – there were still a couple hundred folks still on the beach! So much for open water!
You know, Mass Start has such an innocuous ring to it…and doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the reality. This was warfare; an unrelenting, no-holds-barred, hope-you-can-hold-your-breath wetsuit-clad melee. And either I didn’t seed myself back far enough, or there was a freakin’ boatload of swimmers who had seriously underestimated their swimming abilities, because in spite of my best efforts, I was nowhere near open water on the outside, and I got swamped from behind pretty damn regular. All I can say, is thank heavens for the heads-up drills, because that’s all anyone could do from the start to the first buoy. And that first buoy seemed to come up FAST. I remember thinking “First buoy already? Holy cow!”
The first buoy is also significant for another reason. Sometime back in the history of Ironman Wisconsin, (a.k.a. Ironman Moo), the swimmers started it…the volunteers loved it…and so it stuck: first corner is Moo Corner; when you round the first turn, you Moo for the volunteers. After the free-for-all up to that point it sounded more like the moaning of battlefield wounded (I’ll blame it on the earplugs), but I Moooo’d for all I was worth…then looked for some open water. Found it (sort of), put my head down, and just focused on swimming. Lake Monona is a bit challenging for another reason: its boundaries, at least from water level, are almost featureless: there’s almost nothing to sight on. The sun kind of helped, at least in a general way, but all you could do otherwise was pick out a slightly more odd-shaped hump in a tree line and hope it looked the same when you sighted next. And drafting? Huh! Not even a consideration. I kept waiting for the crowd to thin out a little, and it did to an extent, but even so, you remained vigilant against the flailing feet, and the I-can’t-swim-in-a-straight-line-to-save-my-life berserkers, from swim start to swim finish.
After the first leg, the remaining legs stretched out into a semblance of normalcy – they all felt long – but I did finally find my pace, I never went anaerobic, and I kept my goggles and my teeth where they belonged. Gravy. Still, I was very ready when I finished lap 2, and approached the Swim Out.
Out of the water, let the strippers do their jobs (I couldn’t find any with gloves – hope my suit came out okay), and jogged up the Helix to get my transition bag. Looked at my watch, which I had started when the cannon went off: 1:28. Yes! A little ahead of my anticipated time! Optimism rising. Grabbed by bag, and jogged into the changing room. It was a little odd having someone help me with shoes…helmet…socks…I wasn’t expecting that, but it did help, even if it did feel a little creepy. Drank my water, helmet on, shades tucked into helmet, race belt, shoes and socks on…out the door..get sunscreened…and up to my bike. A quick check of the tires, give the wheels a spin…jog it out to the mounting area. Hop on, clip in and ride down the Helix, out of Monona Terrace…and into the course. I’m a mile down the road when I choke up for the first time: holy crap – I’m running an Ironman! Blink hard, swallow the lump, get into cadence. Only one real technical area – there’s a mile or so stretch that’s a race no-passing zone due to the very sharp turns onto a rather narrow bike path…then it’s off the path, across the Alliant Energy Center parking lot (BIG lot), and out another 11 or 12 miles to the beginning of the loop.
The loop itself is awesome. I’m not a fan of running or riding in circles, especially not over longer distances, largely because with longer distances, I REALLY dislike seeing the same terrain over and over again. This was definitely NOT an issue on the IM Wisconsin course. With 46 turns, a lot of them at or on hills, varying road qualities, rolling hills, false flats, and some steep climbs…the terrain varies significantly throughout, but on top of that, there is such a diversity of environment. You’ll go from open road in grassy meadows…to tree-lined plots of corn with quaint farmsteads on them…to suburban neighborhoods….to cool, shaded tunnels of green where the trees grow tall over the road….all of this comes in what seems to be an infinite variety so you never really feel like you’re doing the same ground twice. Except of course, for the hills. Three in particular. If I did my math right they cropped up the first time at miles 45, 47, and 50, and they were some shockers. In loop 1, I had an IM Moo veteran – Angela, according to her race bib – look over her shoulder at me when I commented on how fun the course had been. She looked at me derisively, and said snidely “This is where it begins. You ready?” The ‘Humph!” was silent, but implied. At that point we started up a gentle grade, rounded a corner..and met hill number one, a nice little 8-9% beastie that runs for a quarter mile or so. I dropped her in the first hundred yards. I muttered under my breath, “Faugh! Darlin’, I trained on the freakin’ Continental Divide. ‘Am I ready?’ Puh-leeeze!” I never saw her again on the bike.
Two miles further in we hit hill number two, and , this one was incredible – it was like being in the Tour de France…minus the hairy Frenchmen in Neon green Borat suits. The hill doesn’t look like much, but it surprises you, it grinds at you, and you burn nonetheless. But with THAT crowd, cheering THAT loud, for YOU – there is no WAY you can stop! And you wanna make them even better? GRIN at them – they go absolutely freaking NUTS! It’s beyond incredible! You basically float over the next three miles, and then, there it is – the brute, the widow-maker – ‘bout 10%, maybe a little more – and a little bit longer than number one – oh, but it got the quads burning! Top it out, and you get to catch your breath as you continue on an extremely well regulated, almost completely controlled course (they say it’s open to traffic, but I don’t remember but a handful of cars passing me the entire course) headed for loop 2. And then it hits you – you get to do those hills again! You do the math in your head…let’s see, that would be at…at miles 87, 89…and 92. Oh…that’s just not right!
Into loop two, though I couldn’t tell you exactly where it started if my life depended on it. Later in the day…different light…most of it looked different enough you didn’t think about going in circles, and the course varied enough, you couldn’t really remember what was coming up. Except of course, for the Three Amigos. I stopped at mile 70 to reload my nutrition…and at mile 82 to use the restroom – definitely wanted to do that before the hills. It’s warmer now – high temp closed in on 80, and the humidity was in the mid- to upper-70’s, and I was starting to feel a little queasy on the Perpetuem, so I increased my water intake a little. That helped. But I was also starting to feel the reality: in spite of myself, I still had gone out WAY too hard the first loop. Hopefully this is something I’ll get better at in the future, but between the HUGE reservoirs of energy from tapering, the unpredictability of the course, and the sheer numbers of riders on the course (which made everything more challenging – a simple pass could turn into a five- or six-bike overtake maneuver, which all too often included a hill, and when you HAVE to pass in 20 seconds or risk a drafting call..can’t NOT complete your pass, or risk a drafting call…or worse, get trapped on the inside at a hill and can’t pass on the right, you slow down, struggle to the outside, and push to get past because your easy pace is WAY faster than they’re going…) it was tough to gauge how hard I was really working. And it cost me in the long run.
Finished out the second set of hills, and thank heavens for the crowd at hill 2 – they are the ONLY thing that got me up that hill. By that point, my tank was pingin’ the E. And I still had one to go. I cleared it – grinning I think, but it probably looked more like a rictus – put my head down, and tried not to think too much. Scratch that. I tried not to think at all. Somehow, I managed to get up hill 3 – a combination of good crowds and the perverse motivation of hearing the cyclist next to me going anaerobic. Yeah, it’s sick, but at this point I’ll take whatever I can get.
I hit my low point about mile 107/108, and actually let the thought of DNF-ing cross my mind. I absolutely did NOT want to run after this, I just wanted to STOP. I was already dreading the ride up the Helix (the last hill on the course, back at the venue where you ride up to transition), I hurt, and I didn’t feel like I had anything left in my tank. But I thought about my friends, and I thought about my Team, and I remembered the words I wrote (in a MUCH more coherent frame of mind) to another team mate before she raced her first half iron this year. I’ll quote it directly:
“…Remember that in triathlon (as I’m sure you found in swimming as well) you may race as an individual, and your day is dependent upon your individual performance. But you do notrace alone. Your whole team here is pulling for you, cheering for you, and we BELIEVE in you. And we are very, very proud of you. “
I thought of my Iron teamies..Karen, Sarah, Shawn, Rebecca, Ann G., Ann S., Jason, Rebecca, Russ, Mike, Mark, Aubrey, Laura, Jeff (I know I missing some, and I apologize, but I swear you were all there) who had done this…I thought of all my friends and team mates: triathletes, runners, bikers, swimmers, co-workers, who were looking at us here in Wisconsin, watching us, cheering for us…and it was like I carried my own personal Hill 2 crowd with me. I couldn’t quit, not yet. So I negotiated with myself to hold off on making that decision until I reached T2.
Halfway up the Helix, I knew I was going to run.
I actually jogged into transition – slowly and painfully – retrieved my bag, and went to change. I allowed myself a little breather, rested, collected my thoughts, drank an extra cup of water…and went out into the light. Sunscreen again…and followed my pre-race plan to walk the first mile to get my legs under me. After that, my plan was to walk one, run one, until I could find and keep a consistent pace. I had switched from Perpetuem to Cliff Bloks (thanks for the recommendation Russ N!), and let a little time pass so the first ‘meal’ had a chance to start into my system. That part went okay, but the walk one / run one proved problematic – I started cramping. Nothing serious, but I knew what was coming if I pushed it, so I modified my plan to run until I cramped..walk it off..run until I cramped…walk it off. It worked, after a fashion, but not as well as I hoped. But I was making forward progress.
A basically flat run course: around the Capitol, through Capitol Square…out to the Stadium…and oh did that artificial turf feel nice to run on! I hate running in circles, but 26 miles on that nice, soft, cushy stuff sounded pretty good to me! I laughed with another runner and kidded him that when we hit the far end of the field, we were supposed to stop and do ten up/downs. He chuckled.
Out of the stadium and out onto the campus – college kids and crowds spread out throughout. At the Mandatory Meeting, the Race Director had told us to be ready for them. He said “ Saturday, they have their first home game against San Jose State, so they’re going to be excited already. YOU, however (pointing to the audience), are their reason for drinking on Sunday!” We laughed. And now, we were among them. In the outer areas of the run course we met them in smaller groups – especially around the aid stations – but they all made the course fun. Between the runners and the spectators, you never felt alone, and thanks to the bibs, they could cheer you on by name. THAT was cool! The aid stations were great, well staffed, energetic, and well equipped….except for coke. For some reason, only one aid station had coke – so my emergency backup plan after mile 14 was done before I got there. Oh well. Shrug it off and keep walking. The SPONGES, however, were a godsend. Until the sun went down, they really helped to keep the body cool. I made sure I hydrated well, and consumed Endurolytes regularly. After seeing the salt rings, and in some cases, salt SINGLETS on other runners, I knew I’d be in trouble if I didn’t. Helped a little with the cramping too.
Finished the first loop…passed Mark around mile 11.5 headed the other direction into his second loop …made it back to the halfway point, did a little happy dance over the timing mats, which got the crowds fired up, and their energy was enough to carry me running for another mile or so. Headed back to the stadium, and REALLY enjoyed the astroturf this time. I’d been really fighting my right shoe for the last 4 miles or so…hot spot on the outside of the foot at the pinky toe that felt like a blow torch was in there. Had the same problem with my Mizuno’s at my half last year. Grrrr! So I’d stop every couple of miles, take the shoe off, make sure the sock was okay – I’d doubled up at mile 4: thin sock over the Injinji’s – and try again. At each stop I alternated: one stop with orthotic in…one stop with orthotic out. I did half the race without an orthotic (and no insole) in that shoe.
By mile 15 I was grinning a lot. I knew then I was going to finish. It was starting to get dark, so I cracked the yellow glow sticks on my belt. Walk…run a little…walk…run a little…out along the lake, back into town to State Street, and the awesome crowds there. High fived everyone I could reach, going in and coming out, and they fed me energy and enthusiasm in return. If you really want to have a fun time at Ironman – FEED THE CROWD. What you get in return is incredible!
The air was cooler now, and my energy levels came up a bit. At mile 20, I cracked the red glow sticks – 20 miles marked my longest ‘run’ – everything from here on out was a distance PR. Well. Sort of. (Would mean a lot more if I’d actually RUN it). I looked at my watch, and realized that if I could match my Governor’s Cup 10k pace, I could finish sub 14. I tried. I really did. It lasted maybe a half mile before I cramped. Damnit. Walking faster. Last set of mats….grinning like an idiot now, and choking up again as it hits me I’m going to FINISH an Ironman. Blink. Swallow hard. Blink, blink. Grin bigger. I’m cramping less…my foot is screaming…and I’m euphoric.
Grabbed a couple of cookies at mile 24….high-fived and thanked every volunteer, traffic cop, and spectator I came across from there to a little beyond mile 25…and ran the last mile or so to the finish.
As I rounded the second to last turn, I saw the crowds…the noise was incredible…high fives all the way in…then around the last turn… and I see it. It’s been in every Ironman picture and every Ironman video that I have viewed for the last year: the white timing arch; that glorious, luminous, magnificent edifice of aluminum-stretched canvas. Pain evaporated. I was not tired. I was pretty sure I could fly. Almost in the periphery I see the guy in front of me rolling on the ground ahead of me, and I remember thinking to myself “Heck, if he doesn’t want it, I’ll take his position and time!” I sprinted to the finish line…heard a couple of names…then ,”..Stephen Creigh….(something, something) ..Montana…YOU are an Ironman!”
The rest is kinda hazy…a VERY attentive finish line volunteer draped my arm around his shoulders…how did I feel? (I feel great!)…did I want a blanket (Yes, please, a blanket would be great (thank you Jeff Thomas for that advice))…someone wanted to put something over my head (Oh! Finishers Medal! Heck yes!)…what size shirt would you like? (Medium please – (sorry you’ll get a large))…stand here for your finish photo…and then Mark was there “Mooooo!” (there’s NOTHING like being greeted in the finish area by a team mate)….photo taken…would you like some Sprite? (yes, please, Sprite sounds good right now)….how do you feel (awesome!) …. Food tent is over there….congratulations! (thank you)
I’m not bawling like I expected I would be. Quite the contrary, I feel like I’ve mainlined champagne. Bubbly. I should be totally fragged, but I’m not, but I AM glad for the blanket. Tina is there (thank you, for EVERYTHING), with my Dry Clothes Morning bag..after the immediate need for my flip-flops (these shoes are coming OFF!) I skip the rest of the clothes for now, and go for the supplements…I drink my Recoverite while we wait for Carolyn. I hadn’t seen her on the course, so I was a little worried, but heard she wasn’t far behind me. The Helena Moo Crew was gonna do it!
And suddenly, there she is! I gimped and maneuvered my way back into the Finish area…wait while she gets her picture…then tap her on the shoulder…she turns…Big hug. ”Congratulations Ironman!” I honestly don’t know which feels better – personally accomplishing this, or watching a Teamie do it. They’re both pretty awesome!
Swim: 1:26:59 (2:17/100m)
Bike: 6:45:39 (16.57 mph)
Run: 5:58:28 (13:40/mile)
Swim was just about dead on with what I expected –I raced like I trained, and I’m VERY happy with that.
Bike was WAY faster than I expected. I had allowed 8 hours, but figured I might shorten that to 7:30. I definitely was NOT expecting a sub-7 bike. On the one hand it’s pretty cool, and I’m very pleased with the time, but Ironman is about the long term, the long view, and the bike cost me on the run. Newbie mistake, and I’ll be working on that.
I had originally planned on a 5-hour marathon, so needless to say, the run didn’t go as well as I hoped, but about like I expected in the back of my mind. The four weeks before race day I’d backed way off on the running – the last two weeks I ran only twice, and did two elliptical workouts, trying to forestall injuring my right knee which had been giving me problems. On the one side, the resting of the knee helped – it didn’t give me any problems or pain during the race. But the decrease in running during training was evident – I was underprepared, and that probably contributed somewhat to the cramping issues. Which sucks, because aerobically I still had fuel to burn. It will be something I work on for the next one.
Nutrition was pretty much dead-on. Only a little queasiness on the bike, probably due to the elevated heat, and slight under-hydration in combination with the fairly rich Perpetuem/Heed mix I was using. Easily fixed by adding a little more water to the program, but that’s a race day adjustment you just have to watch for. The Cliff Bloks worked great, but I think I needed to cut back a little, especially with all the walking – I kind of OD’d on them; enough so, that I stopped taking them entirely after mile 15 or so.
Still, for my first Ironman, I’m ecstatic with my sub-15 finish time: I took almost 27 minutes off my goal, even with the walking. I know I’ll do even better the next time around. And there WILL be a next time. J
The rest of the trip is pretty tame. Well..kinda.
We met back at the venue the next morning to collect our Special Needs bags. Bikes and transition bags were collected the night before. Carolyn and Kyle were hauling bikes home again, so those were gathered and installed on the bike rack. We visited for a while, basking in the wonders of the previous day, but not talking much about the actual finish – most of the conversation was about various parts of the course…and Mark Carolyn and I listened to the observations made by Chris, Kyle and Tina. Being a spectator had its challenges and rewards too! Way cool!
Hugs and handshakes all around and we parted, each with tour own agendas before heading home. Tina and I ended up making a big loop around Lake Mendota, to end up back near the East Towne Mall (déjà vu all over again) where we enjoyed a nice lunch at Olive Garden. Yummy! Great food and high spirits.
A stop for fuel…return the car…and into the airport. We met up with Mark and Chris at the gate. Same flight. Fancy meeting you here!
A painless jaunt to Minneapolis, and to a short wait to catch the last flight into Helena. And then a longer wait – mechanical issues. Then we’re changing gates and planes….and sorry, but the crew doesn’t have enough hours, so sorry, but the flight is cancelled until 0600 tomorrow. Wheee!
After a discussion, we elected to stay at the airport – with the time it will take to wait for the shuttle..ride to the hotel…check in….sleep…ride back in…deal with TSA and an expired boarding pass…it seemed to be the better choice. And it was a hoot. Had dinner at the last two restautrants open at that hour: Subway and McDonalds (flatbread sandwich from the former…fries – yummy num num fresh cooked fries – from the latter). We laughed – oh, but we laughed. Then we went in search of the mattresses and pillows we’d been told were available. After a mini adventure, and a very helpful maintenance crew foreman, we had our bedding…found the ‘quiet seating area’ (totally misnamed) and camped out. Managed to finagle about three hours of sleep…got up…used bottled water to soften up my contacts and free my sleep-gummed eyes…and hit the Starbucks below us as soon as they opened.
The flight left on time. Well, almost – we had to wait while they printed vouchers – and then we were off. Landed in Helena a little after eight…and my bag was there at the baggage claim! Woohoo! Success! Home… a little breakfast….and lunch with the Vigers doing their Pering workout. Not gonna let a little thing like Ironman mess with a perfect attendance score 😉
Ironman was so much more than I envisioned and expected. It was bigger. It was better. It was absolutely incredible! Yes it was hard, and yes I hurt, but (pardon the francais) damnit, it was FUN! I am definitely going to have to do this again!
I truly believe that Ironman is something everyone should experience. If you love triathlons, DO one. If you’re not entirely sure about triathlons, go with someone who’s racing and volunteer. What you experience will blow you away. The energy, the crowds, the other athletes, the atmosphere is beyond description. You really do have to be there to fully understand, but it is SO worth it.
And now for the parting shot.
All I can tell you after this experience is this:
I don’t know if Ironman is in your future. If it is, great! If it isn’t, great!
But I’m sure there’s something there – a 10K..a trail run…a bike race or ride…a climbing expedition…SOMETHING out there that at some point you’ve said “That would be so cool to do!” or “I’d love to do one of THOSE someday”. And it may or may not be in the fitness world. I can be ANYTHING.
Whatever it is, your someday is here. Your someday is now. DO IT.
Silence the voice inside that tries to convince you that you can’t – it lies. YOU CAN.
And the next time some knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, nacho-scarfing couch potato has the unmitigated gall to tell you, or even insinuate, that you can’t do something – punch them dead in the face. HARD.
Don’t let the walking generalities tell you what you can or can’t do. You get one shot at this flight we call life – doesn’t it make sense for YOU to chose where you want to go? And for Pete’s sake, fly first class! You CAN, you’re ENTITLED, and if you want it, it’s YOURS!
So come on – who’s up for CDA in ’12?