The Ironman will be begin in one minute.
Mike Reilly said it simply, without artificial enthusiasm, as though somebody had asked him when the next train arrives. Still, when his voice carried over the loudspeakers and across the water, around the winding helix of Monona Terrace and up to its top levels, behind to the Capital building, throughout all of waterfront Madison, the place exploded. Even with my earplugs in I could feel the cheers from the thousands amassed on the Terrace vibrating in my teeth. The swimmers around me lifted fists and shouted and cheered.
And I suddenly remembered leaping over snowbanks piled on the corners of the streets in my neighborhood, Jackson nimbly navigating them just behind me as we slide and slosh our way through 3 miles in January. I thought about that day on my bike, the morning Dakota was born. Crisp autumn air, the sun tinting the world with a weaker shade of gold than it did just a few weeks earlier. I thought of Dakota, who instructs, "Daddy, run!" so that I chase her around and around our kitchen, she grinning ear to ear and tossing glances over her shoulder - perhaps to be sure I'm still there, or perhaps to gauge her lead. Of posing for pictures with my Grandma after placing in my age group at her church's 5k race last year. Of riding my mountain bike in advance of "the biggest snowstorm of the year", the frozen creek beside the trail sliced open in icy fragments. Countless hours on the Ironman Wisconsin bike course trying to get smarter, not faster. A rainy marathon last October, my mother standing with an umbrella to cheer me down the street. These and so many other quick glimpses into the last 3 years that have all, in one way or another, led to this now. These thoughts were there and gone in an instant.
I felt good going into the race. Whereas in '06 my energies were almost entirely dedicated to the mental and emotional preparation - which is a bit overwhelming - this time I spent more time focused on the race itself, my strategies and ideas. Lacking all that emotional intensity, though, meant I could relax more and enjoy myself without all the crazy nervousness. The day before the race I took one last glance at the forecast; high in the mid 80's, zero chance of rain, wind 0-5mph. Quite a difference from '06, but a forecast that would present its own challenges. I started the morning before raceday by cutting my hair very close to my scalp, feeling like that would help me stay cooler, or at least help me feel like I was staying cooler. Some of the Team came with me to the Terrace to check in my bike and transition bags. We headed to the Janus Inspiration Station so I could check in my fundraising efforts with them, and the Team all went in and made some fun signs and posters for the Motivational Mile - a mile stretch where all these signs are staked into the ground, and we athletes see all the cool things friends and family have created for us as we run by at around mile 9 and again around mile 21.
Later that day the rest of the Team arrived, including my brother and sister, and lots of friends. All tolled we actually had more on the team this year than we did in '06, which meant I'd have another awesome crew to lead the charge on race day. Amazing. Totally humbling. We enjoyed dinner together, caught up a bit with each other, and finally it was time to wish each other well with promises to "see you out there".
The next morning, all preparation done I started finally making my way down the helix. It is surreal when so many things get summed up. When it all comes down to, finally, just a downhill walk before everything a person has worked for so long, so much, so hard for comes to pass - in whatever way it will. I remember in '06 being a bit overwhelmed with these thoughts. Today - I just tried to soak everything in. The cool concrete beneath my feet, the crisp air of the helix. The din of a thousand murmurs as fans and friends lining the helix waited anxiously for the race to begin, for their athlete to start, for their Ironman to commence. I was excited. I was happy. I was thoughtful. Then I looked up and saw a handful of familiar blue t-shirts, their backs mostly to me as they looked out over the edge of the helix. "Is he here yet?" I asked, and my friends and Amy all turned around, as happy to see me as I was to see them. It was nice to stop a moment and just catch up - on where everybody was, on how many hours of sleep I got (4), on how we were all feeling. It was also great to get one last hug before we said goodbyes.
I was thinking about them, especially glad to have seen Amy one last time, as I heard another voice say "Chris!", and it was my friend Bob's wife, Gaye. I gave her a quick hug, she wished me well, and I told her I hoped I see her out there to give me updates on how Bob was doing throughout the day. We live in the same town, and while we never trained together, Bob and I were always sharing thoughts and Ironman preparation through the year, and I was cheering him on.
A little further down the helix and I heard "xt!" My man Thomps was there - he gave me a quick fist pump, wished me well, then as I started off said, "Hey!" I turned around, and he said, "It's all execution, now". He knew that I'd trained with some specific goals in mind, and executing those plans was the order of the day. I gave him a thumbs up and headed down. It was so great not to make that walk down the helix alone with just my own thoughts. By the time I reached the bottom of the helix, it felt like a sendoff. A great way to start the day.
The swim chute was lined with rows and rows of spectators, volunteers, and supporters. I put in my ear plugs and put on my swim cap, and pulled the rest of my wetsuit up while I slowly walked to the edge of the water. I thought I heard somebody shout for me, but it was hard to know with the sound muffled and mixed with the music and cheering. Finally, at about 6:40, I entered the water, got acclimated, and made my way out into the start.
The Ironman will begin in one minute.
I looked around, assessing one last time my starting position as the sun rose liquid crimson over an utterly still Lake Monona. In '06, I started almost right on the first turn buoy - way out wide of the field. I swam mostly alone all day, and thought I was an insider to a clever trick - avoid the carnage by starting way out here! Apparently in those 3 years everybody in the world has read this blog. There was zero solitude out by the turn buoy, people now starting even way inside of it. So, I started back of the field, looking to position with swimmers closer to my pace, rather than get mowed over all morning because I was the slow guy in front, and found a bit of space in the midst of everybody else trying to find a bit of space. I thought we'd get a countdown, or a ready...set - but suddenly, without fanfare, the cannon went off, and, after all, the Ironman was underway.
It was chaos from the start. Limbs flailing, bodies smashing into one another, arms and legs wrapping around legs and arms. I expected it, and for the first several hundred yards did nothing proactive for it, or even reactionary - just swim. I'd bump into people, they'd bump into me, but we'd just swim. I concentrated on keeping my effort low and comfortable, and just - literally - going with the flow. Not that anything in a race ever seems to go "slow", but having all these other people to have to think and act around made the first length of the first lap fly by - I hardly noticed the Terrace sliding by on my right whenever I turned to breathe. I stayed close to the turn buoy, having to breast-stroke in the traffic jam, before finding daylight on the other side to start swimming again. Then the next corner, which would take us back across the Terrace and to the start of the second lap, I thought the scrum would loosen up, as it usually does. It didn't. Still crazy beating and bashing everywhere. Twice I took a punch in my eye and had to stop and adjust my goggles - who knew goggles served the dual purpose of being protective eyewear? A few times I found myself getting into a nice rhythm before I'd hit ankles or calves in front of me, and when I'd look up to sight I'd see a wall of swimmers in front of me - no place for me to go left or right. So, I'd just slow down, deciding that I'd sit on their heels and wait for an opening, conserving energy in the meantime. A few times a faster swimmer would go gliding by, and I'd hang on their feet as they went, using them for a fullback to clear a path that I could get through. The entire first lap I mostly swam "slow". Whenever I tried to get into my pace or rhythm I was affected by swimmers around me, so I'd just slow down, sit in the mix, and wait for the next strategy to reveal itself.
As I turned onto the second lap, I thought for sure it would loosen up. It didn't! Of course it wasn't as crazy as the start, but I was still adjusting my swim to those around me. At this point I figured maybe something good was happening - if I'm still in the mix, maybe I'm swimming with a slightly different crowd than I'm used to, perhaps a bit faster pace or something. I hung with it, still trying to have solid technique, swim comfortably and never too fast, and just stay in the moment. It wasn't until the turn around and final length back that things spread out enough where it was just me, swimming how I wanted to. At that point I felt like I'd conserved all kinds of energy, so it was easy to get into a rhythm and just hang onto it. Before I knew it the last big red buoy was in sight, and it was time to turn left and back to dry land. I'd had a blast out there, never had such a fun swim. More importantly, I felt fresh and relaxed, like I hadn't worked hard out there at all.
As I approached the shore a volunteer reached out his hand and I grabbed it and let him yank me up to the ramp. I glanced at the clock at the swim exit and saw that I'd swam in 1:24:47. I actually laughed out loud as I ripped off the top of my wetsuit, my goggles and swimcap, and remarked, "holy shit." Granted the water conditions in '06 were totally different - choppy and rough - but c'mon, eleven minutes faster? 8 minutes faster than I'd swam the same distance, on the same lake, in a race just 3 weeks before. My expectations were to swim 1:30 - anything under I'd consider outstanding, but 5+ minutes were beyond any expectations at all. And not because I did any crazy awesome swimming, but because I got in the mix and let everybody carry me. My race plan - to race smart, not hard - was already seeing success. Awesome.
I lay down quickly on the mats and let the strippers tear my wetsuit away from me, then headed through the rest of the chute and back to the helix. I looked up to see if I could spot some of the Team, but wasn't sure if they were still there or no. Still, I pounded on my chest to let them know, if they were there, that I was feeling strong and was with them. As I cruised up the helix, I found them where I saw them the first time, and high-fived to their cheers as I went past.
In '06, I treated the transitions like intermissions. Stopped to catch my breath, relax a little, change clothes. With the weather so nice, I stuck to the same tri-top and shorts all day, and had packed and planned my transitions to be quick in-and-outs. Transitions, I decided, were to be treated like any other race - free speed. To the efficient and expeditious to the rewards, so I did my best to prepare for quick work.
I grabbed my bag and had a seat, and an awesome volunteer stopped right away to help me. I'd put a gel flask and salt tabs container, held together with a rubberband, in my right shoe, for quick placement into my right rear pocket. Multi-tool and extra tube, also rubberbanded together, were in my left shoe, to go into my left back pocket. Race belt on. I put on my right sock, which was also stashed in my right shoe, while the volunteer looked for my left sock, which was in my left shoe. I waited. He looked. "No sock." He said. He looked helplessly through my bag again. "No sock?" I asked? "No sock." He repeated. I laughed. "That's Ironmnan," I said while I took off my right sock, grabbed my shoes and helmet, and said, "What's your name?" "Mark," he said. I put out my hand and he shook it. "Thanks Mark, you're awesome." And I bolted from my chair. "Wait!" He shouted. "Your Garmin!" I had my run Garmin in my Bike bag so I could turn it on while on the bike and not wait for satellites to find it when I started the run. Would've sucked to forget it. I grabbed it and shouted back my thanks, and crammed my gloves into my back pockets as I ran out of the Terrace and onto the tarmac, where a long run down would bring me to the bike.
Because (I found out race morning) I did the Janus Charity Challenge, my race number was low - #93. This also meant my bike was racked way on the farthest wall of the Monona Terrace parking lot. This was cool, because I didn't need to run at all with my bike - I essentially just needed to grab it, take a few steps to the mounting area, and get on. I ran steady and swiftly through the parking area, surrounded by athletes running with bikes, picking up bikes, shouting numbers to volunteers. I heard cheers from my left as I got closer to my bike and was surprised to see a wall of blue t-shirts; most of them had left the helix sometime during the swim (I think?) and positioned themselves at Transition to watch the bike exit. It was so awesome to see them there, and I quickly blew them a kiss before shouting "Ninety-Three! Ninety-Three!" to the volunteers as I got closer to the bike. When I arrived at my rack a volunteer met me with my machine, and I quickly sat down and put on my shoes - without socks. I'd never ridden without socks before, ever, and certainly at Ironman, where I consider comfort a premium, I would never even consider it. But somehow in all my diligent planning and packing a left sock was abandoned, so there you go. I had stashed an extra pair in my special needs bag, so I figured if it was that bad I could put some on in a few hours.
Finally read to rock, I grabbed my bike and headed to the dismount, lifting it close to me on the way so I could whisper, "this is it now, just like we practiced". Just as I was about to get on my bike, I heard somebody say, "Ninety-three, you lost a glove!" I turned and a volunteer had picked it up and was about to throw it to somebody on the side of the Terrace. "Mine!" I shouted. "Hey baby, that's mine!" Hey baby? First, it was a dude, and second, hey baby? But what the hell, at Ironman you lose control of a whole list of faculties, the gift of language apparently first among them. He heard me and ran the glove to me. "Thanks baby!" I shouted back to him (really?), and I finally mounted the machine and started my descent down the helix.
The first few miles of the bike are spent just getting away from downtown, so you spend some time on some frontage roads and a narrow bike path with big "no passing" signs to let you know to go slow. I spent this time getting into my groove, using my teeth to get my gloves on, and settling my heartrate down from the awesome hysteria that is Monona Terrace on raceday. I heard a shout for me just as I left the Terrace - I think it was my friend Erin, but wasn't sure - and pedaled mostly upright, not in the aero bars, just slowly rolling along as we finally wound around the Alliance Energy Center and then only some real roads. Finally we found ourselves out of Madison and onto Whalen Road.
Where I was surrounded by people who apparently thought the race ended in Verona.
Everybody pushing huge gears, standing up and launching themselves over even small bumps in the road, screaming past me like their tires were on fire. I wished them well, sometimes calling out after them as their names were on their race bib numbers - "Looking good John", "Stay strong Carrie", that sort of thing. But, almost to a person, they left me in the dust. And this was totally okay. My plan was to take it stupid easy to Verona, and beyond - the first 45 miles or so I planned to just spin easy, feeling no effort at all from my legs. I'd stop pedaling on every descent, even small ones. I'd sit up in the saddle often, and just relax. Like a Sunday ride out in the country. I didn't know what anybody else's plan was, but if it involved rocket thrusting to Verona, then God bless 'em and I hoped it's a great day out there for them.
The first 16 miles or so gone and into Verona, and I saw the Team on the corner just before the course gets more serious, on Valley Road. Impossible to miss, they were a huge wall of blue, obvious from a half mile away. I saw my sister, who had flown in late the night before, and was happy to see her among the rest of the masses. They roared for me as I went by, and I gave them a fist in the air. It was so good to be back. So good to blaze by them on a bike again. So nice to have the sun shining on us, to be in the Ironman. Somebody pulled up alongside and said, "Wow, those guys were loud, that was awesome." I told him I had an army out here with me today.
I saw the Team again in Mt. Horeb, them shouting and screaming and me yelling various versions of "Yeeee-hoooooo!" as I cruised by.
Already 30 miles into the bike, and with Mt. Horeb behind me it was time to buckle into the meat of the bike course. I took stock - so far, so good. Nutrition was on point, sockless feet felt fine. It wasn't hot yet, but I was still hydrating more than usual in anticipation of the heat. My effort was easy, just where I wanted it to be, and with no wind out there my pace was slightly faster than I would've expected at that point. All arrows pointing in the right direction. I felt a touch of discomfort in my stomach, but nothing that raised any red flags for me - just something to keep an eye on (Ahem. Cue ominous music here).
I kept my effort precisely to plan. I was feeling great - pedaling easy, bike moving fine, a fantastic day to race. I sat up in the saddle at one point and said out loud, "Thank you for this. Thank you for this opportunity, this race, this day." Maybe I talk to my God, maybe to his intercediaries, maybe just nature and the earth and the world. I don't know, it just felt like words I should have said. I love this race.
Approaching Cross Plains, I saw a dude on the side of the road in an Elvis costume. I said to him, "I don't get it, but I like it!" He shouted back, "You'll get it in a second!" As I turned the corner to the waiting aid station, I was greeted by a woman in a corset, with fishnet stockings and feathers in the back. Awesome! They'd gone with some kind of Vegas theme for the aid station, totally cracked me up. I did what I did before every aid station - downed whatever water I had left in the on-board bottle, grabbed one bottle from the station and downed several big gulps, then tossed that bottle and grabbed a fresh one for the bike until the next station.
In '06, the weather was just so awful that hardly anybody came out. This year the Bitch Hills were pandemonium. It was awesome! People everywhere, camped out on the side of the road cheering us all on. I think people thought I was in agony or something because when we'd reach a hill, I'd back way off and pedal up easy, while everybody around me when cruising up the hill. Spectators would cheer for me to "catch him! You can do it!" I'd just smile and give them a fist pump. Up and down the first Bitch, then into the second Bitch at Midtown. People everywhere! I thought of how many countless times I'd climbed this hill in training - slow and steady, all alone except for that "water here" homemade sign that kind roadside homeowner had up all summer. Now it was packed with people banging drums, honking horns, cheering and yelling and screaming. So much fun. So much more entertaining to climb that hill.
Finally on Midtown, I saw the Team again - an ocean of blue, Grandpa Doyle with binoculars around his neck, my friends Chad & Krista (parents, if you've seen the video from '06, of Thunderstealer - their daughter Addison, born 2 days before Ironman '06, was on course with the Team today. Very cool.), my family, my friends. My friend Todd running after me as I tucked into aero. It was amazing. You can't know, unless you're out there, what it does for you to hear a familiar voice call your name, to see a familiar face to hitch your gaze onto and pull strength from. From what I understand it was a crazy caravan of traffic law breakers out there, chasing me down from one stop to another, hurrying to get there in time. I never knew when I'd see them, but I always hoped it was just around the next bend or atop the next hill.
Finally on the straightaway on Midtown, I locked down into my race strategy. Lolligagging was over, now I'd ride my bike. The plan was actually very simple; Still, I'd never push the pedals. I wanted to feel no effort in my calves or quads. But I'd ride aero almost all the time- no more sitting up when I felt like it. And, I'd pedal when nobody else was; mostly this meant on descents - instead of stopping my pedal just as the bike got moving, I'd pedal easy through the gears until I was going too fast to pedal anymore. But otherwise, I'd keep my cadence at 90rpm and my effort easy. It wasn't about going fast, it was just about not going slow.
I had a personally special moment while climbing the Third Bitch. Rich Strauss is a traithlon Jedi in every sense, and runs a team called Endurance Nation - you pay some money to access their training plans and knowledge centers (google 'em). I'm not an Endurance Nation athlete - self coaching is sort of the whole point for me - but he has a lot of insight and advice he shares online in blogs, videos, and other resources that are widely available. So much of what he teaches and preaches - including starting the bike ride stupid easy - I've come to agree with and incorporate into my own training. When I first got into Ironman training, back in 2005, his was a voice that rose over the noise to have some real depth and wisdom in how to train and race for the Ironman. I saw him there on the side of the road, holding an Endurance Nation banner, and as I climbed by I patted him on the arm and said, "I wouldn't be here without you." Which is the honest truth. I think I startled him, but he thanked me, and that was it. It was unexpected to share some space with him, but I was grateful for the opportunity - I don't think I've learned more about the nuts and bolts of triathlon than I have from that guy.
Into Verona, and fans lined the streets in rows. It was amazing. I heard my name again a few times I think. I stopped for my Special Needs bag after Verona, and decided my feet were feeling fine, so I'd skip taking the time to put on socks. I grabbed my new fuel bottle and new gel flask, and noticed a card from Amy. I opened it quickly - there was a note from her and Dakota, and a small stone with the word DREAM etched into it. I put it into my back pocket and hit the road.
I saw the Team again climbing the Little Bitch into Mt. Horeb - there they were lining the road, ready to haul me up the hill, my cousin Erin running along with me. Man, getting off of G and 92, which are tiresome little roads, and seeing that billboard for Cave of the Mounds and looking up that hill to see a sea of blue shirts - that's some good stuff right there. They cheered and shouted for me, and I gave them a fist pump and cheered with them.
In Mt. Horeb I made a brief pitstop at the aid station to use the portable - I'd had to pee for an hour or more. It felt good to stand vertical - the cramping I'd begun to experience early in the bike never really let go, and intensified just after I'd eat gels, so as the day went on I relied less and less on gel and more and more on liquid nutrition. It wasn't affecting my ride - my effort and comfort were fine, but it was a curiosity for me - I wasn't sure what was causing it. I started considering it in terms of the run, and stopped immediately - I was going to stay focused on the task at hand, which was riding the bike smart, not hard. Anything to come after that, I'd have to deal with then.
Just before the Roller Coasters, on S, I passed a rider, then thought I heard my name. As I started my descent down the roller coasters on Witte, my friend Robert pulled up - he's another local triathlete, somebody who's blogs we've exchanged, who I've raced with at some local races, as well as his wife. We ran together a bit in June at a long training weekend. He said he was feeling great to this point - "no complaints", and I told him I was having a great time out there too. He looked healthy and strong, and I wished him a great day.
I'm not entirely sure when it happened - somewhere in the middle of Garfoot, I think, around mile 70 or so - every inch of my race strategy to that point was confirmed to me. Like somebody hit a switch, all of the sudden everybody came back. Everybody. All these dudes on rocket ships that went blazing by me in the first 10 miles in their race to Verona, now they were slowly churning along, clearly uncomfortable, paying for all that effort. Lots and lots of riders who's bikes I'd marked for one reason or another in the first 20 miles were suddenly just standing still as I flew by rider after rider after rider. I'd try and offer encouraging words - I'd pull up, reading the name on their bib, and say something like, "Hey Jim, how you feeling?" I think they'd be surprised to hear their name - do we know each other? - and say something like, "a little tired" or "moving along" or "getting hot out here". They had that glassy look about them. I'd wish them well and be on my way.
I can't remember the last time I saw my team - sometime in Verona, I think - but I shouted to them "Let's bring it home!" and before long I was on Whalen, headed back. When I hit mile 100, I reverted back to my early strategy - no more pedaling on descents, back to sitting up when I felt like it, easy breezy riding along. There was a very slight headwind now, and my speed slowed as my strategy shifted, but I didn't care. The hard work was over. It was time to rest up and prepare for the run. I stopped with nutrition for the last 10 miles or so, drinking as much water as I could. I felt just fantastic. Like I hadn't been out there for more than just a few hours. The fans, the other riders, my Team, it just made the day so much fun.
Still, when I pulled into Madison around the Energy Center, I spotted the Capitol for the first time. My immediate unedited thought when I saw the Capital was (and I may have said this out loud, I tend to say things out loud as they occur to me when racing/training) was: "Awesome things I can think of: Dakota. Making Dakota. Seeing the Capital after being on the bike at Ironman."
The rest was just formality - be smart, avoid checking out mentally and winding up with a flat or worse. The Team were buzzing back into Madison, and they honked and cheered for me as we shared John Nolan Drive for a bit. Finally I swung back into an easy gear as I climbed the Helix. I thanked my bike for everything we'd been through together all this time, all these miles, all these rides, just so we could climb back up the helix together. As I approached the bike out, my friend Chad was there cheering for me, and I gave him a fist pump. I pulled into the waiting arms of a volunteer who grabbed my machine. I slowly peeled myself off - a little tedious in cycling shoes (which are normally clipped onto the pedals when I dismount while racing shorter distances), and I think that caution made the volunteer a little nervous. "Are you okay?" He asked. "Fantastic!" I replied, and meant it.
I'd seen my team, we calculated later, something like 10 times on the bike. I saw Gaye another two or three times, she always with helpful updates that Bob was doing well, and my friends Erin and Aaron (and Newton! And Leonard!) helped me up the last Bitch Hill on the course. Figure I never went more than 10 miles or so without seeing a friendly face, and man. Breaking your day up into 10 mile chunks makes the whole day more manageable.
This next statement, as you'll see, gets an asterisk next to it, but I rode the bike as well as I ever have. I rode the bike precisely to plan, with an average of just under 17mph - the "top shelf" average that I thought might be realistic based on the quality of my training. I never blew up, I never lost control of my effort. I hydrated well, I never overheated. I was fast when the course allowed me to be fast, and I was slow then the course required a slower pace. I got off feeling great - not just like I'd physically had a quality ride, but that I'd really enjoyed myself. I'd gotten the most out of myself and the race. I put all my training to work, and I did everything I'd hoped to do out there.
As soon as I picked up my Transition 2 bag and headed into the changing room, my friend Steve in a Speedo met me at the door. It was like he'd been waiting for me all day. Right away he said, "Here I'll help you with your stuff."
I sat down, and started clearing my pockets from what I no longer needed from the bike. Reached into my left pocket and hey! Hello sock! My thinking is that the mysterious missing sock from Transition 1 attached itself to the velcro of my cycling glove, then came detached and hung out in my rear pocket for the rest of the ride. Crazy.
Steve dumped out my bag while I started sorting through my gear. Steve is an Ironman. He understood that I wanted to be efficient without being hasty. "Need this?" he'd ask and hand it to me, or I'd say, "Hand me that," and he'd do it without looking up, still sorting through my stuff. Mentally I felt good. Focused, sharp. While Steve and I got me ready for the run I prepared preemptive measures against the heat; it had really been a non-factor on the bike, and I knew I'd hydrated well. I'd throw on my arm coolers now and soak them, and I grabbed sponges from my T1 bag to soak as I left transition. With no more work to be done, Steve wished me well and I gave my quick thanks, downed a couple glasses of water, and headed outside.
Not sure I can articulate what it means to have a friend meet you in Transition - a totally unexpected bonus at Ironman. Somebody who knows what you're going through, what you need, who wants to help and make an effort so that you can get the most out of your day. I know Steve was just "doing his job", but he's a class act. I'm sure in the flurry of transition I didn't express it, but it was good to have you there Steve. I appreciate it. Thanks.
I left the Terrace, and hit the portables quick before the sunscreeners slathered me up. I drenched my arm coolers, soaked my sponges and tucked them inside my top, and tossed back some Gatorade before grabbing a handful of ice cubes in each hand. Chad yelled some support for me, and I tipped one back in his honor. This was the heat management plan I'd practiced, and I knew it worked for me. I was ready to roll.
The plan for the first 3 miles was to relax, find a 10:00/mi pace, and walk the aid stations, eating and drinking in each one. I was consistently clocking 9:15-9:30/mi in the first 2 miles, and was encouraged by that - just like in training, I was having to hold myself back. I was patient, and followed through with my hydration and nutrition strategies. But in the second half of mile 2, I started developing a sideache - only it wasn't on my side, but more on the right side of my stomach. By mile 3, I was starting to belch almost constantly, and the Gatorade I'd been taking in wasn't settling right at all. I glanced at my watch, and was just where I wanted to be after 3 miles. I tried to ratchet up to the planned 9:30/mi pace for the next 3 miles.
As I was running around the football field at Camp Randall, belching with every damn footfall, a woman said, with some incredulity, "Who keeps belching?" I raised my hand, "That'd be me." She said, "Dude..." with an aghast look on her face. Oh I'm sorry, I did not say, "am I offending your delicate sensibilities at the fucking IRONMAN???. I pushed what I had to get as far away from her vibe as possible.
I tried to keep my planned strategy through mile 5, but it wasn't working out. I'd take a sip of Gatorade and gag. I grabbed a couple pretzels, and they were hard to chew my mouth was so dry. I'd toss back a couple cups of water and try to put together another mile or so. Sometime in mile 6 I vomited for the first time - all liquid, just whatever Gatorade I'd taken in that far I suppose. Sometime after that I saw the Team for the first time. My sister was clapping with a huge smile on her face. She and my brother both took extraordinary measures to get here for raceday - my sister's flight delayed until 9pm the night before. She reached her arms out wide for me. I fell into them - so happy to see her. "Hang with me guys!" I shouted. I moved to others in the team, giving them a big hug. They were clapping and cheering, Amy's Dad pumping his fist. "It might be a tough one, hang with me out here!" I leaned in to hug my Grandpa, who was sitting down he stayed out there with me all day long. With high-fives and more hugs they saw me back out onto the road. Like I did on the bike, I glanced at my heartrate whenever I saw the team during the run; I'd immediately spike 10 or 20 beats per minute. Actually pumping blood for me, these people were. I wish they knew, I wish they understood.
By mile 8 I was in some critical shit. Nothing I'd tried for nutrition was staying down - and considering that, as per strategy, I stopped taking in calories for half an hour before I got off the bike, I was running supremely low on fuel. Add to this that the slight cramping I'd felt throughout the bike, which was then a small sideache, was now a full blown fist clenching my gut. My form took on an exaggerated bend as I fought the awful cramping in my stomach. I vomited again, and finally hit a portable just before the Motivational Mile.
It felt like 10, but probably more like 5 minutes later I teetered out of the john, immediately went through the aid station and grabbed what I could - a nibble from a cookie, 2 pretzels at most, a revolting sip of Gatorade before tossing it, and as much water as I could. I made the decision then that I needed to stop and walk. For maybe the next mile, maybe more. This was ridiculous. My calorie deficiency had me all hazy, my head swimming, my sensibilities on the brink. I walked through the Motivational Mile trying to sort through what the hell was going on. I couldn't understand this sudden cramping, this nutritional cataclysm that I'd not faced in any training. I was frustrated that all my efforts training for this were rendered useless; I had the legs, I was even managing the heat well, and my head and attitude were there. I just couldn't go without the fuel. So many hours training for this. So many hours spent away from Amy, from Dakota, and it was falling apart like this. I felt like I was letting them down. That my one job out here was to make it happen, to pick it up and set it down, and I was confused about what had happened that I just couldn't eat.
I scanned the signs that covered the Motivational Mile, which friends and family and fans had made a the village the days before the race. I spotted those my Team made. Tears ran freely down my face - just an outlet, I guess, for the pain so far, the frustration, the fatigue. Touched that so many people were out there, and out there behind computers at home, giving a damn that I was putting one foot in front of the other. I guess at every Ironman you face some prospect of "maybe I won't finish this race afterall", and this was mine.
I stood taller then and tried to pick myself up a little. There are lows and highs in the Ironman, and you know that, and this is just a low. Get your shit together kid. You're in charge of how this will go. Just you. Make a decision. I saw a sign then that Amy had made for me, popping up on cue. RUN DADDY RUN! it read, with a picture of Dakota tacked on with ladybug stickers. Run Daddy Run! And she and I would fly around the kitchen, she stealing glances. And she navigating in her stroller, I piloting from behind. And she surrounded by bouncing dogs outside on the way to the park. Run Daddy Run!
So I tossed my cups and my sad attitude with them, and like pulling a stick from mud got some momentum to run. Just half a mile at first - and at the next aid station I grabbed some Coke and put in a cup of ice, a water, and some pretzels. Pretzels first, chased with water, then nurse this Coke for a short bit. In '06, chicken broth was elixir from the gods. Today it was Coke. So sweet! So tasty! So bubbly! So not making me puke! I finished the rest of it, and got back into the game.
I saw the Team again shortly after, and I think they were surprised when i wanted to give them hugs instead of high-fives. My friend Mike Wimmer, who is becoming Ironman, had this to say about the race, which is one of the most accurate and enlightened things I've ever read about the race, "You live in every moment at Ironman and do whatever you need to so that you get to the next moment.". My Team didn't realize the kind of moment I'd just been in, and the kind of moment it was for me just to see them again. "I'm trying to put it together," I yelled, "Stay with me!" They cheered and hopped and clapped, and Amy's Dad ran with me a little ways and asked how it was going. I told him I hadn't been able to keep anything down the first 8 miles, that I was running fumes, but I was trying to get back into it now. He slapped my back and told me he loved me and cheered me down the road.
I stopped again for Coke at mile 10 and was starting to feel like a human being again. I picked it up to run to the next aid station. My gut would feel okay for half a mile, then start to slowly and painfully clench tighter and tighter. I thought about my big plans for race day - hadn't I said out loud that I was shooting for a 4 hour marathon? and laughed out loud. Not cynically, just openly - to make plans at Ironman is pretty much folly. The day hands you something, who knows what, and you deal with it. You put together the best race you can. You do the best you can. The term "best" gets redefined by each one of those moments.
I wasn't running fast, and I was trying to ignore the increasing tightness in my stomach, but I was running. I walked one more aid station at mile 11, then decided I'd been cautious enough - let's see what I can put together. I thought, maybe - even if slowly - I can put together something for the second half of the marathon. Maybe the worst is behind me.
Somewhere in these miles I saw Gaye a few more times, and I heard lots of cheers for "xt4!" I think some of these were from friends (G, Bert's wife?), but I think some of these were from people I don't even know. I ran through the turnaround, and my attitude was back on point. I high-fived the volunteer at turnaround, and I truly wasn't miserable at all to see the finish line come and go. I high-fived my old high school friend Aaron, another Ironman, and that was a weird, sweet flashback to Coyote football '92. I knew I'd be going slow, but I started feeling like I could put something together again.
Shortly after I saw my friends Erin and Aaron, and they ran with me a bit. Erin's an Ironman. "Shit it's hot out here," she said. I told her it wasn't the heat, I didn't know what it was, but I'd had an awful first half. But I was putting one foot in front of other now. Aaron said to me, "Run with a Lion's heart", and that stuck right into my soul. The fell back behind me, but they stayed with me the rest of the race.
At mile 14 I decided I'd try some Gatorade again - let's see if I can start with a clean slate and put this second half together. 3 minutes later I was back in a portable for 5 minutes. Dammit! I'd chosen to skip the mile 13 aid station, so my precarious hold on calories was now back in the hole (uh, literally). I got that dizzy, swooping feeling again and slowed to a walk to get myself together again. At mile 15 I made a bee-line for the Coke, and I'd live on that and pretzels for the rest of the race. When I saw the Team again my mother was there - she too moved mountains to get here, and her flight got in just an hour or so before. I was thrilled to see her, and gave her a big hug. She said, "There's my Ironman!" and told me she loved me. I told the team again that it was a tough one out there. I felt bad for feeling so emotional - that the day had gone so awesome until early in the run, and now they were having to pick up the pieces with me on the run. My sister started running with me then, and she said, "I have literally seen a man become a machine today." I turned my head, and 5 or 6 of them were running with me. I just suddenly turned my head and I'm flanked by blue shirts. They're all smiling, gleaming really. It was awesome. They fell back after a few strides, wishing me well with promises to see me around mile 20. They didn't know it either, but they too stayed with me the rest of the day. If we could see through more enlightened eyes you'd see a whole mess of us crossed the finish line that day.
I stopped for Coke at every aid station after that. I know it doesn't sound like, but I wasn't having a horrible run. It hurt, yes, and I only had about a mile and half in me before my slowly tightening stomach was too unbearable to continue and I've have to walk and nurse it a bit with more Coke, and yeah it was a wicked slow pace. But I was rarely in survival mode - except for that awful mile 8, and a bit of mile 14, I was always power walking if I wasn't running. I was always thinking, making a plan and a strategy to do something with what I had. It was slow, it wasn't the 8:30/mi pace I'd trained to be running at that point. But that's Ironman. My head was clear, and my attitude was right, and I was still glad to be out there, despite any disappointment. "Disappointment" at Ironman is pretty relative. Things weren't going as planned, or as I'd hoped or expected. But I was out there. I was doing it. I'd worked hard to get there. These are things you can't take away from me, however the day was going. Most of all, I was surrounded by my friends and family, and was high-fiving friends that I didn't even know 3 years ago, that today were a significant part of my day. This was the Ironman, and there I was in it, and that's not so bad at all.
The late afternoon temperature cooled rapidly, and it was comfortable running. In that bad stretch on mile 14 I'd snatched from my back pocket the stone that Amy and Dakota had put in my bike special needs bag - I'd carried it with me all this way. I'd been using it now as a kind of worry stone - I gripped it in my hand, and ran my thumb along the word DREAM with each stride, using it as a meditative device of sorts - channeling attention and energy to it to take away my focus on my screaming gut. I was forced one more time to stop at a portable - I probably spent 15 or 20 minutes sitting still during the marathon.
At around mile 18 or 19 I saw the team for the last time, on State Street, and Amy was there with Dakota - I hadn't seen Amy for most of the afternoon, and didn't expect to see Dakota out there at all. D hardly knew what was happening, I think, but seeing her little ponytail on top of her head was just about the sweetest sight imaginable just then. This time my brother came out and ran with me. He high-stepped next to me while I shuffled along, saying, "This ain't so hard! Easy peezy! Give you one of these!" and then he turned around ran backwards. "Huh? What you think about that!" It was good to have to laugh. He patted my shoulder and told me to finish up strong, he'd see me at the finish line. Add another to the crew.
As darkness came and I ran along the lake I saw my friend Mike coming the opposite way. Just seeing him, I knew he'd gotten off the bike, and I knew he had concerns about that. Beyond that, I had no idea how things were. "You finish it up now!" He said. I asked him how he was, and he gave me a tentative, "okay...", but then reiterated that I should be strong. I don't know Mike well, but he seems that kind of guy. Ready to channel some positive mojo your way, even if he has little mojo left to spare. These are the kinds of people I've met in this game. Mike, I brought you with me too.
When I came upon the Motivational Mile again just before mile 22, I stopped and grabbed that picture of Dakota off the sign she'd made. You bet she's coming across the line with me. Run Dakota Run.
I planned out my last 4 miles - a quick Coke here at mile 22, then probably I'll need it again at 24. Power walk when the stomach got really bad, but once I hit mile 25 I was running it out.
But then; If Ironman is a series of moments, then my moment of moments happened while sipping that Coke after mile 22.
As I walked the tail end of the mile 22 aid station, I found myself next to another athlete, also walking. "I can't understand it," he said. "My swim and bike went so well." He had a glassy look about him, and I wasn't sure if he was talking to me or himself. "Me too," I replied. "Had a great swim and bike, but must not have been that great if I'm stuck here walking like this." "Just...can't understand it..." He mumbled. Then two women appeared out of the darkness and joined us. An ambulance stood watch further down the road. "Don't let that ambulance see me," she twittered with a perky laugh. "Don't want them to see me moving this slow, they might toss me in back!" Her friend laughed, and the guy perked up too, laughing with them. I sipped my Coke, and one of them made another joke about if it was legal for the ambulance to drive you across the finish line.
No. I thought. No. You are not going to stay here with these people and wallow in mediocrity and do just enough to get across the finish line and be okay with that. Laughing about it. No. This is not why you woke up at 5am every weekend. This is not why you spent so many hours away from your family. This is not why your Grandpa refilled your coolers on hot runs. This is the Ironman. This is what you asked for. This is your last shot. It didn't go as planned, but here you are. Do not choose the easy road. Not now, not ever. No. No. No.
This passed through my head in an instant, and one last time I forced myself forward and started running. The guy tried to run with me for a bit, but he backed off when he realized he just didn't have the legs.
I ran. I didn't stop to walk up the hills. I ran. I didn't stop at the aid stations anymore. I ran. My goddamn gut was a fist that was so tightly clenched I thought it was going to punch its way out of me and hit me in the face, but I ran. It wasn't fast, but it was all I had. I high-fived the volunteers as I went by. I ran. I high-fived the spectators as I approached the Capital. I ran. Out of the darkness came flying my friend Sarah - she slapped me on the back and hooted and hollered. She's an Ironman too. She knows what this feels like, this last stretch. My friend Steve, her husband, who had put me on my feet so many hours ago out of T2, he cheered and yelled for me, and ran up the road to take out his camera and snap a shot. I think I gave them a point, I maybe gave them a high-five, I know I didn't say anything to them. I was hurting, and I was running, and there was a finish line up there, and they were the last push I needed. You must see now that I crossed this line utterly surrounded.
I have seen this place in my dreams so many times in the last 3 years. So many times. No reflections on the wet cement this time, no frozen fog coming from my breath as I approached, but there it was. I have waited and waited to be here again. It is the stuff that fills in the spaces. It is, when Jack and I sprint at the end of our 2 mile runs, the secret place we suddenly imagine. It is the backdrop to the anthems on my iPod in the middle of winter. Bright lights pinned against the dark, a tunnel of loud, shining, joyful brilliance to welcome us home. The people! My God there were people everywhere! The music pounded, and Mike Reilly's voice captured for eternity in the vibrations on the ether each of our names. And I stopped and threw my fists up in the air and shouted. It didn't matter that I had so little energy left, my stomach pain was irrelevant, the blister that had popped up on my left foot in the last mile was suddenly anesthetized. There was, in my series of moments, this final spectacular moment. I tried so desperately to soak it in, to memorize it, to take it with me. I took a few steps and raised my arms and shouted again before running it home.
Then I crossed the finish line. Then we crossed the finish line.
Bits & Pieces
• My finishing time was 13:39:45, my marathon was 5:20:20, with a pace of 12:14. I don't know what happened to me that kept me from keeping anything down on the run. The most obvious explanation is that I went too hard on the bike. And I'm willing to accept that, I guess. It doesn't jive, though, with my countless hours of training - I didn't do, or face, anything I didn't expect or hadn't faced in training a million times. A second explanation was the heat, which I am famously awful in, but that's just an added source of frustration because really, I managed the heat just fine. Better than expected, in fact. A third plausible explanation is, the lakes here have been really bad with blue-green algae, and the week leading up to the race was still and warm. It's plausible, particularly since I started feeling the cramping just 30 miles into the bike, that I just had a tough reaction to ingesting some on the swim. I'm least comfortable with this explanation only because I can't take responsibility for it. I want to be able to say, "aha well see, you had a Big Mac in transition you idiot and therefore your run was crap (uh, literally). Anyway, it's one of those things I guess. That's part of the challenge at Ironman - you really take a lot of separately constructed concepts and put them together just once on race day. Unlike shorter distance races, where you can tank one week, make sense of it, and try something different at the next race two weeks from now. You get one shot at Ironman.
• I had it as a contingency plan if I felt awful on the bike, but I'm embarrassed to say it never occurred to me on the run to just stop. To find an aid station, get some food and drink, and sit my ass down for 15 minutes and see what happens. If I'd done that early, I wonder if it would have helped - if I could have headed off the downward spiral. Live and learn for next time, I guess.
• All of that said, I was much more present in the run this time around, and for that I'm pleased. In '06 I had a tough go mentally, and had a lot of hopelessness out there. I was mentally engaged most of the day this day, it was just the nutrition that kept me from doing what I had hoped to do. Certainly hopelessness never entered into it.
• I want to really, sincerely thank everybody who was out there cheering me on - on the course; my friends and family, the friends and family of my friends that were also competing. The strangers who came up to say they've watched the video or read the blog - I had some really humbling, kind comments about that stuff. The people cheering for "xt4". Also in the virtual world - I had lots of you following along with the GPS, keeping track and tabs on the day, cheering me on. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it from everyone. That you'd spend any of your personal time doing that is pretty amazing to me.
• I'd like to thank Kaili, Michael & Alicia, my Uncle Mike and my Aunt Pat, who stayed back all day and watched from her computer with my Grandma; Amanda & Gabrielle who hung out with Dakota much of the day, Marlyn & Debbie, who came all the way from Western North Dakota (New York City is honestly closer) just for one day of cheering me on; Mike, Susan, Erin & Jimmy, my Grandpa Doyle who is my biggest fan - his involvement with Ironman goes far beyond race day, and I appreciate that very much; Jay, my brother Matt, sister Heather, and my mom - they uniquely understand what this might be for me, and how important it is to me that they came all this way - my brother drove 8 hours home that night, after the race, my sister flew out the next day, my mother and Jay home the next day too. Lots of miles just to get me across the finish line. Todd and Patrick and Ben, Tara, Chad and Krista and Addison, and of course, most of all, Amy and Dakota. My thanks won't ever be adequate.
• Steve in a speedo took a few of the pictures you see here - thanks Steve!
• Congratulations to my friends who competed in the Ironman on Sunday. I was glad anytime I saw you out there, got an update from your peeps, or caught up with your day afterwards. It's truly an honor and privilege to toe the line with you people. Truly. To those of you still becoming Ironman, or becoming Ironman again; know I will be tirelessly cheering you on and living vicariously through you (so put together a decent marathon, alright!?)
• I haven't yet gone through much of the video the Team (Ben) shot, and haven't received many photos yet from The Team, but if there's a story there to tell from all of it, I'll try and put it together in another documentary. I hope there is - the day, the Team, all of it is too cool, and too much, to adequately put into any kind of race report. So stay tuned for that.
• The blog is going to undergo some changes in the coming weeks and months. There's a lot of decompressing to do yet from Ironman, and I have some specific things I want to share with those of you who are doing Ironman Wisconsin in the future - things I hope you can incorporate into your own universe however you wish, and maybe use in your own becoming. But my own story of becoming Ironman is coming to a close, and it's time for this blog to adapt to that.
• Which is a good segue to say no, I'm not doing Ironman again next year. Or the year after that, or the year after that. For any kind of foreseeable future my personal journey through Ironman is over, or at least I suppose you'd say "indefinitely suspended". I'll hope to do Ironman again when Dakota can be part of the decision. "Dad's about to take on a sort of second job. He'll be gone a lot of weekend mornings, and his brain will sometimes be on other things. What do you think about that?" Provided she's agreeable, and Amy's agreeable, and then that I'm agreeable - and that I'm not going to miss anybody's dance recitals or soccer games or karate or gymnastics or Mathlete meets or whatever on earth this little person finds herself interested in...well as you can see, there are a lot of moving pieces to sort out before I'll be ready to consider another Ironman. Which - this is a good thing, it's a right decision, I welcome it. I'm not leaving triathlon or anything - I plan on a marathon next fall, doing a trail race in just a few weeks. I'll still be here doing what I do, being a part of what you all do. But not at the level that I require of myself for Ironman.
But I'll miss it; I'll missing that tiny speck on the horizon, where each pedal crank or footfall is another pull of the oar, bringing you impossibly closer. I'll miss the smell of Coppertone at 4:30am in July, I'll miss seeing the fields turn from slushy puddles in March and April to bright green and lush in June and July to tired and ready by late August and September. My heart lives there still, and it always will, and whether I get back, or when I do (and I do hope to, however many age group changes may occur), I'll always long for it some.
But time moves differently when training for Ironman. You never really live in the moment; instead of it being early summer, it's x weeks until your mileage should be at xx. Everything revolves around it, exhaustingly so, and I found myself this summer wondering where time went. I spent all winter waiting for spring to get on my bike...all spring waiting for the wind to go down in summer and for long mileage to start...all summer training for hot weather and mentally preparing for September. The stuff of life - the barbecues and swimming pools and running in bare feet...that only got squeezed in. I look forward to it being priority, instead.
In part, this is what made this race such a bittersweet symphony; I knew with every revolution and every turn of my Newtons that this was it for me. That I have no plans to be back. And if you know me at all, if you know anything about me if only from reading this blog, you know that I love the Ironman a great, great deal. I love the distance, I love training for it, I love racing it, I love it's potential and possibility. It's always more than a race to me. For me it embodies and represents something that reaches deep into me, that I've encountered nowhere else. And, my best race is still in me somewhere. I hope I get a chance to find it sometime. But between then and now, I'll likely be teaching a little girl how to ride a bicycle. Get her started early, y'know. Just in case she likes it.
More to come. Thanks again everybody, and much love.
Choose extraordinary ~
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The Ironman will be begin in one minute.