An Ironman triathlon had been on my bucket list for a few years. On September 13, 2010, I decided that 2011 would be my year, shelled out $628.75 and signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2012, in Madison, on September 11.
I began preparing that day.
Up to that point, I had only done 3 sprint triathlons. A full Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile open water swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile (full marathon) run. Sprint triathlons are generally 0.25 mile swim, 15 to 18 miles on the bike, and a 5K (3.1 mile) run.
I didn't want to simply finish Ironman, which has a 17 hour time limit. I wanted to do well.
The first task was to assess my current performance level, decide on goal times for each discipline, and figure out how to train and prepare for those goals.
Like many runners, I would have an A goal, a B goal, and a C goal. The C goal is the time you'll be happy with. B is what you'll be really happy with. An A goal is what you can do when conditions are ideal, and everything falls into place.
For the run, I decided to continue with my normal training routine, which includes long runs, tempo runs, speed work, hilly runs, trail runs, and easy runs, adding up to 70+ miles per week. The only difference would be that once spring and summer arrived, 1 or 2 runs per week should immediately follow a bike ride.
For the swim, I decided to simply get a solid consistent base, and increased my weekly swimming from once or twice a week for a total of 1 to 3 miles, to 3 or 4 times a week for a total of 5 to 7 miles.
The bike would be my biggest challenge. Proportionally, it makes up more than half of the total time during the event. Many triathletes come from a strong biking background. My biking is my weakest discipline. I decided that I needed to pound out as much time on the bike as possible. I needed to go from occasional bike ride, to serious bike training. I increased my biking to 3 to 6 times a week.
During winter, I put my bike on one of those bike trainers, and watched tv while pedaling away in my basement.
I also began getting nervous that day.
Ironman will be one of the toughest events I will ever do. With little triathlon experience, I feel unsure of what to expect, overwhelmed and intimidated.
My Ironman training routine peaked about 4 weeks before the event, with 7.8 miles in the pool, 264 miles pedaling, and 100 miles on foot. The next week I scaled back to a mere 7.2 miles swimming, 220 miles biking, and 89 miles running. I had survived the hard part, now it was time to scale back and taper.
Two weeks before, I decided to run the Eisenbahn Marathon in West Bend. It went well and I felt strong. The next day I would start really scaling back. My plan was to do about 65% of my peak training volume, and then about 40% for the final week.
As we all know, there is only so much of your training you can control, for the rest, you have to just cross your fingers. My luck ran out in the last two weeks.
Eleven days before Ironman Wisconsin, I got pounded with a stomach flu. I woke up Tuesday feeling a bit out of sorts, went for an 8 mile run, continued to feel worse throughout the day, and by evening, I could barely sit up. I continued to deteriorate, and eventually succumbed to the inevitable simultaneous bidirectional expulsions, for about 12 hours. I could not even keep down water.
I spent the next 2 days in bed, barely able to sit up, watching episodes of Burn Notice that had accumulated on my DVR over the last 13 months. Friday, I was finally able to join the living, run some errands, do some housework, and eat an actual meal.
Saturday, 8 days before Ironman, I was ready to try going for a walk/run. I managed to walk about 7 miles, and jog about 3. It felt lousy.
The taper phase of training is supposed to serve as a rejuvenating oasis. After pushing your body to its limits relentlessly for months on end, reducing training volume allows the body to recover and feel engulfed with potential energy.
For the week leading up to Ironman, I tried going for short swims, bike rides, and runs. Instead of feeling like a puppy, ready to go, after being in a crate all day, I felt like a tired old dog, whose owners were starting to wonder if it would soon be time to put their furry friend down.
I was nervous when training was going well, and now I was struggling to recover from the flu, having severe doubts that I would be able to meet my C goal. I fell into a funk. I didn't want to run, bike, swim, or even talk about any of those activities.
On the Wednesday before, I read an article referenced in Tom Held's Off The Couch
blog called 10 Ways to Succeed at Ironman Wisconsin
. Among a few tips, the article mentions that Ironman Wisconsin offers the toughest bike course of all 25 Ironman events. This tidbit did not calm my nerves.
Pre-race preparation included 2 trips to Madison. Thursday we went for athlete check-in where we get our gear bags, instructions, timing chip, swag, and the crucial wrist band that grants access to all things Ironman, such as dropping off gear, picking up gear, transition areas, post race food, etc. This excursion also did not calm my nerves either. I actually felt a bit numb.
I got all my gear organized, and ready to bring to gear check-in on Saturday. We have a morning bag where we can put any last minute drop off items before the swim, and this bag will be available when we finish. So, dry clothes and anything we want after the event goes in here. The next bag is the swim to bike bag. Helmet, bike shoes, socks, shirt, sunglasses and snacks need to go in here. The next bag, is called 'bike special needs'. This bag is available half way through the bike, and can be used for a change of clothes, or to drop of clothes, or more food or drink for the second half of the bike course. The next bag is the bike to run bag. Running shoes need to go in here. We also have a 'run special needs' for anything we might want to have at the midpoint of the run. At this point, I am just going through the motions of final preparations.
On Saturday, we made the second trip, and dropped off all the gear in the appropriate stations. I learned the details of how the transitions work.
I realize that at this point, I have to just have faith in the training I have done, and accept the rest is not in my control. I have done all I can do, asked all I can ask, read all there is to read, heard all there is to hear.
Talking to running partner Dennis Hanna sometime during the final preparation, he offered me some advice for the swim. Dennis has been my sounding board for all preparations. He's helped me research, he's biked with me, run with me, listened to me do everything from brag to complain to cry and whine.
Dennis would struggle to do laps in a hot tub, so for him to have advice for the swim course has me curious. He advised: "When you are out there in the swim, feeling unsure, I want you to yell out a good hearty 'F**K'. You need a mantra out there, and yours should be random swear words, starting with the f one."
I have gotten a lot of solid advice from friends who have done and/or are doing Ironman. Advice on eating, good bike form, transitions, what to wear, etc. Most from running friends Dave Jesse and Heather Lipusch. Their tips helped and encouraged me.
But I have to say, the swearing recommendation, seemed to be the most helpful. I imagined the execution should be like the kiai (pronounced key-eye) in taekwondo. Years ago, my son and I did taekwondo, and the kiai is like a deep quick exhalation grunt during a strike or other quick intense move. You feel a little silly doing it at first, but after a while, you realize it has value. It focuses and promotes strength. Please don't tell our former sensei that I will be bastardizing the sacred kiai with foul language.
This advice helped bring me out of my funk. Not only could this technique help me draw strength during the swim, it reminded me that there was space available in my brain for a little less seriousness. I still am taking this thing very seriously, but this let me see that I could dial back the intensity a notch or two. I felt a lot more relaxed, and a tad more confident.
Race day began with the alarm going off at 3:45 am. By 4:15 we were on the road to Madison. We arrived at Monona Terrace by 5:30 am.
Monona Terrace is the convention center hosting the event. The transitions take place inside the building. Spectators line all levels of the building, and parking ramps to watch the swim in Lake Monona.
I got body marked, dropped off the special needs bags, and waited in the building. In all my research and preparations, I did not worry about the details that would become obvious during the race. For example, I didn't know exactly where to go for the start. I didn't know which way we did the swim loops, I didn't know much about the bike or run course. I knew that I just needed to follow everyone else. There'd be plenty of people that knew what they were doing.
When I saw most people getting into their wetsuits and heading out, I decided to follow suit. I joined the heard and followed the masses, and made my way down to the swim start. We shuffled slowly into the water. We got into the water just moments before the start. This was good, as it didn't give me a lot of time to dwell on the daunting task ahead of me.
2400 of us were calmly treading water when the gun went off. And I said to myself: "Oh, we go THAT way". One of those details that I hadn't paid much attention to.
The swim intimidates me the most. Though I am physically comfortable swimming for 90 minutes, an open water swim surrounded by 9600 flailing limbs is downright scary. It reminds me of a wildlife video where the alligator suddenly appears out of no where and strikes a buffalo, and all the animals in the water bolt in fear of their lives, in choreographed organized synchronous chaos.
My plan is to swim a comfortable pace, avoid collisions as much as possible, and not drown. I am willing to sacrifice time for elbow room. Because the swim is proportionally only about 8 to 10% of the event, a comfortable effort level is the way to go for me. I could increase my effort, but it would only gain me about 5 minutes, and would likely cost more later.
We do 2 loops in a long rectangle parallel to Monona Terrace. On our first outbound trip, I spend a lot of time zig-zagging, finding a spot with some room. There's a lot of jockeying, but I do keep finding a spot with some elbow room. I was able to implement the Dennis mantra a few times, and counted breathing cycles in between. I'd count to 21, mantra audibly, then repeat. But mostly, I had to really focus on my surroundings.
Things bunch up considerably on the turns. Bumping elbows, getting kicked, feeling people encroaching on my feet. It wasn't pleasant, but there was nothing that was severe enough to cause a bruise or knock my goggles off.
The first return trip was the most unpleasant stretch. I could not find a good spot. I was crowded the whole time. I needed the Dennis mantra, but was barely able to put it to use, spending all cerebral energy on maintaining my position.
The second outbound trip I found I had plenty of room. I got into a rhythm and was able to alternate counting and mantra'ing. About half way down, I looked around and realized why I had plenty of room. There was barely anyone on my right. I was pretty far from the mainstream pack. I don't think I was to the point where spectators were pointing at me, but I was farther out than I wanted to be.
In the final return trip, I finally got where I wanted to be, was the most relaxed, and continued with the counting / swearing er, um, I mean mantra'ing routine. I was far enough out to be comfortable, but not adding too much distance.
We made our final turn and headed to land. Things bunched up and got relatively chaotic. The end was within reach as people zig-zagged in front of me.
I was so glad to be done with the swim. I exited the water with tired arms, neck, and back. My swim took 1 hour and 20 minutes. I pulled off the top half of the wet suit and found a volunteer to strip off the bottom half. I then ran up the 'helix', which is the spiral parking ramp that leads to the third floor.
Inside, I grabbed my swim-to-bike bag. A volunteer asked if I wanted help. I nodded. She was wonderful. Overwhelmed, I didn't know what to ask for help with. She asked specific questions. "Do you want me to get your stuff out of the bag?" I nodded. "Do you want me to put on your socks for you?" Wow, that's a great idea. I nodded. She put on my socks while I put on my shirt. She made sure my helmet was on and offered to open my Diet Coke for me.
I grabbed my stuff, thanked her, and took off. As I left, she packed my wet suit, goggles and swim cap, and put them away for me. I went out to the bike area, found my bike, and headed out for a 112 mile ride.
The bike segment intimidates me also. The hard thing about the bike is that it is so long. In terms of duration, it makes up more than half of the total event.
The course is a 16 mile ride out to a 40 mile loop that we do twice, and then return on the same 16 mile route. Most of the route offers manageable hills, however there are 3 killer hills, close together, at the end of the loop. These are muscle-grinding, granny-gearing, stand-up-on-the-pedals hills. They are lined with spectators offering plenty of encouragement, but there's no getting around the fact that these hills are in charge and will humble me to my core.
After grinding out the hills, we are treated to a nice downhill before we get to repeat the loop again. I am certain the hills were taller the second time around.
I was so glad to be finished with the bike. I finished it in 6 hours and 40 minutes. I dismounted my bike, barely able to walk, and proceeded into the transition area. I grabbed my gear bag, took off bike shoes, helmet, got a Diet Coke, put on running shoes, and headed out for the run.
There is a difference between knowing a fact, and truly grasping the reality of that truth. You might hear a statistic about a road construction project costing 10 billion dollars, but you don't truly grasp the reality of how much that really is.
I have known all year long that I would be running a marathon after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike, but it suddenly occurred to me... Holy Crap! I have to go run a marathon! Right Now! Are you bleepin' kidding me? Who the hell thought this was a good idea? I would like to have a little word with him right now, and it will bare a remarkable resemblance to my swim mantra.
Our run course is also a double loop. Its actually several out and back sections, but its basically a 13.1 mile course that we do twice.
I decided that I couldn't possibly do a marathon right now, but maybe I could do a couple half marathons. For some reason, that seemed a lot more palatable.
I headed out for my first half marathon, and started my Garmin. It displayed its message 'Locating Satellites'. I hoped it would find them before I crossed the run start mat. It didn't. I kept checking, and it just wouldn't find the stinkin' satellites. A mile went by. Still locating. By mile 2, I gave up on the dumb thing, and decided to just use it as a stopwatch. I was 2 miles in, and had no idea what my pace was.
I wanted to do an 8:30 pace. I have practiced running after biking many times, and I always find I am running faster than I think I am. It may feel like I am running a 9 minute pace, but I am actually running an 8:15 pace.
I knocked off mile 3 at an 8:20 pace. Mile 4 was an 8:10 pace. I was feeling okay. Not great, understandably tired, but I was holding my own.
After a few more miles, my Garmin decided to cooperate and find some satellites. Just in time, because my math skills were quickly deteriorating and I could no longer figure my pace per mile.
The run course is mostly flat, with the exception of one killer hill. I slowed, but jogged up the hill on the first loop. The crowd support along the run course rivaled the Boston Marathon. Tons of folks cheering for everyone! It was incredible.
After about 8 miles, my tummy threatened to do something unpleasant. I debated for a few miles should I stop or try to hold out. The dangerous thing about stopping is that with every second sitting there, it gets exponentially harder to get moving again. The dangerous thing about not stopping, is the possibility of an event that will get you on YouTube.
I opted to stop. A couple minutes in the porta-john, and my legs stiffened a little, but I held on to my pace for the first loop.
Soon after the start of the second loop, I started to quickly deteriorate. I felt exhausted and nauseous. I did something I never do in a marathon. I walked. I kept trying to run, and then resorted to walking. Dave Jesse caught up to me, and encouraged me to run with him. He gave me a bit of a pep talk. He asked how I was doing, I told him I was not doing well, and felt barfie. He told me to drink some cola at the next aid station. I couldn't stay with him, said goodbye, wished him luck, and dropped back to walking.
I got to the next aid station, and drank some cola. I walked a little more, and alternated jogging and walking. I started to feel better. I got to the killer hill, and decided I would have to walk it this time, but when I got to the top, I would jog as long as I could stand it.
After cresting the hill, I switched to a jog, and laboriously hammered out a few miles. I continued to take cola at the aid stations. I felt a little better. Better is relative. I still felt significantly crappy, but not as crappy as I did a few miles ago.
As I closed the gap between me and the finish, all I could think about was being done. I watched the miles count up to 25. One mile left, and I thought "I can do this. I am going to do this."
I rounded the corner past the capital, and proceeded to the finish. I completed the run in 3 hours and 58 minutes. I was so focused on just being done that I didn't hear my name being called. I didn't savor the moment. I was just so glad to be done. I was sore, wobbly, nauseous, dizzy, overwhelmed and exhausted. I wasn't sure that I was going to stay upright. Two volunteers flanked me, holding my arms to steady me. They asked me if I was okay. It was all a blur.
The finish was done in the blink of an eye. It was a year of preparation, 12 hours and 13 minutes of constant intense physical exertion, a few tiny seconds of glory, and the rest of my life to be proud of this accomplishment.
I exited the finish chute, and looked for Bill. I started to realize "I did it." I got choked up realizing I had survived a grueling challenge that only about 16,000 people in this country will do this year.
I am an Ironman.