Sunday, September 15, 2002

"Steve Emmert, You Are An Ironman!" - Ironman Wisconsin 2002

First, just let me say, this is an AWESOME race! The city, the course, the volunteers, the spectators – the ENERGY! It should only get better next year. Ya gotta do this race!

This was my first Ironman. I registered for it on May 10, 2001. I competed in my first triathlon on June 2, 2001. I knew I’d love this sport, I knew I’d love Ironman, and I knew I could do it if I set my mind to it. So, when they announced Ironman Wisconsin, just two hours from my home, I was IN!

My goal for the race was to go under 12 hours, but I wasn’t going to be a slave to the clock, I was going to be a slave to my plan. My plan was to survive the swim (I really need to learn how to swim), go easy on the bike, and leave whatever was left on the run course. Nevertheless, I needed to give my family an idea of where I’d be when, so I figured on 1:25 for the swim, :10 T1, 6:15 bike, :05 T2, and 4:00 run.

Speaking of my family, I had loads of support. My wife (a.k.a. the Sherpa), of course, along with my parents (the first time they’ve ever seen me race), and my sister were there from start to finish. During the bike, my in-laws came up, and my other sister and her four daughters. And during the run, my brother came up as a surprise. Many of them have never seen me race, and have never even seen a triathlon, let alone an Ironman, so it was great to have all of them there!

Swim – 1:23:03

Heading down to the swim, I could not believe how many competitors there were! I couldn’t imagine how that many people could try to swim the same course at the same time. Turns out…they can’t ;-) My plan was to seed myself pretty far back, but in-line with the buoys. You see, I didn’t want to swim any farther than I had to, so I really didn’t want to spend the whole swim way on the outside.

The cannon went off, and I thought my seeding plan was a good one as I swam comfortably for a minute to the starting line. That’s were I ran into a logjam of bodies. I tried to think of a way to describe the swim to my family, and this is what I came up with: It’s like being in a washing machine with a bunch of cats! Good Lord, there was more neoprene than water in Lake Monona that morning! But, damn it anyway, this was Ironman and this is what I expected. All I could do was smile (if you can really do that while swimming) and do my best to relax. I didn’t get anxious or upset about the mass of humanity. I just dealt with it. It was actually kind of fun.

Turning to breathe and seeing thousands of spectators on and around the Monona Terrace was just awesome. But, I was happy to get out of the water and onto activities more suited to human beings than fish. And, I was “on plan”.

T1 – 11:37

My best friend was doing this race and his parents volunteered as wetsuit strippers. They were working as a pair and I sought them out to strip me. Cool! That wetsuit stripping thing rocks! Then, up I went, jogging up the four levels of the parking ramp helix. Got my transition bag, threw on my bike stuff, another jog around the top of the parking ramp, and I was on my bike riding down the helix. I was concerned that the helix was going to cause of traffic jam, but no such thing. It worked just fine, and I was on my way.

Bike – 6:17:09

Immediately on the bike I started to focus on relaxing. If I was to be a slave to my heart rate plan, I needed to be calm and relaxed. I spent the first few miles spinning nice and easy. The plan was as follows, much like recommended in Rich Strauss’ “Ironman How-To”: upper zone 1 for miles 1-30, low to mid zone 2 for 30-60, mid to upper zone 2 for 60-90, and upper zone 2 to lower zone 3 for 90-112. I found that it took great discipline to follow this plan, but I held my faith that it would pay off on the run.

The bike course is simply great. I’ve ridden it several times during training, and I like it more each time. The first time I rode it was a little over a year ago, and at that time it scared me. I was a true flatlander, and those hills ripped me up. But, having a year to prepare, I’ve come to appreciate the challenge. My buddy’s parents, the same ones who helped me out of my wetsuit, were out on the course on the hill on Old Sauk Pass Road. In my book, this is the first hill that really gets you. Maybe some of you Moosters remember them – a gray haired woman madly ringing a cowbell and yelling you up the climb, and a bald man snapping pictures. They’re awesome fans of sport and gave me a great boost!

The best surprise on the course was the crowd in Verona. There were hundreds of people lined up along both sides of the road, crowding in on the course forming a human tunnel and cheering like mad. We’re talking about a little town in the middle of Wisconsin that really doesn’t even get a mention since Madison is the home of the race. But the people of Verona, and those who drove or were shuttled out from Madison, came out in a HUGE way to support the race. It was such a surprise, it brought tears to my eyes. It was there that I thought about how I didn’t want this day to end.

I felt good throughout the bike. It was a little slower than I had hoped, but I had no worries. I followed my nutritional plan to the letter and felt ready to run when we came back into Madison.

T2 – 7:02

Riding back up the parking ramp helix was easier than I had expected, and the crowds screaming at the Monona Terrace were fantastic! I handed my bike to a volunteer, headed to the changing room, and out for a quick visit to the porta john. Over the crowd, I heard someone call my name. I looked up to the upper level of the Terrace, and there was my family cheering me on. I gave them a “fist pump”, and I was on my way.

Run – 3:38:30

I was really surprised with how good my legs felt. Through the first several miles I was able to hold better than an 8:00 pace and it felt comfortable. This being the first time I’ve ever run after swimming 2.4 and riding 112, I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect this. I had planned on trying to hold a 9:00 pace, but this was such unknown territory I didn’t know if that was aggressive or conservative. As the miles ticked by I kept doing the math. “Let’s see, 8 times 7 is 56, right? My watch is under 56, so I guess I’m still holding 8’s.” When I got past 11, it seemed like too much of a metal effort to do the math anymore. Maybe I’ll bring a calculator next time.

As I approached the halfway turn-around I saw my family again, and this time my brother was among them. This was a nice surprise since I didn’t know he was coming, and it gave me a nice boost. It was depressing running basically halfway down the finishing chute and then having to turn around to do it all over again. But that let me go right back past the family again, and with a high-five as I passed them, I was up for it.

On and off through the second half, I was not feeling so well, and I couldn’t decide why. My stomach felt pretty full and uncomfortable, but I couldn’t decide if it was a result of eating or drinking too much, or if it was signs of hyponatremia, or what. I cut back on the Gatorade and it seemed to help. I knew I was slowing down some, but I was still running and had no plans to start walking.

I apparently ran right past most of my family around mile 18 without seeing or hearing them, but I did see my dad because he jumped out onto the course to give me a high-five. I found out afterward that he had wanted to run with me for a bit there, but decided against it for fear it may disqualify me. Now, if you knew my dad you’d be intrigued by that last sentence. You see, my dad has had problems with his feet for several years, and can’t spend too much time standing and walking without pain and discomfort. Yet, on this day he’d been on his feet ALL DAY, and was so moved by the experience of Ironman, he felt inspired to RUN with me! Ironman breeds inspiration.

The final few miles were a countdown for me. My math exercises had changed to something like, “If I run 10’s the rest of the way, will I still finish under 12:00? Yes. Okay, that’s good, just keep running!” With about two miles left, I started to pick up the pace. I could see shadows of people behind me and could feel a couple guys back there using me as a rabbit. That was fine with me, but I was starting to smell the finish line and I wanted to get there NOW!

I’m not sure I can adequately describe the feeling of an Ironman finishing chute. Can you think of another example of an event where a couple thousand people will scream their heads off for a complete stranger? I’m not a celebrity. These people don’t even know my name, that is until the announcer screams it into his microphone. And yet there they are, standing and cheering and clapping and….caring. If you’ve been there before, you know the feeling. If you haven’t, it’s just a 140.6 miles away. I highly suggest the trip.


I crossed the coveted finish line in 11:37:19. I made my way to the back of the finish area and saw my wife running to meet me. We shared a powerful hug, and the rest of my family was right behind to do the same. I think some of them were more moved by the experience than I was. They were simply floored by what I’d just done.

When it’s over, it’s kind of an odd experience, really. I mean, I’ve been working for this moment for over a year. Somewhere in there I moved past that mental roadblock. You know the one. Maybe it was the first time you ever heard of the Ironman. For me it was probably 12 years ago, and I remember thinking, “What a cool ‘lifetime goal’ that would be!” But right behind that fleeting thought is that metal roadblock which makes you think, “But, I could never do that.”

Well, somewhere in the past year or two, I’ve managed to move past that obstacle and have believed I could do this thing. I just confirmed it on race day. Ironman IS a life altering experience, but the “life altering” part doesn’t happen when you cross the finish line. It happens that day you move past the barrier in your mind that says, “I can’t.”

So, here I am. Another Ironman. Another example that you CAN do whatever you set your mind to. You just have to find your way past that barrier. “You can!”

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