Sunday, September 21, 2003

Iron Again - Ironman Wisconsin 2003

The Preamble

I had a great experience last year at Ironman Wisconsin, my first Ironman, so back I went again this year to “get me some more of that!” When I put together my annual training plan this year, I did so with high hopes of improving my time on a multi-year journey toward one day winning a slot to Kona. Well, the plan might have been a good one, but somehow my level of motivation wasn’t where it needed to be to execute the plan. It was clear from my training and racing this season that I wasn’t quite as fit as I was last year, so improving my time wasn’t really in the cards. But, I was still psyched to get back to Madison to prove to myself once again that I have what it takes to make it to the finish line.

Part of my motivation on race day came from my family. I was richly blessed to have a crowd of 20 family members at the race to cheer me on. Yes, 20! Talk about getting a lift when you need one. Now, I know my family would not want me to feel extra pressure due to their presence, but I do…and that’s a good thing. It’s not pressure to go fast. They don’t care. It’s really not even a pressure to finish. It’s simply the kind of pressure that helps to remind me to keep putting one foot in front of the other when things start to get fuzzy. Believe me, in the middle of an Ironman marathon that might be the only answer you need when the inescapable question enters your mind, “Why am I doing this?”

I kissed my wife farewell at 5:45 AM and headed into the Terrace to relax and focus my mind on the day. At 6:40 I slipped on my wetsuit and made my way down the helix to the swim start where I met a crowd of rubber clad athletes tentatively making their way into the water, which was a comfortable 72 degrees. I swam out about 100 yards to seed myself about two-thirds of the way back and somewhat toward the outside of the pack.

The Swim

The swim was mass chaos, as usual, but somehow I managed to avoid the misfortune of taking any really significant blows from errant fists, elbows or feet. The toughest part of the swim was simply getting into a comfortable rhythm with my stroke. Much of the first quarter to a third of the swim was spent just navigating my way through the crowd, which was a huge waste of energy. Eventually things thinned out a bit and some order was created from the madness as I found myself swimming alongside people going about my pace. I’ve been having a problem with drifting left, especially as I get tired, so for much of the second loop I found myself inside the buoy line having to work my way back to the right to get around the corner buoys. As I crossed the timing mat at the swim exit, I checked my watch and saw 1:20, which certainly isn’t fast but it was a couple minutes faster than last year, so I was happy.

The wetsuit peelers did their thing, and up the helix I ran. I actually hit my highest heart rate of the day in T1, running up the helix. That’s just cruel. As I reached my bike, the roar of the crowd was drowned out by the roar of my family as they cheered me on from their perch one level up on the Monona Terrace. My transition time was 8:16, about three minutes faster than last year. Funny, I don’t remember stopping for breakfast in T1 last year.

The Bike

My plan was to follow Gordo Byrn’s tips on pacing on the bike, which worked well for me last year. I’ve followed this same pacing plan on many a long ride during training, but on race day I found it hard to get my heart rate down as it generally seemed to be about 5 to 10 bpm higher than my perceived exertion was indicating. I just kept telling myself to relax and eventually my heart rate settled down a bit. More people were going by me than I was passing, but that was in the plan. I was expecting to see many of those folks again later in the day.

As the temperature climbed, so did my intake of extra water and salt tablets. My pacing and nutritional plan seemed to work as I felt good throughout the bike. I wasn’t moving as fast as I had hoped, but I was feeling good, and that was the most important thing.

The toughest part of the course, the section of the loop between Cross Plains and Verona with three steep, stand-out climbs, was amazing this year. More spectators learned where the toughest hills were, and there were tons of people lining the roadsides, urging us to the top. As I hit the base of the third tough climb on Midtown Road during my first loop, I could hear the crowds up the hill cheering and ringing cow bells. In fact, the noise sounded familiar because my family was gathered near the top of the hill, cheering everyone over the top. What a boost it was to have the high fives, and supportive words, and ringing cow bells. It was so cool on the first loop I was actually looking forward to this challenging section on the second loop.

Around 75 miles into the bike, it became noticeable that many people were losing their focus. Lots of people were sitting up, out of aero position, just coasting the downhills and grinding the uphills. I wasn’t going very fast, but I was starting to move up through the field. It became clear to me right there that lots of people were in for a very tough day. Around 90 miles, I reached the Midtown Road hill again, and collected another free dose of energy from my screaming posse. Hopefully, some of the rest of you IMMooers absorbed some energy from them as well. They had a great time cheering people up that hill, trying to light up some grim faces. The final 16 mile stretch back toward Madison found a number of people stopped along the side of the road just sitting. I just tried to keep doing my best taking in my calories and hydrating.

It felt good to get back to Madison, and circle back up the helix to the transition area. My bike time was 6:27, about 10 minutes slower than last year, but not much slower than I expected. A quick change into my run gear, and I headed out. As soon as I headed out the door of the Terrace, there was that wonderful, familiar roar again. I looked up and spotted my family again, cheering down to me from the top of the Terrace. Just like last year, I gave them a couple of fist pumps and set off on my marathon. My T2 time was 4:31, exactly 2:30 faster than last year.

The Run

The first couple miles went very well. I took a glance at my watch at mile 2 and saw 15:15. I knew I couldn’t sustain that pace so I backed off a little. This would be the last time of the day I slowed down on purpose. I surprised myself with a 3:38 marathon last year, but had no real hopes that I could repeat that effort this year, especially since it was 15 to 20 degrees warmer. I was still feeling pretty good when I hit the State Street turnaround between miles 5 and 6, and there the family was again to urge me on.

My pace started to drop noticeably around mile 9 or so, but I was still running from aid station to aid station. It was unreal how many people were walking. It seemed like more people were walking than running. I can’t remember when it was, but somewhere around mile 10 or so I was forced to begin walking a bit between aid stations. My stomach felt a bit cramped, and it was becoming harder to get the calories down. I wasn’t throwing up, but when I would take a mouthful of Gatorade, or even water, I could swallow just a little of it and sort of spit out the rest. It was like my throat had teamed up with my stomach in rebellion against the Ironman. They didn’t seem to understand how important it was to me.

The next boost from my cheering squad came near the halfway turnaround, where I got high fives from one side of the street just before the turn and from the other side of the street just after the turn. If only I could have bottled up that energy and spread it out over the next several miles. Miles 13 through 18 were really tough. I continued to run as best I could with some walking mixed in, looking forward to the next rendezvous with my fans which would come between miles 18 and 19 on State Street. On the first loop, there had been an announcer at this turnaround, calling out names and getting the crowd going. Apparently, they shut down this announcer station earlier this year than last and the crowd sort of lost its energy. My dad found that unacceptable, so he stepped out into the middle of the street in front of the turnaround, cow bell in hand, cheering all the athletes as they came by. With a few more high fives, I set out on the final push to the finish.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to my time, but when I got to mile 20 I looked at my watch and figured I still had a shot to go under 12 hours. But, it would mean no more walk breaks between aid stations. That became my new mission, and somehow I found a little extra and picked up the pace a bit. This was the most physically and mentally demanding portion of my race, which also made it the most rewarding portion of my race. It’s incredible how the finish line is like a magnet that pulls you in the closer you get. Your legs are shot, but your will to finish takes over and pushes you forward.

A couple blocks from the finish, I could hear the roar of the crowd and the echo of the announcer. I took the final turn to the finish and looked down the street at the clock. I could see I was going to just miss 12 hours, so I slowed down and just absorbed the energy of the finishing chute. This time I couldn’t distinguish the cheers from my family above the thunder of the crowd. It was electrifying!

I crossed the line in 12:00:23 with a 3:59:49 marathon. I was greeted by two very nice catchers, unsure for a moment whether I was destined for the medical tent or the food tent. It seemed that my senses were mostly intact, so I told them I was fine about the same time I heard my wife screaming from the other side of the barricade. I gave her a big hug and a kiss, and rest of the family was soon to follow, with enough hugs and kisses and high fives to last me until next year.


I tell you, if there is even a little thought way back there in the nethermost regions of your mind about one day doing an Ironman, you need to pull that dream up the front of your mind and put together a plan to get you there. Your plan might be years in the making. So what! I saw a 74 year old man cross the finish line at 12:02 AM. 74 years old! It is truly one of those experiences you will never forget, and that no one can ever take away from you. It will make you a stronger person, physically, mentally, even spiritually. I most certainly didn’t believe I could ever do such a thing the first time that crazy thought crossed my mind. On Sunday, that crazy thought and I crossed the finish line of the Ironman for the second time. Anything is possible!

Congratulations to every dedicated soul who toed the line at Ironman Wisconsin. It was very tough day at the end of a very long and hard journey. Each one of you is an inspiration for having taken on the challenge.

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