Sunday, September 19, 2004

"Irondaddy!" - My Journey to the Finish of Ironman Wisconsin 2004

T minus 9 weeks: It was 9:30 PM on July 8 when the phone rang. Caller ID told me it was my wife Jenni’s cell phone. “Steve, I think my water just broke!” “Okay. What do we do now?” You would think I had paid attention during at least one of those birthing classes, but apparently not. It was about 11 days early, so we were taken a bit by surprise. At 5:28 AM on July 9, our firstborn son Derek gave his lungs their first workout as he let out the most beautiful cry. It’s fair to say that triathlon had just taken a seat way at the back of the bus for awhile.

T minus 8 weeks: Jenni had not been feeling well for a couple of days, and she felt warm. “What is it?” she asked as I stared at the thermometer. “Um… it’s 104”. It was 8:30 PM as the three of us packed up to head back to the hospital where we would stay for the next three days as Jenni fought off an infection. I don’t think I packed my running shoes, and I know I didn’t bring my bike. This would make nearly two weeks with almost no workouts and Ironman Wisconsin looming less than two months away. But, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get back home with a healthy, happy new family.

After a few days, all was well and we got back to the business of figuring out how to care for a baby. Unfortunately for me, it also was time to get back to the business of business as I had to head back to work after taking over two weeks off. You know, the pile only gets deeper when you take time away from work.

Oh, and then there’s that Ironman thing. Early morning workouts were out of the question. I just can’t function on five hours of sleep and we weren’t getting much more than that with the new baby. Lunchtime workouts were not going to happen while trying to catch up after the time off. In the evening I just wanted to get home and spend time with my new family. So, the plan I put together in my head was as simple as it gets. I would do one long workout per sport per week. My cycling and running base was…okay. My swimming had been almost nonexistent since…well, since Ironman Wisconsin 2003. I figured I could get in a couple more centuries on the bike, build my long run up to three hours, and build my long swim up to 90 minutes all between now and race day. It was not very elegant, but it would be good enough, and it would have to do.

This would be my third Ironman and the first time that I really didn’t care about my time. Oh, sure, I wanted to give it everything I had. I wasn’t going there to socialize for mile after mile during the marathon. But, I just put no pressure on myself about hitting some target time. One thing mattered to me. I wanted to get to the finish line feeling good enough to carry my two month old son across the line with me. That’s what my day was going to be about, and it felt right.

T minus 3 weeks: “Do you have any plans next week?” It was my boss. “I need you to go to China.” What was I going to say? We were taking off on a Sunday, so I was able to get in one last long ride on Saturday. Our hotel in Beijing actually had a 35m lap pool, so I packed my goggles. Oh, here’s a little tip. If you ever find yourself in China and want to go for a swim, they’re quite insistent that you wear a cap. I created a bit of a stir as I tried to explain to the pool attendant that I did not have a cap. As he scurried away, I got in and started swimming. When I returned from my first lap I was met by the pool attendant and a woman who was happy to sell me a cap. They like things to have a certain order over there.

Fast forward to race day.

T minus 4.5 hours: I don’t recall if it was little Derek or I who woke up first, but at 2:30 AM we were both ready for some early breakfast. I quickly downed 3 cans of Boost while Derek took his time with Mama. I managed to get a little more sleep before rising out of bed for good at 5:00 AM. I had another can of Boost, a quick shower, and off I went to drop off my special needs bags, hit body marking, and put my bottles and food on my bike. This year, rather than waiting in the Monona Terrace with a bunch of nervous athletes and long lines for the bathrooms, I instead returned to my hotel room in the attached Hilton to relax for awhile.

T minus 35 minutes: At 6:25 AM I headed out toward the swim start along with several members of my family. I had nearly 20 family members coming to cheer me on. My wife had ordered t-shirts for them to wear that said, “Go Steve! One stroke, one turn, one step at a time.” with the M-dot logo in the center. It was easy to spot them out there!

T minus 20 minutes: I kissed my wife and Derek goodbye as they headed to the roof of the Terrace for a bird’s eye view of the swim. My sister came along with me as we wound our way down the helix toward the swim start. Near the bottom, I stopped to pull on my wetsuit and take a shot of gel and some water. It turned out I was nearly at the end of the line with probably just 20 or 30 athletes behind me. That was fine with me since swimming is my weakest sport. I had planned to start toward the outside this year to try and stay out of worst of the chaos.

T minus 1 minute: I made my way into Lake Monona and swam out about 30 yards or so. “BOOM!!” Off went the cannon, a bit earlier than I anticipated. I punched my watch and I was off along with 2187 of my Iron friends! You would think I was far enough to the outside to be in clear water, but I think there is no avoiding the fact that you will find yourself “bumping rubber” with plenty of other swimmers in an Ironman. It’s a given. The key is to not let the crowd of swimmers bother you. My number one priority for the swim was to stay relaxed, and I was successful as the swim went by smoothly.

T plus 1:25: When I exited the water I took a look at my watch and it said :37. “That ain’t right.” My watch Stop button must have gotten kicked out there. No worries. It fit with my theme to not be so concerned about my time. The wetsuit peelers grabbed me before I had my arms out of my sleeves, so they helped me with that and in a jiffy I was out of my Aquaman. I heard my sister nearby yelling my name and gave her a wave as I started up the helix. I headed into the T1 changing room, donned my cycling garb, and headed out for the jog to my bike.

T plus 1:38: As I was mounting my bike I heard my family yelling to me from the top of the Terrace. I gave them a wave and a smile, and with that I was off and spinning down the helix and out onto bumpy John Nolen Drive.

I quickly settled into my plan to keep the pace very easy for the first 60 miles of the bike, aiming to keep my heart rate around 145 for the first 30 miles and expecting it to creep up a few beats over the following 30 miles. I took in nothing but water for the first half hour, then started into my plan to take a shot of gel with water on each :30, a half Clif bar with water on each hour, and about a third to a half of a bottle of Cytomax on each :15 and :45. A also took in one or two Succeed salt tablets each hour. I could feel that it was going to be a warm one again, so I made sure to grab at least two water bottles at each aid station. I used one to pour water on myself every few minutes to help keep me cool. I don’t know if there is any science to support this as an effective technique to keep cool, but it sure feels good. This was all pretty much exactly the same nutrition plan I followed successfully on a slightly warmer day during IMWI 2003. A lot of people seemed to make hydration and pacing mistakes in the heat of last year, but my plan fortunately got me through that day in reasonably good shape so I stuck with the same plan this year.

The Ironman Wisconsin bike course just keeps getting better every year. In the inaugural 2002 race, it was the human tunnel in downtown Verona that made the day special. In 2003, both the participants and spectators understood the course a little better so we were treated to large crowds of cheering supporters on the toughest hills. This year the crowds on the hills were even bigger. Compared to the solitary suffering I did up so many similar hills in my training throughout the year, I could hardly even feel the hills on race day as the energy of the crowd just pushed and pulled me to the top. Well, at least that would describe the first loop. With the crowds a bit thinner and the legs quite a bit less fresh, I really started to feel the bite of the climbs the second time around. I was probably not the only one out there trying to fend off the demons in my mind saying, “Dude, you still have a marathon to run. Man, that’s going to hurt!” But, I didn’t have to fight off those demons by myself, because near the top of the last tough hill on each loop was my small army of supporters…my family! Friendly voices cheering, cowbells ringing, signs waving, high fives slapping, and my beautiful baby looking justifiable bewildered in Mama’s arms! Man, if that doesn’t fill your tank for another 30 miles or so, check your pulse!

The Ironman gods smiled upon us for the return trip from the Verona loop back to Madison with a nice tailwind for much of this section.

T plus 8:13: As many saddles as I’ve tried, it seems clear that there are just some body parts that were not designed to be sat upon…for over 6 hours! So, as I wound my way up the helix into transition, I was anxious to get off my bike. I handed my bike to one of the great Wisconsin volunteers, jogged into the Terrace, grabbed by T2 bag and headed into the changing room. With a fresh pair of socks and a cold bottle of water, I headed outside and heard a familiar voice. It was my sister cheering from the top of the Terrace.

T plus 8:19: Just past the timing mats to begin the marathon, I passed my parents. They told me to look up, and on top of the Pickney Street parking garage were 7 or 8 of my cheering family members including Jenni and Derek. I passed my father-in-law who was on photographer duty as I made the turn onto Doty Street and away I went to face the final test of the day.

Early in the marathon I thought I might be in trouble. I had a side-ache type pain across my diaphragm. Thankfully this pain eased up after a couple miles and I began running reasonably well. Whereas I didn’t really have any hard and fast time goals for this race, the one place I was hoping to perform relatively well was the run. I wasn’t out there to socialize. My plan was to run from aid station to aid station, and walk through the aid stations to take in my nutrition. I like this approach because it puts you in a little “box”. It allows your brain to focus only on the next 8 to 10 minutes, so it doesn’t have to try to comprehend doing this for another 20+ miles. It can’t figure that out, but it can manage to comprehend…”if you can just keep running to the next aid station, then you can take a little walk break.” If you can do this through the duration of the marathon, you’re going to turn in relatively good performance. It’s when you start walking between aid stations, or fail to start running again when you reach the end of an aid station, that the minutes really start adding up.

At the State Street turn around between miles 5 and 6, they have an announcer and music. Big crowds gather along this part of the course, and among them were several of my family members to give me some high fives and words of encouragement. I kept rolling along as best I could through the half way turn around. I was still able to run from aid station to aid station, but my pace had started to slow. As I began the second loop, I passed a large group of my loyal fans and my wife stepped out in the street with Derek. “Here, he needs a diaper change!” I stopped briefly to give them a kiss, and told Jenni, “It’s starting to get really hard.” That was my little warning that the second half of the marathon was likely to be a bit slower than the first.

It’s a difficult thing heading out for the second loop of this run having been so close to the finish line. But, with that little boost from my family I had a clear mission. I needed to get back there to see them again! I was able to keep running until I hit the State Street turnaround for the second time. The announcer was gone, but the music was still playing and some of my family was there to give me one last shot of confidence.

Somewhere around mile 20 I was forced to do some walking between aid stations. As much as I truly believe that continuing to run late in the marathon is more mental than physical, I guess my brain was just tuckered out. I was actually starting to feel a little sleepy. I think this is when I starting taking in some Coke instead of just Gatorade, and that seemed to perk me up a bit. My little “box” had gotten really small by now. I couldn’t think all the way to the next aid station. Now I was in “one step at a time” mode. But I was moving forward, and moving forward is good.

T plus 12:48: And then, there it was. I made that last right turn with just two blocks to the finish line. I could hear the announcer and the blaring music. I was scanning the crowd along the sides of the chute looking for my family. I saw the big sign my wife had made, and there they were about 50 yards from the finish line. Derek was awake and alert, and I was feeling good. I know they don’t really like you taking babies across the finish line, but it was something I just had to do. I knew I wasn’t at risk of collapsing. I grabbed Derek, clutched him safely in my arms and began to walk to the finish. I scanned the course behind me to make sure I wasn’t in someone else’s way, but there was no one in sight. It’s possible that I’ve never smiled more happily as I carried my son to the finish. I gave Derek a kiss and we stepped across the line, together. It was a magical finish to a 140.6 mile journey.

As soon as we crossed the line, two very concerned volunteers were right there. The volunteers at an Ironman are truly awesome people. They were doing their job not to believe me when I told them I was feeling fine. One of them held her hands under Derek for fear I was not totally with it. In fact, she wanted to take him but for some reason I didn’t want to let him go and just pulled him closer. I really did feel just fine as they escorted us very cautiously to the back of the finish pen. Eventually they had seen enough to convince them I was not about to fall over and off they went off to catch another finisher. I searched the crowd behind the finish pen and eventually picked out my family. I made my way over to them, handed Derek to my sister-in-law, and relished about a dozen hugs from my parents, sisters, brother, in-laws, nieces and nephews. My wife had gotten caught up in the crowd somewhere trying to collect Derek from the finish pen, but soon she found Team Emmert and gave me a big hug and kiss. I felt like more than an Ironman that day. I was an Irondaddy!

T plus 16:00:
After gathering all my stuff, showering, and enjoying some dinner and a couple of frosty beers, a few of us, including little Derek, headed back to the finish to cheer on the remainder of the finishers. If you’ve never been to the final hour of the finish of an Ironman, find the one nearest you and get yourself there. The energy and emotion of that place and time is beyond words. You have to experience it. At 16:27 on the clock, a roar began to build through the crowd as we saw 75 year old Frank Farrar shuffling into the finish chute. He stumbled a bit as he stopped to give a bow to the crowd. I shielded Derek’s ears from the deafening roar as Frank shuffled the last few yards to the finish. 75 years old and crossing the finish line of an Ironman, under the cutoff time nonetheless. It’s stuff like this that makes you wonder if anything is impossible if you want it badly enough.

Derek slept through the whole thing.

T plus 8 days: After finishing my first Ironman in 2002, another athlete, when he heard I was doing it again asked, “What’s going to happen when you don’t go faster?” He was a more competitive type than I, and he’d given up on Ironman after going slower in his second race than his first. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive and constantly striving to go faster. In fact, I’ll probably start every season with the intention of going faster than I went the last. But, to consider it a failure if I don’t achieve that goal would be to forget why I set my mind on doing Ironman in the first place. Not so many years ago while flipping through the channels and stumbling upon Ironman on TV, I watched for awhile and began to think, “How cool would it be to do that sometime in my life?” That thought was very quickly replaced with, “Come on, you could never do that. There’s something extraordinary about these people.” To me, it was impossible.

I do Ironman because of that day when I didn’t believe I could. Ironman is one of those rare opportunities for ordinary people to accomplish something extraordinary. I want my son to grow up believing that anything is possible if you want it badly enough and you’re willing to work hard to get it. That day. That day when I didn’t believe I could. How long it might take had nothing to do with my doubt. Simply covering the distance seemed impossible. I’ll never forget that day. I’ll never forget that to finish an Ironman is to achieve my impossible.