Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Journey Continues - WS100 Here I Come!

As if things weren't getting busy enough around here, a new journey I set into motion just over two years ago just took a big step forward. I was selected in the lottery to participate in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, June 26-27, 2010. The odds of being selected this year were about 1 in 5.

I have to admit, I'm a bit intimidated by this one. I've done the distance, but only once, in nearly ideal weather, mostly on trails I'd run before at Kettle Moraine. They say there's about 12,000 feet of climbing and descending at Kettle, but it all happens over dozens and dozens of little ups and downs none of which is ever more than about 100 feet at a time.

There are no mountains in Wisconsin, or Illinois, or anywhere else anywhere near home.

Starting at Squaw Valley, California, the Western States course climbs 2,550 feet in just the first 4.5 miles, and continues from there to climb another 15,540 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before the finish in Auburn. It's not considered a high elevation race, but its peak of 8,700 feet at the top of the Squaw Valley Ski Resort is a bit higher than the base of Snowmass Village, Colorado, where Jenni and I have taken several skiing vacations. Just walking a couple hundred feet up the hills in Snowmass Village the day we arrive there always sends my heart rate soaring.

Now I can't help but picture myself breathing hard, heart pounding, legs already burning...and another 95 miles still to cover.

Temperatures in the high country can get as cold as 20 deg, and it's not uncommon for the mercury to rise over 100 in the canyons. Heat and I are not the best of friends. Ironman Wisconsin 2005 taught me that.

So, yeah, I'm a little uncertain about whether to be more excited or nauseous about this challenge.

How could it possibly get better than that?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

So, Does He Have A Name?

Welcome to the family...

Dustin Clark Emmert
Born Nov 30, 2009, 10:44 pm
8 lb, 4 oz
21 inches

Jenni and Dustin are both doing great. He's already eating :-)

First Pics!








It's a Boy!

Beautiful! Everyone is great!

Ready to Push

Baby's right there. Ready to push! Doctor's coming in.

Contractions Getting Stronger

Contractions getting stronger, and less than 2 min apart. I figure we'll probably start pushing pretty soon!

Things Are Moving Along...

Jenni's at 7 cm, 100% effaced, baby's head moving down. We're getting there!

Oh, and I just had a vending machine sandwich. Said on the package, "Quality 100% Guaranteed or Your Money Back!" I found that funny. It was fine, though, so I don't have to try to figure out how the package was going to get my money back out of the machine.

Water Broke

The doctor just broke the water. Everything looks good. Things should start picking up now. I think with Darcie it was less than 2.5 hours from here to delivery.

The Waiting Game

Okay, in as much as you can plan these things, the plan now is that they will put in the epidural around 7 and break the water around 7:30. I guess Jenni carries beta strep, and it's best to wait some time for antibiotics to take effect and cover the baby before they break her water. Er, something like that. So, we wait.

Jenni's comfortable, although she'd really like to get out of bed and walk around. But that involves unplugging her from the monitor which is a bit of a nuisance.

Oh, and we think we have the names finally narrowed down. But, we're not telling :-)

Birth Day!

Wwwssshhh! Wwwssshhh! (That's the sound of me blowing the dust off this blog.)

Well, it looks like it's Birth Day! Jenni had a doctor's appointment today, and, "surprise", they sent her straight to the hospital because she's in labor. Not sure when things are really going to get underway, but here we are, getting ready! I guess there's a chance she won't deliver today, but we should know over the next couple hours I would think.

We're right about at 37 weeks now, so just about what they consider full term.

Exciting, this thing called life!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Derek's Tambling Lake Challenge Run 2009

While in Eagle River, Wisconsin for vacation last week, we saw a few signs around town for a midnight 5K fun run hosted by the local YMCA. Derek, who just turned 5 during our vacation, was determined that he wanted to do it. It took some convincing, but he ultimately agreed with me that even if he could cover 3.1 miles on his own two feet, doing so at midnight might not be the best idea for a 5 year old.

No problem. He decided he'd just do his own race, 2 miles. With Grandma and Grandpa ready and willing to host an aid station which we could hit twice on our out and back run, and Grandpa doing double-duty as race photographer, and Mom as race videographer, we put together a top notch event.

Derek did great, and took my advice to mix running and walking, covering the distance with relative ease in just over 40 minutes. It was a blast. Might just become an annual event...maybe we'll even attract some other runners next year :-)


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

100 Miles, 1 Day - 2009 Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run


It was in November, 2007, that this all began. That was when I first got the idea in my head that
ultrarunning was a journey I wanted to take, and 100 miles was the destination. I took the first significant steps along the way in 2008, culminating in the most difficult challenge I had ever faced at the 2008 Kettle Moraine 100K. I'll never forget the last few miles of that 100K, running past 100-mile runners who were headed back out for their final 38 miles. I wrote it up in my report like this:
"As I was coming into the finish of the 100K, thoroughly beaten, there were runners headed the other direction on their quest to finish 100 miles! When I signed up for the 100K, my thought was that if I could survive 100K I'd make an attempt at 100 miles next year. But with a couple miles to go in my 100K, all I could think was, "I will never ever do this again". How in the hell, after all of that, are these people continuing to run, knowing that they are setting off to cover another 38 miles, into the dark of night, with thunder beginning to rumble in the sky once again? How? How? I thought I was tough. I thought I was strong. That girl was, was...she was smiling! What the hell? Clearly, there is another level of tough that remains beyond my understanding."
Well, I couldn't leave things at that, of course. Once time did its magic and the pain and misery were mostly forgotten (time is like anesthesia for endurance athletes), I clicked "submit" and entered myself into the 2009 Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. I needed to figure out if I had whatever "those people" have. I put my trust in a truth that has held for me thus far in my endurance pursuits.

When the mind believes, the body will follow.

So there I found myself at the Kettle Moraine Nordic trail head, readying my drop bags in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 2009. I arrived with a body I knew to be not all so different from the body that carried me through a torturous 62 mile slog on these same trails one year prior. But I now had a mind that believed. Not a mind that believed I would finish. I couldn't bring myself to be so arrogantly presumptuous. There was just way too much uncharted territory to be confronted. The simple difference was that I now had a mind that fully believed I would take at least one more step beyond 62 miles. I trusted that would be followed by another, and another, and so on. My hope was that my final step would the one that carried me across the 100 mile finish line. Belief. Trust. Hope. Little words that can make a big difference.

The first 62 miles of the race would be a repeat of the same trails I covered during the 100K last year, starting with a 7.5 mile loop around the Nordic hiking and ski trails, then heading northeast on the Ice Age Trail to the Scuppernong trails and the turnaround at the 31 mile mark. From there you do a 180 and return to the start/finish area, where you find yourself with 62 miles on your battered legs, and just steps from your car. If you successfully suppress the urge to drop here, you head back out around the Nordic loop one more time, then head southwest on the Ice Age Trail down to the final turnaround at the 81.5 mile mark. From here, assuming you're still upright and mobile, you retrace your steps back to the finish at the Nordic trail head. The fun begins at 6am Saturday, and the cutoff time is noon Sunday, 30 hours.

Having to generate a pace chart so my family had some idea when I might be arriving at various checkpoints meant having to set a target time and pace. My goal was simply to finish, but I was hoping to be able to break 24 hours, so I put together an estimated pacing plan based on the average paces of runners who finished in the 22 to 24 hour time window last year. I told my wife, Jenni, that the margin of error in my estimated times could be significant. Jenni would be coming up later in the morning, toting almost-5 year old Derek and 9 month old Darcie, hoping to catch me somewhere around 25 to 30 miles into my journey. I signed her up for twittering the happenings of the day from my phone so some of my family and friends could keep tabs on how things were going. Jenni takes to new technology with, shall we say, reluctance. But once she figured out that tweeting was really very simple, I knew she would keep her thumbs busy, and my family entertained.

Besides Jenni and the kids, I was blessed to have my sister Vicki, niece Lexie, brother Dave, and nephew David all coming to support me sometime around the 45 to 55 mile mark, and they all planned to hang in there through the night until the finish. Dave was committed to running with me from mile 62 to the final turnaround at mile 81, which was pretty impressive of him considering this would be his first real trail running experience, and most of it in the dark of night!

Following some pre-race words from race director Timo, I gathered with the rest of the crazies behind the starting line awaiting the word. No air horn, no cannon, just Timo with a little, "Ready, set, go", and our journey was officially underway.

The first several miles of the Nordic trails involve a continuous series of little roller coaster ups and downs on relatively wide trails. As is the common wisdom for most ultrarunners setting off to cover 50 miles or more, I walked the uphills to save my legs for the many, many miles to come. Within the first mile I found myself running behind a guy and a girl who started chatting about her shirt. She'd written on the back of it, "Hey Jim! Blue Skies!", and the guy was asking her about it. She said Jim was a friend of hers who passed away in February. One of her favorite memories of Jim was the time he took her skydiving. Immediately my mind went to my dad. Dad passed away in October. Less than five months before he died, at the age of 70, he took a flying leap out of a perfectly good airplane.

It got me thinking about Dad. You have a lot of time to think when you're running 100 miles. I thought about how much pain and suffering my dad endured through the final years of his life, and it made me realize that the pain I was setting out to inflict upon myself today was nothing. Nothing. It made me think that the girl, the shirt, the words, the story...it was all there in front of me for a reason. I got the sense that Dad was there with me, and we were going to work through the pain and suffering of this day together. Like Dad jumping out of a plane, my running 100 miles makes no sense at all to most. These are things crazy people do. But, the way I see it, "life is too short not to do cool shit". It doesn't have to make sense to anybody else. It only has to make sense to me. And so, we took our "leap", down the trail, together. Common sense be damned.

The early miles rolled along nicely uneventfully. I was enjoying the mercifully mild weather, a good 25 degrees cooler than the steamy, stormy conditions of 2008. Eventually as the runners spread out across the many miles of trails, I found myself alone with my thoughts and pulled out my iPod so I could listen to a new audio book I'd just bought - Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. I'd heard great things about this book from other ultrarunners, and they were right! Chris' book kept me entertained and inspired for hours, a perfect match for the day. This has actually become one of my favorite activities in life...running trails, listening to a new book, and just losing myself for awhile. If it weren't for running, I'm afraid I'd never find time to read a new book :-)

A little before 12:30pm I arrived at the Scuppernong aid station, the 31 mile mark, and the turnaround for the return trip back to Nordic. Jenni and the kids had arrived to greet me, which always gives me a huge lift. I loaded up at the aid station, eating whatever sounded good, told the family I'd see them in about 5 miles, and pressed on.

Soon after departing Scuppernong it started to rain lightly. The forecast had called for a pretty good chance of rain all day and night, so I was mentally prepared for a very soggy ordeal. But as it turned out, we got less than an hour of light rain in the early afternoon, and that was it. No significant rain, cool temperatures...ideal running weather!

As I was approaching the County Road ZZ aid station, mile 36.4, a girl running the other way said something to me about a cute little boy waiting on the trail just ahead. The cute little boy turned out to be Derek, waiting for me in the rain, about 50 yards up the trail from the aid station. Apparently Derek had been practicing his trail running while waiting for me to arrive. It makes me smile to see that Derek really enjoys getting out to these events. He doesn't even realize that what we were doing out there is considered crazy by most right-thinking folks. He's been around endurance events like this since before he can remember, so it all seems perfectly normal to him :-)

Somewhere between mile 40 and 45 I was running through the section of trail that is mostly grassy meadow, still enjoying listening to my book, putting one foot in front of the....WHAM!! I suddenly found myself sprawled out on the ground, trying to regather whatever wits were still functioning. My left foot had caught a small stump hiding in the weeds, intent on taking me down. I quickly assessed the situation, but happily discovered no significant damage. So I hauled myself back up and pressed on.

As I grew closer to the Emma Carlin aid station, mile 47.3, I started craving a pizza! My body wanted salt and fat, big time! Of course I knew there was no pizza at the aid station, so when I arrived at the food table I scanned the offerings trying to identify the next best alternative. I saw these tortilla rolls-ups with some meat and cheese inside, and started devouring them. Turns out, the roll-ups were turkey or ham, cheese, butter, and mayo! On any other occasion, I would have rejected these as being both disgusting and alarmingly unhealthy. But, in this particular circumstance, I was in heaven...not as good as a pizza, but it fit the bill. I must have downed half a dozen of those things!

The temperature had started to drop a bit, so I slipped on a long sleeve shirt from my drop bag. The rest of my family hadn't arrived yet, so I told Jenni I'd see her at the Bluff aid station 8 miles up the trail (the kids were napping at this point), and I got myself moving again. There's more uphill than down on this section of the course as you work your way past a huge granite erratic boulder know as the Stone Elephant, toward one of the highest points on the course, a hill known as Bald Bluff. I always get a refreshing sense of oneness with my surroundings whenever I find myself running on trails that were forged and traveled by native Americans hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Bald Bluff is thought to have been used by local tribes as a council grounds, a signal hill, and a place where ceremonial dances were held. And the Stone Elephant was thought to be a sacred place by the early Potawatomi Indians (Although, having stopped to look at the Stone Elephant during a training run one day, and finding no discernible resemblance to that of an elephant aside from perhaps color, it occurred to me, "How would native Americans know what an elephant looks like, anyway?")

I performed my own sort of ceremonial dance on my way down the rocky back side of Bald Bluff, trying not to fall or turn an ankle, and soon found myself passing through a trail intersection known as Confusion Corner on my way to the Bluff aid station, mile 55.5. I'd been running for nearly 12 hours now, and the miles were starting to wear on me. But, thankfully, the rest of my family had now arrived to support me. This was their first introduction to the world of ultrarunning, and I felt blessed to have them there, yet guilty at the same time. I felt guilty at the thought of them waiting around all night just to see me for a few minutes every couple of hours. But, they assured me they wanted to be there, and were in this thing for the long haul, so I just loaded up with some calories and kept moving.

The final few miles back around the Nordic trails took me through the roller coaster hills once again. As I passed runners headed the other direction to begin their final 38 mile out and back leg, I remembered back to one year ago as I was in the same place headed into the finish of my 100K. I was tired, but not nearly as trashed as I had been in this same place a year ago. I know the milder weather had a big part to play in that, but the bigger difference was mental. My brain had already prepared itself for at least a 24 hour ordeal, not a 13 hour one. My mind knew I was a long, long way from done. My body was just going along for the ride, tired, but not finished. Before long I found myself back where I had started - the start/finish area, and the 62.9 mile mark of my 100 mile adventure.

My family was there, helping me with whatever I needed. I took a seat in the grass to inspect my feet and change my socks. As I was checking for blisters, I started to feel lots of little pinches, like bug bites. I looked down and saw that I was covered in fire ants, hundreds of them! I had been sitting right on top of their nest, and apparently word got out and spread like...well, like fire! I jumped up and Jenni freaked as she saw my back was totally covered in the little bastards. They were under my shirt, under my shorts, between my two shirts, everywhere! Another ceremonial dance ensued as we worked to brush them all off. At least it perked me up!

Once the ant situation was taken care of, I got some more food, and readied my headlamp and handheld flashlights. Dave did the same as he prepared to pace me for the next 19 miles or more, depending on how he was feeling. I was a little concerned when I saw Dave's lights. He had three of these little clip-on LED lights, one on the bill of his hat, the other two each on the hand straps of his handheld bottles. I was concerned they may not be bright enough, but maybe having three of them might work out okay. I also knew I had more light than I really needed, so I figured we'd make it work. Dave said he was ready to go, and off we went, into "uncharted territory".


I chit-chatted about trail running tips for Dave, tried to describe the trails that lay in store for us, babbled about the book I'd been listening to, and just generally tried to keep my mind on anything but my aching legs and the many miles they still had to carry me. We went past a couple of fiends headed the other direction; Dorn Peddy who told me he was going to drop at 100K due to pain in his knee, and Dominic Guinta who was looking strong and determined to push on toward his first 100 miler. A few miles into the Nordic trails we came upon a rise with a beautiful view of a lush green valley to the west, and the ridge on the other side from which we had come. I was glad Dave got a least a bit of time to run the trails while there was still some daylight to appreciate the beauty of them. Not long after, the trails grew darker and we switched on our lights.

We found our way back to the Bluff aid station, mile 70.3, yucked it up with the family, and loaded up with enough food and drink to carry us the 7 miles to the next fully stocked aid station, and were on our way. Soon after we took the left turn at Confusion Corner it had gotten really dark and Dave was realizing his lights were not really bright enough. I had my headlamp plus two very bright handheld lights attached to my water bottles. I gave Dave one of my handhelds, which helped a lot, and left me still with plenty of light, so we were good to go for the night.



Then, things started to take a turn. The next few miles sucked the life out of me. A downward spiral was in the making.

It was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight when we finally arrived at the Highway 12 aid station, mile 77. I'd been running for nearly 18 hours, and I was growing worried. I knew I needed to eat, but I wasn't hungry. The 7 miles since the last manned aid station had taken their toll. I'd been stumbling in the dark, tripping over rocks and tree roots, over a section of trail that seemed much more uphill than down, and had grown dejected by the dramatic drop in pace. My spirits had darkened. I slumped into a chair, and worried about how hard it may be to extract myself from it again. Jenni's face revealed a look of concern. Negative thoughts began to dance in my head. First are the thoughts that come from that part of your brain whose job it is to keep you from destroying yourself. These are the thoughts that urge you to stop.

But then some other part of my brain sparked. It was that part of my brain for which, "stop" is the sound of a blaring alarm. It shook off the fatigue, assessed the situation, and spoke to me.

"Steve, pull yourself together. This is what running 100 miles feels like. This, right here, right now...this is what it's all about. You can stop now, nobody else will care, but you'll always know. Pull your ass out of this chair and move!"

The whole experience would have almost been a disappointment if it hadn't brought me to this dark place. You see, it's
supposed to be hard. It wouldn't be worth doing if it wasn't. All the miles, all the hills, every step, all the pain, the falls, the stubbed toes, every rock and tree root, the entire cumulative experience of the 77 miles that led me to this place was all there for this very reason. It was all there to try to break me.

No. Not today. Not this time.

I picked myself up out of the chair, fueled my body, and we pressed onward.

And just like that, I gradually started feeling better. Sure, I was beat, I was tired, I was aching, and my progress was slow, but my confidence was making a comeback. By the time we pulled into the final turnaround at mile 81.5, Jenni couldn't believe I was the same person she'd seen just over 4 miles back. I told Dave he could pull out here, and I'd be fine. But he assured me he was still feeling good, and wanted to keep going. And so, keep going we did.

We made steady progress back toward Highway 12, buoyed by the fact the we were on the final push toward home. At the mile 86 aid station I once again told Dave I'd be fine if he'd had enough. I loved having the company out there, but I knew he was already well past his "commitment", and the next crew accessible aid station was another 7 miles. He thought about it awhile, but he once again assured me he was still feeling good. Keep moving forward.

All things considered, Dave and I made good time over the next section of trail. We ran where we could, and where we had to walk I forced myself to power walk. By the time we arrived back at the Bluff aid station, mile 92.8, the family was nowhere to be seen. As we busied ourselves eating and filling bottles, the crew arrived, surprised that we'd made better time than they expected. Dave finally decided to pull the plug here, having run farther than he'd ever run before, 30 miles. First real trail run, first night trail run, first ultra distance run! My brother went way above and beyond the call for me, and I can't thank him enough for helping me through!

My fuzzy brain had somehow already given up on the goal of 24 hours, convinced that I had an outside chance to make it at best. I couldn't do the math to figure out how fast I needed to go, and I didn't have the mental energy to care that much. But Vicki told me I could do it, so I pushed on. I knew the final 7 miles of trail had plenty of hills, but pretty reliable footing, and it would start getting light soon. So, I just pushed on, drawing on whatever energy I could still find.

Somewhere between 4:30 and 5am, it was like God flipped a switch. It seemed as if simultaneously every bird in the forest started to sing. Mother Nature was waking up. I drew some extra energy from that and pressed on. With a few miles to go the math became easier to figure and I could see that, barring some complete and
unexpected shutdown, I would break 24 hours by a comfortable margin. I looked forward to the final pass through the roller coaster of hills over the last 5 miles. As the sky grew lighter, I could begin to hear some voices through the trees from the finish line. Finally, the finish line banner came into sight a few hundred yards ahead. I could see Dave waving toward the parking lot, signalling to Jenni and the others that I was coming in.

The day before the race I had talked to Derek about the finish. Derek likes to run across finish lines with me whenever he can. I told him that he'd probably be asleep when I got to the finish line this time, and asked him if he wanted Mom to wake him up to finish with me. He said yes. I asked him a couple times to make sure, and "yes" was the clear answer. So, I figured that's what Jenni was doing now. There was no way I would go across that line without him. When I got about 30 or 40 yards from the finish, Timo the race director was there starting to cheer me in. I told him I had to wait because I promised my little boy he could finish with me. A couple minutes later, a sleepy-eyed Derek came jogging toward me. He was saying, "sorry, sorry", thinking I might be mad I had to wait for him. I assured him it was just fine, and I wouldn't have wanted to have it any other way. Derek and I joined hands and ran the final stretch across the line together.

100 miles. 1 day.

**

The day wouldn't have been the same, heck wouldn't have been possible, without the love and support of my family.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to my wife Jenni, son Derek, baby daughter Darcie, sister Vicki, niece Lexie, brother and pacer Dave, and nephew David, for being there by my side. I know my Mom and sister Deb both also wanted to be there, too, so thanks for following along with Jenni's twitter updates. It made a difference just knowing you had me in your thoughts.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Steve Larsen

I know I haven't blogged in quite awhile, but I find myself today unable to shake my sadness over the death of a man I didn't even know. Steve Larsen, former professional cyclist and triathlete, collapsed and died yesterday during a track workout. He was just 39 years old and he leaves behind a wife and five young children.

Five young children. Just the thought of it makes me cry.

From interviews I have heard with him, it was clear that Steve was a great dad and devoted family man. He appeared to place his role as a father clearly well ahead of his personal ambitions as an athlete, which sadly seems to be a rarity among athletes as gifted and driven as he. And, for that, I had great respect for the man.

Just so sad. I'm going home now to hug my kids.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Firsts... and Lasts: Ironman Wisconsin 2008

For whatever reason I never quite got around to writing a race report for Ironman Wisconsin this year. I don't really know why. It wasn't for lack of noteworthy happenings surrounding the event. But somehow, the event came and went, and the experience never translated from my mind to my keyboard.

Then, my dad unexpectedly passed away. My mind went elsewhere. It continues to wander.

But, at the urging of my sister, Vicki, I'll try here to recapture my thoughts from this year's race. Perhaps as the words come I'll find some reason why this year's report was supposed to wait.


Firsts...

The day after Ironman Wisconsin 2007, my brother, Dave, made a bold move. He got in queue to sign his name on the dotted line, committing himself to his first attempt at the Ironman distance for IMWI 2008. Like me, a seed was planted in his psyche years ago by simply witnessing an Ironman.

In 2000, I went with a friend of mine, Tom, to watch him race his first half Ironman. It was a small, local event in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. At that time, they ran both a half and a full Ironman in Lake Geneva concurrently. After watching Tom finish the half, knowing what a great athlete he was, and seeing how much this race took out of him, I became transfixed in watching a small core of athletes attempting the full Ironman distance. I had just recently started doing some running myself, and was training for my first half marathon. At that time, a half marathon was a stretch for what I believed possible for me. A half Ironman was beyond my imagination. A full Ironman was well beyond any hint of comprehension for me.

That afternoon I got in my car, drove the hour back home, and said to my wife, "Jenni, you've got to come and see this! You won't believe what these people are doing!" We both got in the car and drove back to Lake Geneva to watch the rest of the race. We were both awestruck by what we were witnessing. We sat there for hours, in front of a bar overlooking the finish line, and watched as the faster athletes finished, and the slower athletes came by holding up their fingers to indicate how many more laps they had to go on the four-loop run course. Having done a short training run on part of the run course while Tom was on the bike gave me an even greater appreciation for what these people were doing. The run course in Lake Geneva is one tough, crazy-hilly course!

Little did I know it at the time, but that was the day the seed was planted in my mind. My inner resolve to complete an Ironman one day was sparked and began to slowly smolder in my soul.

One year after that day I found myself in Lake Geneva completing my first half Ironman, and another year later I found myself toeing the line at the inaugural Ironman Wisconsin, alongside my friend, Tom.

Many family members came to watch me attempt that first Ironman, but I didn't believe my brother was coming. What a nice surprise it was when I saw Dave smiling and cheering and high-fiving me half way through the run.

Little did he know it at the time, but that was the day the Ironman seed was planted in his mind.

Inspiration. It's a powerful thing. And, you never see it coming.

So, the 2008 Ironman Wisconsin would make for one very special day. I would get the opportunity to race alongside my brother, and he would get to prove to himself that he could do what he once believed impossible.

But these would not be the only firsts for this year's race.


In January of this year, Jenni, shared the exciting news with me that she was pregnant. When I asked her the due date, it took awhile for it to register in my mind that there was some significance to the answer. September 8th. Yep, that would be the day after Ironman. I think she was worried that this would be a problem with me. But, of course, it wasn't. I figured I would just train as if I was doing the race, and things would sort themselves out in time. If I couldn't do the race, there would always be another Ironman.

Yet, at the same time we were both aware that there was something special about Ironman this year. If you haven't followed my Ironman past, let me quickly bring you up to speed. Ironman Wisconsin has come to represent a sort of ad hoc family reunion for the Emmerts. My family has adopted this event in a way I never would have imagined. They, too, were moved in an unexpected way after coming to watch it the first time. It's what inspired my sister, Deb, to put the experience into these words, which have since found their way into print in American Tri magazine, which have been shared numerous times upon request on triathlon discussion forums, and which continue to inspire random souls who stumble upon it through a Google search. My family has come to look forward to this race each year. It's just assumed that I will keep doing it.

So, this being the year that Dave would make his entrée to Ironman, two brothers taking on Ironman together, we did hope there would be a way to make it happen. Our first child, Derek, arrived 10 days early. If baby sister were to follow in his baby steps, she'd be 9 days old on race day. We could make that work, right? Easy for me to say. I'd indeed have the easy job this year. As tough as Ironman may be, I won't make the mistake of assuming it compares in any meaningful way to giving birth to a child.

In March we had a family get together at Dave's house. I asked Derek to share the great news by telling Grandma he was going to be a big brother. After the excitement settled a bit, Dave said to me, "You're going to make me do this by myself, aren't you?" By "this", of course he was referring to the race. I said we'd just have to wait and see what unfolds.

As race day drew near, it appeared more and more likely that one way or another the baby would arrive at least a couple days early. Jenni's doctor told us that due to her "advanced maternal age" (she loves that term), she would not let us go past the due date, and more likely would induce a little early if the baby hadn't already taken the initiative herself.

As chronicled here "real time", on September 2nd, 2008, Darcie Ann Emmert, arrived into our world, strong, healthy, and beautiful. Just three days later, Ironmom Jenni, Ironbaby Darcie, Ironbrother Derek, and just plain old me, piled into the van and headed to Madison for Ironman weekend. I don't know how she did it, but if I hadn't been there myself I certainly could not have guessed that Jenni had just given birth to a child. She's a warrior. No doubt a much stronger woman than she realizes.

And then I remembered, "Holy crap. I have an Ironman in two days!" I'd sort of forgotten about it in all the excitement. Oh well. There was nothing more I could do to prepare. Those five or six swims since last year's Ironman would just have to be enough ;-)

While the annual Emmert family reunion commenced, and those who hadn't already met her got to hold Darcie for the first time, Dave and I proceeded to do the things we needed to do...get checked in for the race, attend the pre-race meeting, check in our bikes, pack and drop off our transition bags. There were a couple other guys who live near Dave for whom this would also be their first Ironman. I tried to answer their last minute questions and offer whatever advice I could give about surviving race day.

My advice about how to approach race day is always the same. It's all about patience and discipline. You have to hold back on the bike when you feel like 'racing'. You have to put your ego in your back pocket and leave it there until the last half of the run. During the first 60 miles or so on the bike, if you're wondering if you're going too hard, you are. Have a sound nutrition plan and follow it. It's really pretty simple. And, if you've done the training, and you execute your race day plan, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to finish the race.

The one variable that can dramatically narrow your margin of error is one that you can't control. The weather. A really hot day can make the line between success and failure very narrow. Thankfully, the forecast for race day this year was just about perfect.

One of my favorite activities during Ironman weekend is the Fit Kids fun run around the capitol on Saturday morning. Derek was returning this year to launch his third assault on the capitol square. When talking to Derek before the run, he told me, "I don't want to run around like a crazy man. I just want to finish." I don't know where it came from, but it sounded like a pretty solid plan to me. Derek ran the whole way, and did indeed finish. Afterwards, when my mother-in-law Judy asked him how the race went, he proclaimed, "That hill is a killer!" I think I will need to continue my streak at Ironman Wisconsin if for no other reason than to allow Derek to continue his streak at the run around the capitol.


Race Day...

Dave and I walked together to the race start early Sunday morning and did all the necessary race morning things. I took him to my usual race morning “hiding place” in the lower level of the Monona Terrace. In the early years of Ironman Wisconsin, there were lots of athletes there who didn’t really know their way around the Terrace, so one could find a quiet spot here or there to relax on race morning. By now, there are no more hiding places in the Terrace, but you can still find spots that are less frenetic than others.

If Dave was unusually nervous, I couldn’t tell. We just chilled out for awhile before putting on our wetsuits and making our way toward the swim start. We found Jenni, my sister, father-in-law, and nieces and nephews on our way down the helix. My sister, Deb, asked Dave how he was feeling. “Scared sh..less.” It is indeed rather a daunting challenge. Despite knowing you’ve done all the hard work, it’s nearly impossible to summon your confidence when faced with a 2000+ person mass swim start as merely the kick-off to the longest, hardest day of physical activity of your life. Especially for a relative non-swimmer. I know. I’ve been there.

I think the cool thing about race morning of your first Ironman is that there is really nothing anyone else can say or do that can make you feel better. The hard work is done, and so is the talking. All that is left is the doing. It’s supposed to be scary and intimidating because it is indeed hard, and it wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t. So off you head to prove to yourself that you are a stronger person than you previously believed. There are very few days in a civilian life that offer an opportunity like that.

Dave found this wife and kids near the swim start and took in the energy of their hugs and kisses. Just before we entered the water, we shook hands and Dave told me, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” “But you’ve done all the hard work.” I replied. Inspiration is merely the first step on a long journey. Goggles on. Into the water. All that is left is the doing.

We treaded water together for a few minutes while waiting for the cannon to fire, finding a spot wide to the outside and pretty far back in an attempt to avoid the worst of the thrashing of the swim start. “Boom!” It was 7 AM.

If you know me, you know that swimming is not my strength. To make matters worse, I put very, very little time into my swim training this year, instead putting in much of my training time on the trails preparing for my first season of ultrarunning. So, I figured it would be a slow and relatively unpleasant swim for me. I was right. I also figured there was a good chance Dave would beat me out of the water.

I came out of the water in exactly the time I predicted, which was unfortunately my slowest Ironman swim ever. After the wetsuit peelers helped extract me from my suit, an old friend, Ali, found me and ran with me toward the parking ramp helix. A few years back Ali was the manager of the fitness center at the company where I work, and she has an infectious level of positive energy. She made me feel like a rock star despite my abysmal swim.

Coming out of transition on my way to my bike, there was Jenni cheering me on. I asked her if she’d seen Dave and she said, “Yeah, he came by here a long time ago! You better get going!” I was glad to hear that Dave had a good swim. I had no doubt Dave would get through the swim just fine, but it was a relief to hear that nothing unexpected had happened out there. As it turned out, he beat me out of the water by over ten minutes.

As I started the bike I felt, well, not all that great, really. There was nothing terribly wrong. I just didn’t have my usual race day energy. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think in no small part it was simply that my motivation to push hard was at a low ebb. For 2008 I’d taken on a new passion: ultrarunning. Running what had previously been inconceivably long distances on challenging trails had become my new focus, and it had begun to make triathlon feel a little less vibrant. On a more practical level, it had also replaced some of my critical early season bike miles with trail running miles, which don’t translate all that well to endurance cycling. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there, or that I wasn’t enjoying my day, because I did, and I was. But, I think at least part of me was already looking ahead to other challenges in a different arena.

So, I rolled along, taking the day as it came to me, and remembered I did have some great things to look forward to. For one, Dave was up the road somewhere, and I was wondering how long it might take me to catch him. For another, we had over 20 family and friends out there on the course to cheer us on, including now 5-day old Darcie.

I was more than 40 miles into the bike, and still I had not caught up with Dave. I was really happy he was having a good day, and impressed he was holding me off so long. A couple miles beyond Cross Plains I finally saw a guy up ahead who looked familiar. “Hey, how’s it going?” I said as I pulled up alongside. Dave and I chatted for awhile about how our days were going. Since we were quickly approaching the first of three of the most significant hills on the bike course, with our cheering section camped out at the top of the last of them, we decided it would be cool to ride them together.

The first hill, Old Sauk Pass, is the longest of the three. It’s not terribly steep, but it’s long and winding, and just steep enough that you pray for the top around each bend in the road, just to be cruelly greeted with more uphill around each curve. But riding it alongside Dave, we climbed to the top rather painlessly. Actually, if you like riding hills, this is quite a beautiful little climb. A great little winding country road through the trees, which helps take your mind off the torment.

Much too soon after Old Sauk Pass is the Timber Lane hill. Not as scenic, the Timber Lane hill is a straight, steep shot upward. What makes it cool on race day, particularly on the first loop of the bike, is that it is packed with supporters. It’s brief, but it’s a Tour de France kind of vibe, and the energy of the crowd helps carry you to the top.

Dave and I just cruised along the next handful of miles toward the next major obstacle on the course, the Midtown Road hill. But this is one hill we were each looking forward to because the top of Midtown Road is where our family sets up camp to cheer on the athletes during the bike. Being a bit behind my anticipated pace, and Dave being well ahead of his, meant we’d get to do what probably none of the family expected: ride past them side by side. As we worked our way toward the top of the climb, our 20+ person cheering section began to identify one or the other of us, and the fireworks of cowbell ringing, signs raising, arms waving, voices screaming, cameras shooting, and friendly faces smiling exploded in front of us, drawing both of us over the top of the climb on a cloud. Just after we went past, I said to Dave, “It’s a bit much to take in all at once, isn’t it?” It’s a fantastic sight, but it’s impossible to make an eye to eye connection with everyone in our cheering section. As we later learned, it wasn’t so easy from their perspective either. Apparently as we were going by, some of our group was yelling, “There’s Steve!”, and others were yelling, “There’s Dave!” After we went by, my niece said to some of the others, “Who was that jerk who wouldn’t get out of Steve’s way?”, the offending 'jerk' in this case being her dad. As the discussions unfolded, it became clear that some of the family saw me, and some saw Dave, and several of them did not even realize that we were together! That was too funny!

As we cruised away from the hills back into Verona to complete loop one, I gradually pulled away from Dave, confident he was well on his way to a successful first Ironman experience. I was feeling better now, reenergized by spending some time with Dave and seeing the family. Yet, as the miles ticked by through the second loop, and I started heading back into Madison, I was very ready to get off the bike. One might think there is a sense of dread in the latter miles of the bike during an Ironman, dread of the upcoming marathon. For me, it’s always been the opposite. I always start looking forward to the marathon if for no other reason than the fact that I really want to get off my bike! Really, 6 to 7 hours is just way too long to sit on a bike, in my humble opinion. I don’t think I’m cut out for true endurance cycling.

About this time I was reminded of my one major concern about the day: my Achilles heel. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, I mean my actual Achilles tendon. Four years ago I ran myself into a problem with Achilles tendonitis in my right leg, and it’s a problem that continues to plague me from time to time. While training for Ironman this year I started to have issues with my tendon becoming sore during and after my long bike rides, which has never happened before. My Achilles problems of the past have always been running specific, and hadn’t prior to 2008 been aggravated by cycling. So, coming off the bike this year, I was worried. 26.2 miles is an awfully long way to walk.

As I exited the transition area to begin the run, what was right there in front of me but a couple massage therapists looking for someone to help. Figuring it couldn’t do any harm, I told one of the therapists about my Achilles concerns and she worked on my right leg for a few minutes. I don’t know if it actually did any good, but it at least helped psychologically. I thanked her, and was on my way.

Right away on the run I was immediately greeted by my family, some on Pickney Street, some atop the Pickney Street parking garage, and still more along Doty Street, all yelling and high fiving and waving signs and snapping pictures. What a treasure I have in my family.

Due in no small part to the excellent weather conditions, and at least in some part to the many running miles I logged earlier in the year, the miles this year seemed to roll on by pretty smoothly. Never all day did I really have to do any walking in between aid stations. My stomach felt good, thankfully my Achilles was behaving, and I just tried to not slow down. A good Ironman run isn’t about running fast. It’s about not slowing down. I saw Dave a few times on the run while I was going one way and he was going the other. He looked good, and each time I saw him he was running and smiling, which are two very good signs that all is going well.

Just past the halfway turnaround near the Starbucks, a familiar voice thundered over the noise of the crowd, “Go Steve!” It was the unmistakable booming cheer of my dad. My parents have been there for all but one of my Ironmans, having missed just one when my mom was ill. Despite some health issues that have made it difficult for my dad to spend a long day on his feet, he has always been there for me, through heat and cold and rain and everything in between. He has always been there.

You know, come to think of it, besides my parents, I have been blessed to have a long list of family members who have always been there for me: Ironsherpa extraordinaire Jenni, Jenni’s parents, Jerry and Judy, my sisters Vicki and Deb, and of course, Dave. I don’t think any of them have missed even one Ironman over the past seven years, and most years the list has included brothers and sister-in-law, and numerous nieces and nephews. 2008 marked Ironman number five for my son Derek, despite the fact that he is only four. And of course, baby Darcie wasted no time getting into the Ironman spirit, making it to her first just five days into our world. I am blessed to say the very least.

About a mile into loop two, I stopped to give Jenni and Darcie a sweaty hug and kiss, and I set off to get this thing done. I ran by Dave another time or two, and he was still looking good, and still running. I was really proud of him, and happy to see his race was going well.

The second loop went by nicely uneventfully. I began to see that I should be able to run under four hours, which is always an unspoken goal of mine. In fact, if I could keep pressing, I thought I might be able to come in under 3:50. That gave me the motivation to keep running whenever I felt like taking a walk break.

Sadly, I had to abandon a personally cherished tradition this year. Each year that I have finished this race since my son Derek was born, I’ve crossed the finish line with him. I have always been a very responsible athlete when taking Derek across the finish with me, being conscientious to ensure we have never gotten in the way of any other athlete, have never in any way affected the finish or finish line photo of any other athlete, and have never caused a burden to anyone in the finisher’s pen. Unfortunately, not all athletes have been as considerate in the past; hence North America Sports was forced to get stricter about their finish line policy this year. Athletes this year were allowed to finish with no more than one child between the ages of six and 16, period. Seeing as Derek was only four, I had to bring this tradition to a close this year and cross the line alone. It meant more to me than to Derek, I’m sure, but I was saddened that our streak was coming to an end.

Nevertheless, the finish line once again proved to be a magical experience: the roaring crowd, the bright lights, and the announcer booming over the speakers, “Steve Emmert from Crystal Lake, Illinois…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” It’s a really cool pay off for a very long, hard day’s work. My time was 12:21:53, which was nowhere near a PR, but still about 20 minutes faster than my pre-race estimates.

My friend, Ali, who was there cheering me on at the wetsuit peeler station, was there to “catch me” at the finish line. Ali walked and talked with me to the back of the finish pen, and she really wanted to talk with Jenni since they hadn’t seen each other for awhile. It’s a mighty crowded place just outside the finish pen, with family and friends gathering to greet their athletes. Ali and I looked everywhere for my family for several minutes, but they were nowhere to be found. Eventually, Ali needed to return to her volunteering duties, and I continued to search for my family. Finally we found each other and the hugs and kisses and picture taking and story telling commenced.

After the reunion, I had to take off to get some food, warm clothes, and an ice pack for my Achilles, and then get back to the family to await Dave’s finish. Less than 14 hours into his race, Dave came into view, running down the chute with a huge smile on his face, finally experiencing the magic of the Ironman finish line, and in a time well under his expectations. It was great to be able to experience that post-race “glow” with my brother. (Actually to tell you the truth, you kind of “glow” for awhile from the adrenaline, then you get kind of pale, light-headed and nauseous, and really just need to sit down :-) )



Steve, Mom, Dad, and Dave



Lasts…

Seven weeks after the race I got a call from Dave. His voice was shaky. I hadn’t heard my brother like that since another call many years earlier when his first-born baby daughter was being rushed to a pediatric intensive care hospital in a fight for her life against a serious virus attacking her heart. It took weeks, but she won the battle. This time the news was about Dad. “I think Dad’s dead.” Those were the words. Dave had just gotten off the phone with Mom. She had just returned home to find Dad lying on the floor, unresponsive. He was being taken to the hospital, but it seemed clear that he was gone. The news was sudden, and unexpected. Just a couple weeks before, we had spent a few days with Mom and Dad so they could have some quality time with Derek and Darcie, and so Dad and I could participate in a musky fishing tournament. I’m so glad we got that time to spend with Dad. Who could have known they would be our last moments together?

Dad and I were a bit of an odd pair. I share some traits with Dad, such as his stubbornness, and strong will. But in many ways we found ourselves on opposite sides of the fence. We were not disagreeable, just different. Recently it had come to light that I did not share Dad’s very republican political viewpoints. I think he wondered just where he’d gone wrong as a father to have raised an Obama supporter. When Dad wasn’t watching the Fox News Channel, he was fishing, or reading about fishing, or working with the local chapter of Muskies Inc. As tests of endurance are to me, so was fishing a passion for my dad. Although I enjoy fishing from time to time, and will forever cherish the time I spent fishing with Dad just before he passed, I would much rather spend a few hours running or riding a bike than tossing a lure.

As much as Dad loyally supported my triathlon and running endeavors, and was proud as hell of my athletic accomplishments, I don’t think he really “got” endurance sports. A couple times, while well into an Ironman or ultramarathon, Dad would say things like, “Are you having fun yet?”, or “Are you still glad you signed up for this?” I know he was just joking around, but these are not the kinds of words that help when you’re hurting and fighting to keep moving forward. I know he loved me and wanted nothing more than to see me succeed at my various pursuits, but I don’t think he ever really understood what drove me to test my limits with these events.

A long test of endurance has the effect of slowly and gradually peeling back your exterior shell, first physically, then emotionally, until all that is left is…you. The strong defense shield you put up to surround and protect you in everyday life is stripped away, revealing who you really are, what you’re really made of. David Blaikie, a Canadian journalist and runner who put much of his focus toward writing about the activities of ultrarunners, put it like this:

"... Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being -- a call that asks who they are ..."

An extreme test of endurance is like a ritual that breaks you down, and breaks you down, and breaks you down, until finally, you break through to something else and come out the other side stronger for it. It is a way to strengthen yourself on the inside, so you don’t need such a strong defense shield on the outside. It is exercise for your soul.

My dad had the strongest defense shield of anyone I have ever known. He wasn’t going to let anyone crack open his hard shell to reveal the frailties hidden inside. Not even him. And that is why I believe my impulsion to push my body and my spirit to their limit and beyond, thereby exposing my sheltered weaknesses, was a bit of a mystery to him. I'm afraid he never really understood that to make yourself stronger on the inside, you have to find a way to break yourself open and confront your true self.

Yet, through it all, despite not really understanding why I did what I did, what my dad did understand and respect is that it mattered a great deal to me. And if it mattered that much to me, then damn it, it mattered that much to him, because I was his son, whom he loved.

And so, there he was, at every Ironman, yelling louder than seemed necessary to make sure I knew he was there for me. There he was at my first Ironman in 2002, as Deb put it, “sick with a rare disease rendering him less active than he’d like to be at his age, wanting to jump in and run part of the Ironman with his son because he was just so damned proud of him and wanted to show it”. There he was in 2003, at the State Street turnaround, taking matters into his own hands and stepping out into the middle of the street, cowbell in hand, to bring the energy back to the crowd after the announcers left for the finish line. There he was in the sweltering heat of 2005, writing to me in an email after the first and only DNF of my life at mile 22 on the run, “I could never have been more proud you.” There he was in 2006, standing around all day in the cold and wind and relentless rain, just to cheer me on for a second or two as I ran by.

And, there he was in 2008, his voice thundering over the noise of the crowd...

“Go Steve!”


Dad at the State St. turnaround, 2003