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.


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


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

1 comment:

  1. I found your blog via Steve Quick's. What a great race report - your Dad had every right to be proud of his family.