(Note: It’s been two months since I finished this race and that means I’ve had two months to reflect on the highs and lows. This is the first in a series of posts about my experience with Ironman Wisconsin. Here I start by re-capping the specifics of my experience that day.)
With my back toward the Wisconsin State Capitol and one final stretch to go, I closed my eyes to cope with last few moments of pain. This was my first (and at the time I was convinced my last) Ironman finish and I couldn’t justify walking across the finish line. As a result, I tuned out all the noise—including my family and friends who were screaming for me at the top of their lungs—and focused on one simple task: earn that freaking medal until the very last step.
14 hours and 22 minutes prior to this moment I had trained six hard months for, I was treading water with 2,400 other athletes in Lake Monona waiting for the start of the race. The sun had just come up over the lake. The national anthem played, swimmers sang along. I took one final look at the large crowd stretched out alongside the water.
“Have the best day of your life,” the race announcer shouted to the athletes after firing the gun.
It took every ounce of self control during this mass-swim start to keep my heart rate down. Feeling an intense adrenaline rush, my ego wanted to take off as fast as I could, but the smarter half of my brain told me to chill.
After the first turn, which halted the swimmers around me to a standstill as everyone began yelling “Moo” (a long standing tradition in Ironman Wisconsin), I got a bit more aggressive—both with my pace and elbows. Most of the swimmers around me were large men who didn’t seem to care who was in their way. I kicked and splashed harder. Fortunately, after making another turn, things finally spread out and I no longer had to focus on other swimmers.The long stretch after the second turn is both a blessing and a curse. While there are no longer other swimmers to battle, there didn’t seem to be much of an end in sight. So I put my focus on each buoy ahead. “Just get to the next one,” I kept telling myself.
Eventually the last turn buoy came and I knew I was getting closer. I swam as fast as I could into the final stretch. The first thing I saw out of the water was the clock, which read a time of seven-minutes faster than my previous 2.4-mile swim and I threw both thumbs up in the air. I was thrilled.
Volunteers peeled my wetsuit off, I ran around the helix of Monana Terrace and made my way toward the first transition.
The Hill Training That Finally Paid Off
Despite the fact that the swim is the shortest distance in the Ironman and causes the least amount of stress on the legs, the uncertainty and fear of drowning is reason enough to feel relieved after completing this part of the race. Relief, however, was anything but what I felt while getting ready for the bike leg.
While one can take all the precautions necessary to avoid incidents like a flat tire or getting hit by a car (at least two cyclists were hit on this year’s Ironman Wisconsin course), it’s easy for these gloomy anxieties to cloud your head. I was losing focus on my goal: conquering the bike course that I had given up all my summer weekends to train on. Still, I had gotten this far and wasn’t going to allow any of that to prevent me from clipping into my pedals and attempting to take on the course.
The Ironman Wisconsin bike route consists of 16 flat and fast miles before taking on two 40-mile loops on country roads with several hilly, strenuous climbs. My strategy had been to take in as much food and fluids to take advantage of the flat roads before taking on the monstrous hills for the next 80 miles. With adrenaline pumping through my veins, it was tempting to ignore my plan and to take the first 16 miles fast, but I knew I had a long day ahead of me so I stuck to my original plan.
I was all too familiar with the roads of the Ironman Wisconsin course. I knew what loomed ahead, when to anticipate every turn, every hill. This knowledge can be both beneficial and disadvantageous during an Ironman. Physically, my legs were ready for what was to come, but mentally, I dreaded every moment.
Though in retrospect, I’m sure as heck glad my legs were ready for the monstrous hills. While other athletes who were clearly stronger and faster walked the toughest hills on the course, I inched my way past them in my saddle on my modest road bike all because I had trained on these hills and my legs were ready for them. Needless to say, the confidence went straight to my head and my pace wasn’t lagging. I came around one of the last corners on the first 40-mile loop and had another surge of adrenaline after seeing a large group of my family and friends shouting my name.
But the surge of energy quickly faded as I got got further away from them and reality set in. I was hitting my first wall of the day and needed a break. Fortunately, the timing couldn’t have been better. I was just a few short miles away from the “special needs station.” At the beginning of race day, we had the option of dropping off two separate bags (one for the bike, one for the run), which could contain items such as nutritional foods or an extra pair of socks that we’d have the option of picking up midway through the bike and run courses.Once arriving at the special needs station, the incredible volunteers encouraged us to eat, stretch and take a bathroom break. I filled up on all the nutritional goodies I had packed such as mini-bagel peanut butter sandwiches, a Snickers bar and pretzels (my go-to food items that got me through training), and then made my way back to the start of the second 40-mile loop.
There’s no doubt my body was much more tired this time around. But fortunately, the second loop was slightly different than the first and left out the hardest hill on the course. Though my pace had dropped off significantly compared to my first loop, I kept moving and tried to focus once again on nutrition.
In total on my ride, I ate at least six mini-bagel peanut butter sandwiches, four “Ah Fudgenuts” Picky Bars, six lime Honey Stinger chews, five “SaltStick” electrolyte salt capsules, several ziplock bags full of pretzels and countless bottles of Gatorade and water. Paying close attention to my nutrition throughout the day paid off and before I knew it I was making my way toward the bike finish.
Just a Marathon To Go
Getting off of my bike was the second most rewarding feeling of the day. But knowing I had to complete an entire marathon before earning my medal was one of the hardest challenges of the day. Though, running wasn’t all that hard during the first few miles of the run course, where both sides of the street were filled with spectators, followed by a loop inside Camp Randall Stadium. And it seemed right when I began to feel pain, crowds seemingly appeared out of thin air to cheer us on. While the first 13.1 miles were difficult, they weren’t impossible and my legs still felt strong.
But as I came around the corner nearing the start of the second loop, I was faced with one of the most difficult mental challenges of my life: seeing other athletes who were hours ahead of me cross the finish line while I still had a half marathon to go.
The day grew longer, spectators had faded and the sun started to set. I couldn’t stand to take in any more gel or gatorade and even the sight of the rest stops made my stomach churn. In addition, all the fluid had finally caught up to me and I had to pee nearly every two miles.
Without doubt, my pace fell by several minutes per mile and I was struggling to run. I accepted the fact that a walk would do just fine…as long as I made to the finish. Despite finishing nine marathons and several triathlons, my body had never come close to experiencing this much pain.
As the sky darkened, numerous runners fell because they couldn’t see where they placed their feet. Bushes rustled as desperate runners were in need of a “bathroom.” And hardly any spectators were still out cheering on runners on this part of the course. I was in the deepest pit of the race and gaining any motivation to finish got increasingly more challenging with every step along the way.
Eventually, I finally neared the Wisconsin State Capitol and had one final stretch to go. I closed my eyes to cope with the pain and gave it one more final kick into the finish. After 14 hours and 22 minutes, I had finally become an Iron(wo)man.
I stopped right at the finish line, tears poured down my cheeks and a volunteer asked if I was in pain or just happy to finish. “Both,” I said as I limped my way off the finish line with a well-earned medal around my neck to embrace my family and friends who were there at the finish line waiting for me.