It’s 17 days away, but I am feeling the chill of a Wisconsin September. There’s really nothing like it. Hooded sweatshirts at night and crisp clean air in the day. I can’t wait to walk around downtown Madison for a couple days as a lead-in to Ironman Wisconsin.
I’ve tried, but can’t imagine a better Ironman experience. Sure, Kona has Hawaii and its beaches, but for the old-school Wrigley Field party-in-the-middle-of-a-city, Madison is perfect.
10 Things I Love About Ironman Wisconsin
1. The Setting – Stay downtown and eat it alive. A short walk to the expo, transition, and swim start. The Saturday Farmer’s Market on the Square. The sidewalk cafes, record stores, and art shops on State Street. There are nooks, crannies . . . and you’ll eventually run into a lake if you keep walking. For me, the Ironman Finish Line starts on State Street and winds around 3 sides of the majestic State Capital before you hit the Chute. The downtown buzz collides with a year of isolated training to blend the perfect mix.
2. The Timing – Ironman lands on the University of Wisconsin at the beginning of the school year. I love the youthful energy of over 40,000 students milling around the Square and campus during the race. As a student, it was my favorite time of the year and that fresh-start-atmosphere fills the air. Also, while unpredictable, the Wisconsin weather in September is as good as it gets. Likely a cool morning, with a moderate to warm day and crisp night.
3. Lake Monona – Wisconsin has 15,074 documented lakes and I suppose this is why they give me such a good feeling. In some way the minimalist in me would prefer to have a quaint lake house and a pier than a place on the ocean. There’s something serene and comforting about being able to look out at a lake and see the lush green tree line on the other side. Big enough to explore, yet small enough to manage. Take a few minutes and walk to the top of Monona Terrace and gaze out at the lake.
4. The Hospitality – I’m certainly biased on this note, but I’ve lived in many places and people from Wisconsin are as friendly as it gets. I think it has something to do with a genuine work ethic and tendency to cooperate. You will likely see this in action with the awesome 3,000 volunteers. Last time I raced Wisconsin we stayed at the Ruby Marie right across from the swim start. There’s a little restaurant inside the hotel and when I went to the counter for a coffee refill the guy working said it would be a minute but “I could go behind the counter and fill it myself if I wanted.” Life’s pretty simple if you think about it.
5. The Bike Course – The Ironman Wisconsin course is still my favorite bike ride ever. It’s hilly with a lot of turns, but to me that added excitement and broke the pattern. I just can’t imagine wanting to do a long flat Ironman course. Add the wacky spectators and an iconic Americana barn/silo mix and you have a near perfect equation to distract you from that ass pain.
6. The Voice of Ironman – The fact that Mike Reilly keeps hand picking this race as his appearance schedule thins should tell you it’s quite the spectacle. I’ve watched video of this race from several years and you can always hear his humbled voice in the background marveling about the breathtaking view of the swim start.
7. College Football – The Badgers always have a home game the day before the race and there’s not much like a Wisconsin football weekend in one of the greatest college sports towns in America. I probably won’t even go, but it’s nice to know it’s going on and we all get to run in the echoes of the game the next day as the marathon takes us onto the turf of Camp Randall.
8. The Other Racers – I have no idea if this is true or not, but I’m willing to bet the reason Wisconsin sells out so quickly is because so many locals do it year after year. There’s an underlying nature about athletes from Wisconsin. They tend to be overachievers, but they never forget that competition is supposed to be fun. It’s a “serious” race with a party atmosphere and that sorta keeps you grounded to the fact that (even though it seems like it at times) Ironman isn’t the only thing in the world.
9. My Friends and Family – Last time my entire immediate family came up and I felt like it was one of the best bonding experiences we’ve had. My uncle and cousin also showed on the bike course (even though they had no idea what was going on) and I saw them two minutes after they parked. I thought for sure they’d jump in their truck and head home, but I saw them at again at the end of the first loop in Verona… then AGAIN on the second lap. My uncle, always the craftsman, was so into it he even grabbed a can of spray paint from his truck to mark pot holes on the road! My good buddy Pete and his wife also came not knowing what to expect. They watched the swim, then got hooked, hanging around to watch me finish 12 hours later. It was awesome.
10. The Spectators – I’m willing to go out on a limb and say as many people are in the crowd for the Wisconsin Swim start as there were watching Michael Phelps paint himself in gold. Thousands of people line the shore, the helix, and the roof just to watch you swim! Hell, half the time I feel like the lifeguard isn’t watching me in the pool. Look around and soak that in.
The swim is one thing, but as a friend told me before I raced Wisconsin last time, “You will be stunned by the amount of support on the bike course.” He was right. It felt like there wasn’t a five mile stretch where I didn’t see a group of people cheering us along. I’ve done Half Ironmans where the only spectator was a guy mowing his lawn. Of course, this year’s course won’t have 2 of the 3 “Tour de France” type hills, but I’m sure the fans will get creative to make it just as exciting.
I’ve seen a lot of running races and feel like the Ironman Wisconsin run would be one of the better attended stand alone marathons. The minute you leave transition, they are lined up around the capital, then down State Street cheering you on. There are certainly some dry sections, but you get State Street 4 times and that alone is enough to keep you going.
If you have any doubt about finishing this race, rest assured the people on the way will give you the energy you need. I can’t wait to see the friendly faces.
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