A Battle Royal – The Swim
The start of an Ironman swim is electric. Thousands of green and pink caps bobbing on the shore, then bobbing in the water. I’d been watching video and looking at pictures of Wisconsin’s mass start for nearly a year, now I was minutes away from being in the next photograph. (All photos courtesy of Carolyn Petredis Wasky)
I started the year as a weak swimmer with a 300 meter sprint triathlon and came out of the water breathing like I’d been submerged in a David Blaine stunt. It was a silly pool swim, yet my anxiety was off the charts. I immediately vowed to become a strong swimmer and worked my ass off to make sure that never happened again.
On race Sunday, I stood on the ramp of the Ironman Swim Start with the rest of the Fab 5 while family and friends leaned over TYR sponsored fence and took pictures. A mere 5 months after I struggled to swim 300 meters, I was ready for 2.4 miles.
The loud music and festive atmosphere made 6:30 am seem like bar time. Thousands of spectators lined the swim chute and hung high above on the rails of Monona Terrace. Many were singing and dancing, others, like my father, were trying to calm their nerves.
Diana Nyad would giggle, but for most an Ironman swim is no joke. On this morning the wind was strong, and the water choppy — all creating a lake current on the longest leg of the course making for a 1,700 meter “upstream” swim on the backside of the box.Anxiety was high, but the only thing that concerned me was my time. I had one shot in the infamous “washing machine” and didn’t want to leave a bad number on the score board. I was gunning for a sub 1:15 and truly believed I could come out of the water in 1:10.
We zipped our wetsuits, hugged our families, then walked the plank into Lake Monona. The plan was to start in front row of the scrum, just to the right of the ski jump, which split the starting line in half. The idea was to have open space to our left and I’m pretty sure it was a good strategy, but I made a big mistake.My anxiety-in-the-water problem exists mainly because it takes me a while to warm up and if I start too fast my heart and breathing gets all crazy. What I didn’t take into account was treading water for 20 minutes and that was probably a good enough warm up. I could have went out hard, found some clear water, then settled into my stroke. But I decided to play it safe. Part of the routine is to ask others around you what time they are shooting for so you can “self-seed” your swim. I started having a little fun by asking everyone if they were sub-60 minutes, but most didn’t catch the joke and said 1:10 – 1:15. I was in the right spot, or so I thought.
Someone (I think he was in the race) sang the national anthem, then it was literally a matter of seconds before the cannon would unleash fury. I was next to Jim and Mark. We exchanged high fives, then looked back at the ramp, where unbelievably people were still filing into the water.
It was the cannon I’d heard a thousand times in my mind. This was it, the Wisconsin swim start. I took a deep breath, started my watch, then eased into my swim.
Within 30 seconds people were kicking my head and beating on my legs . . . and I was loving every second of it. Rubber bodies were everywhere keeping good form was nearly impossible. My arms were tangled, and my feet felt like they were tied by rubber cords. Good thing Robbie made us practice this shit.
Our start position was about 50 meters to the right of the buoy line and my plan was to slowly angle into the first turn (1,000 meters out) and stay about ten meters to the outside as I made the corner. There was only one problem, I had nothing to sight from.
The red buoy was too far away and the yellow ones were too far left for my right side breathing. I remembered someone saying aim at the bridge, but even that was difficult to see. I stayed in my stroke and embraced the brawl.
As I closed in on the turn buoy, I realized I was still about 50 meters to its right. I immediately cut left and aimed dead on. And guess what? I hit the corner with about 300 other people and got caught in a log jam. I was so mad at myself, but for some reason I just couldn’t wrap my head around a good line that day.
I clawed through a sea of rubber flesh, that resembled a floating S&M convention, and emerged in a brief patch of clear water. The short leg of the box was about 300 meters and I didn’t screw that up too badly, but once again got too close to the buoy skirmish. I couldn’t move, so I stopped for a second to pick my line. An onslaught of swimmers gave me forearm shivers as I peered in the distance at a collection of tall smoke stacks that seemed to be a good sighting point. I put my head down and kept one eye out for big white cylinders.
I swam hard and found open water. I felt great and thought I finally had a handle on this swim. About two hundred meters later I literally couldn’t find the buoy line, that was, until I looked to my right. Now, I was a good 30 meters INSIDE the buoys and I’m sure I let out a muffled groan.
Swimmers were everywhere. Some to my left and hundreds to my right. There was no space, and it was like this the entire 1,700 meter leg. I’d get about 50 clean meters, then someone would literally come straight across in front of me and I would throw a long, powerful stroke that landed right . . . on their back. Thud.
I angled toward the line of yellow buoys and did my best to stay next to them, but there was something about the choppy water that was twisting me around and making me lose direction. I was desperately trying to sight two or three buoys ahead, but felt like Hellen Keller.
After what seemed like an eternity (especially to my dad), I finally got to the third turn and pounded toward the last corner. The minute I got around, Moses parted the swimmers and I was home free. Monona Terrace was the perfect sighting landmark and I ripped through the last 600 meters before my hand finally hit the ground.
I stood up and felt great until I saw the clock. It said 1:19 something, but I didn’t cross the line until 1:20. I really felt like I swam well, but my lines killed me.
I stepped onto the concrete and turned up the helix ramp. Faces were a blur, but I sensed family, friends and coach Robbie on top of the truck screaming with elation, and certainly relief.
I politely passed on the wetsuit strippers because I don’t like getting horizontal again after I stand up for fear of getting dizzy. I ran up the spiraling helix and it was rocking. People lined both sides cheering us on, playing drums and slapping us on the back as we passed. There is just no way you cannot get jacked up running through that much energy.
Over time I have fallen in love with the swim. I love bike and run, but swimming has done the most to shape my body and mind. It is so Zen. All about the moment. When you’re swimming that far and that hard, you can only do one thing, breathe. Just breathe. Or, if you’re in Wisconsin, just embrace the battle.
Official Swim Time – 1:20:02
T1 at Wisconsin is long. You run to the fourth floor of a parking ramp, then go inside, grab your bike bag from one of the amazing volunteers, then sit in a changing room to gear up before running outside to the top floor and finding your bike. In this case, my bike was at the very end of the parking deck which meant I had to wheel it 200 yards to the other end in bare feet before putting on my shoes.
I climbed on my saddle, clipped in, then coasted down the far helix to start the bike. As I emerged on the ramp I was greeted by a huge surprise. Everyone had rushed to the bike exit while I changed, and 15 people were waiting to cheer me on as I headed out to hell.
Official T1 Time – 7:28
Tour de Force – The Bike
Friday at the Expo I bought a jar of Infinit and the owner promised it wouldn’t be risky to use it if I hadn’t before, but I didn’t want a potential excuse. I went with what got me there.
My bike was loaded with 3 bottles, two Perform, and one filled with straight water. I carried 3 Power Bars, two of which I pre-cut into bite-sized pieces and put in a zip-lock snack bag for my speed box. I also stored about 8 of those small pretzel bites to clear the palette when Perform inevitably turned my tongue into a sugar farm.We eased out of transition at 16 mph and kept it through the no-passing-zone before rolling through the Reliant Center parking lot and finally hitting the road for good. I didn’t wear a Garmin for this race, but had a speedometer to gauge my pace and it didn’t take long to start pushing 20 mph.
My strategy was to spin the first 15 miles easily, be patient for the first 40 mile loop, work hard on the next 40, then back it down for the last 15. Since I drove the course a few days earlier, I knew the first 15 were relatively flat with a slight incline most of the way. I felt good and spinned in my small ring at a pretty good clip. The first split was 18.8 miles and I averaged nearly 19 mph.
Now it was time for 80 miles of torture, but just before I hit the main loop, I heard a completely unexpected shout of my name, “Tarrolly!!!” I looked to my left and saw my Uncle Butch, Aunt Nancy, cousins Tim and Jenny along with her husband Phil! I was totally stoked by this sighting and it sent me off into the hills.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the course seemed much rougher in the car. It was by no means easy, but I felt great and was very comfortable climbing all the hills. My chain stayed on the small ring until mile 25 or so when I decided it was time to build more speed off the top of a big hill. I shifted up and my chain flew off onto my pedal. I’d been having problems with throwing the chain and the tech at the bike shop took out two links and it rode perfectly the day before. But now, I was leery.
I coaxed my chain back on while flying down a hill at 30 mph. I put it back in the small ring for the next hill, and that’s where it stayed the rest of the day.
The thing about doing your first Ironman is you don’t know what you have in you. You’re cautious because you don’t want to be crawling your way to the finish line on the run. I decided I would coast down every hill and keep it simple by working with small gears only. This also forced me to be conservative and I think it turned out to be a good idea.
For my money, the Wisconsin bike course is epic and perfect for my riding style. I don’t really like being in aero on long flat stretches and the relentless hills kept me up for much of the day. The other great part about the course is the turns (note all the directions in the orange section below). I didn’t seem like we were on any one stretch for more than five miles and this played right into my need for a change of scenery.There are three big hills the locals affectionately call “The Three Bitches,” and I was closing in on my first pass. The lead-in is a long, slow downhill that weaves left, then curls right to meet the bottom of Bitch number one.
When the hill comes into view, so do the people. I mean this place is in the middle of nowhere, but the crowds make it feel like you’re riding into Woodstock. The first group I noticed was three guys dressed like devils and they were swatting cyclists with a foam pitch fork as they rode by. Then more and more people until you got to the top and every single one of them was screaming encouragement in your ear. There were hundreds of people smiling and telling us how strong we looked. “Keep pushing, man…. you got it!” Talk about a boost.
Just over the top of Bitch One, came a short flat spell, then Bitch Two was waiting with more of the same. I found my climbing gear and churned to the top while people yelled my name and gave me hope.
Then came a short stretch of relative flat until you made a left and stuck your tongue in the mouth of Bitch Three. This road was narrower and it really gave you that Tour de France feeling. People running along side, metaphorically pushing you up the hill. There was literally a foot of space on either side of me as I rode through hundreds of people. The crowd support was overwhelming and helped take your mind off the pain of the climb.
Just as I reached the top someone started slapping my back and yelling my name. “You look great, Mike! Keep it going man. Awesome!” He ran alongside me and that’s when it hit me, it was Tim! I met him at Rev3 Knoxville in May and we’d kept in touch all summer. He’d done IMWI and gave me tons of recon on the course, including this race report. He’s a great dude and I was stoked to see him, but the conversation was short as I pulled away and headed to the bash in Verona.
I probably could have picked up a few minutes if I hit my downhill approaches a little harder, but I routinely rolled 30+ mph and didn’t see any reason to waste my legs. I was, however, aggressive on the corners. I’ve been working on my bike control for a while and felt comfortable leaning into corners which gave me sort of a sling-shot advantage and helped me pass a lot of people coming out of turns.
I was going through a full bottle of water and one Perform every 15 miles and by about mile 60 my bladder was ready for payback. I hadn’t practiced relieving myself on the bike, but on this day I turned into an expert. I probably went four or five times on the bike, each time dousing myself with water to clean things off.
I was now entering Verona for the first time and very excited. It was about mile 55 and I was actually looking forward to the second loop. But, I was more fired up to see friends and family as I blew through town.
My eyes were peeled as I turned right and saw a huge throng of spectators lining each side of the road for about a half mile or more. I kept looking for the bright orange shirts and neon yellow signs, but came up empty. I heard my name announced as I hit the middle of town, but no indication of anyone I knew. Damn, I missed them.
As I hit the end of the gauntlet, I heard “Tarrolly!” and for the second time I got to see Uncle Butch and Aunt Nancy crew. I was elated and a little emotional about it because I didn’t expect them to stay because, while they wanted to show support, they had other plans that day. It meant a lot.
The hills didn’t bother me at all on the first loop and I roared onto lap two bubbling with confidence. My splits through mile 60 looked like this:
The first 18.8 Miles – 18.89 mph
The next 20 Miles – 19.26
The next 21.2 Miles – 18.53
I was right where I wanted to be, and doing it without a Garmin.
The next 20 miles I stayed right on my number at 18.68 miles per hour. The second round of the 3 Bitches was much tougher and I started getting a little bit dilerious around mile 90. I was also a little bummed I didn’t see Tim the second time through the 3rd Bitch, but after that hill, I was headed back to Verona, then into Madison.
This time I saw my friends and family right away. They were all on the corner just before I turned into the big party. I saw them all and it was so damn cool. Wasky (in the red jacket below) was right in the road and for some reason was leaning down to give me a very “low five” like I was ready to perform a circus trick after a hundred miles on a bike. It was a quick flash and I “saw” everyone except Robbie. But when I turned the corner, I heard his voice, “Mike, Mike!” I looked to my left and he was running barefoot right next to me. I calmly asked, “What’s up?” And he started screaming at me, “Be patient, Be patient!!!” “Okay.”
As I road away, I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but because I wasn’t wearing a Garmin, I suspected I was churning out a pretty fast bike split. In fact based on feel and casually observing my speedometer, I genuinely thought I might be pushing 20 mph for the entire ride. Obviously I was wrong, but his words rang in my head as I approached the last 15 miles back to transition.
The great part of that story is that, after the race, Robbie told me he ran out there with every intention to give me “the green light,” but changed his mind to “be patient” in mid-stride. As usual, it was the right call. The crowd was rowdy as ever and I embraced every second of riding through Verona. It was 10 people deep on both sides in the middle and I felt like a rock star. I was flying high and a little relieved that I saw everyone this time through. But the fun wasn’t over!
As I approached the last turn out of Verona I saw their neon yellow shirts for the THIRD time. Butch, Nancy, Tim, Jenny, and Phil were still there! They’d been watching for 5 hours and screamed like little kids when I rode by. How awesome.
The last 15 miles were my least favorite part of the bike. The wind was howling right into my face and what seemed relatively flat on the way out now felt like extended family of the 3 Bitches. I stayed patient like Robbie said and did my best to stay around 18 mph on the way in because it was almost time for the biggest test of my day. The run.
Mile 60 – 80 split was 18.68 mph
The last 32 miles were at 17.67 (and I believe included the 3 Bitches)
Official Bike Time: 6:03:35
There wasn’t a soul in sight as I started up the ramp to the helix, but out of nowhere I heard, “Mike Tarrolly! You are ‘almost’ an Ironman!” It was my buddy, Roger Badger, who is from Wisconsin, but we were neighbors in Nashville before he quit his job and moved to the Florida Keys to become a full time musician. We ran our first 1/2 marathon together, and he was the main character in the story that fueled major change in both our lives.
I climbed the helix and coasted toward the dismount line. 112 grueling miles behind me. I was very, very relieved, and in a twisted way anxious to run. But my legs had other ideas.
When I stepped off the bike I almost fell flat on my face. My knees were locked and I shuffled into the changing area like Herman Munster. Let me tell you, it’s not a good feeling knowing you have a marathon waiting but can’t bend your knees. But I knew it was a false feeling and put all my energy into trusting that my run legs would find me.
Official T2 Time: 4:43
Chasing Miles – The Run
Before Ironman Wisconsin my longest run was 14 miles. That day I would be asked to run 26.2 after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike. Throughout my training I battled this demon daily. Would I have what it takes to go the distance? Would I hit the infamous 18 mile wall? Would be reduced to a slow walk? I would soon find out.
The entire run is a bit hazy, but I remember several little things. Like laughing to myself when I saw a sign for Mile 1. Shouting “Melvin Gordon” to the cops when I ran into Camp Randall. And the huge tree branch falling right behind me on the path along the lake.
Because I wasn’t wearing a Garmin, I was really getting confused about time. I was using my chrono watch and hitting re-start on the stopwatch when I hit a mile marker, but kept forgetting to look when I saw the next one. I was doing this all day. Getting lost in the fog, and battling with all my might to keep running.
For the first 3 miles I felt a little hot spot on the outside of my left foot and was in a minor panic. That’s what nearly did me in at Muncie and was probably my biggest unspoken fear of the day. By the time I came out of Camp Randall, I realized that my shoes felt very loose. Then it dawned on me I forgot to tighten my Yankz out of transition. I was literally running with my shoes untied. I pulled off to the side and tightened things up, and from that point on, my hot spot was gone.
I knew it would be extremely hard to run the whole way after swimming and biking, but I made up my mind a long time ago that I would RUN this marathon. I don’t want to take anything away from people who walk parts of it, but I just don’t understand people who swim, bike, then walk the marathon. I get that things go wrong and people get sick or whatever, but I can honestly say I was in pain every time my foot hit the road. I wanted to quit running the entire time. But I trained nine months and drove nine hours to this race — I came here to run.
The first time I saw my entourage was around Mile 6 on State Street. They were sandwiched between hundreds of other fans at turnaround and I felt solid as I climbed toward them. They. Were. Going. Crazy! I smiled, slapped a little skin, then turned to run back down.
How weird this all was. The last time I saw Jim and Mark was when the cannon blasted. Now, it was 8 hours later and I didn’t see anyone from the Fab 5 until Daniel and I traded encouragement on one of the twisting trails. Shortly after, Kevin spotted me across the road and we did the same.
I was completely twisted and kept forgetting where I was, but thankfully there were tons of aid stations. They showed up every mile and I took advantage of nearly every one. The one thing I did do, was slow to a walk when I was drinking water or Perform or eating pretzels or chips or cookies or grapes or bananas or hash brownies, or whatever else they wanted me to sample. I’d been genuinely hungry for real food since the last hour of the bike and despite my fear of cramping, I listened to my body’s cries for solids.
I also started listening to my alter ego.
Running is incredibly mental and you can crack in a mili-second. This Ironman Wisconsin run turned into The Battle of Two Mike’s.
The real Mike was taking one step at a time, moving toward a dream he’d been working on for a year. “Alt Mike” wanted no part of the pain and lured me back to the couch.
Alt Mike: Dude, you’ve never run a marathon, back it down to a walk for a while.
Real Mike: Trust the training. Your legs are ready. It won’t hurt more than this.
Alt Mike: Ha, nice one. You know this is stupid. Why go through the pain? Make up an excuse and go easy!
I saw the support crew again around mile 10, and it was not a moment too soon. Robbie started jogging beside me and we had this short conversation.
Robbie: How do you feel?
Me: I feel okay, but this is all I got.
Robbie: That’s good, just keep it right here.
Me: What’s my pace look like?
Robbie: Honestly, it’s a little concerning. Your last two splits were 8:19 and 8:29.
Me: No shit?? I thought I was around 10.
Robbie: Nope. Back it down a little, stay patient, and when you get to 22 miles and feel like it can’t hurt any worse, go to work.
Me: Okay, man.
He faded into the distance and I turned to run up State Street, around the capitol, then deep into the finishers chute for a twisted-Ironman-prank before turning back around to another half marathon.
I vividly remember the Mile 14 sign and thinking to myself the rest of this run will be uncharted territory. Twelve miles of unknown. Did I have it in me? I wasn’t sure. I felt exactly the same as I did when I started this run. It all hurt. I didn’t know how I would keep going. I tried not to think about it, but couldn’t daydream. I was having trouble enjoying the scenery. I truly couldn’t do anything but try to keep focused.
Around mile 18 a guy came up behind me and said, “Hey buddy, where ya from?”
I was instantly furious, but somehow mustered “Nashville.”
“Great city. I’m from Ohio. This your first Ironman?”
“Uh, yeah, please go away.” (I didn’t really say that).
“This is my third, they never get any easier.”
“Thanks for nothing!”
I was kinda mad that I was mad because conversation can definitely help pass time on long runs, but this was a race and I was using every ounce of energy I had to stay focused on mentally moving the pain in my body.
If my knee started aching I put all my focus on it and the pain would temporarily move out. Sometimes to the hips, sometimes to the ankles. I kept moving the pain in my mind and this was honestly the only way I made it through the marathon. Unfortunately for the man from Ohio, I haven’t mastered moving pain while having a conversation.
My family and friends were hustling about the course and I saw them on several occasions. The last time was just before Mile 20. They all stood and cheered. My brother diligently video taped the scene, and Wasky looked me in the eye and said, “10K brotha and it’s yours.” I turned the corner, saw the Mile 20 sign, then looked at my watch. It was 6 o’clock.
I had another laugh with myself when I realized I’d been racing for eleven hours, but knew it was time to get serious. I had to average a 10 minute pace, then bust it a little on the last mile to get in under 12 hours. Alt Mike started reminding me that I had only starting running a year earlier and a 10K was a long ass run. Real Mike wouldn’t have it.
I labored through each aid station trying not to think of anything but the finish. By now I added Coke and chicken broth to the menu, but for the last 5 miles it was all water and Perform.
My stopwatch was rolling and mile 21, 22, and 23 were right at a 10 minute pace but I was fading. Sometime around there I saw Mark. He gave me a stern look and said, “Finish strong, man!” It was all I needed to hear.
Shortly after, I also saw Jim after I heard him say, “Tarrolly! You are rockin it!” We exchanged a “Wasky-low-five” and I picked it up a notch.
I was losing my focus when a girl ran by me looking like she was fresh out of bed and running a little 5K. She had perfect form and looked incredibly strong. I reasoned she was making a move to stay under 12 hours, so I did my best to keep up. Thankfully she stopped at a couple aid stations and I kept her in my sights and reset my stopwatch at Mile 24.
She pranced about 50 yards ahead of me and I labored to keep her in view. I was starting to tank and running out of time. Two miles away and I had 20 minutes.
I started losing her and my mind did strange things to me. Alt Mike was screaming, “Stop!” I was numb and was literally leaning forward hoping my feet would catch me. I’d been out here almost 12 hours and was falling apart. I glanced at my watch and total time of my race was 11:52. What?!? I still hadn’t seen Mile 25 and I went into a panic. I thought I was fucked. I kept running. No 25 sign. How could this be?
Alt Mike eased the pain. “It’s okay man, you had a great run. They’ll still love you if you come in over 12.” It was the closest Alt Mike came to winning. I honestly remember slowing down to a near walk and stopping. I was THIS close to stopping. But somehow, some way, I convinced myself that I missed the 25 Mile marker and poured on the jets.
I had just over 7 minutes to get to the finish and I gave it everything I had. I’m certain my last mile was my fastest of the day. I ripped around the corner and headed up State Street passing everyone in my way. I couldn’t believe the energy I found. Time was running out and I was under 4 minutes when I saw the capitol. I blew past the aid station with a big Thank You and turned right at the corner. Did I have to go all around the capitol? I couldn’t remember. Under 3 minutes.
Another right turn and for some reason I started thinking about my 100 yard dash times in High School but quickly discarded that thought when I realized I had no idea how long city blocks were.
When I closed in on the next turn I heard a booming voice screaming my name. MIKE! MIKE! I looked around and couldn’t find anyone I knew. It had a massive echo and literally sounded like it was coming from the top of the capitol building. Was I hearing things? It sounded like Robbie, but I couldn’t be sure. I found out later that it was, and that was the last jolt I needed.When I got around the corner with two minutes to spare, I knew I had it. I saw the mid-block- turn and the Finisher’s Chute was waiting. A million emotions washed over me. All the long rides, runs, and early morning lake swims had paid off. I was about to be an Ironman.
When I hit the carpet every ounce of pain left my body. Thousands of faces hung over the fence and I scanned them for my family. I saw them about halfway down on the left hand side, shining bright in their fluorescent orange shirts. I veered in their direction and raised my hand as if to salute their presence. I felt more alive at that moment than I have in years. A small tear formed on the corner of my eye and I’m quite sure my face would have flooded if I wasn’t so dehydrated.
Many people told me to slow down and enjoy the moment, so I geared back. About two yards from the finish, when I knew sub-12 was in the bank, I stopped and slowly raised my arms in victory. Two volunteers caught me and I captured one final glimpse of the girl who set my pace before she faded into the memory banks forever.If there was any doubt about why I would do such a crazy thing, it was answered when I saw my family and friends in the Finisher’s chute. I was on the course by myself that last hour, but was not alone. I kept running because they were waiting. Waiting on their son, waiting on their friend. And there’s nothing more powerful than someone excitedly waiting for you to come home.
Follow me on Twitter@miketarrolly
Official Run Time: 4:23:10
Total Time: 11:58:58
535 out of 2,544 Overall
32nd out of 225 in Age group