I’m not going to lie, Kona was in the back of my mind again at Ironman Wisconsin. But I knew it would take a perfect day, and the competition isn’t getting any easier.
Exhibit one: I’d like to congratulate the winner of my age group (50-54) Pierre Heynemand who clocked a cool 9:33:16, which was also good for 4th overall. (If anyone knows him, please put us in contact).
As it turned out, I needed to be in the 10:44 range for Kona, which meant I’d not only have to be perfect . . . but lucky. The following is how that dream slowly unraveled.
The Swim – 2.4 Miles
For the life of me I will never understand why people wait so long to get into the water at Wisconsin. It’s a floating mass start and I spoke with a spectator who told me she saw 5 people quit after a couple hundred yards (presumably because of anxiety) – evidently all were on shore when the cannon fired.
I know what anxiety feels like, and it’s not cool. In fact, I felt it Thursday on my practice swim. It had nothing to do with other people and everything to do with the fact that I slapped on a super tight wetsuit and started swimming without letting my body warm up or get acclimated to the water. My heart was racing and I couldn’t slow it down.
That incident rang in my head until race morning, so I zipped up early and was treading water at least 15 minutes before the start. I actually thought about a short jog to warm up, but it seemed impractical.
The big question was, where would I line up to start? I’d watched countless swim videos trying to figure that out. I briefly contemplated the inside line because my swim training was better than ever, but the bout with anxiety loomed large so I decided to start in the same place I chose for 2013, on the right corner of the ski jump.
I’d lose about 25 yards, but the logic seemed solid. The ramp is about 20 feet wide, so once we cleared it I expected open water to my left. Then, I thought I’d slowly drift toward the buoy line as we swam 1000 yards to the first corner. That plan worked for about 20 seconds.
I’m not sure what it is with people, but they start 2.4 mile swims like they’re scrambling from sharks. In a matter of minutes people were all over me and I was all over them, much like I expected. But what I didn’t expect, was for it to last the entire swim.
There’s a tradition in Madison where the swimmers “Moo” when they make the first turn. As I got to the first red buoy, I took a look ahead and it seemed like 15 people were treading water yelling “Moo” at the top of their lungs. No movement, just a moo-party, and I crashed it head on.
That pretty much summed my day in the water. Tons of contact that stripped momentum, and it never got better. Even the last 500 yards into the swim exit, which was perfectly clear in 2013, was conjest-fest.
The other thing about the Wisconsin swim is . . . sighting is really tough. I’d pegged the rocks to the left of a small bridge as a perfect line on my way out, but I couldn’t see either object to save my life. Then, you make a turn and stare right into the morning sun for a couple hundred yards. On the long 1700 leg, forget it. It’s buoy to buoy and every other one is about the size of a Teddy Bear.
I felt really strong until the home stretch. I think the contact wore me down a little and even though I cut 6 minutes from my last Wisconsin swim, I was hoping for another 5 minute cushion and felt the first bit of Kona air seep from my body.
Swim Time: 1:14
The Bike – 112 Miles
By most people’s standards I was undertrained for this bike course. My longest ride was just over 60 miles, but I rode a lot of 2-3 hour rides, including a bunch of hills in Nashville. I think my plan was solid if I had started it earlier in the year.
I spent a lot of time in training calibrating my “internal power meter” and feel like I have a good connection to my effort levels. The plan was simple. Stay in my comfort zone until I hit Barlow Road, climb hard, recover into Verona, then crush the second loop.
My buddy, and coach, Robbie and I drove the course on Friday with a keen interest in the mystery of Barlow Road. It was a new hill this year due to construction, and the online chatter was stuff of legend.
Hills usually seem worse in the car, but Barlow didn’t seem like anything special at the time, but at mile 40 while riding a bike, that hill was legit, especially in an Ironman. I’ve heard the last section is a 20% grade and I have no reason to doubt. I’ve seen race video of dozens of people walking their bikes up that beast, and the good news is . . . it will be back next year.
My speed target was 19.5 m.p.h. for the ride and when I got to Verona it was at 18.75. I saw my mom, brother and his friend Jay, then cruised through the thousands of people lining both sides of the road. When I got to the end I saw my cousins Tim and Jeni, her husband Phil, and of course my uncle Butch, self-proclaimed Verona-bike-corner-safety-official, who was very animated as he pointed out pot holes to the riders.
Average speed is really the only thing I use on the bike, and to that point, I felt like my effort was safe. That said, I knew getting to 19.5 wasn’t going to be a picnic and proved nearly impossible.
I heard somewhere that there are over 50 hills on this course and I wouldn’t argue that for a minute– but the real villain on loop two was the wind. I train in a very windy location I call “The Lab” so I’m used to wind, but obviously not after 60 miles of hills.
It’s probably my imagination, but every time we hit a flat section it felt like the wind was in my face. Long, grinding, 2-4 mile stretches that seemed almost tougher than the hills. And crosswinds on some of the 45-50 mph downhills left no room for sight seeing.
I tried moving the average speed needle but the closest I got was 18.95 mph. From there we hit another long climb and by mile 75 I kissed my Kona fantasy goodbye.
I rode this course in 2013 in 6:03 and even though I’m a much better cyclist now, I was flirting with a slower time as I reached mile 90. The last 22 miles were all I could do to get my ride under 6 hours.
Thankfully a good chunk of the last 10 miles had a little wind at our backs and I was able to hold on and come in at 5:59.
I really thought I rode well and might have left a tiny bit out there, but Wisconsin is a relentless course.
I cannot imagine how hard it would feel if the spectator support wasn’t so incredible. I try to explain it to people, but you really can’t. It’s almost like the fans understand just when you’ll need them. Even on the loneliest of hills in the middle of nowhere people will drive their PA system out, put it on the roof and blast music in the middle of a cornfield. I’ve done Chattanooga and Louisville, but Wisconsin fans bring 10 times the support.
The last half-mile winds along the lake back to Monona Terrace. The bright blue sky reflected off the water with the Madison skyline in the background. That view alone was almost worth 112 miles of pure hell. I held it together, climbed the helix and nearly forgot I was about to run a marathon.
Bike time: 5:59
The Run – 26.2 Miles
Just once in my life I wanted to get off the bike and feel like I could actually run for a while. Not shuffle along at a 10 minute pace, but run. As I dismounted my Trek, the first sign was not good.
I “Herman Munster’d” my way into transition and re-calibrated a run strategy on my way out the door. It came down to this . . . start SLOW!
It occurred to me during training that when I started a post-bike run slowly, using full feet instead of mid-foot out of the gate, my legs seemed to respond better. Essentially I tried to start the run how I thought I’d end it with slow and heavy strides to wake up my run legs. It seemed to work.
The run at Wisconsin comes off the top of the Terrace and winds into the finisher’s chute for a few steps then circles the state capital on three sides. After the first side, I thought I’d just finished the second side and started to feel delusional. I hoped that wasn’t a sign for my day.
The perfect weather made the beginning of this run electric. People were everywhere around the capital and the first two blocks on State Street were lined with bustling outdoor cafes and race signs. My plodding began to feel like floating.
I don’t wear a Garmin, so I hit start on my chrono watch as I crossed under the Run Out. At mile one I looked at my wrist to see 7:51. I thought, “there is no way in hell I just ran a 7:51 mile,” and hit restart. I thought maybe the marker was set in the wrong place, but in retrospect I may have run that fast with all the crowd energy.
At mile two it read 9:24 and I thought, “You know, that’s probably more likely, but I really don’t feel like being chained to my watch all day.” From that moment on, I stopped looking at my pace and listened to my body.
I started my watch at the beginning of the race, so I had the overall time and kept a loose eye on that. I knew I was in a decent spot but wouldn’t be sneaking up on Pierre anytime soon.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my first 4.2 miles were at a 9:04 pace. I felt pretty good and climbed Observatory Hill without a problem. As I hit the bottom of State Street (roughly mile 7) I actually felt kind of jacked. It’s an up and down that is just swarming with people and the energy carried me away. I saw my buddy Pete and I think we were both a bit startled by my pace at that point, especially considering I woke up at 1:30 that morning and raced on 3 hours of sleep.
You come in from lap one the same way you left and drop halfway down the Chute before turning around 75 yards from the finish line. It’s an evil ploy, but also nice because a lot of people are there with motivation.
My first half came in just over 2 hours, which left me about 2.5 hours to get under the 12-hour mark. The only choice I had at that point was to keep doing the same thing.
My longest run going into this race was 12 very hilly miles, so I got to a point where I just didn’t want to screw it up. For the rest of the day I more or less cruised by walking the aid stations and getting my fuel right.
Not obsessing over my time proved to be a somewhat pleasurable alternative. I was taking it one mile at a time and they seemed to be showing up quickly. Shortly after that torturous out-and-back I saw Mile marker 23 and knew I was golden. One little 5k and I would be cozily tucked in a race blanket eating pizza.
The last three miles were much different than 2013 when I was delirious and giving it all I could to break the 12-hour mark. This time I looked around and soaked it in, but not before one steep little hill in the Camp Randall parking lot shocked my IT band.
The same thing happened last year at Chattanooga, but with 5 miles left. I quickly remembered the only thing I could do was relax and not let it get in my head. It’s just another in a long line of pains that creep up on your run that you can’t let get the best of you.
With no real hills left the IT band was fine and I started feeling guilty watching others just start their second lap. Oh, how that would have sucked, but I guess it’s all relative.
I scaled State Street for the last time and played with the crowd. I skipped the final aid station and could just barely hear them announcing finishers on the other side of the capital. There’s not many better feelings than being less than a half mile away from the Ironman finish line.
It was about to be over. No panic attacks in the water, no technical issues on the bike, and no cramping or over-heating on the run.
When I turned the final corner into the Chute, it nearly took my breath away. Both sides lined what seemed to be 10 deep cheering for . . . me. It’s wild. Why me? I don’t know them, but they don’t care and for that moment we were best of friends.
I bounced onto the carpet, raised my hands in celebration, then it happened . . . my water bottle flew out of my belt onto the ground. Three more steps and I stopped with an incredulous look on my face. Kind of a “26 miles in the belt and now you want to fall out look?” I briefly thought about leaving it, but thought better and slowly shuffled my way back and did an excruciating bend-down to pick it up. It was the exact opposite of ballet, but the crowd went wild. It was the weirdest little magical moment I’ve experienced in sport. Thousands of people cheering me for picking up a water bottle.
I regained composure and rode the wave of the cheers closer to the line when I saw my friends Jim and Rebecca who drove all the way from Nashville to spectate. Then I saw my mom and brother who have given me more support and encouragement for this little dream than I probably deserve. I reached out to touch their hands as I went by then let a guy pass me before standing on the finish line.
That’s exactly when all of the excruciating pain, wonder and worry leaves your body. Two women put their arms around me and walked me away to my medal.
I didn’t even think about the live camera at that moment, but stopped just at the edge to look back at my time. It read 11:44 and change and I gave a kinda “hmm, not bad,” look before walking out of frame. Then one of the women said, “Aren’t you going to wave at the camera?” That’s when I pulled what could easily be considered a pretty big “dick move” by stepping back into the camera to ham it up and say hi to my dad who was watching at home.
It was done. I’d finished my fourth Ironman in pretty solid fashion with a 11:43, 15 minutes ahead of 2013, and it teased me just enough to think I can really do this Kona thing if I put in more effort.
But for now, I will be spending this week with pizza.
Race Time: 11:43
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