Sunday, September 14, 2014

Becoming An Ironman (IM Wisconsin '14)

This past weekend, I set out to achieve a milestone: I competed in my first Ironman race. I had been training for it nearly 9 months, but the goal was set 15 months earlier, and the originating seed planted back in the 80s thanks to ABC’s Wild World of Sports, when I first saw the Ironman World Championships on television. This was a long time coming.


For those who don't know, an Ironman is a long-course triathlon, which consists of a 2.4 mile
swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, then finishing with a 26.2 mile marathon which results in a total distance traveled of 140.6 miles. Ironman events start at 7am and all participants have until midnight (17 hours) to complete the course. Ironman is most commonly associated with the World Championship held annually in Hawaii, which were brought to us back in the 1980’s by ABC's "Wide World of Sports". There are now 16 Ironman races in North America alone (not including Hawaii), one of which has been held in Madison, Wisconsin, now in it’s 13th years. It has gained fame on the circuit as one of the most challenging, as well as being one of the best-supported by spectators and fans.


This isn’t a traditional race report. Those are usually written by triathletes after an event as reminders of what went well and what didn’t. They’re part of the routine, and it helps to learn from mistakes made on that particular day. Instead, I’ve written this to take you on the journey with me. From checking in to out on the swim, bike, and run, and across the line. It will take much longer to read than a race report (which again, this is not).


I’m doing this because I want to try and share the experience the best way I can. After finishing, I’ve thought time and time again how I wish I could bottle the feeling and let others have the same sensation. Since I can’t do that, this is the next best way I can share with you what I saw, what I thought, and what I felt that weekend.


ARRIVAL AND PREPARATION
I'm lucky enough that my cousin Megan and her husband Scott live in Sun Prairie, about 20 minutes from the race site in downtown Madison. I say lucky because every hotel in an Ironman host city intentionally jacks up their rates and requires 3 night minimum stays on race weekend. I had also been up to train in late July/early August and had gotten myself familiar with navigating the course.


I arrived Wednesday night, a full 3 days before the race so I would have time to get settled. On Thursday I went early to register, and right away I saw a familiar face: Nicole Stockburger, who lived in Sun Prairie also. I had met Nicole back in August at the formentioned training. She had suffered a severe accident on her bike a mere two weeks earlier, hitting a dog and ending up with major road rash and a destroyed bike as a result. She was in good spirits, and talking with her set a positive tone for the weekend right off the bat.


After registering, I strolled around the expo and made a few purchases, but nothing would be worn until after completion. I also would buy nothing that said “Finisher” on it, as to not jinx myself. I went outside and walked through the vendors, selling various triathlete wares such as shoes, bikes, and other components and gear. I was already prepared, so I was just window shopping. It was close to lunch and I hadn’t seen any other familiar faces, so I walked up a few blocks and had a quiet lunch by myself outside at the Tipsy Cow.


After lunch I took a nice stroll around downtown Madison, going over to State Street and giving myself a self-guided tour of the Capitol. After that it was back to Megan and Scott’s, and we had leftover chicken for dinner. It hit the spot. Then it was time to watch the Packers game. So much for a relaxing game! Scott and I watched it in their basement, and it was nice to have my mind off Ironman for a few hours, despite the loss to the Seahawks.


The next morning I went back downtown to met up with some friends I had met over the summer while training to go for a swim in Lake Monona. There was Dotty Johnson, also from Iowa, who is fantastic on the bike. Dave Rodda, who I ran with in the Des Moines Marathon nearly a year earlier. Lauren Ann from Chicago, who I had met on Facebook and then in person during WIBA. As we were getting started, we saw Ashten Hayes, another Iowans, who was just finishing up her swim. It was a pretty nice swim, only about 20 minutes. Afterwards I went for a 20 minute run around downtown by myself, visualizing what it would be like on race day.


After my run I went to meet Max at a coffee house, where I was introduced to another new friend, Christine Schultek who also was from the Madison area. The three of us were all first timers, and we had great conversation talking about the upcoming race.


At 10:30 we went to a training seminar put on by Endurance Nation, and I met up with John Smail from Illinois (met him on the training weekend) and the rest of my Iowa crew. Of all of us, Lauren was the only one who had competed in an Ironman before, the rest of us didn't quite know what was in store for us. The seminar helped and laid out some very good strategies. I had already seen an abbreviated version of it online the previous week, but it was more enjoyable in person.


After the seminar we went for lunch together (except Max and Christine). Over lunch we shared our goals, and I was embarrassed to say mine out loud because I didn't want to jinx it. But I relented and sheepishly admitted my primary goal of less than 12 hours, and possibly even coming close to 11 hours. I knew the latter was ambitious, but I really felt it was an achievable goal. I wasn’t scoffed at, and that’s the great thing about this group of people - you get support and advice, not criticism.


After lunch we hit the expo for a bit, and I bought some Wetsuit Juice - basically it’s lube for a wetsuit to go on easier. My new Helix had proven to be snug, and I thought the lube might help with comfort come race day. I refrained from spending any more money that day!


We split up after that for respective rest and naps. I went back to Megan and Scotts, and started laying out the 5 bags I was given at registration. The bags you're given are to contain whatever you need throughout the day of the race. They consist of:


Morning Clothes Bag. After you change into your wetsuit, this is where your 'dry' clothes go.
Bike Bag: This bag is for when you finish the swim and get on your bike. It holds bike shorts, bike helmet, shoes, jersey, and the like.
Bike Special Needs Bag: At the halfway point of the bike course, you can access this bag for anything you may need or couldn't fit in your first bike bag. People put special dietary items in here, medicine, bike repair items, all kinds of odds and ends.
Run Bag: After you finish the bike, this bag has your running shoes, likely a hat or visor, fresh socks, anything else you need for the run.
Run Special Needs Bag: Just like the bike, this bag is available halfway through the run. Some people put in motivational notes for themselves, or ones that friends and family wrote for them. Mine just had Advil, an extra pair of socks, and an energy gel.


It may sound easy, but people freak out over what to put in these. I had already prepared a list the week before, so I just had to put stuff where it belonged.


That evening I drove back to the terrace to meet up with everyone for the Athlete’s Dinner that Ironman puts on, and Mike Reilly emcees. I had read previous comments that the food wasn’t that great, and only first-timers usually go. That said, I was expecting a few hundred people to be there. Boy, was I wrong. The line was out the door and around the building! Luckily my crew was near the front, and Dotty texted me to come find them. Thanks to Dotty, who is an Ironman AWA (All World Athlete) she got to go in early and score us a table right in front of the stage! We were joined by Dell Finney from Michigain, who had lost nearly 100 lbs (if I remember correcly) while training for Ironman Wisconsin, and Bill Knapp, another fellow Iowan and Ironman first-timer. You should know by now where I met them.





The dinner was definitely worth it. I thought the food was quite good, although nothing super spectacular. I thought Jon was going to break something with the rock-hard breadsticks! There was a lot of excitement and energy in the room. Mike Reilly, who is “the voice” of Ironman (he announces all North American races), did a great job getting all of us first-timers even more excited and worked up. He introduced the two oldest competitors, a woman who was 69 and a man aged 72. Wow - I hope to still be doing this at that age! They both looked phenomenal.


When dinner was over, Max, Jon and I went to Great Dane’s down the street for a few beers. Others were supposed to meet up with up, but they only popped in briefly to say they were heading to bed early. I had one beer, then went back to Megan and Scott’s, where Wendy and Kaitlynn had now arrived. We chatted a bit but not too long - Saturday was going to come early, and there was still plenty to do.


Saturday morning I went for one last run and ride before loading up my bike to take it down to the terrace and check it in for the race (Ironman makes everyone do this to avoid chaos on raceday morning). We had been invited to join Dotty and Lauren at their hotel for breakfast at 9am. We got there a few minutes late, but were thankful for the invite because the food was delicious. I had everything in one last effort to fuel up: eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, fruit, yogurt and orange juice. I was plenty full when we left, just like I wanted to be.


We walked the 8 or so blocks back to Monona Terrace where I checked in my bike and dropped off my transition bags. Doug was volunteering at bike bag drop-off, I joked with him to keep a special eye on mine and give it it’s own special place. At run bag drop-off I ran into Dan Memmel and we talked briefly about race strategies, and also the upcoming Badger game - which we were going to.


We had to leave right away, as it was already 10:30 and the game kicked off at 11am. I knew we were going to be late since we had to walk, but then I remembered Madison has a public bike-rental system. There was a rack right next to the terrace, and a drop-off location right in front of Camp Randall Stadium. Perfect! We rode over and just barely missed kickoff. It was so much nicer than having to walk. And the best part was, since we had the bikes out for less than 30 minutes, it didn’t cost a thing!


After the game we rented the same bikes and rode back to the terrace, where we ran into one of my coaches, Matt Zepeda. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him the only thing I was concerned about was which wetsuit to use - my trusted, comfy QR or new, snug Helix. He reassured me that the Helix was the right choice.


We went back to Sun Prairie, where the rest of my cheering section was arriving. My parents pulled in just seconds after we did, and my aunt Peggy and her daughters Dee and Paige had arrived as well, Dee bringing her friend Eric along. We grilled some burgers and brats, but I went easy on the food since I didn’t need much more fuel for tomorrow, certainly nothing heavy. I allowed myself one beer with dinner, but was all water after that. I went downstairs around 8pm, knowing it would take a while to get to sleep. I finally did after 9pm, and only woke up once at around 1am to go to the bathroom. Other than that I had a great night’s sleep. That’s rare for me - usually I toss and turn on the night before a race, but I was actually very calm. My family was here, everything was checked in and ready to go. It was - surprisingly - the best pre-race night of sleep I’ve ever had.


RACE DAY MORNING
My alarm went off at 4:30, and I just laid in bed for a minute or two, visualizing the rest of the morning and what I had to do, and what I was about to embark on. I put on casual clothes, saving race gear for when we got down to the start area. Breakfast consisted of coffee, cereal, 2 bananas, a blueberry muffin, and yogurt. Tried and true, always works.


Wendy drove with me down to the terrace, and we arrived around 5:20am. First stop was body marking, followed by the transition area where I pumped up my bike tires to around 115 PSI and loaded up my water bottles and half of my nutrition (the other half I would be carrying in my tri top after the swim). From there it was up to Main Street to drop off the Special Needs bags. After that, back to the car where I hid out of sight while putting on my swim shorts, heart rate monitor, and tri top.


Down to the terrace once more to find a spot to hang out while waiting for the swim start to get closer. I decided to put my wetsuit, and violated the #1 rule of triathlon: Nothing New On Race Day. These are hallowed words, and I’ve never violated them until now, when I applied the Wetsuit Juice. Something that either isn’t told or I wasn’t aware of: wetsuit juice makes body-marking come off like nobody’s business. Wendy noticed immediately, and we wiped it all the way off with my sock. Luckily we were right next to the body marking area, so I just had it redone. Well - so much for $14 Wetsuit Juice. Into the wetsuit without it, and on goes the timing chip.


We started making our way down towards the swim start, with Wendy texting family to see how close they were. The race would start promptly at 7am, and it was 6:30 with no sign of them. I kept checking my watch, knowing I’d HAVE to get in line no later than 6:50. At precisely 6:49, I saw my daughter, parents, cousin with her kids, and aunt. I went over to thank them for being there and started getting choked up. My dad wished me luck and I almost started crying right there. I waved good-bye to them and hurried into the line for the arch to the water.


I took deep breaths, shuffling along with the last of the other 2,900 entrants, spitting into my Nemesis goggles to keep them from fogging. It always works. As soon as I hit the water, I heard Mike Reily saying there were only 3 minutes until the start. Shit! I still needed to swim about 80 yards to get to where I wanted to start next to the waterskiers ramp. It was already crowded, but I got there quickly and was able to look back at the shore and take in the sight. It was incredible: people lined up in both directions, flanked in the water by thousands of green and pink swim caps in the water, all of us treading water, waiting for permission to start our 140.6 mile journey.


In that moment, I thought of all the cumulative training and athleticism that I was surrounded by. How had I managed to get here? How was it possible I could be with such elite dedication and courage? The answer came quickly: I had earned it just as much as they had. I did belong here. If anything, this was the crowd I belonged with more than any other.


One minute to start, Mike announced. He asked the crowd “Who’s going to be an Ironman today?” I raised my hand and tried to shout, but emotion was getting the best of me again. Time to focus. I had my spot, I was ready. The cannon went off, and my Ironman race had began.


THE SWIM
I had read and heard about these mass swim starts. Terms like ‘washing machine’ were most commonly used. I have one that I think better describes it: A boxing match on water. I’m not exaggerating.


It was so crowded I had to keep my head up for the first 25 yards or so, trying to find a good line. I thought I found one and tried getting to a rhythm, but it only lasted 10 seconds before the contact began. It was non-stop, and on all four sides. I couldn’t escape. Arms hitting me, catching mine and interrupting my stroke, catching my legs and screwing with my kick, legs in front of me getting in my way! At one point the guy on my right caught my right goggle three times in a row, severely suctioning it to my eye socket. I tried breathing to my left, but that person’s stroke happened to bring up water to my mouth every time I turned to breathe. I had had enough. I needed to change something, get out of this mess. So I just stopped. Only for a few seconds, let out an F-bomb at the insanity going on around me, then bore back down and tried to get a rhythm again.


I was able to, but barely. It was still crowded. I knew things would start to thin out around the first of four turn buoys - it’s a tradition that when people pass the first one, they briefly stop to say “Moooo”. I made up my mind that I would not stop, but I did shout out a weak “moo” as I turned to breathe while rounding it.


It was just before this point my Garmin watch vibrated. In open water races, I have it set to go off every 15 minutes to gauge where I’m at. This was too soon. WAY too soon. I had done this swim on Thursday and nearly did it in 10 minutes - I guess the crowd had slowed me down that much. This sucked. Oh well, nothing else to do but suck it up and keep going. I rounded the second turn buoy and it went off again not long after that. “Shit,” I thought to myself. “This is going to be my slowest swim ever. So much for coming out in less than 1:10 today.”


It was then I remembered Thursday’s swim. How did I know it took me 10 minutes to make it to the first buoy that day? Because I had changed the timer to go off after 10 minutes instead of 15! HEY! I’m right where I’m supposed to be!


Coincidentally, the crowd started thinning out at that point and the swim became much more enjoyable. It was still crowded, mind you, but the contact was much less frequent. I was able to see the Terrace and capitol dome when I would breathe to my left, and enjoyed progressing past them. Only two things went wrong the rest of the way: one, I was lining up just inside the buoys, and some people thought they HAD to go to the right of them, and they would cut to the right sharply in front of me, getting me out of my zone. Two, I couldn’t find anyone to draft off of. I know someone was drafting off me, and one time they got too close for too long and received a donkey kick as a result.


Rounding that final turn buoy and seeing the swim exit arch was great to see. I stayed in my zone, but increased my kicking to wake the legs up - they’d have work to do very shortly. I wobbled a bit coming out of the water, and fumbled for a moment getting my suit unzipped and watch off my wrist. I glanced down at the time: 1 hour, 7 minutes. Exactly what I had predicted. My Ironman was off to a great start.


TRANSITION 1
When you come out of the water, you’re a little disoriented. I fumbled for my quick-release zipper, and also for my watch since it was being worn on the outside of my sleeve. Luckily they have wetsuit strippers right as you exit the swim. You get your wetsuit off your arms and down to your waist, then lie down in front of two people, kick your legs up in the air, and they yank that sucker off with one quick pull! You stand up (or someone helps you), you take your wetsuit off, and away you go!


I was holding my wetsuit and running, scanning the crowd quickly for my family. Just as I was about to head up the helix, I saw my parents to my right. I smiled and yelled something at them. Great sight. Unfortunately, while my head was turned looking and smiling at them, I went right past the rest of my cheering section who were on my left. This picture was taken at that exact moment.

The run up the circular helix was amazing. You keep running (jogging) up this circular parking structure, and it’s lined the entire way with spectators, 3 or 4 deep, all of them cheering you on. I had heard about it, and thought I was prepared, but it blew me away. Cue the second time today I’m about to start crying. Nope - refocus, get up this ramp, and get some dry clothes on.


When you enter the hallway, volunteers are pointing which way to go. They also call your number ahead to where your bike bag is. My number was hard to read, so they didn’t have it ready for me. Luckily I remembered exactly where it was, and snatched it up while jogging. From there, volunteers pointed me into the men’s changing area, nick-named “The Get Naked Room!” Once inside I was again pointed towards open chairs, where I sat down and started getting ready.


I had heard about how great the volunteers are in transition: whatever you need or want, they do for you. Unfortunately, I had no one waiting on me right away. Oh well, I’ve done plenty of transitions before with no help, this would be no different. I start to open my bag, and realized it had been tied shut. This made me very angry - I had intentionally NOT tied the bag shut so it would be easier to open! Now I have to undo two granny-knots just to open my damn bag. UGH. Once I undid the knots, I started fumbling through my bag, getting out my bike helmet and tinted sunglasses in lieu of the clear ones I had packed in case it was overcast out. Straps were getting tangled, and i still had to get out my chamois cream (to prevent chaffing on the bike ride) and bike shorts, and socks and shoes and food! Finally a young volunteer came over and meekly asked if he could help. I asked him to try and find my socks. He picked through the bag slowly, and I got a little frustrated at this point. I took the bag from him and dumped out all the contents. As it turns out, I had forgotten to pack socks. Oh well, I could deal with that. I yanked off my swim trunks, slapped on a big ol’ glob of chamois cream, on went the shorts. I then got out my race belt, which you don’t have to wear on the bike ride, but since I was wearing a GPS tracker for the benefit of my family, it was easier to wear it then. I turned it on and was almost ready. I just needed my nutrition out of the baggie and in my tri top pockets. Anyone care to guess how difficult it is to open a baggie with butt butter all over your fingers? Yeah, it was that kind of transition (again, with no assistance from my overwhelmed volunteer). I finally got it open, shoved the food into my pockets, and exited out to the parking ramp where my bike was waiting.


Sunscreen volunteers were waiting right outside, and I gladly let them slather my arms and neck. OUCH! My wetsuit had chaffed my neck during the swim, and sunscreen didn’t feel good on it at all. Anyway, moving on towards my bike, my number was again shouted down the line, with the intent of a volunteer taking it off the rack and having it ready for me. Once again, I got there too quickly and the volunteer’s hands were barely on it when I got there. I still thanked her, and ran to the bike mount line. I gave room to others, hopped on, and rolled on down the other end of the helix to start a 112-mile bike ride after finishing a 9-minute Transition 1, about two minutes longer than I was aiming for.


THE BIKE
One of the things that had stuck with me at the Endurance Nation seminar was pacing your bike ride intelligently to set up the run when you got back. What that basically means is, don’t burn up all your energy early, trying to achieve a great bike split; you’ll likely have nothing left on the run, when you still need to have something left in your legs.


I took that advice seriously, and started out nice and easy on the bike. It’s tricky getting out of Madison, with narrow bike paths and an odd route behind and around the Alliant Energy Center. But I was relaxed, I was calm. I had ridden the hard part of the course, The Loop, 5 times and was prepared for it. I knew I would get passed a lot on the bike also, and I was prepared for that as well. My motto was the same as it always was: “My race, My pace.”


As Madison disappeared behind me, I took some time to reflect on what just happened. I had finished one leg of an Ironman, and I was already on the second. If my watch was accurate, I had a great swim time to boot! I started thinking how fortunate I was to be doing what I was. Then I had a sudden realization: out of nowhere, I realized that the previous 4 days, I had dreams that all had at least one appearance by each of the 3 grandparents I knew, two of which - both my grandfathers - had passed away years earlier. I’m not very religious anymore, but I am spiritual. When I remembered that I had dreamed of them both as well as my still alive-and-kicking grandmother, I felt as if they were all with me in spirit. I knew they’d be so proud of me, and I felt my deceased grandfathers would both be looking out for me that day.


Almost immediately after thinking that, I felt a weird twinge in my left armpit. I reached up to feel for a rock or bug… and was promptly stung by a bee! OWW! “What the fuck!” I yelled out, pinching the little bastard and throwing him off to the side of the road. A female cyclist came up behind me and asked if something was wrong, and I told her what happened. She told me a bee stung her friend and it was supposed to be good luck. I thanked her for putting a positive spin on it, especially if she had just made that up on the spot! (She assured me she hadn’t). Two miles later, a fly flew straight into the vents of my helmet, getting stuck inside. The woman wasn’t around at that point, so I couldn’t ask her what kind of luck that was supposed to bring.


As I rode out to Verona, I kept an eye on my cadence and heart rate. My cadence was just find, but my heart rate was over 142 bpm, into my Zone 3. That wasn’t good - my bike ride was supposed to mostly stay in Zone 2, below 142. It was odd because I felt like I was going at an easy, relaxed pace. Apparently not enough. I told myself I was probably still jacked from having a great swim and frustrating transition, and that if I kept going at a perceived easy effort, the heart rate would come down soon enough.


It didn’t. I made Verona in Goldilocks time: not too fast, not too slow - juuuuuuust right. But I was starting to worry I was burning too many calories too soon. I stayed strict to my eating schedule: GU gels on the half hour, honey waffle at the top, water whenever I felt like it.


The loop started out very well. Still getting passed (no big deal) and my heart rate was finally starting to come down a bit, but not as far as I would have liked. But I was enjoying myself - it was a beautiful day, and things were going nicely.


Then we turned onto Highway 92.


A guy who had been behind me for a while passed me on a climb, and reached back for his water bottle. I could see him having difficulty reaching back around and putting it back in the cage. My worst fear happened: he dropped it, right in front of me. I had nowhere to go, and I braced for the worst. People have bike issues all the time because of stupid incidents (riders) like this that happen and are completely out of the victim’s control. My front tire hit it square on, but luckily the bottle skidded to the side and didn’t get under my rear tire. I yelled out another F-bomb (couldn’t help it) but was able to stay upright and keep moving. Whew - thanks Grampa and Papa! As for the fumble-fingers in front of me, he glanced back over his shoulder… and kept pedaling. Didn’t even shout back an “I’m sorry” or anything. A few miles down the road, this same douchebag (bib #541) threw his gel wrapped to the side of the road. Asshat. Littering on the course is a penalty if an official sees you. I thought about saying something, but just let it go. My race, My pace.


The rest of the loop was nice and uneventful. I traded positions with a woman named Tina several times - she’d catch me on the flats (what few there were) and I’d catch up with her on the hills. It’s a really scenic ride with some fantastic views. About midway through the loop there’s a long, winding downhill (Garfoot) that’s an absolute blast. After that, it’s mostly flat until you reach the first of the Three Sisters.


Also referred to as the Three Bitches, they are the most challenging portion of the IM Wisconsin
bike course. But the crowds come out in droves to cheer you as you charge your way up. They dress in costumes, they have some hilarious signs, and they do whatever they can to help motivate (scare?) you up those hills. At the bottom the crowds are sparse, but the higher you go, the denser the crowd becomes - almost to the point where it’s crowded! I saw my other coach Matt on the second hill along with my training partner Steve. Steve confirmed my great swim time, and Matt made sure I was doing OK. I told him my heart rate was elevated, and he reminded me to take it easy on the second loop. I took the third hill with relative ease, then made my way back to Verona to start Loop 2.


Coming back into town, there’s an aid station which is followed by a huge festival with crazy crowds again. I was saddened to see a cyclist on the left, curled up in obvious pain as I came in. It couldn’t have happened more than 30 seconds sooner to my arriving. If I had been any faster, that could have been me (thank you again, Grampa and Papa!).


I grabbed fresh water leaving the aid station, preparing some Skratch (electrolytes and calories) in my main water bottle. I saw my family at the festival portion, and that was a great boost. I stopped at special needs just long enough to grab more honey waffles and some Advil - my neck and back were tightening up already, and I still had over 50 miles to go.


The second loop was uneventful, which was a relief. I did as much as possible to keep my heart rate under 142, and was largely successful. I just wondered if it was too late. I saw my main coach Todd on the second of the Three Bitches, and gave him a favorable report. However, something new happened - my left hamstring acted up on two of the climbs. It was not happy, and neither was I since I have never experienced any hamstring issues at all during training. This development was not welcome. I thought it may have been a cramp, but I was drinking plenty. Oh well, onward to finish this loop and head back to Madison.


Coming back in was great. I felt really good. I didn’t have any flats, no breakdowns (mechanical or emotional), or any other issues. As the Terrace grew larger, I knew I would finish in less than 6 hours, which was the goal I had set months ago. Mission accomplished, as I got off the bike in 5 hours and 57 minutes.


TRANSITION 2
I slipped my feet out of my bike shoes, leaving them clipped into the pedals and rode up the circular helix to the top, returning to where I had started. Volunteers were slowing everyone down at the top, reminding us to take it easy and not cause an accident or do something stupid to ruin our day. I dismounted, and as soon as I was off Blue Thunder (my bike’s name) a volunteer was there to take her off my hands and place her back on the rack for me. I enjoyed this, I have to admit. It makes you feel a little extra special, like you have your own handlers.


I knew by now to start shouting out my number in advance so they would have my bag ready, and they did. This was going to be a fast, easy transition, and I had a great volunteer who ‘got it’ this time. He took my bag and promptly dumped it out, asking me what I needed. “Shorts. Socks. Shoes. Hat. Sunglasses.” As I called them out, he had them ready for me. I was dressed and ready to go. Heading out the door, I again visited the sunscreen volunteers, and was officially out of transition in 2 minutes, 54 seconds.


THE RUN
Now I just had a little marathon to run. For some perspective, my longest training run had been 18 miles. It’s not uncommon to NOT run a full marathon while training for one. Heck, when I prepared for my first marathon last year, my long run was almost the same distance. I knew I could do it, the only question was how quickly?


I started the run a little after 2pm, and I knew finishing in less than 11 hours wasn’t in the cards. I had known that since halfway on the bike. But my goal of sub-12 was still 100% in my grasp, as long as I avoided disaster.


To do that, I started out slow. The seminar had instructed us to go out “stupid slow” and I thought I was doing that. Then I looked down and saw I was running an 8:20/mile pace. Geeze, they weren’t kidding when they said I’d feel fresh. This, however, has been my downfall all season for my other two half-Ironman races: starting the run too fast. I knew I had to run my first several miles at no faster than 8:50, tops. Slow down, I told myself. Slow… down…


If you can believe it, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since finishing the swim (yes, I pee in my wetsuit - don’t worry, I won’t ask you to wear it). As soon as I came around the corner of the capitol building, I saw three people come out of porta-potties. Sweet - that meant no waiting for one to open up. I got in and did my business. Coming out, there was an aid station immediately thereafter and someone is right next to me yelling “THERE’S JEFF WAMSER, KICKING SOME SERIOUS ASS TODAY!!” Wait a minute, who knows my last name out here? I look and there’s Doug - again! The man was everywhere! I had time to briefly thank him, then walked two tables of the aid station while taking a drink of water. After that, time to run again. That was my strategy - run to each aid station, and walk long enough to take on drink and nutrition.


As soon as I exited the station and turned right onto State Street, there was my family. They had a ton of “Jeff Heads On A Stick” that they were waving like crazy. It was hilarious and uplifting. I gave high-fives as I went by, and Wendy recognized I was going slow enough that she could run with me. “How are you feeling?” She asked. “I’m great, just gotta keep moving,” I told her. She gave me some last encouragement and cheered me on as I took the next left towards campus.


Running through Camp Randal was nice, but there was no music being played, and no one inside except for volunteers making sure we circled the entire field. A little disappointing - at the Des Moines Marathon, when you run through Drake Stadium they at least have the JumboTron running with a stationary camera so you can see yourself running out. Oh well, I’d been on the field before, but that’s another story for another time.


Not long after leaving the stadium, Steve found me again. He was everywhere too that day. He told me how great I was doing, confirmed some of my splits from the swim and bike, and jogged with me almost all the way to the next aid station. He assured me I’d see more of him, and to keep it up.


I kept with my plan of walking each aid station. I was eating about every 45 minutes, and alternating between water and Perform (a Gatorade-like drink). This had worked for me in the past. I knew the most critical element was nutrition, since I had struggled with it in my earlier half-distance races on the run.


When I got near the State Street turnaround (about 6.5 miles in) I saw Todd. He asked how I was doing. I told him, “I’m OK”. “Just OK?” He asked. “I’m not doing great, but I’m not doing sucky either. I’m just OK.” He didn’t get to press for details and I didn’t want to stop and explain. But it was at that point I knew my run wasn’t going to go as well as I had hoped, and I’m sure Todd picked up on it too.


My stomach was starting to bother me. It felt like nothing was sitting right. Not quite nauseous, but not settled either. Like there was a burp starting to get ready. Knowing this would hinder my ability to eat and keep taking on badly-needed calories, I’d have to dial back the effort even more. I was averaging 8:55 miles up to that point, and immediatley started slowing down. I revised my goal to keep my splits in the mid-9s to the turn , and see how I was doing then.


It was a comfortable pace, and seemed to be working pretty well. I felt good. I was still smiling almost constantly - that was reaffirmed by so many spectators telling me how great I looked and they loved seeing me smile. That helped. Because I WAS still having fun, if you can believe that. I loved being out on this beautiful day, nearly halfway through with a marathon - a freaking MARATHON! - after swimming and biking all day!


As I came back to downtown and ran up near the capitol, State Street was again cheering, but as I passed it got incredibly loud. I thought someone behind me was working the crowd, but as it turns out I was about to be passed by the women’s pro winner,  Britta Martin. It was really, really cool. I tried to keep up with her, but she was too fast. She kept looking back to see if another female pro was behind her, but there wasn’t. Even though the cheers and roar of the crowd wasn’t for me, I fed off of it. It was a great boost at a point when most people get disheartened: when you turn a corner, you are within sight of the finish line, but almost cruelly, that is where you turn around to start the second half of your marathon.


I turned, and saw Carl for the first time that day. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. I also skipped special needs, since there was nothing in there that could have helped me. I had neglected to pack Tums, a mistake I will never make again. I’ll put them in all four of my bags, along with my Advil.


I headed back out, and again passed Doug and gave him a high-five. That guy was a volunteer animal! And it was great to see familiar, friendly faces on the course. You were great Doug - thanks for being everywhere! Turning onto State Street again, I looked for my family in the same spot, but only saw my two cousins. I yelled at them in passing, but didn’t stop. Again, I heard them yell something but couldn’t make it out. The run course is SO noisy in that section: It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but hard to hear sometimes unless your friends and family are right there.


After making the turn, there was something else that had been bothering me for a while. I felt a very small pebble or something in my left shoe. It had been there for a while, but I could deal with it. Now, with stomach issues and lack of nutrition, I had to start eliminating anything negative, including this damn pebble. When I reached the field at Camp Randall again, I stopped, took off my shoe, and gave it a good shake. I resumed running again, sure I had gotten it. I had barely reached the opposite endzone when I felt it again. “What the hell?!” I said out loud to no one. I repeated the process, only to again feel it return. I soon realized that it was in my sock, not my shoe, and I didn’t want to stop and sit down to do that - my fear was if I completely stopped, I would lose my desire to resume. So deal with it and keep moving.


My splits were getting slower. So were my walks at the aid stations. Leaving Camp Randall I was now turning in 10-minute plus miles. Revised goal #3: Let’s keep them all in the 10s the rest of the way. A tough task, knowing that the dreaded Observatory Drive way coming up again, a steep uphill climb before hitting the State Street turnaround. I embrace hills on the run, and I wanted to ‘suck some souls’ and run up all the walkers - and at that point, everyone was walking Observatory. But not me. “I eat hills for breakfast,” is one of my training mantras, and I pulled it out on this last tough climb.

The reward is a winding downhill back to the State Street turnaround. It is there that I saw my family when I needed them the most. Mom and Dad had made it back from the Brewers game in Milwaukee! My sister and nieces were there! My high school friend and fellow runner Teri was there! They were going absolutely crazy. I was too tired to cry at this point. But not to smile! I gave them all high-fives as I came around the corner, and then the best part of the day happened: my daughter Kaitlynn came out and ran with me for a few blocks. She put her arm around me and asked how I was doing. “I’m tired, kiddo. This is really hard.” “I can tell,” she replied. “I’m almost done though, I’ll see you in about an hour.” “OK Dad, go get ‘em!”



As soon as I left, I got another visit and boost from Todd. “How are you feeling?” I told him I was doing about the same, that I was tired. “You’ve done all the hard stuff,” he told me. “Take it easy the rest of the way, you’ve got this.”


I headed back along the lake, looking at my watch and doing math in my head. Less than 6 miles to go. If I average 12 minute miles the rest of the way, I’ll still finish under 12 hours. I’m good. I can do 11’s no problem. Hell, I may as well even skip some aid stations since I’m really not getting anything from them.


The final 5 miles were just about getting it done. My stomach was really upset with me now. If I ate anything I would vomit for sure. I skipped the second to last aid station, only to end up walking along Dayon with under 2 miles to go. I saw Todd and Steve then, and Dave Rodda passed me, wanting me to keep pace with him and finish together. I told him I couldn’t, as badly as I wanted to. I needed to give myself enough of a break so I could finish strong.


I broke back into my stride and went back up State Street one final time. The capitol was in sight. I thought about what had posted on Facebook the night before, my “why do I do this” s for everyone, to be an inspiration. I thought about my grandparents again. I thought about how close I was, I would be done in less than 5 minutes. I was going to do this.


I came up the hill and around the corner, scanning for my family. The crowds were so thick - it was non-stop people almost the entire final mile. The closer I got to completion, the bigger and louder the crowd became. I was almost to the final straightaway. Oh no - had I missed them?





I hadn’t - they were immediately around the final turn, to my left. The loudest they had been all day. I raised my hands above my head and ran over to them, giving frantic hugs and high fives, passing my sunglasses to Wendy. I then ran off down the chute, flexing my arms in triumph, and that’s when I heard Mike Reilly say it.


“Jeff Wamser from Pleasant Hill, Iowa. You’re an Ironman!”


FINISHING, RECOVERING
As soon as you cross the line, there are two ‘catchers’ there that take you on either side by the arm. I was actually able to walk just fine, but I was tired. They put a finisher’s hat on my head, and hung a medal around my neck. The timing chip came off, and a foil sheet was draped around me. “How are you feeling?” one of the catchers asked me. “I’m great, but I’d like to sit down,” I told her. They guided me to a chair and eased me down. One went to get my finisher’s shirt, and the other got a water and chocolate milk for me.


I sat there and took it all in. I remembered to finally hit the stop button on my watch and saw the final time. My marathon of 4 hours and 29 minutes had led to an official Ironman finishing time of 11 hours, 47 minutes, 6 seconds.


The feelings immediately afterwards are so hard to describe. Exhaustion. Pride. Accomplishment. Satisfaction. Amazement. Those are just a handful. It’s one of those feelings that you can try to explain, but has to be experienced to fully comprehend. I continued to sit down, grateful for the shiny blanket which was doing a surprisingly great job of keeping me warm. I was in the shade of downtown Madison’s buildings now, and the sun was going to be setting soon as well. A daylight finish - that’s something else I had wanted.


My family and friends made their way over to the edge of the finish area, and I got up to go give hugs and thank everyone. Several had over an hour’s drive to get back home, so I understood why they had to leave. Usually after a race I’m very chatty, but my stomach was still letting me know it was not pleased with our journey. I wish I had felt better, I would have loved to have gone out and savor the euphoria with all of them. I barely got to say anything to my adorable nieces, who had even gone to the effort to make signs for me.


I sat back down, telling Wendy I would need a bit more recovery before exiting. While I was resting I saw Ashten - another fellow Iowan - cross the line. After she had given her family and friend’s hugs, I went over and we had a hug of our own. It was one of those special hugs, I would imagine similar to one that soldiers share after battle. I’m not saying completing an Ironman is the same as going to combat, not at all. But as Ironman finishers, we go through many shared struggles, and no one really understands except those going through it with you. We didn’t go to combat, but at one time or another we were at war with our bodies, our brains, our loved ones. Yet we persevered, we endured, we gave it our all to cross that line. It was a brief but powerful moment.


I got my finisher’s pic taken, and went to sit back down again. My catcher came back to check on me again, and when I said I’d like to lie down, they thought it would be best for me to go to medical. I didn’t object, and allowed myself to be escorted to the medical tent. I was weighed, had my blood pressure taken, and was asked about my symptoms and nutrition throughout the day. My blood pressure and heart rate were both perfectly fine, and I had lost only 5 pounds on the day. Apparently I did a better job of eating and drinking than I thought. They brought me some broth, figuring I needed more sodium. I wasn’t sure how it was going to taste so soon after finishing a chocolate milk, but it went down easy. I don’t know if it was the broth or just time spent resting and recovering, but I felt ready to go and rejoin my family. I was given the once-over one more time before being cleared.


Wendy and Kaitlynn were all who remained. We went to transition to check out my bike and retrieve my bags. We ran into Dotty, and she was just checking out her bike also. I got to thank her husband and kids for letting her come on our long training rides. I also gave her a big ol' sweaty finishing hug - a huge feat, since Dotty doesn't even like to shake sweaty hands. The most I had ever got from her was a fist-bump after a long ride!

After that, I saw Todd, Matt, and Steve and a few others from Zoom Performance. I was told by all how great a race I had ran. Todd admitted that when I told him I was only “OK” at Mile 6 he had serious concerns, but he reminded himself of my mental toughness, and I wouldn’t stop unless it was impossible for me to continue. It was very reassuring to hear that.


We went back to Scott and Megan’s. Wendy and Katilynn were tired, but I was getting my second wind, if you can believe that. I decided to go back down and watch the final hour from 11pm to Midnight, when the race officially is over. The girls were both too tired, so I changed into my finisher’s shirt, hat, and medal, and drove back downtown. 

I’m glad I did. Seeing those final finishers was amazing - the determination, relief, and excitement in their eyes as they came down the chute, knowing they had finished and earned the title of Ironman. It didn't matter how close to Midnight they were - they completed the exact same 140.6-mile journey as everyone else had.


POST-RACE, MORNING AFTER
After the last finisher had crossed, I was still so pumped up I didn’t want the night to end. So I headed back to the Great Dane for a beer and cheese curds. The bartender saw my finisher’s medal and informed me the beer was on the house. There was no one else there, but it made sense that the one person who would walk through the door next was the one person I had seen all day - DOUG! He and his friend had finished their final volunteer shift as catchers at the finish line. We both had many questions and tales for each other - I couldn’t believe his energy throughout the day, and as a volunteer no less. Of all the people I gained inspiration from that day, Doug easily ranks in the top 3.


After just two beers, it was time to go home. I hit the pillow and promptly fell asleep at 1:30am, but would only get 3 and ½ hours of sleep. Finisher’s Gear went on sale at 7am (how cruel is that?) and I had been strongly encouraged to arrive an hour early to get a spot close to the front of the line.  I bought a finisher’s jacket - a must-have - and a few other items. I may not ever spent that much again on finisher’s gear, but you only have one “First” Ironman finish, so I allowed myself to splurge.


I was a little tired, but the 4 ½ hour drive home loomed large, and it was time to hit the road. The best part of the drive was when I stopped in Dubuque for gas, I saw a gentleman getting into his car wearing the finisher’s t-shirt. As he pulled out, I honked at him and held up my finisher’s hat. He got a huge smile and pointed at me, and we gave each other a thumbs-up.


FINAL THOUGHTS
First of all, if you made it all the way through to the end, I’m both impressed and flattered. I apologize if I went into too much detail at times, but as I stated at the beginning, I wanted readers to experience this with me, from beginning to end.


My recovery has been quick and painless. So much so that less than 48 hours after finishing, I signed up for my next Ironman in Boulder next August. I’m also giving serious consideration to competing in Wisconsin again, but if I don’t compete I will definitely emulate Doug and volunteer as much as I can, and provide a boost to my friends.


Finishing Ironman Wisconsin was easily one of the greatest days of my life. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience what I did. The relentless support and encouragement, not just from those you know but from total strangers. And of course, the unequalled sense of satisfaction in reaching an achievement whose seeds were planted nearly 30 years earlier, watching television on a Saturday afternoon.

The best part of all, is my Ironman journey has only begun. This is the first of what I plan on being many, many more. As long as I have the support of my family and my wonderful group of friends, I know now that anything is possible. Anything.