Moving Forward One Buoy at a Time at Ironman Wisconsin
I’m a big fan of pizza. I don’t mean that I like to have the occasional slice of pizza with friends. Because that would mean I’d have to share my pizza. Nope, I like to fill my plate with pizza and stuff it into my face until I look like a six foot two inch deranged squirrel with mozzarella hanging out of my mouth and marinara sauce on my chin. It’s probably a character defect, but we’ll call it a quirk because that sounds nicer.
What does this have to do with Ironman? Well, training for an Ironman means that you can eat all the pizza you like!! OK, no it doesn’t actually mean that. Not when you’re married to the ET Team Dietitian, Laurie Schubert. But it does mean that you can have it slightly more often than usual since you’re burning a lot (A LOT) of calories with your training. And wow, there’s a lot of training to do if you want to do it right.
Fortunately for me, I had a couple of advantages on my side as I prepared for my first ever Ironman triathlon. For one, there was my lovely wife and biggest cheerleader, Laurie. She goes above and beyond to make sure I eat right on a daily basis, and that I am prepared for all of my long workouts and races. My other big advantage was being a part of the Experience Triathlon team and ET Personal Coaching services. Thanks to my relationship with ET, I have a highly experienced and capable coach laying out the workout plan that was going to take me – one time couch potato with a fear of deep water and no particular athletic ability – to a level of fitness I never believed possible. To complement that, I had a circle of friends with the experience to help me find success as well as the support and camaraderie to make some of those grueling long workouts much more enjoyable.
I’ve written before about how Coach Joe helped me overcome my aversion to swimming and introduced me to this crazy sport. He has been there every step of the way as I’ve progressed from my first track class through half and full marathons, sprints, Olympics, and finally half Ironman courses. He never pushed me into anything, instead just letting me move along at my own pace. I still remember the smile on his face when I told him I thought I was finally ready to take the next step and sign up for Ironman Wisconsin.
Fast forward to September 13, 0-dark-thirty in the morning. I am eating my usual pre-race breakfast and gathering my gear to head down to transition. I slept surprisingly well, and don’t feel nearly as nervous as I expected. As Laurie and I head down to drop off the special needs bags, we mix with the crowd of racers and volunteers. I feel like I’m having an out of body experience, watching all of these other people prepare. One mental trick I use to keep nervousness at bay is to distract myself and not think too hard about what is ahead of me. At this point maybe the trick is working too well, because I keep having to remind myself that oh yeah, I’m doing this thing, too!
As I make my way to transition to set up my bike, I have the first of many encounters with my ET friends and fellow racers. Coach Joe is camped out at the athlete’s entrance and he makes sure to check up on me while I am collecting hugs and handshakes. So far, so good – I’m starting to get excited, but mostly I’m just soaking in the experience of this event. There are so many differences from even my most recent half Ironman that I am too busy looking around to let the nerves bother me. I head into transition to pump up my tires and put my bottles on my bike. It’s so dark that I can’t even read the gauge on my bike pump to see how much air I need! That’s what you call a lesson learned – next time, a headlamp might be a good idea.
I get the tires and bottles squared away, but in my nervous excitement I forget to put any shot blocks or salt tablets in my bento box. Whoops! I realize this just a couple of minutes before transition closes and decide on the spot to just roll with it and adjust my nutrition on the fly. Between the cooler weather that is forecast for the day and my many conversations with Laurie, I am more than ready to handle this unexpected development. I’m already planning to be conservative, so I can afford to be a bit flexible.
Soon enough it’s time to head down the ramp towards the swim start. Things are definitely starting to feel a bit crowded now. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll manage to get into the water before the gun goes off! I’d really much rather have a chance to get my goggles wet and position myself outside the fray before that happens, but evidently one does not simply stroll through the starting arch at an Ironman venue. Look at all these valuable lessons I’m learning, and the race hasn’t even started yet! Way to look at the bright side, Drew. (Note: anyone who knows me knows that punctuality is not exactly a strength. This might be what you’d call karma.)
Eventually I do make it into the swim start area with all of 90 seconds to casually dash through the bobbing heads and find my starting point. I’m aiming for a spot that is not too far away from the start line, but that will allow me to avoid the general melee that I’ve been warned about at the beginning of the IM Wisconsin swim. No sooner do I get myself situated and my Garmin all set to go than I’m hearing the starting gun and it’s time to swim. Who has time to be nervous now? Not me, I’m too busy trying not to get run over.
Coach Joe, and many others who have competed in this race previously, told me exactly what to expect when 2,500 racers all switch from treading water to swimming at the same time. There are a lot of kicking feet and flying elbows in the beautiful waters of Lake Monona this morning, but I am not letting it get to me. Forewarned is – OUCH – forearmed across the back of the head? I’m not sure that’s how the saying goes, but I have a long way to swim and there’s no time for whining, so I keep moving. My main concern, which even I know is a bit silly, is that someone will hit one of the buttons on my watch and screw up my tracking data. I’m not sure what it says about me that with every collision my first instinct is to protect the Garmin! Also, I can’t really see where I’m going because my goggles are fogging up, but it’s crowded enough that I let myself be guided by the people all around me until it clears up enough for me to feel it is safe to clear my goggles.
2.4 miles is a long way to swim! I am not fast, and I’m pretty sure I will be the last of the ET athletes out of the water today. But, I know I can finish this swim well before the cutoff, so I just bear down and keep on moving forward one buoy at a time. No nerves, no nausea (I was a bit worried about this) – this swim is going very well for me. I am reminded of a friend’s advice that this would be the most pleasant part of the day, so I do my best to enjoy it. And to be patient. I sure do wish those buoys would go by a bit faster! Meanwhile, I’m amazed by all of the boats I am seeing. Are they all supposed to be here? I wonder if someone is just sightseeing. And now that my mind is wandering, how did I go from being afraid of the water to swimming this far and feeling nothing much more than impatience? I feel like that’s kind of a big deal for me.
Finally, much to the relief of my friends and family (who are apparently keeping tabs on me remotely, hurray for technology!) I am out of the water and headed up the helix. I wonder who are these people at the swim exit all lined up to high five me? I have to get past them because somewhere up there I’ve been told to expect to see volunteers to help me out of my rubber seal disguise. Eventually, I’ll realize that those were the wetsuit strippers I was looking for, but at the moment I’m looking forward to getting congratulated by the ET Cheer Crew on my way to T1. I have a big grin on my face as I give Laurie a kiss and high five my friends. They all know how big of an accomplishment this is for me, and I’m feeling very fortunate to have so much support.
I head into T1 and get some cheers from a couple more ET peeps who are volunteering. That’s a pleasant surprise, and I head into the changing room. I’m not moving very fast because I am afraid that if I rush I’ll forget something vital. I must be moving too slowly, because soon a volunteer comes over and dumps out all of my stuff and starts packing my wetsuit into the bag. What’s the rush, man? I’m just chilling here, trying to choke down a bagel with peanut butter and some water. I guess he had a point, though, because by the time I head out onto the bike course I have spent nearly twenty minutes in transition! Haha, oops. Oh, well, I’m not too concerned with missing the bike cutoff. I just need to avoid any stupid mistakes or random mechanical failures.
The bike portion of the Wisconsin course is a route with which I am very familiar, so I know not to go out too hard on the stick. I’m in for a long ride with a lot of ups and downs, and gravity is unforgiving to bigger guys like me. So I do my best to keep my power in the right zone as I enjoy what is probably one of the nicest weather days we’ve had this summer. My plan is to be very conservative, and so I know I am going to be out there for quite a while. But that’s OK, because there is plenty to see on this particular day! There are tons of spectators cheering, entertaining signs, a couple of creepy clowns standing in the weeds on the side of the road honking their clown horns (you can’t make this stuff up), and of course there’s the ET Cheer Crew near the top of the hill on Timber Lane. There’s also the lady with the ironing board randomly parked at the end of what we call Rollercoaster Road, the local guy riding his bike along the course (can I get flagged for drafting when he is blocking me from passing?), and a whole lot of people who were updating signs with the football scores. My feet hurt, my knee hurts, and I feel like I’m going slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter, but hey, at least I know the score of the Bears game. That’s something, I guess.
It is a bit frustrating riding my bike so conservatively, especially as my slow swim and my – shall we say, nonchalant? – T1 have left me well behind most of the crowd. But I’m passing more than I’m being passed, and I’m making progress. The second time around I do start to pick up the pace, anxious to see my friends again and then get back to transition and off of the bike.
At long last, I am climbing back up the helix and into the waiting arms of the volunteers. They relieve me of my bicycle and herd me into a changing area with my run gear bag. I take a few (OK, a LOT of) minutes to change and eat something. True to form, I’ve found some other triathletes to chat with as we gird our loins for the long run ahead. We’re all enjoying the experience and sharing a moment of Zen before continuing on towards the finish. Eventually I am ready to get this show on the road, so I bid farewell to my T2 buddies and off I go towards State Street.
The run starts out great. My conservative strategy is paying off, and my legs feel strong. The weather is still good, and I get a boost from the ET crowd right off the bat. I even start seeing more of my fellow ET Ironman training buddies, and everyone is smiling and looking strong. After a few miles, there’s a bit of a problem, though. The foot pain that started to bother me on the bike is suddenly flaring into a more serious issue. I know I have plenty of time to finish this race even if I walk. But after following the game plan this far, I’m counting on a strong run to finish my day on a high note. Now I’m starting to wonder if my body isn’t going to let me down.
For a while it isn’t pretty at all. I’m only able to run for 30-45 seconds before I have to slow down to a walk and wait for the pain to die down. But every time I walk I ask myself if I’m ready to throw in the towel on this marathon yet. That becomes my mantra through the pain. “Ready to quit on this yet? Nope!” Eventually the run portions begin to be longer than the walk portions, as I adapt my run stride to find something that will work with less pain. When I see Laurie near the turnaround I warn her that my second loop may be quite a bit slower than the first. I stop at special needs and take a couple of Advil I have stashed in my bag. I am determined not to quit.
The second loop of the run course is surreal. As the sun goes down and the glow sticks come out, running towards Picnic Point feels like I’m floating through outer space, passing through colorful celestial bodies… Or, I may just be a bit dehydrated. Whatever the reason, I’m starting to have fun again. There are peaks and valleys in every race, and I definitely feel like I’m on a peak right now. I’m passing a lot of people and getting complimented on my run by athletes and spectators alike. Later, I’ll learn that I was running a sub-9:00 mile for stretches of the second loop. The aid station volunteers are wonderful, and I almost feel bad saying no to them at the last two stops. But I’m getting close to the end, and I don’t want to wait any longer. The time for cautious pacing is past, and now I’m ready to finish this.
There is no better feeling than coming down that chute towards the arch, hearing your name on the loudspeaker, and realizing that you’ve accomplished this daunting goal at long last. As I cross the line, I’m amazed to see yet another of my ET friends greeting me with a big hug and congratulations. How did Jim get past the officials to meet me at the finish line?! It’s great to see a friendly face, but I am worried he is going to get into trouble. Then it finally sinks in that he’s one of the volunteers! Yeah, my brain is still not functioning. But that’s OK, because I can see the whole crew over by the fence cheering for me. I head over to them, happy to finally be able to stop moving for a while!
The race was a huge success for me. I hit all of my targets, pushed through the tough parts of the day, and really enjoyed the experience. I never could have done it without the support (emotional AND nutritional!) of my wife Laurie, and the excellent coaching and encouraging I got from Coach Joe. As I exchange congratulatory hugs with my fellow Ironman finishers, I realize that there is only one more box to check to make this a perfect day. And so I head over to the food tent. I heard they have pizza there! YUM!!
Enjoy all the pictures of our amazing weekend in Madison on the ET Photo Gallery!