Becoming an Ironman
I started on the road to Ironman four years ago, yet it seems like a lifetime ago, without even realizing back then this is where the journey would lead me. In reality, after riding one loop of the Ironman Wisconsin course back in 2010 during Experience Triathlon Summer Camp, I swore to myself and to a fellow athlete that I would never do an Ironman. Well, as life teaches us, there are times we go in directions, good or bad, that we never see coming. I count the Ironman as one of the good things to which life and this journey have led me. After some reflection, watching the Ironman World Championships on TV, seeing fellow ET athletes completing the Ironman, and volunteering last year at Ironman Wisconsin could only have led me to this place.
Looking back on all that you have to accomplish in training, time away from the family, and the race itself, I don’t really believe you “do” an Ironman but more become one. It’s a title that becomes a badge of honor that you earn over countless hours of training. Your life, literally, gets put on hold for those months of training and everything revolves around your next training session, how long it is, and how do you fit it in. This is where the confidence and the mental toughness you’ll need to complete the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run is built. While it’s a daunting journey, I wouldn’t have changed one thing during this whole experience and would encourage anyone interested to do it. It’s a life-changing event.
Kevin and I arrived in Madison on Thursday before the race to get settled in our hotel room and check in for the race. Our special someones would not arrive until Saturday. This gave us time to settle in and contemplate our upcoming race, my first Ironman. The excitement at the expo was palpable, as was the nervousness displayed by the athletes we met and talked with. The day before the race, temps in Madison were in the upper 80’s and humid, but projected race day temps were to be cooler. In fact, race day dawned cloudy and never reached above 70. The weather gods were smiling on the Crazy 8’s.
On September 8, 2013, after all the training was done, the time had come to test all that training, the body, and more importantly, the mind.
As I waited our turn to get into the water with the other Experience Triathlon athletes, we shared hugs, kisses, and good luck wishes. Then it was time to wade into the water to face the race alone, knowing that the next time you saw those faces would most likely be on the run. It was a funny feeling, once in the water, to be looking for familiar faces, like so many times in training, that only seconds ago were there now were not. This time I saw only 2800 of my “best friends” ready to start the race. I knew that what lay ahead would be one of the toughest challenges I’d face but I had a deep-rooted confidence that I was up to the challenge. If you’ve never seen the swim start of Ironman Wisconsin all you need to do is watch the Ironman Championships on TV, because to say the swim was organized chaos or a fight from the start is an understatement. Nothing can prepare you for 2800 swimmers all trying to occupy a space where only 100 can fit. The swim was like this for three quarters of the swim. At times, I was just trying not to get kicked in the face or get swam over. Upon that final turn towards shore, I finally had some open space and I made a beeline to the swim out and that first shot of adrenalin from the world famous ET Cheer Crew on the helix… what an outstanding sight. Into transition and quickly on to the bike!!!
When Coach Joe and I sat down earlier this year to talk about Ironman Wisconsin, he handed me something he’s created over years of experience that outlines expectations for preparing for the race. The one piece of advice that has always stood out to me was “embrace the year of the bike” and he wasn’t kidding. Those long Sunday rides of 5, 6, and even 7-hour bike rides (Sorry, coach, but we need that photo op from the Starved Rock sign!) were mentally challenging for me as well as physically. While all the Crazy 8’s provided support and encouragement during training, one of them, Kevin, stands out even more so. The support he gave me on that 7-hour bike ride was the difference between growing from it or being crushed by it. That was definitely a growth point in my bike training. Thanks, brother, couldn’t have done it without you. All those long days on the bike paid off during the race. The miles were flying by and yet the time seemed to stand still as I always kept an eye on the clock for the cutoff times, just like you taught us, Coach.
One of the things most, if not all, of the ET racers will tell you about that day is counting the miles until you get to see the ET Cheer Crew and I count myself among them. Seeing those smiling faces cheering you on was the best sight ever and gave a boost like no other. I’ve always said that the Cheer Crew job is much harder than racing and we appreciate every bit of energy you give to us. Once past the Cheer Crew on hill number 2 (affectionately known by those that have done the loop as B #2) I was energized and back tooling along with a renewed energy. Now, just like the swim, nothing can prepare you for everything and I was about to get a lesson in that. On hill number 3 on the loop (you guessed it, B #3) about 10 miles past the cheer crew, one of my “best friends” decided to stop without warning right as the hill inclined in earnest. Needless to say, I ran right into the back of him with my front tire, hitting the front brake in semi panic so the rear came up and hit me in the back, somehow managing to unclip and stay upright. I said something that I’d rather not repeat here, although suffice it to say it was not directed at my newest “best friend,” more in general. I always strive to be a good sportsman and I’m absolutely positive he had a great reason for doing what he did, but at that moment in time it absolutely escaped me. So I backed up, clipped in, and somehow managed to stay calm and make it up the hill without further incident – all the while wondering if anything was wrong with the bike for the next few miles.
The one thing that makes Ironman Wisconsin such a great place to do your first Ironman (hint: it’s not because of the hilly bike course) is the support the residents along the course give you. As I was clipping in to get up the hill, one of the crowd asked if I was ok and actually stood next to me for a second to make sure I got clipped in on the hill and didn’t fall. I’m not sure if they would have needed to help me or if that would have qualified as “outside help” but was grateful for the support. While I’d like to say that the remainder of the bike was more uneventful, I’d be lying. Over the rest of the bike I would I drop the chain twice due to bike issues and again experience the helpfulness of the residents, this time in Mt. Horeb. All the while I was keeping my eye on the prize and rolling with the situations. Serenity Now!!!
Seeing the ET Cheer Crew for the second time told me that one, the bike was nearing the end, and two, the next time I’d see them was on State Street. Cool! Rolling into Madison and onto the helix was a welcome sight because being part of the MCIS Crew (my fellow athletes will understand that one) I was ecstatic to get off the bike and run. Feeling like a pro, I handed my bike off to one of the attendants, and I’ve got to tell you this was way cooler than having to rack your bike, and I again went into an organized chaos in T2. One of my ET teammates, Jeff, was a T2 volunteer and learned firsthand that a tri jersey doesn’t fit over your body so smoothly when your body is wet from sweat but he got it on me. Thanks, Jeff, for appearing out of nowhere as I sat down! You kept me motivated and smiling.
All year long I’ve heard from Coach Joe that the bike is the keystone for the run and possibly the entire race. Manage the bike power correctly and the run will be yours to have. Again I listened and got off the bike exactly where my power needed to be. I also have to thank ET Team Dietitian Laurie Schubert for the nutrition and hydration plans we discussed. I got off the bike and to the run fully fueled for the challenge ahead. I can’t say enough about how working with Laurie has changed my races. I can’t imagine and wouldn’t want to face this challenge without Laurie in my corner. Thanks much, Laurie.
By closely following our bike pacing and nutrition plan, I can honestly say that the run went without major incident. I had the legs, the stamina, and the mental toughness to work through the small issues to accomplish the one goal I had going into the race, besides finishing under the cutoff, and that was do a sub 5:00 marathon. I won’t say it was easy because I had to summon my mental toughness at mile 22 as I was in serious jeopardy of missing this goal.
For the first time in a marathon, I was able to do some simple math at mile 21 that said if I didn’t do something by mile 22, this goal would slip away. As I passed the 22-mile marker I just started running, passing a slew of athletes that had passed me earlier and never stopped until I crossed the finish line. I’ll tell you that over those last 4.2 miles, I had an “out of body experience.” It was as if someone or something was controlling me to run as fast as I was when all normal thinking would tell you that after almost 13 hours there was no way possible this could happen — yet it was. There was almost no sensation of pain or even running but the ground was moving at a pace that amazed me. So I told my mind to just shut up and ride the wave for as long as it was there. This wave took me all the way to the finish line.
This experience is a testament to the personal training plan that Coach Joe puts forth for those doing the Ironman, the respect he endows upon you for the Ironman distance during those days, and the support from my wife Cheryl. I knew who and what was waiting for me at the end of this part of the journey. There is no better feeling or any way to describe the feeling of turning the corner to the finish line at Ironman Wisconsin with the capitol building, lit up in all its glory, in the background. My first conscious thought as I made that turn to finish was seeing Sherri, Larry, Tyler, and the rest of the Cheer Crew stationed right at the corner cheering me on with the finish line looming ahead. Then I heard Mike Riley yelling out the words I’ve longed to hear for months! “James Riga, YOU are an IRONMAN!” Cheryl was at the finish line, looking intently into the crowd and trying to get a glimpse of me to make sure I was OK. Standing next to her with somewhat of the same look were Cathy B. and Bob.
As I crossed the finish line with my arms held high, I was overwhelmed with the entire day and how well I felt after 13:23:10 on the course. I worked my way through the crowded finish line and waved to Cheryl saying, “I’m OK.” I took the obligatory picture with the Ironman logo in the background and then it was off to give Cheryl a huge hug and kiss. I told her, “We did it. I’m an Ironman.” Coach Joe was right there too and while I didn’t kiss him, he got a huge hug too. There were plenty of pictures to be taken and cherished as this moment was realized. Since I was little unsteady on my feet, Cheryl gingerly ushered me quickly to my pizza and chocolate milk to get some much-needed calories and protein in me and to relish what I had just accomplished.
The electricity at the finish line is something that can’t be explained and has to be experienced to understand. Watching other athletes finish, knowing what they have been through, never ceases to bring tears to my eyes for their accomplishment. If I could bottle that feeling up and sell it, I’d be a millionaire. Until that time, I’ll settle for an experience that will last a lifetime and if I never do another Ironman I will carry this feeling with me the rest of my life. As they say, PRICELESS!!!! As I reflect at all I’ve accomplished in this unbelievable year with pride and awe, I’m thankful of my supporters in Cheryl, Coach Joe and Team ET. I’m a little sad that it’s over so fast, and I have absolutely NO REGRETS!!! I’m looking forward to seeing where my tri life will take me in the future, knowing that I have Cheryl, Coach Joe, and the entire ET team supporting me. It’s going to be a lovely journey indeed.
Enjoy all the pictures from our breakthrough weekend at Ironman Wisconsin on the ET Photo Gallery!