Staying in the box at Ironman Wisconsin
First and foremost I want to thank Joyce, my wife, and my family for their support throughout this entire process. Also, I want to express my appreciation to my coach Joe LoPresto, ET Team Dietitian Laurie Schubert, my teammates and the entire Experience Triathlon family. It simply would not have been possible without all of you. This journey began when I was cheering for my son at IMLV in 2010 and I became captivated by the spectacle of the Ironman triathlon. It is no ordinary race. It is a lifestyle, a journey of self-discovery, where ordinary people achieve the extraordinary. It’s an event that lends itself to great drama, such as athletes competing with disabilities, and it assumes anything is possible, despite obstacles and adversity.
Eight of us from ET trained together regularly for Ironman Wisconsin. Coach Joe called us the “Crazy Eights.” My wife believes I earned that moniker given the training hours. After arriving for registration, Jim, Kevin, Chilly and I ran into each other at Monona Terrace Friday morning after giving our credit cards a Real Ironman Workout. A finisher’s hat and shirt is simply not enough to commemorate the event. Ironman jerseys, T-shirts and flip-flops qualified as “must have” items. Later that evening, we all attended an inspiring athlete’s dinner while loading up on spaghetti. Mike Reilly hosted the event and I hoped to hear his voice announcing my name before midnight on Sunday. The Crazy Eights arrived at 7:00am the next morning for a swim, bike, run workout prior to depositing our bikes into transition and the equipment gear check.
I returned to the hotel for an exciting hour of repeatedly changing a tube and tire on a spare wheel until I could do it blindfolded. Just in case. Since there’s only so much entertainment value you can get from that activity, we headed to Francesca’s for a wonderful dinner with all the ET athletes and the ET Cheer Crew Saturday evening. I went to bed about 9pm, couldn’t fall asleep until midnight and then did the wake up every 30 minutes thing until 4am. It was like Christmas when I was a kid.
After a breakfast of granola bars and a banana, I headed to Monona Terrace with my brother Rob. I kept thinking I was missing something. Sure enough, half way there, I realized all four of my pre-mixed Perform + Salt tab bottles were back in the hotel refrigerator. Gratefully, Rob was working bike transition as a volunteer and he saved the day by driving back to retrieve the drinks and could place them on my bike even when transition was closed. Once the tires were pumped and body marking was complete, it was time to sit and wait. It may be that the athletes gathered were filled with doubt or anxiety but no one was laughing or smiling and acted as if heading to their own funeral. Given that somber state of affairs, I decided to walk down the helix, the spiral ramp to Monona Terrace, with wetsuit in hand and locate my teammates. Sure enough, the world famous Experience Triathlon Cheer Crew was there. There were fist bumps all around, words of encouragement and last minute advice from our coach. The clock was ticking down to 6:30 as we made our way into the water. My anxiety level was now reduced to almost zero as I placed my trust into all the months of training and the strategy that Joe outlined. I’m treading water wide toward the back and awaiting the cannon. I’m ready. This is it.
I’m prepared for some contact but at times it was more like to hand to hand combat with 2,600 triathletes in a mass start. I later learned that swimmers exited the water with black eyes swollen shut and one person was bleeding. The contact was not limited to bumping but people literally pulling down on legs and hips. Despite this, I smiled after turning the first buoy corner where swimmers slowed down to “Mooo,” a tradition at IM Moo. I settled into a relaxed pace since I was determined to follow Coach Joe’s advice to “Stay In The Box”: avoiding excursions into high heart rates. It was going to be a long swim and I kept sighting to stay on course with significant chop in the water. After finally reaching the swim exit, the indicated time was fifteen minutes slower than expected. That’s the no-so-good news. The really good news: I was feeling great and ready to get on the bike. The volunteers stripped my wetsuit instantly and I was jogging up the helix amid the cheers of the ET crew. The help I received in transition was really appreciated and I made a point of thanking every volunteer I could during the day. I ran to my bike, which was handed to me by Rob who was concerned about my long swim but I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face. I was not watching but actually IN the Ironman and it was time to conquer a world-renowned bike course. It was crucial to avoid power spikes and control my normalized power (NP) to less than 165 watts.
The first part of the course is somewhat strange including two miles of bike path with sharp hairpin turns and even a bridge for added fun. It’s a no passing zone that finally dumps out into a big parking lot and out to the street. At last, I would race the course we practiced. I began passing riders as I continued down Whalen Road and up the first climb. I’d promised myself I would not attack the hills, would take advantage of the downhill sections and ride smart on the flats. My power should be lowest on the first loop. I was amazed by thousands of cheery volunteers and thousands of insane spectators who put up with middle-aged men in Lycra taking over their town. Overall the roads were great with some roughness on Stagecoach Road. Aptly named, it feels like you’re riding in a stagecoach as you rattle along. I was glad my spare tubes, fluids and CO2 were locked down as I noted sections with railroad tracks and uneven pavement were littered with an assortment of lost bottles and loose equipment.
The first hill is in Mount Horeb and I focused on keeping power below 250 watts on every climb. I watched cyclists stand up and mash the pedals while I remained in the saddle, easily spinning up the hill with my compact crank. The second hill is Old Sauk Pass and is a long and steady climb surrounded by applauding fans, such as the costumed “devils” that chased me up the hill with pitchforks. My son Dan and his girlfriend Melissa surprised me with signs and cheers, the first of probably 15 surprise appearances throughout the day, popping up when I least expected it as if they had some magical teleportation device. It became sort of a game of where will they show up next. The third hill is on Timber Lane and is short and steep. It has a mini-Tour de France atmosphere with people dressed in costumes and some not wearing very much at all. A crowd favorite was the Viking who dangled a can of beer from his sword in front of riders as they made the climb as well as the pirate chasing me up the hill. That was Brian, a triathlete from our Master’s Class, looking like Jack Sparrow in running shoes.
It made the hills much smaller. Of course, the ET cheer crew was there along with Rob providing an emotional supercharger. I was already looking forward to climbing the hill on my next loop. The fourth and final hill is known as Mid-town. Once again, a great showing of crowd support. All you needed was to wave and they responded wildly with cheers. Then, on to the town of Verona, where the main road was shut down for a huge party with spectators on both sides with signs and balloons. There were also lots of cowbells and as everyone knows, you can’t have too much cowbell.
It was about this time my Garmin Edge 500, from which I was getting power readings, decided to play the fool and shut down during the biggest race of my life. Fortunately, I had my trusty 910XT on my wrist for back up as I fumbled with the Edge to bring it back to life. It decided to randomly shut down two more times during the race but in this venue you adapt and “flow” with circumstances. This was Ironman. I was having way too much fun to be aggravated.
On the second loop, I hit the Garfoot Road section of the course which has a steep descent. There were several downhill areas in each loop where the Garmin indicated 40+ mph and this was one of them. I was flying toward the bottom when a rider, about 10 feet ahead, blew out his rear tire with a loud “Pow” while speeding downhill. I veered to the left as he hit the brakes and pulled off to the side. It reminded me that anything can happen over 140.6 miles. However, the next 50 miles were uneventful and I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that I raced the last loop with a smile on my face. As I again cleared the Timber Lane hill, I spied my coach and the ET cheer crew and shouted, “Staying In the Box, Coach Joe!” The power was still within limits in the hope I’d be able to run the entire marathon.
Before long, I was returning on the same bike trail and eventually found myself climbing the helix to Monona Terrace. As I brought the bike to a stop, I was a little dismayed that I burned up 45 minutes more than I’d previously posted for a stand-alone 112 mile ride. I took solace recognizing that I felt great and had followed the nutrition plan completely. My NP read 162. Right on target!
I was glad to see Jeff in T2 as he helped me get ready for the run. As I began to exit, I realized I still had my biking gloves on. I ran back to Jeff as he went fishing for my transition bag among the dozens piled in the corner while I shouted a “thanks” and headed out of transition. After more amazing volunteers applied sunscreen, I ran out of the terrace and onto the capital square lined with thousands of people yelling and screaming. With all that excitement, I wanted to make certain I didn’t sprint though town and intended to “Stay in the Box” on heart rate as well. I passed my ET friends somewhere at mile two and picked up a tremendous infusion of energy.
Sometimes reality turns out to be less than idealized expectations. Not with Ironman Wisconsin. It was everything I hoped it would be and the training and preparation allowed me to enjoy the day. I’m smiling in most every picture and was constantly passing participants during the second half of the run. Many were walking and some looked absolutely miserable. As I slowed for a drink at an aid station I overhead one guy say, “I feel like death!” as he continued what indeed looked like a death march. I never felt more alive and was enjoying every minute.
The run course is actually very nice, even if it has a lot of turns and turnarounds. I was at the 6 mile mark when son Dan and Melissa once again materialized out of thin air. They kept reappearing at different locations, shouting encouragement. Dan told me how relaxed I looked. The race strategy was paying dividends and the volunteer support was fantastic, making the run so much easier. Although I took only water and ice, each aid station offered cookies, coke, chips, bananas, sponges and pretzels. I made a point of saying to each one, “Thanks for volunteering! You guys are great!” and they were.
As I returned toward State Street (and more undeserved rock star treatment from the ET Cheer Crew), I slowed to talk with Coach Joe. I remembered saying, “The downhills are more fun than the uphills but feeling pretty good.” At mile 13, I stopped at special needs and picked up some more of my gels. Despite names like ”Topical Blast” and “Strawberry Slam,” it all began to taste like so much sugary goo but the formula had worked before in the half-Irons and marathons. I wasn’t going to change anything.
Thus far, the biggest surprise in the race was that I was still moving at a decent pace and feeling great. My son Dan caught up with me at around mile 20 and said, “Dad, you’re going to beat my time from last year!” That was a surprise since I was running by pace without looking at elapsed time. I knew he had suffered severe back pain during the 2012 Ironman, affecting his performance. It was now dark and it was hard to see the trail at some points. I kept ticking the miles down when I’d see my family, all of whom would be there including my other two sons, Steve and Ed.
The whole season has been great but to finish a “dream” race and to feel excitement throughout an Ironman race spoke volumes to the training plan and race strategy Coach Joe developed. Yes, I was getting fatigued and even a little sore in the last miles but I was having fun. Where was “The Wall” that always appeared at mile 20? Nowhere to be found. Be gone ye race demons! You have no hold on me! Yes my legs were feeling a little heavy but maybe now because they had just a little bit of Iron in them. Steve, my oldest son, appeared at State and Mifflin to also cheer me on and I was really pleased to see him before he wind sprinted (who’s not used to running) to catch up with his family. It was a big sacrifice for Kate, Steve and the grandsons to make the trip and I was very grateful.
I’m rounding the State Capital one final time. I pick up the pace and the first thing I see is a sign held up by one of my grandsons: “Our Grandpa is an Ironman”!
While I’m only half a block from the finish line, I’m not in a rush. Time for hugs, smiles and pictures. Time to thank everyone for supporting me and just being there. That meant more than anything else and I truly appreciated this. It was certainly worth the minutes added to my time since my only goal from the beginning was to finish. I kissed my wife and said to everyone, “Thanks for coming and I’ll see you in a bit. It’s time for me to go get my medal.” Turning back toward the street, I made the left turn onto MLK drive. Bright lights, crowd cheering, music roaring! I’m smiling and pumping my fist in the air. Is this just a dream? No, it really is happening! And in an instant I hear Mike Reilly calling out, “Bill Koss—You… Are… An… Ironman!!” as I cross the finish line with hands held high.
It is everything I hoped for and something I will never forget. Thanks again, coach. Sometimes dreams come true.
Enjoy all the photos from our amazing day in Madison on the ET Photo Gallery!