Ironman

I’ll flesh this out a bit when I’m not so tired and sore, but I wanted to post the basic info.

Today I finished 364 days of training and became an Ironman at Ironman Wisconsin. “Something-something-you can do anything you set your mind to”, but really only if you have amazing support systems. I could not have done it without Erica and Shaun, who gave me two very different kinds of support. The well-wishes and “wha? That’s crazy”s of so many friends over the last year and last week have also been appreciated. Christopher and Katie’s photo of those Tanzanian kids with the “Go Fuzzy Go” sign was particularly amazing. I mean, really, c’mon. And Jeremy and Jan flew out from California to cheer me on. What friends!

Race report

We were all really lucky yesterday with the weather. Saturday had a high of 90°. Today (Monday) the high was 91°. Sunday… was overcast and 74°. Wonderful weather for an all-day race. There was some wind, which affected the swim, but otherwise it was nearly perfect.

Pre-Race

Triathlons require more prep than a running race. Even a marathon you can, more or less, show up a few minutes before the race start with your running shoes on and you’re ready to go. A normal triathlon you have to place your bike and running gear in the transition area, but you usually do that just a few hours before the race. The Ironman, they want you in town to check-in and get bags to put your transition gear in on Friday, you do the transition setup on Saturday, and then the race is Sunday. It does certainly mean that race morning is a lot more straight forward than other triathlons I’ve done. But it did also mean that we needed to be in Madison by Friday afternoon.

Through multiple friends’ recommendations, we were staying at the Hotel Ruby Marie and by the time I had booked our rooms, in September last year, we had to (twist my arm) stay in their two best rooms. If nothing else (Jacuzzi tub!) I had plenty of room to lay out all my stuff and get organized.

Ironman Gear Bags

The business of each day, Friday and Saturday, only took up a few hours each day and so there was plenty of time to see friends, go to the Farmer’s Market around the Capitol, and just rest up.

Gourds at the farmers' market

Iron Man Madison Weekend

Swim

So race day morning I got up at 3 am to eat a little breakfast and then went back to bed for a few hours. At about 5:30 we wandered over to Monona Terrace and put fresh water on our bikes and I dashed into transition to add a couple of last minute items to my bags. Erica kindly took my “special needs” bags up to their drop-off area, up by the Capitol square. And then before I knew it, it was just before 7 am and I was stepping into the water with 2500 other athletes.

Iron Man Madison Weekend

The Ironman has a mass start and I knew from even waved starts how congested a start can get, how accidentally aggressive people can be, and that I was going to be one of the slower swimmers. So I hung well to the back, actually just standing near the shore in shoulder-deep water until about 6:58, when I started moving towards the very back of the start area.

The swim is a big rectangle in Lake Monona and the couple of times I had been up to Madison this summer to train, the lake had always been pancake-flat. Yesterday morning it was not so gentle. I made good time down the first leg, with the wind at my back, but then we all turned perpendicular to the wind and then into it for the long leg and it was pretty rough. I was grateful, though, that I had gotten out on Lake Michigan a couple of times this summer when it was pretty choppy as well, so I felt like I was prepared for it.

You’re allowed to hold onto support craft or buoys, as long as they don’t move you forward. I’m oddly proud that I never did, even when I was having some goggle trouble and it probably would have been smart to rest on an offered paddle boat for a moment, rather than flailing around trying to doggie paddle and fix my goggles at the same time.

Mostly I just tried to focus on the fundamentals of my form and keep a steady pace. I finished the 2.4 miles in 1:52:53, beating the swim cut-off time by 27 minutes. (Erica was still down at swim-out at the cut off and saw the heart-breaking sight of someone finishing just 20 seconds over the line and being told “rules are rules” and that they would not be progressing with the day.)

The Ironman has lots of emphasis on individual effort—no drafting in the bike, for example—but also has tons of volunteers who offer lots and lots of help at various points (the fact that everyone can get the same help is, I suppose, the equalizer). So, for example, when you get out of the water there are “peelers” who will help rip your wet suit off of you. It’s kind of fun. After I was peeled, I could hear Erica cheering and I waved at her and headed into Monona Terrace. I got a few yards and I remembered that this was a 17 hour race and a few moments wasn’t going to kill me, so I looped back and gave her a big (wet) kiss. It got an “aww” out of nearby folks and a boost to get me up the Helix.

A special thing about Ironman Wisconsin, different from even most other Ironman races, is that the transition area is not outside on a field somewhere, but is all headquartered in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace convention center. So after the swim, you climb up the four-story spiral parking ramp known as The Helix and enter the building and go to a ballroom where your Swim-Bike transition bag is waiting and volunteers will help you get changed and get moving. You pick up your bike from the parking garage and bike down the Helix at the other side of the building.

Bike

The bike leg was my biggest concern of the day (other than just running out of steam and falling over). A laundry list of reasons:

  • For no good reason, I treated a bunch of the early 60- and 90-minute rides of my training schedule not as workouts but as “hey, get out on the bike for an hour” and I’d run errands or something and count that. Dumb.
  • Hills. Chicago has none. The Madison area has a lot. I only got up to Madison twice this summer to train on the route and get used to hills, and because I got lost so much the first time, I only did one full circuit of the loop in training.
  • I’d never ridden a century. I swam 4000m in the open water one day in training this year, and I did a marathon in February, but the farthest I went in training (which was also the farthest I’d ever ridden) was 90 miles. What if I just fell over at 101 miles?
  • Because of all that, I really wasn’t sure what my pace was going to be, which made me worried about the 5:30 pm cutoff for the bike leg. When I came out of the water at about 9am I knew that meant I had 8.5 hours to complete the bike, but I really just had no idea if I was going to make it or how hard I was going to have to push to get in in time.

In the plus column, I had a nice hand-me-down bike from Shaun which has, among other nice qualities, a third small “climbing” ring on the front gear-set. I had some gear changing issues on the second Madison training trip and so I had both derailleurs adjusted by a real mechanic a week before the race.

The Wisconsin bike route is a “lollipop” course—you head 16 miles out of town, do two laps of a 40-mile loop, and then go back into town the same way you came out. I tried to remember the advice I’d received from a couple different sources and “just ride” the first 16 miles without pushing it at all.

I quickly discovered that the renowned Ironman Wisconsin crowd support really was true. Even along a 56-mile route through mostly rural areas, there were people camped on front lawns or just at rural intersections constantly, clapping and cheering for the passing athletes. And in the towns of Verona and Mt Horeb there were people everywhere. And at the tops of the three most difficult hills (the “three bitches”) there were full-on parties, with people in costume, loud music, and general mania.

I was also glad that I had kept my beard. I’ve been growing a pretty epic beard all summer and I was considering shaving it way down or off—I’ve often gotten a really short haircut and trimmed my beard before a big athletic event, for the psychological “now I’m sleek and trim” benefit if nothing else. But I just went to my barber shop this week and Joe (the “Father” in Father and Son) gave me a regular haircut and took my beard back from “crazy” to “eccentric”. I noticed at check-in that there was very little facial hair amongst the athletes and my beard set me apart. During the bike and run, tons of people yelled out “love the beard!” or even just “beard!!!” (one guy on the run did say, “that’s my second favorite beard of the day”, to which I gave him an exaggerated hurt look).

The best crowd support, though, was Erica, Jeremy, and Jan. On my first loop just before Witte Road, a black SUV came up beside me and the random stranger leaning out the window to encourage me turned out to be Erica. It was an amazing and delightful surprise. On my second loop of the course, the three of them were waiting for me along Witte Road, an even more delightful surprise. I stopped for a second to chat with them and get some more energizing kisses from Erica. And they were able to zoom ahead and catch me one more time, as I went through Verona. That time, I keep riding and was all smiles and joking as I went past, but about a mile later emotions really hit me and I almost burst into tears thinking about how lucky I was to have such a supportive spouse and friends.

Iron Man Madison Weekend

Iron Man Madison Weekend

Of course, by that point in the bike I was getting pretty emotional about a lot of things. My chain came off the front gear a couple of times—an easy fix, but annoying, and then the front gear started be very fussy about shifting into that lowest gear. With the three most difficult hills late in the loop, I had plenty of time on my second loop, when I was already getting sore and tired, just worrying about what would happen if I stopped being able to shift into that gear at all. I was yelling at the bike a lot at the bottom of each hill.

But somehow, it kept just barely working and I slow-and-steadied my way up all the hills. That was another oddly-proud moment for me—I never had to walk my bike up a hill.

And more than yelling at the bike, I started talking to myself as well. I had to keep reminding myself to “bike smart”—reminding myself to get down on the aerobars whenever I could and so on. I was singing little nonsense songs to myself and all sorts of things.

The party had died down considerably on the hard hills by my second loop (I later saw many of the same partiers along the marathon route, so it wasn’t that they were going home, but just heading to support the athletes at the next stage of the race) but after I crested that third hill I was able to do some math and knew that as long as I just kept moving at a reasonable pace, I’d make it in under the cut-off. The remainder of the loop and the “stick” back into Madison is mostly downhill. In the last 10 miles I kept finding myself at the bottom of hills still in a very low gear and I’d just spin for a while to rest up. The last two miles of the course are very flat and easy and then just right the very end, you have to ascend the Helix again. It’s not really that hard, but it just feels a little cruel.

I finished the 112 mile bike ride in 7:48:06 at 4:55 pm, beating the bike cut-off by 35 minutes.

Run

I was in and out of transition pretty quickly. I knew that I had 7 hours to run the marathon and that seemed so entirely possible that at that moment I felt like I had already finished. And it really is an amazing thing about triathlons that although my biking muscles were just about completely spent, as soon as I was on my feet and jogging, I felt like I had just started the day.

Iron Man Madison Weekend

I’ve heard of crazy things like people setting a PR in the marathon during an Ironman, because they’re so well trained at that point, and for a few minutes I thought about trying to push ahead at a strong pace. But then I remembered that my number one goal was to finish and it would be dumb to jeopardize that goal by pushing too hard. There are lots of little hills on the marathon course as well and so I settled into a rhythm of walking up every hill and then jogging down and along any flats.

Lots of people are pretty spent by that point in the day, so there’s lots of walking along the marathon course. I had some nice conversations with people when we’d end up walking next to each other for a minute or two.

The marathon course is even more well-supported, both officially and not, than the bike course. It’s an out-and-back 13 mile course through downtown and the University campus, so with 14 aid stations that works out to effectively be 28 aid stations for 26 miles. I stopped often and had plenty of water, sports drink, and chicken broth, and a few snacks. And there are spectators everywhere, so there’s always someone to tell you that you’re looking great and you’re going to finish and so on. I got to see Erica and our other friends at run-out and then the turn around and because of the out-and-back nature of the route I ran into Shaun a couple of times.

Late in the day, I started to feel a little guilty about taking it so easy. Spectators would tell me I was looking good and I would think, “of course I do, I’m not pushing my hardest”. And then I passed a woman who was no longer able to stand up straight—she was seriously bent over and to the side like someone frozen mid-yoga pose, but she was determinedly walking at a good clip. She even passed Fireman Rob who was also looking pretty beat. I passed mile 22 at 10pm and realized that if I took my pace up from “determined walk” to “consistent jog” I could finish by 11pm and I decided that a 15-something-something finish time would be just a little nicer than a 16-mumble-mumble one. So I did.

Those last 4.2 miles are fortunately just a little more downhill than up (except for the very end, getting up onto the capitol hill). And I began to realize that maybe I hadn’t really been taking it easy those first 22 miles, but rather just staying in the possible. Getting up to a 12-minute/mile pace (usually my nice-easy-jog pace) was actually an effort and I’m not sure I could have sustained it for the whole thing. But I’m really glad I dug down there at the end and ran it in. Even as sensible and smart and goal-achieving as sauntering into the finish at 11:45 pm would have been, it felt more right to come in running.

And I did achieve that last-minute goal as well. I finished the marathon in 5:49:11 (only 24 minutes slower than my New Orleans time!), and completed the Ironman at 10:53 pm.

Iron Man Madison Weekend

Post-race

Everyone’s question is “are you even walking?” and the answer is “sure”. My quads were pretty beat last night and I tossed and turned a little from the soreness until I took some ibuprofen. But today Erica and I toured the New Glarus Brewery and when we got home to Chicago we walked the half mile to pick up pizza for dinner instead of having it delivered. I’ll take it easy this week, but I’ve already got a 5K scheduled for this weekend and a 10K for next weekend, to make sure I keep moving. I don’t want to lose this fitness base.

I don’t think I’ll be doing an Ironman again anytime soon—it’s just so much training—but I’m definitely doing the Chicago Triathlon and I’ll be looking at some 70.3s (half-Ironman distance) since I skipped that in my quest for the Ironman.

Official results:

Swim: 1:52:53
Bike: 7:48:06
Run: 5:49:11
T1: SWIM-TO-BIKE 14:11
T2: BIKE-TO-RUN 9:29
Overall: 15:53:50

Place in Division (M40-44): 351 / 404
Place in Sex: 1642 / 1907
Overall Place: 2146 / 2544

Way too much detail of splits and so on:

Fuzzy Gerdes Ironman details