Ironman Wisconsin Race Report

Our journey to Ironman Wisconsin started three years ago. I know by most standards that seems like an eternity but by Ironman standards it really is not. We (my husband and I) signed up as part of a group of athletes who all planned to race in 2018 but between illness, injury, life and lack of motivation maybe a quarter of those athletes actually made it to the start line in 2019.  The Ironman race is known for its difficulty (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 run) is not for the faint of heart.  Just getting to the start line is so often the biggest hurdle. Getting through the training and remaining sane; keeping your day job, caring for children, maintaining a healthy marriage and holding on to a few non-triathlete friends during this time is a balancing act that requires the agility of a tight rope walker. Ironically it wasn’t until during our race this year I had a little bit of time for reflection. The tears streamed down my face somewhere around mile 20 on the bike. I finally had a moment to just breathe and take in the beauty of the landscape, which for some unexplainable reason made me cry. We had made it.

In 2018 we had started the training for the race but my husband was not feeling well. We would do some training and then suddenly he would be met with terrible pain and fatigue. Since this was not our first time training like this we were both surprised by these random bouts of serious fatigue that would often send him to bed. He was frustrated and I was concerned and scared. Somewhere in the middle of the training we made the call to defer our Ironman Wisconsin (IM WI) entries to 2019 and spent the rest of 2018 attempting to figure out what the issue was. As of writing this we still have no definite diagnosis but we did at least find out that his heart is strong! We just needed to approach training a little differently than we used to. We adopted the adapt and adjust mentality. Mainly, I think the adjusting part refers to adjusting expectations of race day to accept where you are in health and life. I share this part of the story with you because not only did this have a huge impact on my husband but also on my prioritization of training. My husband is my favorite training partner so on days when he was not feeling well sometimes we would just go easier and sometimes I would go alone. Every time we went out for training it was a little bit of an unknown. It was out of our control. 

We have a 6 year-old (Keene), which adds another level of complexity to our training. Gone are the days of getting up early and being on the bike at first daylight and riding blissfully all day long. Sure we had a few of those this summer, thanks to an amazing sitter, but they were not that frequent.  Now rides are much less spontaneous. We ride routes that we know the distance of and know exactly how long they will take us. Paying someone to watch your child while you ride makes you value that time a LOT more. Making sure to schedule the sitter for all the important workouts each week or figuring out how to get workouts in with Keene really deserved a task line on my calendar. Getting to the track or swimming at the lake was hard enough but as I was often reminded, he was not always willing to do what I wanted to. Thankfully there were times when he blissfully biked a million laps in the park while I ran and times when he napped on the paddle board while I towed him during a swim, or he pretended to fish. Those will be forever ingrained in my mind. These are the times when I really felt I was having “winning” mothering moments. 

Then there are the “girls” as I refer to them. Most people might have a group of friends they meet with for coffee a few times a week but I have a group of five rescued dogs. Four of the girls are Weimaraners and one is some type of hunting dog mutt mix. I used to run with some of them but over the years I have found more joy (and safety) walking them in the woods each morning. We have a loop we do with two variations or sometimes we go to the lake to swim instead. Generally in the morning I prefer to get their walk and care done before I ever even start my training. Their routine is a sold hour from start to finish and needs to be done first thing when it is cooler. Of course when I am doing this Keene goes with us too. Sometimes as a willing participant and sometimes not as much, but the key is getting them all out there in the woods. Spending a little time in nature each day is good for all of us. It keeps us grounded and gives us all peace.

As I have shared up to this point there are a lot of moving pieces to my day and I have not even mentioned work. I realize many people think that the job of a triathlon coach is to swim, bike and run all day, which really could not be further from the truth. Every morning I start at my desk at 4AM. Sure it would be great to train in the morning but morning is the only time Brad has to train so I have moved my work day into this time slot which allows Keene to sleep and me to get a jump start on a productive day. I spend a lot of time answering e-mails, creating new workouts, sharing information on Facebook, updating our website and even on my least favorite task, accounting. Then towards the end of the week I work on schedules and feedback. It is a never-ending cycle and there are always more tasks to do than I can realistically complete! I do get to spend some time doing one-on-one sessions but sadly most of my coaching is from my desk.

Even as I write this it is easy to see how Ironman training can easily get lost in life. There have been many times when mine has, but this year I really worked hard to make it a priority again. Back in May I realized that I needed some help. I needed someone on my “team” to save me from myself. I needed another set of eyes on my workouts and someone to give me honest feedback. I called up my coach from 10 years ago, Jim McGehee, and asked for his help. I reminded him that I am a very different athlete now than I was then. Just as he did then, he worked with my current level of fitness. He mixed in enough encouragement to keep me going and enough challenge to keep it interesting. Sometimes I did a terrible job of following the plan and sometimes I nailed it, either way he was always understanding. He reminded me how important empathy and honesty are in coaching. I am grateful for his help and realize now more than ever how important it is to have a caring coach who not only understands you as an athlete but as a person too.

Shortly after starting to work with Coach Jim again I had an accident while riding my bike (car vs. bike). While the injuries I sustained were really minor, I was incredibly lucky to have the ability to walk away. I felt a lot of gratitude for the life I have, for the people in my life and for all the things I am able to do. You don’t always realize just how good your life is until it flashes before your eyes. It wasn’t the way I was planning to start my Ironman training but sometimes obstacles are put in our way to be overcome, they are just as much a part of the journey as the race itself.

Training for this race was about as simple as it could be. I usually only did one workout a day. Sometimes I was able to double up but let’s face it, it is just not realistic and the time usually wasn’t there so I had to keep the focus on what I could do and not, on what I couldn’t. That was something Coach Jim reminded me of a lot. I swam 1-2x a week, I biked 2-3x a week and ran usually 3x a week *If everything went as planned, which it often did not! As I like to tell anyone I coach, just because this was right for me, doesn’t mean it will be right for you. This schedule was about doing the best with the time I had available. Weekends we normally did long workouts but in July and August we had four weeks of racing back to back where we actually raced 5 races. While it was great speed work it made the longer mid-week workouts brutal since there wasn’t as much time for recovery. The racing was fun though and having FUN is an important part of the equation.

As the first week of September approached and the countdown to the race loomed I found myself more worried about how to get my work done ahead of time than I was about the race. All the details of leaving the house for a week and doing training schedules for two weeks seemed suddenly overwhelming. I also knew that I had to create some space to get my mind in the right place for this race and that was only going to happen if I could get ahead. The weekend before we left I stayed at my desk all weekend. Monday Keene did the annual Sugar Creek Kid’s Triathlon and then we packed and cleaned the house at warp speed and were on the road by five!  We split the trip into two days of driving.  Day two we arrived in Wisconsin Rapids to spend a few days with Brad’s family before going to Madison.  It was a good start to acclimating to the cooler weather and just a nice to take part in a few days of very low key activity. We walked and ran around Lake Wauzeecha with Keene on his bike which was really relaxing since there is a nice safe walking path all the way around the lake (4 miles). We headed to Madison on Thursday for check in and Keene chose to stay with his cousins for a few days, which allowed us to get all race gear organized before he arrived. While this might not sound like a big deal, it really was because when you are packing all your things for an Ironman you really don’t want to forget anything important. This also allowed us to go for a swim on the course together first thing in the morning. The water was like glass and swimming felt easy. We were ready!

Friday evening we met up with Kimberly (Brad’s Sister) who Keene was with and cousins Kylie and Kole for dinner. Saturday morning we dropped our bikes off and swim to bike and bike to run bags and were all done with our tasks for the day! The goal was to be in bed by 8:30. Brad was able to make it, but I was a little later.

Sunday we were up at 4:30 so that we were able to eat breakfast and make our way to transition in a very relaxed manner. On race morning we dropped off the Special Needs bags for the bike and the run. These are the bags that you are allowed to pick up at the halfway point of each segment. I always use the one for the bike so that I can grab my bottles of nutrition for the second lap. Then we put our nutrition on our bikes, computer on the bikes and check tires and then proceed to squeeze into our wetsuits, which is last bit of prep needed to get the party started. One step I missed during this was actually turning on my computer to make sure it was connected to my power and cadence.  This was a rookie mistake that simply would test my mental focus later in the race.

All smiles before the race. I am grateful I get to share my love of racing with my husband!

On the line up for the swim start you are supposed to self-seed, meaning you find a big flag with about the time you expect to swim on it and line up there. The way they had the shoot organized it was very difficult to get to where you needed to be unless you were lined up accordingly BEFORE going into it. Unfortunately, I did not realize this until I was in it. I basically said “excuse me” to about 200 people in order to move up to the hour swimmers. Everyone was very happy to let me through except for one woman who stuck her elbows out in an attempt not to let me pass. She told me that it would be impossible to move up. Since I was in my happy place I let her rudeness pass without comment. Karma has a way of taking care of people like that and at the beginning of an Ironman the last thing anyone needs is bad Karma! I arrived where I needed to be just as Mike Reilly was getting everyone pumped up for the start. We took off heading towards the water with a good luck high-five from Mike and the race was on!

The way the races start now they usually release 5 or so athletes every 10 seconds so it is very civilized and you have lots of room. Gone are the days of battling it out with a thousand other athletes just to find your room to swim. I was able to run into the water and start swimming. The air temperature was probably close to 60 degrees and the water was closer to 70, so it actually felt good! I found my groove quickly and was amazed at how good the new Roka wetsuit felt. For the first time in years I did not mind swimming in a wetsuit, which says a lot about the new technology. As we made our way along the shore of the lake I was feeling really fast, almost as if someone was pushing me along. At first I wanted to give credit to the great drafting that was going on but then I realized that we had gentle rolling waves pushing us from behind. I was really enjoying the free speed until we made the first turn to head out further into the lake. At Wisconsin you swim a huge rectangle more or less and enter and exit from about the middle of the long side. As we made the turn the waves started to get bigger and stronger and were no longer providing assistance and the further out we went, the worse they got. Now the waves were coming so big that you could only sight when you were on top of them. The group I was swimming with split apart and when we came together it was usually with a crash as the waves would slam us all together since we had moved more to hip drafting in groups of 3-4 people. The waves would move me inside of the sighting buoys and then I would fight to move back out close to them in order to keep me on course. Somewhere in the middle of this very long stretch I lost all my drafting friends because it was just impossible to keep track of them with the chop. The safety kayakers and SUP’s were paddling like mad just to hold their positions. I later heard that many of them ended up falling in the lake because of the wind and chop. Sometimes when I would breathe I would get a huge mouthful of water, even though I was constantly changing breathing sides to try to avoid the waves. While the waves were defeating, and the lake grass would frequently wrap around my arm