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.
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 arms, neck and face I still managed to stay focused and positive. I felt like I was swimming strong and I just kept my mind focused on reaching the next sighting buoy instead of thinking about the distance. I exited the water at 1:10 which is not one of my better swim times but as always in Ironman, the time really only tells a small part of the story.
Transition 1 or T1 has you exit the water and run up the parking garage helix, part of what Ironman Wisconsin is famous for. The transitions here are inside the convention center. I like to keep moving through these, even though this time I took the time to put on a jersey and arm warmers for the bike because 60 degrees on the bike when you are wet is chilly! I exited the changing area carrying my shoes, made a quick stop at the porta-potty and then took off running to my bike. This race has a very long run across the top of the parking garage. My bike was right in the middle so I grabbed it and continued to run with my shoes in my hand all the way to the end before stopping to put on my shoes, it just helps to have a slightly faster transition because goodness knows it is not easy to run that far in bike shoes.
As soon as you mount the bike you have to ride back down the helix. I always try to move to the side and mount which I was able to do here but I can tell you that there were a lot of very aggressive men all trying to mount their bikes and having a hard time clipping in and cussing at each other all within this twenty foot space. Personally, I was in my happy place and not going to let their bickering bother me but I wanted to put this in my race report because this kind of behavior in a race is really uncalled for. It just puts everyone in a bad frame of mind. Think about the volunteers who have to listen to this! So if you have a tendency to be overly aggressive at races maybe you need to do some more yoga or mediation or simply work on being nice, more than you do your swim, bike or run!
Out onto the bike I took the first few miles to get in some nutrition since aside from all the lake water I drank, I had not had anything for probably close to two hours. The roads were really bumpy and everyone was trying to do the same thing I was at varying speeds. I also quickly realized that my Garmin was not picking up any power or cadence. Considering the bumps on the road and the amount of people riding close to me I really could not mess with it too much. I tried a few things and chose to let it go and focus on being safe. My choices were to risk crashing because I was messing with my computer to maybe get the power to work or to just ride within myself. I did still have heart rate and speed to work with as well as lots of years of experience so really there was no need for panic. I was out there for a long ride no matter what data I had!
Getting out of town we rode on some bike paths that were very narrow and then through a huge bumpy parking lot. We also got to ride all of this on the way back in. Certainly not my favorite part of the course but when you are in a downtown location they have to get you out to the country somehow! Once out on the open roads we did hit a few short sections of good pavement and after that we were back to bumping along. If you sense a common theme here on the bike, it was bumpy and the roads are rough. I will let it go at that. The crowds on the bike were less frequent but many people had set up huge speakers with great music at the top of hills and there were small groups of fans sprinkled throughout the loop. Wisconsin in a lollypop course; basically you ride out to the course, ride two loops and then return to town the same way you went out. Once on the loop you get out into beautiful farm country with corn stalks as far as the eye can see and rolling hills. There are even some flat sections, which unfortunately had a stiff head wind making them more challenging. By mile 30 I was into my groove but already felt the need to stop for a “nature” break. Between the cooler weather and all the water I guess I drank in the lake I utilized more outhouses than I ever have on a bike course. Normally, I take in all of my nutrition through liquid but since we trained in the heat and race day was cold by comparison, that was not working well for me. Part way through the ride I switched to eating more Clif Blok Energy Chews and slowing down how much I was drinking.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this I had a moment of tears of joy on the bike. No matter how many times I do an Ironman race I am always reminded that the challenges of getting to that start line are often more daunting than the race itself. Once I am out there and racing I feel such extreme relief and gratitude. Gratitude for having a life that has allowed me to live exceptionally and literally take the Road Less Traveled. Years ago I wanted to be fast and I put a lot of value on how I raced but now I really am out there to enjoy the experience and whatever the day might bring. I have the confidence now to know that I will finish and I don’t need to worry about a result to validate the experience.
Being in a different place with my racing is part of what allowed me to make the decision to stop when I saw a young woman (25 according to the age on her leg) stuck on the side of the road with her chain wedged between her front chain ring and her bike frame. As I got close I called to her and asked her what was wrong. When she told me she had no idea how to fix it, I stopped. Another man stopped and I asked him to assist because having some extra hands can help since it isn’t always easy to get a wedged chain out. He told me to forget it and that she would need tech support. I didn’t like his answer at all and looked at it more like a challenge. I was going to get this girl back on the road! Thankfully I used some of my favorite little tricks and she was back on her bike in just a few minutes. Maybe I lost a few places in my age group, but seriously good Karma is worth more than a place to me!
Back on the bike I was able to get lost in the memories of my early days racing Ironman and all the lessons learned over the years. An important one being to learn about your bike! I was also starting to really look forward to seeing our family who was somewhere in Verona which is the half way point on the bike. On the way there we had a few sections of tough hills to climb. They were lined with spectators cheering, playing music and wearing costumes, it was just like the Tour de France except we were all riding a lot slower! I felt great on the hills on the first loop and was able to smile and pass people all at the same time! Once in Verona my focus was finding our family. They were easy to spot as they were standing out in the open and had made us a great sign. I stopped briefly to thank them and give my little boy, Keene, a hug. Now that gave me some great energy! I was also able to find out how Brad was doing. Normally around the half way point of an Ironman is when he will catch me on the bike but with the rough swim I was worried about how he had fared. I also was thinking he might have passed me when I was in an outhouse! He was indeed gaining on me but due to the rough swim he never made his traditional pass on the bike.
The second loop of the bike was a little bit less fun than the first. Thankfully the music was still blasting at the top of many of the hills but the spectators had moved on. The hills felt a lot steeper and the head wind felt a lot stronger. When I passed mile 80 I reminded myself how back in the day I used to say “this is where the race begins” and so for old times sake I chanted the familiar words to myself but had to laugh as I did because there was no change in my pace. The bumps in the road felt like they got bigger and the saddle sore on my rump reminded me it was there with every bump of the road. This is where Ironman starts turning into Ironman, forget racing. It is where things hurt, the mind wants to play tricks on you, it gets hard and then a little harder. All of a sudden we made a turn to head back into town and an amazing thing happened; we had a tail wind and instantly my mood improved and I took off. It felt so good not to be fighting wind or hills for the last 10-12 miles of the ride. Before I knew it we were back at the helix which you have to ride back up. I finished the bike somewhere around 18 mph or a little under 6:30 which is pretty much what I would expect based on the conditions. At this point in Ironman I have gotten much more realistic in my expectations.
Transition 2 – T2 was quick and easy. I took my jersey and arm-warmers off because I was pretty sure I would stay warm enough running, another quick stop at the outhouse and off I went.
Going out on to the run course I passed about twenty people with their bikes walking next to the run exit ramp. I thought it was strange until I realized that those were all people who did not make the bike cut off and they had been driven back to the transition area. My heart went out to them.
As I got rolling with my run my only focus was just to keep my feet turning over with short, choppy little steps. Ironman isn’t about looking pretty, it is about being efficient and I was. I stayed relaxed and enjoyed all the crowds and costumes. As I approached the aid station at mile #2 they asked me what I needed and I said “lunch, I would love a Coke, some pretzels and chips” and so that was how I started off my run nutrition. I alternated Coke and water at aid stations and bananas and pretzels for my solids along with Base Salt licks starting around mile 8. Finally I finished the running buffet with some chicken broth around mile 18 and 23. Yummy! Admittedly, I did a very poor job with my pacing early on in the run. Even though I was running relatively easy and cruising along, in retrospect it was too fast for my current fitness level, I thought I might get lucky and be able to hold on to it. Of course this is Ironman and as my coach reminded me afterwards, one rarely gets lucky!
The run for this race allows you to run a lap of the University of Wisconsin stadium and along a beautiful path along the lake and then on to a college party street called State Street where there is a real party going on. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Kimberly, for her Iron spectating skills she and Keene were hanging out there. There was also a guy dressed up like Bob Ross with a sign that said “Bob Ross says “Move your Happy Little Ass”. Thanks to a great education in SC, Keene can already read and has been repeating that little phrase for the last few weeks! I attempted to stop and chat with Keene but he told me to get moving! I guess he is learning the tough love from me. The later miles of the run, after mile 18, my legs were getting really sore and here again is where Ironman gets very real. I don’t think I have ever walked as much as I did in this race but my quads were screaming and I did not have the desire to push through it. So I alternated walking really fast and running and I did this all the way to the finish line. I walked and ran with others along the way and chatted with them. I complimented people on their great tri kits and generally made sure to enjoy every moment of it. I figured Brad would be running up and passing me at any moment but unfortunately he was having a similar experience to mine and was not gaining on me on that second lap.
I managed to convince myself to run the last half-mile to the finishers shoot. It was there that a big smile crossed my face and I felt that pure joy that I have felt at every Ironman I have ever done. I am not sure if the joy comes from the relief that the race is over, or is the culmination of everything it took to get there but it is indeed a great feeling. I crossed the line in 12 hours and 31 min. When I look at the time honestly I know it isn’t overly impressive but thankfully I am not judging my worth as a person or an athlete on that alone. Being faster probably would not make me a nicer person, it is also doubtful that I would be much happier or even a better coach. Finishing what I started, living a healthy and active lifestyle and managing day to day life while training for an Ironman is what has taught me more lessons than the race itself. Race day is simply a celebration and the time on the clock is a measure of that!
*Brad finished a little over half an hour behind me, but was elated that he was able to finish. We hobbled together to collect our bikes and our bags of gear and walked back to the hotel in the pouring rain. Keene was already asleep and Kimberly was waiting for us. Brad ordered room service and had a brownie and ice cream and I had two cups of yogurt and with that our day was over.