Friday, September 21, 2012

On (to) Wisconsin: Race Report -- Ironman Wisconsin -- 9/9/12

"This is getting hard," I said to Carmel as I ran past her on State Street, the main drag connecting the Wisconsin state capital building to the University of Wisconsin. As I climbed up the hill leading around the building and to the turn-around point I knew that there was another 13.1 miles to go -- the last half of the Ironman marathon. My feet hurt, my legs were sore, and my quads and calves were starting to cramp. To top it off, I'd been fighting growing feelings of nausea for the last few miles. I told myself that this was where all the training and practice needed to pay off -- there wasn't any other option.

We'd arrived in Madison on Thursday, splitting the drive up into two days and getting into town in the early afternoon. We went straight to Monona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed civic center on the shores of Lake Monona, site of the swim. The setting was beautiful and the IM scene was already in full swing, with an expo set up inside and on the closed street outside.

Check in was efficient and thorough and I emerged with a shiny blue wristband (look -- I'm official!) and a bag full of gear from the expo. We explored State Street and enjoyed watching the non-stop bike traffic up and down the street (everybody rides a bike in Madison) while we took in a nice pasta dinner. Next was check in at The Speckled Hen Inn -- a lovely little bed-and-breakfast northeast of town.

Friday and Saturday were occupied with meeting our other guests at the inn, including a 40-something husband and wife from North Carolina, both Kona vets. She was racing -- it was his turn to play sherpa. Nice people, and very humble about the fact that they totally kick ass and take names when they race. A drive of the bike course, a short bike and run, a swim in the lake, the Welcome Dinner, a Saturday morning excursion to the Madison Farmer's Market, and bike check-in and transition bag drop offs completed the run up.

And here it was finally, the big day. After breakfast at the inn (applesauce, protein powder, and a bottle of sports drink) we drove downtown and scored a parking spot about two blocks from the Terrace.  A quick last check of the bike, body marking, then Carmel and I found a quiet corner inside to sit for a few minutes. I tried to take the opportunity to clear my head from the hype and energy all around me -- I didn't want to get too caught up in the hoopla -- and finally it was time to pull on my wetsuit, say goodbye, and walk down the parking ramp to the swim start.As I walked through the crowds of athletes and supporters I started laughing out loud. Holy s***, here I am -- I better be good!

The sun was rising over Lake Manona as I got in the water. I'd decided to beat the crowd and get in the water early. The weather looked great -- clear skies and temps forecast for the 70s. The only issue was a moderate to stiff wind from the north. I finally felt relaxed as I floated in the water, a nice change from the tension I'd felt building up over the last few days. And I was glad I gotten in the water early -- the scene on shore was crazy crowded.

Finally the gun went off and the mass of wetsuit-clad Ironfish surged forward. The music, hoopla, and cheering from the shore was replaced with the silence of the water, punctuated by a splashing maelstrom when I lifted my head to sight. I'd lined up on the inside buoys of the long rectangular course and my fears about the mass start faded quickly. There was a little battleground of bodies at each buoy, as the mass of swimmers converged and then diverged from the landmark, but the pack soon started to stretch out. I fought around the first turns with no damage worse than a punched nose and headed back up the lake past the start.

The return leg seemed to go on forever, as we had to go past the start before we finally turned for home. But the water was clear enough to find some draft packs, and I felt relaxed on the swim. My arms were tiring a bit, but I felt like the pacing was good and I had plenty of energy. After the final turns my anticipation grew as the sounds from the shore swelled, with thumping music, faint sounds of the PA announcer and cheering crowds. Finally I popped out of the water and trotted up the boat ramp, checking my watch. 1:15 -- really? That was exactly what I'd predicted. So far so good.

The scene on shore was crazy, with crowds lining the way, cheering and ringing cowbells. I could barely hear the instructions from my wetsuit strippers as I lay down and pointed my toes. Pow -- off came the wetsuit and I started jogging up the parking ramp to T1. I heard Carmel on the left and gave her a wave as I went by, then entered the building, grabbed my bag and hit the changing room, a crowded mess of dripping wet men with volunteers scurrying around to help. I took the extra time to towel off and slide on bike shorts -- no point in suffering too much on the ride -- completed my kit and jogged outside to the parking deck where our bikes were. After liberal applications of sunscreen from the volunteers I grabbed my bike from the rack and trotted down to the mount line.

As we started rolling away from town it was time to take stock and relax a little. I started my watch timer for nutrition reminders and checked out my heart rate. Though I felt relaxed and easy, the rate was high. Soon I realized it wasn't going to go down unless I got off the bike and laid under a tree, so I paid careful attention to my power numbers. I knew from experience where I needed to keep those to stay in the right zone.

Traffic was heavy on the bike course at the start. Based on the number of fast guys passing me I'd had a good swim, but I stuck to plan and went easy on the bike. It was a little hard to check my ego as I slowly spun up the hills, but I knew it was what I had to do. 16 miles in we started the first of two 40 mile loops. My drive through on Friday was useful here. I knew I'd hit a series of false flats and choppy, steep rollers, plus headwinds on the first third, then there would be some good cruising terrain as the course turned west and south, followed by a series of hills on the final third of the loop.

Soon I was in a good rhythm on the bike, taking drinks and food on schedule, keeping an eye on the power meter, just cruising along. I didn't have the speedometer up on my computer, but when I did the math at the 10-mile markers I seemed to be right on target to hit my goal for the bike.

As we rolled through the countryside, the crowds along the course grew. Every small town had a cheering contingent, and it seemed like most of the farms along the way looked at this as a great excuse for a party. The climbs on the southern leg of the loop were insane, with a Tour de France-like vibe, including tents, signs, names spray-painted and chalked on the road, and crazy fans with even more cowbells. In Verona, right at the end of the loop, they have the street blocked off with barricades like the finish chute of bike race. I flashed past Carmel as we entered and gave her a quick wave, then turned to a rider next to me and said "this is a huge slice of awesome!"

As I started the second loop the wind had picked up considerably. Bikes started bunching up as we pushed through the headwinds and I got stuck in a few inadvertent peletons, though they started to break up as we hit some climbs. By the time we hit some of the exposed ridges on the northward leg I could feel my bike getting kicked around by the wind. It was hard not to try to up the effort and push through, but I kept it dialed down, stretching my legs out on the downhills to make up some time.

Finally we finished the second loop and turned for home. So far so good -- I felt pretty fresh, though a little saddle-weary and sticky from gels, sports drink, and Honey Stinger waffles. Finally we hit 100 miles, and the Capital building came in sight to the north. We rode up the circular ramp to the parking deck and I dismounted, passing my bike to a volunteer. The bike was done.

Once more into the controlled chaos of the changing room. I changed into trishorts for the run, then grabbed my hat and made for the door. Entering the streets of Madison I hit a wall of sound, as everyone lining the streets was whooping it up for the runners. I saw Carmel once again, along with a cheering section she'd enlisted to help out, then grabbed a couple of damp sponges at the first aid stop. I sponged away the accumulated gunk and grit from the ride as I jogged along and took stock. The swim had gone well, the bike had been solid, and my legs were moving well. I just needed to keep things under control and this was going to work out well.

The first mile was around 8:45 -- too fast, so I backed off and made sure I took a walk break through each aid station. Soon I had a good rhythm going, clipping off right around 9:15 for every mile. The course looped around the State Capital bulding, down State Street, then through a series of side streets to the UW campus. After running through the football stadium, we crossed campus and eventually ended up on State Street again, heading towards the capital, until we turned and retraced our steps. It was a two-loop course, so we'd do the entire routine twice.

I saw Carmel again on the UW side of State Street, stopped and gave her a kiss (to the delight of the crowd), and turned to head back. Then I started to feel the cramps coming on in my calves and quads. Not continuous, or enough to stop me, but worrying. I fired down more electrolytes and then realized I didn't have enough for the entire race -- and I hadn't packed extras in my special needs bag either.

To get more salt, I started taking in potato chips at each aid station, washed down with a little bit of Perform or flat Coke. Now the cramps were coming frequently enough that I had to throw in short walking breaks whenever they occurred. I saw Carmel near the turn around ("This is getting hard"), and gritted my teeth. These last 13.1 were not going to be easy.

If you've raced much, you know the feeling for when it starts to get tough. And while you can't control everything about what your body does, you can make it though some pretty tough patches if you don't give up on yourself. That's where I was now. I had to fight to keep myself going -- if I gave in and just tried to finish I'd lose the will to keep competing. So I played every mind game I could. Find another runner and stay with them, or better yet, pass them. Count 50 steps, and then another 50 -- keep moving and keep counting -- lose yourself in the moment.

When the cramps were too much I'd walk for 50 steps then start again. I sipped chicken broth and flat Coke at each stop. It was pretty much the only thing that didn't make me sick. Finally I was on the last return leg of the run. I'd made up a lot of spots on the run, but I could feel a few of those slipping away as stronger competitors started passing me. But I kept on, trying to limit the damage.

As the sun started slipping behind the rooftops I finally tuned back onto State Street. Less than a mile to go now, and adrenalin took over. The crowds were lining the street as I went around the capital for the last time, and I could hear Mike Reilly baptizing today's Ironmen as they crossed the line. Once again, I started laughing out loud. I made the final turn and gave it my best effort down the chute as I high-fived the hands sticking over the barriers. A clear finish line, a classic two fists in the air salute, and I was done.

12:30:38 -- "It's a Beautiful Day" was playing over the PA. I couldn't have agreed more.


I didn't feel bad when I was done. Sore and tired, but OK. The catchers kept an eye on me for a minute or two, then I grabbed some chocolate milk at the exit to the athlete's area and found Carmel at our rendezvous point. We grabbed my gear, tossed it in the car, and headed for the Great Dane Brew Pub for a rueben, fries and a couple of cold pints of beer. The first pint was on the house -- did I mention that Madison's a great town?

Swim -- 1:15:23 -- 53/191 AG; 894/2452 OA
T1 -- ----12:01        
Bike ---- 6:35:50  - 91/191 AG; 1233/2452 OA
T2 -------5:11
Run ------4:22:14 - 41/191 AG; 674/2452 OA


53/191 50-54 AG
857/2452 OA


Barry said...

Great report! incredible race result. Did you love the course? would you recommend?

Ken said...

Thanks, Barry. I'd highly recommend IMWI. Great venue and support, solid organization, and I enjoyed the course. The IMWI bike course has a reputation for being difficult -- I didn't think it was hard, but it would be easy to override it -- you have to be very patient and disciplined. The swim was great, and the run course has a lot of variety and nice crowds.