Trying to think of how to start this race report is almost impossible. Where do you begin when you accomplish this goal, something that was 2 years (but in a way, actually 15 years) in the making? Do you start when you signed up for the race, when you started training, when you toed the start line? How many decisions did you make along you way that brought you to this spot, this one moment, that's finally yours? And how do you even begin to try to capture that kind of moment in words? This sounds ridiculous, but I actually remember reading race reports from the Ironman I spectated back in 2006, back when blogging was popular, and thinking, wow, maybe one day I'll get to write one of these. Honestly, I kind of can't believe that now I'm actually writing this? It's maybe not the exact same as a childhood dream, but to sit here and be the person that I dreamed of being 15 years ago is truly incredible. I knew about Ironman Wisconsin before I knew about Boston, before I really even knew about marathons or road racing or any of the other things I've done and loved over the years. It's always been special to me before I ever had any inkling that it was something I could actually achieve, and maybe that's why this whole weekend just felt so emotional and special. I know blogging is dead but I hope that maybe someone somewhere will google "Ironman Wisconsin Race Report" and read this novel and feel the emotion and the power of doing this thing, just like I did, and maybe they'll do this crazy thing someday too. So, with that in mind, I'll do my best.
Since the day I stood in the rain spectating IMWI in 2006, I knew I wanted to do it someday. I've talked about this before - I was utterly drawn in from the very start. But as with so many things, it got put on the back burner for a long time. I learned and grew as a runner, finished grad school, moved to Boston, and over the years gave little thought to coming back to triathlon...until, in 2015, my coworker finished her first Ironman at IMWI. That little kernel of spark inside me flared once again. I remember being so enthralled hearing about her training, the race, wanting to soak it all in, but when push came to shove I just didn't feel ready to tackle it myself. But little by little, that spark became a flame. Finally, in 2019, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for a half iron tri, thinking that if I liked that, then maybe I would sign up for a full. Not only did I like it - I LOVED it - and I wasn't bad at it to boot. The race was on Sunday; when Ironman Wisconsin registration opened on Monday, I pulled the trigger. 2020 was going to be the year.
Of course, we all know how 2020 turned out.
So I did a solo Ironman, which was truly amazing and gave me the confidence that I could do the distance, but still lacked what I had always been truly dreaming of which was so specifically Ironman Wisconsin. The run up the helix in transition, the 3 bitch hills on the bike course, the run through campus and Camp Randall, the finish at the capitol - it was all those things, not solely the Ironman in and of itself, that I'd had on a pedestal in my mind. But 2021 was finally going to be the year. And so I trained. I knew I wanted to get stronger on the bike so I rode my ass off, rode hills, really tried to put in the work on the bike. I didn't follow a plan, didn't have a coach (these are things that multiple people have told me is shocking/unusual?) but knew what putting in the work felt like, and I did, all with the goal of getting to have the Ironman Wisconsin experience that I'd always dreamed of. The race is moving to June next year (and it seems its future is unclear after that), so this could truly be my last chance to have that EXACT Ironman I dreamed of. I wanted to soak in every moment, and to really make it count, while also hopefully performing the way I knew that I was capable of. And, if you want to skip the extremely long story I'll tell you this: I did all that, and then some.
SO, we begin with the leadup to the race. I spent my entire Labor Day packing, making lists upon lists, and putting everything in its individual bags for each transition, special needs, etc. When all was said and done I had an entire carry on suitcase filled ONLY with things for the tri, in addition to a large suitcase full of normal life stuff. Packing was also the first time that it really kind of dawned on me that the race was actually happening, and this was all real. When you're so deep into training that all you can see is the next workout in front of you, it's almost easy to forget what you're even doing it FOR; the end result just seems impossibly far away. But here I was, actually making a checklist and a spectator guide for the actual Ironman that I was actually going to do.
We flew out Thursday morning to Milwaukee; it was an absolute delight when I was aimlessly letting my eyes wander around the terminal while waiting to board when they spotted a guy in an Ironman shirt...it was my training buddy, John! He's an experienced triathlete and his guidance has been invaluable throughout this training cycle (my other newbie Ironman friend and I call him our "triathlon dad") and being on the same flight just felt like good vibes to begin the weekend. I had also elected to splurge on first class tickets due to a combination of COVID (not wanting to have to sit next to some rando who wouldn't wear a mask) and just feeling like I should give myself the experience haha, but it turned out to be pretty great - the more attentive service during the flight meant I did a much better job of staying hydrated than I otherwise would, and having the extra legroom to stretch out was also very helpful. I also got to watch the 5K fun run episode of the Office, which also felt like a perfect way to pass the time. We had a brief layover in Detroit, and then boarded our short puddle jumper and arrived in Milwaukee on time with zero travel issues. Leg one, check!
We spent the rest of the day bopping around with my mom in Tosa, which was actually really a nice way to relax and take my mind off some of the nerves. I went for a run in my old stomping grounds, which I haven't done in ages, and we hit up a local beer garden on a really beautiful night. At the beer garden we happened to run into a high school friend of my sister's and her husband, and my mom started making small talk with them. As it turned out, her husband had done IMWI 3 times! He asked how I felt about the race, and I had mentioned that I was nervous about the bike. "Oh, the bike is the best part," he said. "It's so much fun. The fans are so crazy you hardly even notice the hills." FUN! That was really just exactly what I needed to hear. Just another perfect development at just the right moment. We cooked out at my childhood house, had maybe a couple more beers than was strictly necessary, and ended the night by interpretively reading aloud form some of my childhood journals...definitely entertaining, and almost made me forget what the weekend ahead would bring.
Friday was a beautiful day, and we headed up to Madison so that I could get through athlete check in relatively early. As soon as the capitol came into view, I felt the nerves and emotion start to build. Was I really here? Was this real life? Friends and family weren't allowed in athlete check in so I was flying solo as I walked towards Monona Terrace, and at long last, under the arch that read "Ironman Village". (If we're keeping score here of times I cried during the weekend: #1!). We wound our way through Monona Terrace, stopping at various checkpoints along the way. I spastically offered one volunteer my MBTA Charlie Card instead of my ID (lol), I was given my chip, and then I made my way downstairs to number pick up.
Here is one of the ridiculous things I have such a vivid memory of when I was a student: walking around downtown and seeing the Ironman athletes with their wristbands that denote an athlete competing in the race, and thinking "holy shit, they look like just a normal person walking around but they are doing an IRONMAN tomorrow". So, as you can imagine, having the volunteer putting one on my wrist and suddenly being a person with a wristband, a person who is doing an Ironman this weekend, was a lot. I rode up the escalator to the "expo" area basically just staring at my arm, wanting to pinch myself. It's real. It's real. It's really real.
I wandered around the store and basically bought anything that caught my eye with no regard for how much it might cost...yolo, am I right? Then I went up to the top of the terrace and took a few pictures, looking out at the lake again just in disbelief that I was finally here, the swim buoys were really going up, that this was all really happening. I think because of everything in the past 2 years with COVID, and then recently with Delta becoming more of a concern, all the way up until the race weekend I just had this underlying anxiety that something was going to happen - it was going to get cancelled, Andrew was going to get sick - and that it wouldn't happen. So I truly spent the entire weekend just lost in a sea of gratitude and joy that it WAS happening. This wasn't a dream, it was real.
I "invited" aka forced my mom to take me on a driving tour of the bike course, not because that's a totally necessary thing to do (everyone told me it wasn't), but because I needed to see the damn thing for myself to decide if my anxieties about the course were founded or not. I haven't been writing a ton on here in training, but to say that I was nervous about the Wisconsin bike course would be an extreme understatement. ALL I had heard was that it was super hilly, unrelenting, never gave you much back in the downhill, and involved a ton of turns. John and Gwen had both reassured me that it was a course that would most likely play to my strengths as a cyclists (strong climber, not a strong descender, mediocre on the flats) but I just....didn't believe them? Driving the course was somewhat stressful in itself as I essentially had to be a human GPS through a zillion turns while also trying to pay attention to the course, aka the whole point of the drive. I definitely had a sense of which sections of the course were going to be more challenging for me, especially in the second loop. Finally, we arrived at the "3 Bitches", aka the 3 fabled hills of the Wisconsin course. I have known about these hills since 2006, when I went on an adventure googling race reports after the race because I was just desperate to know more about this nutty thing people were doing right in my backyard. We went up the first, Old Sauk Pass. ....that was it? OK, the next one is supposed to be the steeper one. We drove up Timber Lane. ...that was it? Then there's a long reprieve with some downhill before the last bitch on Midtown Road. OK...I guess I can see how this one might pack a little punch...but....that was it?? My mom was looking at me like I was crazy as I basically laughed out loud. Finally, I believed what everyone had told me: I trained in the big hills of New England and the mountains of New Hampshire. The hills of Wisconsin didn't need to scare me.
Back in Madison, we hit up Lucille, a great local pizza place, for lunch, where I continued my carb loading with some pepperoni and mushroom pizza and a gose from local brewery Young Blood. It was a beautiful day for eating outdoors, and while I still had a bunch of items to check off my list I felt my anxiety subsiding. We got checked into the hotel, and then I headed off to go pick up my bike from TriBike transport and go out for a shakeout ride. Unfortunately, after walking almost all the way down to the lake path, I realized I'd forgotten my pedals (which they don't ship with the bike) and had to go back and get them. First of SO MANY walks from the hotel around the capitol square, check. It worked out OK in the end, because on my way back across the square I crossed paths with an older woman who was also racing. I helped direct her to check in and we made small talk - she had done several Ironmans, and I told her this was my first, and I was just so excited that it was finally happening. "Oh, I can tell!" she said. "You seem like you're so happy to be here!" We wished each other luck and parted ways, and I went off to be reunited with Bahamut!! It had been over a week since I'd dropped him off, and I was so happy to see him again. My little 2014 road bike, sitting in a rack full of fancy tri bikes, and I couldn't care less - I was so happy to have my bike back. The guy got my pedals on and off I went for a little 40 minute shakeout ride! I wasn't exactly sure where I should go but my internal GPS ended up sending me off to the perfect place - a bike path where I used to do long runs, leading to the Madison arb. It was such a perfect little ride, complete with views of Monona Terrace, a little gear check on the hill climbing back up to the capitol, and finding a heads up penny on the ground on the square while waiting at a light!
I got Bahamut back into the hotel room and then began the process of transferring all of my stuff for the race from my prepacked bags to the official race bags. Obviously this required MORE checklists, double checking, and eventually a trip out to Walgreens to pick up the miscellaneous food items I still needed (combos, teddy grahams, and a candy bar....#nutrition #so professional lol). It definitely took longer than expected but I eventually felt like I had my life somewhat together, and it was getting late so we needed to find dinner. As you'd expect it was not exactly EASY to locate some pasta on a Friday night in a college town that is hosting an Ironman, but we ended up snagging a table at Cento and it was delicious. Great bread, octopus. an incredibly rich and delicious pasta with short rib, and sorbet to end the evening (oh and a spritz and a Spotted Cow...in case you were wondering if I am a teetotaler before races that is a hard NOPE.) Full and happy, we wandered back to the hotel and fell asleep to the bass of the "Mad Lit" event occurring on State Street (LOL), Bahamut snuggled up by the wall next to the bed. Just a girl and her two men hahaha. It was actually a little strange, because Friday felt SO much like the day right before a race that it was almost hard to believe that the ACTUAL day before the race was still to come.
Saturday was a pretty full day as well, beginning with a quick stroll around the early hours of the Capitol farmer's market. I bought some cheese (duh); felt like I should probably buy something to eat but the nervous stomach feeling was in full force by this point, making it really hard to WANT to eat. I then headed down to the swim start to do a quick 20 minute shakeout swim. All I could think as I was swimming was "this lake has GOOD vibes". It's not the most crystal clear lake, it may smell fishy at points, but the water was cool and smooth and the view back to Monona Terrace was glorious. I swam out to the 3rd buoy and then paused, just floating, gazing at the terrace and envisioning it full of people the next day. Swimming has been such an unexpected joy for me in this whole triathlon thing - sometimes the logistics of it are a pain in the ass, but I really do feel absolutely peaceful and happy in the water (we will revisit why this is a VERY good thing when we get to race day!) I was reluctant to leave the calm, lovely water on such a beautiful day but alas, swimming for an hour the day before a race is generally frowned upon. I mean, I think it is, anyway. It's not like I'm following anyone's rules or advice, so who even knows! 😂
Andrew headed off to go meet up with his sister at the botanical garden, and I headed back to the hotel (think we are now at walk #6 around the capitol) to change and head out for a shakeout run. On the way, I ran across the IronKids race going on around the square, and HAD to stop and clap for the little kids...it was the cutest thing. They were all BEAMING as we cheered them on around the capitol - except for the couple who were crying, haha - but it was just really really sweet.
The 20 minute shakeout run is one of my favorite prerace traditions - I'm sure it does nothing either for or against my race performance, but there is something so joyful about spending 20 minutes running, always listening to a playlist of songs that have come to represent the training cycle, and just thinking about all of the work that's gone into the race the next day. It always puts me in a really good place mentally and eases some of the anxiety (even if John was like "who told you to run today? Aren't we supposed to be resting?" Uhh...my coach told me...aka myself lol). I ran down State Street and onto the Lakeshore path, envisioning how I'd feel there the next day. I was grinning as I ran back up towards the hotel, feeling like I held this secret - today, I look like just another runner, but tomorrow, I will be an Ironman.
Back to the hotel again, and then BACK to the terrace for bike and gear bag check in. I got really anxious during this part of the day just because there were so many moving parts and I felt like I had to rush for some reason (I did not). I found my bike rack spot, which I actually LOVED - it was right under one of two pedestrian bridges, so easy to locate in the heat of the moment, plus sheltered from any overnight rain that might show up! As always, when I walk through transition with Bahamut, my elderly road bike, and I look around at all the $6000+ triathlon bikes with their disc wheels and fancy hydration systems, I get a little bit of impostor syndrome, but I think that the work I've put in on the bike this summer is finally paying off in confidence if nothing else, because as I walked along the parking lot of Monona Terrace instead of having doubts about whether I belonged here, my overwhelming feeling was: I DO belong, and I can't wait to show these people on their fancy bikes what these legs on a roadie can do.
With Bahamut safely racked for the night, I proceeded to get my bike and run transition bags checked in, making note of where they were in the lines of thousands of bags, and then I decided to do a walk through of the swim to bike transition. It's a LONG journey from the beach up the helix and through transition, but knowing the lay of the land once again helped ease my nerves. FINALLY, I was done with all of the race day logistics. I went to Ancora to grab an iced coffee, then bought a massive scone and a bag of cheese curds at the farmer's marked and proceeded to spend the next hour or so sitting in the shade on the capitol lawn, people watching and browsing the internet. I wouldn't say I was able to TOTALLY achieve relaxation, but it was good to be off my feet and know that everything was in its right place for the next day.
I reconvened with Andrew back at the hotel and we then headed to the prerace briefing which mostly included information I already knew, but was still good to hear again. I also got BIT BY ANTS while sitting on a curb listening...like, the people on the bleachers across from me were probably like why is that girl putting her hands in her pants as I reached up my shorts and flung out a fire ant that was biting my butt...like what even lol. For lunch we went back to Ancora (we're now on walk around the capitol #10 or 11 lol). Turkey club and some breakfast potatoes hit the spot! Again, I was at that point of nerves where eating did not sound good at all, so I kept just trying to find things that sounded very appealing and making myself eat them because I knew I needed to be loading up on carbs as much as possible, and definitely did not want to be undereating 2 days out from the race. I was also trying to stay hydrated particularly because it hit nearly 90 degrees in Madison on Saturday - I was SO GRATEFUL that the race was on Sunday!!
Now we were ACTUALLY done with all of the logistical stuff, so we headed back to the hotel to chill for awhile. I attempted to read but unsurprisingly just ended up meandering around on the internet while some random college football played in the background. We had actually arranged to meet up with Andrew's family at his aunt's house for a spaghetti dinner (per my request of course) which was REALLY lovely - I got to meet our nephew who just turned 1 and see some of his family who I haven't seen in ages. It worked like a charm to make me forget about what I was doing the next day - amazing how making small talk with the in laws will do that! In all seriousness I love Andrew's family, and the meal was delicious, even including homemade sourdough bread and fantastic brownies for dessert. Everyone was obviously asking me about the race with varying levels of knowledge ranging from one aunt who may or may not have known what an Ironman was to my brother in law who works for Trek and most DEFINITELY knows. But we were able to talk about other things too (and of course the baby stole the show, as babies always do), and all in all it was an extremely enjoyable way to spend a pre-race eve...definitely far superior to trying to hunt down a restaurant! I think I'm team air bnb/find a way to cook your own prerace meal for life after this year.
We headed back to the hotel around 7 and there wasn't much left to do but wait. We turned on the Badger game, I drank my customary prerace beer (Working Draft Brewing Future Tense, definitely a good choice), painted my nails, and read over my race plan one last time. The lights of the capitol glowed outside the window as I shut the lights off at 9:30. One more sleep until Iron Day.
4:30 am. The guitar riff of Thunderstruck starts to play. I may have used it as the reception entry song at my wedding, yes, but to me this song will always signify one thing: Race Day. Or today: Iron Day. I always wait for the last THUNDER before the verse begins to get out of bed, and then I was up, trying to take stock of all the things that needed to happen in the next hour before leaving for transition. And...I was almost immediately thrown into a tailspin, because my legs felt AWFUL. My right anterior tib was sore, my calves felt tight, but more than that my legs just felt shaky and weak. I was way too hungry. Fuck. Key decision number one of the day: actively choosing not to freak out about this. I held down my panic, ate a banana, quickly got dressed in my base layer of tri shorts and sports bra and my morning warm clothes, and went down to the lobby, where the Madison Concourse was absolutely AMAZING and had a breakfast bar going from 3:30 on to cater to the athletes...like, seriously, how wonderful is that? I got my bagel and iced coffee and made my way back up to the room, all the while sort of shaking my legs and just wondering what I could do to make them feel less bad.
By the time I got back to the room Andrew was rustling around, so I felt less bad about putting on my playlist of power songs while I braided my hair and began the monumental task of forcing a dry bagel with cream cheese gradually down my throat. The music and the calories definitely unlocked a bit of the nerves coiled around my stomach, and I had a little dance party to "good for u" (don't ask how that became a power song, we're not gonna worry about it). It was fine, it was fine, it was fine. Race braid done, bags checked and double checked, I still had a few more moments before we needed to leave and I decided that before I walked out into this morning, into this Iron day, I needed to take a moment to remind myself what I was really doing here. I put my legs up the wall, closed my eyes, and listed to this track - I don't know whether to call it a song or a poem or an inspirational speech or what - and took myself to the place I needed to go. It's something that since the first time I heard it has always immediately feel this sense of: I'm doing something big. This is real. I've made it. The thing about time, is that it comes and goes. Tomorrow will make today a distant memory, and as quick as you were here, you'll be gone. All it took was the opening bars, the opening words, and I felt tears welling up behind my eyes. What's in front of you is an opportunity to make right now something you'll never forget. Right now. Today. Today is the day. Gone are the insecurities, the doubt, the disbelief...this day is YOURS. Today, I was going to be the person that my 19 year old self had looked at with awe and a little bit of longing. I was going to be Iron. This is your day. It will not disappear with time; it will live on. You have EARNED today - go make sure the world knows. You have EARNED today. I whispered it again, like an echo, like a prayer. To even be in a place to toe the start line of an Ironman is something you earn, through training and learning and sweat and exhaustion, through figuring out how the hell to use gears on a bike and weeping during a trainer ride, convinced you can't go on, through running up mountains in the humidity of summer and telling your coworkers, no, you can't actually go to happy hour, because you have training to do. And it's not only you - it's those same coworkers, your friends, your training partners, your family - the ones who put up with you when you have nothing left to give outside of your pursuit of this quest that they may or may not even understand. You have EARNED today. When I opened my eyes again, I felt ready to face whatever the day would bring.
We walked out of the hotel into the quiet of the morning, hazy and still. The air was like a blanket, dashing any hopes I had for a fall-like morning, and certainly not decreasing the anxiety I was already feeling. But the glow of the capitol was a comforting presence, beckoning towards the starting line. I dropped off my special needs bags in the designated area and it was onward into the village, into transition, and into the overwhelming flurry of activity that awaits on race morning. This was the largest triathlon I've ever done by a factor of about 10, and the utter chaos of Monona Terrace at 5:45 am on Iron morning was enough to be fairly overwhelming. Athletes, their fans and supporters, race volunteers and officials roamed everywhere under the glow of the parking lot lights, the sound of thousands of people asking where they were going or wishing each other luck or cursing out loud wondering where they put that other bag of chews loud enough to sound like a dull roar. The anxiety coiled in my stomach threatened to consume me. "Stay here, I'm going to do my shit." I practically threw my wetsuit bag at Andrew and ran away into the scrum, trying to find somewhere where I could just breathe for a second. I got my bottles loaded onto Bahamut, pumped up the tires (a note: I literally know nothing about what tire pressures should be but I had someone tell me 100 was too high and I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that slightly lower pressure was better on rough roads SO I went with something like 92 and let me tell you it worked like a charm) and gave him a little good luck pat, then made several trips back and forth to my bike and run bags to unwrap my nutrition (missed several, as we'll see), fill bottles, and remind myself of where the bags were located. Shockingly given my level of nerves I only used the porta potty once and I will say it was the shortest porta potty line I've waited in at any race, ever...perks of literally unlimited opportunities to pee during the first hour of the race, I guess?
I eventually realized that checking and double checking and procrastinating wasn't actually helping my anxiety at all, so I made my way back to Andrew just in time to hear an exchange between to athletes nearby: "How ya feelin'?" "Like I want to VOMIT". Could I ever relate to the second girl. The anxiety ball in my stomach was taking me for a ride. OK, I just needed to do something. Action overcomes anxiety, or however the saying goes. I threw some different stuff into Andrew's arms before leading him gamely down the helix, like a pet goat or something. (Seriously, I need to take a moment to say that my husband is a saint and a hero. That man has kept me sane and fed throughout this entire training nonsense and then spent the entire weekend following me around, catering to my whims no matter how ridiculous, and keeping my head on my shoulders when it was threatening to go whirling away into the stratosphere. Andrew, I love you.)
Up until this point my primary emotion had just been fear? anxiety? nerves? But as we walked down the helix and I looked over the mass of athletes streaming towards the start line, the sun just starting to rise, I felt a welling of something else. It dawned on me why the mass of humans at transition had been so jarring: this was by FAR the largest event of any type I'd been at since March of 2020, and we were all here doing this race. We had all put in the work to make it here, to this starting line and this moment, despite what undoubtably had been a challenging past 2 years for every single person there. Each and every person at that start line had a story and a reason to be here, and we were going to start this race, this utterly impossible ridiculous thing, together.
Maybe that was the stimulus for the fact that when I reached the bottom of the helix and there was a volunteer yelling that friends and family could not go any further, that it was athletes only beyond this point, and I realized that I had to leave Andrew and ACTUALLY GO DO AN IRONMAN, I very abruptly BURST INTO TEARS. It was surprising hahaha. Like the good husband he is, Andrew gave me a hug and then patted me on the back with a little shooing motion. "Go! Go do the thing!" I relinquished my gear bag, took a deep breath, and then stepped out of the parking ramp and into the sea of athletes.
I knew I needed to fuel a bit more in addition to my customary Gu for a race of this length, so I ate most of a Skratch rice krispie bar. I no longer had water, which was unfortunate - note to self, bring a disposable bottle for the future! Oh well. The corrals were already getting packed and I decided that with 20 minutes to go until the cannon it probably made sense to just get in there and find a spot. I had to make my way in from the back, all the way up to somewhere that I presumed was around 1:20. In fact, some guy next to me asked "Is this 1:20?" and I kind of shrugged and was like, I don't know, that's where I'm seeding myself so hope so! I scooted through trying to find people who looked like they would swim like me. There were SO few women - I felt like a total outlier in the sea of green caps! Ladies, where are you, and why is more than 2/3 of this race men?
I had the bottom of my wetsuit on but had been waiting to put the top on because it was honestly muggy out (like 70 and humid at the start) and I didn't feel like sweating inside the suit was a great way to warm up for the race. About 6:35 I decided it was probably time to suit up, checking multiple times to make sure the sleeves were pulled up as high as they could go since I never seem to get the right one on correctly and it makes my shoulder feel like crap. It's so rare for me to do a race completely on my own, and everyone near me seemed to be with friends or training partners - it was weird to feel lonely standing in the middle of 2000 people! Finally, I decided to befriend the 50 something men standing near me (the eternal racing partners of the age grouper 30 something female lol). They were very nice, especially when I mentioned it was my first full, which was extremely helpful because as the minutes ticked down I was starting to feel more and more like I was going to collapse into a puddle of anxiety, only a wetsuit and goggles left behind.
There were some prerace announcements, with Mike Reilly asking "Who's gonna be an Ironman today?" with an absolute roar in response, and then came the national anthem. And oh my. I've explained how I feel about the national anthem at races, especially post COVID. There's just something special about the calm and the quiet and the possibility that moment holds. 1900 of us stood there on the cusp of an Ironman, and the anthem began - one singer at first. And then gradually: more and more voices add on, quietly at first, and then louder, until there are 1900 athletes singing together, standing together, here and having the opportunity to do this thing together, and I was crying then and I'm crying now because it was just breathtakingly beautiful. There was such an unspoken bond between us that in this moment was tangible. We were here. We got to do this. Together. I was so unbelievably grateful, for this moment, for all of the moments that brought me here, and the moments that would make up the rest of this magic day.
I wasn't the only one wiping my eyes as the anthem concluded, chiding myself that I needed to stop crying because I needed to put on my goggles and crying in my goggles was not going to help with my sighting. And then: BOOM! The cannon fired (first Mount Washington and now this, do all of my favorite races start with cannons?) and the pack began to move. The race start was a rolling start so I figured I had a few minutes before I'd actually cross the line. As we started to shuffle forward I was aimlessly scanning around and suddenly laid eyes on my MOM in the crowd! I managed to catch her eye and gave a big grin and a waver before continuing onward. Closer and closer we came. The sound system was playing "Best Day of My Life" as I crossed under the first arch, somehow obtaining not one but TWO fist bumps from Mike Reilly. That's gotta be good luck, right? The closer I got to the water the more the anxiety and fear and emotion was replaced by straight up joy and excitement. We were shuffled into 5 gates and every few seconds the beep would sound and another group would go off. Closer, closer, finally - here I was, at the water's edge, a few steps from the start of my Ironman journey. Beep...beep...beep....GO! I charged into the water, whooping, arms up like I was at some kind of aquatic party. I dove into the water, and my Ironman began.
Swim: 1:16:09 (1:47/100yd) - 17th AG, 127th woman, 507th OA
As always, I love the feeling when I first dive into the water and all the sounds, music, announcements, and the roar of the crows fade away, replaced by the sound of the water surrounding me. The water temp was beautiful, 72 on race morning, so there was really no shock to the system when I dove in. Initially, things didn't seem too bad from a crowding perspective and I was thrilled to see that the sun was remaining behind the clouds as I swam towards the first turn buoy. The sun part would remain throughout the swim...the crowding part would change shortly.
At the first turn, I popped out of the water to sight and to MOO which is apparently a thing that you do at this race...but I was very disappointed because no one around me moo'd? So I just let out this super awkward, quiet "moo." and then laughed and got around the buoy and into the first straightaway and THAT is where the adventure began. I was prepared for a physical swim; I knew this was going to be the biggest race I'd swam in by a large margin and I knew there was going to be contact. Well, it was EVERYTHING I imagined it would be and then some! I had worn my nose clip to try to avoid getting congested later in the day; that got kicked off my face and sent to the bottom of Lake Monona within the first 5 minutes. Throughout the first straight I was kicked in the head twice, slapped/grabbed more times than I care to count, and every time I sighted I seemed to find myself stuck behind a line of 3 people swimming in tight formation with no space to get through. The good news was that I'm pretty much the chillest swimmer out there, and while I felt a great deal of annoyance with the woman randomly butterfly kicking in my face, or the man whose windmill arms seemed to be constantly in contact with my body, I had zero sense of panic or anxiety or anything of that sort. I just wanted to get the eff out of there so I could swim my dang swim! And so every time I got caught behind a pack of people, I just tried to find an opening, or go around, or whatever, while still trying to maintain a straight line on the buoys. At about 500 yd I had to stop briefly to defog my goggles - this always seems to happen right at the start of the swim, but once I suck it up and defog them they're fine for the rest, which was again the case today. I was almost laughing at the contact, singing Dua Lipa's "let's get physical" in my head.
My first 500 buzzed on my watch and I decided to sneak a peek even though I swore I wouldn't, because I was really curious about how the crowd was impacting my pace. As you might imagine, I was SHOCKED to see a 7:55 there, which, for those of you keeping score at home, is the fastest I have EVER swam 500 yd. I would realize shortly that we definitely had something of a tailwind on the way out and a headwind on the way back, but still, it was wild. My confidence was bolstered and I laughed to myself about how apparently my desire to get away from the crowd actually helps me in the swim because I swim faster just to get away!
As we approached the arches just before the next turn buoy, something else slapped me in the face...in fact, wrapped itself around my face is probably more accurate, because I was now swimming through some kind of mat of water plants and it was not pleasant! At one point a piece of sea grass wrapped itself around my arm and as I flung it away during a stroke I became convinced I had just flung my wedding ring into the lake (I wear my wedding band, which is very replaceable, but not my engagement band, which is not, when I swim). Bits of weeds were wrapping themselves around my goggles, getting in my mouth, tangling with my fingers...I felt like some kind of sea witch. Honestly give me people slapping me over unanticipated plants entwining with my body any day of the week lol.
I made my way through the short stretch at the end of the loop and made the turn to head back to the start for the second loop. This was where it became fairly obvious that we'd had some wind assistance on the way out, because all of a sudden there was a lot more chop in the water. I was still trying to manage the crowds although on this side of the lake I ended up further to the outside, so it ended up feeling more like "people in my way" than actual contact. I had read that people say you should 'find some feet' to follow and I guess draft, but I must have started slower than what I ended up swimming because I could not for the life of me find feet to follow that I wasn't almost immediately being kicked by/swimming on top of. I eventually stopped trying and recognized that I just needed to swim my own swim and get out of the crowds as much as I could. One thing that made me laugh during this stretch was that I was sighting every 15 or so strokes, which is more than usual but I was just trying not to run into people and didn't want to get too far off the buoy line. Usually when I'm swimming I just fall into the mental pattern of counting to 15, sight, do it again, but I kept zoning out for a second and then just picking back up at a completely random number...so it would be like "13, 14, 15...sight...28, 29, 30..." Just utterly unhelpful, but the good news was I wasn't swimming randomly off the course, which I'm proud of!
I could tell I had slowed down on the second half of the loop, but assumed that with the balance between some fast splits and slower ones I was probably right around my typical swim pace (spoiler alert: I was.) We made the turn into the short stretch before the turn out to the second loop, and this section was CHAOS. I had really thought that I was going to get some clear water until we made that turn, at which point the following things happened in the span of about 3 minutes: I was kicked in the head twice, someone kicked or slapped my wrist hard enough to take a split on my Garmin, someone kicked me right in the knee which made me kick awkwardly and get a cramp in my right calf. At that point I was like GET ME OUT OF HERE! I think I actually popped out of the water and yelled DAMN it! on that last one. Once I got around the turn I tried to pick up the pace heading back on the out stretch to try to escape whatever fuckery was going on and it actually sort of worked. I found some semi-open water for a little while. I also swam directly into a buoy (YAY SWIMMING IN A STRAIGHT LINE!) which was a little disorienting but I will take over most of the other contact I had. Luckily the calf cramp eased up quickly; I think in a wetsuit I can really be pretty lazy about my kicking if I want to, which allowed me to kind of shake it out for a couple of minutes and get me back in it.
We went under the arches again; thankfully the kelp forest seemed to have dissipated by this point. After the relatively clear water of the long stretch out to the turn, it was rather unpleasant to once again get super bunched up around the buoy and into the short stretch. MEN, I am calling you out, because it was almost entirely green caps doing this...can you not swim directly into me? Can you control your limbs when you're making a turn? Or maybe can you not seed yourself 10 minutes faster than you're actually going to swim so you're not clogging the turns? That was my thought process at this moment haha.
And yet, I love the damn swim, so during the last stretch back towards the finish I actually got a little sad that soon I was going to have to get out of the water and GET ON MY BIKE (gasp). Despite all of the contact and crowding and general chaos, I just feel like when I get in the water I know exactly what I'll be able to do, and having that consistency to start off the race is really wonderful for me. All the nerves I feel at the start line are quite literally washed away when I get in the water, and even when it feels a bit like a washing machine I always feel calm when I'm swimming. There's a distinct possibility that this means I should be swimming a bit harder, but I think in the grand scheme of a 12 hour race, an extra 2 or 3 minutes faster on the swim at the cost of fatigue probably isn't worth it at this point in my career.
As I was counting down the buoys to go and realized I was within a few hundred yards of the finish, I looked at my watch and saw a 1:04. Oh shit! I was going to swim like 1:15?? I was convinced that with the crowding and my history of poor sighting that I would have been happy with going under 1:20. That gave me a boost through the last bit. Sort of hilariously the only time I went really off course all day was right near the finish buoys, when I nearly swam right into the left one, but then I was through and shortly after that my hands were grazing the bottom of the lake, and it was time to stand up and run out. I always stop my watch when I stop swimming to get a true "swimming" time (my official time is usually longer with the standing and running into/out of the water), and was SHOCKED to actually see a 1:15 there. My fastest swim ever, and in an Ironman?! This was definitely a cause for celebration.
Normally when I come out of swim I feel like my heart rate is in the stratosphere somewhere and it's all I can do to walk to transition, let alone jog, but for some reason that was not the case. Maybe it was the excitement of a well executed swim, maybe it was the adrenaline of swimming in a maze of arms and legs for over an hour, but I was HYPED. Normal people would probably just get out of the water and move along with their day but I ran out of the water with my arms up, grinning from ear to ear, whooping at the volunteers. What? This was FUN!
I jogged along the bank, having not yet made any moves to get rid of my swim cap or wetsuit, and realized I didn't actually have a plan for those things. Everyone made a big deal of there not being wetsuit strippers this year due to COVID, but having never actually experienced wetsuit strippers I was sort of like...so where DO I take off my wetsuit? Thankfully, I saw a few athletes around me pulling over before the helix and pulling their wetsuits off, and I decided that seemed like a good idea. My wetsuit came off SO EASILY (still have no idea WTF I was doing at White Mountains) and with it over my arm I started running up the helix.
The helix!! This is one of the parts of Ironman Wisconsin that has always lived in my mind as legendary. I had heard so much about it, and now here I was, an athlete, running up that legendary parking ramp. It was completely lined with screaming fans, and I was LIVING it. "Electric" was the word that popped into my head as I ran, beaming, up the spirals. I high fived some people, I slapped a kid's "Tap here for power" sign, I waved my arms in the air...it was my party and all these people were invited to it. I've felt similarly at Boston, where the crowd just lifts you up and makes you feel like you are the most amazing, the best, the person that they are ALL here to see. The energy of that crowd cheering you victorious from the swim and into the longest leg of the race was just a game changer, and if I already hadn't been riding a high after that swim they certainly would have taken me there.
If I'm looking for things to critique about my race or where I could have saved a minute or two, this is DEFINITELY one of them. I feel like I didn't really have a solid plan for exactly how I was going to approach transition because of the bag situation, etc, and I definitely felt like there were a few moments where I was just standing there not sure what to do next. The volunteers were absolutely AMAZING - a volunteer came up to me (I wish I could remember her name - she was an older woman and she was lovely) and asked "can I help you with anything?" Me, again completely unprepared for this, was unhelpfully like..."um...I don't know?" Clearly this wasn't her first rodeo because she immediately was like "OK, I'll put your swim stuff back in here while you put your stuff on, do you need me to put any of these things in your pockets? Can I put this sunscreen back in?" It was so cool and all I could do was babble "OMG you are amazing, thank you SO much, that's perfect, wow did I mention how awesome you are? Wow this is AWESOME?" I got my socks and bike shoes on and put on my tri top - I had gone back and forth about changing shorts but decided it wasn't worth it, definitely the right move - and then randomly slapped some sunscreen on my arms. It's a good thing it wasn't really sunny, because it was the most half-assed sunscreen application of my life lol. Better than nothing?
"My" volunteer went off to help someone else, I realized I probably should hit the porta potty quickly if I didn't want to pee on my bike, and I then realized that I had missed a couple of pieces of food in my opening spree in the morning and I couldn't get them open with wet/sunscreen hands (definitely lost 30-60 seconds here). I stood blankly for a second because I needed this food and I didn't want to deal with opening it on the bike, and then my dumb brain realized that I was SURROUNDED by volunteers who apparently were there solely to be angels sent from above. I asked a random volunteer if she could open my clif bar and my chews, which she happily did. I double checked that I had everything, then threw my bag in the bag corner and ran off into the parking structure to find Bahamut.
My rack was close to T1, so it was a short jog to my bike and then a loooong jog to the bike out. Running in bike shoes with a bike is very awkward and I almost wiped out twice but somehow managed to save it. "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift was playing in the transition area and I thought how fitting...right now this bike course is a blank space, a blank slate waiting to be written. POETIC, right? I grinned at the spectators but also felt a little trepidation as I jogged through the racks of bikes. I had been nervous about this bike for months. From day one, it was the only part of this race that ever scared me. And now, it was finally here.
Bahamut (named for the Final Fantasy X aeon, if you're wondering) is not a fancy bike. He's a 2014 Jamis Ventura, aluminum frame, 9 speed, basic components. His back wheel bearings are worn out beyond the point of repair and he has 4 season tires that were absolutely not built for speed. But he's mine. He's the bike that I've become a cyclist on, and he's the bike I bought and said "I'm going to do an Ironman on this bike someday." That day was today. And as I ran towards that line, I put my trust in my bike and in my legs, in every single hill and mountain that I had climbed in the past months and years with this bike underneath me, and I trusted that together we would get through the race we were always meant to do together. I got to the mount line and swung my leg up onto my little dragon bike. "Bahamut, let's ride!" I said. And I rode under the arch and onto the helix, and into the most joyous, magical, perfect 113.5 miles of my life.
Bike: 6:34:28 (17.3 mph) - 21st AG, 88th woman, 618th OA
I'm going to try to write about the bike in excruciating detail, because I wish I could go back and live that 6 and a half hours over and over again. How else can I describe the fact that the thing about the race that I was so nervous about, that I was convinced was going to be so hard, so awful, that I was going to have to fight for, turned out to be the most joyous part of the whole thing? Sure, you could argue that I could have ridden faster - I've certainly thought about that now, that I probably shouldn't have had quite SO much energy to enjoy the bike as much as I did if I were really racing. But, at what cost? I LOVED this bike, every mile, every hill, every spectator, everything. I wouldn't trade the joy that I felt radiating through every cell within me as I rode for any number of minutes off my time. If I had to summarize the bike in 3 words, it would be these: it was magic.
Once I mounted my bike and began gliding down the helix, somehow the doubts and disbelief and worries that I'd had about riding began to melt away. The day was an open book, I'd had a fantastic swim, and I was ready for this. One thing I did before the race that I really liked was write the names of hills I'd climbed throughout training on the bottles that I carried with me on the bike, so I had those hills 'with' me, reminding me of the work that I had put in to get here. I was smiling as soon as I hit the helix and I don't think the smile left my face for the next 6.5 hours.
The bike course begins with a sort of obnoxious section as you get out of the city; I was prepared to keep it slow and controlled and actually I found it to be a nice way to ease into the ride. You couldn't ride fast unless you were an idiot - between the hairpin turns, narrow bike path, and less than optimal roads, there was nothing to do but chill out, get your head on straight for 20 minutes, and wait to get to the real action. I saw Andrew and his mom within the first few minutes and screamed at Andrew about my swim - "I swam 1:15! AHH!" lol. Already within the first 3 or 4 miles, I saw multiple bottle cages/bottles that had been jettisoned onto the road. With my road setup I ended up deciding against a back water bottle cage, which was already seeming to be a smart idea given the road conditions. It was quiet as we headed out of downtown, everyone clearly in their heads and preparing for the day to come.
Despite having driven the course the day before, with all the turns I had no great sense of direction as to where we were on the course at any given time. The first real hill comes up fast, and definitely wakes you up - in fact, I think I turned to someone next to me at the top of the hill and said "well, I'm awake!" That got a laugh. It was still early. Because I have zero confidence in my biking, I assumed I'd be constantly being passed throughout the ride, but overall throughout the day I was really happy to discover that that would not be the case! Still, in the beginning there were definitely a few people who had probably come out of the water just a couple of minutes behind me who went blowing by. I almost started laughing because I had told Andrew that I just needed to remind myself that I'd see those people again on the run (as far as I can tell, I almost entirely would/did). And the perfect song popped into my head...the Miley Cyrus classic...I can't wait, to see you again... Now if you've read a triathlon race report of mine before, you'll know that those words were NOT just in my head but were actually sung aloud...because when I'm happy on my bike I'm totally unable to stay inside my own head.
I was surprised and a little horrified to see at least 3 people already off to the side of the road with flats within the first several miles. The roads didn't seem THAT bad, and I knew I had the equipment and (sort of) skills to fix a flat if I had to, but I really didn't want that to be a part of my day. I tried to reassure myself that they almost certainly were not riding on 4 season tires and just carried on. All I could do was ride - if I worried about flats all day, that was never going to help me.
Soon we were on Whalen Rd, the last section of the "stick" part of the course before we headed into the loop. Here some smaller rollers began in earnest, but from the get go my confidence was boosted with every single hill, because not only did they seem not that large or steep compared to what I'm used to riding, I was consistently making tons of passes every time the course would start to climb. At some point my mom appeared on the corner of a random road! I was so not expecting to actually see her on the bike, so that was really exciting. We passed by a lovely field where horses were grazing, cornfields off to the other side. It was so idyllic, so classically Wisconsin, and so hard to believe that we were barely 10 miles outside of the state capitol. Sure, it was a little warmer than I might have ideally liked, but there was pretty good cloud cover and all in all it was a beautiful morning. Annnnd so logically I decided to sing myself another little song, this time choosing the glorious classic "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" from the musical Oklahoma. And the lyrics just seemed apt: oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day...I've got a beautiful feelin', everything's going my way. I tried to temper my excitement; it was still so early, there were still so many hills I hadn't even experienced yet. But I think already I knew somewhere deep down that this day was meant to be mine.
At some point I realized that we've made some turns and were now into the loop portion of the course, which you do twice. I had broken the loop down in my head into sections: little rollers, annoying false flat, Mount Horeb (aka "Mount Horrible" climb), BIG rollers aka the section I expected to hate the most on the second loop, flat section/rest break, 3 bitches, party time in Verona. The "little" rollers section passed uneventfully. I'd been worried about feeling crowded or being stressed about not drafting, but while there were always other riders around it was pretty comfortable spacing and pacing wise, and I always felt able to pass appropriately if I needed to. I tried to exchange pleasantries with other athletes, mainly as I passed them on climbs (most of the people who were passing me - and I have to say they were mostly men - were totally SILENT, not even an on your left. IDK.) I briefly chatted with a girl who I bonded with because we were both runners by background "just trying to get through the bike". At one point I passed a girl whose cycling kit I loved - "On your left, I LOVE your top!" As I guess you'd expect with the overall makeup of the race, I was mainly surrounded by men so when I'd find a little pack of women it was great - we were typically riding at similar speeds and throughout the day I definitely did a lot of leapfrogging with people as I kind of anticipated being a strong climber/weak descender type of person.
My goal for the first loop was really to just stay calm and relax, not screw up my eating, and have a good time, and so far so good. My nutrition plan may need a couple of tweaks, as we'll see later, but overall I think I did a pretty good job. I ate half a clif bar as soon as I got on my bike, and then was munching on 3 clif chomps every 20-30 minutes, with more "real" food every 90 minutes...this varied and was mostly based on what I wanted, but ended up being clif bar, teddy grahams, and combos. I did manage to squirt half a clif bar out of the wrapper and onto the road when I tried to eat the second half of it but that was my only food casualty of the day, so we'll call that a win. I was kind of enjoying just randomly going into my pocket for a sleeve of chews and being like ooh, what flavor will we come out with this time?
After some smaller hills, a couple of which were a little punchy but nothing major, we rode into the section I had dubbed "annoying false flat". God, I hate false flats. There's nothing more obnoxious than thinking you should be riding faster than you are and then realizing you can't because you're going uphill. But thankfully, the first section of AFF took place on a BRAND NEW paved road, by far the smoothest road we'd ride on all day. I couldn't resist just shouting, "oh, it's like BUTTAH" as I made the turn. Honestly, anyone riding in my vicinity must have either been annoyed or entertained by me throughout this race. I just spent so much time shouting and whooping and singing and just generally being extra, but I was just LOVING it. I find it very interesting that the part of triathlon that I feel like I'm the worst at/intimidates me the most/I feel like I need to work the hardest at (aka the bike) is also the part of triathlon where in a race scenario my heart just about blows out of my chest with happiness. All throughout the race as I pedaled in aero with this giant shit eating grin on my face, I found myself wondering, "why does no one seem to be having any fun? This is SO FUCKING FUN!" Is that the price you have to pay to become serious? Because if so, count me out of being a serious triathlete. I want to ride hard, I want to be my best, but why would I ever pass up the opportunity to feel as happy as I did out on that course?
This section went on awhile. The road was nice but honestly at a certain point I was almost like....OK can I have some more hills? I want some real hills, not this false flat crap! What have I become...anyway, after awhile, my wish was granted. We started up some kind of hill that ran under a highway. The grade was nothing crazy, and while I was definitely needing to put in more effort I felt like I was completely under control. Still smiling, still having a blast, still yelling and whooping at pretty much every spectator I saw. In fact, I didn't stop doing this all day. I'll point out some specific spectator moments as I go along, but basically every time I saw humans I screamed at them. I think I shouted GO PACK GO at people in Packers apparel at least 20 times....sometimes I just yelled WOOOOOOO!...the spectators out at Wisconsin make you feel like you're a star, and I was absolutely committed to taking that spotlight and running with it. So we continued up the hill, chugging along, I'm still smiling, and after a bit I started to wonder if in fact this was the infamous "Mount Horrible". If so, I was VERY excited, because this hill fell firmly into the Not That Bad category in my mind. So I decided to turn to a girl that I was in the process of passing and say "Gosh, I don't even know where we are on the course right now! Are we getting close to Mount Horeb?" The girl, who I don't think was my biggest fan at the time (fair lol), replied tersely: "This is Mount Horeb. The MOUNT part." I somehow managed to control my word vomit long enough to prevent myself from saying "Oh, this is IT? This isn't so bad!" and I think instead settled for "Oh, sweet, yeah!" Internally though, I was pumped. THIS was the climb that people went on and on about as being the worst outside of the 3 bitches? Let's just pause here for a moment and discuss how I have discovered that while I may not be the absolute fastest cyclist, I LOVE to climb - something that I truly find to be the most bizarre piece of myself that I've discovered in this whole triathlon journey to date. There is something about conquering a hill that is so powerful, and as I powered up past the sign welcoming us to Mount Horeb, I suspected that in spite of all of my anxieties and fears, this bike course and I were going to get along very well indeed.
After the climb into Mount Horeb there's a short break as you ride through the city itself. An old college teammate of mine had said she'd be volunteering at the aid station there. While I prefer to carry my own fluids/nutrition and only stopped at special needs on the second loop, I was looking for her as I cruised on the outside of the aid station, hyping up the volunteers. Again: every time I went through an aid station? No, I don't want your water or Gatorade or whatever, I but I am going to scream at you and tell you how AWESOME you are because the volunteers at this race? Absolutely the best volunteers I've ever encountered. The energy was SO high, they seemed to know exactly what we needed as athletes, and honestly, after the last year and a half, I'm sure it wasn't easy to get enough people out there to man these aid stations. My cheers and thank yous were 100% genuine, but it was kind of fun because I could tell they were not used to hearing quite that level of enthusiasm, and definitely seemed to get a kick otu of it. While I didn't actually see Inga, I heard a voice yell "Go Audrey!" and I assumed that had to be her (it was).
Mount Horeb really gave me a boost, which I knew I would need because we were heading into the section that I had decided would probably be the most challenging section of the day for me: the big, open rollers of Witte and Garfoot Rds. At some point before we turned towards this section, there was a cluster of spectators dressed in pink and holding lawn flamingos, with shirts that identified them as Derrick's Flock. Well, Derrick, I have no idea who you are, but let me tell you that your friends and family? I felt like they were MY friends and family! I saw these people at least 8 times during the day between the bike and run - I don't know if there were multiple groups or if they have teleportation powers or what - and maybe it was my energy or maybe they recognized me after my first round of screaming and waving my arms at them, but I swear to God these people cheered me on like I was a member of their family. So if I remember correctly, this was my first encounter with the Flock, which was another fantastic boost as I got ready to tackle the Big Rollers.
I feel like I'm getting some pieces of the course a little mixed up, but all I know is that you come out of the town and up a minor hill, and then you make this left turn and everything is wide open; all you can see in front of you is what looks like a roller coaster ride of rolling hills as far as the eye can see. This is the legendary Witte Road. And then you drop into those rollers, and suddenly, if you're me, you wonder what in the hell you were ever so worried about, because this is literally a roller coaster ride, and you are swooping and diving and then gearing down and climbing and then cresting and falling and all the while you are smiling, smiling, smiling because this is better than any roller coaster could ever possibly be. As per my typical pattern, each time we started to climb I would make a bunch of passes, many of whom would repeat the pass on the downhills, and rinse, repeat. But I honestly couldn't have cared less about what was going on around me - I was in this wide open country, riding the waves, this stunning ribbon of road ahead of me, my trusty bike underneath me, and I was just so unspeakably happy.
This road goes on longer than you might think, and those rollers do start to wear a little bit, but even by the time we got to the last big one, where you do my least favorite thing and do an obnoxious climb around a turn, I still felt like I had plenty of juice left in the legs. Good, the little voice in the back of my head whispered, I know you're having fun, but you do realize this is only mile 35 of 112, right? Yeah, yeah, little voice of reason, step off. I went through a little systems check: my legs, per usual, had felt a little wonky coming out of the swim but had settled in nicely. I was happy with my fueling scheme, I didn't feel hungry or overly full, and I felt like I was drinking to thirst. One minor problem I WAS having was the fact that my Skratch just tasted like the water in it was...off somehow. Looking back filling up my water from the hotel sink was a dumb idea, because the water did NOT taste good and it was making drinking much more of a hassle than I would have liked, but I just kept putting my college shot taking skills into practice and throwing it back without regard for how it tasted. Madison memories, am I right?
As the rolling section came to an end, we finally made a turn onto Garfoot Rd which leads into a pretty intense, winding downhill. For some reason I felt really unprepared for this downhill, and I also was basically alone riding through the twists and turns, to the point where I got scared for a second that I'd somehow gone off course (though that seemed completely impossible.) My fears were unfounded when suddenly at least 6 men came absolutely BLASTING by me in aero...OK, so there ARE other people around! Phew. I let them pass, as we headed into the next section which I thought of as the "flat" section of the course. There were a couple of awkward railroad crossings as we went through the town of Cross Plains, but mainly you were on a pretty dull, flat road - honestly, not the worst thing in the world at this point in the race. The spectators thinned out through this section, but there were lots of COWS, and let me tell you I said hi to each and every one. Again, I'd love to know what the people around me were thinking at this point - we're all pretty serious, everything is quiet, and then there's this girl just yelling HI COWS!!! It was truly idyllic Wisconsin - silos, fields, cows, winding country roads - exactly what I'd imagined when I pictured this course. Because there was a break from the hills, it was kind of enjoyable to get in aero and just roll for awhile. I got a little bored, so I started singing "The Thong Song"...as you do...was definitely cackling to myself as some guy passed me just as I was singing out loud "ooh, that ass so scandalous..." LOL. At some point out here I also heard a weird sound, which I initially thought was someone's bike but turned out to be a flock of sandhill cranes! They make really weird honking noises...and no, I don't take a day off from birdwatching even when I'm in the midst of an Ironman lol.
I knew at the end of this flattish section it was going to be time to see what the 3 bitches were all about, and quite honestly I was EXCITED to get out of this boring section and get back to the climbing. And soon enough, we were taking the turn onto Old Sauk Pass, the first of the 3 major climbs. This is the longest one; it starts pretty tame and then ramps up a bit as you get closer to the top. On the flat stretch approaching the hill, I started to sing yet again. A song popped into my head that just felt fitting for the moment, given these hills' moniker of the 3 bitches: Rock This Bitch from the Ben Folds Live album. Tell you what I'm gonna do...Iiiiii'm gonna rock this bitch....I'm gonna ro-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hack this motherfu&king....beyotch. I grinned. I was SO READY to conquer this hill. As we pedaled onto the road, one of the only really forested sections of the course, it was almost eerily quiet as we started the climb. Only the sounds of breath and the whir of gears and that pleasant sound of wheels on road broke the quiet. "It's so quiet!" I remarked helpfully to a man laboring up the hill next to me. "Won't be for long," he said. And sure enough, as we continued to climb, you started to hear a muffled roar - it reminded me of Wellesley at Boston, where you can sort of hear the sound from far away and then all of a sudden you're in it.
The climb itself was a hill, sure, but nothing remarkable in the context of hills I've climbed before. But the spectators - how could I not have a giant grin on my face as I climbed when there is a woman banging on a drum and singing some kind of chant/rap about putting the pedal to the metal? When there are people screaming at you and willing you on, when there are cowbells and drums and music playing from somewhere and chalk on the road and dogs and kids and all of them are just telling you how powerful you are, how amazing, how strong? I was beaming, I was passing people, I was joyous. "B1 round 1, DONE!" I exclaimed as I crested the hill and enjoyed the descent. The next hill, Timber Lane, comes up quickly. It almost made me laugh, because in my opinion it is SO similar to this hill I ride basically every week: short, steep, and yes, bitchy. It's a rude hill but it's over quickly, and the rudeness was definitely tempered once again by the amazing spectators, including one hilarious pair of women dressed as a taco and a waffle screaming "YOU WANT SOME OF THIS?!" Again, I never found the hills to be a source of stress on this course - in fact they were actually the opposite, a challenge, a chance to prove my worth, and an opportunity to outclimb the men surrounding me on their multithousand dollar tri bikes, which I did with a smile. I think it was on this hill when a spectator yelled at me "Now THAT'S how you climb a hill!" as I basically laughed my way up the steepest incline I'd face all day.
There's a bit of a reprieve after Timber before you have to tackle Midtown; some smaller rollers but some flat sections as well. The scenery is more classic rolling fields and farms, along with the randomness of a bubbler shaped like a lion head. The crowds remained pretty thick throughout this stretch, and it felt good to just keep rolling over the rollers. There's a pretty steep downhill that rolls into a lefthand turn; this was the one that I'd heard about before the race so I was pretty cautious descending, especially since for some reason the 70.3 course merged in right before the bottom of the hill (that seemed like a pretty bad decision to have the races merge at the point where it seemed like people were most likely to crash all day? But what do I know). And then quickly enough, the final bitch, Midtown, was upon us.
Midtown was definitely the most legitimate of the 3 hills - not as long as Old Sauk, but steeper and definitely more of a grind. BUT, the fans on Midtown were absolutely out of control. I had read somewhere that the crowds on the hills make you feel like you're in the Tour de France, and I seriously understood what they meant. It was just a blur of cowbells and music and screaming; a guy in full fireman gear running up the hill next to a rider, cheering them on, tents and horns and chalk on the road and here I am again, just smiling my way to the top of the hill, whooping it up and taking every second in. I let out a cross between a guffaw and a yelp at the guy sitting in a lawn chair dressed as a creepy clown with a sign that read "Free Hugs". I waved my arms at the people in tents at the top of the hill, this wall of sound and cowbells and horns, and maybe I imagined it, but maybe there was a vuzuvala. I knew I could do this again. "Fuck yeah!" I shouted to no one as I crested the hill. The hardest part of loop one was over, and all I had to do was do it all again.
Again, I somehow was under the impression that there are literally NO breaks from the hills on the Wisconsin course, which is simply not true. After the 3rd bitch, there is an absolutely delightful section which is mostly flat/downhill and involves the absolute PARTY that is Verona before you head out into the second loop. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed this just as much as I'd enjoyed the previous 3 hours. There's one section where the full road is actually closed, and you just get to ride through the middle of what feels like thousands of people. I was dancing on my bike, waving my arms, just loving every second. It's hard to even find the words to describe all of these moments out there on the bike course, moments when the infectious energy of the crowds just felt like it had been shot straight into my veins, moments when I felt like the most tired muscles in my body were in my face from smiling so much, moments when I would look at someone's sign or something motivational written in chalk on the ground and remember that it was there for me, because I was doing a freaking Ironman, and was that not the coolest damn thing in the world? Like something out of my wildest dreams, but I'm not dreaming; this is real. This day is happening, and just like I wanted to, I am soaking in every single moment.
Soon enough I reached the turn into the second loop; it seemed almost unbelievable that I was already 56 miles into the bike! I had purposely been paying no attention to my bike computer all day - in fact, I had my settings so that all I could see was total time, distance, and elevation gain, purposely leaving pace off the screen (and if you think I have the equipment to give me data on power or cadence...all I have to say is go back and read the rest of this race report and see if I sound like a person who cares about power or cadence, lol). But I did do a quick calculation at the halfway point just to get a ballpark sense of where I was at, and realizing that I was riding nearly 17.5 mph was...shocking? Enlightening? I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised - I tend to default to right around 17 mph while riding, and I was "racing" (whatever that means in the longest triathlon of your life), but I had been totally convinced that this course is SO HARD if I can even ride 16.5 mph I'll be happy. Seriously, the juxtaposition between my anxieties about this course and the bike before the race and my actual feelings while riding it...I have never been so delighted to be wrong in my life. I really wanted to save something for the run, so I figured I was just going to stick with what had been working on loop one as I headed into loop two. Even effort, keep it fun, keep eating, let's ride. Ready, set, go.
I was getting excited/nervous for special needs, aka the one time I would need to stop on this ride. Because I carried all of my own fuel, I had planned this one stop to refill my bottles and grab my "big food" (aka a giant baggie of Combos) for the second half. I was pretty excited to have some water that didn't taste so unpleasant, and of course Combos are always an exciting time. The whole process was seamless - a volunteer at the start of the area called my number on a megaphone down to the person who was in my area of numbers, who then grabbed the bag and had it ready for me by the time I arrived. Just amazing! I thanked my volunteer and got to work refilling my bottles. This is DEFINITELY something that I screwed up due to lack of experience, and now know what to do in the future. I had bought just Poland Spring bottles from Walgreens, which I then dumped into my existing water bottles. But WHY - I should have just started with water bottles I could toss, and then just grabbed the new bottles at special needs. The time it took to dump the water in felt like an ETERNITY, and I was getting impatient with needing to stand there stopped. So impatient, in fact, that I decided to abandon my plan to try to dump new electrolyte mix in the bottles and just get the hell out of dodge. This may have been a mistake, as I definitely struggled with dehydration later in the run, but I also doubled down on my salt tabs in the second half of the bike to make up for any missing electrolytes, so who knows. Either way, after what was probably less than 90 seconds but felt like an hour, I decided I had enough damn water and I needed to get rolling. And then I was off into loop 2!
Now that I'd ridden the course once, it was a lot easier to break it up in my head into the sections I described above. Little rollers, annoying false flat, Mt. Horeb, big rollers, actual flat, 3 bitches, Verona party. Easy, right? As I took off out of special needs I was laughing to myself as I attempted to shove my apparently excessively large bag of Combos into my bike bag. It 100% did not fit, and I ended up riding the rest of the bike with the top of the baggie flapping out of the top tube bag...#notaero.
In the small rollers section I became friends with an Ironworx girl who I would play leapfrog with for quite awhile. As we've established is the story of my life, I would pass her on the uphills, she would pass me on the downhills, and so on. At one point there is a short but nasty little hill that comes right after a right hand turn. I found myself next to her on this hill and made some comment like "well, it's loop 2, so every hill we climb right now is a hill we NEVER have to climb again!" She sort of laughed, and asked me where I was from. I told her Boston, and she said that she was from Madison, and so rode these hills in training all the time and would definitely ride them again. My asshole competitive brain gloated. Well, I ride even BIGGER hills all the time, that's why I'm passing you every time we climb one. Yes, in the midst of all this fun I was having, we can't forget that I do have just a bit of a competitive chip on my shoulder after all. The real fact of the matter was, we were basically riding the same pace, I was just constantly making up for the downhill on the uphill - to the point where after like the 5th time I passed on a hill I actually apologized. "Sorry, I feel like I'm being SO annoying right now!" She laughed, but I felt like maybe it was time to finally put some distance between us so I surged a little bit to try to end the leapfrog game. I definitely lost her for awhile but think she may have caught back up in the end - then again, there were a LOT of people in Ironworx jerseys out there, so it may have been someone else, who knows?
At the top of one of the hills in the smaller roller section was one of my favorite spectator moments of the day. There was a group of people blasting some techno music, which is pretty much my favorite. For a second I thought it was one of my FAVORITE songs that I've been listening to all training cycle, so I completely freaked out and screamed "I LOVE THIS SONG!" and started dancing on my bike, only to realize it wasn't actually that song but was a DIFFERENT song that I have also really enjoyed this training cycle ("Drinking From The Bottle" lol), and so paused for a moment and then continued to just absolutely rock out on my bike as I went over the hill. It was somewhere around this time where I was starting to get some more incredulous looks from spectators, probably wondering who this weirdo was having her own private dance party in the midst of a hilly Ironman bike course. All I can say is, I was riding that course in the only way I knew how: with joy, with heart, and with the wonder that comes with trying something new and seeing what happens.
We hit the smooth like buttah/annoying false flat section, which I think I enjoyed more the second time around because I realized what it was all about. I got into aero and found a nice, steady rhythm and just cruised for awhile. The sun had come out for a bit during the second half of the first loop, to the point where I was nervous that it was going to start feeling hot, but in fact my weather-related concerns were starting to go in a different direction as the skies were starting to get rather dark and brooding, and the wind had definitely kicked a notch above "calm". We were getting into the section of the course that I'd predicted I would hate the second time around; it was a pleasant surprise to find that while there were moments where I felt like I was grinding a little bit, I was still perfectly content to be on my bike.
Now that I knew the landmarks I didn't have to ask any stupid questions as we hit Mount Horrible, round 2, which was probably a blessing because it was becoming clear that the hills were starting to take their toll on. And maybe this means that I could have ridden harder but....I was still having a great time? The changes in grade and constant switching gears was keeping me super engaged and entertained, and really just added to the allure of the whole thing. The crowds were still going nuts, and I was still 100% on board the party train. As I reached the top of the hill where there's a sign that says "Welcome to Mount Horeb", I felt myself smile even wider. "Is this supposed to be this much FUN?!" I shouted to no one, or maybe to the guy next to me, who gave me an incredulous stare. I don't know, is it? It's so hard for me to reconcile with myself how hard I know that this thing that I was doing was, and how much fun I was having doing it. As I sit here now, there's a little bit of me that thinks, well, if you were having so much fun, that probably means you should have been riding harder. Which I guess you could argue, but when I look at how the run went I'd make the counterpoint that I could have blown up a whole lot worse if I hadn't ridden conservatively. Plus, to state the obvious, I wouldn't have had as much fun. And at the end of the day, the thread that has run though each and every triathlon I've done, the thing that attached itself to my heart after my first sprint and has pulled me back in each and every time I've raced since then, is the fact that when I am racing triathlon, it is so much fucking fun. Is it hard? Yes! But there is just this lightness and joy to it, that for some reason I don't think I've ever quite found in running races alone. I can think of races where I've been happy, or proud, or felt like magic in running. But...fun? No. But here, 70 miles into a 112 mile bike ride, climbing this hill that seemed to be breaking the spirits of many, my little dragon bike and me, I was honestly and truly having the time of my life.
Into Mount Horeb I rode, back through the aid station where I once again appointed myself personal hype woman for the entire volunteer squad, back through town where I felt like each and every fan was placed there just for me. I was approaching the "big rollers" section, the section that I had deemed as the one that was going to be the hardest part of the race for me. Mile 80 was the doldrums of my solo Ironman, the time when the finish just felt light years away and I all I wanted was to be off my damn bike. I sure hadn't hit that point, but just in case, I gave myself a little bribe: OK, after the big rollers section, you get to eat COMBOS! And with the excitement of a future delicious snack in my mind, I continued to ride. I was still grinning at every spectator I saw. Just before the turn onto Witte, I saw a couple both wearing Badger apparel who I'd seen several times throughout the day, and each time they'd hyped me up and commented on the fact that I was smiling. The male half of the the couple laughed in disbelief as I passed. "She's STILL smiling!" he exclaimed. "Hell yes, I am!" I yelled back as I made the turn and dove into the downhill.
The clouds, which had been steadily darkening, were now becoming downright ominous, and the wind was definitely making its presence known. It made for an arresting sight as I once again made the turn to drop into Witte Rd, the dark sky settling over the fields and creating an atmosphere that kind of felt like something out of a horror movie...maybe Signs, or Twister. But all thoughts of horror were forgotten as I flew down the first hill. I'd been more conservative on the first pass because there were more riders around and I wasn't sure about the road conditions, but on the second loop I let go of all fears and absolutely whooped into the wind like a kid riding their first roller coaster. It was glorious, it was magical, it was freedom. I've heard people describe Witte as their absolute favorite part of the course, and I think I get it now. It's not easy, sure - the rollers are big, the hills make you work, and just when you think you might get a break there always seems to be another hill to climb. But it's just a FUN road, certainly never boring, and a road that in sections really makes you feel like you can fly.
By the time we reached the end of the road, I will finally admit that the last uphill wore on me just a touch. The wind had kicked up significantly, and climbing a hill to then turn into another section of hill with a headwind blasting in your face was just...unnecessary. (Honestly, wind is always unnecessary). After catcalling a man spectating wearing a speedo before making the turn (where else but IMWI can you find a large man in a Speedo standing in a cornfield?), I had to laugh again when a guy riding next to me tuned to me and said "Gosh, you know what I could REALLY use right now? A NICE STIFF HEADWIND!" I cracked up laughing. "We're so lucky, aren't we?" I replied with a laugh. And then it was more rollers, climb, descend, climb descent, wind and air and the smell of manure, after this road you get COMBOS, climbing and passing and maybe starting to feel just the tiniest bit tired of the hills but never, never being broken by them.
While the hills weren't crushing my soul, I won't pretend I wasn't happy when we finally made the turn that led into the big blazing downhill, and without my earlier fears that I'd somehow left the course I once again took the opportunity to absolutely fly. Everyone who knows what a cautious descender I am please note: I hit 40 mph on this winding downhill stretch, and I LOVED it. Once again, I found myself simply shouting with joy into the wind. Words from the track I had listened to in the morning popped into my head: this is your everything, embrace it. I was embracing every inch of this course with open arms, letting it run through my veins and fill every cell with the joy of taking what I had earned in training, in preparation, in setting my fears aside and allowing myself this chance to soar.
With the downhill complete, it was finally time to eat my Combos! I stand by my love for Combos as a race snack, even though they are quite impractical and honestly pretty challenging to eat because of how dry the are. I felt solidarity with the cattle as I gnawed on a couple of them at a time like cud, breaking them down to nothingness so that I could actually swallow them without choking. Despite their complications they just tasted so damn good, and were a perfect reward for another well ridden stretch of Wisconsin country hills. The timing was also perfect, since I was on the flattest stretch of road we'd see for most of the day. I'd learned the hard way on a training ride this summer that Combos and uphills do not mix, and so again just kind of settled into aero, kept my effort steady, and nom nom nommed on my snack while also enjoying my water which finally did not taste like ass. Lesson learned: will NOT be filling my bottles from a hotel sink ever again!
The "flat" section actually goes on for longer than I remembered, and surprisingly given the weather forecast (but not surprisingly given the sky), it actually started to rain for awhile. It was more confusing than anything else...it was...raining? I pondered whether I should take off my sunglasses, or really do anything, and in the end just decided to ignore it and make changes if things seemed to be getting worse. It was a pretty light sprinkle, but kind of nice from a cooling perspective. I had to laugh as it seemed we were experiencing multiple days worth of weather over the course of this race. I also had thought I had this section of the course pretty well memorized, but had apparently forgotten about multiple sections of it in my head, because we kept coming up to turns and I would think "this is it, the last run up the 3 bitches", and then we would not actually be there. I think this happened at least twice where I would be really internally hyping myself up and then would have to suddenly be like...ohhh nope, just kidding, just Stagecoach Road. Also, a familiar figure came blowing by me in aero at some point in this stretch...it was John! I hadn't been sure what kit he'd be wearing, but I recognized his bike and helmet. I shouted at him but I think it was too late, laughing as he effortlessly recreated what Elise and I had seen so many times on our White Mountains ride: starting a downhill only to shortly thereafter have the little rocket that is John in aero come blasting by. Elise even made up a little song about it..."here comes the John" to the tune of "Here Comes The Sun". Did I sing it out loud? Well, of course I did!
And yet, eventually we did arrive at the turn that really did lead to Old Sauk Pass. Again, you could tell that people were starting to break. It might just be the rosy memory of the race, but I truly believe that I felt just as strong up the hills the second time through as I did on the first. There was more fatigue in my legs, sure, and I doubt I was riding quite as fast, but there was never a moment like the ones I've reached on plenty of the hills I've climbed this summer where I just think, I CAN'T climb this anymore, I just CAN'T. It was never a question, not for one second. The hill was there for the taking, it was there to be conquered, and I was going to ride up it with the strength of 3500 miles of the hills of New England. This hill was nothing, this hill was mine.
I truly wish I could remember the song/chanting that the woman on Old Sauk was STILL there singing and drumming, but it was rhythmic and had something to do with pedaling at was really the perfect thing to just groove up the hill to. I just have random flashes of memory of the spectators on this hill; of woods, of people in pink shirts but not the flock people, of a cute dog, signs, things flashing by but not really flashing because you're climbing, you're not really riding that fast, and there's actually a moment to try to take it in. Just a little further to the top of the hill and then I was over, cruising down the other side, 2 to go. Quickly on to Timber - yes it's steep, yes it's getting a little harder now, but goddamnit I'm going to smile my way up this hill because THIS is how you climb a hill! I think the road was technically open but by this point the field had opened up across the road, everyone just trying to find open pavement to buckle down and climb. Timber is truly the type of hill I refer to as "bitchy" - steep, but short, rude but something that can be easily forgotten as soon as you crest it - so it felt quite fitting that it would be one of the bitches. I was apparently also inspired to be a bitch when I elected to yell "Ann Arbor is a whore," at some spectators wearing Michigan apparel...hey, this is Badger country, alright? Into the lion bubbler section we went. I think this was the most crowded I ever felt during the whole day, and looking back I actually wonder if it was because we were starting to lap people? It seems crazy to me that I'd ever be lapping anyone, or passing anyone, or really doing any thing even relatively impressive on the bike, but here we are.
After the downhill stretch, during which I once again really enjoyed myself, I was finally on the approach to the final bitch of Midtown Rd. I knew that there were still a few more minor climbs on the stick, but essentially once I was over this hill I had made it through all the hardest parts of the bike course. And here in the leadup to this one last climb was where my happiness gave way to raw emotion. Before the race, I had put duct tape on my bottles and written the names of all kinds of different hills I'd climbed in training, in preparation for these hills that I'd been so afraid of. It only felt fitting that I carry a piece of the New England climbs that made me the cyclist I am with me on the course that had driven me to them in the first place. And as I approached the last big hill of that course that I'd been so afraid of, all I could think about was how fucking proud I was of myself. And I said a little pep talk to myself that went something like this: You have climbed so many hills in the past 2 years, so many mountains, so many days of frustration and feeling like your bike was failing you and Trapelo Road over and over and 2 hour rides after work no matter how tired you were and riding up MOUNTAINS and just telling yourself that it was all going to pay off someday. The payoff is here. It's now. It's today. It's ONE MORE HILL that you have to climb, that you have EARNED the right to climb with a smile on your face because you deserve to be here, you have trained to be here, you have EARNED TODAY. One more hill. Go get it. Tears of joy welling behind my sunglasses, with a smile on my face, joy in my heart, and those thousands of miles of hills in my legs, I gave Midtown everything. The memory of it is a blur of noise, other bikes, color, chalk, and just being within this hill and these spectators. At the very top the crowd was so close it was basically a one bike width road with spectators enfolding you and I didn't know them but they were mine, they were the guy in front of me's, they were the girl on her first lap behind me's, they were ALL of ours. Everyone on that course - the riders, the spectators, everyone - we were truly all a part of something bigger.
Cresting that last hill I felt like I could explode with the wonder of it all, and the disbelief that this thing that I had genuinely been SO worried about had turned out to be so perfect. And then, it was time to party. The stretch into Verona really felt like a celebration this time around, with the hills in the rearview and only 20 something miles until it was time to run. It was just. so. good. I could go in circles for hours trying to capture this feeling, and I know I'll never come close. Joy, magic, wonder - I've used all those words so many times throughout this novel of a race report, but truly there's no other way to describe it. I continued to go wild every time I saw a spectator, had another flyby with "The Flock", and was riding down a stretch of road where I had previously seen a lady with a creepy puppet when suddenly from the other side of the road I saw someone waving their arms and screaming...it was Brittany! Logically, I shrieked BRITTANY!!!! and waved my arms around some more. Was the reason my arms were so sore the day after the race from gripping the bars and being in aero, or for excessive celebratory arm waving? We may never know. Suitably hyped up from seeing one of my personal fans, I realized that I was approaching the split in the course where I'd turn back for home. How were we here already? Every other ride of this distance that I've ever done has felt it's length - but this had just flown by. When I got to the arrow pointing left to the finish, I joked to a volunteer "well, guess I'll skip the 3rd loop for today" and headed left back into the stick, only 15 miles to go!
Based on how I've described the second loop it would probably be easy to forget that I was actually in fact in a race, with other people around, and quite frankly I hadn't been bothered by that fact either. Aside from the hills, the other thing I'd been anxious about with the bike was biking around a lot of other people, being stressed about drafting, and being passed a ton. As it turned out, none of those things were really factors. Everyone was riding relatively close together but I never felt stuck behind anyone, and I got passed much less frequently than I anticipated. I think the race is long enough that it eventually kind of shook out that you were riding around people of similar speed, so aside from some leapfrogging it just kind of worked. For some reason when I headed into the stick my brain decided to shift back into "huh, we're actually in a race, aren't we?" mode, and I abruptly became a woman on a mission, particularly whenever there was an incline involved. There were a couple of women around that I decided I wanted to try to pass, or at least get up with, and a couple of men who I was tired of jumping back and forth with. I'm not going to say I started hammering or anything, but I definitely think there was a bit of a mental shift, feeling like "OK, we've pretty much made it" and trying to push a bit into the finish.
Around here was a spectator with my favorite sign of the day and the one that almost made me cry: a ~10 year old girl with a sign that read "You Inspire ME! Future Ironman" with an arrow at herself. I really had a moment just thinking about that - that this kid, or anyone watching, might look at this crazy thing that I was doing and think "hey, maybe I could do that someday." And maybe not even an Ironman specifically, but maybe some other crazy thing that they hadn't ever really thought possible. I think that's one of the biggest things I've learned in my athletic career in general, but especially over the last 3 years when I finally decided to do this thing that I knew I really wanted to do: if you know you want to do something, you should do it. Don't wait for the perfect moment, don't put it off, don't convince yourself it's crazy or impossible. Do it. The fact that everyone out on that course was showing that it was possible to do hard things, maybe inspiring others to do hard things too, was really a cool feeling.
Prior to the race someone had posted a comical version of the bike course with some landmarks and commentary of where things happened at certain locations, and one that kept rolling around and around in my head was "Don't forget about me! says the white picket fence hill". I was practically laughing as I climbed the hill, thinking don't forget about meeeeee! and quite honestly, I will not forget about the white picket fence hill, because it was kind of rude! You think you're just DONE with hills when actually...there's one more waiting for you. But no matter: up and over, eating up a few more men on the way, and onward to Madison. The rollers were more downhill coming this way. The skies were darker now, and the riders certainly less fresh than we'd been several hours before, but the horse was still out in its pasture and the spectators were still there, ever reliable, cheering us all the way on to the end.
There finally came a point at about mile 105 where I finally decided that I was, in fact, mentally and emotionally ready to stop riding my bike. I also started to feel hungry, which was upsetting, since I thought I'd been executing my nutrition strategy so well. As we were nearing the end of the bike I didn't have much left in the way of food, but decided that half a clif bar should hold me over. It should be noted that this may have been a LARGE mistake, something I probably should have realized when I nearly reflex vomited the bar as soon as I tried to swallow it. I suspect that at this point I'd gotten a little dehydrated, and while I definitely did need to eat something if I felt hungry, I think a Gu (or preferably the one thing I lacked, chews) would have been preferable, for reasons we'll see later on the run. The road also started getting really shitty, way shittier than I remembered from the morning, and there seemed to be a wider variety of men managing to block the entire narrow cone corridor than there'd been all day. To add to the rudeness, as I was trying to do the math with landmarks and where I knew we were relative to the finish, I realized that this bike course was DEFINITELY going to be more than 112 miles. I had heard rumors of this prior to the race but for some reason had elected not to believe them...well, believe the hype, the 2021 IMWI bike course was definitely 113.5 miles!
We finally reached the bridge over the highway that my brain had identified as the end of the "real" course - just the awkward jaunt through the Alliant Center parking lot and on the bike path left to go. At this point, I did really start to celebrate, because I realized that my bike could basically explode at this point and I could walk it in and still make the cutoff. I had MADE IT. NOTHING from my nightmares or anxieties had come to pass in any sense - no mechanicals, no flats, no crashing, no stress, no awful hills, only the most amazing ride ever. Truly, I will never think back on that ride without the word "magic" coming to mind.
There was one lone woman cheering in the Alliant parking lot and she was amazing; despite my growing desire to see Monona Terrace I still managed to summon some hype for her. And then I tried to savor the last 2 miles back to transition, because I had done it: I had conquered the thing that had scared me the most, all of the work that I had put in on the bike over the previous months and years had shone through in the most perfect way, and I had done it my way just like I had always dreamed of, loving every single minute.
The terrace shone ahead, just a mile to the helix. I started stretching out a bit, loosened my left shoe which had been digging into my ankle for the better part of an hour, took a deep breath and grinned. As I rode down the final stretch towards the terrace, I was reunited with my personal cheer squad of Andrew, Brittany, and Gabby and - what else? - I screamed and waved my arms and smiled like a maniac. Up the helix, a blazing joy in my heart, because I had conquered the fear, the doubts, the hills, I had made it home, and now I didn't have to run a marathon: I got to. The opportunity to run my first Ironman marathon, in the streets of Madison, where I became a runner, where I dreamed of being an Ironman. It was time to become that, too.
[Fueling for posterity: 5 packs of clif chomps (2-3 every 20-30 min), 1.5 Clif bars (lost second half of one), ~2 servings of honey Teddy Grahams, ~1.5 servings of pizzaria pretzel Combos, 1 pineapple Gu, 4 salt tabs (2 with caf, 2 without), 4 bottles Skratch, 1.5 bottles water]
What initially seemed like a magical transition position quickly seemed less amazing when I realized I had to drag my bike sooooo far to the other side of the parking lot. I thought about running with my bike, but quickly decided that awkwardly jogging on noodle legs with my bike fell firmly in the "not worth it category" (also everyone else was walking and I figured they knew better than me). So I power walked, eyeing up that damn bridge at the end of the parking lot and wishing I could will it closer. This was another moment in the race where I swear time just slowed down and I felt like it took hours to get to my rack! But finally, I was there, putting Bahamut back in the rack. I won't lie, this sounds ridiculous but it was a little bit emotional. I knew full well going into this race that it was almost certainly Bahamut's last, and to have had such a victorious ride on that bike at the end of its career, my very first bike that was the gateway to this whole dream, was so special. I gave the handlebars a little kiss and patted my little dragon for a job well done, then clomped off back to the other side of the helix to run down to my T2 bag.
Once I dropped off my bike I attempted to get my ass in gear to some degree and jogged the rest of the way out through the bike racks and down the helix to the next level of the garage, where the run bags were waiting. Overall the whole experience of finding the bags, something I'd actually had a stress dream about in the weeks leading up to the race, was actually pretty seamless. I'd stuck some Bell's stickers on the strings of my bags which made them extra easy to find, and I grabbed my bag and ran into the changing zone. Once again, I wasn't fully changing so didn't go into the tent, but just sort of dropped my stuff and started figuring out my life. Tri top off, shoes off, I managed to put my head in the armhole of my singlet but overcame my inability to don a tank top quickly enough. I had decided to change from my tri top to a singlet because I just felt like there was no way I could finish this race in anything but my GBTC racing singlet. Hat on; I started putting on my shoes; a volunteer asked me if I wanted to sit down and I immediately was like "NO", hahaha. Sitting down would have been death at that point. Got my shoes on and my fuel loaded up; hit the porta potty quickly while eating a Gu (EFFICIENCY lol). Once again this transition seemed to take a really long time and I guess it did compared to a "typical" transition, mainly because that run across the parking lot was VERY long. Again, definitely a couple things I could smooth out by being more prepared to do it efficiently, but not terrible at all. Do not regret not changing my shorts. And now, finally, it was time to do my thing, my domain, my home: the run.
Run: 3:51:47 (8:49/mi) - 6th AG, 23rd woman, 120th OA
Something I only learned after the race was that the run apparently actually started as soon as you left the bag drop area, so we ran ~1/4 mile inside the parking garage. It was kind of a weird sensation just running through this sort of endless underground tunnel thing. There weren't a ton of athletes around, so it was just this odd, quiet, what's even happening right now sort of feeling. It was almost eerily quiet, which was quite the juxtaposition for when I finally stepped out of the tunnel and under the "run out" arch (lol we'd already been on the run for 3 minutes, but whatever) and into a tunnel of cheering spectators. As I started my watch I whispered to myself I'm home. I had made it through the hard stuff - no matter what happened out there on this marathon, this part I knew how to do.
The first couple of miles I think I was just so utterly DELIGHTED to finally be running that nothing could have hurt me if it tried. It was lightly raining when I exited the tunnel, which actually felt great as the humidity was still sitting higher than I typically find comfortable. As I headed out around the square, I saw Andrew's friend Pete out cheering and gave him a big smile and a wave. The Wisconsin run course is essentially a tour of all the most wonderful places on campus, places I became a runner, and so much of the course has meaning or memories for me. In the later stages of the race, those memories would be something I'd call upon to keep myself in it when things got really rough. But for now, everything was beautiful, nothing hurt, and life was simply amazing. My legs felt great coming out of T2 so of course I had to take it out a little hot (7:27 for the first mile after the arch), but I quickly told myself I had to reel it in. My goal for the run was to go as close to 3:30 as possible. I think in the moment I had in my head that a crash was going to come at some point, and that I might as well bank a little time (honestly never a good strategy in the marathon, but I think in this case it saved me a bit of time). At the same time, I knew that I could not be running 7:45s and expect things to not come crashing down on me an hour from now. I literally gave myself a little talking to: so, if you were running an OPEN marathon right now, what pace would you go out in? This pace? OK well then you should probably NOT BE RUNNING THIS PACE when you're already 115 miles into the race, you dumbo! So I reined it in to a much more reasonable pace, around 8:00-8:10 by about mile 3. Smart! But also fun, because being a run-dominant person in a world where most people are not means that even running what I would normally consider to be a pretty easy pace, I was passing people left and right. Spectators got in on the action - "Look at her PACE!" was one of my favorite shouts, hah. I guess I figured if I was going to be wearing a track club singlet, I had better make sure I earned it.
We did a little out and back on the southeast bike path which I made a mental note of because I knew it would annoy the shit out of me on the second loop (IT DID). By this point I had settled into what felt like the right level of effort, and I was trying to just let it roll. There was a fantastic aid station at around the 3 mile mark on the loop, which was hilariously notable on this first lap because there was a little FOOD ROBOT stuck in the middle of the race! Andrew's sister had pointed out these adorable little robots that do food delivery on campus, but apparently they stop when they encounter a human. I almost started laughing when I spotted this robot in the middle of passing runners, no clue how to exit the situation, and I wondered if it would still be there when I got back. The energy through this aid station was awesome and I was still pretty fired up. I thanked the volunteers, but I actually don't remember if I took any water or not...I'm thinking not, which was stupid (more on that later).
The thing I was most excited for in the whole run was the fact that we got to run a loop around the field at Camp Randall and let me tell you, on that first lap it did NOT disappoint. That stadium is hallowed ground if you're a Badger, and I haven't been inside in over a decade. Maybe I sung the opening bars to Jump Around? Only those who were in the stadium with me know for sure, haha. I threw up the W at the photographer on the way out of the station, the one and only photo I had been planning since the start. By all accounts I was still feeling great. There was sort of an awkward curb coming out of the stadium, something I was glad I was aware of for later, and we headed onto Breese Terrace. I could close my eyes and almost picture the gameday tailgates where I'd spent so many Saturdays in college, but today there was just a gentle incline, the sound of footsteps, and some amazing spectators who were dressed as condiments for some reason. The course then turns onto University with a nice, gentle downhill. I had settled into a nice 8:10 pace at this point, which seemed about right - I kept telling myself the effort should basically feel like a long run. A lot of miles on the legs already, a lot of miles still to go.
We turned onto Walnut Street, where I took my first Gu of the day as planned just after mile 4. I should have known that trouble was brewing when that Gu didn't go down super smoothly - it wasn't awful, but my stomach definitely didn't accept it as readily as it usually does. No matter - I took some water and continued on. Now that I've run the course it totally makes sense to me, but the first lap was quite confusing with the number of out and backs, sections on and off the bike path, and random turns. Still, we were out by the track where I raced in college, running on the lakeshore path where I did workouts all the time, and it was pretty special to be back on these paths after all this time in an Ironman marathon. Despite my modest pace I was still passing people pretty constantly, with only a few strong running men rolling by on occasion. I felt steady and ready to execute my plan - if the bike had been full of joy and fun, the run was where I really had to get down to business.
I turned up past the boathouse, where I once manned a volunteer aid station back in college, and was delighted by a ~10 year old girl AGGRESSIVELY advertising the aid station. She was standing a little bit ahead of the station and pretty much hawking the various items they had on offer - "have a nice, cool, BEVERAGE! Stay hydrated! We have ORANGE SLICES!" It was hilarious, and she was right, so I grabbed some more water before turning to head up Observatory.
Observatory is the one major hill on the course, and it is a doozy. I forced myself to run it on the first loop but basically had already resigned myself to walking it on the second. At this point in the race, it was at that level of steepness where it started to fall into the category of "not worth it" to run up it. Still, if for nothing more than the moral victory, I wanted to run up it on the first pass. And I did, and it was...OK. Decidedly not great, but OK. There's a little break about halfway up the hill where you run by the Wisconsin bell tower, which was announcing some hour of the evening with a lovely carillon. It was a song I recognized but couldn't for the life of me identify, so I spent the next few minutes wracking my brain trying to figure out what that song was...as if I had the mental energy for anything more than basic bodily functions at that point.
I can't remember exactly at what point I started to have some serious concerns about my stomach, but it was somewhere around this point as I ran down the big hill on the other side of Observatory. It wasn't a sensation I've ever felt before - at this point, it wasn't nausea, it wasn't lower GI issues...my stomach just HURT. Like that Gu I had eaten earlier had somehow developed spikes and was just stabbing the inside of my stomach. As someone who pretty much has a stomach of steel during races unless I'm on the verge of heat stroke, this was unusual and needless to say, with 20 miles still to run, it was also concerning. For the moment I tried to just ignore it and hope that it would settle down, and continued on. At the bottom of the hill I ran past Bascom Hill, where I looked over and saw Andrew, Brittany, and Andrew's sister and brother in law sitting on the edge of the hill cheering! I gave them a wave, then turned into one of the more amazing parts of the course, the out and back on State Street.
Up until now there had been pockets of excellent spectator support, but the lakeshore path and the hill section had overall been pretty quiet. The turn onto State Street, however, was absolutely electric. The entire street was lined with spectators, Boston Marathon style. It was LOUD, and it was awesome. I ran down one corridor of spectators, high fiving all the way. I knew that I wasn't feeling as amazing as I hoped, but I tried to suck every bit of energy I could from that crowd to push me onward. On the way back from the turnaround I saw my mom, who I told "I've felt better in my life!" as I ran by. Then I saw Andrew and Brittany again, who I made a face at and yelled "I don't think I like running anymore!" LOL. Brittany made a comment that I was now a member of the "I Hate Running Running Club" which made me laugh and gave me a boost as I turned once again onto the lakeshore path. Home to so many warmups before track workouts, some of the first runs I ever did on campus, one of so many places where I really became a runner. I tried to take myself back to those moments and just zone out and let it ride through this section, which was flat, straight, and a great place to just let a few miles tick by without thinking.
Unfortunately, my stomach situation was rapidly going from bad to worse. I made an effort and took my second Gu around mile 9, but it was apparent in the way my stomach reacted that I was heading down a road where fueling was going to become a problem. At some point I also became aware that I was SO thirsty - I would just be dreaming of something to drink at the next aid station - but every time I drank my stomach would go into spasm and hurt even more. The best that I can guess is that I got more dehydrated than I realized on the bike, and that combined with my poorly timed clif bar in the last stretch of the ride put me into a hole that I was now paying the price for. Was this ideal? Not in the slightest. But I had said so many times going into the race that in a race this long, SOMETHING was bound to go wrong, and I had to be prepared to adapt and find a way to get through to the other side. This was the moment that I had to put that mental training and preparation into practice; to take a less than ideal situation and find a way through.
I kept moving forward, though my stomach kept getting worse. Around the 11 mile mark I had to take my first brief walk break to try to calm the cramping in my stomach. OK, stomach, you're going to need to GET IT TOGETHER, I said to myself. I started thinking about my special needs bag and what I could find within. I knew I had pepto bismol in there, which sounded lifesaving, but what I was really fixated on was the seltzer that I had. Some thirst quenching bubbles to calm things down, then maybe burp things up sounded ideal. The next several miles passed in a blur as I made my way back onto the bike path, through the tunnel, along the road, and back up State Street to the Capitol. ALL I could think of was that damn seltzer! At some point in here I saw the Derrick's Flock crew again, still going as wild as ever. Derrick, your friends and family ROCK! The crowds were an entertaining mix of spectators and just students/normal people going about their day and stopping to watch whatever the hell us crazy people were out here doing.
The run around the Capitol into special needs was a low point in the race for sure. The stomach cramps just would NOT let up, and while I was trying to fight through it the discomfort combined with the creeping fatigue in my legs was starting to take its toll. I walked through another water station, deeply annoyed with myself. Although there would be slower miles further along the course as the race went on, I think here at mile 12.5, knowing I still was only halfway, feeling so atrocious and wondering if it was going to get even worse was the mental low point of the entire race. I kept looking around at people who were just starting the run and reminding myself that I was honestly doing GREAT, that running a 1:48 first half of an Ironman marathon was absolutely nothing to be mad about, and that even if I crashed and burned from here (which was seeming fairly likely), I was still doing great relative to the field. But I do think it was hard for me in that moment to shut off the pure runner brain that I've had my whole life and tell myself that it was actually acceptable to be walking at mile 12. Like, hi, remember when you just biked 113.5 miles over 6000 ft of elevation? Yup, your legs do. I think I still had this dream of just running this amazing marathon, never having to walk, and just crushing my way to a low 3:30. Today, clearly, was not going to be that kind of day. And that was OK - but I think I had to take a second to pout over my imperfect marathon before attending to the task at hand and getting to work on what I DID have to work with.
Anyway, I had that little pity party, but then got over it and set my eyes on the prize that was special needs and my SELTZER. I had hoped to not need to stop here, but I definitely don't regret it. The volunteer had my bag and I quickly dug around for the pepto...threw that back...seltzer? SELTZER? I mournfully cried "DID I NOT PUT MY SELTZER IN HERE?!" The poor volunteer was probably like WTF...but alas, I apparently had put the seltzer in my BIKE special needs bag, not the run. Damnit! I should have known there had to be at least one error with all the bags. In the grand scheme of things worse errors could definitely have been made, but ugh, I had been counting on that seltzer to save me! I hoped that the pepto bismol would work it's magic in the meantime, and started thinking about possible fizzy beverages that I could find out on the course. Meanwhile, apparently all the people tracking me freaked out when my pace for this section showed something over 10 (and I suppose, to my credit, it WAS the only mile over 10 minutes due to the stoppage time - probably less than a minute). Deeply disappointed about my lack of seltzer, but with nothing to be done for it, I set out around the turnaround from special needs and back onto the course for the second loop of my Ironman marathon.
I've seen a saying that the monkey really jumps on your back the second loop of the marathon in an Ironman, and I'll admit that I went into the race a little bit cocky, thinking that wouldn't be true. I was such a strong runner! I had been so smart with my effort on the bike! I wasn't going to let the second loop get me, no way. But in actuality, with my stomach continuing to try to turn itself inside out and my legs rapidly realizing that more fuel wasn't coming, the monkey or the wall or whatever you want to call it was real. Heading back out onto the course and recognizing that I had to run that all AGAIN, in the current state I was in, was daunting to say the least. I won't say that the miles that followed were the proudest of my life; this was the only section out of the entire day when I felt my mental game start to crack a bit. I just couldn't see a way out of the problem in front of me. I think that's one of the most challenging things about a race this long - when something goes wrong, it's probably already been in the process of going wrong for hours, and once you realize it it's already too late.
I headed back around the Capitol and started the process of trying to figure out what the hell my stomach was going to accept for the second half of this marathon. My first choice, poorly made, was Gatorade, which was a hard NOPE. Stomach spasm, walk, let my brain think its angry thoughts, maybe (probably) curse out loud, and then try to start running again. It's funny because when I look at my splits for miles 14-20, which I perceived as an absolute disaster where I walked the WHOLE time, they honestly aren't THAT bad. I had 2 splits over 10 (a section coming out of the stadium, and my chosen walk up Observatory the second time), the rest are in the mid-9s even though every single one included some walking. It pretty much looks exactly like all the times I've blown up at Boston - I may have to walk, but when I'm not walking I'm still running at a pretty good pace. In the moment, however, it just felt like ALL I was doing was walking, and while that was also the case for nearly everyone around me, it was really striking a blow to my "I'm a runner" ego.
Coming back down State Street, I suddenly heard someone call my name and managed to lock eyes with a random friend of my sister's who recognized me in the crowd! That plus the downhill gave me a brief reprieve as I waited for the Pepto to kick in, and I think I actually managed to run all of mile 15. There was an aid station blasting some pretty great techno, which always pumps me up, and on my way down under the tunnel I saw John running up the other side! We still haven't been able to figure out at what point I passed him during the run - I would think I would have noticed, but I was probably too delirious to recognize him without his bike. Either way, it was cool to have a moment with a training partner who was also out there in the arena!
Back on the bike path in the little out and back section, which was exactly as annoying as I'd predicted it would be on the first lap. The path seemed a lot more crowded and I was still making passes, which I started to realize were people I was lapping. I kept trying to keep my mind in it, reminding myself that I was tough, that I knew I could keep moving forward, and that I couldn't be too upset with myself when I was out here lapping people. At the lively aid station at the end of the bike path, things were still rocking. "Sweet Dreams" was blasting from somewhere, and as I ran under the Red Bull arch I decided that it was time to see if Red Bull would be the thing to save my stomach. Everybody's looking for something... I will give the Red Bull mixed reviews. It was VERY cold (amazing) and fizzy (also amazing) but the flavor just didn't sit the way I wanted. The stomach cramps were now starting to evolve into more of a nausea, which I also did not appreciate, and I tried to keep my head on. This was where I really got to find out what I was made of, not in the parts that were perfect and effortless but in the parts that were hard, really, really hard. This was what being iron was all about.
The second run into and around Camp Randall was slightly less of a religious experience than the first. I found myself entering the stadium directly behind two women together on what I assume was their first lap who were power walking, chatting it up loudly like they were out for a stroll in the park. In my mental state at that moment, for some reason the sound of their voices drove me NUTS. I'm pretty sure I tried to run faster just to get away from the yakking..."faster" being a relative term. My stomach sucked. My legs sucked. Everything sucked. I looked around at the stadium, where workers were still sweeping up trash from the previous night's game, willing it to give me some kind of energy. Unfortunately, all I could think was how much I identified with the garbage being swept out of the stadium at that moment, lol. But I told myself I was not allowed to walk on the hallowed ground of the Camp Randall field, and so I kept my legs moving at whatever kind of run they could muster, over the astroturf and out through the gate. The incline leading out of the stadium nearly broke me; it was here that I took one of my longest walk breaks of the race and really had to pull myself back together mentally. My mind was whirling with one question: how can I make it through 10 more miles feeling like THIS? I couldn't eat anything, my legs were trashed, and all I could picture was that I was just going to slow down more and more and more. This was one of the 10+ minute miles of the race. It was just a LONG walk break where I really wondered if I was ever going to manage to get myself running again.
But I had to stay in it. At some point on Breese Terrace, I saw a woman lying on the ground being attended to by medics, and somehow that snapped me out of it. I was still out here, still moving forward, still in it. The situation was not ideal, sure, but it wasn't catastrophic. I wasn't frantically searching for a porta potty, I wasn't injured, I was just fatigued and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable? Who gives a shit about uncomfortable? Throughout my running career I think I've always struggled with really getting uncomfortable in races; I tend to back off and play it safe rather than risk that feeling. I think it's a big reason why I should have a much faster half marathon PR than I do - I just can't convince myself to stay in it when the going gets tough. Sitting here writing this now, it's easy for me to throw stones at myself and say I could have pushed through it more, walked less, been mentally stronger. The only thing I'm remotely disappointed in of the entire racing experience are these middle 8 miles of the marathon. But in the moment, I was just doing what I needed to do to survive, advance, and keep moving, and I think if that meant taking a few moments when my stomach felt like it was going to fly Alien-style out of my body, then so be it. But there was a time to give in and there was a time to get over myself, and now was that time. And so, I forced myself back into a run, past the stadium and onto University. I had another unfortunate moment of weakness just after the turn, when my stomach again reminded me that it was still A Problem and I started walking just after hearing 2 guys behind me discuss their plan to "run a 5K, walk a mile" (this did not seem like a plan I wanted to subscribe to). I kept telling myself I only got to walk as long as it took for whatever hissy fit my stomach was having to stop, and then I'd make myself get back to it. I even implemented the counting strategy that I've used at mountain races to keep myself in check, because I know well that once you start walking, it's just so easy to let yourself walk just a little longer.
By the time we reached the aid station at Walnut Street, I was basically begging my body to just let me puke already, so that maybe I would stop feeling so nauseous. I was honestly eyeing up garbage cans, considering whether forcing myself to throw up would be the move. You know you've reached a low point in life when you actively WISH you would vomit...Ironmans are truly a magical thing lol. But instead of stopping, I decided to try something I hadn't yet grabbed from an aid station, and grabbed a cup of Coke. And Coke tasted SO. DAMN. GOOD. I was still nauseous, it didn't immediately solve my problems, but it was something I could get down, something that made me burp, which was almost as good as puking, and something that my body actually seemed to be interested in. Forget the vast spread of food and drink that was available at all of the aid stations, forget the salt tabs and Gus that I had with me: the remainder of this marathon was about to be fueled by Coca Cola.
My stomach felt better, but my legs were starting to become pretty aggressively uncooperative as I turned onto the lakeshore path once again. When I think about this section, I think of two things: the fact that for some reason someone was playing Fergie's "London Bridge" (why.) and this section of the path where there's a dorm right up against the path and you're running next to a brick wall with windows - I have almost a photograph in my mind of the wall, the runners in front of me, runners streaming from the other side. There was some kind of dorm event going on outside one of the lakeshore dorms, a BBQ of some sort, and all I could think of was how the thought of food made me want to hurl. The next couple miles were a blur of mostly running, sometimes walking, always feeling nauseous, and constantly telling myself that every step forward was a step closer to stopping.
I was almost looking forward to the turn at the boathouse, because I knew my plan to walk Observatory meant that I had a nice long walk break in store - hopefully, a chance for my body as a whole to pull itself together for the last 7-8 miles. I grabbed a cup of coke and a cup of water and sipped on both as I power walked up the hill, actually passing a couple of people who were running which gives more credence to the mountain running theory that sometimes walking IS actually the better option. When I got to the top of the steep section of the hill, I got myself running again and continued up past the carrilon and down the winding road by the library. I somehow found myself totally alone on the downhill of Observatory - kind of a magical feeling for my soul, if not for my stomach...the bounce of running down hill as ROUGH. I looked at the students studying in the library windows, wondering if any of them had any idea what was going on on the other side of the glass, or if they were too absorbed in Physics 202 or Biochem or whatever to even notice.
At the bottom of the hill, right in front of me, out popped Andrew and Brittany! "Thoughts and prayers to my stomach" I yelled at them, grimacing. After the race Andrew made fun of me because apparently as I was bitching about my stomach I also passed several people as they watched. Sometimes you truly need an outsider to give you perspective! In all of my official race photos, I generally look pretty good - smiling mostly, or at the very least looking strong - but Brittany got a great shot here that truly demonstrates how I REALLY felt at that moment: