This is a long post. I wish I knew how to make it shorter, but I don’t. It was a long event anyway.
“You’re having a great race! Your paces are exactly what you had estimated. I’m so proud of you!” I was about half a mile from the beginning of the second lap of the run when I saw Lisa in the middle of the cheering crowd on State Street in Madison. She was so excited when she said, “You’re going to be an Ironman.”
That was about 10 hours into the race. Let’s back up a little, shall we?
The days leading up to the Ironman were a strange mixture of family and friends, work and working out, and travel. I arrived in Milwaukee on Tuesday and stayed with my cousin and her family for a couple of nights. We watched baseball and walked around Cedarburg, buying pastries and freshly baked breads. She kidnapped me after a full day’s work—her working on medical charts in her living room and me at her dining room table—for a hike along Lake Michigan. It was a nice transition to the Midwest.
I did my last swim workout in the Cedarburg High School pool, feeling very slow and then being surprised at the numbers I saw on my watch. (“100 yards in 1:37? Huh.”) I hadn’t swam inside in weeks, and the still water of the pool felt strangely foreign to my wetsuit-less body. It didn’t help that the guy one lane over, Tim Miazga, is a national champion swimmer and Paralympian. It was really inspiring when I looked him up online after my swim.
On Thursday I checked in for my Ironman. They looked at my ID and passed me a bunch of papers to read and sign. They gave me my swimcap and timing chip and all of the numbers I had to attach to my bike and myself. They weighed me in: 157.3 lbs (71.5 kg). The volunteer talking to an athlete next to me said what all of us were thinking. “No one has been happy with the number they see. Most people weigh themselves first thing in the morning . . . without their shoes on . . . naked in their bathrooms. And it’s a taper week. So don’t worry about it.”
That evening I met my Riding on Insulin teammates for dinner. It was really inspiring to see so many people with type-1 diabetes getting ready to do an Ironman. We ate and chatted and talked about our training. We talked about the $120,000 we contributed and/or raised for the ROI charity to help type-1 kids go to ski and snowboarding camps, helping them feel empowered to take on the same athletic challenges as kids without diabetes.
The next morning, I picked Lisa up at the airport, and we drove the bike course before meeting some friends from college who let us stay at their house in Madison. Saturday, we checked in my bike and the bags with my run and bike gear, and afterward they showed us around their town, taking us to the massive farmers market and leading us to some of the best ice cream I’ve had. We had dinner, and then Lisa and I headed off for an early bedtime.
I had been nervous in the days leading up to the race, but I decided right before bed that the die was cast; there was nothing that I could do now, and that there were 3,000 volunteers there to help ensure everything would go as well as possible. Diabetes might be a challenge, but that’s a given. The swim might be crazy, but that’s a given, too. The bike course looked hilly but not too bad with some fast corners. Nothing to worry about there. The marathon will be hard, so why worry about it. And I slept well for the first time in a week.
It’s wrong to say that I almost missed the swim start, but I had only been in the water less than a minute before the cannon went off. As a result, I barely had a chance to get settled, and I definitely didn’t get a chance to swim out to where I had hoped to be. When the race started there were almost 2,000 men and women together in Lake Monona, and we all began what I can only describe as “swimming meets mixed martial arts.” I wasn’t freaked out by having no space to swim as much as disappointed that I had to give as much suffering back as I was receiving. People were grabbing my feet, legs, and arms. I felt the hollow thud of my elbow connecting with someone’s head. The space between two swimmers would mysteriously disappear just as I was trying to swim through it and move myself closer to the front of the pack. When people tried to move across my line, I had to nudge them out of the way. It was pandemonium.
And then it was over. 2.4 miles in 1:16:22.
Back on land, I was greeted by a wall of sound. Mike Reilly announced my name for hopefully the first of two times of the day, and thousands of spectators lined the entry to the Monona Terrace and all the way up the Helix, the spiral ramp leading up to the convention center and transition. It was amazing! I had taken the volunteer’s advice from check-in and given myself a moment on the swim to look over and see all of the people on the shore and in Monona Terrace cheering us on. It was a beautiful, moving sight. It was the first of many such moments of the day.
The day’s conditions were perfect for racing. At 7AM, when we got in the water, the air was a cool 50ºF (10ºC) but I didn’t feel cool heading onto the bike course. When I returned 6:23:58 and 112 miles later, the temperature had gone up to 70º (21º). The course was mostly flat with some gently rolling hills and a few very steep climbs . . . and a whole lot of turning. Each of the big uphill sections was crowded with fans who had parked (sometimes) miles away and walked to line the road. In many places, only one lane was passable by riders. It was amazing to watch people move back like a wave as I rode as close to the center-line as possible. The hills are my forte, and they were cheering me as I passed people. They were cheering us all really, but I got some great compliments. At one point I waved an arm, and the crowd cheered even louder. It was such an incredible moment. By the second loop, some of the crowd had returned to town to cheer us during the run, but there were still people everywhere.
The bike felt pretty good, and I didn’t really have any dark moments on it. About three hours in, I stopped at an aid station to check my blood sugar and mix some Nuun with my water. When I started riding again the muscles in my upper legs felt really stiff and painful, just as they had at the very hilly Quassy half-ironman. This concerned me a little bit for the run, but having experience early this year helped me know that it would work itself out. So I backed off the pace for about five minutes to clear away the pain. Coming back into town after the second loop in the countryside was surprisingly good. We had a nice tailwind, but I could see that a lot of people were hurting. I got passed by many people out on the course, but I was really happy with how well I was executing my plan.
Back into transition and out again onto the roads for the final leg: a marathon. I’ve only run one of these before. It took me exactly four hours, and I didn’t much enjoy it. I was hoping that having a different strategy would make it better. My plan was not to look at my pace per mile but focus instead on my effort. On the bike I tried to keep my heart rate around 135-140 beats/minute, and I wanted to stick to 145 BPM on the run. Actually, I wanted to keep it around 135-140 on the run, too, but I knew from past experience that I can’t really do that. So, 145 was my goal effort.
The first mile my effort was good but my pace was too fast: 8:10 for the first mile. “You can just knock that shit off,” I told myself. The second mile was down to 8:30, and the third 9:05. “That’s more like it!”
Despite getting my pace under control, I wasn’t really liking the marathon. My body was tired, and I didn’t really feel like eating. I’d been drinking well—I thought—all throughout the bike, taking in five water bottles (100 oz of fluid) over those six-and-a-half hours, but I could tell I was starting to get a little dehydrated, since I had lost interest in food. I remember going through a rotary in the fourth or fifth mile and thinking “I really don’t want to run a marathon right now” and “Wouldn’t it be nice just to be done already?” But I also felt like my plan was going well and I was going to be an Ironman finisher soon and let’s just keep going. So I completed my first half of the marathon in almost exactly two hours, and I was feeling really good.
And then suddenly I hit a wall. Whether it was more emotional or physical I’ll never know, but it was the most stressful, difficult part of the whole day.
Before coming to the turnaround point to start the second lap, a volunteer asked me if I would need anything from the “special needs” bag I had packed. It only had two gels, a tube of glucose tablets, and a really cheap headlamp. I was getting ready to pass it by when I remembered that I’d eaten a few glucose tablets midway through the bike, so I was running a little low and wanted to be topped up.
Less than half a mile later I was back in the same spot picking up my bag after passing the “Finishers to the right, second lap to the left” sign. Almost seeing the finish and having to run the other way and then having to get things from my special needs bag that I didn’t think I would need—I left the headlamp—made me think about how far I had left to go. So when I finished testing my blood sugar after the special needs stop, I just couldn’t bring myself to start running again.
I had seven more hours to do a half-marathon, and if I had to use all of it, fine. But knowing this and that I was giving into those thoughts and that I couldn’t will myself to run was heart-breaking to me. In the first minute of walking I saw one of my ROI supporters, who walked along the sidewalk with me for a moment, asking about my blood sugars and encouraging me on; not to run, just to keep going.
Less than a mile later I saw Lisa and walked with her for a few dozen yards. I was holding back tears and said, “I’m tired, and I just want to be done.” She reminded me about those words she’d said about a mile earlier: “You’re having a great race! Your paces are exactly what you had estimated. I’m so proud of you!” It helped, but as I walked on I was really fighting the urge to just have a epic, bawling cry.
Eventually a few tears did fall, but when I saw a few of my ROI teammates at mile 14.7, I decided to start running again and try to catch up with them. And then I caught up with them and we chatted for a minute before I started to run for a few more minutes, stopping and starting a few times over the next two miles. At mile 17 I walked for another mile and a half. At this point I just wasn’t feeling my 100% best physically, but emotionally I was doing better.
And then I got to the big hill on Observatory Drive. It’s short but steep, and everyone was walking, and that’s why I knew that I needed to pick that point almost exactly eight miles from the end to start running. If I could run up that hill, I could probably keep going for another couple of miles. If I felt like walking a couple of miles after those two, then so be it. We would see what happens.
And I just kept going after the second and third and fourth miles. I started reframing the rest of the run in terms of the running I do around my neighborhood, and it became very manageable. My pace was back to around 9:00/mile, and I was keeping my heart rate just where I wanted it until the last mile when I decided to leave it all out on the course. I finished the marathon in 4:19:21.
The crowds in the last couple of miles were fantastic. They were loud and possible buzzed, and we were buoying each other. With a mile left to go, I came upon a competitor pushing another person down the course in a wheelchair. He had pulled him on the swim and the bike, too, and they were just over a half-marathon away from becoming Ironmen, too. I let the energy of the crowd for them carry me along until I passed them and then once I was ahead of them a bit I motioned for the spectators to give all of us some cheers.
The finish line was simply amazing. I had been smiling for most of the last two miles, and I was beaming when I finished. I crossed the line at 12:20:29, stopped, and took a bow. It was the best feeling—not just to be done, but to have done this particular thing. Six months I’d been training for it. Or five years depending on your perspective. Or 16 years. In that moment it felt like what it was: the pinnacle of my athletic achievement so far in my life.
Within moments I had handlers on both sides of me to make sure that I was doing okay. And I was . . . at that moment. I heard a shout of joy and saw Lisa in the crowd and went over to get a hug from her and to hear her say how proud she was of me. It made me want to cry a little bit again but for all the happy feels this time.
I had my picture taken in front of an “Ironman Wisconsin” backdrop. Twice actually, since I felt the need to flex my muscles after the first one. And then I sat for a couple of minutes, drinking some water and talking to Christian, my volunteer/“chaperone.” Eventually I stood up and then sat back down for a few minutes. And then we decided to go to the medical tent just to have them look me over.
The first thing they did was weigh me. 148.7 pounds (67.6 kg). I’d lost almost 10 pounds in fluid over those 12+ hours. They gave me a liter of saline and some chicken broth as we chit-chatted.
My fluids all topped-off (well, not exactly) they released me back to Lisa, and we spent the rest of our evening/night talking about my race and her experience spectating. I ate a burrito . . . slowly. We got back to Gwen and Dan’s house and discussed the race for a couple more hours. I was sore.
A day later I’m still a bit rough around the edges, and I probably will be for another couple of days, but I’m riding an emotional high right now that’s incredible. I’m so happy for all of the encouragement and congratulations that I got during and after the race. And I’ve been just as excited seeing my teammates’ enthusiasm and hearing about their races, both the good and the bad.
Who knows what my next challenge will be?