Dave and I arrived in Madison to learn that I’d booked the car for the wrong time. Rather than wait three hours for our car, we picked up a more expensive rental – a minivan of all things. And then we turned to pick up my suitcase, which had already been cleared from baggage claim, so we had to hunt down an agent and find out where it had gone. In a matter of minutes after landing in Wisconsin, I had two whammies against me, and I thought, “Oh no. This does not bode well for my race.” And it got worse from there.
This was the Ironman where my wetsuit didn’t fit. Well, it did. I could get in it, and I could swim in it, but it wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t right. So I violated a major rule of racing and bought a new wetsuit the Friday before the race. Thankfully, Roka had an amazing rep on site, and she helped me get fitted with exactly the right suit for my body. When I went for my second swim, I sighed a huge bit of relief. Another crisis averted.
Then Dave and I drove the course. I had to ask him to quit commenting on what he saw. I could see the bad roads. I could see the hills. I could see the blind steep downhill curves. All of it screamed failure to me. This would be bad. This would hard. This might get the best of me. The good news was that the biggest hill – the new addition to this year’s course – didn’t look nearly as bad as I had built up in my mind. But overall, this course was going to be work, and I hoped I was up for the challenge. I told myself I was. I told my friend Jeanie I was. I told my coach Natasha that I was. Saying that to people helped me a great deal. Another potential crisis averted.
From there, the weekend improved. We got my bags together, went to the opening banquet, spent time with Dave’s parents who surprised us Friday night, enjoyed a farmer’s market, and got my bike and bags ready to go. It rained Saturday morning, and I couldn’t bike as I had planned. Being adaptable is not my strength, but I did my best. I tried just to remain calm and in good spirits. This was the event I’d been training for all of this year.
Race morning, we walked down to the site early, and I had plenty of time to sit. And to worry. I did a great deal of both. How would I handle the in water mass start? Would I have issues with my new wetsuit? What would it be like to run up the helix (their fancy term for a four-level circular garage ramp) to get to transition after the swim? What would it be like to bike down the other helix to get to the road? Would I do something stupid before making it down? Would it be crowded? Would I freak myself out again? No, no. The swim was rough, but I survived. And the helix was a non-event, really. I had worried a lot about nothing.
Once on the bike course, it took me about twenty miles to calm my heart after the brutal swim and to find my legs. Almost from the beginning, I had to battle my own negative thinking.
I thought about an article my friend Rose pointed me to about being your own biggest cheerleader. I had to do that for myself out on the bike course. Relentless hill after relentless hill. And that was before the bastard hill that was new to the course. When I got to that road – the feared Barlow – I told myself I could do it. I told myself that Jeanie and Natasha think I can do it. And up I went. I made it up the first steep section of Barlow where I saw others walking, and then I went through some rollers and saw the second really steep section ahead of me. Damn. It looked different on a bike than it did in the car. So I pushed as hard as I could. About a third of the way up, my chain dropped as I tried to shift into an easier gear, and I had to put a foot down. Thankfully, I got unclipped and stopped without falling, but the road was too steep for me to get back on my bike. So I walked. Dammit. I didn’t want to walk. I had to put that failure behind me and keep moving.
They say the crowds at Ironman Wisconsin are legendary. And they are. But the crowds also mean one thing – a painfully big hill ahead. In the towns, the crowds were just crowds, but in the country, crowds meant hills, so I dreaded seeing them out on those country roads. Thankfully, the crowds cheered me up when I needed them. One guy in particular ran along side me on the last of the really steep climbs and coached me up when I desperately wanted to quit pedaling. Thank you, strange man, whoever you were. I’m forever grateful for that bit of cheerleading that perhaps saved my race. I don’t know what would have happened to my mind if I’d had to put my foot down and walk a second time.
On the second loop, the strange man was no longer out on the course, and the crowd had thinned considerably, but I still managed to push my way up the hill without him. And I knew I was close to completing the second loop and being able to head back to Madison. Then I found a new energy. My mind came to the conclusion that I would actually finish this bike course within the allotted time, and I pushed hard to get back as fast as I could. I was tired, but I knew I needed the extra time cushion on the run. I managed to pedal back to town and back up the helix to complete the bike.
After a change of clothes, I realized that my legs didn’t exactly work. I could walk, but I had no run in me. So I largely walked the first few miles. By about mile 8, my legs realized they had a job to do, and they complied somewhat. I started to run. I knew I would finish. I knew I had plenty of time. But I wanted to PR, and I knew I could if only I could just keep jogging even at my super slow warm up pace. But this run, like the bike, had hills that stopped my running. I gave myself permission to walk up the hills as long as I ran the downs. That still meant a lot of walking.
Oddly, I had a great time on this run course. I loved the crowds on State Street. I loved the music at the aid stations and even found myself dancing a bit through them. I loved seeing all the signs and cheese hats and cow references all around me. Dave showed up everywhere on the run, thanks to a red commuter bike he rented to help him get around. I didn’t even mind that the turn around for the second loop of the two-loop run took me super close to the finish line, which I knew was still in reality 13 miles away. I wasn’t moving quickly, but my heart was happy. And that helped me through.
Perhaps the coolest part of the run was getting to run around the football field at the University of Wisconsin under the lights. They weren’t letting people into the stadium, so the stands were empty, but it was awesome to be down on the field. Not the track – we were actually on the field. Each loop of the run course took us around that field once. Both times, I wanted to yell just to hear the echo, but I refrained. I’m sure I was grinning ear to ear as I jogged around thinking about all the college kids who’d played on that field with a ridiculous number of eyes on them, cheering their every move. It was just awesome. Then a tall and lanky walker passed me while I was “running” the length of the end zone. That was slightly less awesome.
But I kept going. And eventually, I found myself super close to the finish. I felt the tears starting to come. I felt tremendous gratitude for having survived the toughest Ironman course I’d ever tried. I felt gratitude for being healthy and able-bodied. I felt gratitude for the man who made the journey with me and showed up all along the course – far more than I had expected – to cheer me on. I felt tremendous gratitude for all the friends who encouraged me through training and even the days and hours leading up to and through the race. I felt gratitude for being moments away from the finish.
I’ve said before that an Ironman finish line is the greatest place on earth. In a split second, all of the pain and doubt and struggle disappeared. I ran into the final chute aware that random people were cheering for me from the sidelines, amazed at what I had pulled off. A 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a marathon – all in one day. And I was smiling because I was amazed too. I knew I could do it, but I also knew anything could go wrong. A punch in the eye or the gut during the swim. A flat tire or two. A bum knee or stomach that just wouldn’t cooperate. But that wasn’t my experience. My experience was good.
As I approached the finish line, I thought about the people on the side of the road with their bikes, whose day ended because of mechanical difficulties. I thought about the woman I saw on the run course in a fetal position on the ground being tended to by paramedics. I thought about the people I saw limping their way through the run and those who were so far behind me that they were likely to miss the 17-hour cutoff. I could have been any one of them at any moment.
That’s why the finish is sweet – so sweet – even the sixth time. I never know how the day will go, so I’m grateful beyond measure when it goes my way. And this time, it did.