The trip was damn near perfect. Our flights were on time. Our hotel room got upgraded to a massive corner room with a capitol view. We made some cool new friends in our hotel. We got to hang out with teammates from home. We ate well and slept well. We got to see Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. And we had easy flights home. Mixed into all that was a race – my seventh Ironman – and while it wasn’t perfect, it, too, was pretty spectacular.
It wasn’t the PR I wanted, but I have a pretty good idea of why. The swim was a wave start by age group rather than self-seeding by expected finish time. I didn’t have a volunteer helping me in T1, so that transition, which also involved a long run up a helix (a circular ramp in the parking garage), was exceptionally slow. I still didn’t have the confidence to do hand-ups on the bike, so I stopped whenever I needed fuel. And my insides were clenched for most of the run. But none of that matters much to me. What matters to me is that I got up Barlow Road.
Barlow Road is an incredibly steep section of the relentlessly hilly bike course. Last year was the first year that the Ironman Wisconsin course went up Barlow Road. Leading up to the race last year and this year, Barlow was the talk of the Ironman Wisconsin community. It was the subject of many posts and videos. At the athlete meeting, the guy giving the talk mentioned it more than once. In the days leading up to the race, you couldn’t have a conversation about the bike course that didn’t involve the dreadedness that is Barlow Road. I heard from many athletes that they weren’t even going to attempt it because they wanted to save their legs. Local shops even made a t-shirt about Barlow Road.
Last year, I dropped a chain on the second steep part of that road and ended up having to walk up the rest because it was just too steep to try to get back on my bike. This year, I powered up the entire thing. Tons of people were walking. Big dudes with fancy bikes were walking. I had moments of thinking I might need to walk, but I kept grinding away, hopeful that no one, spectator or cyclist, would get near me or force me to change directions or even distract me from what I was doing. I was hyper-focused on just that one thing – getting up. My heart was pounding, and I was terrified because, on that steepness, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to unclip and put a foot down if I needed to stop. I just kept turning my legs as hard as I could and, somehow, I got up that hill.
I’m pretty sure I sailed the next twenty miles with a huge grin on my face. I was certainly looking for Dave out there so I could tell him that I got up. I also wanted to tell him to tell Jeanie that I made it up. She told me I could. She believed that I could. I’m not sure that I fully believed it myself. (And I should point out that Jeanie hasn’t actually seen Barlow; she just believes in me and communicates that confidence in a way that makes me believe more and more in myself. I’m beyond lucky to have her as my cheerleader.)
I went back to Wisconsin this year because I didn’t get up Barlow Road last year. Had I made it up that hill last year, there’s very little chance that I would have come back to this particular course. It’s a tough one. But I wanted that hill. I really wanted that hill. I basically trained almost entirely on hills because I wanted that hill. I did both of my 100-mile race rehearsals on hills because I wanted that hill. I put a different cassette on my bike because I wanted that hill. Sure, I had other goals for the race, but what I wanted most was to make it up Barlow. I wanted it so badly that I couldn’t even voice that particular desire.
Last year, I saw all the people walking, and I had the experience of walking that hill myself. I didn’t want to walk that hill twice. If I’d had to walk it again, I would have had to sign up for Wisconsin again, and I really didn’t want to do that because I’m ready for a break from Ironman. (At least I was leading up to the race, and I am right now as I type this.) But I didn’t know for sure that I could make it up.
There’s a hill along one of the organized rides in the Texas hill country that I have never managed to ride up. Each year, I tell myself that I’ll make it up, but each year, I panic and put a foot down and walk up. One year, I saw my friend Kerry power up this hill. She was out of her saddle and cussing up a storm, and she made it up. I watched her in awe because I’m not comfortable getting up out of the saddle, and I don’t have the personality to cuss up a hill. I’ve never managed to get up that hill. And Barlow is bigger than that hill.
I think I made it up Barlow in part because of my new cassette and in part because my head was ready to make it up. As I approached and saw so many people stop as I’ve stopped each year on that wretched hill in the Texas hill country, I told myself that I had one shot to make it up and that I simply was not going to even attempt to put a foot down. The only way I’d stop is if I tipped over. Otherwise, I was riding up. And somehow, I rode up. This girl, who is physically more frumpy than fierce, riding her nine-year-old entry-level Kuota K-Factor, made it up Barlow Road. Or as some might say, I bucked Farlow.
No, the race wasn’t perfect. But I’m pleased. A full week later, I’m still grinning.