by John Rotella
“Welcome to Wisconsin, Punk!”
Friends and I decided a year ago to sign up for Ironman Wisconsin, one of the toughest Ironman races in the world. During the road trip from Atlanta to Madison, I started reading Chris Mccormack’s autobiography, “I’m Here to Win,” which gave my friends and I a few themes for the weekend. During Macca’s first Ironman Hawaii experience, he asked Mark Allen and Dave Scott during the bike, “When does this start getting hard?” Later in the race when he had started to collapse on the run, Tim DeBoom passed him and said “Welcome to Kona, punk!” Throughout the weekend, this was all we could think about.
While driving the bike course we went from pumped up and super excited to somberly deflated as we saw just what we had signed up for. Hill after hill after hill with turns in between to take away any momentum you might have hoped for. Relentless, I thought. I rode a few of the tough hills on the bike to get a feel for steepest grades, and then drove back for the pre-race dinner. One of the highlights was getting to meet some of the pros, with Hillary Biscay giving us advice about how to handle the course.
On Saturday Allen Heaton offered to inspect our bikes. My friend’s chain first got stuck between the cassette and the wheel spokes, and then the skewer snapped. Allen truly saved the day, adjusting the derailleur and loaning skewers and more importantly catching all this on Saturday so that it didn’t happen during the actual race.
On race morning, they herded us down into the water, where waited for the cannon. It was a pretty uneventful swim, with the occasional kick and smack by other swimmers, and I was pleased to see 1:18 on the clock as I exited. The temperature of the water was in the low 70s, but the air temp was in the low 50s. I ran up the helix, decided to go with a long sleeve jersey, grabbed my bike and headed for the hills. The No Pass Zone at the start made it easy to get my heart rate back under control. But I did not have to wait long for the climbing to begin. I saw too many people getting out of the saddle and pushing up the hills and resting when they got to the top. I chose to try to flatten the course, controlling my effort up, and carrying momentum over the top and down the descents. The goal was to have a good marathon. Old Sauk Pass and Timber Lane were loaded with volunteers cheering us all up the climbs and it was definitely one of the highlights in the race. By the halfway mark, I was near a 5:30 pace, but the wind picked up and the hills started taking their toll. I started losing the desire to take nutrition every 20 minutes but I made myself take in as much as I could. I ended up with a 5:56 bike split and I felt confident going into T2.
The run course is great in Wisconsin because of the volunteers cheering during the entire run. I started off, as always, trying to slow down and remind my self 26.2 miles is a long way to go. “When does this get hard?” I chuckled to myself, when the right question was more like, “is this EVER not hard?” I focused on getting to mile 4 and my first gel on the run. Then mile 6. Running through the University of Wisconsin football stadium was pretty neat, and around every turn there was something new to see. After hitting mile 10, I started to question why it was I signed up for this madness. Mile 13 takes you so tantalizingly close to the finish line that it’s hard to make the u-turn and head back. I thought about Matt Cole telling me earlier in the week, “Trust your training!” My focus was now on making it to mile 18, but looking back now it was mile 15 when I first hit the wall. I finally negotiated with myself that I would start walking the aid stations just after mile 17. This was exactly what I needed, as I started picking up the pace by mile 20, even with the short walks at each aid station. The volunteers were amazing, giving me energy and always saying the right things to help me keep on moving. I heard some “Go Team Podium!” cheers mostly from Atlanta Tri Club members, and I know without that I wouldn’t have been able to finish as well as I did. I ran up mile 25 and saw Allen guarding a “bridge-like” pedestrian overpass on Murray St. and smiled for a photo. It wasn’t until I made it to the finish chute that I truly let it soak in. I did it, and got hear Mike Reilly yell the famous words, “You are an Ironman!” I ended up running a 3:31 marathon, and the finish line clock read 10:57:38 when I crossed the line.
Two “handlers” caught me across the finish line and I have got to say they were heaven sent. They brought me some chocolate milk and water, and waited while I came back to my senses as it felt like an out-of-body experience. “Welcome to Wisconsin, punk!” my friends and I laughed after the race.