My training was on target. I had done everything I could to prepare for the race. I was healthy, uninjured and ready to go. All my gear was organized, plane tickets, hotel, rental car booked, credit card maxed out. Time to go to Wisconsin. I had picked this race because I wanted to reclaim the old stomping ground of my alma mater. I hadn't really been back since I graduated in 2000. I thought it would be a great way to visit. Kind of an intense vacation but I was not to be disappointed.
I was nervous about the swim. Madison had been flooded with storms and rains the weeks before and Lake Monona was encroaching on the nearby streets. Bacteria and pollution was a concern. The lake was choppy and full of wind and waves, which was surprising. The water temp was in the 70s but still wetsuit legal. I had trained in a sleeveless to avoid overheating.
The normal pre-race jitters hit like an avalanche the morning of the race. I had difficulty choking down breakfast but somehow overcame. I was so overcome with anxiety, I began full-on teeth-chattering shivering in the Monona Convention Center the hour before the race began, even though we were indoors. It was not cold. Before, I knew it, it was time to line up in the chute.
The chute was narrow and crowded. I felt a bit claustrophobic. Unlike the mass starts I had been accustomed to, they seeded us according to our predicted start times. The clock started as I crossed a mat at the entrance to the lake, something I had also not been expecting. It was a little anticlimactic compared to my other races but definitely more relaxed.
I dove into the water and began swimming. The water was still a bit rough but smoother than the day before, when I had struggled on my practice swim so I was thankful for that. The water was silty and tasted gritty and muddy. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face; it was very murky. Although it was not very crowded, and I didn't have to deal with the usual body slamming, I missed having the draft of hundreds of swimmers. The current pulled me towards the terrace for the short leg of the rectangle. Then, I turned and began the long 1 mile swim in the opposite direction, against the current. The view of the capital to my left was spectacular, bathed in the amber pink of the rising sun. I knew this part of the swim would play mind games with me as swimming 1 mile in murky water will do, but my training paid off, and I stayed calm and relaxed. I breathed to both sides to help even out my stroke and was surprised when I made the final turn and headed towards shore. I felt refreshed and peaceful.
In T1, I tried to keep my heart rate down and walked (not ran) up the helix (spiral ramp up the parking garage attached to the Monona Terrace), even though my adrenaline was pumping and the crowd was cheering. However, my day was just beginning. I calmly changed into my bike clothes and mounted Torch, my trusty steed, who was going to take me through my 4th Ironman. We were off, and I was all smiles.
I had trained like crazy on the bike before this race and had improved significantly on the hills. I had ridden tons of hilly (mountainous) rides in the Bay Area over the summer and made my first mistake by underestimating the rollers on IM-Moo. The course was breathtaking, lined with meadows, wildflowers, rustic red barns and dairy farms. I also had lucked out with the weather--blue skies and low 70s--couldn't have been more perfect. However, the bike was significantly windy, which seems to be the M.O. for that area. Relentless hills and wind would sap my energy over time. My overconfidence on the bike would be my great undoing on this course. Knowing how fast I could go on a flat, easy course, I decided that was the pace I would maintain on this course, despite it being longer and more challenging. I blasted through the first loop, feeling fresh and ready for more. Somewhere along the second lap, I began to feel tired and my pace slowed down. The hills were much steeper and longer the second time around. The wind seemed like it had picked up, but it could have been my imagination. I ate and hydrated well, however, knowing I would still have a marathon ahead of me.
The spectators were wonderful--I loved their creative signs and costumes. I'm not sure if spectators realize how amazing they are. They inject energy into tired athletes, giving our minds a brief respite from our self-induced torment. I never can give them the thanks I want since my energy levels prohibit smiles and high-fives that are normally so easy to give. The clown was a bit creepy, however. My favorite spectators were the elderly group in lounge chairs outside the retirement home, excitedly cheering us on. They filled me with appreciation--I can still push my body through the experience of an Ironman. One day, I will not be able to do this. I felt very thankful that I was healthy enough to make myself do this, especially since, so often, I berate myself for not being faster. I can do an Ironman! How awesome is that?
I coasted into T2 feeling extremely tired--I had refused to back off my pace and may have PRed on the bike. This decision would cost me dearly. However, I felt mentally strong and resolute. Let's get this marathon over with! I changed and trotted out wearily onto the marathon course.
I feel like the Ironman truly begins on the marathon. Okay, I've definitely had my meltdowns at mile 90 of the bike but 26.2 miles can stretch on and on into darkness after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike. I began running wearily but steadily, waiting to find my groove as I always do. I had fantastic marathons in 2 of the 3 previous Ironmans, and was relying on my trusty, old runner's high to get me through. It was not to be. Unlike 90% of the runs I have done, this entire marathon felt like a slog. This was doubly undoing for me because I consider running to be my strength. I would be completely humbled by this marathon, which is par for
the course in an Ironman.
The course wound through the UW campus which had been my home for 4 years twenty years prior. The sense of deja vu was overwhelming and the nostalgia was pleasant. This is where I had gone to Spanish class, this is the dorm where I lived, this is the football stadium where I spent my Saturdays cheering on the Badgers, this is College Library where our study groups would "study", this is State Street Brats where I had brats and beers, and this is Observatory Drive where the drunk bus would try to make one of the inebriated students fall over by taking the sharp turns too tightly. The memories were endless and joyous, and I relished every one of them.
I forced myself to run a steady pace for the first 13 miles, refusing to back down. I continued to eat and hydrate. My nutrition was spot on, and for once, my stomach didn't grumble (solid foods are key for me). After the first loop, I was lured by several other racers taking walk breaks. I was so tired. I have never in my life felt so tired. I began fantasizing about laying down on the side of the road and taking a nap. I began taking walk breaks too. At first they were brief. Walking was like an intoxicating drug--I became addicted. A few minutes became a mile. I began walking more frequently and for longer. The miles dragged on for an eternity. Darkness fell, and the shadows played tricks on my mind, melding into shapes and forms that did not exist. I no longer cared about what my time would be at the finish. I just wanted to finish. My motivation at this point was to get the g*damn thing over with. I began getting chilled, and blisters began to form on my feet. I hadn't trained to walk, and my body was unprepared. I willed myself back to a run to generate heat and relieve my blistering feet. So strange that running was a relief on my feet and kept me warm. Then, the exhaustion would take over again, and I would find myself walking without realizing. I felt like I was in a dream. My face was like stone; I couldn't figure out how to move it to make it smile, or even grimace. My boyfriend popped up to cheer me on, somewhere around mile 16, and scared the bejeezus out of me. I didn't recognize him for a minute. I have never experienced such exhaustion before.
This was the point I had been waiting for, when I would inevitably ask the existential question: why am I out here, putting myself through this? Why do I willingly suffer? Why am I doing this? I found myself embracing this moment; this is when you learn who you are and what you are made of. This moment is when the Ironman changes who you are forever, or when you quit. It's the breaking point. As I meditated on the suffering, many thoughts came though my head. It was difficult to settle on just one. The most prevalent realization that has stayed with me, both during and after this race, is appreciation. I spend much of my life beating myself up: I'm too lazy, too fat, too dumb, too slow, too mediocre, etc., etc. I am my own worst enemy. Think of what I can do when I get out of my own way! I appreciated that my body could take me through this Ironman, that despite my exhaustion and disappointment, I still had no doubts I would finish and return to work on Monday. Maybe if I spent more time appreciating myself and less time underestimating myself, I would do more amazing things.
I began running the final mile up State Street. I definitely did not have the perky trot I imagined I would have at that point of the race, but I was excited to be near the finish....finally. The miles had stretched on endlessly, and I thought the finish would never come. I was beyond relief to feel it, hear it, taste it, within my grasp. I willed myself to pick up the pace as I rounded the Capital for the final quarter mile. The streets were flooded with light, and noise from spectators and the announcer blasted into my ears. I ran through the chute, relishing the victory. I had finished...again. I had been humbled by the Ironman, yet again. It had been just as hard as the others...again. And I had learned things about myself that will stay with me for a lifetime....again.