“Thanks for picking up after us,” I said. She half-stood up, looked directly at me –
garbage bag and squashed Gatorade cup in hand – and said, “Oh, I can’t do what you’re doing, so I do this. You guys are amazing!” The sun kept beating down on both of us as I strode past - the humidity sticking like a glove.
I wondered who had it harder right then, she being at least 25 years my senior and lord knows how many hours into her volunteer shift, me being almost 9 hours into my third Ironman. She gave me energy though. And I was able to keep going.
I always prepare for the best and the worst mentally while training. I picture myself whipping through the finish tape, my almost 3-year-old daughter Rae in my arms, totally stoked from breaking the 10-hour barrier for the first time.
I picture myself crashing, or having a catastrophic mechanical failure on the bike. I picture myself becoming too dehydrated on the run and passing out. Not finishing.
I picture myself suffering all day long. Not hitting my goals. What to do?
Lucky for me it was the latter. I suffered and suffered and suffered. Nothing felt good or right or on the entire day. It will be my job in training to try and deconstruct the whole experience throughout the year – from training to sleep to taper to nutrition – to put it in perspective and to truly learn and grow from it.
Amidst the 2100 athletes starting the race I had three training partners, Tommy Campbell, Hot Rod Garbarino & Jamie “Dr. Ass Pants” Park. I also had one old acquaintance Konrad Ribiero from LA and an old swimming buddy Dan Frost from Virginia taking part as well.
We all felt good coming into the race and many of us had aspirations of squeaking a slot into the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii on October 16, 2005.
Having goals of this nature can cut both ways. The carrot keeps you going when the training gets tough. If you’re out there on race day, going like you know you can, it keeps you working that much harder to get it done.
The trouble is, what do you do when you know 25 miles into the bike that you just don’t have it? That your dream since you were 9 will still be a dream no matter what you do for the rest of the day?
Do you give up? Do you hop in the sag wagon at mile 40 of the bike? Do you take that cold beer from the Frat Guy and sit on the side of the road until they sweep the course? Or do you dig down and find a new way to get home?
I’ve been through this twice before. Up at 3:45. Eat. Look at self in mirror. Know I can do this thing. Now it’s just about doing it faster than I’ve ever done before. First time was about finishing. Second time was about improvement and figuring it all out. Third time is get up and own it time. Keep looking at self in mirror. Legs are still a little tight from the burst work on the swim, bike and run workout from the day before. Shake it off. “You’re ready,” I tell myself.
Lynn drives Rae & I to the race start and drops me off at the bottom of the Monona Terrace Conference Center in Madison, Wisconsin at 5 in the A.M. I get my body marked with my race number, get my bike ready & double-check my transition bags. By 6 A.M. I’m stretching with Dr. Ass Pants by the gift shop on the 4th floor.
Head down to swim start area at 6:15. Meet up with Tommy and Lynn & Rae. It’s an athletes only section, but there are my wife and child – Lynn always finds her way into places she shouldn’t be on race day. And I love her for it.
Lynn snaps digital photos while Tommy and I lube up with Body Glide and put on our wetsuits. The sun is starting to make itself more of a presence. I kiss Lynn and Rae for luck, drop my dry strip bag with the volunteers and head into the water with Tommy.
It’s 6:35 A.M. They’ll start this mother soon enough. A little warm-up and tread water time.
Ten minutes before the gun, Konrad & Ass Pants join Tommy & I out towards the first big buoy. We’re all swimming under one hour, with Tommy being the fastest of us by far. Konrad notices Tommy keeps creeping back a bit. His always brash self exclaims to everyone around, “What are you going Tommy? 52 minutes?” Tommy just shrugs, “Yeah, probably.” Konrad is incredulous, “You hear that man? He’s going a 52 and you’re lined up in front of him!”
At this point, I decide to move my happy 56-58 minute Ass a little further away from the main start buoy. I have to have a Jedi nose for where to be, given I’m wearing hard plastic Swedish Training Goggles and have been cut around the eyes during the swim when I’ve been punched or kicked in the face.
Yellow flag is up. We’ll start anytime in the next five minutes. I find my space. Canon.
We’re off. It doesn’t take but 100 meters for things to start sucking. I’ve found myself in a delightful little pack that isn’t into pushing and shoving and we’ve all lined up very well. But I can feel the wetsuit zipper just starting to rub my neck raw … Luckily I will have just less than an hour of this neck bleeding business before I get on the bike. Yea.
I try and adjust the suit mid-stroke a couple of times. Nothing works. I suck it up and keep going. So I’ll be a little raw? It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
The 2.4-mile swim is a rectangular two-lap course out in front of the Monona Terrace Conference Center – an Andrew Lloyd Wright original, no less. I’m feeling OK on the first loop. I’m just trying to keep clean with my fellow athletes and get a good draft when I can. On the second loop I pick up the heels of a Male Pro in a red cap and follow him until there are about 500 meters to go.
I swim around him, catch on the toes of a group of women and bring myself across the line at 58:14. My slowest Ironman Swim to date, but I’ve been focusing on the bike and the run this year, so that’s all right with me.
I run up the ramp after dragging my knuckles, orangutan-like, on the green carpet leading out of the water. I unzip my wetsuit while jogging 50 feet to the Strippers. It’s always nice to have folks with a hankering to rip your garments off as quickly as possible before handing them to you and sending you on your way. I hit my feet, thank my Strippers and start to run up the garage helix – 4 stories to the transition area.
Running now through the convention center, I go into the meeting room-turned transition area and grab my bag of cycling accoutrements. I snap and buckle my helmet, race belt and fanny pack full of food, before grabbing my cycling shoes and proceeding to run barefoot to my bike. From the water to my bike is somewhere in the neighborhood of a third-mile. Transition 1: 5:45 minutes.
“It’s Been A Bad Day … Please Don’t Take Our Picture”
Down the helix I go. On my bike, hitting John Nolan Drive at 1:02 something-something. From the first pedal stroke I don’t feel good. My neck is torn up and I see my shadow in the sun … What the heck is that? It’s my race number flapping in the wind – it’s only connected to one of my rings. I must have ripped it off when I buckled on my fanny pack. I stuff my number in the back of my tri-shorts and keep going.
I suck down 24 oz. Gatorade in the first 10 minutes on the bike. It’s going to be warm, and I feel a bit parched from wearing a long-sleeve wetsuit in the 72-degree water. Maybe a bit too quickly on the Gatorade – my tummy is starting to feel funny. I still don’t feel good. Gatorade or no Gatorade. I push forward at my moderate pace. People are passing me already. I reel in a few faster swimmer types and just keep pushing my gears, hoping my head and tummy and legs and back and … come around.
I’m munching and drinking and pedaling. Somewhere here I remember I forgot to have Lynn (or anyone) put sunscreen on my back … I got the rest of my body earlier, but now, with my new tri-top exposing a healthy portion of my back to the ever-warming sun, I feel a tad bit of remorse. I don’t stop pedaling though.
The hills start in the town of Verona. Up-we-go-down. Up-up-we-go-down-down. The course rides you out to Verona and then two roughly 40-mile loops then back to Madison. I’m hating life by mile 25. Everything sucks. I’m drinking and eating like I’ve trained. I see Dr. Ass Pants just up ahead of me. I cruise by him, “Hey, Ass Pants.”
“Man,” he says, “this sucks.” I look at him and say, “Yeah, I’m having a bad day too.” He tells me he’s already gotten off his bike twice to stretch. That would explain why I caught him so quickly on the bike. We agree that it’s a long race and that we should start feeling better any time.
The problem is, we don’t. We keep leap-frogging and chatting. I loose my salt tabs and Pepcid AC somewhere between mile 40 and 60. I’ve taken a few salt tabs and started to feel better. But now they’re gone. I hunker down and do my best to control the damage. It’s warm – like 95-degrees warm with a healthy dose of humidity.
I’m not hungry anymore and longing to join the fellow in the sag wagon by mile 60. My tongue is swelling. I’m thirsty. I’m feeling a bit dizzy. And Jamie just passed me again (along with everyone, it seems, and their grandparents) on the bike. I choke down two more Clif Gel Shots with gulps of water. The fast-heating cow-manure smell made this process a bit more difficult.
The best part of the two laps was the “Degree of Difficulty Hill” at Old Sauk Mountain Road. It was like the Tour de France going up the hill the first time. Then up another small grinder rise a mile thereafter. Lots of fun, lots of good energy. Then through the town of Verona itself, they even had a traffic speed checker so you and the huge pig-roast-eating crowd could see how fast you were going.
By the second lap the hill up Old Sauk Mountain had much fewer people: It seemed like all that was left were a few people in lawn chairs a couple of cars and a boom box. It was like that most of the second lap. The heat had been climbing and all the people that HAD been standing out in the sun in their yards, on the sides of the roads, etc. had either disappeared or retreated toward the shade. Maybe I notice this more because I can sense the lobster-red feel of my back coming on.
I suck it up. I make it home. Slowly for me. Terribly slowly. I see that Jamie is only a minute or two ahead of me as we hit John Nolan Drive back to the Monona Terrace.
I cruise up the quadruple helix to the fourth floor of the parking garage, thankful that the bike is over. I don’t feel much like running and I haven’t given up on the thought of giving up yet. I unstrap the Velcro on my shoes and hand my bike to a volunteer. 6:01 something on the bike. (I’d hoped for 30 minutes faster.)
Sani-can Time with Dr. Honeybucket
Jogging through the convention center doors – grab my second transition bag and head into the Men’s changing area.
Here there are athletes in several levels of disarray. Yes, some are quickly getting their run gear on and trucking out the door. Others (immediately reminding me of Canada in ’98) are lying on the floors, sitting with volunteers, or offering up a blank stare to the center of the room.
I see Jamie on the back row. I jog over to a seat next to him and dump my run goodies on the floor. I ask him, “You wanna do this together?” He immediately says, “Yes.” I put on my Ironman Fuel belt with four flasks of Gatorade. I give my bag – now full of my cycling gear to a volunteer. Then I realize I still have my fanny pack on. I take the fanny pack off and hand it over to another volunteer. “I forgot to put this in my bag … It’s #445. I’m 445 – Thank you so much!” My race number is completely off my belt, just sitting in my shorts. But hey! I’m chipper. Man, I feel like shit.
I tell Jamie I’ll meet him at the run start, because I have to hit the Porta-Potty. I jog up to the sunscreen gals who say, “Wow, you’re kind of burned already.” Yes, between my utter lack of sunscreen on my back and my bleeding neck, I’m sure I look great. The sunscreen feels like sandpaper going on my skin.
Sitting in the Sani-Can, me, The Good Dr. Honeybucket, I have a solid stool – with no urine. I haven’t peed since 15 minutes before the start of the swim. My tummy still feels upset though – full of gas. While I’m doing this, I diligently re-attach the bottom holes of my race-number through the rungs of my race number belt. I had originally placed some electrical tape on the rungs to help keep the number in place (wow, that worked well) and use the tape to keep it intact. I prop the number up in my Fuel Belt and head out the door up to the run start. I notice the “For Oskar” I wrote on my shoes the day before. Oskar is my brand new cousin (5 weeks premature). I’m worried I’ll let him down today. Transition 2: 7 minutes, 45 seconds.
“On The Run Again”
Ass pants is waiting for me at the run start. He’s already “started” the run. He has his prosthetic bare-ass shorts on and spectators and athletes are laughing. We start up the hill toward the capital building and see our families on the side of the road. I tell my wife Lynn, “Man, we’re having a rough day.” She smiles and says, “I know. Just go out there and run easy.” I want to quit, but I know that she’d kill me. I sense my daughter as much as see her and talk to her.
Only 26 miles to go …
I run the first mile in 8:44 with Jamie. We have a couple of pictures taken together on the run. By mile 3 Jamie has to pee. I wait around for him. By the end of the mile he’s imploring me to go on without him. We complete that mile in 11:55. His heart rate, he said, was up at 160 and that he was going to have to walk for awhile.
This sounds tempting. But I keep going. Alone.
I’m doing the Ironman shuffle as eventual winner Dave Harju laps me on the run at about mile 4. His competitors are a few minutes behind. I see my buddy Tommy Campbell shortly after seeing women’s leader Nicole Deboom at mile 10. He looks good. I’m stoked for him, while still bummed for me.
At the aid station just before Observatory Drive – the toughest hill on the run, I stop in to the Honeybucket again. The Doctor had to make another call.
As it turned out, I was just super-gassy, and I discovered spending time in any more super-heated portable toilets probably wouldn’t be a very good idea for the rest of the day if I could avoid-it.
I get out, down some Gatorade and salt tablets, put my Tootsie Pop square in my mouth and start powering up the hill. I walk through the toughest parts of the hill. My first bout with walking – something I know I’ll be doing a bit more of throughout the remainder of “the run course.”
Down the hill, starting the out-and-back and miles 6-7, I see Dan Frost who we had dinner with on Friday night at Angelos. It turns out, with his slower swim, bike and T1 times, he must have passed me while I was studiously repairing my run number in the porta-john. I say, “Hey, Dan! Man, I’m having a tough day.” He says, “You don’t look like it!” Devils confusion. He lets me look good as long as I feel bad. I’m cruising at a furious 9:40 shuffle.
It is here I see and thank the delightful septuagenarian woman picking up our refuse.
On the way “back” on the out-and-back Dan asks me if I’m on my first lap or second. I chuckle, for I’d be on just over a 9-hour pace if I were on my second. I simply exclaim, “First!” and carry on about my business.
I had the chance to run down State Street with some nice college competitors … fabulous athletes all. I chat with numerous other athletes. Some having much better and much worse days than I. It’s the nature of this Ironman beast.
At the run turn-around my family and friends ask me where Jamie is. I shrug and say “Don’t know.” I grab my special needs bag and eagerly dig into some more salt tabs and, finally, a Pepcid AC. My tummy starts feeling better thereafter. On the way back Lynn tells me Rod was about 40 minutes behind to start the run and Konrad only came by five minutes previous. I don’t think I can catch Konrad – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hot Rod came on to catch my slowly disintegrating self.
After the energy of State Street (we runners get to be on two portions of State Street – once at the start/half-way point and once again just down the street as the out-and back turnaround of the course – where all the bars and outdoor seating put the jolly spectators right on top of you) I’m left alone again. Moseying up the pedestrian overpass for the third time, heading back out past Greek Row toward the stadium, back up over the Observatory road, along the waterfront trail, return to the out-and-back and then again to State Street Part Deux.
Many athletes are having their names called out because all athletes names are printed just below their race numbers. Due to my doctoring, all that people can see is my #445. So I’ll hear, “Go Gretchen! Go Steve! Go … 445” or sometimes they don’t bother. You just hear about Gretchen and Steve while some nameless face trundles on by.
I keep moving. I walk more now when I feel like it.
I toss my Tootsie Pop and don’t try another. Nothing tastes very good. I force myself to eat two of the four Clif Shots I’d planned to devour on the run (it’s a bit easier without the manure smell). I start sipping warm chicken broth when it is offered to me. I keep pounding Gatorade at the aid stations – by this time my Fuel Belt is dry. I continue munching on pretzels. My tummy is letting go of the last bits of gas at about mile 17.
During one of my release episodes one of my compatriots says, “nice work.” I just grunt, “damn frogs.” We both keep on shuffling. At mile 20 I’m at 10 hours 30 minutes. I have one hour to beat my well-adjusted goal of 11:30. I have to believe. I start picking up the pace.
I’ve been on the lookout for Rod on the out-and-backs and everywhere else, but I haven’t seen him. The last time I saw Tommy he must have been at mile 22 or so – not looking quite as good, but DANG is he doing well for his first crack at this distance! I’m so ridiculously proud of him. He and his wife are amazing people – I’m blessed to count them as my friends.
On the way back in, it’s hard to tell who is on lap one and who is on lap two. We all look spent. It’s amazing how alone you can feel with so many people around when you are having a bad day. In Canada in 2002, I felt nothing but energized all day – by the volunteers, competitors and spectators. Here, it comes in fits and starts … just a slight pulse in the back of my head keeping me strong – but it is the FEAR of Rae and Lynn that keeps me pushing toward The Line. Then there’s that little bug Oskar in his isolette. I’m breathing on my own. I can do this. I’m holding sub-10 minute miles. 11:30 is within reach.
I wait for an ambulance to pass who has just picked up a racer who was in dire straights.
With just over 3 miles to go, a 50-something Ironman says to me, “Only 5K now – go finish it.” I ask him if this is his first or second lap. He says, “Second,” and, “I’ll see you around.” I laugh and say, “You might see me sooner than that.” He just shakes his head and says “go.”
I’m running sub-nine minute miles now. I zip by Konrad while zipping up the Pedestrian Overpass for the last time. I say to him, “Let’s get home, brother.” He smiles and slaps my hand and says “Let’s do it.” I keep running. He must have kept power-walking.
Mile 24 I crank out an 8:15. I’m running with the fear that Konrad will catch me. New goals to keep me going. I’m hurting. Whoever designed this course is just plain mean.
The last 1.5 miles is up hill. I’m painfully striding through an 8:45 last mile before a brief down-hill to the finish chute. I’m under 11:30. I’ve been flying by people up the hill. I’m really alone this time. Nobody ahead of me for a minute. Nobody behind for a minute.
My first Ironman finish with nobody around. At the top of the finishing chute, the crowd is going nuts FOR ME. I see my wife put my daughter on the ground and Rae runs up the chute towards me. The crowd is going ape-shit. (They love kids – borrow somebody with a kid if you have to next time you finish an Ironman.) I pick her up in the crook of my right arm and we run across the line together. 11:26:10 total time. 4:12 Marathon.
Rae asked me the next day. “Daddy?” “Yes, baby?” “Next time we finish an Ironman, will you hold my hand?”