Tuesday, September 20, 2016

PSA: Ironman Wisconsin Will Sweep You Off Your Feet

Ironman Wisconsin will always hold a special place in my heart. Madison, Wisconsin was the home of my first Ironman race. It's been 4 years in a row that I have been in Madison for race day. Over the years I have fallen in love with the city and all of it's beauty. From the view of the lake from Monona Terrace, the capitol building, and that left hand turn onto Witte Road on the bike course that takes my breath away every.single.time. I get a feeling of complete nostalgia while driving and start to see exit signs for John Nolan Drive. The Great Dane will forever be the only place I eat dinner during my overnight visits. I will always have an internal fight with myself over which Sister is the worst. And I will ALWAYS love screaming "I-L-L" at the athletes wearing Badger tri kits and listening to their deafening silence in return.

One of my favorite sites

In 2013 I cheered on fellow Strugglebus member Todd while he raced his first Ironman in Madison. I walked away that weekend with the horror of Tristen Rodger's screams as she collided with the pavement on the bike course. Rob, myself, and Todd's wife were walking to the car when we witnessed first hand one of the most gruesome bike accidents I've ever seen to date. And somehow, I still found myself forking over the cash on Monday morning so I could have my chance to hear those 4 little words from Mike Reilly the following year.

My first Ironman experience with Todd

In 2014 I raced. I survived the washing machine of a swim. I came out alive after 7+ hours of tactical "rolling" hills on the bike course. And I found a way to put one foot in front of the other on the run until I found that finish line.

Because there are few pictures that capture such raw emotion better than this one.

In 2015 I was able to cheer on an entire slew of friends. The day before the race, Jacqui and I dusted off the bike loop 3 times each for the athletes racing. On race day, Mark and I peeled off the wetsuits of the athletes as they came out of the water and charged to their bikes. The 3 of us then made our way to the drum hill and ran up the hill with all of our friends while they pedaled. Then, we headed back to the party and watched State Street light up with runners, drunken fans, and music. We watched all 6 of our friends cross the finish line and then dragged ourselves home to go to work the next day. Only to be sent home early because I cheered myself SO sick. Laryngitis and all.

I made a new friend during my 3rd year at Ironman Wisconsin, the voice Ironman himself!

Last weekend, I watched a friend of mine, who might be one of the most determined people I know, cross that finish line. It was absolutely remarkable. Incredible. Extraordinary. But why take my word for it? Everyone, meet Brittany.
"What got me here? I started off with running. It was pretty basic, I went to college and came back one summer only to realize that my used to be athletic self couldn’t run a mile. I decided right then and there that I was going to run a half marathon. From that point, I just kept reaching for bigger and better accomplishments. I completed my first triathlon in 2013, looking back on it, I laugh every time because there were some portions of that race that I walked during the swim and had a mountain bike to get me to the run. I fell in love with sport right after that. I met a wonderful human named Lindsey at my previous job who told me about a friend she had, Megan, who was also into triathlons. Little did I know that she was the high school version of my preschool triathlete self. Everything she did was amazing to me, she is strong in every element of the race and I looked up to it. I haven’t been very competitive since high school but I’ve learned to admire other’s strengths and she is an astounding triathlete. I was blessed to have met her during a time that she was working towards her dream of being an Ironman. I had no idea what that was, so after learning a little bit about it from her, I thought “yeah, nope, there is no way I can do that.” Jump ahead to 2014 and we trucked ourselves up to Madison to watch her compete. I have never seen anything so incredible in my life. She crushed it and with that very race, I knew I wanted to be an Ironman."
The day I became and Ironman with Brittany, Lindsey, and Ian by my side!
This girl, Brittany, she's one of those humans you need in your life. When you're in her presence, you can't help but smile. Her laugh was designed to warm people's hearts. Her will to succeed is contagious. She was with me the day I became an Ironman. And I made sure I was with her every step of the way for her Ironman journey. The day she signed up for Ironman Wisconsin was the day that I introduced her to Ryan. And the rest is history. Brittany's first Ironman experience also happened to be a very emotional day for America. The 15 year anniversary of 9/11.
"I was surprisingly calm going into the swim, which is weird because to this day, I've vowed that swimming is the worst part of this sport. I consistently stay the same in every swim I do, maybe adding or decreasing by a minute. I met a lady who kept me company for the 10 minutes we were waiting in the water. We chatted about 9/11 and how different our two experiences were. I was much younger than she was so my memory of that day was very different. At the time, I didn’t know where or what The Twin Towers were. It’s amazing how 15 years can pass, and you can remember every detail about that day, but ask me what I had for breakfast last week and I rarely can remember. I slowly turned on my back and looked up at the sky, I reflected on where I wanted to be in order to avoid getting whacked in the head, I've heard the horror stories of people getting knocked out or breaking their noses, and I like my face too much to let that happen. As the cannon went off I felt a rush of excitement, I decided to stay right next to the ski jump and in front, I wasn't going to let anyone intimidate me. For the majority of the first half, I was sort of alone, by alone I mean, I wasn't being trampled on. I had a full arm length of room in front of me. By the second turn, it was a little more crowded, I remembered what my coach told me “when it gets crowded, just stop and let the crowd pass” so I did just that and before I knew it I was on my way. I felt very strong throughout the entire swim, I had anticipated needing to hold on to the “lily pads” because when I needed to cheat on my work outs, swimming was clearly the first option to go, but before I knew it I was coming out of the water to a crowd of people. My legs felt a little shaky but better than past swims and the peelers were a blessing. I've never had my wetsuit off so quickly. I started my hike up the helix and quickly got yelled at for walking, which I jogged for about a minute and then continued walking. I grabbed my sandwich, sat down, took a deep breath and was on my way. 112 miles of hills lay before me, and I was feeling ready!"
Lake Monona
That washing machine of a mass swim start ain't got nothin' on Brittany. 1 sport down. 2 to go.
"The first few miles of the bike course were kind of a blur. I was mentally preparing for the loops ahead of me and strategically mapping out how I was going to conquer them. I had done the loop multiple times but never twice so there was a moment of complete panic before I reached the start of the first loop. I remember thinking “well, here goes nothing.” I dialed in on my nutrition, making sure I ate every 24 mins and drank every 10 mins. I know I've been lacking on getting my nutrition in during training so I vowed to be finished with 6 of my baby food packs and my entire energy drink by the time I got to my special needs back. The first loop went surprisingly fast, I remember hitting Barlow and thinking this is close to the finish of the first loop. Walked up that bad boy and continued on. My coach told me “if you can't smile, you are going too fast” so I used that as my check in. I forgot that I would still have to go up one of the three bitches until I saw a crowd of my peeps running up it with me. Out of all the hills, that one took so much energy out of me. It took me 5 mins to get my breathing back to normal. I was finally at my special needs bag, packed up my baby food and refilled my energy drink. Had a snickers bar which I’ve decided was the best decision I've ever made. By mile 100, I was feeling ready to get off the bike. Nice to know it took 100 miles to get there. The wind had picked up slightly and I had seen three crashes so it was safe to say I just wanted to be done with that portion of the race. There isn’t a lot you can do about the problems you are dealt with on race day, so I was happy the only hiccup I had was my chain coming off a few times. The accidents I saw looked brutal and from what I’ve heard they were some of the worst they’ve seen, it broke my heart. I prepared for the last portion of this leg of the race, the Helix, which was another portion that I was frightened about until I saw my parents and friends. I was so excited to see them that before I knew it I was up the helix and being asked to slow down. I finished the 112 mile bike and still felt stronger than ever. I’m still debating if that was adrenaline or if I was that prepared, it's a toss-up."

We graced her with our musical abilities up the worst hill

In fact, everyone heard our song and dance!

Last summer, Brittany and I went up to Madison together to ride the bike course. I warned her, these hills were going to be unlike anything she's ever seen before. "Yea, ok I got this, NBD." The look on her face only 10 miles into our day was priceless. And here she is, a year later, and she felt "stronger than ever" after 112 miles of hell. Stud? Obvi. 2 down, 1 to go.
"Transition two was most likely one of the weirdest experiences in my life. People were naked everywhere and dousing themselves with an arrangement of anti-chafing ingredients (and I mean in very odd places that I would have never thought of). I ate my sandwich but lost my appetite as one women threw up all over herself. I figured that was my cue to go. The first turn out of the transition I saw my entire family, well a good chunk of them, aunts, uncles, cousins and more. I kissed and hugged them all and started my journey. The run was okay, I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed with the run because even during my darkest days I can usually keep an okay pace. I decided at mile 8 I would walk to mile 9, by mile 10, I saw my brother on his bike. He stayed with me almost the entire race, only checking in with me when I wanted to chat. I appreciated him being there, I didn't have to be alone in my head for too long. Honestly, my entire support team was phenomenal. I had someone at almost every turn of that race. Megan, Mark and Coach, kept pushing me and encouraging me. Lindsey and Ian, were a breath of fresh air. Hannah, Lauren, Amanda and my bro, were the smiles and cheers I needed to see during darker times and my parents were unbelievable proud during the entire race (they were very vocal about that too). By mile 20, my feet were killing me. I had never experienced pain while running so this was very new to me. It hurt when I walked and when I ran. I knew if I wanted to run down the finisher shoot I would need to do a walk run. So that's exactly what I did, then I sort of did a cross between a walk/jog. I’m not really sure what to call it, I may have been moving my legs in a jog but really going at a pace of a walk and my arms were clearly moving back and forth, I’ll leave that up to interpretation. I saw my brother and Coach one more time at mile 23, it was all starting to feel real, I was going to be an IRONMAN. I’m not really sure what happened next, but I remember coming down the shoot and I was in such a state of shock that I couldn’t do anything but smile. It was kind of embarrassing, I had thought about this moment for months and yet all I could do was smile. I crossed the finish line and immediately thought “ OMG, I did it, I just finished” but it still didn’t completely sink in."
State Street has a way of making you feel like you're running on top of the world

"My feet hurt!" Shut up and give me a pose.
Ryan and I stood on the fence only a couple feet from the finish line and watched Brittany make her dreams come true. I knew she had it in her. Ryan knew it too. There wasn't much that could keep us from smiling in that moment. We ran to find her at the finish line. Mark was already there with her family. Ian and Lindsey spotted her at about mile 25.8 so they had ran up just behind us. I was having a serious dejavu moment. I had been in this moment before. With these exact people. Only 2 years ago, the shoe was on the other foot.
 "It’s been a long, emotional journey to this day. I doubted myself more times than I can count and I threw my bike at least 10 times. My coach got a lot of texts of me being a complete drama queen and I had what felt like the worst race of my life only two months before Madison. To say I was discouraged, was an understatement. I never forgot that weekend back in 2014 though, Megan looked so happy to cross that finish line and it was so exhilarating to see all of those people. Young and Old, it was beautiful. It’s different when you are a spectator, but there is something so powerful about seeing your athlete cross the finish line. You have a sense of pride, that can’t be explained. I was so proud of myself, but I truly believe my parents, brother, friends and family were prouder. People ask me if I’ll do another. At this time, I just don’t know. You can’t take away the feeling of becoming an Ironman, but it might be cool to PR."
Dejavu - to the max
Maximize your spectating and bring your bike ;)

Brittany was able to watch me become an Ironman, and I was able to return the favor. But what about the man who turned us both into an Ironman? How does he feel about this race? How does this 2nd Sunday in September affect him year after year? Everyone, meet Ryan.
"Ironman Wisconsin always hold a special place in my heart.  It was the first Ironman that I competed in back in 2010.  The next few years, I spent making the yearly pilgrimage up to Madison to work and also to spectate.  Being a fairly local (2 hr drive from home) race, I’ve had plenty of friends racing every year- so being up there to cheer them on and support has been a highlight of the year.  The crowd support of Ironman Wisconsin is unrivaled.  Think of Tour de France style cheering support on the never ending hills of the surrounding Madison countryside.  Fans line the course dressed in costumes and try to squeeze some extra energy into the competitors by cheering and running alongside them.  My great high school friend, John Atch, started brining his drum collection and it turned into an annual event to ‘drum’ alongside the bikers as they made their way up the steep grades.  Although as exhausting / tiring as it was to run up and down the hills carrying a drum and banging it until my hands were raw and throbbing, the simple ‘thank you, you make my race so much better’ said from the athletes made it all worth it.  Every year, I went home with a smile on my face.

Fast forward to the past few years.  I still head up to Madison to cheer and spectate, but it definitely is a different feeling.  The primary reason?  I have had athletes that I coach participate and my nerves are worse than if I’m racing myself.  An Ironman is a LONG day and regardless if you are fast or slow, the event takes a lot of training, discipline, and sacrifice.  The athletes that I’ve coached invest SO much into that one day (time with family/friends, money, social outings, etc.).  And these athletes count on me to help them have a successful race- whether that is placing near the front, getting to the finish line before the 17 hour mark, or somewhere in between.  So when I head up to Madison now, I am excited, yet just as nervous as my athletes.  

“How will their day unfold?  Will they execute just as we had planned?  How are they going to react if they hit a low point or run into trouble?”  All thoughts that constantly run through my head throughout the course of the day.  As the race is going on, I am constantly trying to click the refresh button to see if they made it to the next check point.  More often than not, the athlete tracker is off or an athlete’s timing chip doesn’t register, so I sit there wondering if they are ok.  Each passing second seems like an hour…but then the relief is there when I see them round the corner and make it through each point of the course.  And then the waiting begins again over and over throughout the day.  Palms sweating, heart rate climbing…the day is just as grueling as if I were out there myself.  Then as they get closer and closer to finishing, goosebumps slowly start to rise.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing someone accomplish something that you’ve seen them work so hard for.  I’ve sat on that final corner before heading into the finish, and it gets me every time.  Seeing my athlete’s faces as I see them round the corner is the best sight of the day- especially for those first time Ironman athletes.  I’ve had to pull myself together before rushing down and congratulating them.  At the end of the day, I go home exhausted similarly to when I used to go up cheering on friends, but the smile on my face is quite a bit larger."
Whose smile is bigger?
I'm not married, nor do I have kids. But at this point in my life, I can say that crossing that Ironman finish line for the first time is one of the most emotional experiences I've ever had. And, I'm pretty sure Brittany might agree with me.
"I could conclude with so many memories and triumphs, but I think ending with is so much better… it was one of the most unbelievable experiences, I’ve ever had. I will never forget that day or the people who were there. I will remember the people, the smells and everything in between, for a lifetime."
No, Ironman isn't paying me to write this. No, I'm not trying to convince everyone who reads my blog that Ironman Wisconsin is the Ironman they need to add to their bucket list. So what's the point? I just want everyone to know how wonderful this city has been to me and my friends over the years. Some amazing memories have been made in Madison. Dreams have come true there. And it's only a stones throw away from home. I'll always tell you that Chicago is the best city in the world, and it is! But Madison, Wisconsin, you might be in the running for a close 2nd.