So many unpredictable incidents factored into this race that I needed to get this all written down before I forgot to mention some of them. To start at the beginning, I have to go back about a month before the race to the start of my bike troubles. Long story short: if I got the bike up over 20 mph, the front wheel would jerk violently back and forth in what we affectionately call a "death wobble." After multiple trips to different bike techs, the problem couldn't get resolved, so I had to ride a different bike. Always a bad idea to try something new in an Ironman, and I can't think of a bigger violation of that rule than riding a new bike. This sin is magnified on Wisconsin's bike course, with almost 6,000 feet of climbs (and the associated on downhill runs on bumpy roads), not to mention the high-speed turns! So when I was estimating my finish time, I revised my bike time to account for greater caution on the speeds I would see. Likewise, slower speeds going downhill means more climbing on the next uphill, meaning legs that are more fatigued for the marathon. I would stick with my nutrition plan, which is crucial. All year, I've been using liquid food for long workouts, called Generation UCan. Works great, and you only need a serving every 90 minutes. The only problem was that Team Zero provided the racing gear, and the uniform didn't have pockets to hold the little bottles of UCan. Time to improvise: I put the UCan into water bottles and tied them to the bottle rack behind my seat. No worries!
Ironman starts with a 2.4 mile open water swim, mixed together with almost 3,000 of your closest friends. That's why we say the Ironman swim is a contact sport. I'll post a picture showing the shot to the head I took from someone's elbow.
I finished the swim in 1 hour 25 minutes, almost 5 minutes faster than Arizona. Out of the water, you sprint up "The Helix": a spiral drive leading up to a parking garage. There were so many screaming fans on the Helix that the sound was deafening (the paper said 75,000 people were there to watch!). Change into biking gear, and ride down the Helix on the other side.
I was two miles into the 112 mile bike ride when I saw a guy on a backboard wearing a "C" collar, getting loaded into the ambulance. A bad omen on a day when I was worried about crashing! Luckily, Madison's course starts with a 16-mile ride ("The Stick") to get to "The Loop"… a 40 mile circuit that you ride twice before returning on the Stick. That 16 miles gave me a chance to get comfortable on my bike and get ready for what was to come. On the loop, there are three really nasty hills that are affectionately called "The Three Bitches." If you live in my area, picture riding your bike up Taylor Road from Route 8, toward Wildlife Prairie Park. But picture the hill being a mile long. That'll give you an idea of what we face three times on each loop. It really helps that hundreds of people turn out on each hill, screaming encouragement as you make the climb. What doesn't help is that most of the roads are in disrepair. The amount of gear that had been shaken off bikes was stunning.
Early in the first Loop, I had a triathlon first: a warning for a rule violation. There was a cluster of bikes in front of me (which means they were all breaking the rules), and we were approaching a long hill. I was going a lot faster than they were and didn't want to lose my momentum, so I moved over about a foot across the yellow line and passed them. What are the odds that with only 2 or 3 officials monitoring a 40-mile loop, one of them would be right there when I did it? Fortunately, he only warned me to stay on my side of the road and didn't penalize me for it. Somewhere toward the beginning of the second Loop, a bee performed a miracle. Even though I was racing toward it at about 30 mph, it found its way into my aero helmet through the 1/2-inch-high vent in the front. It buzzed around a bit and stung me in the ear before falling out. About 75 miles into the ride, I was still feeling really comfortable. Despite the hills, my Garmin said I was maintaining a pace of 18.1 mph, only .2 mph slower than I held on the flat course at Tempe last year. It was looking like I had a 6 hour bike time in the bag, with a shot at breaking 12 hours on the race (beating my time from last year by almost 45 minutes!). And that was when the race fell apart for me. I reached back for my next serving of UCan and found that the entire bottle cage had fallen off my bike. No bottles, no UCan, no fuel for my body. I had to make a choice. Finish the last 37 miles with no fuel in my body and risk heading out to the run in complete exhaustion? Or switch to the nutrition that the race volunteers provide, and risk an upset stomach, which can happen if you switch off to food while using UCan. I chose to err on the side of caution. I ate some of the food, but I slowed down to conserve energy. I came in off the bike at 6 hours and 30 minutes, averaging 17.3 mph.
When I headed out onto the run, a full marathon at 26.2 miles, I knew my stomach was in trouble. It felt like I had just eaten two Big Macs and a large chocolate shake and then tried to do jumping jacks. After a couple of miles of running, I slowed to a walk to try and let my stomach recover. I was no longer concerned about my finish time, I just wanted to finish. Quitting wasn't an option! I bumped into a friend, Brad Gant, who texted my wife (Jill) to tell her I was having trouble but still moving. I had told Jill I would reach the halfway point in just over 2 hours, and I didn't want her to worry. Brad was a huge help, riding his bike beside me and distracting me from what my stomach was doing. I stuck to my plan for a while… walk some, run some, and grab what I could at the aid stations that pop up every mile. I stuck to liquids: water, Coke, and chicken broth. Coke will restore your energy in a flash, but once you start on it you have to stick with it. The problem was, I wasn't lacking energy. My legs wanted to run. It was my stomach holding me back. This went on for about 19 miles, until I finally stopped at the porta-potty and spent about five minutes throwing up everything I had put in my stomach. With that out of the way, the stomach felt great, and I felt like I could run the rest of the way. But I was worried that since my body basically had absorbed nothing for the last few hours, if I pushed too hard I could cramp up and not be able to continue. So I kept with the run/walk plan, mainly walking by then. I spotted Jill and some friends in the crowd, so I stopped and spent several minutes talking to them about what had gone wrong. Then it was back to the race. Finally, with about a quarter mile to go, I hoisted the 82nd Airborne flag I had carried for 26 miles and ran the rest of the way in. My final time was 15 hours and 4 minutes… way slower than what I wanted, but with everything that happened, I was excited just to cross the line. Ironman has photographers waiting at the finish line to take your picture with your medal. I posed with my Airborne flag, and by some crazy chance my photographer was former 82nd Airborne from the Vietnam era. He really enjoyed taking that picture!
Jill and I hung out at the finish line for the next couple of hours and stayed for the big finale. Thousands of people lined that final stretch to cheer in the last people who were trying to make the midnight deadline. Even if you have no desire to do an Ironman, the midnight finish is something to see! I'll post a link to the video of the woman (68 years old, I think) who finished just after midnight, doubled over and ready to collapse, but refusing to quit. Amazing! Follow this link, and either watch the whole video or skip to 6:39 to see her.