Race Recap – Ironman Wisconsin September 8, 2019
Finishing Time: 14:40:48
- Swim: 1:36:11
- T1: 19:14
- Bike: 7:23:52
- T2: 12:36
- Run: 5:08:58
In reality, it took more than 14 hours and 40 minutes and 48 seconds to cross that finish line. It was more like 363 days. My journey to the Ironman Wisconsin 2019 finish line began on Monday, September 10, 2018. That is the day I decided every workout from that day forward would be for the purpose of preparing me for this particular Ironman race. Following is not only a recap of those 14 hours and 40 minutes but also an acknowledgment of what took place to prepare me for that day.
The Swim – 2.4 miles Lake Monona in Madison, WI
There was only one thing about the swim that concerned me – how would I manage my blood sugar without knowing what it was throughout the estimated 1.5 hours that I would be in the water. Although contact with other swimmers during an open water swim can be unpleasant, I had long ago come to grips with the fact that this is simply the way it is. About the only person who doesn’t have to consider this as a factor is the person in first place. The rest of us can plan on some jostling, grabbing, hitting, kicking and possibly some frantic and inadvertent dunking. I’m not a fan of this experience, but the coping method I have chosen is 1. Anticipate it, 2. Avoid it when possible, and 3. Laugh about it when it happens. I would estimate that at least 99% of the people who make contact with me during the swim are just trying to survive the swim and have no ill will toward me. Many are nervous and stressed. Even though it is not my strongest discipline, I really enjoy the swim.
The other factor in an Ironman swim that concerns many people is the distance of 2.4 miles. That sounds like an awful long way to swim for most people. I agree, that it sounds long, yet I felt well prepared for the distance for a two reasons. The first is US Masters Swimming. For over a year, I swam with local Masters Swim Group, The Sea Devils. In April of 2019, I moved to one of the Lifetime Fitness Masters Swim Groups in Maple Grove which is led by my tri coach, Cheryl Zitur. I went to swim sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:45a.m. It was my favorite way to start the day, and I will continue this going forward. Without a doubt, my swimming improved in confidence, technique and speed because of this US Masters Swim experience. The second reason I felt prepared for the distance was of the number of open water swims I did over the summer. Sometimes I swam alone, but most of the time I had fellow swimmers (thanks to Wendy’s Walleyes open water swim group) or my friend Stayce or my husband Scot would kayak next to me while I swam. One rainy morning, Scot got up early with me so we could get in Lake Rebecca by 6:00 a.m. One week later Lake Rebecca was closed due to E. Coli! Thankfully, I was not impacted by this.
Tumultuous would be a fairly accurate term to describe the swim conditions at Lake Monona race morning. The waves presented quite a challenge. Rather than moving in one direction, they seemed to be coming and going, moving all over the place. Any kind of swim stroke and breathing pattern was out of the question. This was a stressful swim, because I rarely felt like I could just settle into a swim stroke. I frequently felt the need to look up to make sure I was heading in the right direction. Because of this, I ended up with a pretty bad gash at the bottom of my skull from having to look up above the waves as my wet suit rubbed against my skin. I did find myself off course a bit a couple of times, but
based on my final yardage (a bit over 4500 yards), I wasn’t too far off from the course overall (4400 yards). Many other swimmers said they were much closer to 5,000 yards, so I’m not feeling too bad about my 100 extra yards. The swim course is marked with buoys approximately every .1 mile. Yellow buoys marked the first half of the course, red buoys marked the turns, and the orange buoys marked the second half of the course. I remember seeing that first orange buoy and thinking Crap! I’m only half way!
There were times during the swim when I felt concerned, but I never felt like I should turn back or give up. I just knew I had to keep plugging along. I found out after the race that dozens of people started the swim, then decided to turn around and not finish. This meant they were done for the day. This was the hardest swim I have experienced to date. Around the 3000 yard mark, I was so tired. I wasn’t sure if it was because of low blood sugar or if I was just tired from the tough swim. Because I rarely feel that tired during a swim, I decided to stop and take a gel. I went over to a kayak, took a gel then moved along. The volunteer in the kayak was understanding and encouraging, as was every volunteer I met throughout the day. It turned out I probably didn’t need the gel, but if nothing else it gave me peace of mind.
An odd thing that happened to me during the swim was my right hand and right forearm cramped. I had difficulty controlling that arm, so it mostly flopped around as I swam. I opened and shut my hand, focused on breathing slow and imagined my arm feeling very relaxed and fully functioning. My arm and hand did eventually relax and I was able to swim normally (as normal as possible in those conditions), but that sensation returned a couple more times throughout the swim. After I got out of the water I realized how tense I was. I was stressed about the number of people who grasped at my feet (I thought for sure my chip would come off, but I re-fastened it a couple times). Numerous people swam on top of me, grabbed me or hit me. I reminded myself that these people were probably nervous, stressed, or panicky and that it had nothing to do with me. I would move out of the way whenever possible. A couple times to calm myself, I would say something to someone (“We’re getting there!” “Are you doing OK?” “We’ve got this!” etc.). One swimmer and I accidentally locked arms. It was no one’s fault, but when his head came up I said, “I’m so sorry.” Thankfully, he responded with, “No problem. It’s all good.” That made that incident much less stressful. I also think that there was so much contact among swimmers because it was very difficult to see. The water was dark, the air was dark and the waves got quite high at times.
Another thing I had to remind myself to do was to take charge of my swim. For much of the swim I allowed the waves to throw me around. I told myself to stop being a victim of the waves and to maintain a strong swim stroke. This worked for a while, but continually looking up to see where I was and to make sure I wasn’t going to run into anyone made swimming strong a challenge. My dream is to be so fast and strong in the swim that I don’t need to even be concerned about where other swimmers are.
The relief of getting to that final red (turn) buoy was incredible. It was just further confirmation that I was going to get through this thing. I was absolutely amazed that my swim ended up at 1:36:11. Prior to race day, my goal had been to average close to 2:00 per 100 yards (1 hour and 28 minute swim). During the swim I was thinking I hope I make the swim cutoff (2 hours and 20 minutes), because I felt as if I was moving so slow. Plus, taking time to stop and take a gel didn’t help the time. Thankfully, my perception of how slow I was moving was not reality.
As I headed to the transition area, my husband (Scot), sisters (Kathy and Lori) and brothers-in-law (Mike and Barry) were cheering for me. It was so great to hear their voices, reminding me how blessed I am to have the support of my family. I headed up the parking ramp helix where it was lined with hundreds of cheering spectators – including my coach (Cheryl!) and two of my friends from Masters Swimming, Lyndsay and Kris! I was energized by the support and cheers of these terrific friends.
Clearly, there’s a lot of opportunity to trim some time here. This transition took over 19 minutes! One reason for the long transition was the length/distance of the transition. Running up the parking ramp, into the building, out the building, up the ramp to the bikes, all the way to the end of the ramp to the run section seemed crazy long. Plus, I had to stop and use the porta potty. I also took the time to check my blood sugar, take the second half of my long acting insulin and take a small amount of fast acting insulin. My blood sugar was high, and I wanted to be able to eat something soon after getting on the bike. My family was there when I got on the bike and they sent me off with enthusiastic shouts, “Go, Colleen!” Another pleasant surprise was seeing my friend and Ironman Dave Wirth just outside the transition. It was so cool to see someone I know but didn’t expect to see. Dave is a multiple Ironman finisher and a super great guy.
The Bike – 112 Miles. Madison, Verona, Mt. Vernon, Mt. Horeb, Cross Plains, Five Points
The Ironman Wisconsin bike course is notorious for being one of the more challenging courses on the Ironman circuit. That may be the case, but I really enjoyed it. It’s beautiful! Much of the ride goes through gorgeous farm land that reminded me of my training rides at home. I fell in love with biking over the spring and summer as I discovered new areas around my home town that were great for biking. There’s just something so peaceful and lovely about farm land. The large majority of my training rides were alone, but I didn’t feel bored or lonely. Most of the time I was delighted that I could spend so much time out and about on the bike.
One of my early spring rides was the loop portion of this course. In May, I needed to make a trip to Bloomington, Indiana for a sports performance conference. I took the opportunity to stop in Madison and ride one loop of the course on my way to Indiana. I am so happy I did that, because I remembered much of the course on race day and knew what to expect. Thankfully, those hills were not nearly as difficult as they were the first time I rode them.
I decided a couple weeks before the race that going easy up the hills would be my strategy. I stuck with that the whole way. It’s not that the hills were easy, it was that I was not going to charge up the hills. I chose to hit the easy gear early and to get myself up each hill without a whole lot of pain. This worked well, but I still experienced cramping in both legs during the second loop. Two of my Ironman heroes, John and Chris, who were cheering on the last of the Three Sisters (aka Witches or Bitches) told me to keep my legs moving, which was good advice, even though I didn’t like it. Anytime I brought my knee up as I pedaled, my hamstrings would seize up. I put the bike in an easy gear and kept pedaling. The cramps soon worked their way out and I was fine. The three toughest hills (thus, their given names) on the course are pretty close together in the “Mid Town” area of the course. Oddly, I mostly remembered the first hill from my May ride, but it is the third that is the toughest (from my perspective). It could be simply because it is the third. I was a bit surprised by it the first time around the loop. The second time around I listened in the distance for the cheers of the volunteers and spectators to let me know when it was coming. I told myself to dig deep and to ride the wave of cheers going up that crazy hill. In addition to John and Chris, I am so grateful to Lyndsay and Kris from my Masters Swim club for being there to offer me really loud encouragement as I trudged my way up to the top. I was also thrilled to see these two later that night, as they were my “catchers” after I crossed the finish line!
Blood sugar control was a struggle on the bike. In spite of taking some insulin at T1, my blood sugar kept heading up. My blood sugar remained high and continued to climb 45 minutes into the bike. For that reason I decided to take another shot of insulin. It seemed to do nothing, so 30 minutes or so later I took a little more insulin. I knew at some point my blood sugar would drop, and that it may drop quickly. I decided that when it finally dipped to a certain number I would let myself eat something. I was so hungry; my stomach was growling and I was getting concerned about getting in enough calories for the bike and run. I was over 1.5 hours into the bike before I was able to eat anything. Over the next couple hours, I ate part of a Pro Bar and drank a full bottle of UCan (double dose of UCan). By the time I got off the bike, I had been able to successfully take in about 1,000 calories while maintaining relatively normal blood sugar after the first couple hours on the bike.
I stopped to use the porta potty at least twice. It would have been ideal if all cyclists had chosen to use the porta potty when needed. Unfortunately, I came across one guy who decided he didn’t want to take the time to stop, so he took care of business on his bike. The problem with this is that it involves pee spraying behind him and potentially onto unsuspecting riders. Thankfully, I saw in advance what was happening, so I veered over to the side and stayed back a considerable ways until he was done. It seemed to take an awfully long time, so I’m sure he really had to go, but the course offers numerous opportunities to use a porta potty. Considering the guy was riding near me (it was the second loop), I don’t expect that he was competing to be at or near the top of his age group, so a quick porta potty stop should not have been an issue. I also dropped a bottle early on, so I did go pick it up, since we were told we could be penalized if we didn’t pick up our dropped bottles. When there was less than 10 miles left on the bike, it’s quite possible that another bottle flew off my bike.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it was a great feeling of accomplishment when I got to the parking ramp at Monona. Biking up the ramp was not nearly as difficult as I expected. I had been a bit nervous about it, but as I went up I realized it was not steep at all and actually kind of fun. Although I was excited to get to the final phase of the race, I enjoyed my 7 hours and 23 minutes on the bike. My goal had been to keep it under seven hours, but I felt it was a successful ride, because I really enjoyed it and my legs were not too beat up.
I had decided before I got off the bike that I would not change clothes for the run. I kept pretty cool during the bike, I didn’t feel gross, and I had to go to the bathroom so bad that I didn’t think I actually could change clothes without some sort of embarrassing mishap, so I just restocked my nutrition and moved along (visiting the porta potty along the way). I thought I got through this transition pretty quickly, but the clock says otherwise. Before heading out on the run, I took a small amount of insulin as my blood sugar was heading back up and it had been a while since I had taken in some nutrition. My family welcomed me into transition and cheered me on my way out. The final shout I heard was from Barry, “See you in four hours!” We all laughed hysterically at that one, me because I knew this marathon was going to take longer than that I was on a happy high by the time my feet hit the marathon course.
The Run – 26.2 Miles. Downtown Madison, U of W Campus
Although this is the slowest marathon of my life (I’ve done nine marathons), I experienced some victories. First, I never hated any part of this run. I never begged for it to be over. I rarely walked (although my run was pretty darn slow). I stayed positive throughout the run and I was so grateful that my legs continued to function – although they were very tired.
Run training for Ironman is quite a bit different from marathon training. As you would expect, there is far less speed work; and there are far fewer miles. Leading up to the race, my longest run was 16 miles. For marathon training, my long runs would be 20-22 miles. I typically ran two to three times per week training for Ironman; whereas I would run five to six days a week for marathon training. One or two of my Ironman training runs would come right after a bike (called a brick workout). I found that I ran well after coming off of the bike. It’s such an odd sensation when I run after a bike ride. I have the feeling that I am moving considerably slower than I actually am. Many times I would look at my watch during these runs so surprised that I was moving at the pace I was. I had that same sensation during Ironman, but that faster pace did not last very long. When I started out on the run course, I felt very good and forced myself to slow down, because I understood this pace likely would not last. I did, however, wonder if I could get closer to a 4:30 marathon instead of five hours. After those first few miles, I never purposely slowed down. I just kept moving along. Reality set in when I noticed that my pace kept getting slower and slower as the miles went on. To give you an idea of how much slower my pace was than a normal marathon, I can maintain a pace in the 8:50’s (minutes per mile) in a marathon. One time on the second half of the run I looked at my watch and saw an 11:50 pace and exclaimed to myself, Good job! You kept it under 12:00!
The run course was really fun. There’s no getting bored on the Ironman Wisconsin marathon course. It is a two loop course that goes through downtown
Madison, parks, the U of W campus, and Badger Stadium. One of my favorite spots was State Street where bars and restaurants lined the streets, and then thus, hundreds of very enthusiastic spectators cheered on every runner. We ran up one side of State Street, then make a U turn and ran back down the other, giving runners a double dose of hilarious and enthusiastic support. I looked forward to that section the second time around. I also chatted with a few other runners, but spent most of my time on my own. It rained quite a bit during the run. It was actually pretty pleasant and helped to keep the temperature down.
My biggest issue was intestinal discomfort. I rarely experience this, so I don’t know what the cause was. I went back and forth in my brain between thinking I should have more water to thinking I had too much water. I didn’t use nearly as many of my gels as I had brought, as I couldn’t stand the thought of taking in one more gel. I did, however, take in a couple gels during the run when my blood sugar started to head downward. My blood sugar stayed level throughout most of the run, though, and I was never in fear of it going too low, because there were aid stations every mile and every aid station had Coke. The Coke may have been a factor in the intestinal discomfort, as I haven’t had Coke in over 10 years. I thought the caffeine and sugar would be helpful, which it was for the most part. Within the last half mile, my blood sugar started to go low, so I had one last Coke at the final aid station near the capital. It seems so weird to do that so close to a finish line, but my blood sugar was heading down pretty quickly at this point, so I went ahead and had two cups of Coke. That held me for those last few blocks. As I passed the capitol one last time after five hours on the run course, I knew I would hear Mike Reilly (the “Voice of Ironman”) say my name and shout, “You are an Ironman!” This is something every Ironman athlete looks forward to experiencing. Yes, I was excited to hear those words. However, more than that, I was excited to cross the finish line, see my family, and then head into the arms of my husband who understood more than anyone how much it meant to me to experience the entire journey to Ironman.