2015 Ironman Wisconsin race report

It's Monday night, about 23 hours after I finished my second Ironman.

It was the 2015 Ironman Wisconsin ("IMMOO" - IM for Ironman and "MOO" in recognition of Wisconsin's bovine heritage) in Madison - home to my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. This is the same race that I did in 2013. A friend - knowing that one of my biggest challenges in triathlon is climbing hills on the bike - pointed out that there are many races with flatter bike courses (Wisconsin's has over 6,000 feet of elevation gain), but this race is deeply meaningful to me, tying my love for triathlon with my identity as a Badger - it's my race, period.

I flew in to Milwaukee on Thursday and drove to Madison. Athlete check-in must be completed by Friday afternoon, and in 2013 I arrived on Friday and barely made it in time to check in - so this year I was taking no chances. Thursday afternoon I went for a run along the Lakeshore path, out to Picnic Point - kind of cruised along, not pushing anything, and ran easily a minute per mile faster than I have been running in the rarified air of Colorado. Was really encouraging, and opened to my mind the possibility of doing better on the run than I did two years ago.

Friday I checked in - a process in which one of the steps is a weigh-in. I have known that I'm heavier this year than I was two years ago, but I was discouraged to see that I was 15 pounds heavier this year. I let that go; I'm the athlete that I am, and there was nothing I could do this weekend about my weight.

My friend Pete whom I met at the University of Denver in my MBA program is from Wisconsin and was here to do his second Ironman as well. We went for a swim in Lake Monona, which was flat and the perfect temperature for a wetsuit swim - not too cold, not too warm.

Friday night my kids and girlfriend arrived at Madison's airport. In 2013 I stayed with a friend from high school who lives in Madison; she was a godsend - hosted me, sherpa'd my gear after the race and put up with my mishugas. This year I had three of the most important people in my life coming for my race.

"My race" - for which the run is two laps around my alma mater's campus, each of which included a lap on the field at Camp Randall Stadium where my Badgers play football. This was a home game football weekend and we stayed at Union South in the Union Hotel - ground zero for game day, as it's steps away from Camp Randall. Saturday morning began early with the Badger Bash, a pregame party featuring the Wisconsin marching band, cheerleaders and a crowd of people wearing red (by the way, that picture was taken from our hotel room window).

Was a little tough being one of very few Badgers not drinking that day, but I knew why I was here. I went down to the race venue with my kids to check my bike in to the transition area and the loooong period of waiting for the starting cannon began (it felt as though Sunday would never get here).

I didn't sleep too well that night; woke up about 3:45 am and was too excited to fall back asleep. At 5:00 I got out of bed and my girlfriend dropped me off at Monona Terrace, the race venue. I had decided not to swim in my tri kit shorts, as the forecast called for 54 degrees at the start of the bike and I didn't want to be riding in wet shorts - so I put on my swim suit and stowed my tri kit shorts in my T1 bag.

Pumped up my bike tires, placed my water bottles on the bike (note to self: no need to start an Ironman with two bottles full of water, as I'll pass an aid station before drinking much liquid anyway), donned my wetsuit and made it down to the water's edge.

It was a perfect morning for a swim. Winds were basically calm. The lake was smooth and warmer than the air; I snapped this picture right before turning in my "morning gear" bag.

This year I lined up just on the other side of the ski jump ramp that is a defining feature of the starting line; I had heard that faster swimmers line up there as it's closer to the buoy line. For Ironman I'm a pretty strong swimmer (though among swimmers I have a lot of work to do on my stroke). Before long the gun went off and mayhem set in.

Wisconsin still has a mass, deep water swim start, which means that at the sound of the cannon, 2700 swimmers begin thrashing about, competing for territory and position. It's nothing short of combat for the first 750 yards and I was aware that I wasn't making very good time. Finally I found some open water and settled in to my stroke; not long after that I was at the first turn where the tradition is to MOO, so I raised my head and gave a good, solid MOO and headed left.

I knew that I had a chance to beat my swim time from 2013 (which was a 1:11:30 - not bad for triathlon; somewhat modest among swimmers) - so I made an effort to stay present to my pacing and keep up a good race pace. The third leg seemed to last forever, but I had good open water and focused on my stroke. I always say that my only good trick with swimming is my glide, and that it's what I do between strokes (i.e. head position, arm extension, body rotation) that can improve my efficiency - but I also focused on stroke turnover to make sure that I didn't coast along.

After rounding the fourth turn buoy I found a woman who was swimming just a little faster than me and drafted off of her for a few minutes, tapping her toes occasionally (for the uninitiated, this is completely legal in triathlon and allows you to swim faster than you would otherwise, expending less energy). For the last couple hundred meters I was too excited to care about her stroke and sighting and pushed it on my way in.

Running toward the helix I heard my kids shouting and found them on the left side; it was really fun to high five them on my way by. Ran up the helix, into Monona Terrace and grabbed my T1 bag.

I was a half a minute slower in T1 than in 2013; roughly the same. This time I carried my bike shoes as I ran to my bike's rack. Mounted my bike - looking for the FinisherPix video camera at the bike start (and couldn't find it - for some reason this year I saw none of the video cameras) and headed down the west helix to start the bike.

Somehow my crew had managed to run from the swim finish to the bike start; they say that they were trying to figure out which cyclist was me, and were duped by a guy wearing a Wisconsin bike jersey (because, of course, I have one; it's one of my prized possessions). But they did spot me and snapped some good pictures as I headed out.

I felt great on the bike - it was a little cool but I wore some sleeves. Had a good start and before I knew it I was descending the hill on Whalen Road. The way I was approaching the race - my race plan, if you will - was that the essence of the Ironman race was the second half of the run. Everything before that was just a long workout; my starting line was the turn on the run that began the second lap. All day long my goal was to get to that "starting line" alive, uninjured and with some fuel in the tank.

I noticed this summer that during the second half of my 6+ hour rides I would run low on liquids, which meant to me that I needed to be intentional about drinking during the first half of the ride. I had trained all summer with Gatorade Endurance Formula, which is what they had on the race course - and I'll bet I drank eight or nine bottles of it during the ride.

The Ironman Wisconsin bike course features a 16 mile dog leg out from Madison to Verona, two 40-mile laps of a loop going through Mount Horeb, Cross Plains and Verona and the dog leg back - and all week long the forecast had called for a 9 mph tailwind home. I rode well for the first half but realized that I was riding harder than I would be able to for 112 miles, and - wanting to stick to my race plan and have some gas in the tank for the second half of the run - I pulled back a bit for the second half of the bike.

Two highlights of the ride for me were:

  • The Evil Clown - Many spectators who line the "three sisters" (the three big hills between Cross Plains and Verona; sometimes referred to as the "three bitches") dress in costumes. This year a woman dressed as the devil smacked my butt with her trident as I climbed the first hill, for example - but my favorite costume of all was this evil looking clown. He positioned himself toward the bottom of one of the hills, partially hidden behind a tree and holding balloons - and as I rode by he beckoned to me. Cracked me up, though I understand that he actually really freaked some people out.
  • The Coach - On my second loop as I began one of the three big hills I was in my granny gear, yet gaining on a woman with whom I had been leapfrogging all day. She must have looked like she was having a hard time, as a spectator began coaching her up the hill - and everything he said to her, I incorporated in my climb. "Sit your butt down on the saddle! Sit up tall! Pull those knees up! You have nothing left in your quads right now; this is all hip flexors. Pull back across the bottom!" Was really helpful to me.

I had a great ride. After that first loop I realized that I was riding faster than my training rides had been; this on top of my strong swim and I realized that I was having a really good day on the race course. Mike Reilly (the "voice of Ironman"; the announcer who calls out our names at the finish line and says "YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!") had said at the athlete dinner on Friday night that the only thing we could control on race day was our attitude. During my long training rides this summer, from time to time I would find that I had lost touch with my joy and I knew how hard it was for me to perform without it - and this realization that I was having a great day took hold in my mind and I stuck with it all day long.

Finally I made the left turn in Verona that headed me back toward Madison. The climb up Whalen Road's hill had me back in my granny gear but didn't sap my spirit, and the tailwind was magnificent.

Before long I was climbing the helix toward T2, managing to get out of my shoes before dismounting and off I ran to put on my run clothes.

It's hard to start a marathon after an Ironman ride, but at IMMOO I knew that I was about to go run my campus, so off I trotted. Sticking to my race plan I found a pace that felt comfortable enough to get me to my "starting line" in the shape I wanted and enjoyed the experience.

All week long my left foot had needed to "pop" (every once in a while, I flex my calves and something in my feet pops in a good way) - but it wouldn't do it. When I stretched the left side it was a little painful. I didn't mention it to anyone; I was afraid that my left foot would be problematic on the run. Turned out to be fine (and right now it doesn't feel that it needs to pop; I wonder if it did so yesterday).

As I approached Observatory Drive (the only serious hill on the run) I heard my crew calling me excitedly and there they were on the right side. My older daughter told me that I had had a great swim; a 1:09, 49th out of 384 athletes in my age group - this reinforced the feeling that I had been having all day, that I was having a great day. I headed up Observatory Drive, telling them to head over to the Porter Boathouse where I would see them before too long.

Those guys were everywhere yesterday - and my high school friend with whom I stayed in 2013 was with them for much of the day. They took pictures and cheered and ran a few yards with me and I was so happy to see them, every time. They took cabs and Uber and buses and were so busy tracking ("stalking") me that they forgot to eat lunch; didn't eat dinner, either. I can't wait to see the pictures.

After a while I rounded the Capitol and made the turn, "starting" my Ironman. I tested my legs and found that I could actually push my pace and somehow convinced myself that I could really run the second half of my marathon, not just survive it. A friend of mine who is an experienced marathon runner told me today that he said to his wife "you're not going to believe this, but Jordan is actually negative splitting his marathon!" I'd stop at each aid station (during the second lap I would drink cola and chicken broth at every station, eating a piece of banana when I felt like it) - and I'd walk the length of the aid stations, costing me 30 - 45 seconds per mile - but the amazing thing was that about 100 yards after I'd start jogging again I could pick up my pace and actually *run*.

I gave myself permission to walk sections with difficult terrain (Observatory Drive, for example; the short but steep incline getting into Camp Randall) - and I'd say to myself "you can walk when you need to, but right now you don't need to."

State Street was SO MUCH FUN on both laps. Madison really comes out for IMMOO and State Street is one huge party. On my first lap I shifted my attention from my run to the broader context of the crowd and the scene we were co-creating and I realized that this was what I love about Ironman Wisconsin: this was my crowd, in my college town, enjoying their role in the experience we were sharing. There was nothing I could do but smile (which in turn energized the crowd, which energized me in return).

I high-fived every kid who held his or her hand out. I realized that all of the dudes giving me props for my current endeavor saw the Ironman in me and let myself be that person they were seeing. It was hard not to smile - not that I wanted to stop smiling.

I didn't have a watch on (this year I trained with no data whatsoever - no heart rate monitor, no watch) so I didn't really know how I was doing - I just knew that I was having a great day. As I headed down to the Lakeshore Path for the last nine miles of my race, I reached down to see what kind of pace I had in me and was thrilled that I could actually run and not just shuffle-jog along. I wondered if I would hit a wall at mile 22 but put that thought out of my mind and before long I passed the 24 mile marker.

That's a pretty sweet moment. I knew I could walk the rest of the way and beat my previous time - but I didn't walk, because right then I didn't need to.

I took my last coke and chicken broth at mile 25 by the SERF (the University's Southeast Recreational Facility) and headed up State Street toward my finish.

Once you make that turn your celebration has really begun. Although I had been telling myself that I would be happy just to finish the race - after my concerns about my left foot - I felt that I had had a great day.

Finally I reached the crowd barrier on the final stretch before the finish line approach. There was nobody near me in front or behind; it was a stage on which - for the moment - I was the only player. Suddenly I was struck by how cool it was that I was sharing this moment with this crowd ("how cool is this? I'm finishing an Ironman!") and I was high-fiving everyone and feeding off their energy.

This time I heard Mike Reilly call my name and tell me that I am an Ironman.

There is nothing like an Ironman finish line. I shared the moment with the crowd and noticed the time clock saying that I had beaten my previous time by over 20 minutes.

Two volunteers met me after the finish line and propped me up, getting my finisher's t-shirt and hat and a couple of bottles of water; one of them stayed with me until after they took my finisher's picture. I found my crew, hugged and kissed everyone and went inside Monona Terrace to sit on the floor and recover.

I had a great set of sherpas - daughter #1 and her friend who is a freshman here at Wisconsin this year took my bike to TriBike Transport. My girlfriend had bought three large orders of Pad Thai which we broke out and enjoyed and finally they carried my gear bags to the Uber car that she had ordered.

I took a long, hot shower (the temperature at my finish line was around 60 degrees) and collapsed into bed, but not before calling my mom and each of my brothers.

As I looked at my splits today I realize that my bike split was actually five minutes slower this year than in 2013 - this despite the tailwind on the way home (and the headwind on the way home in 2013). I'm frustrated by that and have a feeling that a contributing factor was those extra 15 pounds and their impact on my climbing. I feel that I didn't improve as a cyclist this year and it feels like I shouldn't compete in another Ironman until I have made significant improvement on the bike.

But this picture of me that my girlfriend snapped as I sat on the floor of Monona Terrace captures what this race has meant to me. I truly had a great day on the race course - a great Ironman Wisconsin weekend, all in all. I love this town, love this University and I love that race.