Jordan Graham finishing Ironman Wisconsin 2013

"Jordan Graham, from Parker, Colorado - YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!"

What an incredible day. I woke up at 4:30 yesterday morning and ate a sandwich I made the night before; my friend Kathryn drove me down to the Monona Terrace and dropped me off. I had all the time I needed to put my water bottles on my bike, pump my tires, put on my wetsuit and head down to the water.

It had been windy the night before the race - a NW wind that blew along our swim course, from left to right. The water was quite choppy (but warm! warmer than the Aurora Reservoir where I have been swimming) and I made my way toward the front of the mass of people at the swim start, sort of in the middle along the line. I put my goggles on underneath my swim cap, having heard too many stories of athletes having their goggles kicked off, and before you know it the cannon fired and we were off.

I can see why people who are not strong swimmers can be intimidated by an Ironman swim. It's chaos. People swim up your back and kick you and smack you (I received a good, solid kick to the left side of my goggles, and another fellow - who knows! could have been the same guy 40 minutes later - smacked me in the face at the end of his pull) and get in your way and all of that. In her pre-race briefing to me last week, my coach made sure that I'm not the kind to be rattled by that; there's nothing you can do about it, so going along with the experience is the right approach.

So the wind was at our backs on the first leg of the swim. Kathryn sat along the shore near the first buoy and said that many athletes were blown off-course after making the turn. Keeping to tradition I picked my head out of the water at that turn and let out a loud "MOOOO!" (it's Wisconsin, after all) before continuing on. I gulped a bit of Lake Monona, breathing to the left; switched to the right but it's just not as comfortable for me so I adapted my stroke and kept going. I did find some good feet to draft off, but drafting never seems to last all that long for me; I kind of like finding some open water and stretching out into it.

It was downright wavy. Kathryn said that it was whitecapping for a while. The third leg - the longest of the course, probably 1.2 miles long - was straight into the wind and waves. But really before very long at all we were making our third turn and heading back toward shore. (Relative to the bike and run legs, the Ironman swim is way too short.)

I felt that I was having a good swim but knew I could have gone faster. Turns out that I came out of the water at 1:11; better than I had thought.

At Ironman Wisconsin you run up the "helix" (the curly ramp) to the parking structure which serves as T1. Ran inside, grabbed my T1 bag, suited up for my ride and headed out. Transition was kind of fun, actually, and gave me my first exposure to the INCREDIBLE volunteers that made my day all day long yesterday.

With all of the trouble that my Garmin has given me through my Ironman training, I think it would be incomplete of me not to whine about it a little here: My Garmin is not built for Ironman competition (well, not for athletes as slow as I am!). Before I finished the ride it was complaining of a low battery; was completely useless on the run. But heading out on the ride I repeatedly had to slow down, as my heart rate was above my target. I felt strong and fast, heading out.

I have trained all summer in Colorado where we have serious hills. The IMMOO bike course has lots of rollers and three honest-to-goodness serious hills, and over 112 miles they really take a toll on the legs. It was on the bike that I first experienced what I had read about Ironman Wisconsin - the spectators are INCREDIBLE! We rode through Mount Horeb and Verona, and people in the towns were out in lawn chairs, cheering us on. When we got to the serious hills (Old Sauk Hill is one of them), I saw spectators lining both sides of the road. Some were in costumes; some played music, everyone cheered us on. Made sure that I gave a big cheesy grin to the woman holding the sign that read "Smile if you're not wearing underwear!" (who wears underwear while cycling?)

Other signs that I enjoyed yesterday were:

  • Worst parade ever!
  • (at a dairy farm): All we have, we owe to udders!

I guess it was about 80 miles into the ride that my legs started getting pretty tired. I know better than to pay attention to who's passing me but some cyclists with whom I had been riding all day began passing me for good; I guess I was slowing down. The last leg of the bike course takes us back through Fitchburg to Madison, and it was about 15 miles straight into the headwind. That's kind of discouraging, especially at the end of such a long ride. One lady on that part of the bike course lives at the top of a hill; all day long she was out in her lawn chair, giving athletes the good news: "You have a half a mile of downhill coming up!"

Finally I rolled back into Madison, cycled up the helix (which was nothing compared to the hills we had been climbing), handed off my bike to yet another helpful volunteer and headed into the changing room for T2. Seemed like it took forever to convince my compression socks to cooperate; finally I headed out for the run.

The run course has tons of turns and turnarounds and seems pretty disjointed, but as I began to realize on my second lap it is just about perfect for me. After all, it's two laps around the University of Wisconsin campus and the Capitol. Four times I ran past my old pool (the SERF - SouthEast Recreational Facility), the Porter Boathouse and Camp Randall Stadium; twice (on each outbound leg) I ran *on the field* at Camp Randall, around the football field. Mile 16 was at the 50 yard line; I took a moment there to soak up the fact that I was where I was.

We ran on two sections of the bike path along Lake Mendota; two sections on State Street, where the crowds were incredible. Up Observatory Drive, which for me was a great excuse to walk and stretch my hamstrings by taking large steps. Then down by HCWhite Library, past Memorial Union which is the site of a huge construction project right now.

On my second lap, running as darkness fell I remembered being on that run in college and reflected on what the world has taught me in the 25 years since then, and it's this: Everything in life is harder than I gave it credit for then, *and* I can do anything if I work hard enough.

After my third segment running on State Street I realized that I just needed to run down the lake shore path to that turnaround, then head back and get my medal. Bear in mind: those last four miles took me FOREVER. I'm not a fast runner when well-rested, and by the end of my race I was setting no speed records. But I knew that I only really had to work for 25-ish miles, since the last stretch was on State Street and around the Capitol - which is a party full of people reading your bib and encouraging you by name.

At about 2/3 of the way around the Capitol, the crowd barrier began and I realized that it was the beginning of my finish line chute. Long ago I decided that if I was in an athletic event and a kid holds his/her hand out, I'm going to make every effort to high five them - so I did that all day long and loved it. But on my finish line approach I took my friend Larry Mason's advice and high fived everyone I could - was probably 75 people or so. Then about 20 yards from my finish line I entered a place that was sort of disjointed from this world: there was my first Ironman finish line waiting for me to come home.

I do not remember Mike Reilly calling out my name, but my friend Barbara says that she heard it while watching the live stream. All I know is that I was energized by the moment and by the crowd and began pumping my fists in the air, which energized the crowd, which energized me further. It was the most exciting moment of my life. I ran across the line straight into the arms of two more incredible volunteers who propped me up, took me to get my medal, finisher's shirt and hat and brought me carton after carton of delicious chocolate milk.

So today I am sore, naturally, but yesterday I proved to myself that I am an Ironman.