As dawn broke on September 7th, 2014, the weather in Madison, WI was simply perfect. Cool temperatures with the sun brightening a clear blue sky above the still waters of Lake Monona. Surrounded by 2,600 fellow Ironman Wisconsin competitors, I was comfortable with my own thoughts. The last year had been filled with miserable triathlon training days. Running a half marathon in -6 below conditions. Riding my bike in a body-sapping 49º rainstorm with headwinds so strong I thought I was on a stationary bike. Enduring heat and humidity that tested my mettle.
All of that was behind me. As the cannon boomed to start the 2014 Ironman Wisconsin I felt fit, confident, and ready to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and run 26.2.
Ironman Wisconsin begins with a mass start swim. Described as “combat” swimming or as “being stuck in the spin cycle of a washing machine,” the crush of arms, legs, and bodies searching for a 6-foot long strip of clean water can rattle even the most experienced swimmers. Ignoring the battering from other swimmers I settled into a steady rhythm. Three strong strokes then breathe on the right, three more strokes breathe on the left. Repeat. My goal for Ironman Wisconsin 2014 was to beat my time from my first Ironman in 2012. Cutting time from that 16:22 finish would start with a strong swim.
Wham! Oh! What! Blood pouring from my nose, eyes watering and coughing from swallowing a gallon of lake water I tried to make sense of what was happening. Turning my head out of the water to sight the next buoy, I had slammed face first into the stern of a kayak. The paddler had entered the swim zone to attend to another struggling swimmer. Frantic to regain my composure I reached for the kayak to steady myself. Unsettled with swimmers grasping both ends of her kayak, she barked at me to let go. “Don’t hold on, you will tip me over.”
Still feeling warm blood running down my face, I pushed myself away. Muttering a stream of expletives I pushed on. Although my breathing was a bit labored, the adrenaline rush pushed me to the end of the swim.
Moving quickly through the swim to the bike transition, I shrugged off the collision. Finishing an Ironman is all about managing the unexpected, right?
With more than 5,000-ft of climbing, Ironman Wisconsin’s bike course has been described as one of the hardest on the North American Ironman circuit. Climbing can turn your legs to jelly but for every uphill grind, there’s a downhill rush of speed.
Thirty miles in, flying down a hill, tucked into a tight aero position, I watched the speed numbers on my bike computer flash to 36, 37, 38 mph. Whack! On that 20-ft wide strip of asphalt my front tire rolled over a 3-inch long aluminum CO2 air cartridge dropped by another cyclist. The expensive (rented) aerodynamic race wheel mushed flat. Damn. But not to worry. Pulled off to the edge of the road and unwrapped by repair tools. The well-practiced routine of fixing a flat quickly replaced the frustration of yet another unanticipated obstacle. New tire in, my own C02 canister filled the inner tube. But only partially. Fumbling fingers twisted the cylinder so that some of the compressed air escaped uselessly into the Wisconsin farmland.
A moment away from throwing a tantrum worthy of the best 3-year old performance, a passing rider asked if I needed help. Thanking him profusely as he filled the tire with his own cartridge, frustration turned to determination.
Clipped into my pedals, I pushed on, talking to myself about digging deep to recapture some of the 20-minutes lost to the tire repair process. Up and down another series of rolling hills, regaining confidence and momentum and lifting my spirits. Settling into another descent, the voices of orange clad volunteers just ahead caught my attention. Still too far away to discern what they were saying, I appreciated their pointing out the course’s hard right turn. Approaching the turn with another rider just yards ahead, the volunteer’s voices shifted from undecipherable noise to the “oh, no” clarity of a “gravel, gravel, gravel” warning. Turning hard, the rider in front of me wobbled. I was faced with a split second decision to choose between two risk-filled options. Option one: hold my line and hope she recovers. If she doesn’t I’m going to collide with her. Second, shift to a wider line to avoid her and use what bike handling skills I possessed to navigate some rocks.
I avoided the other rider. But lost the gravel battle. Somersaulting through the air, I landed on my head and shoulders. I distinctly heard my helmet crunching on impact. Oh, damn that hurts. Flat on my back and breathing hard, I diagnosed the damage. Left side fine. Right side not so much. Most of my body’s screaming came from my right shoulder.
For the next five hours I pedaled my new but now scratched up Cervelo P2 triathlon bike. Sketchy rear brakes apparently damaged in the crash scared me on descents. A malfunctioning clip in pedal hampered my climbs. At 56, I’m a back of the pack finisher on the best day. Now with body trashed, my mental commitment to finishing wavered. Unable to put much pressure on the right arm and faulty clip pedals, I was reduced to walking up the steepest hills on the second loop of the bike route.
I passed a SAG van picking up another rider in trouble. Calling it a day would have been so easy in that moment. Wave a hand, unclip and climb in to a comfortable seat in the van. But that’s not who I am. I didn’t stop facing cold wet rain on a 65-mile training ride in April. I didn’t stop when work weeks reached 70 hours even before my scheduled training. A father of four wonderful children, I hoped my Ironman efforts would provide them with life lessons about commitment, perseverance, and grit. Getting on the SAG wagon just didn’t seem right. If they see that I can’t live up to my own speeches, why should they?
Finally reaching the bike-to-run transition, I was tired, depressed, bloody, and hurt. A volunteer helping me change from cycling jersey to running singlet, called a physical therapist over to look at my red road rash covered shoulder. “Does this hurt?” My whine and wince clearly answered his question.
“I think you have a separated shoulder. If I call a doctor over, he will disqualify you and your day is done. Or, I can put a sling on your arm and you can see what happens.”
My objective to best my 2012 time long abandoned, I wanted to honor my family who so energetically cheered me on. With my arm cradled in a makeshift sling secured with multiple safety clips, I ventured out on the run course. With seven hours to the midnight cut-off, finishing was still possible.
Leaving the run transition, my family surprised me with wild cheers. The shouting slowed when they saw the sling. For a moment, I fell apart, choking back sobs to describe the kayak collision, flat tire, and crash.
My pace barely more than a fast walk and hugging my right arm close to my body, I moved forward. My family followed close behind, side by side, offering loving words of support and encouragement.
Madison’s citizens still filled the sidewalks on the 26.2 mile Ironman run course. Noticing my sling and battered look on my face, spectator’s shouts of “You are a badass”, “dude, you rock!” and “That’s a hard-core Ironman!” boosted my ego and distracted me from the pain.
My wife, brother, two daughters and son, walked five miles with me. Prodding me, encouraging me, pushing when needed, quiet when I needed a moment of peace and solitude. Sending them off to greet me at the finish line, I pushed on alone. The collective enthusiasm of family, volunteer, and spectator carried me to the 13-mile turnaround.
But the crowd's acknowledgement of my effort deflated quickly as I faced the reality of turning away from the finishing line frenzy to start the second 13 mile loop required to finish. Now surrounded by darkness and a fast thinning crowd, my body started to rebel. My walking pace slowed to a shuffle, the pain in my shoulder, subdued for the first half, started demanding my attention. Just after the 16-mile marker, I leaned against a lamppost and puked. Again and again.
A medic in a golf cart pulled up and offered quiet, calm words of support. For the next 10 minutes I held on to the side of that cart, trying to convince myself I could press on. Gently, the medic told me my current pace was too slow to reach the finish in time. He let that news sink in and watched me process the realization that today, an Ironman medal would not be placed around my neck. Ironman Wisconsin 2014 was over. Just not my day.
Limping out of the medical tent, my family embraced me in a group hug. My oldest daughter whispered, “You gave it everything you had dad. We’re so proud of you.” I may have failed to finish, but I’m pretty sure the lesson of pushing through life’s obstacles reached my kids. Onward.