I couldn’t imagine being in the water as the cannon sounded over the waters of Lake Monona. That sound means no turning back. That sound means “go” and don’t stop until finished. 140.6 miles later.
The IRONMAN had just begun. 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run.
This year, my brother was the one in the water. With friends and family supporting him at each leg of the race, my brother conquered the Ironman.
Start of the Morning
It wasn’t until 5am that I drove into Elver Park on Madison’s west side. The solitude and morning silence was sweet respite from the journey, a retreat all my own. I tilted back my seat and closed my eyes before the sunrise marked the start of the day.
I soon got a call from my friend Dustin to make my way to his house nearby and prepare for our bike ride into the city. Grateful for the morning camaraderie, I munched on some breakfast muffins and trail mix while we geared up. Soon enough we were cruising northeast along on the Southwest Commuter trail (via Hammersely Rd) in the brisk morning air and early light. The ride was glorious. Refreshing. Gentle. And exhilarating as we rode in the quiet of the morning mist and shared a few words of perspective and anticipation for the day.
Arriving at the Monona Terrace just before 7 am, we were swept into the crowds of spectators along the northern shore of the lake. Gung-ho music blared from the starting line grandstand, pumping up the athletes and onlookers and raising the anticipation. If you’ve ever been to a 5K, you’ll know the feeling as the racers ready. Except this felt different. Unlike sprint events, the start of endurance events emanates a sense of seeing the athlete off on a journey, trusting them in their own faculties and hoping they come home happy after a long successful day on the course.
This was to be my first Ironman experience. It was all happening so fast. I didn’t have any preconceptions of what it was supposed to be. All I knew was that I had trekked here for the start of this momentous event almost whimsically. To support my brother. And to celebrate with my family.
The Swim – At the Terrace
The race was near when the national anthem soared out over the terrace. All I could think about was how long the song must seem to the athletes who are treading water awaiting the start. As the sound waves dissipated over the water, a few deep breaths of silence calmed the athletes and spectators, cueing them to finalize their mental preparations and swim strategy.
And then the cannon thundered. The athletes were on their way.
For those of you who don’t know what a mass waterstart open water swim looks like, let me tell you that it is one of the most peculiar things you’ll ever see. The takeoff is slow as the athletes tip forward from their treading water position to a horizontal front crawl. Hundreds and thousands of them all at once. As the steady swimmers ease into their pace, the faster swimmers find gaps and cruise alongside and through the traffic. Over the course of a few minutes, the field finally spaces out and the swimmers resemble a surging group of fish traveling upstream. It really is quite the spectacle, and it made me smile knowing my brother was one of those fish making the long journey back to shore.
Video: This touching video of an athlete’s journey in the 2013 Madison Ironman captures the caring and supportive nature of all spectators cheering on their athletes.
The Bike – In Transition
Once out of the water, the athletes tear off their wet suits as they spiral up the parking ramp through T1 (transition one swim-to-bike). Dustin and I perched on a cement outcropping near the exit of T1 just as Steve rounded a corner. From this point, he mounted his bike and began pedaling 15 miles west of the city to begin 2 grueling 40 mile loops in the Madison countryside.
It is on the bike that the athletes truly feel like they can fly as they hit speeds of 30mph+ and finally feel that maybe the Ironman isn’t such a long hard slog to the finish.
Athletes stretch their legs on a gentle ride for the first 6 miles. As the course turns westward, they test their power and engage their muscles on a small climb. Then they follow a downhill route toward Verona and its cheering grandstand, parades, and official announcer. Gathering energy from the crowd, riders accelerate through a small descent, a quick climb, and then ride into the beautiful river valley and surrounding park in Mt. Vernon.
Then begins the tough part of the course with a long, challenging and aptly named climb to the top of Mt. Horeb. Here athletes are cheered in the small bustling town. At about mile 25 in the course where the riders can now start to feel their strength and pace for the long ride ahead. After a few additional but steep climbs, riders are rewarded with a long and blisteringly fast descent, carrying them all the way north to the end of Garfoot Rd.
Two miles later as they round off Stagecoach Road heading east, they turn onto Old Sauk Pass and hit the most grueling part of the course. With grades that exceed 15% and make a cyclist’s gears crunch, athletes need all the help they can get before the hills sap every ounce of strength from their quadriceps. Along the north side of the road is a beautiful nature preserve, and along the south, sprinkled fans provide encouragement and human cheer for the athletes’ spirit. As riders reach the top of Stagecoach and turn south, they climb ever more steeply to the top of Timber Ln. It’s here that they are surrounded by cheers from hundreds of fans!
After a well-deserved descent, they turn onto Midtown Road and hit another steep climb that reminds them that resting is for the weak on this course. Once complete, a breather arrives as they coast back down to Verona and the “grandstand”. Time for a second and final loop of the western course.
For a Google map of the course: https://goo.gl/maps/PGPHk
We cheered at the turn of Old Sauk Pass to Timber Ln. If you’ve ever seen the Tour de France, you’ll see spectators lining the steepest hills and many of them running alongside riders as they power through the climb. This is often accompanied by the classic sounds of cowbells, people holding outrageous signs or dressing in costume, and in this case, a full drum line greeting riders at the top. It makes riders smile, and it’s easy for the athletes to spot you if you wearing or waving something outrageous.
With the whole family gathered together along this hill with hundreds of other fans, we cheered Steve enough to fill his spirit during his ride on the back half of the course – the front half was all his mettle as he pedaled through cross winds and 80 miles of pavement.
Check out those carbon wheels!
The Run – Pure Will
For anyone who works out, doing any part of the Ironman individually is a solid day’s work. The 1-2 hours of open water swimming is mentally taxing (think basically what swimming in the dark would feel like) as the swim stroke is repetitive and the scenery is lackluster. The 5-8 hour bike ride will exhaust the remaining fuel left in your body and leave you wishing that your bike seat is bigger than 6 square inches. Then the 3-8 hour marathon at the end is just a test of pure will.
Fortunately for Steve, the entirety of the run was lined with cheering fans as he traversed his collegiate campus. He likely daydreamed of all the midterms and finals he took in each of the buildings he ran past. Let me put into context the marathon course from his perspective!
A downhill run from the capital into bustling State Street. A turn south to the residential area and tree-lined streets and past the SERF where he used to play in racquetball ladders and hold one of the the elite top 10 spots. A turn onto the Southwest commuter trail and past his first off-campus living experience near Spring Street. A run through Camp Randall, an icon of Madison, and a reminder of Regent Street, a western route to the suburbs he used to live in Verona. A turn on University Avenue that provides access to Hilldale and Middleton, an off campus shopping and employment district where he worked for a period of his life.
Heading north, he headed to the pharmacy school and the Nielson Tennis Center, reminding him of his tennis pastime and passion. Sneaking onto the beautiful Lakeshore Path past the northern dorms and toward campus, he finds a trail he used to run to de-stress, and a reminder a lake he grew up on. A run between the Centennial Gardens and the open tennis courts near Adams Hall where we used to play in college. A climb up steep Observatory Drive and access to the Social Science building and its iconic bell-tower where economics classes tested his pattern recognition for theoretical modeling. A descent toward College Library where he studied endlessly with friends and family.
Now, back toward state street, he runs past the University Bookstore and a return to the foot of Bascom Hill where he first explored campus as a freshman. A trip past Memorial Union toward Lakeshore Path to reenter the beauty of nature and the softer ground a relief to his tired joints. And then upon reaching the end of the path, returning to pass Camp Randall and run toward the Campus via the residential neighborhoods once again. Finally he climbed the hill toward the capitol and felt the incredible energy of all the fans that populated the final loop and street toward the finish line. He could almost taste victory!
After seeing Steve on Spring Street returning from his 11.5th mile, I sprinted downtown with my fresh legs to meet up with an old friend and await to cheer Steve on after his 13th mile turn. Then we walked to the western State Street point of the course nearer Bascom Hill and the Memorial Library where we would catch him again for mile 18. It was a long hour before he arrived as he took a bit of a pace break for the meat of the second loop. The day had grown old and we soon started to see athletes coming up the road wearing halos of light. Many of the athletes were donning neon yellow glowsticks on their neck or arm (my personal preference), which added an amazing element to the race. Once Steve was in sight, we cheered triumphantly. He was so close to the finish!
I bade farewell to Angie and then proceeded to chase Steve down Lakeshore path, which was now a pitch black corridor through the lake-side forest. With my still-fresh legs, I ran through the dark along the course chasing golden rings of light. I felt very much like Sonic the Hedgehog. I meant to surprise Steve in the dark, but he had picked up his pace and was already standing a hundred feet ahead of me greeting his girlfriend Sorana and family under an emergency light. It was from there he was to finish the race on his own while we traveled to the finish to see his final efforts.
Steve, we are so proud of you. It breaks my heart to know how hard you worked to get here. Congratulations!
So what’s in his future? Who knows. But he inspired so many of his family and friends. We’ll never be the same in light of his achievement. We’ll follow in his footsteps in our own ways and push our own preconceptions of life. Standing ovation.