Your athlete has been prepping for months and months. They’ve swam more miles than most 5Kers jog in an entire year. They’ve biked enough miles to cross the US from north to south. And they’ve run more miles than the amount of driving you do in a single week. The training for each of these three sport disciplines isn’t just mindless repetition for endurance, but rather focuses on building technique, speed, and staying healthy and smart during the long training process. Did you know that 10-15% of Ironman racers do not start (the DNS rate) the race due to complications in training?
Race day is a celebration, not solely a performance! Even if they do not finish (6-10% DNF rate), it’s already time to be proud of the person they became preparing themselves for this day.
An Overflow of Exuberance
Athletes will have swam, biked, and run in smaller segments, but it is impossible to string the whole thing together end to end until race day. Mapping and planning helps simulate and set realistic expectations and a reasonable approach to their performance for the day. This process is actually quite exciting, and when they think about it, they can abound with energy and exuberance and they want you to be apart of it.
So, how can you traverse the 140.6 miles along with your athlete? Your athlete may have it all detailed out based on their own needs and pace! If not, here’s a simple and then detailed walkthrough to help you make the day a success.
The Simplest Method of Spectating the Wisconsin Ironman
Breakfast & Morning
1. See the swim at the Monona terrace. Enjoy the sunrise, the freshness of the morning, and the panoramic view of the lake and capitol skyline.
2. Get breakfast around the capitol or on State Street. Cafes abound. Try Bradbury’s Coffee for some eclectic crepes, or Marigold’s Kitchen for a full brunch!
3. Walk down to the lake level bike pathway (parallel to John Nolan Dr) to see the athletes exit the ramp to start the bike course (you don’t have to stay at the top of the terrace!).
Lunch & Afternoon
Bike Course Options:
4a. Go to Verona for a full official spectacle. Free bus shuttles (8am-4pm) available near the Monona terrace on Wilson Street and Carroll Street!
4b. Go to Old Sauk Pass and Timber Ln for a full afternoon camp out and full cheering session
4c. Be in two places each lap and see riders at Mt. Horeb and Midtown Rd
Note: Spectating on the bike course has a lot of downtime, so be sure to bring food (e.g. fruit, trail mix, sandwiches), water, sunscreen, chairs, blankets, signs, and things to share with other spectators and athletes!
Dinner & Evening
5. For the run, go to State Street and see athletes at mile 1, 6, 12, 18, and 26, walking between the cross sections of State Street and Henry Street, and State Street and Gorman Street. This allows you to see your athlete every 6 miles, which is depending on their pace, is every 45 minutes to an hour. You’ll have ample time to walk between the intersections. Or you can also walk to the Memorial Union terrace for amazing view of the lake and a great social atmosphere and grilled food.
6. Keep the energy up after the race so your athlete can crash into a warm feeling of bliss and love. Your excitement will allow them to zone out easier and not have to stay awake to fill the silence. They’ll close their eyes and hear affirmations buzzing in their tiring mind, with a smile and a sweet beckoning to sleep.
Advanced Spectator Details
Spectathletes – Even if you decide to watch the course by traversing everywhere by car, be prepared to walk 0.5-2 miles for each leg of the course. It’s just a part of the logistics of the day. You are watching athletes burn 9-10k calories, so why not be able-bodied (or be able-spirited!) for the event! You’ll surely remember your own efforts!
Be prepared to to walk (or bike) these segments:
Walking to the swim.
Walking back to the car (or bike).
Driving (or biking) to the bike course.
Parking at the bike destination and walking to the bike course.
Parking at a second the bike destination and walking to the bike course.
Driving (or biking) back downtown for the run.
Walking/biking to and along the run course and desired cheering points.
Walking to find dinner.
Walking/biking back to the run course for more cheering!
Walking to the finish to celebrate!!!!
And walking back to the car after the night ends.
Know your athlete’s target swim time (1.0-1.5 hours). This should be pretty accurate save for any cramping in the water. What should a spectator do during the swim? First enjoy the sights and the atmosphere of the crowd! It’s almost as exciting as the finish line 12 hours later. After, get breakfast and enjoy the area around the capitol! If you didn’t arrive for the start of the race, know that you can see your athelete in their transition at the start+swim finish time. Visibility is tough on the terrace since the athletes all leave the water within an hour window of each other and so everyone is there to cheer. Athletes run up two spiral towers on the corners of the terrace where you can see them at either spiral. You can wave to them as they find their bike and exit the transition area using an overpass/walkway. Be sure to be patient with other spectators who are crowding around the limited edges. A less crowded place is to see them on the pathway after the exit as they begin their bike out to the west part of the course. Meanwhile, enjoy the gorgeous view of the lake and the energy of the race in progress.
For the bike course, I suggest that you don’t chase your athlete around the entire course. Stay in a few places and cheer on the other athletes! This act of selflessness brings people together and allows you to converse with other spectators about their athlete and their own story and experience. You can cheer everyone on together, since everyone is an athlete here at the Ironman. Spectating on the bike course has a lot of downtime, so be sure to bring food (e.g. fruit, trail mix, sandwiches), water, sunscreen, chairs, blankets, signs, and things to share with other spectators and athletes!
The best way to cheer your athlete on the bike is to see them once every hour or two. Your athlete should generally know their overall average pace. 15mph? 17mph? 20mph? This provides an easy ETA calculator once you meet your athlete at a certain mileage. However, the course and event is not without peril, and times can drastically change due to injury, mechanical failure, or needed recovery time.
Mt. Horeb (mile 25 and 70) and Old Sauk Pass (mile 44 and 86) are the best two options based on accessibility to see your athlete. You can travel between these two points with relative ease (to see them every hour), or stay there to catch them for each of their loops (see them every 2 hours). Two other options are to enjoy Verona (mile 15 and 50) and/or the quieter hill on Midtown Road (mile 55 and 92). At Verona, there is a big party, great for festivities and family; athletes pass through quickly, however, because it is a faster part of the course.
For the run, remember your athlete will be running at about 1.5-3x your walking speed. So if you see them at mile X, be sure to meet them at a different point 2-6 miles on their route so that you have time to walk the 1-2 miles to the next cheering point.
On State Street alone, you can see athletes at mile 1, 6, 12, 18, and 26 by only walking two blocks! They run 6 miles. You walk two blocks. Seems like any easy day by comparison! Simply walk between the cross sections of State Street and Henry Street, and State Street and Gorman to catch athletes for both of their out-and-back loops from the capitol. In between, you can walk to the Memorial Union terrace for amazing view of the lake and a great social atmosphere. Food and drink are plentiful downtown, as are the amazing ways to cheer and watch the race!
If you want to avoid the capitol and state street, another great spot to watch is long a cross section of the run course that is formed by Mills Street/Spring Street in the south, Observatory Drive in the middle, and Lakeshore Path at the north. You can see the runner at these distinct three points with little traveling distance for the spectators, and without much rush to each destination. In addition, the scenery of being on campus near Bascom Hill is amazing. As the athletes run back toward the capitol, you can walk to Library Mall on State Street and catch the amazing atmosphere of the crowds. Madison’s Ironman is like no other – it’s full of life-giving support and cheer.
Full Course Spectating
If you have the luxury, however, the best way to see your athlete on the run course is to have a bike! You’ll be a super fan! This way, you can meet them every mile or two, get some exercise yourself, and see the beautiful campus of Madison. By bike, you are 2-4x faster than they are, so you can easily zip to the next destination, and you can cheer on so many other athletes along the way, especially if your bike or outfit is tricked out.
Do your best! If walking is too difficult, it’s very easy to pick 1 spot in each segment of the course and just camp out. Why not bring a grill, refreshments, cards, frisbees, and have a blast? Cheers!
Other Unique Tips
1. The statue atop the capitol faces toward Lake Monona, so if you get lost around capitol square, she’ll point you in the right direction.
2. Many streetlights on State Street have outlets in them, so you have a place to quick-charge your phone while you are out cheering!
3. If your athlete hasn’t discovered the recovery power of chocolate milk, be sure to have a jug handy after the race or for the next day.
4. You can moped or ride a bike to spectate the course on race day. It’s much easier than a car and it officially earns you superfan status (one of many ways).
For some, race day can be a disappointment due to complications or performance. Athletes who are subject to a harsh inner (or outer) critic can suffer the most as they can easily adopt labels or comparisons (DNS, DNF, drop out, failure, underperformer, didn’t complete). For others, their expectations may have been idealistic and they found out a harsh reality that an Ironman cannot be conquered by will alone. Even preparation may fail. Shame and a personal sense of failure may follow.
Whatever it may be, finishing an Ironman should never become an unattainable idea or a means of comparison/exclusion. The truth is, an athlete can learn by any endeavor and grow through the process of understanding. Always try again!
Next time, factor in training goals, nutrition regiments for the race, injury prevention and adequate healing time to ensure maximum health for race day, and improved expectations and mindsets. You can do it! Get accountability and community in the race training process. Be a holistic Ironman and you will be transformed from the inside out! You can change your life! An Ironman race is just a medium for that. Learn to be your best self and who you were created to be as you unlock your potential with discipline, courage, and heart.
Other Official Race Details
Distance: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run
Key Locations: Google Map of bike course
Swim Start: Monona Terrace John Nolan Drive, Madison, WI 53703
Finish Line: 200 Block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Madison, WI 53703
Course Cut Off Times:
Swim: The swim course will close 2 hours, 20 minutes after the official start of the Age-Group field (~9:30am)
Bike: 10 hours, 30 minutes after the official start. (~5:30pm)
Run: 17 hours after the official start. (12:00am)
General Race Day Travel Tips:
Please proceed with extreme caution and allow for additional travel time to your destination.
Westbound Travel: Use University Avenue/Campus Drive or Regent Street
Eastbound Travel: Use John Nolen Drive or Regent Street
North/South Travel: Use Park Street.
Access to the University of Wisconsin:
East Campus: Langdon Street from Gilman Street or Wisconsin Street
Central Campus: Access from Charter Street or Linden Street
West Campus: Access from Walnut Street or Highland Avenue
Can’t Get Enough Suggestions? See Other Resources For Spectating:
Official Ironman Spectator Summary (Download PDF)
A Spectators Guide – Full Walkthrough and Expectations (Download PDF)
A Spectators Guide From A Loving Wife – And The Realities of Caring For Kids (Download PDF)
Spectathletes Guide To Cheering Like A Champ
A Good Guide In Map Form With Commentary
A Spectator’s Personal Narrative & Journal