If ten Ironman starts and finishes teach you anything, expect the unexpected. More to the point, I have learned to control what I can and not focus on the variables that I can’t influence. Clearly, on Sunday, the weather turned out to be the only variable outside of my control, at least until my name is George Burns or Morgan Freeman playing the role of God.
With a clock finish time close to midnight, this race took longer to finish than all my previous Ironman. While no Ironman race is easy, this one felt relatively comfortable. I never experienced any dark moments. By contrast, I had much more duress in my race last year at Lake Placid under perfect weather, where I was almost one hour faster. In Placid, I got pulverized on the bike into a death march during the last 12-mile false flat headwind climb back to town from Whiteface. Also, I felt like I did way less walking on the run in Wisconsin.
As a footnote, I have finally confirmed Ironman elevation charts are not worth the paper they are not printed on. Ironman course PDFs list Lake Placid and Wisconsin at just over 4k elevation gain. My Garmin and Strava had both rides at over 6k.
So why did my Wisconsin race seem relatively easy? Well, the hardest part is just getting started.
I am not an anxious man, and I take most things in “stride.” Still, I would not be a breathing human with a soul if I did not feel pre-race anxiety, emotions, and doubt. “Why am I doing this again?” and “what the hell am I doing here?” are always key questions.
This was never truer than standing in the mud for 20 minutes waiting to enter Lake Monona on a cold, wet, dreary day with zero chance of respite from the conditions. Despite my permanent state of confidence, I had no idea if this would end well. What would the road conditions be on the bike course? What if I crash? How would my body react to the cold and wet? If I didn’t stay warm, I would be toast.
My doubts washed away as soon as I entered the warm lake water. It would be the most comfortable I felt all day. The chop was not bad enough to affect my stroke. The lack of sun made sighting the course a breeze. The mind stops playing games when it is fully occupied. I had a job to do now. I had to figure out how to survive the next 16 hours and get to another Ironman finish line.
One hour and 41 minutes later, I got my wetsuit stripped by the volunteers and up the helix past the raucous crowd to T2. A quick kiss from my #1 fan, wife, and IronSherpa, and all was normal. One thing out of place was the quick stop at the porta potty for pee #1. I won’t tell you how many P-stops I made that day. But the constant wetness played tricks down there.
My game plan was to do all I could to say dry and warm (queue laugh track#1). I had planned for a full change at each transition. This was despite the protests and “oh dad, your transitions are so slow” comments I knew I would hear from my expert IronGirl, #1daughter and accomplished triathlete.
Down the helix on my bike and onto the wet roads with a gore jacket, fingerless hobo gloves improvised from bike socks, and sunglass stashed in my pocket. Why the shades? Because preparation and optimism are key ingredients, what if the sun comes out (queue laugh track#2)? I don’t mind riding in the rain. Lucky me!
Like on the swim, being out on the road calmed the nerves. The wet tarmac was not slick from car grease or too puddled up. The pedals turned, the wheels spun, and the conditions caused me to tamp down my usual adrenaline rush and desire to hammer my favorite part of any triathlon.
It was easy to stay in a Zone Two Zen until the first sharp turn onto a path. Carbon wheels, water, and rim brakes have the stopping power of a runaway truck barreling down a mountain pass in Colorado. So, l learned to anticipate every turn and curve and just squeeze the brakes until my fingers bled, if not the brakes. Good news, since I am a decent bike handler, this did not add any stress. The conditions just increased my focus on the need to stay in the zone and not overcook the racecourse or my power.
The Gore jacket seemed to work. The lack of sunglasses was a dubious necessity. If I stayed in the aero position and kept my head down, I could avoid the rain spikes in my eyes. However, when going down fast descents, it became a balancing act. I needed to pick up my head and chest if I wanted to have a field of vision to see where I was going.
The secret to staying warm is to keep pedaling. So, pedal I did, both down and up the hills. Fortunately, my Colorado lungs and quads could handle short, punchy climbs well because there were many!
I passed one rider and said it feels like Groundhog Day. The color of the sky, temperature, and precipitation intensity remained drearily consistent all day. Therefore, I had no idea what time of day it was. That works for me. While I count each 10-mile marker, I rarely look at my elapsed time. I try to stay in the moment and keep moving. I know my pace will get me to the finish line faster than Mike Reilly can say “You are an Ironman" 2,000 times. (Well, maybe not today).
Aside from the constant P-problem, the only other issue came in the last hour. My fancy Di2 push button electronic gear shifting worked fine, but my fingers did not. I found an interesting combination of shifting the right aero bar button with the left hand and left brake lever button to get proper gearing.
I realized long ago how sadistic and intentional the Ironman race founders were about creating the distances for each segment. A 2-mile swim and 100-mile bike is no problem It’s the last bit that hurts. The run is just truly sadistic for 26.2 miles. Today, besides my Wahoo computer giving up the cause after mile 100, I was a gamer for all 112 miles. I cruised up the helix into a bike catcher's waiting and warm arms. The ride was done in a slow but manageable 7 hours and 43 minutes.
Now I finally realized that my body was cold. I could not unclip my helmet strap. Inside the changing room, I needed help peeling off the wetsuit of bike clothing I was wearing. I took my time to warm up, change and make another P-stop (but I stopped counting that metric). I saw shivering competitors. I also saw a room of passionate, determined guys energized to get on with the show. There is so much power in the athletes, volunteers, and spectators that keep us going.
The Ironman race is my rolling meditation, the longer I go, the more I get inside my head into that proverbial zone of calm and an introspective state. The bike saddle is like being on the couch with your therapist. I have the time and safe place for introspection, for moving through the timeline of my life’s journey. I can confront and process many memories and emotions that have bubbled up. There is a lot on my mind for this day of remembrance of 9-11.
But the run is a different place. The room is more like solitary confinement in a straitjacket. That sounds harsh, and it’s not meant to be. My point is that instead of a vast mental field of imagery, my peripheral vision narrows to a long narrow pinhole to look through. I hear all the wonderful volunteers and spectators who stayed through the cold, dark, and wet night cheer me on. I feed off their energy, particularly my IronSherpa; her smile and hug is soothing like warm chicken broth. But I get tunnel vision. I only think about putting one foot in front of the other and crossing the finish line. I can remember the run and the frequent chats I have had with strangers. But I can’t remember what else I am thinking about besides making every step count.
I like this place too. Clearing your mind of extraneous matters and getting back to simply existing and surviving physically is also therapeutic.
Ok, Freud! I still have to do the job at hand. I may have mastered the mindset to be an Ironman, but these legs need to run this damn marathon.
So thanks to the down ramp on the helix, (I am still not sure where the timing mat started for the run), my first mile clocked in at a blazing 11:21. The legs and feet felt fine, so no problems so far. After a few high 12-minute and low 13-minute miles, I settled into my usual “Ironman shuffle.” The shuffle is a continual slow jog at a low 14-minute pace. While I see other athletes walking at the same pace, I can shuffle along without much discomfort. Unlike most past races, I barely stop and walk between aid stations. I am even shuffling through most aid stations too. At this pace, I can drink, eat, and even play a quick hand of Three-Card-Monte (google it if you are not from the streets of NYC) when I pass through.
It's easy to keep body warmth running, or I will say jogging. I just surrendered to the wetness. On the run, I am a pack rat and carry all my nutrition and a hand bottle of my secret energy drink concoction. My biggest asset on the run is my Iron stomach, so I can keep gobbling calories to stay strong.
The only mistake I made was carrying a two-pound baggy of various gummies covered in Base salt. Dear race judge, yes, I live in Colorado, but I promise there was no CBD or THC infused. I reluctantly start to jettison gummies and other food products to lighten my load.
Finally, I am cruising into the Madison downtown area where the fast athletes are taking a left for the finish chute, and mercilessly, I must take a right for lap 2. The double-lap run course and tease of the finish line is the cruelest moment of any Ironman race. Luckily, IronSherpa is there for more kisses, hugs, and encouragement. Since any chance of a slot to Kona is out the window (it was never in doubt), I take extra time and selfies with my wife in front of the illuminated capitol dome.
Now off to lap 2. The last 13.1 miles is strictly a math equation. Since I am past the halfway point, the first calculation is that I can count the miles down and not up. My second calculation, when I hit 20 miles, is that I only have a 10k run remaining. Unfortunately, the one calculation I forgot was time. I know from my past few races that my typical swim, bike, and run splits will put me into Mike Reilly land in the fifteenth hour. But I forgot to account for the extra-long transition times and the dilly-dallying with my IronSherpa into the math (queue the irony emoji since the IronSherpa is a math teacher).
My gut kept telling me I had to finish by midnight, while my brain secretly knew that I had 17 hours from my swim start time which would be 30 minutes past midnight. l listened to my gut and willed myself to keep running and to minimize walking and stopping to make my self-imposed cutoff. There is a long dark lonely section of the run course next to Lake Mendota with gravel, mud, deep puddles, and wind but no lions, tigers, and bears. Aside from that area of blackness, I could just grind out the miles in relative happiness and comfort.
One of my favorite IronCEO sayings is that only the last mile counts.
If you race 50 miles or 139.6 miles, you are not an Ironman. I always want to make that last mile my best. The goal is to finish strong and with a smile on my face.
100 yards remaining. I hit the finishing chute, stop to kiss the IronSherpa, and I give her my rain jacket. The only reason I take the jacket off now is vanity. I want to look like a pro crossing the line. The magic of the last 100 yards is that the pain and darkness all go away. The crowd lifts your sneakers and tired feet. The adrenaline and sheer realization that you did something so epic, rare, and hard that only you and your loved ones can appreciate what it took to get here.
50 yards remaining. I start yelling, “New York, New York”. The emotions of 9-11 hit me, and I want to celebrate my beloved hometown and cheer for those that can no longer be heard.
5 yards remaining. I break from my sprint to stop and look for Mike Reilly, the Voice of Ironman. I shake his hand, thank him, wish him well and give him a new IronCEO trucker hat I had carried in my back pocket for 26.2 miles. I bumped into Mike at the swim start early in the morning, and I told him I would have a retirement gift when I crossed the line. He said he prefers cash. Sorry, Mike.
0 Yards remaining. I cross the line with both hands in the air (just like I taught my IronGirl daughter to do). This time with all ten fingers pointed up for the 10 Ironman finishes. I expected to be washed over with emotion and tears. Instead, there was only joy and calm and one final amazing volunteer to ensure my safety and health as another tacky medal adorned over my neck.
Everything about this day and race was special. Madison, Wisconsin, is a great venue and course. It is now my favorite. The volunteers and spectators are above category. The cause I raced for, Tunnels to Towers, on the actual 9-11 date, gave me a purpose that carried me through the day. The icing on the cake was getting interviewed and packaged into an Ironman Facebook video featuring four pros and one old-age grouper, the IronCEO.
My mantra is always to move forward. When I started full-distance triathlons ten years ago, I had no idea where it would take me. Well, it has taken me to a great place in my life. I am not sure where my finish line is. I am also not sure if I will do more Ironman races. But I know that I will continue to move forward.
I am doing Ironman Wisconsin on 9-11 to honor our fallen heroes that entered the towers that day. Please click to donate whatever you can to this great cause, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation #americanheroes #firstresponder #neverforget #charity #DoGood #DonateToday #Tunnel2Towers #T2T
This is Alex Cooper. You can find and follow The MindsetCEO on LinkedIn or YouTube. Visit our website and book a call to see how I can help you on your journey from Founder to CEO.