Friday, September 13, 2013

Ironman Wisconsin Race Report!

Nervous, nervous, nervous.  I was very nervous before Ironman Wisconsin.

As I wrote before the race, I was concerned that ten weeks simply hadn't been enough time to get ready for the race.  Even though I had some good indicators in training and B events, I never had that breakthrough day that convinced me that I was ready to roll.   Further, I trained for this race differently than I had trained for other races in the past.  Even though I firmly believed that a new approach was warranted, it felt like a gamble.

As race day got closer, my nervousness transferred to the race itself. I started worrying that I would have a mechanical issue on the bike.  (I even chose shallower wheels in part so that I would be able to change a flat tire more easily.)  Then, I worried that the volunteers might lose my special needs bag (as if I really needed it anyway).  I worried that I might get kicked in the face during the swim or that I might get a undeserved drafting penalty.  If there was a race-ruining scenario, it crossed my mind.      
Why did it matter?  After under-performing in Kona in 2012, I basically came up with a two-year plan that would take me back there in 2014 with a mind to doing it right.  Part of "doing it right" would mean focusing my training on Kona for the better part of a year.  Qualifying early at Wisconsin was key; if something went wrong on race day, I would have to rethink my whole plan.    
I don't have to rethink my whole plan.   

 The finish clock is still on "pro time."  My finish time was actually ten minutes faster--9:30:29.
Notice the celebratory outstretched arms of my friend Harvey in the upper right. That may be my favorite part of the photo.


The first goal in our family is always to start.  It's a good goal, and it's one that shouldn't be taken lightly.  Injuries and accidents happen; I know this too well.  On race morning, after a fitful night of sleep, I rolled over and looked at my watch.  It said 6:35.  I bolted upright, thinking that the race would be starting without me in twenty-five minutes and that I had actually failed the first goal.  I realized quickly that it was in stopwatch mode and that everything was okay--it was actually 4:38 a.m.--but it was jarring.  I had been on edge so much already that this didn't help!     

My wife and I went to the lobby at 5:30 to meet my parents, and they had been there since 5:00.  Evidently, my mom forced my dad to get to our motel a half-hour ahead of time in order to make sure that they didn't make me wait.  We all headed to the Lake Monona Convention Center.  They dropped me off and found a parking place.  I got my tires pumped up, checked my bike computer, and put all of my nutrition on the bike.  Over the next short while, I slowly did all the basic pre-race things: got marked, put on my wetsuit, etc.  I reunited with my family, and we got a couple more pictures.

 Representing for my favorite brand of socks. 

 Striking my best wetsuit model pose. 

I got in the slow-moving line to enter the water at about 6:35 and soon began to worry that I wouldn’t make it into the water before the cannon went off.  Like all of my other worries leading up to and on race day, that never materialized, and I actually entered the water perfectly, about five minutes before the start.  With about two minutes to go, it suddenly got really crowded around me, and I spent the last thirty seconds treading around trying to find some open space.  No dice.  I was in for a crowded swim.  Ironman posted a photo of the start on their Facebook page:

I lined up close to the shore.  I'm probably right in the middle of the photo.  They also posted a video:

I'm likely one of the last 100 people to come into view of the camera.  Unlike some other North American Ironmans, IMWI is still a mass start, which I prefer.  We all started at the same time (save for the pros who started ten minutes early), which meant that whatever place I was in when I crossed the finish line, that was my actual finishing place.  I don't like beating someone to the finish line only to find out that they started two minutes ahead of me and are taking my place on the results sheet.

After the cannon went off, I followed the advice of a friend and breathed every stroke until I got comfortable.  It was good advice; amidst the chaos of the opening minutes, I didn’t worry about not seeing things or not being able to get a breath.  After a few minutes, things settled enough for me to be able to start breathing more normally.  Being in the middle of the pack, I sighted every few strokes, but it was mostly just to make sure that I was still moving in the same direction as the group.  I didn’t have to look at landmarks or buoys. Around the first turn, I heard everyone mooing.  Having read about this in numerous race reports, I had been looking forward to this moment.  It was a bit of a letdown.  For one thing, I was not really able to let loose with a good moo.  My dad grew up on a dairy farm, so I have a good moo.  It’s in the genes.  On this occasion, though, I pretty much just picked my head up and said the word “moo.”  For another thing, it didn’t sound like people mooing.  It sounded like a bunch of people yelling in panic.  If I hadn’t been expecting it, I would have thought that something was wrong and folks were trying to alert an official or something.  It was nothing like any farm I’ve ever been to. 

As the swim continued, I focused on remaining “unflappable.”  That was the word I kept saying to myself: unflappable.  I was just going to do my thing and not let anything that was happening around me get to me too much.  I realized recently that a major limiter in my ability to swim fast in Ironman competition is my inability to manage all the craziness that attends swimming in the middle of a pack of 2500 people.  In the race reports I’ve read over the last few months, the biggest theme among those who have swam well in Ironman competition seems to be their ability to remain calm amidst the knocks and kicks and punches.  Thus, that is what I did.  It was hard, though.  As a less-skilled swimmer, I struggle to swim in a straight line in open water.  In the middle of the pack, almost everyone else has the same problem, so we’re all swimming in different directions, constantly banging into one another.  At one point, I swear, I saw something ten yards in front of me that can really only be illustrated with a Haley Chura-style graphic:

    Men were wearing green caps and women were wearing pink caps.  The arrows show each swimmer's intended direction.

 Three people.  Three different (intersecting) paths.  This doesn't really happen in the pool.

Several times, I’d be stroking along well, and somebody would come barreling across traffic at virtually a 90-degree angle.  Three minutes later, he or she would come barreling back in the other direction, often with two or three other people in tow.  It was worst around the buoys, where folks evidently thought that they had to go around every buoy.  (You don’t, FYI.)  I took to calling these people “wrecking balls.”  They were maddening, but not for me.  I was unflappable.  The only time I got upset was when one wrecking ball in cut in front of me and then stopped, sat up, and took a look around.  But I got over it quickly. 

The one good thing about the craziness in the middle of the pack (besides the drafting effect, but really, I think that the drafting is canceled out by the wrecking balls) is that it kept my mind constantly occupied so that the time went by very quickly.  Before I knew it, I was making the turn for home, and soon after that, I was out of the water.  

By all accounts, the water was choppier than it has been in the past few years owing to the windy weather, and that slowed down times a bit.  On shore, Mike Reilly was saying that fans should expect to see competitors come out four or five minutes slower than expected.  The pro men's race winner even said that the conditions reminded him of St. George 2012, which was a complete disaster in the water.  Accordingly, the good folks at reported that the average swim time this year was 1:25:00, four minutes slower than last year, and also slower than 2011, 2010, and 2009.  At the time that I emerged from the water, though, I didn't know any of that, and I didn't really care.  My swim was a PR, and more importantly, it meant that it was time to move on to the parts of the race I do well.  I saw my wife and my parents as I came out of the water, and I gave them a thumbs up.  I passed about thirty people as we trotted up the helix and into transition, high-fiving people dressed as French maids, fairies, and dinosaurs all the way up.    

Looking back, I was 794th out of the water.  That means that about 65% of the field was behind me.  Further, I was seven minutes faster than the average time.  If I compare this to Coeur d'Alene--where I was in front of only about 40% of the field and I swam exactly the average time--this feels like progress, even though my time was only four minutes faster.  Onward, George the Swimmer!  


T1 in Wisconsin is notoriously slow because there is so much ground to cover.  Of course, the more running there is, the better it is for me.  Since there was nearly a quarter mile of running between the change room (yes, room--the transition area in IMWI is inside a convention center) and my bike,  I didn’t put on my shoes until I got to my bike.  This was pretty standard, as I noticed that most people around me were running with their shoes in their hands, too.  T1 was one of the first places that I got a sense of how many volunteers were working the race.  I had my own volunteer in T1 (which was a first), and a different volunteer even handed my bike to me so that I didn't have to run to the end of the rack to retrieve it.  

My HR was a bit high coming out of transition, but I knew that it was probably due to the hectic nature of transition and my overall excitement about successfully being done with the swim.  There was a lot of traffic in the opening stages as there normally is for me, but I steadily began moving up.  There was a short no-pass zone about two miles into the ride, where I hit a bump and dropped my bottle.  I quickly made the decision to pick it up, which I am confident was the right decision.  Combine the post-swim deficit with the fact that the first aid station wouldn’t be coming for about forty minutes, and it was a no-brainer.

The next two hours simply involved passing people and keeping a close eye on my HR and wattage.  The course--which consisted of a lollipop-shaped loop where you would circle the "pop" two times--was unlike any triathlon course I had ever ridden.  It was more like a charity century course than a boring out-and-back triathlon course, and the fans were incredible.  People were packed so densely on the uphills that it felt like a Tour de France mountain stage.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a ride as much as I enjoyed my ride in Madison.

The thing that stood out to me most both in my course preview and in my first lap was that this was a course for skilled cyclists.  Between the rough roads, the number of turns, the punchy hills, and the technical downhills, this course called on more of my abilities as a former bike racer than any other course I have ever done in any triathlon of any length.  At the same time, for that same reason, it was also SUPER FUN.     

Because I was feeling good and because I felt that I could gain a competitive advantage on a course like this one if I pushed a bit in the hilly, technical sections, I decided to turn the screws a little in the second lap.  In particular, at the start of the climb up to Mt. Horeb at about 69 miles, I started going pretty hard.  I kept going hard over the hilly sections of the course and through the "Three Sisters" climbs.  I was having a blast.  I sometimes like to imagine what people might be thinking when they see me pass them, and I was doing that a lot.  At one point, I went whipping down a technical section, and, I blew past both a competitor on a bike and a race official on a motorcycle.  I put a couple of hundred yards on them in only a few seconds.  I imagined them saying, “Whew!  That guy can make that bike MOVE!”  I was so fired up that I actually yelled it out (to no one).

I backed off a little for the remainder of the second lap—I wouldn’t have gotten as much of a competitive return on the physical investment of pushing through the flatter, non-technical sections—and then I made the turn toward home.  The wind was in our face at that point.  That was unpleasant, but I had already begun to switch my mind over to the run anyway.  A friend had told me in the week leading up to the race that my strategy should be to “get the race to the run” and then unleash hell.  I felt that I had put myself in a good position to do just that.  I found out later that in the process, I had ridden the fifth-fastest amateur bike split.

I am immensely proud of this bike ride.  So much of what we read about competing in Iron-distance triathlons talks about taking it easy and conserving energy.  Certainly, that's important, but it's not really the way to the fastest time.  Floating, spinning, and jogging will get you to the finish line, but it won't necessarily qualify you for Kona.  I didn't ride this ride all out, but I did push fairly hard at a few strategic points, and I think that that made a huge difference.             


No one really wants to read about how this would have been under 2:00 if going to the bathroom hadn’t taken so long.    

One of my teammates captured this from the video feed and posted it on Facebook during the race.  He captioned it, "Ok Ironman Wisconsin, ready for a run clinic? Go get 'em George!"

As I wrote in my blog before the race, I wanted to have “one of the very fastest run splits.”  Strangely, though, I felt less confidence in my run coming into this race than I did in my swimming and cycling.  Changing up my running training meant that I didn’t have any of the traditional confidence builders that I normally have.  Also, in the last week before the race, an old injury started bothering me for the first time in over a year.  None of that really came into my mind as I hit the run course, though.  At that point, I was in 52nd place, and I was eager to start mowing people down.  Even if I only managed 7:00 pace--and honestly, I figured that that was about as fast as I could expect--I knew that I would catch a whole lot of people and put myself in a good position to be a Kona-qualifier. 

Even though I was fired up, I pride myself on running smart.  I have a very well-tuned sense of perceived exertion on the run, and I had mistakenly ignored it in my last Ironman.  More precisely, I had confused the feeling of pushing too hard in the early miles with the feeling of transitioning from bike to run.  I wasn’t going to do that again.  I relaxed as much as I could in that first mile, and I kept telling myself to "slow down, run easy, slow down."  There must have been a lot of downhill in that mile, though, because I hit it in 5:49.  I promptly concluded that it was incorrectly marked and kept telling myself to run slowly.  I hit mile two in 6:06, and again concluded (without as much conviction this time) that it, too, must be short.  When I went through mile three in 6:30, I decided to quit worrying about it even though my splits were so much faster than I expected to be able to run.  I tend to trust my running instincts, and I knew I was putting in the proper effort.  If that effort was giving me faster splits than I expected, well, that wasn’t really something to complain about.  Besides, I was having too much fun.  I was in a great mood after that awesome bike ride, and in the first few miles, I was talking to my competitors, thanking volunteers, waving to fans, smiling for pictures, and doing all sorts of other ridiculous and totally out-of-character things.  I only wish that I had thought to strike a Heisman pose for the photographer the first time I ran through the UW stadium.  My wife told me after the race that she couldn’t figure out in the first half of the run why I was talking to her so much. 

This is at the turnaround near six miles.  I was asking my wife, "What is this cool little section of town??"  Totally out-of-character.

The next twelve miles were all around 6:40 pace, save for a couple in the 6:50s and a couple in the 6:20s.  I was embarrassed to find out later that the Ironman tracker said that I was running 5:45 pace, then 7:29 pace, then back to 5:54 pace.  I don’t run that erratically.  I was much more machine-like on the run, passing people and taking gels every two miles.

Mile sixteen (7:06) was my first mile over 7:00 pace.  It had started to get hard by that point, and I had quit being so chipper.  It got steadily more difficult after that.  My legs grew increasingly stiff, and my feet were starting to feel pretty beaten up.  I got some respite from the unpaved portions of the course:

I knew that I was still on track for a sub-3:00 marathon, so I concentrated on moving forward and not backing off.  Around mile 21, I lost my cool for the second time in the race when I saw this sign:

I saw lots of funny and inspiring signs along the way, but I thought this one was obnoxious.  It's missing its upper left corner because I attempted to rip it down while running.  Evidently, it was super-glued to that post, because that small corner was all I managed to remove.  

My pace continued to hover around 7:00.  My stiff legs were becoming a problem.  In addition to simply running more slowly, I was not as springy when jumping on and off curbs (there was a lot of that), not as sharp through corners (a lot of that, too), and not able to decelerate and accelerate as quickly when stopping for water at aid stations (yep, a lot of that, too).  I even had trouble moving laterally through the crowds of runners on their first lap.  Because of all of this, my twenty-fifth mile jumped all the way to 7:28. 

I pressed on, and I was rewarded by passing one more person—the thirty-fifth person I passed on the run—at the top of the last hill at about 25.5 miles into the marathon.  That made me the fourth amateur overall.  The next day, Mike Reilly would announce at the awards banquet that I had the fastest amateur run of the day.  Only two pros were faster, each by less than two minutes.  Near the finish line, when I took a right at the fork in the course to head to the finish rather than go left and back onto the course for another lap, the crowd around the finish erupted.  That was very, very cool.  A few folks captured the film of the finish, and you can hear my rebel yell on the video about three seconds after crossing the line:

My legs are so stiff that I have a hard time stopping myself. 

I was fired up.  I had PRed in all three segments, and my overall time was an Ironman PR by nearly fifteen minutes.  More importantly, even though I didn’t know my exact place in my age group, I knew I was going back to  Kona.

After I recovered a bit, we took a few pictures:

Like Couer d’Alene—my other good IM marathon—this was a good run borne out of really solid execution in terms of fueling, staying patient, positive thinking, and paying heed to perceived exertion.  Also like Coeur d'Alene, this was not a flat run course.  I was surprised by how much up and down there was, including a BIG uphill and downhill in the middle of the UW campus, and another long, gradual hill in the LAST MILE OF THE RACE.  In retrospect, I should have previewed the run course, just as I had previewed the bike course on the Friday before the race.

I'm left to wonder why my legs stiffened so much.  Yes, it was an Ironman, but my legs didn't stiffen like this in Coeur d'Alene.  Was the leg-stiffening a result of the differences in my run buildup?  Would I have stiffened less if I had done a twenty-mile run, a super-long brick, or more high-end repeats?  At the same time, I ran faster in Wisconsin than I did in Coeur d'Alene, so it's not as if my training for Wisconsin was deficient.  I'll continue to ponder and research this over the next few months.  

Official time: 9:30:29  

We went back to the motel, showered, read all the posts that people had been putting on Facebook and Twitter, and then went to dinner.  I ordered a cheeseburger with five different types of cheese.  That seemed appropriate.  We made our way back to the course, and we cheered for our friends Brent and Kyle Pease.  They finished in just over fifteen hours:

The next day, Kacie and I went back to the convention center where we claimed my Kona slot:

My legs felt so wrecked that I had to walk down the stairs backwards:

We also went to the awards ceremony where they showed this video:

And I went on stage with the other award winners from the 35-39 age group:


I also got a picture with Brent and Kyle:

So, what can I say?  It's a good day when you accomplish all of your goals.  Certainly, there is much I can learn from this race, but I think, in general, that I executed it extremely well.  For as nervous as I was, nothing significant went wrong.  It wasn't a solo effort, though.  I want to thank my wife, who took over a lot of the responsibilities around the house during my ten-week buildup.  It's more than that, though; I couldn't do anything--athletic or non-athletic--without her.  I want to thank my parents, who made the trip to Madison and were tireless fans.  I am really happy that they got to see me have a good race, especially considering that they went all the way to Hawaii last October to see me have a bad one.  I want to give thanks to Coach Maria Thrash and Coach Matthew Rose at Dynamo Multisport who have helped me to improve my swim and plan out my training schedule.  Even though I'm not on the Dynamo team, they have treated me like part of the Dynamo family.  I want to thank Adam Heiser, an athlete I coach who came to cheer at IMWI and is planning to compete there next year.  Adam was not only a great on-the-spot cheerleader, but he also went beyond the call of duty and looked out for my wife and parents during the race.  I very much appreciate that.  I want to thank Swiftwick for the great socks and CycleOps for the power meters and trainers I used to train and the wheels I rode to my fast bike split on race day.  There were also several other friends who helped and supported long the way, like Harvey Gayer, Ivan and Courtenay Wilson, and Tom and Colleen Kingery.  And finally, I have to give huge thanks to my Atlanta Triahtlon Club-mates who have really embraced me as part of their group this year and have supported me so much.  Throughout the year, I have looked forward to Tuesday Night Runs and Wednesday Night Energy Labs.  As I recently wrote in the club blog, endurance sports don't have to be solitary, lonely pursuits only for introverts.  I'm much happier in the sport--and I believe that I will ultimately be more successful--by virtue of my affiliation with ATC.         

On to the next one: Kona 2014. 


  1. Congrats, George! It was so nice to read your recap, and an absolute pleasure to watch (via the interwebs) your race. Best from Michigan!

  2. Outstanding Blog George, it's a great read. Great job on IM Wisconsin you put in the work & your results showed it.

  3. Great race and great race report, George. You are a class act. Congrats on going to Kona again!

  4. Awe... we got a shout out. That's awesome!

    Simply put, you executed in Wisconsin. You were smart, took chances when you needed to, held back when you needed to and it shows. Congrats on a great race!!!

    And I had to smile. Kacie texted me the picture of you running so I could see the shoes and told me that you were very chatty. I smiled... I knew you were having a good day!

  5. What an absolutely incredible race! You nailed it, buddy! Jenn and I tracked you all day long and sat in amazement as you cruised through the run to an awesome finish. Way to go!!! Kona is going to be amazing!!! Congrats on a great race.

  6. Woot!! Congrats on a great race, George!! So proud of you!

  7. Great race report George. I like reading your race reports because I can relate to a lot of it. I had thought you were running 5:45's and then 7:00's because of the terrain.. faster downhills and slower up but thought u were closer to 6:30's on the flats.. intersting to hear it was just the timing system that was off. Well, anyways Congrats again on a great race and meeting your goal of qualifying for Kona 2014!