Well, the race has been over for about 24 hours, and I think it’s finally starting to sink in. I completed an ironman. How ridiculous is that?
Not bad for someone whose only triathlon-ing experience came in the way of an all women’s sprint race 14 months ago along the banks of the Schuylkill River.
I felt a long way from Philadelphia when I arrived at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. I walked into the registration cum banquet facility cum transition area cum finish line, to discover that I was completely out of my league. Everywhere I looked, I saw Kona t-shirts and finisher jackets, long legs and rippling arms, ironman tattoos and disc wheels and super-aerodynamic-spaceship-looking helmets.
I contemplated heading back to the airport then and there, but decided to take a deep breath and make my way to the registration table, where I was marked and weighed and sent on my merry way – but not before I signed ten different release forms convincing NAS, USAT, and every other possible organization involved, that I would not sue them if I was killed or maimed during the course of the race.
After a couple teary phone calls, I got back in my chevy cobalt rental car to take a ride around the 40-ish mile bike loop. Several people warned me of the elevation, but I figured, after spending a summer riding the hills of New England, it wouldn’t be so bad. And it wasn’t, really. There were some brutal stretches where my transmission groaned as I pushed the gas to make it up, but they were accompanied by blistering downhills and tame flat stretches that seemed like they would provide welcomed breaks and a chance to gain some speed on race day.
I got a little bit turned around on the second half of the loop and ended up making it back to Monona about 15 minutes after the start of the race welcome dinner, so I hustled in, got some food, and made small talk for 20 minutes before the race director took the stage. They put on a nice show, and I was in better spirits by the time I showed up at my friend Rachel’s apartment to spend the night and attempt to put my bike back together.
I say ‘attempt’ because, really, neither Rachel nor I nor her boyfriend Nick knew quite what we were doing. By the end of the night, though, everything seemed to be in its right place and we all slept soundly, hoping that Brent and my dad would make it to Madison in time to give it a once over before the 3 PM cut off to rack it in transition.
Saturday passed without incident as I ran around, dropping off TA bags and driving to the airport and linking up with Rachel and Nick for dinner, and by evening I was so exhausted that I fell asleep before 9:00 PM. That’s probably the only time in my life that I will ever get 7+ hours of sleep the night before a race!
We awoke at 4:30 AM on Sunday morning and headed back to Monona Terrace in time for last minute adjustments and gear checks. The race was staged out of a convention center and multi-level parking garage (which, as some of you know, I think architecturally are the eighth wonders of the world). So, the bikes were on the roof of the garage, the swim-to-bike bags in one banquet room inside, the bike-to-run bags in another, with the start and/or end of each leg requiring a sprint up or down one of the cement helixes that weave around either side of the immense structure.
At 6:30, I made my way down my first helix of the day, donning my wetsuit and swim cap, feeling finally in my element. After a dozen years as a competitive swimmer, I knew that I could do this part. Granted, all of my pool training offered me little experience in the way of the chaos that is a triathlon start, but still, I was confident that I could put on a good showing in the water.
The canon sounded at 7:00 on the dot and all 2100 of us were off for the two-loop, 2.4 mile swim in the banks of Lake Monona. There was close to zero visibility beneath the surface, but the water was calm and I felt good as I traversed the 250 meters from where I started to get on course (if you’re a strong swimmer but don’t want to deal with quite as much of the early madness, situate yourself just to the left of the waterski jump, I was told. It’ll add a bit to the distance, but you’ll get into a rhythm quickly).
All in all, the swim went well. I got bumped and bruised along the way – especially at the turns – and I got kicked in the face about 2/3 of the way through, leaving me with a puffy and purplish eye for the rest of the day. But I was happy with my performance as I reached land in an hour and four minutes.
The crowds were electric as I sprinted to a set of mats, where I flopped down on my back and two volunteers ripped my wetsuit off of me. I grabbed it and ran back up the helix. I got to the swim-to-bike transition, and an attentive volunteer found my transition bag and whisked me into the women’s changing area, unpacked my stuff and waited as I dried off, slipped on my socks and jersey, and stuffed food into my pockets before slinging on my camel back, buckling my helmet, and rushing to the bike. I have to admit, it was a little bit uncomfortable having someone dote on my in the TA. I wanted to tell her that I was good to go, that I was sure there were others who needed her help more than I did. But she seemed so happy to be there.
That was, hands down, the most impressive part of the entire day. I’ve never been to a race so well organized, with so many phenomenal volunteers. The energy was unmatched and constant from sunup to sundown.
So, I made it to the bike and looked at the clock. An hour and eleven minutes had elapsed since the start of the race. I was feeling good! I hopped on and rode down the opposite helix, heading down the Madison bike trail and into the Aliant Energy Center parking lot before the real fun began.
The bike course consisted of two 40+ mile loops through the rolling farm towns surrounding Madison, bookended on either end with a 14-mile leg to and from the convention center. The weather couldn’t have been better as I made my way to the loop, being past on either side by those ridiculous alien-looking helmets. It turns out, if you’re at the front of the pack on the swim, you’re generally going to be at the front of the pack for the bike, and the front of the back for the run.
For me, though, such a fate was not meant to be. I knew that I would be a strong swimmer, a mediocre biker, and a reasonable runner. I did not, however, account for the hour I would lose at mile 20, when I flat tire and an ill-packed tube would leave me stranded on the side of the road awaiting rescue from the knights in shining armor driving around the course for bike support. In truth, a wonderful, wonderful woman (whose race number I never got) stopped to make sure I was okay and gave me a bike tube of her own, but by that point, 45 minutes into the delay, I was so frazzled that I couldn’t figure out how to put it on, so I waited the additional 15 minutes, feeling stupid and foolish and ready to be back in the saddle.
The unintended pit stop definitely slowed my momentum. I had biked the first 20 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes – not a blistering pace, but well above the 15 mph I had set for myself as a goal. When I got back on the bike, it took me another 10-15 miles to get back into a smooth rhythm, aided, I think, by the amazing roller coaster hills from miles 30-35 (and 70-75 on the second loop). A lot of people struggled through this section, but I enjoyed the extremes of up and down, and loved the four miles that followed, slightly sloping downward miles that ran by silos and pastures, wooded streets and sunny cornfields. They were quiet miles, but unlike the rest of the bike course, where the solitude was palpable, the stillness from miles 35-40 was a welcomed solace.
I saw Brent and my dad sometime after that. My energy began to sag as I reached the turnaround for the second loop just as the top finishers were headed back to the transition. Miles 60-70 were brutal. At no point in the day did I think about giving up, or question whether I would finish. But that 10-mile stretch was low energy to the extreme. I tried eating. I tried drinking. I tried singing the Rocky theme song aloud. None of it worked. But when I got to the rollercoaster ride at mile 70, I found myself back in business, and by the time I hit mile 80 I was full steam ahead. I’m not sure where the energy came from, but over the last 25-30 miles of the course, I passed upwards of 30 riders and upped my overall MPH average by half a mile. I pumped my arms in the air at mile 100, having completed my first ever century ride, and headed back to the TA. I was stoked.
I climbed the last helix and came into the bike-to-run transition at 4:58 PM, seven hours before the race cut-off and still feeling strong. I ran into the TA and had a lovely conversation with the volunteer who helped me shift gears and get my running stuff together. I opted for pants and my GOALS bike jersey over shorts and a singlet, recalling the chill of the previous night, and tied a long sleeve shirt around my waist. I would get some comments on the pants later in the night (“did you go home and change?” “Perkiss, you look too comfortable to be racing”), but I was happy to have them, especially when the rain started at mile 20. I gave the volunteer one of my leftover hammer bars from the ride (she said she loved the gel, but had never tried the bars), and headed out onto what was the best marathon course I’ve ever seen.
The run wove through downtown Madison, and included a varied mix of energetic city streets, old rail trails, and peaceful lakeside gravel paths. I felt great as I watched the mile markers fly by. I stopped at a couple of the well-stocked aid stations and chatted with a few fellow racers as I ran through Badger Stadium and up State Street, where throngs of spectators hooted and hollered and “we’re not worthied” for a mile or more. By mile 8, I noticed that my right knee was starting to give out, and by 10 the IT band inflammation was in full force. I ran, walked, and shuffled my way through the rest of the course, enjoying the scenery (and, I’ll admit it, enjoying passing dozens of other runners out on the course). Brent biked with me for awhile, relaying messages from friends, and at mile 9, the Ford Inspiration Station (tucked away down a footpath next to Lake Mendota) started blaring Blister in the Sun. What a pick-me-up!
I could have been frustrated with it, could have gotten down on myself about the mechanical flareups on the bike and the joint flareups on the run, but at that point, I was just enjoying the experience – aside from the 10-second snooze I’m pretty sure I took in a port-a-potty around mile 18!
I often question people who say “the most important thing is to enjoy yourself.” I wonder whether they were actually enjoying themselves for the duration of a 140.6 mile race, or whether they enjoyed the experience in hindsight, looked back on it fondly from the comfort of their couch, beer in hand, reliving the experience with partial amnesia. But I have to say, when all was said and done and I made my way across the finish line at 10:15 PM to the sounds of “Abigail Perkiss from Philadelphia, you are an ironman!” I was legitimately having a blast.
It wasn’t perfect. The nasty headwinds for 2/3 of the second loop of the bike course that slowed me to 16 miles per hour – while I was pedaling down a steep hill? Yeah, those sucked. The hundreds of bikers that flew by me as I sat helplessly on the side of the road wondering if my day was over before it really got started? That wasn’t so much fun either. But I can honestly say that for at least 75% of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Not bad for a 15-hour race!
In all honesty, the worst part of the weekend was walking through the race expo to discover that they only made “iron-mate” t-shirts in women’s sizes. There was 650 women competing in the race! Make Iron-mate t-shirts for their significant others, for goodness sake… Sheesh!
When I finished last night, I was content to say that I was glad I’d done it, that it was a great experience, and that I didn’t think I needed to do it again. But now, a day later, I’m already thinking about what I could differently do next time… in Florida… where there are no hills. So, we’ll see.
As a side note, Adam Alper, a fellow Cheltenham swim team alum and current VP of the Philly Tri Club, put on an awesome performance yesterday and earned a spot to Kona for the 2009 Ironman championships. Go Adam!
I awoke this morning to sore lungs, a cranky right knee, and a very tender left foot. I wasn’t ready to run a marathon, but muscularly I was feeling strong, and mentally I was feeling fantastic.
I am an ironman.
Who would have thought?