I rolled into Madison on Thursday afternoon and decided to drive the Ironman Wisconsin bike course before checking into the hotel. Rebekah handled the map and took notes as we headed out “the stick,” and despite what I’d heard, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to witness.This course is surrounded by folklore that rivals Paul Bunyan and I was unwilling to let the reports of “relentless hills” sink into my mind. But, as I drove up and down for over an hour, I started to believe. Driving the bike course was the best and worst thing I could have done.
We checked into the hotel, then walked across the street to Machinery Row Bicycles, which was one of the coolest bike shops I’d ever experienced. They had everything and the employees were some of the nicest people you’d want to meet, which set the tone for just about every interaction I had with the fine folks of Madison.
After a quick bike tune-up, I grabbed my wetsuit and took a little swim in Lake Monona around 4:00. It was unseasonably warm that day and the water was around 74 degrees. I was literally baking after swimming 500 meters. I knew it would be much cooler the morning of the race, but the fear of overheating slithered into my mind.The rest of the Fab 5 got to town around 7:00 and, after a couple beers at the hotel, we went to eat at The Great Dane near the capitol. I was a little hesitant to say anything about the bike course, but felt obligated to let them know and suggested it might be a good idea for them to drive it in the morning, and they said they would.
We were staying at the Ruby Marie Hotel and it didn’t take long to realize that we had struck gold. The employees were ridiculously nice, it had a great little bar, a bad ass deli, and was literally attached to the world famous Essen Haus. There was no reason to leave, and the Ironman transition was only two blocks away. For all of this, I cannot thank Season Kaminski enough for recommending the hotel after doing IMWI in 2011.
As each day in Madison progressed, Ironman became more real. Around 10:00, we went to Monona Terrace to check in for the race. The Fab 5 was in full force as we weaved our way through each of the check points. We signed waivers, stepped on the scale, got wrist bands, swim caps and timing chips. After that, we walked through the expo where, against my superstitious judgement, I bought the IMWI “name shirt” and added a can of Infinit that I knew I wouldn’t use on race day.
Smiles beamed from the amazing volunteers and workers built the finish line in the shadows of the imposing state capitol. More than once I daydreamed about crossing under that arch, though on some level I still had doubts. It’s hard to imagine you belong until you belong, but deep down I knew I was ready. I also had to keep reminding myself it would likely be the hardest and most rewarding finish line I’d ever cross.After the expo I went to the room for rest. I laid in reverse on the bed with my feet against the wall, hoping I could get some of the swelling out of my ankles. I hadn’t told anyone, but for the last couple weeks the right side of my foot was bothering me and my left achilles was very tender. Because of that, I didn’t run for two weeks leading up to the race. I’d been saying all along that my main goal on race day was to “feel good” and two days out, I wasn’t quite there.
A couple hours later I started getting text messages about the bike course from the Fab 5. Jim said he was trying to wrap his head around it and that it was tougher than he thought. Daniel said, “At first I didn’t think it was bad, but now I think it may be a humbling experience.” Mark was wide eyed and said he thought it looked tough, but he was excited about the challenge. Kevin opted out for beer and cheese shopping.
We’d decided on dinner at Paesano’s just up the street, but went to the hotel bar to wait for Wasky, Carolyn, and Allison to get in from Nashville. Coach Robbie couldn’t make it because he had two athletes qualify for the world championships in Vegas and decided he couldn’t miss that opportunity. He dropped the news a month before and I was bummed. Robbie was a fixture in Jim, Kevin, and I’s training for nearly 9 months and the entire focus was on Wisconsin. It wasn’t like I felt I needed a coach the day of the race, but I really wanted him to be in Madison. It was my home state, we spent 3 mornings a week together at the lake and countless hours riding together on the Trace. All for this day, and Robbie wouldn’t be there to see us race.
But, he was texting us and making sure everything was cool. He also gave us a carrot by saying Wasky was delivering a special package to the team. We all thought it would be our new kits and were excited to wear them on our Saturday practice run and hopefully in the race.
Wasky showed up at the bar around 5:30 and we had a couple beers before heading to Paesano’s. Somehow we all got separated and I ended up walking in alone. The hostess pointed me to the room with double glass doors in the back, and when I walked in, I thought I was hallucinating. Sitting along the wall with the Wasky’s and Allison was Robbie! The first words out of my mouth were, “What the fuck?!?”
He pulled an elaborate hoax and I couldn’t have been happier. It truly gave me a boost knowing that he would be cheering (and answering many questions) alongside my family and pushing all the right buttons that would somehow help me get to the end.After dinner we walked by the finish line again and the lit capitol in the background gave me chills. We took a few pictures, then strolled through the perfect Madison air back to our hotels for a night of rest before a short morning workout. Saturday 9/7
Our morning workout was a 15 minute swim, a 35 minute bike, and a 10 minute run. The water felt much better at 8 in the morning, but it was a tad choppy. We all decided the lake current was moving the right direction and would be behind us on the long leg of the swim. Our bike took us out the first few miles of the course, including a romp through the Reliant Center parking lot. We put the bikes into the van, then made a short run down to the end of Monona Terrace and back. I took it very, very slow and my ankle felt good so I stopped a little short and hoped for the best in the morning.
Rebekah and I went to breakfast with Mark, his wife and daughter, and it was unbelievable. They were staying at our hotel, too and we got free vouchers for the Essen House. We asked the waitress what our voucher was good for and she said, “Anything on the menu, including alcohol.” Believe me, a Bloody Mary was tempting, but stocking my transition bags would be confusing enough without a buzz. We opted for walleye and eggs, which came with potatoes, pancakes, and bacon. It rocked. And even if we did pay, it was only like 10 bucks. It’s the simple things.
Rebekah left to go to the Badger game with Robbie, Allie, and the Wasky’s while I went to get my gear bags ready. I laid everything on the bed and must have checked 20 times to make sure my shoes were in the right bags. The Badger game wasn’t on TV at the hotel, so I turned on the clock radio and listened to Matt Lepay call the game on the radio. There are so many distractions in life and there was something about listening to football on the radio that calmed my nerves and helped me focus on putting gummy bears in my special needs bags.
My family showed up around 3:00 and it was so awesome to have them all together. My brother was in from Milwaukee, my sister from Dallas, and my parents from Beloit. We walked across the street and I did my best to explain how their day of viewing would work.I stood on the shore pointing toward a turn buoy we couldn’t see. I have become very confident in my swimming, but there’s something about looking at an Ironman swim course that can humble you in a heartbeat. And, if you’re not a swimmer, oh, say, like my dad . . . it can seem downright outlandish.
I paid close attention to his eyes and I could sense anxiety. He acted calm, but I knew he was concerned. What father wouldn’t be? I saw it first hand in Louisville when I watched with Wasky’s parents after he plunged into the murky Ohio River. An Ironman swim is not easy for first-time-watching-parents to digest.
I assured him it would be fine as we jostled our way across the busy streets back to the Ruby Marie where we sat together as a family with one focus for the first time in ages. It was a very simple, yet powerful moment for me.
Around 5:30 I picked up my phone and had about 35 text messages, the last one from Jim saying he’d be there in 10 minutes to pick me up for dinner. I didn’t read anything about where we were going and headed down to the van.
As we drove out East Washington I finally asked where we were the hell we were going and he said, “Tex’s Roadhouse.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I did want a steak, but here we were in beautiful downtown Madison and we’re now driving out to the east side to eat at a chain restaurant? I tried to keep cool, but Jim knew I was a little pissed.
Then I got pissed because I was pissed and a hundred thoughts swirled in my mind. Someone mentioned the steak houses downtown were really expensive, and I offered to chip in a hundred bucks for the meal. But the rest of the crew was already at the restaurant and I made a quick mental adjustment. I couldn’t afford to be upset the night before the race. I over reacted and knew it. I forced myself to go with the flow and it turned out to be a solid meal, not to mention a tasty bit of entertainment from the very, very happy employees and exposure to this awesome painting that I may just have to turn into a tattoo. We got back to the hotel around 7:30 and I laid down immediately hoping I would be asleep by 8. Then it was nine. Then ten. I was tossing and turning. Just when I’d feel myself drifting off a screaming child would run down the hall, or a train would go by, or drunks started yelling outside the Essen Haus. I was wired and couldn’t fall asleep.
I’d been up since 5 am, had a workout, didn’t nap, walked all over town, and there wasn’t a tired bone in my body. Eleven o’clock. Midnight. Wide awake. It was unbelievable. I even sat in meditation for 30 minutes to calm down. There was no calming and I would be getting up at 4 am. Sometime around 1am I dozed off before waking up again at 3:30. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling.
I climbed out of the sheets at 4am, had two glasses of water, ate an orange, a power bar, and a banana, then sipped on a diluted batch of Perform. At 5:15 I walked alone through the dark and empty streets of Madison on my way to bike transition. I was about to race an Ironman on 2 1/2 hours of sleep.