Ironman Wisconsin – Coach’s Perspective from the Sidelines

Ironman Wisconsin- Sights and Sounds from a Spectators View

Robbie Bruce

September 12, 2013 at 11:39am

I have competed in and raced in 5 Ironman. Even before I became a “full time” coach I had always said “I would much rather race one than watch one. “The mental exhaustion, worry, and wait of the spectator seems much more daunting than actually racing.” Up until last Sunday at Ironman Wisconsin I was sure I was right. When I woke up Sunday morning at 5:30am and prepared to spend the next 18hrs cheering on athletes, friends, and complete strangers I knew I was wrong. It would be all different after Sunday. My view of spectating, Ironman, racing, and the sport were all about the change. The following is a recap of what I witnessed, observed and felt watching this race. As usual, it will be long but I am getting better at including humor and this report will be more of a picture based with small captions, more of a running visual diary to ease your pain. I can promise you that if you make it to the end it will be a great journey and you will be just as likely to sign up as a volunteer as you will signing up to compete in an Ironman when you finish.

Pre Race:

Friday night (arguably the most important day)

We met all of the Fab Five including some family and friends at a sweet pizza joint situated really close to transition. Allie and I headed there early to snag a table as we anticipated a long wait but there ended up none to be had. Everyone else was to meet at a neighboring hotel and then head over. I was pumped to see my Kevin, Jim and Mike as they all 3 thought I was on the ground in Vegas. It was time to pull the rug out from under them and surprise them with my arrival in Madison. As things would work out they all entered our room one at a time and with 3 very different personalities you can imagine their reactions were all very different. Kevin came in first with a “Holy S#$t” Look on his face. He actually stopped dead in his tracks for a moment and just stared at me as if he had just seen a ghost. He sat down and said with his copyrighted “laugh/giggle” and said…”Ok then. Game on.” Jim meandered in shortly after and as usual was just plain cool. Excited and smiling but as cool as the other side of the pillow. I knew what was coming from Jim, “Dude. I cant believe your here. I wouldve picked Vegas for sure. But I am glad your here.” Tucked his hair behind his ear and had a seat. Mike was the last to enter and he turned the corner he looked like a 6yr old kid walking in to see what Santa brought him. I felt like a brand new Nintendo console with Contra included with the excitement he was exuding. He was amped. ” No way. Really?. Ha man. Yea. We all enjoyed about 2 hours of food, fellowship, wine, race talk and so many laughs as usual my face was hurting. It was such and amazing group. We tabbed out and headed back towards the cars.

Here is our crew with Carolyn in the back waving here hand at the waitress as she is trying to order more vodka snacks even after we paid. She wasn’t racing so bravo Carolyn:

As we walked back to the hotel we spotted transition and the finish line. I wont lie. I was in awe. It was one of the coolest sports scenes. Everyone was taking pictures. I think the magnitude of the weekend and the race set in. Of the group walking back only MIke was racing but I could feel everyones heart beginning to pound. It was a sweet scene. Here is a picture of the finish area which does not do it justice.

Everyone hit the sack and prepared for the day ahead.

Saturday

Everyone pretty much did their own thing on Saturday as I believe they should. The all did their prerace workout. Packed their bags and prepared their bikes in. All was quiet. You could sense they were preparing to go to battle. The time was arriving. While they were getting ready and staying comfortable John, Allie, Carolyn and I figured we should spend sometime soaking in some Wisconsin culture with our home stays the Flemmings. So we obliged them when they asked us to tailgate with them and then go to the Badger game. Then tailgate again. They twisted our arms but I figured “Hey, the rest of the guys are getting hydrated, no reason we shouldn’t do the same. Here is a little caption of the Badger game. Pretty cool scene they have their. Not SEC stuff but solid.

Later that day we met up with Jim and Mike and their significant others at a very illustrious establishment in one of the ritzier parts of Madison at a place called….. Texas Roadhouse. Yep. We kept it simple. I was fine with that. We met early. Ate rather quick and then gave our final hugs and fives before we all headed home. We all had a long day ahead of us. That place has pretty solid steaks. I would have a picture but Wasky was too busy signing up for some pyramid scheme compliments of the lady in the booth behind us. The next 24 hours were going to be incredible…….. Lets get to the important part of the weekend. Ironman Wisconsin.

Sunday Sunday Sunday!!!

5:15 alarm went off and we were a go!!! Everyone seemed in a slow hurry to get out the door. I really wanted to make sure I got to the start to see everyone before they went in. I knew my chances of seeing Kevin were slim bc knowing his astuteness for being punctual he would be one of the first in the water.  I was still determined to find them all. We made our way into town and the excitement was building. So much energy as we parked. Everyone was in a huge hurry to get to the start. If you have ever walked anywhere with Wasky the dude walks a legit 8:00 mile. Its stupid really. I did my best to keep up and I  was going anaerobic quick. Allie got a text from Mike giving their location “We are by a white van next to the start line.” Wow to be as vague as possible I thought. APB out for a “white male, short brown hair, mid 30s, jeans and a t shirt.” Man. This might be impossible. We made our way to the finish and I spotted someone with a Crushing Iron shirt on and said “Where are the guys.” She looked at me like “who is this random dude tapping me on the shoulder.” It turned out to be Mikes sister. She pointed in a general direction that they were in. So I placed myself on top of a perfectly placed car. Great view and very sturdy. I gazed through the masses and spotted Jim and Mike. No Kevin. I knew it. He was in the water. We all exchanged nervous pleasantries before they went in. I looked at Wasky and we both felt “Give me some goggles and a speedo and I am so jumping in this race.” Music was blaring. Energy everywhere. Spectators getting stoked. Such a cool environment. Only second to the finish chute I think. As they all made their way in the water we all got to know the other 15-20 people we would be spending the next 17 hours with. Team Crushing Iron Support Team. Literally some of the coolest people I have met. Spouses, brothers, sisters, parents, friends, coaches, significant others. All with different emotions. All with different hopes and worries. Here we are trying to hide our nervous excitement as the guys made their way into the dark blue water. I love the “thumbs up” from Chris Tarrolly right here. He was the only person that never looked nervous all day. He took some great footage too.

As they lined up in the water in a mass of almost 3,000 we took our positions to watch. The swim is the most never racking part in my opinion. It is the longest you have to go without seeing a person or getting an update. It is also the leg of the race where the most can go wrong. If you have never seen a mass start at an Ironman is one of the coolest scenes in all of sports. A scene that unfortunately seems to be going by the wayside with time trial and rolling starts becoming more part of the norm. Here are all the guys. Somewhere as they fly off for their 2.4 mile swim.

Now we wait. Everyone kind of looks around as if to say “What the hell do we do now?” It is an entire day of hurry up and wait. It also gave us a time to do Q&A with everyone there as lots of questions were arising. Thoughts, expectations, etc. I had loose times for the guys to come out in so I knew when to really look. With the wind high and the current strong I added 3-5 mins to my predicted times because of the elements. Wasky and I sprinted to the other side of T1/2 to make sure we had time to see them exit the water and then hurry to see them exit T1. It is an exceptionally long transition so we had tons of time. Came back and then it was time to wait. And wait. And wait. As it got close the hour mark it was time to be on alert. You never know when they are going to come out but better to be there early than not at all. Wasky and I posted up on the car provided. Here we are seeing if we can find Kevin punching Mike or trying to pull Jim under. It is no holds barred with them.

Bam. Mike out of the water. About where I thought due to the conditions. He looked a bit disgusted but its early in the game. We made our way to see him exit and I told Eddy Rossel to text me when Kevin and Jim were coming out because we didnt want to see Mike exit, run back and miss them in the intermittent period. We posted up on the ramp coming out of T1 to wait for Mike. As we waited I got to field some Q&A from the Tarrolly family. They were all so nice and were so eager to learn and be involved. Not all families and support systems are like that. This is Mikes parents asking why his swim was so slow. Why people where things on their calves, etc.

Just as we saw Mike come out I got the text from Eddy. Jim and Kevin were literally only :07 apart coming out which was crazy so we stayed put. I could not find a picture of Jim coming out but here are is Kev saying “Why the hell are you yelling at me?” and Mike peeing on himself with exuberance.

Everyone out? Now what do we do? Everyone talked plans for conquering the spectating portion of the bike course and everyone went their separate ways. We retreated back to the Flemmings to relax and the original plan was to nap. Nope. No nap. We were all too amped. I turned on Vegas 70.3 to track my awesome athletes there. Tracking. Tracking. Tracking. The Waskys went to scout a good place for us to catch the guys. The found the perfect spot around mile 52 and 94. Not very busy so we knew they could see us. There was also a pub called the draft house a block away. We posted their first and as I pulled up the tracker. Damnit. MIke was making really good time and I feared we missed him. We met his family up at the corner. Waited. Waited. Waited. Nothing. We had missed him but had one more chance to see him. Now we wait for Jim and Kevin to roll through. They looked on point on the tracker but its hard to tell. It was windy and I told them to be patient but I was beginning to worry about Jim. Here they came around the corner and we got to see both of them. Here is Kev giving a look of confidence and also when Jim broke the news to us he was having some major back and neck issues which was surprising but he looked determined.

We had plenty of time before they came back around so we all retreated back to the Draft House to rest or legs, get food and beverage, watch some football and prepare for the rest of the day. I think at this point we had already recharged our phones at least 2x. I cant state enough how awesome our support crew was to be around. I have heard some horror stories about spectating and to be honest its not surprising. You spend 17hours with people, stressful, tiring, detailed. Hell, I cant even stand being around me 17hrs a day. So the fact that we all had such a good time says a lot about the group. Here is team Crushing Iron sharing some laughs at some of Mikes baby pictures. Those bath tub pics were crazy. Who knew a 8 month old could already have the chest hair of a grizzly bear.

We paid our tab and rushed back to make sure we got to see the guys again before the home stretch. The weather was still favorable but the wind was picking up and everyone looked steady. We saw Mike coming down the hill and I rushed up the street so I could run with him and relay a message. I told his family I was going to give him the “green light” to push it some. I  began to run up so he wouldnt have to slow down. As he approached I changed my mind. Instead of “green light” I screamed “STAY PATIENT”

He looked fine but I just didnt want him to risk the run.

The rest of the guys peeled through and looked good. We could still tell that Jim was hurting but I knew he would finish. The guy is a true champion. All heart. A real seasoned vet Kevin looked very comfortable and it was hard for me to tell if he was holding TOO much back. But I was very very happy with where he was. Side note: We did see a TON of drafting which was disappointing but DONT WORRY. John “drafting police” Wasky made sure he let everyone know they were CHEATING or at least judging them as they rode by like right here:

“Yea. I see you. Up in the hoods. Aero helmet on. Drafting……Punk…..”


So. Again we looked around and kind of said…. “What now?” We regrouped, went our separate ways and prepared for the final part of the day. I told MIkes family when they asked what I thought he could do that “I think that he has an 11 something in him on the perfect day. He needs to be off the bike around 4:20 I believe to make that happen.” We made it back to the car to head towards the run. I checked my phone right at 4:20 and he was off the bike. Bam. I like it. I honestly do not have a lot of recollection of our journey up until about mile 6-12 of the run. Tracking. Driving. Running. Making sure we were in the right spots. We were running around like crazy people. There is always a sense of relief when everyone gets off the bike. It is more like “Ok, they will be an Ironman. Now we just find out what there time is going to be. ” I was super pumped with Kevins bike time and glad he was patient. I saw something special coming from him on the run. Jim was off and I was just praying he was going to keep toughing it out. Many others would have dropped out. Not Jim. He would finish. Because he is an Ironman and he knows you dont take these races for granted. We switched back and forth trying to catch everyone we could on the course and handing out fives. Getting reports from the other support crews letting us know how everyone looked. By mile 13 we had seen everyone. Share a few words and some fives. Here is a great shot of team support and hand slapping at its finest:

Kevin was looking strong. Jim was powering through and Mike was staying the course. I got to run with Mike a bit and just kept telling him to slow down and stay patient. He clocked a few 2 many 8:something miles for my liking to early. I got to talk to Jim for a bit at the turnaround and he reinforced the fact that he would indeed finish. “Just keep your head up brother. I get it.” Kevin looked comfortable so I knew he was in a good place. Now it is time for the final 13. The sun was going down and the wind picking up. We tried to snag them at miles 20-21 I think. We were all getting pretty stressed and antsy. So antsy that Carolyn had the guts to down 6 shots of this rattlesnake stuff right in front of the scariest policewomen I had ever seen. So Kentucky of her and sure to make Peggy proud.

Then we sprinted towards the finish. Catch Mike finish and then go back for the others. We all looked at our watches. Sub 12? Possible? Now we stared at our clocks. The whole team positioned themselves by the finish chute. I ran up the course so I could  alert them he was coming and yell if I needed to. “11:52….. come on Mike…., 11:56….. Damnit Mike where are you….. 11:57… is that him.” I yelled with all my might. He had 2:00 to make it 500 meters I estimated. MIIIIKKKKKKEEEEEEE GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! I didnt know if he could hear me but i was hoping. He rounded the corner and I yelled sub 12!!!!! GOOOOOOOO. Sprinted towards the finish and got to his family. He did it. Sub 12. Seeing his family and his mom especially was actually cooler than seeing him finish. Never doubted he had it in him. It was joyous. I may or may not have shed a small tear when it happened. This is my favorite photo from the whole day. Its Mike and his sister sharing a hug after he finished. I think it defines the true spirit of Ironman and why it is far from an individual sport. I won’t elaborate on the photo anymore and you can take away what you want from this beautiful photo:

We all shared a few hugs and fives. Nice work Mike. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and made our way on the course to make sure we saw the other guys. Jim still making it and Kevin still looking smooth. The sun was down. The course was still buzzing but certain parts of the course were dim with support and noise. We made our way to Mile 25.5 to wait. This was the game changer for me on a personal level. We werent just pulling for our friends and teammates anymore. We began cheering for every person who came by. We stood where the volunteers were supposed to be, except the guy with great legs and jeans on. He was awesome. We spoke to every person who came by. Some walking. Some running. Tired. Hurting. You could almost here the finish. If we could read their bib we shouted their name. “You got this. Home stretch. Here we go. Looking great.” You could tell they were so thankful. 8/10 actually started running again after we yelled at them. We tried to be supportive and humorous at the same time. We walked and ran with some. We probably gave out 1,000 fives. The last 2 hours before midnight I think are what define the sport. Images of complete strangers doing what they can to help others. On and off the course. For such a selfish sport everyone seem to be on the same time at that hour. Scenes like this:

It is truely such and awesome scene. Everyone is friends and everyone is supportive. I loved it. Kevin made it through and look determined to push it strong through the finish. Allie picked him up on the way to help pace him a bit as he fought for the final miles on the way to his second Ironman and a 2hr PR. Even having some stomach issues Kevin powered to an awesome race and finish. You can see Kevin and Allie here in the background while I am staring into the night looking for Jim:

After a few minutes a man came around the corner. I literally thought he was going to drop. He was literally walking at a 90 degree angle. face staring flat at the ground. He looked as if he would face plant into the street at any minute. I began to walk next to him. He would lean on me. Faltering. “Keep it up buddy. Dont stop.” He said he had to make 15hrs….” I have too. “Im not for false hope so with the remaining distance I had to break it to him that was not a possibility. But he would still be and Ironman. He looked older. I was not sure how old. “I have to finish” he would say. I had no idea of his name but just kept walking with/against him. I missed Jim coming around the corner unfortunately. But in typical Jim fashion he was determined to run it in. So he did. Such a gritty performance and so proud of him. Here he is with a .5 mile left before taking in another Ironman finish. Such a stud.

Everyone was in but our day was not done. We all continued to push for this stranger. Every few steps he would falter and literally use me as a wall to stand up. Wasky, Allie, Carolyn were determined to get him there. Before he hit the home stretch he muffled,”If I faint will you catch me. ” No. Gary. Im just gunna let you fall. Just kidding. We got you. No falling. No fainting. Prepare to run it in. Run it in.” Here we rare pushing him to run it in…. Go!!

He began to jog and we all ran with him. Surrounding him in a kind of support bubble. We had him on all sides. A stranger. We would most likely never see again. Yet we felt we were a part of his journey. Volunteers were yelling at us to move but we kept on. As we let him go into the light towards the finish we could here over the speaker,
“Gary Pinter… 62 year old first time Ironman finisher from right here in Wisconsin….” We ran towards the finish…. The crowd…
“GARY, GARY, GARY, GARY, GARY.”
I think we were actually running and jumping and cheering trying to make it back…… A man we had met merely minutes ago managed to make some of us shed some tears of joy. Man. What a day. What an experience. What a sport. We corralled the others and got to share a few words. Some had tougher days than others but you still get the title of Ironman. Personally, it was the best experience of my life. Changed the way I look at the sport and my view of every person that competes from top to bottom. Most days people ask “Why the hell do you want to do that. You are crazy. ” A lot of times I dont really have a good answer. I do now. “You wanna know why? Go watch and Ironman and you will understand. Spend 1 minute at the finishing chute after dark. Spend one moment cheering on a friend. Then ask me again why I do it and why I love this sport.” If you still have to ask me why. You wont ever get it. I finally got it. I hope you do too.

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