It’s obvious to say my proudest moment of the year was running through the finisher’s arch at Ironman Wisconsin. But, in reality, it was a moment within the race that trumps the medal by a long shot.
I wrote about it in my IMWI Race Report, but that heart wrenching moment deserves another visit because I think it was the most important lesson of the entire year. THAT moment was everything to me around Mile 25 of the Ironman marathon, it was staring me in the eyes.
I trained for that moment a hundred times. Night after night I fought through the pain along the dark paths of the Shelby Bottoms Greenway or torturous neighbor hood hills in the rain. Every time I’d reach one or ten sticking points that begged me to stop, but I wouldn’t give in.
Eleven hours into Ironman Wisconsin, I had exactly 10k left on my run. All I had to do was keep the pace just under 10 minute miles and I would finish sub-12 — which would be a major feat for a first time Ironman. The catch was, my watch didn’t tell me pace.
I chose to go by feel, and up until Mile 20 it worked perfectly. At that point I was 6 miles further than I had ever run in my life and fighting thoughts of “the wall.” So many people told me, “You always hit the wall.” “Beware of the wall.”
Everything hurt. My legs, ankles, knees, and head. I could taste the finish line, but a 10k was a major accomplishment only a year earlier, and I was getting delirious.
The amount of focus you need in an Ironman is almost laughable. The parties, the park benches, the curbs, the shore along the lake . . . they all invite you to relax. I can honestly say I was tempted to stop after every single step in that marathon.
But after my buddy, Wasky looked at me and said, “All you got is a 10k brotha, bring it home,” I knew stopping wasn’t an option. I was on my pace. A sub-12 Ironman was in my grasp and there was no way I was going to let go.
I was timing my pace by hitting restart on my watch at each mile marker. When I hit mile 24 I had exactly 20 minutes left to finish under 12 hours. I hit restart and ate everything I could grab at the aid station. I was lumbering and in more pain than I had ever felt during exercise. I had long forgotten I was racing an Ironman, now I was simply running, or jogging, or limping depending how you viewed it.
The course was a blur. I knew I was in Madison, but had only vague recollection of the course even though it was my second loop. I stared at my feet, into the trees, and tried not to veer off the road. Nothing was in focus and I even forgot to check my watch for a while. When I looked down, the counter read 10:48! What?!? Had I slowed that much? Anything was possible and I still hadn’t seen mile marker 25. I picked up the pace and scoured the landscape for the sign. It had to be close. It HAD to be.
All day I was calm and cool, now I was in a panic. Time kept ticking and there was no mile marker in sight. My panic turned into extreme disappointment. I had come this far and was this close. Now, my sub-12 dream was gone.
Even if I did see the marker now, I would have to run a sub-8 mile-point-2 to hit my goal, and I just knew my body didn’t have it. That’s when . . . I stopped.
I put my head down and started walking all while justifying “just over 12” was good enough. I was talking to myself. “You gave it everything you had, Mike, keep your head up.” “What an accomplishment either way.” “Your friends and family will be proud of you either way.” That was likely true, but it was that last line that snapped me out of it.
Everyone was waiting at the finish line and I’m pretty damn sure they were off the charts excited to see me finish under 12 minutes. That “walking sequence” might have lasted 8 or 10 steps, and that’s when it dawned on me that I may have missed the 25 mile marker.
I looked at my watch and it told me I had 8 minutes. That’s when I started saying it out loud, “I missed the marker . . . did I miss it? I think I missed it.”
Out of nowhere, I was a man possessed. I was running for the people waiting and all of a sudden it hurt less to run faster. I wish I had worn a Garmin because I’m sure that final stretch was my fastest of the day. The State Street crowds screamed as we ran by and I was passing everyone. I MUST have missed that marker.
I got to the Capitol and turned it up a notch. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite as stressful as watching your watch tick away when you don’t know how far you have left. It was now under 3 and barring a complete collapse I knew I had it. When I finally got to the finisher’s chute, I had 1:30 in the bank. I hit that carpet and the pain left my body as I scanned the crowd for family and friends. They were about halfway down on the left and I heard them screaming my name. I was floating now. I was a scared child moments earlier and now I was home.
I crossed the line in 11:58:58 and nearly started crying because I knew I’d almost given up. One tiny moment in life that nearly changed everything and I based my decision on nothing other than faith.