This was the short version of Ironman Wisconsin. Here’s the long (seriously long) version:
When I wanted to do a fall Ironman, part of why I picked Wisconsin was that my parents live in Chicago and my aunt and uncle live in Madison. I spent a lot of holidays in Madison as a kid and knew it’d be a fun race. And, man, it was a lot of fun. But, on the other hand, when people keep saying ‘everything went right’ for me, I want to be like: Sure, the weather was great, the course is good for me, nothing too bad happened, and it all came together. But of course things went wrong. You just deal with it. That’s how it goes.
In classic fashion, some things had to go pretty wrong in the days before the race. I flew into Chicago on Thursday and then drove my mom’s car up to Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. The only problem was that I didn’t realize the driver’s door handle on her car doesn’t work right. Or, rather, I realized once I opened it at a rest stop somewhere outside Rockford, Illinois and then it wouldn’t close and latch again. I was fiddling with it, pulling it, pushing it, hitting it, and swearing. Nothing worked. Eventually, after about an hour, because I had to get to check-in by 5 p.m., I bungee-corded the door closed and drove the rest of the way with the car beeping to let me know it was still technically open. Yeah, thanks for that reminder.
I made it to check-in with 45 minutes to spare. But then things were so backed up with some to-do about missing gear bags, and I had a work thing I needed to finish (which was why I had stopped at a rest stop in Rockford anyway), that I just sat down in line and opened my computer. The second big problem was that my derailleur hangar had been weirdly loose that morning when I built my bike, so I stopped at the expo mechanic to see if they could check to make sure nothing was wrong. They spent an hour taking the derailleur on and off, fiddling with screws, trying to fine-tune the shifting, which they said wasn’t great, but I said was basically as good as it ever was. Until eventually they decided I probably needed to replace my whole cassette and chain. The day before the race. Uhhhhhhh. No?
Saturday, I went to the regular bike store, which was a really cool place btw, and they agreed the shifting was fiiiiiiiiine, but not great, and I shouldn’t replace all that stuff right before a big race. Then I bought a new aero bottle, because naturally I had ordered a missing part for my old aero bottle, but that part didn’t fit because the bottle was too old and now there was a new model. Naturally. I also hadn’t realized that it was going to be that cold in Madison, and I had packed no pants. So we had to make a trip to the thrift store across the street. Basically, I just kept handing people my money. And eating. And trying not to freak out about the fact that my stomach was NOT happy on Saturday.
My stomach was still not super happy Sunday morning. After dropping off all the different things in all the different places, I was down by the swim start in my baggy thrift store sweats, trying to swallow an Immodium, when all of a sudden I was throwing up off the side of the road median. I thought about that later, when I was in 2nd (spoiler alert) and the crowds were screaming for me. Because there were definitely some people in the morning who saw that and were not sure I was going to last the day.
The swim is still an old-school mass start, which is fun. But it was weirdly aggressive, more than I would have expected for an Ironman. I lined up near the buoys, but far enough on the inside that I wouldn’t be in the crush. I thought. And I swam hard at first to get slightly away from the crowds, but they never went away. The problem, really, was that I kept getting sandwiched between large guys. They’d come in on both sides of me and then try to just ignore the fact that I was there. I definitely threw some elbows and kicked some people. On the way back, it opened up a bit. I was swimming with a group of guys, and saw no women for 20-30 minutes. (It’s weird, when you think about it, how different the women’s race is from the men’s race. I never was by myself all day, not really. But if there had only been women in the race, I would have spent long, long amounts of time alone, which is what the front guys experience. It’s weird. That’s all. How different those two races, that are supposed to be the same, actually are.)
The swim seemed like it just went on and on and on, and I just wanted to be finished and I kept convincing myself that the next buoy was the last turn buoy, but it NEVER WAS. When we finally did get to the last turn buoy, I came around the corner and got kicked in the face so hard that it knocked my contact out. (PSA: DON’T DO BREASTSTROKE RIGHT AFTER TURNING A BUOY!) I came up yelling a string of swearwords almost immediately. I was worried my race was over right there. What do you do with one contact? After 10 seconds or so, I realized the contact had rolled up in my eye, so I treaded water (and swore a lot) and spent about a minute getting it to come back down and settle, so I could see again. In that time, I realized where all the women had been — in the large pack right behind me. Sigh. When I could see out of both eyes, I put my head down and swam hard to catch them back, and eventually we were done.
I wasn’t wearing a watch and there was no clock at the exit, so I had no idea what I swam. I got my wetsuit off faster than the wetsuit strippers could even get to me, then took off up the ramp — which was the first time during the day I started spontaneously laughing, because the crowds were just so nuts and screaming so loud and I felt like the biggest rockstar. By the time I got through the long transition and all the way down the parking lot to my bike, the clock at the exit said 1:05:40-something, so I thought ‘Holy shit, I must have swum a sub-hour.’ Nope. I swam 1:00:01. Actually, originally the tracker said I swam 1:00:00.1, so, you know, got to save some goal for the next race.
Because I’d thrown up a decent amount of what I’d eaten and drank beforehand, I knew I needed to get something down right away. I had half a Clif bar almost immediately and some water, then started drinking my 900-1000 calorie bottle of Infinit, but it wasn’t sitting great. I felt OK on the way out of Madison to where the countryside loop started, but not good. I passed a couple women, got passed back by one. But my stomach was bothering me and I was NOT in love with the weird bike path, sketchy turns, through parking lots, and on sidewalks at the beginning. About an hour in, I just tore the bag of Immodium off the top of my bike and threw back the two pills and I swear to God that saved my race. Around when we started the loop, I started to feel decent.
A woman passed me about then and I thought I should try to just keep her in sight. I didn’t think I could do it, but eventually I actually caught her again and passed her back. Then, on one of the longer climbs, she passed me again. That sort of set the tone for the next four hours. She would pull so far away that I’d be convinced she had finally totally dropped me, then I would catch her on a long descent and pass her. I’d pull far enough ahead that I thought I’d have pulled away for good, then she caught me when I stopped at Special Needs. It was actually really good to have someone to mentally push off. And a few of the times we were passing each other, especially on the long climbs where everything would sort of accordion together, we would talk briefly for a few seconds. Her name was Kelly too, and she had a huge group of friends on the crazy climb that was Tour de France-esque in the crowds and costumes.
It was actually sort of fun? Maybe. For some parts. At one point, the Ironman video crew rolled up next to me and asked how I felt and I said, “Surprisingly, not that bad.”
The only downside was about two hours in, my derailleur started to make this terrible grinding sound in the middle gears. Um, shit? I tried to see if I could figure out what was wrong, but I had no idea how to fix it, so I just hoped it would last. It got worse and worse as we went, so that by the end it sounded like the whole thing was just going to come apart, and people who went by me were asking about it. But it made it 112 miles, so what are you going to do. I also was not doing an amazing job of handling all the turns and downhills. Turns out, I’m still super stressed about crashing, so I was stupidly cautious. But, I made it through. So, again, what are you going to do.
At some point at the beginning of that first lap, it was evident from the people on the sidelines that the other Kelly and I were in 3rd and 4th. Then we passed the girl in 2nd. (Got passed on the second lap by the woman who would eventually win, and who was flying.) When I hit the climb with the huge crowds and the creepy clowns, who would step out of the corn fields randomly, I was the 2nd woman and people were screaming and going nuts. And I wasn’t going particularly hard up the hill, no point in wasting the energy, so I just sort of soaked it in and laughed. This is insane.
On the way back into Madison, I did start to struggle and hate everything. The other Kelly finally put a few minutes on me. I knew I was doing well overall and it was fine. I had drunk a 900-1000 calorie bottle of Infinit and another similarly caloried bottle of Gu Rocktane, plus lots of water. But I was just so tired of biking. Ugh. I pounded a gel and began the process of talking myself into getting ready to run.
When I handed off my bike to a volunteer, my computer said 5:40-ish, but I hadn’t pressed start for about a minute at the beginning, so I didn’t really know exactly what I had ridden. Whatever. I knew I was “crushing it,” as people kept yelling at me. Then I got to the part of triathlon I am best at: transitions. Ironman transitions are sort of fun (in my opinion), because there’s so many people ready to help you and it’s not like if you screw up and lose 10 seconds everything is over. I tied my shoes, while a volunteer shoved gels in my pocket and turned my Garmin on, and then I was out the door. I had come into T2 4th, but started the run 3rd. And, my total Olympic-distance race mentality took over. I needed to pee and was going to stop, but some deep subconscious part of my brain took over and was like: no, get out of sight of the other Kelly, try to lock up 3rd while you can.
Then I just started running “easy.”
A woman was biking in front of me and after a few minutes I asked her if she was biking for me. Yes! She was! And the crowds were screaming as I came around the capitol building. This is awesome. At that point, I just wanted to hold onto 3rd and run solidly. The clock as I headed out of T2 had said 6:50 I think, so I knew I had a lot of buffer time for an OK overall finish. I also was 95% sure I was going to blow up and need all that buffer.
Here’s what was weird: All during the run and the next morning, people kept telling me how great I looked, how fast a pace I was keeping up, how I could catch the girl ahead. They really all thought that it was easy, I think. But the difference between what they saw on the outside and what was going on inside my head could not have been more drastic. I didn’t feel great; I didn’t want to try to catch the girl ahead; I didn’t think I was running fast. By four or five miles in, I was very worried about how this would end. So I took a gel. Every time I felt terrible, I told myself, “Shut up, eat a gel, keep running.” I think I ate eight gels during the run.
I divided the run up into four 6-mile sections in my head, because of course you can run six miles. You can run one, and you can do that six times. So. The first six I just ran “easy” and tried not go too fast. I did mostly 7:45s/7:50s (except for on the steep hill). The second section I tried to maintain an 8:00/mile pace. That was actually a tough section, because I kept thinking about how I had to do it all again and I didn’t think I’d make it. My legs hurt, hurt, hurt. I did not feel awesome or any of the things people kept yelling at me. The third section I just kept repeating the number one Hillary Biscay rule: DO NOT STOP RUNNING FOR ANY REASON. I think I said that hundreds of times in my head. Do not stop running for ANY reason. I told myself I just needed to make it to 18, and then the last six the rule was ‘do whatever it takes to get to 24, it doesn’t matter how slow, just keep running.’
Sometimes I was clearly enjoying myself:
And sometimes I was definitely just deep inside my own head:
Around mile 16 I passed the girl in 2nd and got a new bike lead. I did not really want to pass her. I was totally happy with 3rd, and I didn’t want to have to fight anyone or sprint for anything. I was seriously just trying to keep it together myself. Once I was in 2nd, though, I also did not want to let that go. People were screaming for me. (They get so excited for the top women.) And my name was on my bib, so they kept yelling, “Kelly!” And when I came back by again, they’d cheer “Kelly’s back. Let’s go. You’ve got 2nd now. Come on, Kelly!” And I wasn’t going to let down all these total strangers. Obviously. So I just kept running.
I slowed down that last section of six miles, from 8:00 to 8:20-30, but I kept running. I started drinking Coke at around 19 miles too. But by the time I made it to 24, it was clear that I had a big lead on 3rd and that I was going to run in the 3:30s even if I slowed drastically. Then I really started to enjoy it.
Those last two miles, I high-fived everyone I could and I kept spontaneously laughing. It was just so unbelievable. It didn’t seem like it was me. Me? I usually blow up in situations like this and trudge it in. But not this time. There were a couple section on the run where the road was deeply lined with people, some of whom were college students who had been drinking all day, and they were screaming and screaming for me. And I didn’t know what to do. You just want to jump up and down and wave your arms. Maybe that’s why everyone does the fist pump. It feels right.
I crossed the finish line laughing and laid down a few seconds later, mostly because I had promised myself that I could lay down when I got to the finish. But this made the volunteers very concerned and they swooped in. I told them I was fine, and it was agreed I was fine, but I should sit down and drink some water. I pounded the water, because I was way too thirsty, which made me start throwing up everywhere, which concerned the volunteers even more. And that’s how I ended up in the med tent. The only problem was my veins had shrunken up and they couldn’t get an IV in right, so some of it went into my arm muscles and not my veins (ugh). I got a big bruise as an extra token from the race, along with all the random cuts and sunburn and soreness.
But it was totally worth it.