Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nothing is Impossible if You Believe

(Note: The following is the story my brother-in-law, Stephen Fulkerson, wrote after successfully completing his first Ironman on September 11, 2011. Yes, it's a long story, but I promise that it's well worth the read and will inspire you to try the seemingly impossible in your life.)

It was the Tuesday before Ironman, and it probably goes without saying that I was generally unproductive to the world at large. We planned to leave for Madison Wednesday evening after I left work, and of course Tuesday and Wednesday were mad-house days in the office. I had a ton of things to accomplish before leaving work for two weeks. And try as I could to focus on those tasks, my mind was constantly shifting between my packing list, the weather forecast, back to work, then re-checking my to-do list for the evening, check the weather again…..well, you see the vicious cycle. It was pre-race OCD at its finest.

I somehow managed to get it all finished, and we made it on the road, finally arrived in Madison early Thursday afternoon after driving most of the way from Cincinnati Wednesday night. I was eager to get to the Ironman Expo and get through registration, so after we unpacked at our hotel, we made the short drive into downtown Madison and to Monona Terrace. Wow, was this a site for eyes……Monona Terrace had been transformed into a glorious Ironman Village. Ironman stuff everywhere. Jumbotrons, Ford vehicles, bikes and wetsuits for sale, Ironman shirts and hats everywhere. It was like the world had exploded into millions of little M-dots.

We spent some time walking around, just taking it all in. One of my goals for the weekend was to enjoy the entire Ironman experience, and that included all of this pre-race activity. And let me tell you, there were ALL KINDS of activities going on in the days leading up to the race. Unlike some of the smaller triathlons I’ve raced, Ironman requires an unbelievable amount of coordinated effort, much of which I’d come to appreciate over the weekend. Registration took place on Thursday and Friday, an athlete meeting Friday night, Saturday involved dropping off transition bags and racking the bike, etc, etc. By the time the actual race rolls around, there are very few tasks left to complete. And I guess that’s their overall goal – make race morning as smooth as possible. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

I made it through the registration process, which is actually several small steps of signing waivers (yes, I know it’s my own fault if I die out there on the course, can I just stop signing papers….), recording pre-race weight, getting transition bags and race numbers, and finally – acquiring the coveted Ironman bracelet. I’ve heard people say they choke up when they get this bracelet. Nah, not me, I’d never do that. Well, as soon as the volunteer clipped the band around my wrist, I did indeed start to tear up. It just suddenly seemed so real, after everything and all this time, and it was finally here. I was one of the “athletes” and I deserved to be here.

After regaining my composure, I met Krista and Carter and we spent a little time walking through downtown, past the Finish Line and finishing chute, which were still being erected. Krista stopped at the Ford booth where she typed a message which would be displayed at mile 22 of the marathon, the Ford Motivational Mile. We also stopped at the official Ironman Store inside the Terrace, which contained everything (and I mean everything) containing any sort of M-dot or Ironman Wisconsin logo. I spent way too much here, but Krista told me I’d never regret anything we purchased there. Probably true.

Headed back to the hotel and saw several other athletes checking in, bikes in tow, which always sends goose bumps up your arms. Yet again, this seemed really real now. There was a van in the parking lot with writing on the windows that said, “Our daddy will be an Ironman on Sunday”. That was pretty cool.

The next two days literally flew by. I had my to-do lists, packing transition bags and making sure the bike was road-worthy, and I got in a few last-minute sessions on the course. One short swim in Lake Monona and a few miles on the bike near our hotel on the actual course in Verona. I remember stopping at an intersection on Whalen Rd and thinking, “the next time I’m right here, I’ll be racing.” Wow.

Krista’s parents arrived Friday, and Scott and Carrie arrived from Michigan late Friday night. My parents joined us on Saturday early afternoon. Now the entire “Team” was here, and it was amazing. We all got a chance to spend time downtown on Saturday afternoon, checking out the expo, finish line and swim course and just going through the logistics of the day. “Ok, so you’ll exit the water there, and we’ll try to stand here, and where do you start the bike?” It was awesome just to be there, with so many people I love, and who had all made this trip just to watch me.

We had a great dinner that evening together, and then drove to a couple of locations on the bike course I had picked where the team would be able to see me. My mom got out of the car at one of the hills on the course and used sidewalk chalk to write a few inspirational messages for me. (Do people just carry sidewalk chalk with them to use at a moment’s notice??) I had printed some maps of the course, and my father-in-law thumbed through the maps while we were driving to familiarize himself with the route on Sunday. I was also planning to carry a special GPS device from MyAthlete that would track my progress during the race throughout the day, actually showing my location on a map with speed and distance. I figured it would make it that much easier for the team to find me, as I know it’s not an easy task to find one athlete out of thousands on a race course.

Arriving back at the hotel, I said my goodbyes to everyone and I headed off to bed. They stayed up for awhile, coordinating meeting times and locations, but I knew I needed to get my mind away from all of it and try to get some sleep. I say “try,” because I knew it would be tough. I had slept well on Thursday and Friday nights, and from past experience in marathons, I know it’s hard to get a decent night’s sleep before a big race. I distinctly remember seeing 11:30pm on the clock. And then I was asleep. I awoke at 1:15, and was scared I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep again. But I made it, and slept soundly until my alarm beeped loudly at 3am.

I thought I’d be nervous today, but I wasn’t. This was race day…time to get it done. I crawled out of bed and quietly began to get ready. I didn’t want to wake up the rest of the family since they had another whole hour to sleep! I probably could have slept later as well, but I’ve found that if I give myself extra time on race morning, it helps me to sleep better the night before. Usually for shorter races, I’ll just take a quick shower and head to the race. But I knew it would be a long time before I would shower again, so I took my time getting cleaned up and ready to go. I then fixed my standard pre-training day breakfast of a peanut butter and banana sandwich, washed it down with Ironman Perform, grabbed my bags and headed down to the lobby.

My parents were gracious enough to offer to drive me to the race in the morning. So bleary-eyed at 4am, I met them both in the lobby and we fixed a few cups of coffee (thankfully the breakfast coffee machine was working!). It was actually very calming to drive downtown with them. My dad is a natural comedian, so we joked along the way about nothing in particular, but it helped to keep me relaxed for the day ahead.

Monona Terrace and Ironman Village was just starting to wake up when we arrived downtown. The logistics of the morning required that athletes drop off their special needs bags – which would be available at the half-way points of both the bike and the run – at a designated location near the capital building. As we walked along the street towards the special needs drop-off, I gave my dad my Morning Clothes bag to carry, which contained my wetsuit and all my swim gear. I told him that was the most important bag of the three, and he said, “I don’t think you want me to carry this one, then. Why don’t you give me one of those other bags in case I lose it?” Funny guy, that dad.

Volunteers were just setting up the special needs boxes when we arrived, and they were frantically crossing out with marker the printed “Morning Clothes” label on the boxes and writing “Run Special Needs” over the top. Apparently, the labels had been mis-printed. So amidst this confusion, they assured us that the Bike Special Needs boxes were indeed labeled correctly, and we’d see those bags on the course. I joked with a girl next to me as we were dropping off the Bike bags, “these aren’t really Bike special needs bags either, this is actually the location where we start the swim.” But she didn’t laugh, she just stared at me. I guess not everyone was up for humor this early in the morning.

Aside from the special needs label snafu, I was astounded at the coordination of the race directors, police officers, medical staff and volunteers throughout the weekend. The logistics of a race like Ironman are mind-boggling between road closures, aid stations, getting athletes where they need to be at various times, safety personnel on the course, dealing with locals who have no idea what event is invading their city, etc, etc. I began to realize the $600 paid for registration is a bargain considering the effort and costs for an event of this size.

After bag drop-off, I headed down to the transition area to add nutrition to my bike and make one last check of my bike and transition bags. The transition area was swarming with athletes, most of whom were in the zone, wearing an ipod or just generally tuned out to the rest of the world. I understood. This was the last-minute prep before the big dance. The final check, and a last chance to mentally prepare for what was ahead. I clicked my garmin and Athlete Tracker into place on the bike, then added the PB&J sandwiches I’d be using for the bulk of my bike nutrition to my Bento box and bike jersey. I had started training with Smuckers Uncrustables (yes, I stole the idea from Carter) mid-way through the summer on long rides and they seemed to work very well combined with intermittent GU gels.

As I was making the final preparations on my bike, I heard a “hey!” and looked up to see Krista her parents above me on the Terrace landing. She snapped a couple of quick pics (making sure to get my body markings on my arm) and they headed down towards the swim area.

I made one last check of my bike and run transition bags, then headed out to the large “helix” that leads down to the swim start. At the top of the helix, I was surprised to see the whole team – Krista, Carter, Scott Carrie, Krista’s parents and my parents. And I found out that other fellow WISH teammates – Jim, Pat and Anne – would be driving from Chicago and meeting up with everyone later in the day. Wow, what a team! I was so glad they were all there!

I spent a few minutes chatting with everyone, but my mind had definitely begun to shift. The relaxed, care-free attitude I managed to keep all morning was slowly transitioning to race mode. I had a job to do today, and my head knew it. Said the final goodbyes, got some hugs and good lucks, and slowly made my way down the helix towards the swim start.

I’ll never forget that walk to the lake. I cleared my head of all outside thoughts and just tried to relax and focus on what lie ahead. As I passed other athletes, I could tell they were doing the same. Some looked scared, others were laughing and happy, most just looked focused. Almost a far-off stare, ready to face the day, but not knowing how it would turn out. I remember reading somewhere that you do your best to prepare and train, but the reality is that planning for the day of Ironman is like trying to land a space craft on the moon. By remote control. Blindfolded. You just don’t know what the day has in store.

I pulled on my wetsuit and crept into the water at 6:30, slowly making my way out into the lake. I stayed closer to shore where I could still touch bottom so that I wouldn’t need to tread water and expend extra energy until 7am. Several others had the same idea, and we spent some time chatting, relaxing in the water, getting used to the temperature, and just generally trying to stay relaxed. But wow, was it tough to stay relaxed. I mean come on, are you kidding me? This was IT! Now was the time to put all that training to use. The 5am swim workouts in a cold, lonely pool. The long rides in the rain. The long runs in the early morning waaaay before the rest of the world was awake. The 10-hour long brick days in the scorching heat and humidity. The runs in the snow and cold when winter just wouldn’t go away. I knew I was as ready as I could be. And those training days were the things I would take with me today.

I looked around slowly to take it all in. Planes were flying overhead. Mike Reilly’s voice was booming over the loudspeaker, getting the crowd pumped. Boats and kayaks and lifeguards floated all through the lake. Monona Terrace was literally a wall of people everywhere you looked. Most of the athletes were in the water now, and the lake was one large sea of bobbing swimcaps. The sun was creeping up slowly over the lake, and the water was smooth as glass. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and that it all came down to this. Nothing left to do but get on with the show.

Soon, the pros took off. Then one of the athletes sang the National Anthem. Mike Reilly gave a short tribute and moment of silence to 9/11, and one thing he said stuck with me: “Let us remember those who perished that day 10 years ago, and all those who died fighting for our freedom – the same freedom that lets us do what we are doing today.”

As the clock ticked closer to 7am, he shouted loudly over the sound system, “Who’s going to be an Ironman today?!!” which drew a thunderous applause from the lake and the Terrace as well. I looked over to shore to see 6:59:50 on the clock. Only 10 second to go. And then, pretty suddenly, the cannon fired. And I was in the Ironman.

It’s hard to describe the events that unfold immediately after the cannon fires at a mass swim start of an Ironman. Imagine 2500 people in an area much smaller than a football field, all treading water vertically in the water, then suddenly moving to a horizontal swim position, taking up much more body space, and all trying to swim forward at once. Fun stuff! Arms and legs and heads and bodies everywhere, bumping, kicking, and trying to avoid or just swim over others in their path. No one purposely clobbers other swimmers, but the contact is inevitable given the circumstances. The best description I can give is the equivalent of swimming in a large, churning washing mashing. For the first several hundred meters, breathing is a challenge and you’re guaranteed to take a mouthful of water with every stroke.

Fortunately, I had two things going for me. First, I’m not a “front of the pack” swimmer, so I started about 30 meters back from the bulk of the chaos. Second, I’d spent several training sessions swimming in open water, most times with other triathletes in the same lake, so I was used to the claustrophobic, panicked feeling that type of scenario can induce. I worked hard to keep my adrenaline in check, and practiced what I’ve done a thousand times in training. Smooth stroke, work on high elbows, pull through the water, glide, breathe, repeat….. Take away all the lights and sound and crowds and boats, and this is no different than any other long training day, just focus on what got you here.

I swam down the course, staying wide of the buoys, trying to avoid the worst of the crowd near the buoy line. I could see Monona Terrace passing by on my right, and smiled as I thought about all the videos and pictures I had seen over the past year of that very Terrace with the sun glistening off the water. The mass of swimmers stayed pretty thick until the first turn buoy, which was an absolute mess of people all turning 90 degrees and heading onto the short side of the rectangular path. Imagine a funnel, and that turn buoy was the end of that funnel. As I stroked slightly wide of this buoy, I looked up to see the kayakers in the immediate area were wearing cow costumes, and several triathletes were moo-ing as we all herded through the bottle neck. It was great! Another turn buoy a few hundred meters away, and we were headed back down the long side of the course, back towards the swim start. I was surprisingly relaxed, and just enjoying the swim. It was amazing to be in the water with all these people, all working towards the same goal, all moving forward.

I rounded the last buoy for the first lap and glanced at my watch. 39 minutes. Wow, that was definitely faster than I planned! I felt great, though, and didn’t feel like I was expending too much energy, so I decided to just concentrate on my form for the second lap, letting the time fall where it may. By now, the crowd had thinned out considerably and I could basically swim alone, just sighting every few strokes to stay on course and avoid any collisions with other athletes. I’d feel the occasional arm or leg brush by, but nothing near as extreme as the first lap. As I made the shift around the last turn buoy, I looked towards the shore and Monona Terrace and couldn’t believe the swim was almost over - it had flown by.

I swam the final stretch towards the large TYR banner and watched the shore grow larger and larger. Finally, my hand touched the rocky bottom and I stood to my feet, pulled off my swim cap and goggles and checked my watch: 1:29:18. Faster than I had anticipated, but I had still slowed slightly on the second lap, which was my goal after the first lap split. Looking up, I was immediately enveloped in the pandemonium of the area. Loud music was booming, Mike Reilly was shouting and getting the crowd amped up, and the spectators were going crazy! I unzipped my wetsuit as I ran towards the volunteers. Two of them motioned me over and stripped my wetsuit to my waist, then told me to lie down and yanked it over my legs and feet. I was back on my feet, wetsuit in hand, in less than 5 seconds. Wow, this was awesome!

Running towards the helix, I glanced up at the top level and saw the entire team cheering. I pumped my fist in the air and my father-in-law saw me and cheered back. I ran the 3 levels of spiral and knew they’d all be waiting for me at the top. And sure enough, there they were! They exploded with cheers as I ran past, exchanging high fives and “way to go!” That energy carried me right up to the top and into transition.

I ran into the Terrace and grabbed my bag from the volunteers who had it waiting and ready to go. Into the change room I went, and was immediately called over by a volunteer to waiting chairs. He grabbed my bag and dumped it out, and while I quickly changed into my cycling shorts and jersey, he tended to all the other items like unclipping my race belt for me and opening my sunglasses and handing me my gloves and socks and shoes. Did I mention that the volunteers were amazing?? I was out of the room quickly and went through the open doors outside, where dozens of volunteers were waiting to apply sunscreen. 10 seconds later, I was lathered up with sunscreen and ready to rock. The transition area was large, so getting from point A to point B and everywhere in between was a serious little hike. Because my bike was so far down, I decided to run through transition in a second pair of socks over my cycling socks (thanks Carrie for the tip!). I made it to my waiting bike, again brought to the end of the row by an excellent volunteer, then ran the rest of the transition length with my bike in hand. As I reached the end of the racks, I stripped off the extra socks, slipped on the bike shoes, checked the Garmin and hopped on the bike.

This was so exciting! I had to keep myself in check to make sure my heart rate stayed down, but this was all just so incredibly awesome. I couldn’t believe I was here, racing this race, after all the thought and preparation. I had envisioned starting this very ride, the ride that matters, so many times on training rides at home, and imagined what it would be like. It couldn’t have been better. The weather was beautiful, upper-60’s and not a cloud in the sky. I cruised down the helix and through the toll gates, past the cheering spectators and honking cars offering shouts of encouragement, and out onto John Nolin Drive to begin the first mile of 112 in the saddle. I reached down and checked my water bottles, making sure they were secure, and then stole a quick glance at the Garmin. Pace, speed, distance, heart rate…….wait, what’s with the heart rate?? I had no heart rate at all, just a blank screen. Realizing I probably wasn’t dying and actually had a heart beat, I quickly felt my chest to be sure I had remembered to strap on the monitor in transition. It was there, and was securely in place. I fumbled with the garmin for a minute or so, then realized that somehow the “pairing” of the heart rate monitor to the garmin had reset itself, and the only way to re-pair it was to turn off the device altogether and do a system restart. Seriously? I didn’t need this drama this early in the race. I debated just moving on without the heart rate reading, but that was stupid. I was a mere 1 mile into the bike, I had trained all year by heart rate, and knew exactly where I needed to be to stay within my zones. Deciding to be smart about it, I reset the Garmin – all the while as I was pedaling through a very technical part of the course on a twisty bike path – then pulled over to the shoulder to let the Garmin reacquire its signal. After waaaay too long to get a signal, I was back on the bike and pedaling along my way towards mile 2. “Well, if that’s the worst thing that happens on the bike all day, I’ll take it,” I thought cheerfully as I headed out of town.

The Ironman Wisconsin bike course is……interesting, to say the least. It has a bad reputation for being hilly, maybe even mountainous, with steep climbs and technical, twisty descents that can turn you and your prized bike into a heap of crushed metal if you take them too quickly. Most references list it as the most difficult Ironman bike course in North America. In all actuality, I think the reputation is a bit extreme. I had trained on this course just three weeks earlier as part of my last race preparation, and it was a HUGE confidence-builder for me to ride the entire bike portion beforehand. While I wouldn’t argue that the course is challenging, I prefer to think of it more as a “thinking” course. You cannot get into the aero position and just crank away here. Very few stretches of the course are flat, and even the portions that appear flat are usually “false” flats, with gradual inclines or declines that can trick you into a gear in which you should not be. The course requires you to constantly shift up, shift down, brake, big chain ring, small chain ring, sit up in the saddle, tuck for this descent, lean back and brake for this other descent, then shift way up to spin up this next hill. I’ve heard it said that people have shifted over 1000 times during the 112 miles of the course, and I don’t doubt it. You constantly need to make decisions out there – a lot of little good decisions can add up to a great day, but a lot of little bad decisions can wreak havoc on your last lap, not to mention leave you nothing left in the tank for the marathon.

The course is two 42 mile loops, with an out and back portion of 14 miles leading up to the loops. Because of this setup, I was able to map out 3 separate viewing locations for the Team on each loop, for a total of 6 locations across the entire course. Yep, they were going to be busy driving all over the place!

I cruised in an easy gear out of town towards the town of Verona, where both of the loops begin and end. Everything was great, I was spinning easy, heart rate was down, I was getting passed by everyone and their grandmother (which was my goal for the first loop, take it waaaaay easy). My nutrition was on plan, too – every 15 minutes, I drank 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces of Perform, then every 30 minutes I’d eat either an Uncrustable or a gel, alternating at the top and bottom of the hour. Around 400 calories an hour, which seemed about perfect for me through the summer of training.

One of the great things about race day was the unequaled attention and preferential treatment given to the athletes on the course. Every bike turn was well marked and staffed by volunteers motioning athletes in the correct direction. All intersections were closed to vehicle traffic by police officers. It made you feel pretty important to cruise through a downhill intersection at 30 mph as lanes of traffic yielded to your passing. And as opposed to training rides at home where traffic and your location on the road is a constant concern, the closed throughways let you focus much more attention on the task at hand.

And speaking of the preferential treatment, the bike aid stations were phenomenal as well. Probably a quarter of a mile long, each station had locations to drop trash and empty bottles, and dozens of volunteers handing out water, Perform, gels, bars, bananas, sponges, and other various things. I stopped at a few port-o-lets at aid stations, and the volunteers would always hold or rack your bike and help you get back out on the road when you were ready. Have I mentioned how amazing the volunteers were??

I reached Verona and started out on the first of the two large loops on the course. And this is the point where the terrain really changes from mild to “hilly.” As I mentioned, there isn’t really any one hill that you just don’t feel you can climb, but rather a never-ending series of short to mid uphills followed by downhills. Some really require you to just spin easy and gut it out, and that’s just what I did. On any hill of any significance, I just spun. And the surprising thing is that I was actually catching and passing people on these hills. Many I’d see hammering up in a large gear, but their cadence was very slow.

Eventually, I made it to the town of Mt Horeb, where I knew the team would be waiting mid-way up the first substantial hill of the course. I could see them way before I got to them due to the hot pink and green shirts. I waved and shouted as I pedaled nearer, and they burst into huge cheers, jumping up and down and waving and clapping wildly. Jim, Pat and Anne had joined the group at this point, so they were 11 people strong, and definitely sounded louder than twice that many! I stuck out my arm as I passed and high fived them, telling them THANK YOU and that I’d see them soon at the big hills. The guy biking next to me said, “Wow, that’s quite a cheering section you’ve got there.” I couldn’t agree more.

And then I spun right up the rest of that hill. It was amazing the energy those 10 second encounters with the Team gave me all day long. I just broke up the day into segments – ok, it’s only 15 more miles till I see them again, then only 20 more miles till I see them after that, and so on.

I continued on past Mt Horeb, and through the “roller coaster” hills on the way to the toughest part of the course. It was at this point that I was passed by the race leader, as he was mid-way through his second bike loop. I could hear the familiar sound of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh from the carbon wheels, then he passed with an official race motorcycle leading him. It was on a straight-away section, and he was probably doing all of 35 mph to my 20. He was flying! As he passed, I looked over to a few spectators on the course and said, “So that would put me in second place now, right?” which drew laughs and cheers – you know, since I was in second place, after all.

I knew where I was headed….to the three infamous hills on the course. If you google IM Wisconsin hills, you’ll find the “alternate” name for these hills, which is a little less than appropriate for causal reading. Needless to say, they’re challenging. But I’d ridden them before, and had a plan. Just spin. Spin your legs off. I made it to the first hill, the longest of the three, and did just that. The great thing about this hill is that many spectators knew the challenge of the climb, and they lined both sides of the hill, cheering the riders up. Cowbells, bullhorns, cheering, screaming – it was like the Tour de France where people line both sides of the course and literally run with the bikers up the hill. It was really cool. It made it even tougher to just sit and spin, as you really wanted to get out of the saddle and hammer it, but I resisted and spun, smiling from ear to ear and thanking them all for being out here. Before I knew it, I was finished with that hill and spinning up the second of the large hills, watching closely for the Team. I knew they’d be here somewhere, although there were so many people cheering, I was afraid I’d miss them. Cresting the top of the second hill, I could see them plainly, even though they were still well over a quarter mile away – gotta love those bright shirts! They were on a straight, flat section, so I passed them at a pretty significant speed, and waved and pumped my fists as I passed. They hooted and hollered, and yet again I got just that little extra energy boost that carried me for the next several miles.

I maneuvered up the third of the hills, then breathed a sigh of relief, because it was pretty much downhill from here all the way to Verona, where I would begin the second loop. I felt great, I was eating and drinking on schedule, and knew I was hydrating well as I was in a constant state of “I almost have to pee, but not really, but I could probably go at the next aid station if needed.” Perfect balance. I made it back to Verona, and wow! The crowds were amazing here. There was an announcer booming over the sound system getting the crowd going, and people cheered and pounded loudly on the sign barricades that separated the spectators from the cyclists. There was an aid station at the end of this stretch, and I almost missed grabbing extra water bottles because it was a downhill stretch and I was still flying from all the crowd support. I just about pulled the volunteer’s arm out of socket when he handed me a water bottle at 20 mph – sorry about that!

I made my way out of downtown Verona, and towards the start point for the second loop. This was the third location for the Team, and I knew I’d see them just before one of the last turns on the loop, which would be a great mental boost before the second half. What I hadn’t counted on was the speed I’d be carrying at this point. I had tried to map out spots on the course where they could see me, and places I felt I would NOT be traveling quickly so that I could actually acknowledge them and get some support and encouragement. Well, I was probably moving at close to 30 mph down this stretch, and didn’t realize they would be there until I just about passed them. So it was a “Hey! Thank you guys for being out here ……..oops, I guess I’m already gone” and that was it as I sailed off down the road at breakneck speed. Good thing I didn’t stick my arm out for a high five! It wasn’t all for naught, half the team hadn’t even made it out of the cars yet, so while I saw Krista and her parents, I missed Scott, Carrie, Anne, Pat and Jim. Yep, this location was well planned by yours truly! I rounded the corner and saw Mom and Dad, and since I had slowed for the corner, I did get a chance to say hi and give a high five.

And then it was on to the second loop. It’s always interesting to check the state of things at this point in a long ride. Halfway is a great point mentally, because everything after that is heading home. But it can also be a really rough stretch if the ride isn’t going well. I was thrilled that amazingly enough, I was feeling great! It was getting warm no doubt, in the low 80’s, and there was not a cloud in the sky, but I was keeping up with hydration, and I felt strong. I zipped through the outskirts of Verona, stopping quickly at Special Needs to grab some chips, and I was on my way back through the hills of the course. I was amazed at how many people looked whipped here. As slow as I am, I was passing people left and right. I saw the team again in Mt Horeb, and was surprised to see some cyclists walking that long hill into the city. Krista told me later that there were indeed several people walking that hill, and the hills thereafter. I know that feeling, and it’s not a good one, I was just thrilled that I still had enough left in the legs to tackle those tough stretches.

I knew the “dreaded three” hills awaited me, and I tried mentally preparing myself for the possibility that if I did need to walk them, it was ok. But when I reached them, I was feeling better than ever. I could tell the course was wearing on many around me, but I tried not to dwell on their circumstances for too long. I was moving along, according to my plan, and it was working. I just needed to stay inside that box for as long as possible.

Cresting the top of the third hill, I became a little emotional. I had done it – I had finished the last of the sinister climbs, and it would be pretty smooth sailing back to Madison. “I beat you, hills! You don’t own me. I’m all over you. You think you’re tough? You’re not so bad. I’m strong enough for you, and I belong here. And I’m not scared.” I pounded my fist to my chest and got back to my game, back inside my head with the goal straight ahead, tucking for the fast descents and heading back to Verona.

I found the team once more in Verona at mile 98 and raised my arms as I approached them. They went crazy! “I’ll see you back in Madison!” I shouted. “Let’s bring this thing home!” I tried to keep my adrenaline in check, but I was so completely excited I couldn’t contain it. As I cruised into the 14 mile stretch back to downtown, I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t over yet. There was still another 45 minutes of hydration and nutrition to manage on the bike, and I tried to be extra careful not to do anything stupid that would derail all my work. I saw plenty of carnage on the last stretch to Madison – a few cyclists lying on the ground with medical personnel and volunteers tending to them, and another racer who had apparently just crashed on the bike and had multiple volunteers over them, ambulance screaming down the road towards the scene. I looked as I passed, but quickly tried to get that out of my head. I didn’t need those negative thoughts and images floating around in there.

Coming back into Madison was amazing. As I passed across the bridges on John Nolin leading back to downtown, I could see the capital and Monona Terrace across the lake, bright and shining in the afternoon sun. I was back. I thought to myself, even if my bike breaks down now, I can walk the stinkin’ thing into transition. All those long training rides, and the hill work, all the nutrition planning and time in the saddle, and it was over. Nothing left to do now but run.

I cruised up the helix and read the words above me: “Bike Finish.” Boy, was that a sight for sore eyes. I unclipped and dismounted, handing my bike to a volunteer as I grabbed my Garmin and Athlete tracker to take with me. I remembered something from a race report I had read online, and I still needed to do one thing, something important to me. I leaned over and bumped my fist twice on the seat of my bike, “Thanks buddy for the ride. You were awesome.” The volunteer heard me and smiled. I told him, “Ok, he’s all yours, you can take it,” and left my bike, running inside the Terrace and into transition.

7:49:41 was my final time on the bike, with an average speed under 15 mph. A little slow for me, definitely slower than my training rides, but I cared not. My legs felt pretty good, and more importantly, I felt good. I had stuck to my plan, and had finished the longest part of my day strong. That was all that mattered. As I headed into the Terrace, I was handed my transition bag and I jogged towards the changing room. There was a volunteer directing athletes into either the male or female area, and as I approached him, I took two steps towards the female change room and said, “Oops, just kidding.” I actually got a laugh from him on that one.

Jogging into the change room, I saw quite a bit more carnage. There were medical staff attending to a few athletes, and others were stretched out on the floor, trying to regain their composure. Sure, there were plenty of others that looked just fine, but it was hard to get past the ones that weren’t doing so well. I found a chair in the corner of the room and started changing. A volunteer quickly came over and asked if I needed help. Realizing others probably needed the help more than I, I told him I was just fine, but thanks for the offer. I changed clothes completely, and it felt great to put on fresh shorts and a tri top, not to mention the luxury of clean socks. I clipped on my race belt with 3 gels, which would be my nutrition for the first part of the run. Also attached to my race belt was a keyring with some motivational phrases, something I had put together the week before. On them I listed my goals for the race and some deeply personal things, things that only I knew - the reasons I was doing the race, and some other very inspirational words I’d gathered along the way. I hoped I didn’t need to pull these out to read them, but they were there…..just in case.

Finally changed, I stood up from the chair and took a whole two steps towards the exit when I realized the Athlete Tracker that was now clipped to my race belt was a problem. It bounced with every step, and I was not about to deal with that for the next 26 miles. The problem was, I had already given my transition bag to a volunteer, so I had nowhere to put the tracker. I quickly asked a volunteer if he knew where my bag had ended up, and he pointed to a 6 ft high pile of bags and told me it was somewhere in there. Sensing my frustration, he said, “Here, let me have that. I’ll make a second bag with your race number and you’ll get both bags after the race. What’s your number?” I thanked him and told him it was #1455. “Got it, number 1545,” he said. “No, no. 1455,” I replied. “Got it,” he nodded and quickly walked away with the tracker in hand. At that point, I had absolutely no confidence I’d ever see that tracker again, but that was ok. I’d fork over the 50 dollar replacement cost in a heartbeat to avoid lugging that thing around the entire run course.

I exited the Terrace, and headed outside where 3 volunteers quickly applied sunscreen – it was getting close to 4:45pm, so I probably could have done without the sun protection, but there was still not a cloud in the sky, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to be protected. And then I turned the corner and headed out on the last long run of the summer….the one that counted - the Ironman marathon.

It’s funny that Ironman doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it in terms of the entire day. To swim for a couple of hours, hop on your bike and ride for most of a normal working day, and then put on your running shoes just before evening and go run a marathon. I’d found through training that I couldn’t think of it this way, I couldn’t look ahead to what I still had to do. No way, because the magnitude of it can absolutely overwhelm you. I just needed to take one step at a time, and do whatever I needed to in that moment to move to the next moment. And this was especially true at the beginning of the marathon. I knew from long training days that the start of run after biking and swimming can be exhilarating, but slightly unnerving as well because there’s still so far to go. But not in my head, not today. I had one mile to do, and then one mile after that, and one more after that. Then repeat. Stay inside that loop mentally, and I knew I could get through this.

It was still very warm as I began running downtown, getting near upper 80’s, and I could feel it as soon as I took my first steps. I knew all about this heat from training runs during the summer. I tend to melt in glorious fashion on the run when the temperature rises, and I’d spent most of the summer working on contingency plans to stay cool if race day were to throw the furnace at me. However, the humidity was very low today, which is actually a much larger factor for me than heat alone. Realizing I still needed to account for the temperature, I made a mental note to take more fluids at the aid stations and anything else they offered for heat (sponges, ice).

But wow, was it amazing running those first few miles through downtown! The crowds near the capital and around the square were massive, and the cheering was deafening. Barricaded fences separated spectators from athletes for the first mile or so, and the spectators were banging on the signs and cheering wildly for every single runner. All of this extra adrenaline made it very hard to keep a steady pace.

Since I didn’t have my Athlete Tracker, I planned to let the Team know at mile 1, where I anticipated seeing them. However, passing mile 1, there was no Team. Understandable, as they had to make it all the way back from Verona, get parked and get onto the run course. But the problem now was that my Tracker GPS was sitting back in transition in a bag. Since they had been tracking me all day, I knew they’d worry if my position was in transition and hadn’t moved for quite some time. For all they knew, I could be in the medical tent or have some serious issue going on. I had no choice but to continue running, but I realized I wouldn’t see them again until mile 6.5, and that was probably an hour away. I decided there wasn’t much I could do at this point, so I quickly put it out of my mind and kept moving.

The Ironman Wisconsin marathon course is very compact, and if I were running a stand-alone marathon, I’m not sure I would be a fan of the course. It’s basically two loops of a 13.1 mile course, but each loop contains multiple out-and-back situations as you weave your way through the University of Wisconsin campus and east to Lake Mendota. It seems almost every inch of the course has opposing runners coming in the opposite direction, and you basically retrace every step of your path on each loop. There are only a few significant hills on the course, but at this point in the day, every elevation change is a significant hill!

The first few miles really flew by. At mile 3, we made a loop around the field at Camp Randall Stadium, where the University of Wisconsin Badgers play, which was cool. I checked my vital signs leaving the stadium and felt pretty good. My pace was around 9:30 minute miles, slightly faster than my normal long runs (cue the ominous music here….), but I seemed to feel ok, so I stayed with it. It was hot, I could tell, and my heart rate was showing it, being just slightly higher than I’d like for this part of the race. But I figured I’d been going all day and there was so much activity on this course, my heart rate was bound to be a little higher than normal.

I tried to take in everything I needed at each aid station. The stations were spaced every 1 - 1.5 miles along the route, and contained everything from water and Perform to gels, powerbars, oranges, bananas, chips, Coke, sponges and ice. It was like a little buffet every mile. I stuck to what I knew, alternating water and Perform at each station, and grabbing ice and sponges whenever I needed them to keep cool. My plan was to take a gel every 3-4 miles, and since I was carrying those on my race belt, I was all set.

Before I knew it, I was passing mile 6 and heading towards State Street, where I knew I’d see the team at the turnaround. Approaching State Street, I could hear the crowds from several blocks away. This was the point in the course where several turnarounds and paths converged, so it was a great viewing location. In addition, this was one of the “party” streets for the campus, so there were outdoor patios and bars lining quite a bit of the stretch, and all the establishments were packed with people cheering, screaming, drinking (which helped the cheering!) and just generally causing quite a spectacle for the athletes. All of this made for an amazing experience running down those several blocks. As I neared the turnaround at the end of State Street, I saw Krista, her parents, Scott and Carrie cheering wildly! Because we were separated by barricades, I couldn’t reach them, but I gave them a fist in the air and thanks and especially told them that I had ditched the tracker in transition, so don’t try to track me. They asked me how I was feeling and I motioned a thumb’s up, made the turnaround, and kept moving. I could actually hear them cheering above the crowds as I ran back down the street, and that was pretty stinkin' cool.

As it turns out, they had looked online and seen the Athlete tracker “stopped” near the transition area, about a half mile away on the bike course. From the map, it looked like I was stopped on a bridge near John Nolin drive, so they figured I had just stopped for a long bathroom break or a picnic or something! When they arrived downtown and the tracker had not moved from its position, they ran over to Transition and saw my bike racked, so they realized I must be somewhere on the run course, they just didn’t know where. I was glad to see them at mile 6, because I knew they could gauge my pace from there and know when they should expect to see me again.

Heading away from State Street and away from the crowds, I started to feel a slightly heavy, “blah” feeling in my legs. I knew I needed to be sure I was taking a brief one minute walk break at every mile, just like I practiced all through training, and I realized I had been neglecting this for most of the first 6 miles. I decided at the next aid station, I’d take my hydration and then walk for a minute or so, just to give the legs a little rest. So I did just that. After taking some water and a gel, I walked and went through a mental inventory of things. Legs felt a little heavy, but nothing in the way of cramps. I was taking water and nutrition, and seemed to be on schedule. Heart rate was a little high, so what to do about that? I figured the heat had some play in that, so I decided to slow the pace just slightly, and also to be sure I was using the ice and sponges to my full advantage at each station.

With my new plan in place, I began running again, and plodded on towards….who knows where, since the course was so twisty and turning! The one nice thing about all the turns, though, is it forced me to stay on my toes, as there was never a stretch longer than a half mile that didn’t require some sort of change of direction.

As I moved past mile 8, things were starting to get a little difficult. Nothing in particular hurt or created an alarm for immediate attention, but general fatigue was just starting to settle in. I was glad I had been taking a short walk break at each aid station, but my legs were trying to convince me that I needed to walk a little more. Making things even more difficult was that since it was a two loop run course, some athletes were on their second loop, while many of us were still on our first loop. However, the spectators had no idea who was on the first or second, so I’d hear cheers like, “You’re almost there, only 5 miles to go!” when I clearly realized I had so much further than that to go. In spite of this, I was still running, and running fairly well, I thought. Just gotta keep moving forward…..

At mile 10, I decided to focus on the beautiful scenery of the Wisconsin campus for some distraction. I passed by the shore of Lake Mendota around this point, and the view across the water was truly gorgeous. It was also near here that I passed the Ford Motivational Mile, and although I missed the large jumbotrons that displayed the athlete messages, there were several college kids dancing and performing karaoke to a loud soundsystem just off the course, and it was putting smiles on all our faces.

And then it happened……I distinctly remember passing the Mile 11 sign, because that’s where the wheels started to fall off. My legs began feeling very heavy, and I just didn’t want to run anymore. I was hitting the wall, and it was coming fast. I’ve been through “the wall” in marathons and other races before, so I thought I knew what to expect here. But I didn’t. This was so much more than “hitting a wall,” as if you just accidentally bumped into a nearby picket fence. “Oops, excuse me, I didn’t mean to brush up against you.” No, this was as if the wall came crashing down on me, and smacked me in the face, daring me to do something about it. The distance of the day had caught up with me, and I realized that I needed to do something about it, now, before it got worse.

I stopped to walk and again check my vitals. My heart rate was slightly high, as it had been all through the run, but the larger issue was the cramping that was starting to develop in my legs. Ok, I’ve been through this before. Cramping - I’m either going too fast for my training, or I’m low on something, probably sodium. I didn’t feel like I was overcooking my pace, so I decided I needed some sodium and definitely more water. As luck would have it, I came to the next aid station and in addition to the large assortment of standard offerings, the volunteers now had chicken broth as well. I took a cup from a volunteer and WOW, was that good stuff! It was warm and salty and delicious. I decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if I just set up camp right there at the aid station and ate chicken broth for the rest of the day. More importantly, I knew it contained a whole bunch of sodium, which I hoped would help with the cramping. I grabbed some water, downed it, and kept moving. I began running again, but my legs warned me that I’d better take it easy on them, so I slowed my pace to 12 minute miles, which I hoped I could sustain for a bit longer.

Passing mile 12, I could see and hear the crowds near State Street cheering for the athletes. And then, out of nowhere, I saw my parents. There they were, on the side of the road, cheering loudly as they had just spotted me as well. I was so glad to see them, as I realized they hadn’t been at mile 6 with the rest of the team, and didn’t know if they had an update on my status or location. I tried to hold back my emotion as I neared them. I walked right up to my mom and put my arms around her, giving her a big hug. “Stick with me out here,” I said, “It’s getting pretty tough.” I gave my dad a big hug as well, and he told me he loved me and that I was doing great. “I’ll see you guys in a few miles,” I said as I trotted off into the distance. I suddenly realized the sun was setting, and I no longer needed my sunglasses or visor. I was about 50 feet down the road past my parents, so I turned around, pointed to my glasses and visor in my hand, and put them on the curb. My dad nodded and ran over to them, picking them up as I moved away down the course.

A block later, I rounded the corner and came up to a very welcome sight – the rest of the Team, cheering and waiting just for me. I walked straight up to Krista and gave her a huge hug, realizing I was a stinky, sweaty mess and a hug was most likely the last thing she wanted! “How are you doing?” she asked with a little apprehension in her voice. “I’m ok,” I said, “it’s getting tough, I may need to start walking more. I’ll be ok, I promise.” I kissed her and moved towards the rest of the team, giving my father-in-law a high five as I passed. They were all shouting encouragement to me, but I realized by their nervous tone they could tell I wasn’t doing so well. As I turned the corner, Scott ran beside me briefly and shouted “You can do this, Stephen! I know you can!” I thanked him and shuffled off into the distance. You can do this. You can do this. I stored that away in my head, I figured I may need that later.

It was starting to get dark, as the sun had completely set, and the amazing thing was that I had been in constant motion from sunrise to sunset, and I was still going. As I made my way around Capital Square, the lights illuminating the capital were just starting to make their appearance. The shops and buildings surrounding the capital were also beginning to liven up, with outdoor patios bustling and light music playing, and people chatting as they sipped beverages and laughed and talked. It was a beautiful scene, and on most days one that would invite you to sit on a park bench and relax for awhile, but not today, I had more important things to tend to.

As I neared the south side of Capital Square, I could hear it. The sounds of the finish area, and of athletes finishing, taking their last glorious steps. To make matters worse, the turnaround point for the second loop of the marathon is literally 200 yards from the finish line. I shuffled around the corner and towards the awaiting crowds, who were cheering loudly. “Congratulations!.....” they shouted, just as I turned off at the second loop sign. Then there was silence, as those of us making the turn rounded the sign, when the crowd realized we weren’t finished, but indeed had so much further to go. I decided not to look down towards the Finish, not to even allow myself to see the events that were unfolding there. It wasn’t my time yet, and I didn’t need to clutter my head with those images. Just focus on the task ahead, on the here and now.

As I turned onto the second loop and back towards the capital, I knew I wasn’t doing so well. Sure, it was great that I was halfway there, and every step was closer to home, but 13 more miles seemed so far. I made the mistake of letting myself think ahead, and think about the distance. A half marathon still to go. A half marathon. That’s a long way, no matter how you break it down. “Stop,” I almost said aloud. "Stop thinking that way. Get back to your game, back to what you know." As I rounded Capital Square, I looked over to a guy running next to me and said “It’s just us now, man. No more of those second-loopers, no more hearing ‘You’re almost there.’ Just us. Let’s get this done.” I reached out and shook his hand. He thanked me and agreed, and we continued on.

Just after the turnaround was the Special Needs area. A volunteer saw me coming and grabbed my bag, asking me what I needed. Let’s see, I don’t need fresh socks, no more body glide, and the chips and payday I had stashed in there just didn’t sound good at all. “I’m ok, I don’t need it,” I told him. “Are you sure?” he asked. I assured him I was good, and moved on. What I unfortunately forgot was the fact that I had 4 more gels in that bag, the base of my nutrition for the second half of the marathon.

I came back upon the Team near mile 14, and they were all sorts of frantic. They knew my condition at mile 12, and they were ready to raise the roof with their cheering. As I approached, they looked intently at me for any sign of how I may be doing. I gave them a thumb’s up, “Only one more lap to go, gotta get this finished,” I said as I passed. I gave them all high fives and trotted off into the distance. Two blocks later, I spotted my parents again, and smiled with my thumb in the air as I moved towards them. “I’m doing ok, just need to keep moving,” I said. I could tell they were worried, and probably didn’t buy my story, but I assured them I was fine. “We’re here for you, Stephen, we’ll be praying for you. We’ll see you at mile 20!” they shouted as I walked off into the twilight. Mile 20. Wow, that seemed so far away. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d make it that far.

As I left the Capital area and the pandemonium of State Street, most of the athletes were alone. We had all long ago found our own space, and we just treaded along, mostly to ourselves, running our own races. “Get ahold of yourself,” I thought to myself. “Get into this. I know it’s hard, but it’s supposed to be hard. Just snap out of this funk.” I remembered something I had read during training – when you start to feel down, start encouraging others around you. The positive vibe will help. So I did. I started cheering for everyone I saw. “Way to go, Jim!” “Looking strong, Helen.” “You can do this, Brian!” Many of them smiled and thanked me, some just kept plodding along with no acknowledgement. That’s ok, I understood. It didn’t matter their response, because it was lifting my spirits, and it was taking my mind off the negative things and giving me something else on which to focus. And I needed the reaffirmation for me – to tell myself that I was looking strong, that I could do this. I tried to tell myself that I was doing better, that I was moving, and getting closer to the finish with every step. But I knew something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

At mile 16, I made my way around Camp Randall stadium again. It was much darker and quieter now, and instead of being a welcome site this time, I just wanted to get through it and back to the streets. Near the exit to the stadium, I stopped to stretch, and as soon as I pulled my foot in the air, my quad cramped immediately. Ok, I’m finished with the stretching, I guess.

I hit rock bottom at mile 17. In a port-o-let, of all places. I stopped to use the restroom, and as I stood there, I started to feel very woozy. I heard a faint rushing sound in my ears, and realized I was close to passing out. I leaned up against the wall of the port-o-let, not wanting to fall over. I quickly finished using the restroom and stumbled outside. I didn’t want to pass out in the port-o-let, who knows how long it would be until someone found me. I walked over to a street light, leaned up against it and just stood there. I didn’t want to sit down, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back up. “What’s going on??” I thought. “I need to figure this thing out. Right now. Because if I don’t, I may not make it any further.” I started to walk, and tried to assess my situation. I was woozy and had just about passed out. Why…..why? And it suddenly hit me. I was way behind on my nutrition, and probably hydration too. My nutrition plan for the marathon was a gel every 3 miles, supplemented with other calories at aid stations in between. I hadn’t taken a gel since mile 8, I had mistakenly been living on chicken broth and water. Chicken broth has what, maybe 12 calories? And to make matters worse, I was probably dehydrated as well. During training, especially when it was hot, I would consistently drink 10 ounces of water every two miles, more if needed. The water and perform at the aid stations was being served in small dixie cups, with probably 2 ounces per cup. I’d grab one or two, down them, and keep moving. Mentally, I thought I was taking in enough fluids, but based on the state of things, I’d guess I probably wasn’t.

I needed calories and fluid, and I needed them quickly. I knew I had just left an aid station, and it was probably a half mile back. I seriously debated going back. I decided against it, but I knew I needed to make it as quickly as possible to the next station. I walked along slowly, and objects started to get blurry on the sides of my vision. “Just keep walking,” I told myself. “Don’t stop now.” I looked around for someone, anyone, who may have food with them. I saw a few college kids with a bag, and wondered if there was a burger or a sandwich in there, and debated asking them if I could have it.

It was at this moment that I seriously doubted my ability to finish. I could believe it. My first and only goal for the day was to get to the finish line. No matter what. I was prepared to endure any amount of pain, physical or mental, to get there. I knew deep down that I had the strength to push on in the most difficult of circumstances. But this was something completely different. My body was breaking down, and unless I could replenish it, it was going to stop very soon. And I felt powerless to do anything about it. I started to think back on all my months of training, signing up for the race a year ago, and structuring my entire life around this race. All the costs spent to reach this goal, all the time. This wasn’t fair, not to me, definitely not to Krista and Carter. I had sacrificed so much to be here, all three of us had. And I didn’t want it to end like this.

“Lord, help me to get to the finish line,” I prayed. “But if I can’t make it there, just help me to be strong in the attempt.”

I turned the corner, and there it was. The next aid station. I staggered up to the table and volunteers. “What do you need?” they asked. “Water, Perform?” I stopped in front of the table and said, “Ok, what do you have? I need some calories.” They offered me chips, chicken broth, oranges. “No, let me have one of those powerbars over there,” I said. “And one of those gels.” I grabbed them both and stuffed them in my race belt. I grabbed 3 cups of Perform, downed them, and then an extra cup of water. I thanked them all and started walking, opening my gel and squeezing it into my mouth. The taste was awful, and I knew the powerbar would be even tougher to stomach. It didn’t matter. I could control that – if it would help me recover, I could choke down live beetles and worms at this point. I ripped open the powerbar, and started munching on it as I walked. I didn’t know if all these calories would help my situation, but I was definitely willing to try.

The water and perform seemed to help very quickly. As I walked, I was starting to regain some composure and didn’t feel quite so woozy. I continued to work my way through the powerbar, which was indeed just as awful-tasting as I had imaged. I remembered the motivational keyring attached to my race belt, and decided now was the time I needed it. Removing it from my belt, I thumbed through it and read the following words:

“Run if you can, walk if you have to….just keep moving forward.” I continued through the notes, “There will be a day when you can no longer do this. Today is NOT that day.”

I read a few others, and teared up as I walked. I remembered what Scott had told me so many miles ago: “You can do this. I know you can.”

“I can do this,” I told myself. “Today will not be the end. Today will not be the day I don’t finish.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, I slowly marched on. I did the math. For the first time in several miles of the marathon, I looked at my watch and worked through the numbers. I was moving at a 16 minute mile pace, and it was just past 9pm. I had passed mile 19 only a few minutes prior. My math was kind of fuzzy, but I figured I could walk a 24 minute per mile pace and still make it before midnight. As long as I kept moving.

Shortly, I came upon State Street, near the mile 20 turnaround. As I approached the lights and sound and people, I could see someone familiar up ahead. Standing in the middle of the street, between the runners coming and runners going on both sides, was my mom. She had one of the orange traffic cones up to her mouth and was shouting at the top of her lungs, “Stephen Fulkerson! We love you, you are amazing! You look great!” I smiled, and teared up again. After all this time, the Team was still out there for me, waiting just for me. I walked up and hugged her, thanking her for being out here. My dad was right there as well, and they asked me how I was feeling. “I’m doing better,” I said. “I’m going to make it.” They cheered as I walked away. I knew they had no idea how tough it had been since I last saw them, but they didn’t need to know.

I marched toward the turnaround at the end of the street, and sure enough, there was the rest of the team: Krista, her parents, Carter, Scott, and Carrie. Still cheering, still waiting, after all these hours. Again, they were behind the barricades, so I couldn’t get to them, but I shouted as I rounded the corner, “I’m doing better. Gonna make it. See you at the finish line.” They cheered loudly as I turned and walked away. I passed my parents again, thanked them, and told them I’d see them in a little while. Then I walked off into the darkness…..I had a line to cross, and only 6 miles to get there.

Leaving the State Street area, I quickly realized just how dark it was. There were large portable lights set up on the course, but in between those lights, there were stretches of plain black darkness. I saw most athletes had the little glow necklaces on, and figured I probably should to. The problem was, I kept forgetting to get them at each aid station I passed, so I continued on in the darkness, watching all the other glowing necklaces bobbing up and down. But that was ok. I was eating and drinking again. And my head was clear. And my body felt stronger. As I walked past Lake Mendota, looking out across the clear, quiet and dark lake, I smiled. “I’m really going to do this. I think I can finish.”

My only issue now was my feet. In all of my training, I had never simulated walking large portions of the marathon, at least not at the pace I was trying to keep. I was quickly realizing that walking, serious meaningful walking, was very hard work! And I could tell I was developing some nasty blisters on the balls of my feet. With every step, I knew they were getting worse. As I approached the mile 22 aid station, I found a volunteer holding a stick of vaseline. “You are absolutely the best person I’ve seen all day,” I told her, smiling. She smiled and laughed, “Have a seat,” she said. I declined and told her I didn’t want to sit down, I wasn’t sure I could make it back up, but asked her if she could hold me stable as I removed my shoes and socks. I slathered the vaseline all over my feet, then put my socks and shoes back over them. I thanked her and moved on, remembering to grab an extra gel and more perform and water from the volunteers.

The vaseline worked for all of a quarter mile, and then the rubbing continued. Oh well, it was worth a shot. But it was all good - pain, I could deal with. I was controlling my Ironman again, working at my pace one mile at a time. Most of the other athletes looked pretty rough by this point, and I wondered if I looked that bad, too. But I kept encouraging them as we would cross paths, and received much encouragement back.

As I passed the Ford Motivational Mile, I remembered to look for the jumbotron this time. When my chip activated the sign, I read Krista’s message to me: “I love you and am so proud of you.” I smiled as I continued on, I couldn’t wait to see her at the finish.

By mile 23, I realized I had quite a little foot experiment going on with these blisters. I tried running for a short stretch to relieve the pain, but I quickly found that I was on the verge of cramping with every running step I took, so I backed off and decided the pain of blisters was a much better choice than cramping up. I then made the mistake of pounding my right foot hard on the ground. Not sure why I did it, I thought maybe it would shift my foot in the shoe and relieve the pain. But I ended up rupturing the blister, and the pain was excruciating. With every step, I now felt fire shooting up my leg. “Well, that was a smart move,” I laughed to myself as I continued on. “Let’s just get this thing over with.”

Before I knew it, I was passing mile 25. Only a mile to go in my Ironman. I couldn’t believe it, after all of this, it came down to one mile. I can do anything for one mile, I’d crawl if need be. And I probably had enough time to do that if required. But I didn’t need to crawl, I was feeling great. I made my way down State Street one more time. But it was different this time. Spectators were not shouting, “You can do this,” but rather, “You did it, congratulations!”

Approaching Capital Square, I stopped at the last aid station, not to grab water or nutrition, but simply to thank all the volunteers. They clapped and shouted words of congratulations. I hugged a complete stranger at the last aid table, almost spilling the water he was offering me. Shuffling past the capital, I glanced over to see the Special Needs area one more time, and thought about dropping off those bags this morning with Mom and Dad so many hours ago. The day had literally flown by, and I couldn’t believe it was almost over.

As I made the last turn around Capital square, and entered the beginning of the barricaded path, I heard my name and looked up. There was Krista, with her parents and Scott and Carrie, waving and hollering and snapping pictures. I walked right up to Krista and embraced her, giving her a kiss. “I love you,” I said between tears. “Thank you so much.” I high fived the Team as I began my run, and then the turn onto MLK Drive.

And there it was. The place I had seen so many times, in pictures and in my dreams. What I had thought about when things got tough during training, when I just didn’t think this day would ever come. The Ironman Finish Line. Words will never do it justice. I tried really, really hard to take it all in. The lights, the crowds, the sound and pounding music. The finish chute is lined with fences and signs, and the entire crowd is banging on those signs, producing a thunderous roar. The bleachers are filled to capacity on both sides, and the ground is literally shaking. I had never experienced anything like this. And past it all, in the distance, was the clock…and the Line.

I ran through the tunnel of light and sound, it was completely electric. My mom and dad were right there along the fence, but I didn’t see them in all that madness. And on the platform, right at the line, was Mike Reilly, his voice booming above the roar of the crowd. “Stephen Fulkerson, from Middletown, Ohio. YOU….are an Ironman!” I ran under the clock, across the Line, and put my arms in the air.



Two volunteers grabbed my arms to assist me, and asked me if I was ok. “I’m great, thank you” I assured them. Another volunteer handed me a Finisher shirt and hat, and still another walked up and placed the coveted medal around my neck…..Ironman Finisher. I had my official picture taken, then looked up to see my parents near the end of the finisher area. I walked through the barricades, and embraced them both. “Thank you both for being here,” I said.

The rest of the team hadn’t made it to the post-finish area yet, and I decided I probably needed to take a look at my feet, so made my way to the medical tent. I signed in, grabbed a seat and took my shoes off for the nurse. That was the first time I noticed that blood had oozed through my socks and up through the tops of my shoes. The upper mesh vented portions were a faint red color. Nice. I discovered I had two golf-ball-plus size blisters, one on the ball of each foot, and two slightly smaller ones on the heels. Almost perfect symmetry between both feet. So I guess that walking motion really is different from running…..

The doctor told me they really couldn’t do anything for them, just to keep them clean and covered until they healed. That was fine with me, I just wanted to be sure I didn’t have larger problems. Blisters – I could deal with.

I hobbled back to the finish area and found the Team and many hugs and congratulations ensued. I thanked them all for being here, for sharing this amazing day with me. I still had the logistics of getting all my gear and bike, but Scott, Carrie and Krista insisted they’d handle it all. They’re the best! As we waited for them to retrieve all of the baggage, and even afterwards, we just hung out on the bridge over Monona Terrace, and shared stories about each other’s day. It was a great time of talking, laughing, just enjoying being together, and I’m glad we could all share it. We managed to snag a couple walking past and got some great photos of the whole team.

The gear retrieved, there was nothing left to do but head to the hotel, and I couldn’t wait to get there, shower and hit the bed. When I finally grabbed my phone from the nightstand at the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the support from my extended team, watching from all over the country. I had 217 e-mails and Facebook notifications by 1am, and they still kept pouring in over the next day. I read every single one, and I don’t mind saying I was pretty choked up after finishing. Thank you, all of you.

The next morning, the entire team met again in our room, and we talked and laughed and reminisced some more. I just couldn’t believe it was all over. None of us wanted to leave, but eventually we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Two and a half weeks later, the blisters are almost healed. I’ll swim this afternoon, my first workout of any kind since that bright, clear Sunday in Madison. I’ve shared the story of that day so many times, with so many people since then. I’m stunned and awe-struck by how many people truly cared, and were cheering me on from near and afar.

And Ironman – wow, it’s really overwhelming, when I get a chance to sit and think about it. I’m not sure I really understand even now how large it was. I often wondered beforehand if it would happen, but I know now that I’m truly changed on the other side of Ironman. I feel an overwhelming sense of pride, but more so than even that, I feel content. I no longer feel as if I need to prove to anyone, myself especially, that I’m worthy of it. I’ve completed my goal...because I can.

I’ve been asked several times if I’ll ever attempt another Ironman. Sunday night post-race I would have said no way. 17 days later, I think……I probably will. Not next year, or the year after that. I love triathlon greatly, and I plan to rest for awhile, then focus on some shorter races. Just have fun with it for awhile, and spend a lot of time with my family, the two people (and one dog) in this world who mean the most to me.

But sometime again, I will knock on the Ironman door. My best race is still out there somewhere.

If you’ve read this far, you have much more patience and tolerance for pain than I! Thank you, thank all of you for your amazing support, love and friendship. Until next time, may you always set your goals just a little higher than you think you can reach. And then go out and achieve them. Because you can.


Chris Syme said...

The swim photos are magnificent. Love the ski jump in the middle of the lake.

The Thief/Rev. Run said...

Amazing story. I felt like I was there. So well written, too.

Sara said...

This is beautiful. What a truly amazing accomplishment. I am so happy to have read about it!

Sara said...

Congratulations, Stephen! I CANNOT even imagine running/biking/swimming for that long. But, YOU DID! Awesome. I was just thinking about it, and I had to come back and say that!!

chris said...

Your story is amazing. I did the same race last year. It was also my first. You were able to put the experience into words whereas, I'm not able to.

I am so proud of your/our accomplishment. And you should really give yourself more credit in your story telling.

BTW - I teared up a couple times out of emotion and laughter. The part about your mom yelling through a traffic cone was the best!

Again, congrats to you Stephen! YOU...ARE...An...IRONMAN!

- Chris