On Sunday I stood on the shore of Lake Monona nervous but confident as I waited for my wave to enter the water at Ironman Wisconsin. Nervous because in a 140-mile race there are so many things that can go wrong. Nervous because in July I had injured my knee and wasn’t able to run for four weeks. Nervous because this course was known to be more challenging than the Ironman course I raced in Chattanooga a year ago. But confident because last year I survived and finished one of the toughest Ironman races in the history of the sport. And this time I had trained even harder and my training for the most part had gone really well. Confident because the weather forecast, other than a little wind, looked ideal compared to the 100-degree temperatures I had raced in last year. Confident because the inspiration that I brought to the race that day would get me through the challenges that I would face that day. I believed that if I just executed the race that I had planned and visualized in my head I would improve on last year’s performance by an hour or possibly more.
After a long twelve month training buildup I waded out into the cold waters of Lake Monona ready to race. After treading water for a few minutes the cannon fired and we were off. At first it was a big relief to finally be racing but it didn’t take long to realize this swim was going to be tough. With 500 people all starting at the same time I expected it to get a little rough and I expected there to be some contact. What I didn’t expect was a full on MMA fight. By the time I reached the half way point I had been kicked in the face, punched in the head, grabbed several times, stiff armed, and swam over a couple times. I had drank quite a bit of water and all I could think about was just surviving this swim and getting on the bike.
And then the cramps started. Just past the half way point my calf muscles started cramping pretty bad. I had dealt with this before and knew that if I just eased off on my kicking they would go away. But this time they didn’t. Instead the cramps spread and before I knew it my calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and groin muscles had completely seized up. I thought… Ok… I’ve either got to get rid of these cramps or I’m going to have to tap out or I might drown. I rolled over on my back and just floated hoping that if I just rested they would go away. A minute or two later the cramps had subsided enough that I was able to roll over and ease back into some swimming. I continued to take a beating and the cramps came and went throughout the second half of the swim. As I reached the final turn buoy all I could think about was just taking it easy and making it to the swim exit. An hour and a half after the cannon went off I reached the swim exit – about five minutes longer than I had expected.
After a quick transition into my bike gear, I hopped on my bike for the 112-mile bike ride through some beautiful Wisconsin farmland. The Wisconsin bike course was known to be more hilly, more technical, and overall one of the more challenging Ironman bike courses. But I had trained for the hills and trained for the distance so I was confident that I would have a great bike ride – and should be able to save some legs for the run. Or so I thought. The bike started out ok. But then came the hills. On the notorious Barlow Hill I watched as riders one by one dismounted and started to push their bike up this ridiculously steep hill. I watched the lady just in front of me lose momentum and just fall over. I kept peddling – one slow crank at a time. After finally cresting the hill on Barlow I breathed a sigh of relief but the reality was I was going to face a relentless barrage of hills all day long. And as the day went on the headwinds grew stronger and stronger – to the point that even on the flats where I should have been able to recover my legs I was working pretty hard. The cramps that haunted me during the swim would continue to haunt me on the bike. At times my hamstrings would completely lock up and I’d have to stand on my pedals until I could once again bend my leg. The hills and the headwinds were wrecking my legs and I couldn’t wait to get off the bike.
Seven hours later I was finally riding back into the city of Madison and as I approached the city I began to formulate my run strategy. I knew my legs were tired but I viewed the transition to the run as an opportunity to salvage my race – to get back on track. So after changing into my running shoes and grabbing my run gear I set out on the run course attempting to stick to my original running plan. For the first few miles I was encouraged and seemed to be getting back on track. But then around mile seven I started getting more and more nauseous. The more I ran the more sick I got. I tried for the next two miles to run/walk through it but at mile nine I was feeling defeated. My legs were cramping, hurting, and completely spent. And I couldn’t run without getting nauseous and if I was nauseous I wasn’t going to be able to eat and drink enough to keep moving forward. So I started to walk. By mile ten my spirits were totally crushed. My race goals were out the window. And my legs hurt so much that I just wanted to quit. I passed a man lying by the road in the fetal position vomiting everywhere and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s where I was headed. All I could think about was “how am I going to do this for five more hours?”.
The Wisconsin run course is a 13-mile two-loop route. At the end of the first lap you literally run down the finish chute and about 50 yards from the finish you have to turn around and start your second 13-mile lap. As I walked I thought about how difficult it was going to be making that turn and doing another lap. I began to think that if I could just make it back to the capitol – to the turn around – that I would just quit. I rationalized in my head that quitting would be ok. But I got to the capitol where competitors pick up their run special needs bags before starting their second 13-mile lap. I opened up my bag, decided to pass on the snickers bar that I had packed, and pulled out the envelope that I had put in my bag. I opened the envelope and there was the picture of my friend Gary and my son Witt. Gary and Witt had both fought through so much adversity in their lives. Witt, the inspiration for my last Ironman, was a heart transplant recipient that had fought through so much. And Gary had suffered a massive stroke in April and fought through numerous setbacks in his recovery. I was racing in honor of Gary that day and the realization hit me that quitting was not option. So I took that picture and I started my 2nd lap.
With another four hours ahead of me I started to come up with ways to pass the time and motivate me to keep moving forward. I spent a lot of time looking at that picture of Witt and Gary. I spent a lot of time praying and talking with God. And I spent a lot of time trying to put my present suffering into perspective. Yes, my legs hurt and my feet were killing me. I was exhausted and starting to get really cold. I still couldn’t eat or drink anything and was growing more and more dehydrated with each passing hour. But I began to look at it from a different perspective. The realization hit me that in a matter of hours I would, God willing, run or walk down a finish chute lined with people cheering me on as I crossed the finish and my present suffering would be over. But there are plenty of people facing challenges far more daunting than this. And for them their race was a life long fight. I thought about the race that lie ahead of Gary and what he would have to overcome in his fight. And with these thoughts my burden got a little lighter and my pain a little more bearable.
I kept moving forward, walking a good bit with my friend Kevin, and eventually the capitol building came into view – signaling that my race was almost over. I rounded the capitol, began my walk down the finisher chute, stopping along the way to congratulate my friends Max, Tony, and Kristen on their finish, and then continued my walk down the chute. As I stepped on the red carpet I was overwhelmed with emotion thinking about this race and thinking about my friend Gary. Gary has always talked about God’s faithfulness and it was never more real than in that moment. I stopped there at the edge of the carpet, took a knee, and prayed for a minute. As I stood back up I took one last long look at my picture of Gary and Witt and walked the last 25 yards across the finish line.
Ironman Wisconsin was tough. It took everything I had that day. During the race I hit lows that I’ve never experienced in a race before. But there were also some really special moments. The Ironman camera crews captured the moment when I knelt on the red carpet and when I look at that photo today I can still feel the emotions that I experienced that night. This race was for my friend Gary – a man that faithfully and honorably lives out Hebrews 12:1 every day of his life. I love you Gary!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1