Ironman doesn’t start with the sound of the cannon driving a bass-deep percussion through your chest, bobbing up and down in the algae-stewed Madison, WI lake, staring down a 140.6 mile “workout”. It doesn’t start a year earlier when you plunk down your Visa for a $550 commitment or a $3000 bike. It didn’t even start when my ridiculously supportive wife relentlessly encouraged me to, “Just get it done.” It didn’t even start for me when I crossed the finish line at my first triathlon in 2000, and reflected at what fun I just had exerting my anarobically-trained, basketball body in a way I never thought possible.
No, Ironman started deep within me. It began as a 13-year-old boy watching Wide World of Sports in my basement in late November, 1982. I was engrossed, inspired, and humbled by a bunch of “weirdoes” I had never heard of: Dave Scott (who I would actually meet in 2008), Scott Tinley and Julie Moss; no, not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, like most teenage boys and my heroes at that time. That year, Scott Tinley, a 25-year-old aquatics instructor from San Diego, passed Dave Scott in the marathon and finished in a record time of 9:19:41. Julie Moss collapsed in front of thousands of cheering fans, and what still amounts to be one of the most inspiring finishes of all-time, crawled the last few yards to finish only 29 seconds behind first-place finisher Kathleen McCartney. Goosebumps still rise on my arms replaying that image in my mind.
My Ironman started that November day in 1982 by quietly saying to myself (in a voice only I heard and certainly didn’t share, because what those people did was crazy!) that someday I’d like to be an Ironman. That idea quickly went dormant, as I got gassed riding my bike over to my best friends house just 6 blocks away.
However, the manifestation process had begun, taken hostage of my subconscious. So, at the age of 40, I find myself toeing/floating to the start of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles bicycling and 26.2 miles of running — WOW, it is going to be a gloriously long day. I love my wife so much; she is why I am bobbing in the water right now. She made sure this day is here.
But, I got to go now because the cannon just started my IRONMAN.
Anna we’re BBQing Later today! =)
The song “Barbeque” by ALO is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And the lyrics are very apropos:
The road is long and winding
Like a good mystery unfolding
It twists and turns
In colorful subplots and sunburns
And fake out endings
And sometimes my patience in the whole process starts bending
As I attempt to unravel the web
By rehearsing and reversing and perversing and traversing
Along the doubt laden extension chord threads
Of my life
And in this life we’re free to dream what ever we want to
But that doesn’t’ mean that your dreams are gonna come true
Instead as a way of getting us to move
Life dangles your dreams in front of you
And unable to resist the temptation
And it’s clear to me that this life is gonna be
All about the dangling possibilities that keep turning in and turning out
Yes it’s clear to me that this life is gonna be all
About the dangling possibilities that keep turning in…
The road is long and winding
Full of twists and turns
But before you can rise from the ashes
You’ve got to burn baby burn
Welcome to your Barbecue
Where we roast all the dreams that never came true
Welcome to your Barbecue
Pig out and dream a new
Welcome to you’re, welcome to you’re, welcome to you’re barbecue…
The 2.4 mile Swim:
Right before the cannon sent me and 2700 other lunatics off, I found myself slapping and splashing the water like a happy beaver. I can’t believe this moment is here. Now it’s finally real. With so many people all starting at once, one of my biggest fears for the day was how rough the swim start was going to be. I found a somewhat open area on the start line, about 30 meters to the outside. Within the first 25 meters of swimming, a nice comfortable space opened up. I said loudly, in that quite voice in my head, “I can’t fricken believe I am doing an Ironman.”
My coaches, Scott Fliegelman and Michael Kelly, trained me to get in my bubble, which is a great metaphor for focusing on yourself and what you can control inside your own space. My comfortable, bubble swim-space closed and opened numerous times over the first 1000 meters, but I was able to find my groove.
Before I knew it my first of two laps were done. The second lap felt as smooth and easy as the first. Actually, I couldn’t believe how quickly it seemed to be over. There were absolutely no issues – sighting was great and perceived exertion was very comfortable. I did wonder if the several accidental sips/gulps of the algae-rich lake water were going to come back to haunt me – it didn’t.
When I went to check my watch to gather some important effort feedback, I noticed I had only started the heart rate monitor, not the timer. I told myself: don’t worry, just hit start again. I was wearing my wife’s rudimentary watch, as two days before I left for Madison, my deluxe model broke after the face plate somehow got smashed. Little did I know it would be a blessing to have simple feedback to rely on.
I popped out of the water and took note of the clock, which read 55 minutes. How could that be? Did I cook the first lap that fast? That was 10 to 15 minutes ahead of where I thought I’d be at that point. Coach Scott always said not to rely on accurate swim courses, but that just seemed too far off. Oh well, I felt great. Off with the wetsuit, I found and kissed my wife, and moved swiftly up the helix (parking garage circular drive). What an awesome feeling to be running up through the crowd, which was set 4 to 5 people deep.
The volunteers were so awesome! Nordstrom’s could take lessons from these guys in customer service. Easy and flawless. I had my plan down and knew what to expect.
The 112 mile Bike:
I had two issues pop-up; given the spectrum of things that can go wrong, they were very minor, especially for an Ironman virgin. Issue one, I forgot my two Gatorade bottles I was going to load my bike up with for the first 45 minutes of the ride. I realized this as I was walking down to the swim start. So, I started my bike knowing hydration or fuel was not going to come for a bit. Oh well, I stayed in my bubble and I was fine.
I stopped at the first aid station to pee and catch up on fuel. The bike was smooth and felt great, just like Coach Michael said it would. My goal here was to keep my HR to 140 or below, but 150 for the first 10 minutes felt like nothing. The first hill came and I knew I had to back the HR down. I sat up and soft pedaled up.
I was passed by countless knuckleheads absolutely mashing their pedals. I actually caught myself laughing out loud – were they forgetting about the 100 miles of riding and the marathon? On the back side of the first hill, my HR dropped to 142 and essentially stayed there, comfortably, for the next five and-a-half hours.
My race plan was to ease up the climbs and to use downhills and flats to my advantage. This was perfect, until my second issue of the day emerged: my wheels. Renting race wheels was something I wanted to treat myself to, and on my short pre-race ride on Thursday, the wheels all seemed good.
However, at about mile 33 of my race-day ride, when I hit the first really steep climb and had to drop into my lowest gear, the most awful, consistent squeal from somewhere on my bike kicked-in. I stopped. It wasn’t the break pads…EXPLETIVE! I kept riding. It stopped. A few minutes later, it returned … EXPLETIVE! About three terrifying miles later, I figured it out: the rear cassette was not put on correctly, so the chain was rubbing against something in the lowest gear.
I had four major climbs ahead that I would tackle in second gear. Since I wasn’t attacking the climbs, it ended up to be just fine. I just was anxious my bike was going to unravel later – fortunately it didn’t. The two big climbs, done two times, were so much fun. I got a feel for what the Tour de France riders feel like when they pound through the gauntlet of crazed spectators up the L’Alpe d’Huez. It made me want to get up off my seat and mash the pedals, but I knew better. Time to laugh at those who were crushing it. In my head I said, “See you on the run, suckas.”
My cheering, support crew – wife, my kids, Liv and Mason, and hosts, Kira, Tom and Brayden Dott – were waiting for me after the first climb. First time through it was a welcome sight; their energy immediately infected me. I got it again from them at mile 85. However, around mile 90 some negative demons crept into the gray matter. All I could think of was how badly I wanted to get to T2 without any mechanical issues. Ultimately, the body felt great, relatively speaking of course. The bike finished off without a hitch.
Did I mention how great the volunteers were? T2 was easy and smooth. Off to my favorite, running. Time to catch those bike-mashers.
The 26.2 mile Run:
My training led me to believe 8 minute miles for the marathon was reasonable to pull off. The race plan called for a slow start (8:30/mile first 6 miles), with a push for the last six miles. The first mile was super smooth, easy and felt like it was maybe even slower than an 8:30 mile. My HR was exactly where I wanted it, 151.
At the first mile marker I checked my watch. I clocked a 7:10 pace – whoa Nellie, I needed to back it off. Second mile was 8:15. Whew, I was in my rhythm, passing tons of racers who were already struggling (voice: suckers on the bike!). It was at this point I was psyched to not have my watch giving me pacing feedback, as I know I would have been obsessed with watching the data instead of finding my groove. Mentally, the first lap of the course, 13.1 miles, clicked by in no time at all.
A very cool sub-plot developed on this first loop. Just outside the Camp Randall football stadium, I noticed I was running right behind another guy, who was getting barked at in a foreign language by someone on the sidewalk. Since our race bibs had to be in front, all I could see was his name on the back of his race shorts – Petr. This is usually the sign of a pro racer.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, as I was in my bubble. However, as the run continued I took note that he started running right on my hip, clearly pacing off me. When we went through an aid station, I read his bib, #4. Yep, a pro. I asked how he was doing/feeling, and he shouted, “Nein! I’m several minutes behind.”
We kept running together before I ignorantly realized he was finishing his race, using me to pull him in. That felt really cool. Following my own race plan, in which I was going to walk through every other aid station, Pro-Petr told me I would be better if I didn’t stop for aid. In actuality, I found I would catch him soon after I got my aid (clearly he was looking after himself – I felt so used and trashy).
We got to the end of the first loop for me, his race finish. We slapped each other a high-five. I congratulated him and he wished me well for the last loop. Later I saw where Petr Vabrousek was the last male pro to qualify for Kona 2010. After his finish, I realize now that I was out of my bubble. The day quickly started to take its toll.
I knew where Anna and Kira would be up ahead at mile 17, and greatly looked forward to my cheering section. My arrival did not disappoint. It couldn’t have been better timed, as the doldrums were settling in. It is really funny to hear from loved ones and general spectators, “You look great! You look strong! Nice work!”, when you know you look like shit, feel like shit, and just want to stop.
The irony, hitting my funny bone at this point, carried me to mile 20. At 20 I knew all I had was 6.2 miles between me and “Dirk Walker you are an …”. Whoops, not yet. The fat lady can warm up, but I still had some work ahead. No time to celebrate, but the adrenaline rush was on and my bubble was back as I visualized a track workout. Scott said to envision feeling the same way on that workout as you want to feel on the marathon. It helped. I don’t know what my split was for the last 10k, but it had to be respectable.
Rounding the corner of the state capitol, I was floating. I saw Anna running alongside, and heard her shout out, “Go Dirk!” The look on her face said it all – I got it done. I could see the turn into the finishing chute. I stopped, turned around looked at the amazing crowds, eyed the beautiful capitol building, absorbed the moment. Spun back around, I grabbed as many high fives as the spectators would give me. As I gave my last ounces of gusto for the line, thankfully not a Julie Moss moment, my bubble became as big as the universe.
There are only three other statements that are superlative to the one I was about to hear: “I pronounce you husband and wife”; “It’s a girl”; and “It’s a boy”. Now, add to the list, “Dirk Walker, you are an IRONMAN!” After ten hours, fifty minutes and thirty-five seconds, I dropped emotionally into the arms of my loved ones. There seems to be a trend here for the top four moments in life!
Roll credits: Anna, this day may not have ever happened without you. I love you so much! Liv and Mason, thanks for your support you were fantastic this whole year. My favorite quote comes from Liv, 20 minutes after finishing the race: “Yea, now daddy can help me fix my doll house.” (You got it sweetie!). To Scott and Michael, you guys nailed it – my mind, body, and spirit couldn’t have been better prepared. To my family, friends, FastForward teammates, the guys at Colorado Multisport and the folks at Solepepper, thanks for all the encouragement, accountability, gear help and karma – I used all of it on long training days and on race day. Finally, huge amounts of gratitude to our Madison hosts, the Dott Family – you guys were so enjoyable and easy to be around. Your hospitality made the weekend go off without a hitch with a lot of humor.
The Ironman is an individual event, but there is no way you get to, or through it, without amazing support. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU to you all!
Because it is a race ,the results are as follows:
Total time: 10:50:35
Division Place: 28 out of 368
Swim Division Place: 57 out of 368
Swim Overall Place: 320
Swim Time: 1:05:36
Bike Division Place: 97 out of 368
Bike Overall Place: 594
Bike Time: 5:55:09
Run Division Place: 12 out of 368
Run Overall Place: 80
Run Time: 3:37:35
(Special Note: I passed 404 other racers on the run. As Lance Armstrong’s book says, “It’s Not About the Bike” )