Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?

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This is not the race report you are looking for.

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Looking back on the weekend it seems completely overwhelming; there was so much going on, so many different kinds of experiences, layers of complex emotions, surprises, challenges and events that were simply incomprehensible, that I’m struggling a little to put it all into words.  The interesting thing is that I didn’t feel like this at all during the weekend!  Everything seemed pretty manageable and, for most of the event, even strangely normal.  This suggests either that I was in a state of delusional bliss for several days, or that I was in the zone.

I prefer to think it was the latter.  One thing I’ve practiced a lot over the years when facing up to a really big race is to force myself not to think about the magnitude of the undertaking.  If I spent my time thinking “Holy urinated neoprene, Batman, I’m doing an Ironman!” I would have been in a constant state of freaked out paralysis.  Instead, I try to focus on these kinds of events as a series of tasks that have to be completed.  That had some enormous benefits on the day I think.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it was what enabled me to finish at all.  But it also had some costs.  More about that some other time, however.

I tend to produce Ironman-length race reports even when I’m just racing a sprint (it probably takes you longer to read these than it does me to complete the actual event).  In this case, however, there are some things that I don’t want to get lost in a general account of the day, so I wanted to write about them separately.

The first of these is my love affair with Madison, Wisconsin.

I couldn’t be more impressed with the place.  From visiting there for the first time on our training ride I felt that this was a place with a great atmosphere and that it would make for a really enjoyable Ironman experience (because that is one thing I had confirmed for me. Ironman is not just about the actual event; what happens in and around the event is just as important, to me at least).  The actual experience, however, exceeded those expectations.

The race organization was pretty much superb all round.  While checking in at the sprawling Convention Center complex was a lot like making your way through a particularly labyrinthine game level (check your corners!  Watch the choke points!) it went pretty quickly (for me at least, because I got there on Thursday).  People checking me in were unfailingly chipper and helpful.  On the race day I couldn’t believe the sheer number of volunteers.  In the latter stages of the run course (and I was out there pretty late!) every aid station was still staffed by a small army of people.  This speaks well not just of the volunteers themselves but of the coordination of aid station captains and the volunteer organization in general.  The same was true of the aid stations on the bike course; armies of blue shirts everywhere you looked.

The city itself seemed to be a great environment for an Ironman from the point of view of both logistics and aesthetics.  My only other personal experience is with IMUSA at Lake Placid.  Lake Placid is a great town and I adore that area of the country.  But Ironman completely overwhelms the town.  Accommodation in the town itself is completely inadequate for the number of athletes, let alone family and supporters, forcing many people to stay miles out of town.  Being able to stay less 3/4 of a mile from the race start in Madison made a huge contribution to the stress-free experience.  There were plenty of places to get supplies (as opposed to what seems to be the single, over-stressed supermarket in Lake Placid) and plenty of reasonable, really great places to eat in Madison.  In Lake Placid, many of the places are massively overpriced and the food is at best indifferent.  Furthermore, most Placid restaurants seemed to see Ironman as an opportunity to make out like a bandit.  By contrast, on Thursday night we had a great Italian meal in Madison; furthermore, they had a promotion running where all Ironman competitors got $3 off their entrees.  That didn’t start until the following day but they gave it to us anyway.  I didn’t see anything like that in Placid.

(I’m not trying to bash Placid; I loved being there last year, and I’ve also had a great time visiting there outside the Ironman frenzy.  It is just that Placid sees Ironman as a cash cow to be stripped, butchered and processed as expeditiously as possible.  Madison by contrast seemed to revel in hosting the Ironman).

I don’t know how this compares with other Ironman venues.  But what I’ve heard of Ironman Florida’s location (variously described as the “redneck Riviera” or more simply as “the armpit of America”) are not promising.  Similarly, while I’m sure my team mates will have a great time in Cozumel, I’m not a huge fan of resort towns that are designed simply to cater to the Ugly American.  Even Virginia Beach makes me feel ill, and the saving grace of the two times I’ve been there has been that it has been in the off-season.  T-shirts, mini-golf and lashings of Cheez-Wiz are just not my scene.

Madison, by contrast, was funky and laid back.  It is a college town, of course, so that contributes to the effect (ensuring a reliable supply of stoners to drape themselves colorfully about the scenery) but I was first impressed by the place over summer when school wasn’t in session (well, except for the aforementioned stoners taking make-up classes).  It reminded me a lot of cities in New Zealand, albeit on a slightly larger scale (my university was certainly not 35,000 students); walking around our hotel through the hoveltown of the student ghetto made me a little homesick.

Think about this: when was the last time when you visited a major city in the US where it was damned hard to locate the nearest Starbucks?  Downtown Madison is, instead, lousy with indie coffee shops.  We tried a fair few of them and it would be hard to say which was my favorite because each bought something different to the table: one had great food and also sold wine; another had a quirky atmosphere; a third had a kick ass orange latte and a fabulous selection of fresh leaf tea.  There was a huge range of great places to eat, ranging from basic pub grub to some pretty damn fine nosh, all of it incredibly cheap.  Madison is a place I would actually go back to for a holiday.

But the thing that really got me–and wow, I just suddenly felt a little emotional there, in a way that I haven’t really felt since the race–was how damn friendly people were.  I know that is the stereotype of the mid-West, and I’m sure the region has no shortage of grumpy fucks.  But everywhere we went there were those little random acts of kindness.  When we visited Fromagination, this amazing cheese shop after the race (which forever drove the association between Wisconsin and American Cheese (a description that is as big a lie as Milwaukee’s Best beer) out of my head) the group behind me at the table saw the IM Finisher’s T-shirt I was wearing and donated their basket of crisps while we were waiting for our food.  Another guy stopped to talk to us and take our picture.  When we remarked on how friendly we found Madison, he replied “Well, we don’t tend to have the congestion that drives you nuts everywhere else.”

It was a fun but also painful reminder of something I’d forgotten, or maybe something I have just grown used to.  When we moved to the DC area from California what struck us immediately was how rude and uptight people were.  After a while you just take it for granted: drivers want to kill you simply for being on the same road, service in pretty much any retail establishment will be disinterested if you are lucky but more usually downright surly, and smiling and saying hello to someone on the street produces either panic or an arrest warrant.

Furthermore, people in Madison seemed to really get what Ironman was all about.  I always felt that Placid was kind of doing a grin-and-bear-it sort of thing when we were there.  But with Madison the feel was different.

I remember the morning of the event, when we left our hotel and started walking toward the race start.  It wasn’t yet 5am and just down the road there was a house where dim lights were pulsing behind bedsheet-draped windows to the accompaniment of cavernous thumpings.  On the porch a guy stood and watched the Team Z army go past for a moment, then called out “You all have a great race!  You’re doing a lot better than I am at the moment!”

I also remember a moment that took place somewhere around mile 23-24 on the run, just after we’d passed the stadium for the last time.  I was beyond out of gas, I was out of fumes.  I’d been walking, after a fashion, forever.  Momentarily I was with a couple of other guys; we were pretty positive, we knew we’d finish, even if it was in unspectacular fashion.  They were talking about how this would be the one and only Ironman for them and how they were looking forward to going back to competing in “normal” distance races (oddly enough, however, even in the state I was in, which was pretty wretched, a part of me was mulling over what I would do differently in my “next” Ironman).  We were crossing an intersection when some guy on a bike rode up, headlight sweeping the road.  He slowed and then looked up as he crossed in front of us.  “You guys are doing a great job,” he said, “Stay strong.”  Some random stranger just wanted to take a little bit of extra time on his way home from god know’s where just to offer a bit of encouragement.  Another random human moment.  In Madison.

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One response to “Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?

  1. So much fun to read this, Mark. It made me remember going to CCCC’s in Milwaukee with you (my only experience in Wisconsin) and how absolutely fabulous we found that town. Maybe there’s something in milk up there…?

    I can’t wait to read more, as you have the time to digest bits and pieces of last weekend into stories. It takes a while to find a way to talk about something that huge–and you’ll never find all of the words (although knowing you, you’ll find quite a few 🙂

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