Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Madison, Wisconsin.  September 12, 2010

A lot of people have been after me to finish this.  In fact, my friend Bibiana noticed that people had been after me so she took the liberty of writing my race report for me.  I include it here:

Got to Wisconsin. Set up transition bags. Swam 2.4 miles. Got kicked in the head. Changed clothes. Biked 112 miles. Got tired. Changed clothes. Ate something. Ran 26.2 miles. Cursed the gods, the heavens, the training plan and the WTC. Finished. Blessed.

I’m gratified that so many people want to read what I have to say, but I have the feeling that many of them will be disappointed by what follows.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to write this.  Busy since I got back, certainly.  And I did want a complete break from all Tri stuff for a while; since writing turned out to be a surprisingly big part of that for me this year, I guess I was maybe needing to take a break from that also.  There have definitely been more than a few things with which I have had to come to grips about that day.  But there is also the nagging feeling that words somehow aren’t adequate, which is always a tough thing to come up against as a writer.  Ironman has so many ways to humble you.  Most of them are unexpected.  Unexpectedly, it humbled me as a writer.  You like to believe that the reality of representation will always bend to your desire.  Then you do an Ironman.  And suddenly it is a very big thing and your words are oh so very small.

11:00pm-Midnight.  It ain’t over till it’s over

There had been no way of knowing what the day would bring.  Looking back, I had felt that I was prepared, that I was ready.  I was.  And I wasn’t.  Not really.  But I had known one thing for sure going in.  After being there at the finish line at IM USA last year I knew that even if I was lashed to a stretcher and trailing tubes I was still going to be at the IM MOO finish line between 11pm and midnight.

For many competitors the post-finish phase can be a whirling chaos of congratulations from friends and family oddly mixed with logistics that feel vaguely inappropriate (getting your gear, getting back to the hotel. . .but I’m an Ironman?  Where’s the limo?) and the vitally necessary (food, icebaths, putting on the special underwear).  But there is one important reason why everyone who participates in an Ironman should be obligated to return to the finish line for that final hour.


After reading many Ironman race reports over the last year or so (I tried to track down some from previous IM MOOs to get a feel for the event) I’m struck by the strange aura that surrounds some of them.  It is something that if you look back at my blog you’ll see me slipping in to from time to time. It is the “It’s only an Ironman” frame of mind.  Of course, there is no “only” to an Ironman.  Deep down most of us probably know that.  Treating it as “only” an Ironman is a necessary fiction that gets you to the start line in the first place.  If you really thought too long and hard about what you are doing you probably wouldn’t even front up.  But I’ve noticed that for some people that feeling sometimes persists beyond the race, especially if it is not your first Ironman.  Someday it may be possible for me to become blasé about doing an Ironman.  But I don’t ever want to become blasé.

Because that leads you into some very strange territory.  It leads you to bemoan the fact that you finished in 14:10 instead of going sub-14.  It leads you into claiming that you had a “bad day” because you didn’t finish in 12 and change like you knew you could.  I’m sorry, but that is just crazy talk.  If you are finishing in that kind of time you are not having a bad day.  What you are having is simply a day that didn’t go as well as you would have liked.  What you did have is a time that is clearly the product of disciplined training building on an athletic talent that would be the envy of many.

I didn’t finish in the time I hoped for.  I felt at the time and still feel now that I could have done much better.  (Should have done much better?  I don’t know; that one is still a little up in the air).  Did I have a frustrating, annoying, often excruciatingly painful day?  Yes.  Did I have a bad day?  Absolutely not.

Want to know what a bad day is?  Read this guy’s IM MOO blog.  Please, when you are done here (and you may be done already!) I really encourage you to do so.  (As a teaser (and something of a warning): if you find yourself at any point in a race standing wrong-half-naked in the laundry room of a total stranger trying to rinse shit out of your shorts and then said stranger walks in. . .then you are experiencing the ultimate in bad daydom.  Until, that is, your day proceeds to get even worse. . .).

I hear you saying that it is all relative, based on your goals.  Absolutely true.  But that is the point.  And that is why I really feel it is important for all athletes who are physically capable of doing so to front up to cheer on the last people coming in for an Ironman.  Because what is all “relative” for those people is just finishing.  Just surviving to get it done.  If you are an 11 hour or 12 hour Ironman dude or dudette, that is awesome.  It’s not something I will ever experience which makes it even more awesome!  But it means you have the talent and/or the youth and/or the discipline and/or (let us be honest here) the money to even have goals that some other people can never have and “bad days” that are still faster than most of us could ever hope to achieve.  There is, however, a powerful set of reasons why the person who finishes at 16:59:59 is still an Ironman.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have their own goals and to try to improve and grow as athletes.  But one thing I learned over the previous year is that there is inevitably a degree of self-obsession that comes with doing an Ironman.  That self-obsession can be productive to the extent that you channel it in a goal-oriented way; it can be destructive if it blinds you to the basic fact that what you are doing is not a normal, everyday activity.  This is not a 5K, or a 10 miler, or a crit, or even a marathon.  Those activities are within the reach of a substantial proportion of the population, as the numbers of people participating in them attests.  Ironman is a whole different deal.  It is not the fact that that you finish an Ironman in 12 hours that sets you apart from the rest of the population.  It is that you finish it at all.  It is the fact that you even attempt it.

So there I was, with my legs threatening to buckle under me at odd moments, with a silver space blanket tied around my shoulders, using the finishing chute barrier to hold myself upright, yelling, screaming, pounding those barriers for all I was worth.  I was surrounded by people I admire and respect and with whom I’ve trained for almost a year.  Shouting out “You are an Ironman!” to total strangers.  Thinking that I couldn’t scream any louder and then screaming until my throat cracked when my team mates came home.  Donna, with what I can only describe as a stunned smile.  Pam, sauntering down the finish chute as if she did this every day.  Jon, Linda, the wall of sound greeting Doug’s finish that almost knocked me down.  I was standing right there when Tim ran up the chute and proposed to Erin.

There will be another Ironman in my future, that is certain.  Hopefully there will also be this particular Ironman in my future.  And I will come back with my own time goals, expectations, hopes and dreams.  I will be hoping for a better time, that is for sure.

But ultimately, the only time that matters is 17 hours.


10:50pm.  The Twilight Zone.  And Pizza.

I was standing outside the food tent.  It took me several moments to figure out how to actually get inside the food tent.  Mainly because the entrance had been cunningly concealed by placing it right next to where I was standing.  I was tired.  My stomach still hurt a little.  The last thing I felt like was real food.  Fortunately, my eyes were doing my thinking for me.  I grabbed 4 slices of pizza and had almost finished the second of them when Mary appeared on the other side of the barrier, smiling, looking completely lit up.  We hugged.  It was impossible for me to communicate everything I was feeling, everything I wanted to say.  She had been the start of my journey, my inspiration, in so many ways.  In completing her Ironman she had redefined for herself what was possible, had redefined herself, but also redefined me.  I was having a hard time accepting the reality of what I’d just been through–I kept getting distracted by the perfectly ordinary pizza which insisted that it was absolutely the best pizza I’d ever had–but it felt incredibly special to be sharing that moment with someone who knew what that moment was like, who had been so instrumental in inspiring it and helping me achieve it in the first place.


Nothing says kiss me like an Ironman jacket.  I hope.

To be honest, however, it felt even better to sit down!

And then the worst moment of my day.  I was asking about all my team mates and Mary told me that Jodie and Rohini hadn’t made the bike cut-off.

It felt like a wall had fallen on me.  I actually felt this stabbing pain just like I had experienced on the run (and no, I don’t think it was because I was eating the pizza too fast).  Then Mary told me about other people who hadn’t finished.  Matt?  Ray?  Ray? WTF?

Somehow, deep down, I’d never actually believed that all of us who had started on this journey wouldn’t come through it.  The one thing that I completely wasn’t in any sense prepared for during this day was this one moment.  I couldn’t fathom why team mates who had worked so hard all year hadn’t finished.  I couldn’t fathom why I was sitting there scarfing down pizza with a medal around my neck and Matt and Ray, better athletes than I could ever hope to be, weren’t.  It was overwhelming.

Fortunately, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on this.  At that moment Mike and Rich came up behind me.  I knew Mike would finish; he hadn’t looked great out on the course but he was still recognizably Mike (one thing I learned really quickly way back at Kinetic is that people who are having a really bad day start to look like someone else, a parallel universe version of themselves).  Rich had obviously been finished for some time but he still had this strange, intense look on his face as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened to him.

Then Mary got me up and moving.  I may have just finished an Ironman, but I had responsibilities.

10:39pm.  Pain, Proposals, and Pride.

As the noise from the Team Z gauntlet began to fade behind me, I noticed Lori walking along the footpath.  “Just wait till you see the finish line,” she said, “People are going nuts.  It’s packed.  You won’t believe your eyes.”  Part of me gradually realized that what she was doing was less description and more in the way of encouragement.  She kept popping up at odd intervals for the next block or so; every time I thought she must have headed off to the finish line herself, there she was, back again!

There were only a few racers visible ahead and behind me, and we were all walking.  Some of us were having a little more difficulty with that than others.  One guy ahead of me kept veering gradually into the other lane.  In the last block before state street there was a woman in a motorized wheel cheer who had been there as long as I had been on the run course.  She was still cheering as enthusiastically as she had been when I’d first past her. . .God, how many hours ago was it now?  I could no longer do basic math. . .but man, was she ever a stickler for policing her patch.  She motored up alongside the guy in front of me and kept pace with him as she gradually herded him into the right lane.

I made my way up State Street for the last time, the glowing capital dome filling the sky ahead.  I had planned to be running at this stage, and part of me felt momentarily bad that I wasn’t.  But there was still a surprisingly large number of people lining the street and they didn’t seem to mind that I was walking.  They cheered for me and called out congratulations just the same.  Some of them, indeed, seemed to be going positively nuts.  Then I realized that those people were wearing Team Z shirts.  Figures!

Passing the square, I overheard one of the volunteers telling us that race officials didn’t like people crossing the line with the glow necklaces on.  Or at least that is what I think he was saying.  At any rate people were ditching the rollerdiscoware and I did the same.  It would screw up my photo anyway.

I’d been saving up enough energy to run it in, but rounding the square, and hearing the throbbing roar of the crowd near the finish line I suddenly had a moment of panic that I wouldn’t be able to, and a nightmare vision of me doubling over in pain in the finishing chute.  Involuntarily, before I’d planned to do so I lurched into a run.  The final turn was almost unrecognizable as the same area that I’d visited in a haze of pain. . .oh, some number of hours ago.  It had seemed crowded then; now it was packed.

And then I was there, running down the finishing chute–still running, thank you Jesus!  Can I get an Amen!–an Ironman finishing chute, some failing part of my brain dimly recalled.  Everything was confusion.  An assault wave of sound and I think I heard “Mark Mullen, you are an Ironman” but I’m honestly not sure, mainly because I was saying this to myself in my head over and over and over to the degree that it drowned out everything else.  In fact, my memory of approaching the finishing line goes weirdly silent at a certain point.  Everything was visual, the line was everything.  I know that at one point part of me thought about drifting to the edge and high-fiving people along the barrier but I couldn’t seem to take my focus away from the line.  Later, looking at video of myself in the finishing chute, you can see me make a kind of spastic gesture with my right arm which was when I think the high-five thought crossed my mind, but I just keep chugging along.


The Spasm.  The image is blurry, but then so was I.

BTW, Thank God my mental image of what I looked like running–strong, focused, committed–didn’t square with the reality–a shambling old lady who has lost her walker and is trying to stop herself from falling over (and if that wasn’t enough, T-Rex arms to boot!).  It is one of life’s great mercies that we are generally spared seeing ourselves as others see us.

The lights above the finish line were blinding.  One crazy part of my brain kept saying “Don’t go toward the light!  Bad things happen when you go into the light!”  If this was dying it sure hurt a lot.  The one piece of advice I managed to keep in my head all day?  “When you are crossing the finish line make sure you look up.”  Probably fitting if you are going to meet your maker.  (Indeed, maybe I just had religious imagery stuck in my mind at the time; in my official finish line photo I look like Jesus blessing the masses, an impression that would have been heightened if I’d kept the hair and beard from a few years ago).

Then I’m across the line, and someone is grabbing my the arm and leading me forward.  Some guy is talking to me.  He is saying: “This is [name didn’t penetrate] and he’s the winner of the race.  He’s going to be giving you your medal.”  Awesome, I thought, and said  “Hey, thanks.  Great job man, congratulations!”  Wait.  Did I just seriously offer my congratulations to the IM MOO winner?  This guy doesn’t need my congratulations, he finished days ago and he just got a paycheck after all and all I get is this lousy finisher’s medal hanging around my neck. . .OH MY GOD!  THERE’S A FINISHER’S MEDAL ROUND MY NECK!

Then someone else is wrapping a space blanket around me, putting an arm around my shoulders, speaking in an angelic voice and leading me forward.  She is making sure I can stand up, she’s getting me a finisher’s shirt and hat and carrying them for me as we make our way down the chute.  And she’s gorgeous.  “You are just lovely.  Will you marry me?”  Oh shit.  Did I just say that out loud?  No, she’s not looking at me with shock and disgust so that probably remained safely in my head.  Either that or she’s about to say yes.  With her arm still around me she’s asking if I’m OK, if I need any medical help, if there is someone waiting for me (If I say no will she keep her arm around me?).  Then with a final squeeze and a “well done” she sends me on my way into my first minute of Ironmanhood.

10:25pm Going the Extra (Green) Mile

Finally, I was back on Dayton.  I knew that just a little further up the road would be the Team Z cheering station.  I couldn’t get rid of the image in my head that there would be no one there even though with Team Z that is about as likely as Coach Ed suddenly losing his taste (or lack thereof!) for Miller Lite.  Christ but I was moving slowly.  The upside of that was it gave me plenty of time to remember all that I’d been through with my team mates this year.  There were so many memories–an alarming number of them weather-related in various ways–and while some of what we’d been through could only be considered fun in a sick and twisted sense many amazing scenes flashed through my mind that qualified as genuine, unadulterated fun.


My Company of Heroes

There is no way I can really express my debt to the team in general and Coach Ed in particular.  I could, realistically, maybe have done this without them.  But it wouldn’t have been half as much fun and I wouldn’t have learned a quarter of what I’ve learned this year.  Not just about training and the three sports, but about people, about character.

Then I could see the Team Z cheering zone.  I’d taken off my long-sleeved shirt long ago after my body temperature had stabilized and as everyone recognized my jersey the cheers began and the horns started to blow.  It still seemed to take forever to actually reach the team but once I did, I did my best to smile, to high five people.  Then I saw Jason and I gave him a huge hug, which to an outside observer probably looked more like an attempted mugging.

I hadn’t been sure of how I’d react at this moment.  I had thought that I might cry.  But I was completely drained.  Everything had flattened out.  Or so I thought.  I saw Ed.  “How are you feeling, man?” he asked.  Suddenly, I exploded: “I’m going to be a goddam motherfucking Ironman!”  His eyes lit up.  “Yeah!” he bellowed in reply.  “Start planning what you are going to do when you cross that line!”

I walked on a few steps then turned around.  “Hey Ed,” I called out.  “Thanks.  Thanks for everything.”  Then I turned around and resumed walking.

Suddenly it hit me.

I had just pirouetted without falling over!  Maybe I could run this thing in after all!

9:45pm  Great.  Now I’m going to have that stuck in my head.

After a while, I started to feel like I was even a failure at walking.  I don’t know what it is like for faster people doing an Ironman.  I’ll probably never know.  But at the tail end of the event people spend a lot of time doing calculations.  That is one of my most vivid memories, actually: people walking along, doing time calculations out loud.  Sometimes there were a couple of people trying to use their remaining, dwindling, collective brain power to figure out what their current pace was, where they were, etc.  Just as often there was one lone person, talking to themselves like a crazy person.  Because they were a crazy person.  They were doing an Ironman.  At first, you run those calculations to try and figure out if you are going to finish in time. When that becomes reasonably certain, you do the calculations just to try and figure out please god when will this be over.

As with almost every other aspect of this day, my estimates were overly optimistic.  I can walk a mile in about 15 minutes so I’d been using that as an estimate.  Then I actually timed one of my miles.  Over 20 minutes.  Seriously?  It is going to take me another hour to go the last three miles?

I had worried that there would be parts of this course that would be a long, lonely slog, much like the out and back along River Road at Placid.  But even this late in the day there were people everywhere.  My fellow athletes, obviously.  Many of them, blithely ignoring race rules, had spouses or friends keeping them company, which was obviously fine because I didn’t see any kind of race official on the second half of the run.  That is always a little bittersweet, since it pretty much tells you that the official race has abandoned you as beneath its concern.

That was not true of the aid stations, however.  Amazingly, although there were so very few of us left out there, every aid station was packed with volunteers; enthusiastic, cheerful, helpful people who couldn’t do enough for you.  The Ford inspiration station was going strong, even though most of the time the overly-caffeinated teenagers were cheering only to a couple of people too exhausted to lift their heads.

It was around this time that I found myself behind a woman.  She was pretty tall, in amazing shape, wearing a long T-shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to conceal the bottom of a skin suit that, well, wasn’t long enough to conceal anything, really.  Major mud-flappage.  Warning to the ladies.  You may have buns of steel but they are still going to look less than flattering when dangling out the bottom of a skinsuit.  Not that this woman cared, quite honestly.  She was moving as slowly as anyone I saw out there: just taking one, careful step after the other.  I hope she finished.

7:10 – 9:15pm.  Allow me to introduce myself. I’m an Ironman race.  You must be the bug on my windshield.

I’d made it to the halfway point on the run.  Somewhere around two hours and 40 minutes which wasn’t all that bad, all things considered.  I felt that I’d done enough that whatever happened I could probably finish.  If nothing else went wrong.  I made the turnaround, shutting my mind completely to the fact that the finish line was just a handful of yards further on, ignoring the happy stream of finishing athletes.  Once I reached the special needs section they found a chair for me and I ripped open my bag.  The change of socks was even better than I’d expected.  I restocked on shot blocks, but ditched my fuel belt as planned because there were so many aid stations that I knew I could get enough fluid.  Even though the air was still pretty warm I was cooling rapidly and starting to feel chilled so I pulled on an extra layer. Then came the hardest part of the entire day.  Getting out of that damn chair.  My body suddenly seemed to weigh a ton and to take an absurd amount of energy to get moving.  I walked until I was able to use the momentum on State street to start running–er, shambling–again.

Once more through the Team Z zone, awash in positive vibes, happy to see Mary and Teaka again, both of them still rocking the cow headware.

But the light was fading, and so was my strength.  I don’t remember when exactly it happened (it was before we reached the stadium for the second time) but I stopped being able to run.  The pain in my stomach was back.  It would disappear while I walked but then I could run at most about a hundred yards and it would stab me again.  We did the lap inside of the stadium and then I stopped just outside to try and stretch my legs out.  Big mistake.  Instantly, it felt like someone had driven a steel rod down the back of my entire leg and then bent it abruptly in two.  It literally brought tears to my eyes but I managed to pull out of the stretch just before I locked my leg up completely.  Right.  We’re not going to try that again are we?!  OK, walking it is.  I’m a pretty fast walker.  I can still get this done.

4:35-7.00pm.  There is no “I” in Team.  But there is an “I” in Pain.

I was right the first time.  I couldn’t run.  The spirit was certainly willing.  But I hadn’t banked on there being a short but quite nasty little rise out of transition.  Nothing was working well at that point and everything packed up in protest.  My stomach was hurting again.  This time it was feeling like it was muscular.  Not quite cramp, but a tightness.  I began to wonder if what I’d mistaken for nausea was actually due to having pulled a muscle in the swim.  I pushed all that speculation out of my mind, since diagnosing the cause wasn’t going to do much to help me now.  It was the start of the run and I was walking.  Suddenly, the assurances of the volunteers in transition that there was “plenty of time left” didn’t seem quite so reassuring.

I walked in fits and starts until I passed behind the Capital building and then began to run again.  I had two motivations here.  First, I thought had a good chance of getting my run going if I could use the gentle downhill grade to get into a rhythm.  Secondly, Ed had warned us that a photographer was always placed halfway down this stretch in order to take the money shot with the capital building in the background.  Something told me that if anyone else was taking photos of me on this run they were not going to look good, so for the sake of a photographic lie I could fake looking like a cool, confident athlete for 5 minutes.

Lo and behold, I was actually running.  And kept running even after I passed the photographer.  Then before I knew it, I was approaching the Team Z cheering zone and there was the welcome sight of Mary.  She asked how I was but then sensibly ignored me when I told her the truth and was gently encouraging.


See, when you run slowly enough, beautiful women take pity on you and run with you.

The next bit was hard, but it wasn’t horrible.  It was warm but not that hot (one benefit of having a less than stellar bike ride) and I was running most of the time.  In retrospect I really should have tried to give myself some structure from the get-go, such as running between stations and then walking the stations.  The problem with this was that there was nothing predictable about the stabbing pains in my stomach.  Sometimes I would be able to make it just fine between stations.  At other times I would go five hundred metres and the pain would slow me to a walk for a spell.

Yet I was having a blast, mainly because of all of my Team mates out there.  I saw many people on their way back on their first loop and was able to run/walk with others.  I kept Michele company for quite a while as we ran along the lake, but since she was keeping to a disciplined walk/run schedule and I was keeping to a walk/run schedule organized purely by the dictates of the painful fates, we kept leaving and catching one another until finally she left me for good.  The women, they always leave.

There was a real feeling for me of sharing the experience, which was one of the things I was most looking forward to about the day.  In addition, the crowds were amazing, particularly coming up to the turnaround on the lower part of State street.  I’d already been fired up by seeing Tracey (yet again:  she seemed to have cloned herself based on the number of times and variety of places I saw her) and Janet (who was leaping up and down on top of a brick wall yelling and screaming and taking photos; I swear, she was putting a lot more energy into this whole thing than I was by that point!).  But the volume of noise on State street was like nothing I had experienced up until that point.

Aid stations and volunteers were plentiful; I was sucking down Chicken broth at every stop where I could get it and hot or cold it always tasted good.  I was pretty sure my sodium intake wasn’t the problem because I wasn’t cramping anywhere else except that one part of my stomach, but I thought the chicken broth was worth a shot.  Anyway, it is all part of the Ironman experience!  There was just so much to see on the run course that it was hard to take it all in.  The dominatrix and the Vaseline-wielding cowboy at one of the rest stops.  The inspiration station with its “Give em a taste of Kiwi” automated message that was, however, signed somewhat cryptically by “Mary and Mabs” (this proved to be a good thing, however.  On the second loop I spent the better part of a couple of miles with my befuddled brain trying to figure out who Mabs was).  There were the drunk college girls near the Octopus car wash.  They seemed to have taken a shine to Team Z (probably because we’re recognizable) and cheered enthusiastically for all of us.  Amazingly, they were there every time I went past, even late into the night.  Of course, by the end, they were more drunk than ever and were pretty much reduced to yelling a slurred “Packers won today” which I guess we were supposed to find inspirational.

I like drunk college girls.

I caught up with Amy and walked with her for a while.  She said she was blistering on both feet and couldn’t run.  I remembered, however, that I had passed her at Musselman only to have her re-pass me in the final couple of miles and totally smoke me.  I predicted that she would do the same thing here and she just laughed and told me that it wasn’t likely.  Naturally, I was proved right.  As Mary will tell you, I’m always right!  Caught up with Mike who was definitely hurting but still chipper and still capable of intelligent conversation, which is a good sign.

By the time I got to the Team Z zone again I was fading.  I’d run most of the way, and my half marathon time wouldn’t be horrible (somewhere in the vicinity of 2:40) but the pain in my stomach was coming more often.  No matter how I tried to stretch out my core or adjust my stride, it wouldn’t go away.


The end of the first loop.  Looking how I was feeling.

For the life of me, I couldn’t see how I could possibly do another 13 miles.  Yet I had to.


4:30pm.  Transition.  Or Not.


From across the lake the transition area at Monona terrace looked as if it was miles away.  But compared with the number of miles we’d come, not so much.  As we approached the parking garage helix there was a woman that was easily 200m ahead of me.  It wasn’t even in my vocabulary of possibility to consider trying to catch her.  But so eager was I to get off that damn bike that I powered up that helix, rounded the last corner and almost rode right up her arse.  I dismounted (or rather extracted the nose of the bike seat from where it had become firmly lodged) and a couple of handlers grabbed the bike.  I had the vague impression of a barely contained chaos all around me but I was trying not to think too hard and just focus on getting inside and finding my gear.  Something told me that thinking too hard at this point would be a really bad idea.

I found my transition bag with little problem and strolled leisurely into the men’s changing area which smelled a little like the inside of a linebacker’s jockstrap.  Or maybe that was me.  It was hard to tell where my body ended and the rest of the world began.  Once again, there was a super helpful volunteer who assisted me as I changed all my gear.  I was stuffing the pockets of my shorts with tubes of shot blocks when a guy hobbled in and sat on a chair opposite me.  I didn’t pay him any attention at first.  Then he began crying.

I mean really crying.  As in my-dog-just-died kind of crying.  Instantly volunteers were at his side trying to figure out what was wrong.

“I don’t know.  I’ve thrown up all my nutrition twice.  I’ve been walking the bike for the last hour.”

(I have to admit, this last bit didn’t actually make me feel any better about my own bike performance).

Then the guy broke down completely and damn near howled.

“Oh God!  I can’t do it.  I’m not going to. . .I’m not going to finish. . .!”  The volunteers tried to reassure him that there was still plenty of time left (I liked it when they said that) and they went and got someone from medical to try and work on the cramps and leg spasms the guy was having.  But he couldn’t seem to stop crying.

Although there was no reason for it, I was completely freaked out.  Ed had warned us repeatedly at the Ironman briefing clinic that Ironman is all about how you handle the unexpected.  In what was a surprise only to me, all the unexpected things I’d expected turned out not to be the truly unexpected.  Sitting there in the transition area I found that while I’d successfully hardened myself to my own suffering, and had pushed on through that on the bike, the sight of someone else having a complete spiritual collapse was doing a number on me.  I found that I didn’t want to leave transition.  I put my stuff away, then walked up and down for a bit.  Then stretched.  Then walked up and down some more.  Finally, I told myself that this was ridiculous.  I walked toward the exit.  A huge part of my brain was telling me that I couldn’t possibly run.  But I knew that I could.  As I passed into the bright sunlight I began to run.


3:45pm.  Cheetohing Death

Mile 100.  We love mile 100.  Why?  Because the bike leg is almost over?  Not even.  It is because we get to collect on our bargain with Satan: if I make it to 100 miles I get to have my special treat: a ziploc filled with Cheetohs.  I’d been worried that they might be a little difficult to eat.  I needn’t have been concerned.  I ended up just taking them out of my bento box and pouring them down my throat.  Something that wasn’t Sustain, nuts, raisins or gels.  How fucking Bon Appetite awesome!  Orange powder everywhere.  Sweat soon washed it off.

The second loop had felt, well, like the second loop of an Ironman.  I was getting more tired, was conscious that I was biking a lot slower than I would have liked.  The Pepto had helped some, but the discomfort was still there.  My back pain had got worse and it had kept me from staying aero as much as I wanted to; every now and then I had to take a break.  Which was a Bad Thing.  Because to add to all the fun the wind had kicked up.  By the time I was halfway through the lap it was pretty gusty in some places. Oddly enough, while I’d been anticipating my butt and crotch getting sore, as usual, that never happened.  Go figure.

The long stretch along Route 92 was more soul-sapping than before.  The entire character of the course had in fact changed.  Many of the people had obviously headed off in the direction of the run course.  The hills were sparsely populated now, scattered knots of people where once there had been a dense press of humanity.  I could see the forest of Team Z signs now.  Climbing hurt and was a matter of survival.  I’d given up looking at my HR monitor because I knew it would depress me.

I was tired.  Not physically tired as much as mentally tired.  I’d read somewhere about how the real damage this bike course does is that it is so mentally taxing: there are so many turns and changes of grade that you are constantly making decisions.  I think I’d been prepared for that.  The problem was that with the pain, and the nutrition, and my stupid mixup with the bike computer I’d been adapting and improvising the whole ride on top of that and I was just mentally out of gas.

And then, miraculously, a break.  Ed had warned us that another fun “feature” of the bike course was that when we came off the second loop of the popsicle and started back down the stick, the prevailing wind would be in our face.  Since it had kicked up into a reasonably strong wind I was not looking forward to it.  But we started down the stick. . .and the wind was at our backs.  I slaughtered that last 12 miles.  Most of the time I was cruising along at a comfortable 18 or 19 mph without feeling that I was putting in much effort at all (which was good because there was no effort there to give).  I rode most of the way with another woman whose name I never learned.  She was tiny and compact and powered up the hills, passing me comfortably; on the descents, however, I can make myself pretty damn slick if I have to and I screamed past her.  After the fifth time this happened she just laughed and called out “It’s not fair!  Gravity and the basic laws of physics are against me!”  I caught a glimpse of the lake ahead, now the wind was coming across us, and we were almost home.


12:40pm.  Are we there yet?

Once we had started the loop part of the course it was much as I remembered it. . .except that someone seemed to have made it all much more difficult somehow.  Our reconnaissance trip out here back in June had, nevertheless, been useful.  However it was obviously not possible to prepare for everything, and the special needs area on the bike course was not at all like I imagined it.  I’d pictured it as being like a big corral.  Instead, it was like an Indy-car pit stop, with numbers scrawled across the road marking off boxes; you looked for the range that included your number and then you pulled into the pit.

I came to a stop and just had enough time to lean on my handlebars and say a quick “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck” before the volunteer was at my side with my gear.

Things were not going all that well.

That had been obvious pretty much from the start of the bike leg.  Transition had in some ways been a blast; it really felt as if I was part of some gigantic machine geared toward processing people as efficiently as possible.  I couldn’t shake the associations of that word “processing,” however:  spam, cheez-wiz, Miley Cyrus. . .by the end of the day there was a very good chance I would feel like one of those products: cheap, toxic, and empty of all inspiration and originality. But I really enjoyed transition all the same; the volunteers were great, I was efficient without rushing, and I felt as if my day was really getting started.

I ran to the bike (and I was mid-way down the aircraft carrier sized transition area so it was a goodly jog; thank the Maker that I had bike shoes I could run in), took it from the volunteer who had removed it from the rack for me, ran it to the exit, carved my way down the helix and began to thread the traffic.

Almost immediately I was aware that things just didn’t quite feel right.  It is a really hard thing to describe, actually, even now.  Nothing felt absolutely horrendous.  My muscles weren’t sore, I didn’t feel like I wanted to hurl, I wasn’t disoriented, the bike wasn’t acting up.  But things weren’t quite in synch.  I had this dull pain across my mid-section and I felt a little nauseous.  A least that is what I thought it was at the time.  I followed my race plan and waited to allow my stomach to settle on the bike for about 15 minutes.  Then I began taking in nutrition.  But I was cautious because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep anything down, so I was taking in smaller amounts for probably the first hour and a half.  Then there was that pain in my lower back.  It was already making the aero position a little uncomfortable so I was pretty sure that after a few hours it would be mightily uncomfortable.

All of this was new.  Even in the half Iron events this year I’d always come out of the water, jumped on the bike and felt that familiar feeling of freedom and exhilaration.  Now, my body just felt gluggy.  Well, even that is over-stating it really.  I just didn’t feel right.

Sometimes, also, it is the little things in a race that throw off your day.  In fact, I’d venture that the larger the occasion, the smaller the thing that is likely to throw you.  That is why Ed encourages us to write down absolutely everything we can think of in our race plans, including every thing that is likely to go wrong.  Yesterday I had set up the Garmin for the bike.  I’d opted to have only two pieces of data showing on the monitor: distance, and HR.  The first was for reference, and the second was to make sure that I was keeping things controlled.  Time would take care of itself.  I knew that if I had the time on there, I would start to freak out, second guess myself.  However, what I had meant to have displayed was my heart rate zone; what I ended up with was my actual numerical heart rate.  A little thing, right?  Well, I found that it took me extra effort to try and remember what numbers correspond to my zones.  I probably should know that off by heart, but it was quite literally the last thing on my mind prepping for this event.  So I found I was getting confused, and having to think a lot harder than I wanted to.

Nevertheless for the first part of the ride I concentrated on trying to keep the cadence consistent and my speed controlled while taking in as much nutrition as I could.  There was only one moment where I almost threw up, but in general the nutrition seemed to be sitting well so I gradually upped my intake to its normal level; I don’t really know how much having the reduced calorie intake for the first part of the ride hurt me, however.  I was concerned about my HR.  I couldn’t seem to get it down into zone 2 no matter how hard I tried. . .or at least that was my impression.  Maybe I had the numbers wrong?  Suddenly I wasn’t sure.  My stomach still hurt.  The discomfort in my lower back became a little more insistent with each passing mile.

However, I made sure to look all around me, to take it in.  This was some serious shit and no mistake!  Crowds of volunteers everywhere and then we would hit a long straight and I would gaze ahead at hundreds of cyclists strung out like beads on a string.  The countryside was as beautiful as I remembered it and–at least to start with–the air was perfectly still.  There were moments, especially on the backside of the loop, where we were biking along through avenues of tall corn with no sound but wheels, purring cassettes and a gentle, insistent rustle of the faintest of breezes through the corn stalks.  I remembered why I’d loved the route so much the first time I’d ridden it.

Took a pee break when I reached Mount Horeb and felt a little better.  The various pains were still there, but I was now eating according to my plan and looking forward to the next section with all the hills.  Yes, you heard me.  Yes, I’m a sick bastard.  That’s why I’m doing an Ironman.  And this next section was my favorite part of the ride, both times!  The long climbs were nothing compared with the views from up on the ridge line and the stunning twisty descents.  I shifted all my weight back and lay as flat and low on the bike as I could and forgot the discomfort, my rising HR, everything.  Joy is joy; grab it when you can, even in the middle of the most difficult thing you’ve ever attempted in your life.

Then, before I knew it, I was at the Team Z cheering zone located at the fabulously named Uphill Grind Bike and Coffee shop at Cross Plains.  There was a water station to get through first, however; there were plenty of these along the course, and I was happy that I’d had a couple of races that allowed me to practice bottle hand-offs this year.  I was able to take them at speed, empty them into my aero bottle and ditch them without taking anyone out.  Most of the volunteers were really good at the hand-offs I have to say, even running alongside to aid in you taking it quickly.  Of course, there was the one young woman who flinched, looked away, and despairingly held the bottle at arms length as I barreled down on her!


The Team Z zone was simply incredible, a sea of green lining both sides of the road.  Where did all these people come from?  I could see Mary and Teaka, conspicuous in their cow hats, waving and cheering.  I couldn’t help but smile.  I looked down and noticed that even though I was coasting my HR had jumped 10 whole beats!  Being with the team isn’t just intellectually inspiring, it is physiologically transforming!

Then we came to the real climbs.  Compared with the last time we’d ridden the course someone seemed to have driven some wedges into the earth and propped them up another few degrees.  But the crowds were unbelievable; it was just like you see on the Tour de France with the crowd so dense that there was only a narrow lane for you to bike through.  The crowd was so thick that I completely missed the forest of Team Z signs that had been planted on one of the climbs!  There were people screaming, people wearing crazy costumes, people, people, people.  The lithe young woman who appeared to be naked behind the enormous sign saying “Ironmen are sexy” was pointing at me!  I almost fell off my bike.  But I kept the rubber side down and my butt planted firmly on the seat, and maintained a slow steady cadence, passing the walkers, and the guy wobbling dangerously at the top.

But I was starting to feel it, and the halfway point seemed to take a long time to arrive.

The woman was by my side and already beginning to rummage in the bag.  “What do you need first?”  I went through my rehearsed routine: bottles, food, extra gels in the back pocket. . .  I’d thought to include a couple packs of Pepto so I took those.  Oly went past me, and then a couple of other Zers.  The woman handed me the spare packets of chamois butter.  I realized she was still standing there.  “Ah, you might want to look away for this bit” I advised, “And remove any small children from the vicinity.”

I kicked off.  56 more to go.  No need to think about what was coming after that.


9:00am.  Drip Dry.

In no sense could the swim be described as uneventful.  But compared with all the ways it could have been eventful, it really wasn’t that bad.  I’d placed myself back a bit and as a result had clear water from the get-go without all the WWF action that a lot of people experienced (I had several Ironman vets tell me this was one of the roughest swims they had ever encountered).  There was a little bit of jostling but nothing really serious until about halfway up the first leg.  This was when the faster swimmers of the late arrivals began swimming diagonally across us (or, more accurately, over us).  Even that, however, wasn’t so bad.  Where things got really nasty was at the first buoy.  I took that pretty wide but even then it was a slugfest.  Nevertheless, I participated in one of the Ironman Wisconsin traditions and lifted my head out of the water to “Moo!” at the top of my voice.  That was a pretty surreal moment, actually.  First of all, most of the time swimming from me is hard to distinguish from not drowning, I felt brave a) lifting my head fully out of the water, and b) opening my mouth.  But the sound of a lot of mooing mingled with the sounds of a runaway dishwasher was strange to say the least.


That’s me swimming on the left.  No, further left.  Further than that.  Keep going.  Keeeeeeep going. . .

I actually felt reasonably pleased with the swim.  I stayed conservative, tried to concentrate on my form to the exclusion of all else, and felt that I was swimming comfortably for the most part.  Best of all, I felt mentally strong; the strongest I’ve ever felt on a swim, actually.  At times I thought to myself “Man, this is long” and I was definitely counting the buoys on the second lap, but there was never a single moment where I felt as if I couldn’t do it or wouldn’t be able to finish.

I took my fair share of kicks.  But there were definitely some people who were going above and beyond the normal swim game.  I got an elbow sideways in the ribs (charitably, it might have been someone breast stroking, but if they were that powerful a breast stroker they would have been swimming up with the pros!).  The worst of the swim for me was not the start it was on the second lap and it was a situation that I hadn’t anticipated and which none of my faster team mates probably experienced.  I am a damn slow swimmer but I pretty much consider myself a reasonably confident one by this stage.  After some of the conditions I’ve swum in this year (including the horrendous conditions of my first ever Tri) I looked at the smooth waters of Lake Monona on the morning of the race and knew I had this.  But I soon discovered that when you are swimming at the tail end of the field you are not only swimming with the slow and steady people like yourself, you are swimming with the slow and panicky.  Several times, as we passed the corner buoys or even the line buoys I had people swim directly across me (or even over me from the side; the one time I threw an elbow in the whole swim!) in a desperate attempt to reach a buoy so they could hold on to it.

I sighted well, I didn’t have to do any of that ridiculous Tarzan swimming business, and I swam it all the way in to the arch until I touched solid ground with my fingertips.  I got out of the water without falling over, got my wetsuit down to a position where the strippers could get it off me without taking my swimsuit as well (and man, they were good; I was grateful I’d headed a race tip and safety-pinned my timing chip on), and walked off up towards the parking garage.  I had done it.  I had conquered my biggest worry, overcome the single biggest obstacle that faced me a year ago when I signed up for an Ironman.  I, who couldn’t swim 25 yards a year ago without gasping on the side of the pool like a landed fish, had just swum 2.4 miles.

And that, folks, was where the day began to go wrong.  I was a little staggery as I climbed up the helix but that was only to be expected.  Gradually I began to notice that my stomach didn’t feel quite right.  Nor did my lower back.  It was nothing I had ever experienced coming out of a swim, even the longer practice ones.  And I’d never experienced back pain at all before.  As I came out of the helix, however, and jogged past the wall of cheering people I was pretty confident that I would be able to work through it on the bike.


6:59am.  For Real.


Me with my game face on.
Now, if I could only figure out what game I thought I was playing. . .
My face suggest it contains the words “barium” and “enema”

The strange sense of calm that had settled over me for the last week had–miraculously–persisted.  Slept as well as could be expected, dressed, breakfasted, met the rest of the team for the walk down to the transition area, and still no real nerves to speak of.  Excitement, sure.  But no sense of unease.  I did have one moment just after we arrived at the race site where the magnitude of the event just started to hit me.  Tracey commented at the time that I didn’t seem quite like myself and I did feel distracted.  However, there was soon too much to do: getting the last little details sorted on my bike, filling drink bottles. . .and then there was body marking, taking place on the other side of a narrow run exit.  To get to it was to be a salmon trying to fight its way upstream.  Without the sex bit at the end even.

I made my way to the top of Monona Terrace.  People were already lining up to get a spot along the rail to watch the swim, but the rest of the terrace seemed to be filled with Team Z members in various stages of undress.


All too soon it was time to suit up and join the rest of the team for the pre-race photo.


I love the smell of neoprene in the morning.

Then it was time to say goodbye to my number one supporter, already attired in her cheering gear.


Snookums in her Snuggie with her Schmoopie

Everyone around me seemed so casual and relaxed which added to the strange sense of unreality about the whole thing.  We took the elevator to the lower level and suddenly the atmosphere changed.  We were a thin neoprene-clad stream forcing our way through a dense crowd of people.  As I walked, I craned my neck to look over the crowd at the top floor of the nearby hotel where my friend Laurie had placed a whole bunch of cheering signs for me and some other racers.

As we approached the swim start we started to hear Team Z members calling our names.  Suddenly Janet was thrusting a camera in my face, photographing me from only inches a way; I felt like a celebrity being stalked by the paparazzi!

There it was.  The swim entrance.  It looked wet.  And filled with people.  Lots of people.  I peeled off my socks and waded out until I could swim.  I found myself a clear space, well back from the start line and treaded water, looking around, taking in the view.  The flame red sky had almost but not quite yielded to the rising sun.  The conference center was a huge wall paralleling our swim course and every available surface seemed to be packed with people.  I couldn’t believe the number of spectators.  A little over a year ago I had been part of a similar mass of spectators at an Ironman USA, thinking how insane it was and being very sure I would never do anything so patently stupid.  Now, here I was, bobbing up and down with 2500 other rubber corks.  There was very little sound, oddly; next to no conversation around me, just the occasional splash from people swimming by.  I looked at my watch.  6:59.  There were still hordes of people queuing up at the swim start and trying to get into the water.

I let myself just fall backwards until I was floating on my back, gazing up at the sky.  Still calm, breathing easily, still confident.  I could do this.  It was going to be a great day.

Swim Start

The Innocence of the Iron Virgin


5 responses to “Miles to Go Before I Sleep

  1. Well worth waiting for! Thanks for sharing and for the inspiration!

  2. As usual – loved reading your blog / race report. I liked that you waited and I got to read another race report two months after the race! This is a good trend. I hope people write a race report a month from now until next Ironman in 2011! 🙂

  3. Where to start….I have so many comments I think I could rival my own race report. First, why would anyone be disappointed in your musings? I, for one, not only enjoy but truly respect your writing ability. I wish I had half your talent! I also wish that I would have waited as long as you did to finish my race report, as I am always thinking of things I forgot to include. Your report brings several of them to light – the drunk college girls who by the last time I reached them weren’t even sure I was wearing Team Z gear and when I told them that I indeed was they went wild saying how much they loved Team Z; the naked cowboy and dominatrix who I remember seeing and thinking “I don’t know what they have, but I certainly want some of it”. After passing them I realized I had two handfuls of Vaseline, so I made the most of it and rubbed it wherever chafing was occurring!

    Post finish line – I really wanted to be there to see that last hour of people coming in, but as I’m sure you can understand I’m not altogether sure what happened after I finished. I drank my chicken broth beer and the next think I knew I was back at the hotel with the Team Z crowd cheering. Next time I WILL make sure I am at the finish line for that final finisher! As for being 16:59:59 counting as Ironman, I couldn’t agree more BUT does finishing in 17:00:50 or even 17:10:00 lessen the fact that you went the distance? OK, you are not an “official” Ironman by the standards of that race but I think going the distance is what counts, not how long it took you.

    Finish line – food tent?? Where the hell was that? Obviously I missed a LOT! You must have looked better than I did at the finish as the volunteers would not let go of me until I found Paul and showed them whom to thrust me toward.

    Finishing cute – AMEN!!

    Thanks for helping to get me through those miles when we were playing tag. I was constantly thinking “when will Mark catch me? When will I catch up with Mark?”. Anything to keep the mind occupied at that point.

    Like you I assumed/presumed that all of us that started this journey together would finish it. I was shocked by some of those that did not finish, but it reminds me that everyone has good days and bad days and no matter how good of an athlete you are you cannot fend off a bad! It is going to happen to all of us at some point and witnessing this at IM MOO has brought a new perspective to my view of racing.

    PS – I do have to admit that your “Game Face” pic resembles a look of severe constipation!

    • I think my dissatisfaction with the report is simply because it just feel like it really captures the experience somehow. I don’t quite know why. Part of it may be simply that it is hard for me to acknowledge (and also convey) the fact that I felt (feel) unexpectedly ambiguous about the whole experience. I felt triumphant, but also disappointed in myself, even though I had thought that I had no real expectations apart from finishing. So while so many of my friends seem to talk about their Ironman with nothing but unrestrained exhilaration and joy, I haven’t quite felt the same way. That’s made me feel a little, well, defective, in some way. Intellectually, I know that everyone’s Ironman is their own Ironman, and that people are going to have different experiences and respond in a different way. But emotionally. . .well, we’re rarely so rational, are we!

  4. Mark – a great read… well worth the wait. A noble attempt to put into words all that the journey meant. It makes me even think some day I might possibly maybe attempt to consider thinking about wondering if I might try it myself.
    Congratulations once again, Ironman. Well deserved!
    – Margie

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