Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Madison Ironman--September 10, 2006

September 24, 2006

The Ironman

I haven’t written for my blog for months. I was already a little uncomfortable with the personal character of my writings. Too personal. A better focus is my work and thinking on development and economic democracy…. But this seems worth it…for a brief moment…then a focus on the other race...

It’s been an intense journey. I signed up for the Madison Ironman triathlon a year ago in the middle of an already complex and demanding stage of life. It was the right step to help me expand my capacity, strengthen my sense of determination, and put other issues in my life in perspective.

The Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon. It demands a high level of commitment and work.

A lot of it is solitary, hard physical work. A steady challenge to the will. Adjusting to very early hours, and multiple workouts. As a novice you are always reaching for the new distance, and never gain comfort. You face some very tough workouts that challenge your confidence. You have to develop and then finally trust your plan and accept the uncertainty with confidence—particularly on race day.

But it’s also profoundly social in a way that provided insights into other aspects of my life. By the nature of your objective, you define a small community of people that become a major part of your life for a year including trainers--formal and informal--as well as training partners who simply emerge because you are both occupying the same training space—a pool, a bike course, a gym--with an intensity that invites company and establishes a pleasant transparency. There’s a bond and level of respect that’s powerful.

The benefits to the athlete are obvious. This is the group that makes getting to the workout another day necessary. These are the people that know the need of and provide intense encouragement during all the ups and downs that go with this level of training. These are the people who are the source of information and solutions to the many mysteries of the journey—how far to go this week, how to handle an injury, equipment choices, food and nutrition—and all the little details that come to mean so much in a pretty desperate training program. And then on race day, the spectators and your supporters are essential. They ignite whatever you have left in you to push thru the difficulty and pick up the pace.

On the other hand, it’s not all positive. For some who are around or close to the athlete but not part of training, just the intensity and demands of the training program become the basis for questioning the athlete’s motives and wisdom on many things; or generate frustration because of the competing time demands that replace the normal schedule of family and work.

Rather than detract from the rest of my life, the race added richness and deeper texture. More than most things, there’s a certainty and confidence with this level of work despite the difficulty of the day and journey.

It’s time for the actual race—September 10—in Madison, Wisconsin.

The hard long workouts end three weeks before the race—the taper. You must allow your body to recover, gain strength, and be totally rested before the race. During the taper, you cut volume and the long hours, but maintain intensity until the last few days.

And then, unbelievably, its time to race and I’m in Madison attending a banquet and racer’s meeting on Friday night before the Sunday race. 2,500, mostly young (200 in the race are over 50), are totally focused on the details of what will be a long day for everyone and a very long day for some. Everyone has trained hard for 9-12 months and everyone has put in 7-10 hour days. Everyone is anxious about the weather and the details. And everyone is truly excited and proud to be there in the moment. 1,100 people like me are doing it for the first time. The MC is an experienced race motivator and insures that you are there to finish and that this will be a big moment in your life. 10 or 15 people are doing the race as the 1st triathlon they’ve ever done! One woman lost 111 pounds while training and several lost 80 or more…

Saturday morning is nerve-wracking. There a hundred details of getting your equipment, transition bags, and special needs bags that you can access half-way thru the bike and half-way thru the run organized. All of that--when combined with changing conditions, nerves, confusion, the determination to push back fear and doubt—make for a challenging time. And then you are ready to wait, to eat what you can, and to rest, and then sleep.

Sunday morning…. Up in the dark at 3:45; a windy, cloudy, cool morning with rain in the forcast. Catch the shuttle to get to the race start by 5:15…Get everything placed in the right room, the right rack, the right drop-off spot--details.

But the details are finally complete. There’s no more training, no more last minute task. Its time to race and the feeling is amazing. Anxious but on the side of exhilaration at being there at that moment—but no fear or doubt.

All 2,500 crowd into the lake and tread water waiting for the cannon to start the race. Then it’s thrashing arms, having someone try to swim over you, grabbing your legs, crowding you in every possible way as the crowd moves around the 2.4 mile course. I thought it was funny…and had a relaxed swim that was faster than I expected by about 15 minutes. From the lake, we run thru a group of volunteers who peeled off your wetsuit as fast as you could lay on the ground and then a run up the spiral parking lot into the transition.

The bike is all about starting the marathon run with some reserve. I cycled easily and remembered to cram 500 or so calories and liquids in every half hour. It’s a hilly tough course that I did 5-6 times in training. The training experience is helpful both in terms of strengthening me physically—I handled the steep hills-- and just familiarity. On the major hills and in the towns, the crowds of encouraging supporters are fantastic and funny…The best ones are the outrageous. You really feel like you are in a significant race. You know how deep and genuine their support is for what you are trying to do—and it fuses with your own feelings about what this is all about at this moment. It’s really something.

After seven and a half hours of cool, rainy, windy weather I push again up the spiral parking lot… The best feeling was seeing my son waiting for and then screaming at me and the high five as I entered the transition—again replacing the growing fatigue with exhilaration and a reason to beam. Now there is a certain level of tension about the weather—it has rained all day, it’s cool and breezy and we are heading into the night and an uncertain period. My son again greets my on the way out and almost takes off my arm with his high five....and the marathon starts.

This is really the race. I felt stronger than I expected but remain concerned about the distance. I haven’t run the marathon distance for 10-15 years, but the wise advice is that all the biking has built enough endurance—just keep at it and don’t stop running no matter how you feel. The volunteer crew is now here in force with aid stations every mile or so handing out chicken broth, coke, Gatorade, cookies, fruit, gels and I stop at everyone to cram in more calories to sustain my energy. The race course is a double loop. I’ve remained warily confident thru the first half…and then there’s the test. Lots of racers are starting to have extended walks—acting on what we all feel. I’m pretty sure I’m going to join them—seeking relief from the fatigue and soreness. But the nagging determination to maintain the pace, to finish strong, combined with the reality that I really wasn’t that exhausted yet, and was still smiling in response to the encouragement from the crowd. I simply gutted it out…maintaining a slow but steady pace.

The second half of the marathon brings a sense that the finish line is really getting closer and is in range...increasing determination and confidence. The last quarter mile is slightly up hill alongside the Capitol. I picked up the pace and sprint to the finish line through the crowds of supporters. A friend’s scream of surprise shatters even the lively applause of the crowd. And I cross the line at 14 hours and 28 minutes—a half hour faster than I expected. They put up an individual ribbon to break for all finishers. Two volunteers immediately grab you with firmness to hold you up, put a medal around your neck, congratulate you in the most genuine way, give you broth, walk you—still with their hands underneath your arms—to the photographer…and then they release you to go into the crowds… An amazing experience….