2014 Ironman Wisconsin Race Retrospective

Short story: We had a beautiful day, and I didn’t make any major mistakes. Changing my bike training worked! Yes, I will do another Ironman.



It’s important to know why you are racing an Ironman. Having a strong sense of purpose will be there to get you through the hard times. It makes it possible for you to dig deeper than ever before.

With purpose in hand, I found my place in Lake Monona and waited for the cannon start. It was going to be a spectacular day. With the water temp at 71F and calm conditions, the swim in Lake Monona was going to be grand. Sunrise, a long swim, me and God, and 2900 other athletes. Piece of cake, right? If you’ve read The Competitor in Me and its sequel, you know that I am the most anxious at this part of the day.

Just 20 minutes into the swim, a calf cramp began its long, annoying stay in my leg. I’ve been taking magnesium for weeks; what is this? Nothing to do but just keep swimming.  Then, both legs cramped. They calmed down, but whenever someone kicked or bumped my leg, they would cramp, causing a huge distraction. Adjust and move on.

Halfway through the swim, I felt confident and even a little relaxed. Being very present that moment, I realized I am over this whole fear-of-swimming-with-so- many-people-thing.  Time to grow out of it. I may never be an aggressive swimmer, but I was no longer going to worry about having space in the water.

Finishing my swim, I made a small mistake on the turn, getting tangled in a bunch of people for the last 200 meters. Bodies everywhere, my stress level rose, but with the promise of it all being over soon, I kept going. Hearing the people cheering as I approached shore was so exciting. An Ironman moment!

I picked a man for wetsuit peeling, because they are usually more aggressive. Most men probably rather enjoy the job of stripping women… He was slow and tentative. “Be aggressive!” I nearly shouted. He changed his approach, and my suit was off. I ripped through a mistake-free T1. Running on the parking ramp, I saw the best sign of the day, “Do Epic Sh*t.” I laughed aloud, and then adopted it as a new mantra. Captain Awesome would be proud!

Out on the bike, it was obvious this race was once again oversold. Riders everywhere, there was nowhere to legally ride. Instead of worrying about it, I kept my focus on eating and riding easy. Time to start appreciating this day. Forget about that super sore calf, even though it hurt for the first 30 miles. The sun was out, the breeze light, and we were on our way to an 80F day. It made me smile. This wasn’t going to be a lonely ride on my Computrainer; I would be with actual humans! The last, epic ride of the summer, and it’s catered! Crickets and Queen Anne’s lace, horses and hills, it was easy to be present in the now.

Having raced this course three other times, I was looking forward to the three big climbs in the race. There is so much positive energy with the crowds, and usually a few good friends offering encouragement. Like Dean and his family, imitating Didi Senf from Le Tour de France. Spinning up Old Sauk Pass was a happy moment, because they were there. The second climb was fun, with so many people going crazy, crowding the road. Below is Dean in 2013.


I saw Joe running (no costume) with friends before the third climb. He was training for his Kona race. That reminded me…I had a marathon in a few hours. Drink more water…

At 60 miles, I had caffeine and focused on a steady remaining 52 miles. I did stop at the special needs to get a bar out of my bag, because I dropped a 170 calorie wafer Powerbar around mile 40. (If you want to know more about the special needs stop, read The Competitor in Me!) That was my only stop. Everything else was done on the bike…

The second time through the three climbs, my knee ached with each pedal stroke. I worked to stop worrying about it. Just keep spinning easy. This was an Ironman. Some part of my body will rebel! On the second hill, spinning up slowly, I made the mistake of making eye contact with a crazy fan. He had on a Speedo and a coconut bra and some kind of face paint. The moment we locked eyes, he went bananas. “YEAAHHHHHHH! YOU OWN THIS BAD BOY! YEAHHHHHH!” Ok, so the attention wasn’t all bad, but it did make me spin a little faster.

Jack showed up before the last of the three hills on his bike. “Where have you been?” I chastised him for not showing up sooner than now. “I’m here now,” he said. I guess…

After a good conversation about managing my food, electrolytes and water, I was on my way up the last big climb. Joe was there with Timex team and lots of encouragement. What an Ironman-crazy group of fans!

Just when I thought I could relax, I saw the clown. That random, ooky clown in the bushes.


Riding the last mile back to Monona Terrace, I thanked God for no flat tires or crashes, and started thinking about T2 and running that first mile of the marathon. There would be people cheering and shouting; it would be a high point of the day.

My daughter Elise, Joe and friend Eileen were there to welcome me back in T2. I scurried out onto the two-loop run course with running shorts. Ahhhhh… Whatever worries I had about sore body parts were gone now.

What pace to run, when I’ve been behind on my long runs due to injury? Focus on a slow burn; it was the only way I can try to last for 26.2 miles. Well, 140.6. I remembered the “Do Epic Sh*t” sign and moved on.

Mile three was the lowest point of the day. It was an Ironman moment. I felt nauseous. I couldn’t eat anything. Maybe too much sugar? Over 80F, I was hot, and still trying to shake the kinks from my epic summer ride in rural Wisconsin. Oh, that’s right. This is an Ironman. Just keep going. I’ll feel better by mile six…I always do. Joe was there, reminding me to take my electrolytes. Then Jack showed up, asking the same questions. He suggested I drink more. You always think you’re drinking a lot on the run but usually, you’re not. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I gave in and gulped a full cup of water.

It was then I realized this same nauseous feeling happened in my last Half Ironman. It wasn’t the effort or the sugar; it was the new electrolyte pills. I had to stop taking them. Adjust. Find another source for salt…

Seeing Elise and Eileen on the run gave me such a lift. Even though I was so tired and wanted to stop, I wanted to show Elise that her Mamma is a badass, and would do no such thing. In fact, Elise had never been to one of my Ironmans, so I had another reason to keep pushing.

Just before the halfway point, Joe and our good friend Dave popped out in front of me on the run. I didn’t notice what a fog I was in until they were in my face, telling me how great I was doing. I didn’t feel great, but I took every ounce of encouragement they had.

The turnaround at 13.1 miles is right at the finish line. I was so motivated, knowing that the next time I come back through, I will be done. Yes, I was going to do this! Now where is that mile 14 marker…

Joe and Jack were again at Picnic Point, reminding me to drink. They both were bothering me to take in calories any way I could. How did they know I was completely behind on calories? Somewhere about mile 16, after being pestered by Jack over and over again, I started drinking two gulps of cola at each aid station.

It was really disappointing that chicken broth was hard to find. I think I only found it at two stops. I was desperate to find salt. So desperate, I even began drinking a few gulps of sports drink. Usually this is a mistake for my GI system, but at this point in the race, I needed to take a risk in order to get enough electrolytes and calories.

With just six miles to go, I saw my good friend Jim kept me company as I shuffled and hunted for mile marker 21. It’s moments like these that make me so grateful for our friends. We found mile 21; now I was on my way home. My IT band was twitching and aching a bit…could it hold on for five more miles? So, this is what it’s like to run a marathon completely undertrained.

Looking at my watch at mile 23, I had 40 minutes to get in under 13 hours. I can do that! I’m slow and shuffling and demolished, but how many times have I run 3 miles in less than 40 minutes? Lots. Mile 24 appeared super fast. That’s a first.

I ran behind this man who was clearly trying to pick up his pace. He wanted to go under 13 hours, too. We’ll call him Pace Man. I adjusted my pace and stuck with him. It hurt. Mile 25, that glorious sign appeared a lot sooner than I expected. I’ll take it! Pace Man lifted his effort again, and I stuck with him. Looking at my watch, it was going to be close. I’ve been a runner forever, but digging in like this was new territory. I wasn’t drawing upon my running base; I was digging deep into my heart to find more. And, I found more. Because I wanted this. Because I had purpose.

I could hear Mike Reilly in the distance. A chill ran up my arm. Finish goosies. That made me dig just a little more. Then, we were on State Street, with all kinds of people screaming and yelling at us, my ears ringing from the noise. The beautifully lit capitol looked lovely, except for the fact that it was on the top of a hill we had to run up. Pace Man kept pushing. My legs protested, but my heart was still able to override them. Up and around the capitol we pushed. We were going to make it in under 13 hours. A 12:55 finish, in fact.

A golden moment. There was so much pain and so much to celebrate, all at once! In this place, there was no mediocrity, no boredom, and of course, no cancer. It didn’t matter that I didn’t reach my goal time; what mattered was that I gave everything I had, and then I was able to find…more.


One thought on “2014 Ironman Wisconsin Race Retrospective

  1. Pingback: Great Expectations: 2015 Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens Retrospective | Francie Van Wirkus

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