2016 Ironman Wisconsin Race Retrospective

Short story: just about everything that could go wrong, did. I still finished, because I tried my best.

Longer story: Whatever expectations you have of your Ironman day, such as a finish time or place in your age group, they are set back to zero for everyone at the start of the race. If you don’t race with that mindset, you will struggle when things get hard.


In my final week before Ironman, I did something different than usual: I got a massage two days before the race. Nothing deep or challenging, just an easy 60 minutes of smoothing out muscles. A small hot spot on the top of my foot was discovered; we worked on it for a minute, and that was the end of it.

Later that day my foot became increasingly sore, where it was hurting with every step. I chalked it up to a massage ache that would gone in the morning. It wasn’t.

Biking didn’t hurt my foot, so there was hope. As I tested my bike after a good tune up, and a fix on a derailleur barrel, all seemed in order. Shifting was great, although I didn’t test it on any big hills like in the Ironman Wisconsin race…

Race day, we were blessed with terrific weather, and great volunteers to help us. Walking in transition with an achy foot, I dialed my Ironman expectations to zero.

Swimming 2.4 miles in Lake Monona was mostly pleasant this year. I struggled with two calf cramps within 30 minutes of the start, but managed to keep moving forward. The worst part was when a swimmer bumped my leg, the cramps come back with a vengeance. That happened several times around the turn buoys, but I was going to get outta this lake! Both calves were pretty sore at the end, but I was thrilled to be out of the water.

Always go to the male wetsuit peelers. They don’t mess around with their job. I was up and on my way up to transition, jogging on that achy foot. Once ready for a 112 mile bike ride, I head to my bike. What is up with my foot?! This can’t be happening…not today. Not after a season of no serious injuries!  Just then, I see Jack, who offers a few words of encouragement to (duh) walk to my bike. This feels weird, because you’re supposed to be efficient, but better. And calmer.

Once out on my bike, it was time focus on a great bike ride. I tried to take in the beautiful summer morning, and appreciate everything around me. All was well. Until we hit the hills a few miles later. My bike gears jumped out of place as I pedaled the steepest parts of each hill. It took a while to figure out what gears didn’t jump, and which did. I could only confidently use about 40% of my gears for the entire bike course. Very frustrating and dangerous with so many hills and other riders around me. After a few hours, it became an anxiety issue, not being able to remember which gears worked. Shifting is second nature, until something like this happens.

About mile 60 of the bike, the gears jumped yet again, this time dropping the chain on the inside of the cassette. I couldn’t get the chain out. Dozens of riders whizz by. I keep pulling at it, unsuccessfully. Five minutes later, a race support man stops and asks what I need. He radios for tech support, who is somewhere far from here. More riders whizzing by.

Well, I can stand here, or I can start walking this bike. I’ll have to hold up the rear wheel because it’s immobile, but I just couldn’t stand there and wait for however long it would take for bike tech to find me.

Ten minutes later, they find me and get to work on unjamming the chain. I head to the field for a pit stop. I tell them about the derailleur, and could they please try to fix it?

“This is all wrong, here. Who fixed this?” Tech Guy says as he’s fixing (and fixing…). By now at least 500 riders have passed by, but I no longer care. I want a quality fix on this bike so I can actually ride up a hill the way I trained to.

After about 15 minutes, I’m on the road again, trying to relax and just settle in for the last loop of the bike course. Until the same gear jumping problem happens again, on a steep hill. No! Whatever work they did, it wasn’t right. Now I’m in full frustration mode. My ideal Ironman day is long gone and I’m left with the question of even being able to finish this ride.

Time to take an assessment. What is the biggest problem? Why do I want to quit? Why do I want to stop caring? I found my answers: There are two significant climbs left, Midtown road at mile 90, and mile 100. There are many other hills to come, but the thought of taking my jumpy bike up these two big hills again was overwhelming. What can I do to get through? The worst that can happen is that I can walk my bike up those two hills. It would be a little embarrassing, but falling off a bike with bad gearing is much worse. And my time out here is already forever because of the 20-25 minute stop, so why not?

This is now about survival. This was one of two huge moments in the day. I was so far in the hole of despair, but managed to pull myself out enough to get this bike ride done. I got this. The more bad things that happen, the more I want this! I want to know what 4,900 feet of climbing in 112 miles feels like. There is no other chance this year…

With this plan, I have new confidence approaching mile 90. I’m mildly rattled when I get stung by a bee. This day is becoming epic, as in epic-ly bad. On Midtown road, I clip out part way up the hill and walk. My foot hurts, my bee sting hurts, and my ego hurts.

A man with a fireman hat asks me what I need. I say a new bike. He insists I wheel over to a local bike store tent on the side of the hill for help. I feel it’s hopeless, but this fireman does not. He cares about my outcome. After five minutes, the right tools are found. The very sweet bike shop-Ironman athlete works on my bike for another five minutes. He announces it’s fixed. I am skeptical, but have no choice but to believe.

I start pedaling right there halfway up the hill, spinning to the top without problems. Huh. That was easy. The bike wasn’t completely fixed, because some gears still jumped (GAH!), but I had maybe five more gears to use than before. I was able to pull myself through the last miles of that ride, feeling mentally exhausted.

And the end of 112 miles, I was an anxiety-filled mess. I was shredded out on the bike and now a marathon on a sore foot. How? Getting into T2, I see my friend Dean and his son. I’m ready to have a Class-A meltdown. How can I make this happen, I ask. Dean tells me about his race from 2010, when he didn’t go out on the run because of problems, and that he still regrets it now. That was a huge moment in this day. You could almost hear the resolve switch inside me click back on. Dean pulled me out of the darkness and into possibility.

“Just get out there and try.”

Out on the course, I begin by walking. I fight back tears of frustration. I’m still very fragile with my belief that I can do this. I see my family, and good friend Ironman Dave. I’m too exhausted to be embarrassed. My family says keep going. Dave encourages me like no one else, assuring me I have time to walk the marathon, and that he will be there until midnight, if that’s what it takes.

I had never walked 26 miles, let alone with a sore foot, but I have run that far with all sorts of problems. Dave had me believing I could do this. And Dean’s words stick with me. Just try.

It was so endearing to see my children so excited for me. It felt very mismatched to my feelings. I couldn’t help but take some of their energy and grab onto it.

After a mile of walking, I tried running a few steps. My foot hurt, but no more running than walking. Maybe I can run more… By mile three, I was running slowly. As I ran, I became more confident that if I could run at least for the first 13.1 miles, I might not be here until midnight.


Thirteen miles done! One more loop of the marathon.

My daughters find me on the course, and lift my spirits. “Mom, you’re running!” More of a shuffle, but not a walk. My run form is poor as my sore foot kind of flops, but I’m doing it. The miles pass by and I’m almost to the 13 mile mark. Then the best part of the day so far happens: my good friend Hannah finds me on her mountain bike. She sticks with me for the next 15 miles.

I’m all about the rules, but I’m lucky if I’m going to finish this race on time, so when Hannah asks if I want something from the 7-Eleven store, I say yes. Something without sugar. I’m tired of sweet, tech food. She returns triumphantly with a turkey sandwich. Perfect. I nibble on it for the last 8 miles of the race.

Hannah and I pass the time catching up on all things we don’t normally have time to share in a week or even a month. It’s wonderful quality time. The pain in my foot is not worsening, but it seems to be consuming my entire body now. Now it is dark, and I’m worried about tripping, so when I can’t see what I’m running on, I walk.

“Am I any faster running?” I ask. I can no longer discern if I’m really running.

“For sure, you are faster.” Hannah says.

I trust her and keep shuffling when I can. Hannah was the best. You can read more about her wonderful spirit in my book series about conquering yourself, The Competitor in Me.

I make it to mile 25. It’s not a celebration, like in years past. I’m in too much pain and I’m exhausted from the fight to do more than announce its presence. Hannah was so excited for me and made a big fuss about it.

Just then, three men are teasing me for passing them. I challenge them to join my shuffle, as I’m about to turn onto state street for the last part of mile 25 to the finish line. They decline. And yet they run ahead of me, only to start walking again 30 yards later. I pass them and never see them again. How can I possibly pass anyone gimping along like this? Because I was trying my best.

Hannah heads for the finish. I press on, shuffling uphill on State street to go after what I came here for: to finish. It’s all I wanted from the day, and with pain gripping my existence, I was going to have it.

I run around Capitol Square and count down the turns to the finish. Just three turns and I can end this. Own this. Two turns…one turn. There’s the finish line, the bright lights, and my name announced. I did it!

At the finish, I feign being a professional triathlete, and pretend to grab the winner banner and hold it high above my head. I must have looked ridiculous to others, but to me, I won the race.

The race people help me, and ask if I want a finisher picture by the special IM Wisconsin background. No thank you. “Are you sure?” Oh, am I sure. I will learn from today, and then I want to forget it.

Now it sets in: The fight is over. I see my brother and this triggers a huge relief, causing me to cry on his shoulder like a little sister. He smiles and gives me some grace. I pull it together and get hugs and pictures with my family, and steadfast Ironman Dave. I can smile now. Hannah is there and offers nothing but praise.

“Hey, I told you I’d stay here until midnight. It’s only after ten.” Dave quips and points to the run course. “Get back out there and give me what I want!”

Already, I can laugh about the circumstances. Because I am bigger than this race, this day. Finishing was everything, but it’s not the only thing.

An X-Ray the next day showed a fractured foot bone. All of my friends who have not raced Ironman said “oh no!” All of my friends who have raced an Ironman said, “That’s so badass! Now that’s an Ironman story.”

Spending the next three months not running and worrying about getting fat isn’t so bad. Better than regretting for years to come that I didn’t try my best.


One thought on “2016 Ironman Wisconsin Race Retrospective

  1. Pingback: Ironman Wisconsin 2017 Race Retrospective – Francie Van Wirkus

%d bloggers like this: