When the economy crashed, my work as a freelance writer suffered. Instead of getting too depressed about the decreased workload I decided to use the unexpected free time to get in better shape. Possibly stretching that goal a bit, I registered for the 2012 Ironman Wisconsin. Why not, right?
After months of hard training, race day arrived on September 9. The weather was beautiful. The enthusiasm of all the other racers and spectators was infectious. I felt ready and determined yet uncertain what the 140.6-mile distance I had to cover would hold for me as the day unfolded.
After stepping through the swim start arch into Madison's Lake Monona, I swam from shore and tried to find a small space of open water to call my own. The national anthem was met with cheers from 2,500 fellow swimmers treading water. Moments later, the boom of the starting cannon announced the start of the professional competitors race.
A few minutes later, with the echo of a second cannon boom, the waters of Lake Monona churned as we Ironman wannabes reached for our first swim strokes and kicked our legs to create forward momentum. The jumble of black neoprene-skinned bodies bumping into each other was simply incredible. Even 1,000 yards into the swim course, bodies were still colliding like a massive pod of dolphins in a National Geographic documentary.
Fighting to find a consistent swimming rhythm was frustrating. A hard whack on the back of my head momentarily stunned me. The strike was hard enough to make me swallow some water and sputter to a brief stop. A few yards further another swimmer kicked my ribs and caused another stop. Although I understand each of these events was unintentional and without malice, I pushed forward with a few strong strokes and my favorite expletives.
Upon passing the first two turns of the 2.4-mile swim course rectangle, I could feel an ill-placed wetsuit seam chafing a raw bloody red line on the back of my neck. With no way to relieve or reduce that nuisance I just banished the painful distraction from my thoughts and kept going.
Suddenly I was upright again and wobbling through the swim start/finish arch. I glanced at the race clock reading 1 hour 29 minutes. Accounting for the 10-minute head start for the pros, I had finished the swim within a minute of my goal. So far, so good.
I stripped off my wetsuit and made my way to the transition ballroom. I found my numbered gear bag and headed to the changing room. A hand-written sign identified the adjoining ballroom as the "naked" room and the description was appropriate. Athletes in all stages of dress and undress filled rows of chairs. Volunteers hovered nearby ready to step-in to help empty gear bags or find a frantic athlete's misplaced glove or sock.
On the bike
Clipping into my pedals at the start of the bike leg, the euphoria I felt finishing the swim faded quickly. Facing 112 miles of biking can really bring the work ahead into sharp focus.
Lining the streets and hills supporting the riders were spectators and aid station workers in wild colorful costumes, signs with quirky messages, loud rock 'n roll and full-throated cheering. These were welcome distractions from the hills, the hardest of which held their own warped sense of humor. The steepest ascents teased the riders with a sense of accomplishment for reaching the top, only to surprise them with a sharp left or right turn followed by another steep section to climb before giving up the true summit.
My legs screaming for mercy turned to OMG whimpers on the nerve-wracking, high-speed descents. Like many riders, I tried to use every last foot of momentum gained on the downhill runs to push me up as far as possible up the next rise that always seemed to follow. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
Deep into the second bike loop a steep hill bested me. I had to get off my bike and walk. Crowds three people deep lined both sides of the road 50 yards from the crest. Although I was surrounded by people cheering for riders steadily passing me, I felt alone and physically spent. Disappointed, I hung my head and tried to avoid eye contact with the spectators.
Those emotions changed abruptly when an anonymous young man stepped out of the crowd put his hand on my shoulder and whispered to me. "You've got this. Today you will be an Ironman." Reading my name on my race bib, he kept encouraging me. "Go, Lou, Go!" He stayed with me to the crest, his voice getting louder and more insistent with each step. At the top, he stepped away with a slap on the back, adding strength to his words.
I got back on my bike, clipped into my pedals and started to cry. With tears streaming down my face on the long, fast descent, his words recharged me and put the steel back in my body. The cheers of wife, brother and friends surely helped but that man's faith in me carried me for hours.
Time to run
Miles later, I was breathing a little easier when the Monona Terrace transition area came into view. Although the bike leg took me 7 hours 30 minutes to complete, I still had a big cushion - approximately 8 hours - until the midnight deadline.
I moved through the second transition area easily. Putting on a fresh shirt, dry socks and my favorite running shoes was strangely uplifting. The boisterous cheers of spectators on State Street provided a brief emotional lift for the final 26.2 miles I needed to cover on foot.
Shuffling at a steady pace, I counted the miles; 1, 2, 3, 4. Running through the Camp Randall football stadium, I brought a smile to a security guard's face with my lame attempt at striking a Heisman trophy pose in the end zone. My sense of humor would be tested in the miles ahead.
After 10-plus hours of non-stop motion, my body started to rebel. I feared I had stopped absorbing fluids and fuel. Instead of moving into my system, every sip of water or squeeze of GU gel just added to the sloshing in my stomach.
Slowly, the mile markers ticked by. I hit another emotional high when I reached the farthest point on the first loop and started heading back to the Monona Terrace. On the return trip up State Street, my wife Carey and brother Doug caught sight of me and cheered me on. Although I wasn't wearing my heart monitor, there's no question seeing them gave me a tremendous boost.
After the 13.1-mile turnaround point, Kris Swarthout, my triathlon coach from Optum Health Performance, called me over to check on my condition and offer his final bit of advice. With his hands on my shoulders, he assured me I had the training and perseverance to finish the race.
Shortly after starting the second loop, twilight descended. By the time I reached the trails through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, I was moving in the dark. Despite my best intentions, I race walked most of the second half of the marathon. I never stopped moving forward and tracked my progress mile-marker by mile-marker. My stomach continued to bother me. Although I made pit stops at aid stations, I couldn't get my body to repel the bloat.
Other runners appeared and disappeared like ghostly shadows. Some whispering "Hey, man" as encouragement. Others were silent, not willing to waste the expenditure of energy speaking required.
Somewhere between 17 and 18 miles I passed my wife and brother again. They had more words of much needed encouragement and support for me. I never felt uncertain of my ability to finish. But I knew I had to keep moving, step by step, yard by yard, mile by mile if I was going to complete my Ironman journey. They walked with me, one on each side for several miles. At times I eagerly answered their questions, 100 yards further and I had to close them out to focus on maintaining my momentum.
Five miles from the finish, I sent them off to the finish line. I plodded on in the dark, one step at a time.
With three miles to go, I passed another aid station where a young woman in a ubiquitous green volunteer T-shirt wrapped a silver warming blanket around my shoulders. "This will help," she said. "Amen to that," I answered. Within 50 yards, my body went from cold and shivering to warm, comforted and almost hot. So many simple gestures like this throughout the day had an incredible impact on my spirit and performance.
I passed another runner draped in silver. He pointed out he was falling asleep on his feet. I tried to engage him a bit. Pointing out the 24-mile marker seemed to finally energize him. I know I felt better.
Two more miles to go
Head down, I repeatedly told myself, like a mantra, to "keep going." I didn't notice coach Swarthout until he stepped out of the dark shadows. "Hey, Lou. You've got this. There's still a good time cushion but let's not test that."
He encouraged me to pick a landmark ahead and start running again. I muttered, "Here we go. First run to the stop sign, then walk to the third orange cone. Then run to the corner." I kept moving, a bit faster than I had over the previous three hours. With a few more words of encouragement, coach left my side saying he'd meet me in the finishing chute.
A mile away I could see the inviting glow of the Capitol Square and felt pulled on by the cheers coming from the finish line. The loop around the square was mostly deserted. People who had already finished the race were gingerly walking back to their hotels and cars surrounded by happy family members. Yet volunteers at the corners still offered sincere words of encouragement so many hours after the start.
At long last I reached the final downhill run to the finish line. At the apex of the finishing chute, the emotions that had built up with all the training and hoping over the previous year came to the surface. Like so many others I'd seen on Ironman television specials, I lifted my warms over my head. And for the second time that day, the tears flowed.
With the finish line arch just steps ahead, legendary Ironman race announcer Mike Reilly called me out: "From Richfield, Minnesota, Lou Dzierzak" - he got the pronunciation mostly right, thank you - "you are an Ironman!"
I crossed the line in 16:22:18.
Weeks later, the glow of finishing still lingers. I'm proud I turned the uncertainty of my professional life into motivation to accomplish something that has long been on my bucket list. My overall performance has left me a bit unsatisfied. With a new training plan to improve my bike and run legs, I'll be back to for Ironman Wisconsin in 2014. But I'll never forget the my first Ironman.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.