IM Wisconsin 2016 Race Report
By Kevin Wright
Posted Sept 2016
Flashback to summer, 2015. While planning for the 2016 season, I was very set on returning to a September/October Ironman to use as my goal
race that did not take place in the unforgiving setting of Hawaii. My approach to racing in general is one of variety vs. repeating races every
year- championship events included. I selected Wisconsin as a viable event that worked well with my calendar and course preferences (lake swim,
hilly bike, not totally flat run) and was relatively close enough geographically.
I put in a good base of trainer workouts and quality runs starting in January, with an early test at Wrightsville Beach half marathon in March to keep motivation levels high and competitive juices flowing (PR with a 1:15!). The remainder of March/April was filled with travel, culminating in a trip to Europe with an international marathon in Madrid pacing a close friend of mine. The month of May brought the first swim workouts since October 2015, just in time to compete in the widely adored, early season kick starter, American TTT Ohio along with some teammates. 4 triathlons in 3 days will get your Ironman training going for sure.
That left 4 months to complete the bulk of my IMWI-specific training: plenty of time. With the result now in hand I can honestly say it was the most intense block I have put myself through. After the last couple years of relying on my run to attempt to overcome extraordinary deficits due to underachievement on the bike, Coach Shelly and I made a conscious decision to laser focus on my riding. Staple workouts were FTP-based intervals on the trainer, weekly long rides, and Tuesday night battles with the Reston Bike Club fast guys. I’m a big fan of working hard with those who are single sport specialists to improve and become more well-rounded as a triathlete.
In the ideal prep for an out of town Ironman, I am a believer in the course scouting mission/heavy volume camp that occurs 5-7 weeks out from race day. This would include a simulation day with a full ride of the course, followed by a long run on the course the next day. However this summer got crazy for me and was not conducive to plan such an extended weekend. To salvage a bit of the same idea, I made the decision with my support crew (Mom and stepdad Kevin) that we would head up to Madison the weekend preceding the race (conveniently also Labor Day weekend) to accomplish some of the same tasks. This proved to be hugely beneficial as I was able to drive and exercise on almost every single mile of the course prior to race day. Having so much time before the event also went a long way in reducing the immense amount of stress that can mount during race week. The three of us become acclimated to not only the course but also the associated race logistics. This ultimately led to quite a smooth race experience in terms of getting around for me as the athlete and them as spectators. Except for one minor hiccup…
This is a swim I will accept and move on from as fast as I can. Pro tip for anyone doing IMWI in the future and looking to swim near the front: get yourself in the water as soon as they will let you! Due to the mass start, there was a long line that formed right around 6:20 am to cross over the timing mat and wade into the lake. I was close enough to see the arch from my position and in my never-ending attempts to minimize unnecessary stress, I neglected to join the line until closer to 6:35. It was a cool morning and something about getting in and treading water for 30 minutes prior to the gun did not appeal to me. Mom gets to say “I told you so” on this one! The line moved at a snail’s pace and I was fortunate even to be in the water before the 7 am start (which Ironman rightly adheres to regardless of how many swimmers are ready or not!). The start line is some 100 meters or so from the timing mat entrance, so I frantically began to weave through others who were content to start further back while trying to make it to the sub-60 minute groups. Needless to say, I did not make it. Not even close. The cannon went off and I started roughly 20 rows back from the front line.
A huge aspect of racing at the Ironman distance is dealing with the highs and lows that the long day inevitably throws at you. In reflection, I am happy and proud that I did not let this error (that I managed to commit before the race even started!) ruin my race or decimate me mentally. It did make for a full contact and interesting swim split for me as I was zigging and zagging swimmers or getting boxed in for just about the entire swim. Ended up doing an additional 600+ yards according to my GPS. In the moment I tried to spin it positively by telling myself that the slower pace could pay dividends later in that I conserved energy… most likely not true. Luckily, giving up a few minutes here was the low point of my race. Just a shame that all the work that Coach and I put together did not show up in the results! Next time.
The transitions at IMWI are known for being unique, making use of a massive lakeside convention center for both of them. This means the gear bags and changing tents are indoors, which is nice. It also means running up several stories of a parking garage ramp to get to that level after the swim- and biking up and down it too. After hearing so much about these transitions I was eager to experience them for myself. T1 did not disappoint. There were multiple rows of cheering spectators urging us up the ramp and you just can’t help but get swept up in it. I was in close to sprint mode for all of T1. Helped to wake the legs up?!
After a smooth transition by my standards I was off and pedaling. IMWI is a lollipop course with a 15-16 mile stick and 2 loops out of town before returning on the stick back to transition. My plan called for a warm up on the stick out, a first loop at conservative race watts, a build to stronger wattage on the second loop and a finishing kick on the stick back. My legs felt incredible on the way out of town as you would expect, and I fought the constant urge to get taken away by the adrenaline. This was exceedingly trying for me given my less than optimal position (Mom was at bike out and yelled that I was 46th male and 14 minutes down to the super swimmers).
Additionally, I immediately found myself in the company of a couple other 25-29 age group guys who were looking speedy. The leapfrogging started earlier in this race than any of my other IMs. However I found some solace in that I was moving up steadily on other competitors with ease and recovered nearly half of the places by the time I saw Mom and Kevin at the start of loop one (they were everywhere!), up to 26th male.
I should admit to deviating from my calculated race plan in the beginnings of the ride, throwing in a few opportunistic surges. A few things played into my rationale for this behavior. For one, I am notorious for “under-biking” and running myself up into the race. After the solid body of work Coach and I devised and executed this summer, I was determined not to let that be the case. Secondly, it’s a race. I came to race, and go for the podium. If I had it my way I would have the gamesmanship in the latter stages of the ride, but that was something out of my control. I did not get outside my comfort zone for extended durations, just pushed enough to send the message that I was not going away quietly. I did allow my age group rivals to get up the road as the first loop wore on, yet kept them in sight as best I could. I settled into some steady sections, holding power right in the middle to higher side of my planned range. My efforts paid dividends near the conclusion of the loop as I caught and passed those two guys in my age group definitively. Mom and Kevin were there at the start of loop two to give me the heartening news that I had moved into 14th male and 4th in 25-29M.
My fueling was going tremendously well midway through the ride- meaning I had to urinate pretty bad by mile 60 or so. I still have not mastered the art of peeing while coasting on the bike, and stuck with what has become my tradition of a single bathroom stop when I noticed my watts dipping. I will trade those 90 seconds to feel comfortable for the final two hours of the ride every single time. That relieved sensation also breathed new life into my legs and my willingness to remain in my aero position. The remainder of loop two was mostly uneventful, albeit exhilarating. I love the feeling of the steady turn of a long distance race from beginning to middle, middle to end. The best crowd support in all of Ironman was certainly uplifting as well, with Tour de France style crowds on the biggest climbs and through the towns. Think music blasting, cowbells, crazy costumes and signs, random people yelling their lungs out for you. I could ride hills all day like that!
I had my final exchange with Mom and Kevin as I finished the second loop and began the stick back to town. I was up into 10th male/3rd in age group and successfully limited time losses to what I thought was a manageable deficit. My spirits were high but the downside to proper execution on the bike this time was that I was unable to build the killer closing watts as I had hoped to. Still, I finished the stick feeling strong and brimming with anticipation of the run I had been visualizing for months. I was motivated that my ride had gone so well; to the point of a PR bike split on a course where I had doubts about how fast I could really expect to go.
After dropping my bike off with the volunteers I bolted into the changing room and quickly wriggled out of my tri suit. At some point perhaps I will stay in the same outfit for an entire Ironman, but there’s something about changing into fresh, dry running clothes that energizes me. I hit the bathroom one last time, took a deep breath, and was off.
It was finally here. Running time! The feelings of relief and delight were amplified when I did the quick math on my total time heading out of transition. A 3 hour marathon would guarantee me a PR, and anything faster would be icing on the cake. My unbelievable support crew made it back into town in time to give me an update in the first mile that I was now 8th OA/3rd AG coming out of T2 with around a 13 minute gap to make up on Eric Engel, the age group leader. I went to work, employing the philosophy I have adhered to for IM marathons vs. open ones: it is difficult/borderline impossible to negative split a fast marathon off the bike, therefore I prefer to use the energy I have available to me to play catch-up on whoever is in front. This strategy, while risky, has produced the results I want in previous races. It always leads to damage control by the end, but everyone else is in the same boat- the old maxim about who can “slow down less.”
My first 10k was on the swifter end of my range but I was willing to keep at it. I have found that once I get my running legs and rhythm under me that I can hold on to that feeling for a while. I was able to get the cylinders firing and by mile 6 I was into 5th OA/2nd AG. Got a massive lift on the famous State Street section, doing some yelling back and forth with the multitude of spectators before heading back out to the quieter lakeshore path.
I kept plugging away and saw Mom and Kevin around mile 14 on my way out to do the second loop. The word was that I was now 3rd OA and was only 6 minutes back from Eric. This encouraged me, however things were starting to get difficult. It is always mentally tough with a two loop course to turn away from the finish line and realize you still have half of the run left to go. Finally caught up with Eric after mile 17 and soon all I could think about was the finish line. This is surely the part of every race that each athlete must go to the mental toughness bank and make some withdrawals. I have the privilege of adding to this bank every season, which is crucial to draw upon in those desperate moments. Instead of struggling up the final big hills on Observatory Drive, I was powering up Toboggan Hill near my family’s vacation spot in the mountains of West Virginia. Instead of jamming my heels into the last steep downhill to Park Street, I was flying down the backside of Heartbreak Hill in Boston. Instead of suffering on the lonely lakeshore path, I was hammering tempo miles with my college teammates on the Great Allegheny Passage. And so on.
Once I made the turn close to mile 23 to head back into town I could taste the end. I took in the last of my four gels at mile 24 and leaned into the last couple miles with what strength I had left. Rounding the final turn to see the finish line was an out of body experience, trying to fathom what I had just done.
Overall (9:14:52/2nd OA/1st AG)
The elation that comes over you when you finish an Ironman is hard to describe. I hope to never be able to. With PRs in the bike, run, and overall times, I am thrilled with this performance. But as those of us in this game know, the race itself is simply the punctuation. It is the exclamation mark on a long, arduous cycle full of discipline, hard work, sacrifice, and repeated investments that we as endurance athletes commit ourselves to. Much of this training cycle is completed when no one is watching. There is nothing flashy or glorious about the early morning pool swims or late night track workouts- which makes our chosen sport both challenging and rewarding.
When the goal race finally comes and all those months of work manifest themselves as you dream of, there is nothing better. To me, long distance racing is my version of art, my self-expression in truest form. I already cannot wait for the next one.