Ironman Wisconsin 2002
By A.J. Johnson
Photos by Courtney Stapleton
ISSUE #19, Winter 2003 – As anyone who has finished an Ironman will tell you, the amount of time, money and sweat that go into it is well worth it. For me I think it was especially rewarding to finally finish the full 140.6 mile journey. Twice I had signed up, put in the miles, made the sacrifices only to come away empty handed. At Ironman Lake Placid in 2001 a last minute situation kept me from even getting on the start line. So Ironman Utah 2002 was going to be my ticket to glory. That dream died after 55 minutes of struggling to survive in vicious water conditions. I felt like I had been cursed somehow and I would never see the finish line of an Ironman.
Even after two attempts ended in failure I couldn’t stop thinking about finishing an Ironman. With that dream still in my head I went to Lubbock, TX. in late June in an attempt to qualify for a slot at one of the North American Ironman events. Despite a sub par race, luck intervened and a slot was available for Ironman Wisconsin. I took the spot and the dream was back, stronger than ever.
Throughout the spring I had been building up for Ironman Utah. My coach Grant Holicky had created a plan that had me peaking for that race. When I returned from Texas, I went back to Grant and he put together a new plan for Wisconsin on September 15th. With all the training for Utah but none of the drain from racing I felt strong and ready to get back to some serious training. I had two months to prepare for Wisconsin and I didn’t want to waste any of it. I was doing more yards in the pool than ever, riding stronger than ever and my run felt great. I even set a PR for the 1.5k swim during one of the Boulder Stroke and Stride events.
Additionally, my fiancée Courtney had a friend who was to be married in Chicago in early August. I went to the wedding, and since Madison is only a two hour drive, I also went and rode the course. For those not from the Midwest, Wisconsin is hilly! There were very few flat sections and lots of turns. The course was shaped like a lollipop, out, two loops, and then back in. It was the type of course that would reward those who were patient. The transition area was also something that I needed to check out. The transition was in a parking structure/convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The bikes would be on the top uncovered level of the parking structure and the change rooms were on the same level inside one of the large rooms of the convention center. From this level you could see Lake Monona and the city of Madison. It would be odd, but unique. I felt great during my reconnaissance ride and I knew I was ready. But having experienced major letdowns in the past, I was cautiously optimistic.
September 15th couldn’t come fast enough. Courtney and I flew to Chicago the 11th,and stayed with her parents for the day. The next day we went into Madison, swam in Lake Monona, went for a quick run and then stood in line for registration. I didn’t want to stay around too long though, all that standing can drain you, so we left early and drove an hour to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Courtney’s parents had a condo. My parents drove in from Iowa and met us there. We had a great dinner and then I went to bed early. The next morning I was up early got in a quick ride and run and then packed to go to Madison. We went to the athlete’s meeting, checked the bike and checked into our hotel. I could barely sleep. I kept waking up and looking at the clock. Every time I looked I was relieved that I had a few more hours to sleep. Eventually the alarm went off and the front desk called. It was time to go.
I am a typical triathlete in that I checked my race bags multiple times before handing them to the volunteers. Since Courtney had a press pass she walked into the transition area with me. She snapped some photos of the pros while I pumped up the tires, filled bottles and went over everything in my head. As 7:00 got nearer I was starting to get nervous but played it cool, keeping the game face on. Finally, I put on the suit and walked toward the water. I did my dry land warm up, said goodbye to Courtney and off I went.
The water was a bit chilly and the temperature on land was around 55 degrees. I swam out to the start. The swim was two rectangular loops starting parallel to the shore. I decided to position myself on the inside about five feet from the buoys. I knew it would be rough but it would also be fast. 7:00 hit and off we went. I was expecting a barrage of elbows and feet, but I got off relatively cleanly. No one clawed me, dunked me, or hit me. I noticed that the parking structure was filled with people, especially on the top floor. They had a bird’s eye view of the aquatic chaos below. It also served as a marker because you could tell how far you had gone by your relationship to the structure. The first corner was a 90 degree left and I could see people starting to angle in towards the buoy. I thought I was going to be crushed by the hordes, but it wasn’t too bad. I got in with a pack and just sat in the draft. Feeling strong I left that pack after half a mile and moved up to the next group. The first loop went by in about 28 minutes. The second loop was more of the same and I tried to just stay on pace for a sub one hour swim. Heading into shore I could see the clock. I couldn’t tell exactly what it read but I could see a 58 or 59. I really wanted to go under an hour so I put my head down and kicked for all I was worth. Hitting the beach I knew I still had to cross the mat. So I just ran up, not bothering with my goggles or wetsuit. I crossed the mat in 59:54, right on pace. I had my suit stripped and began the run to transition. Since the bikes were on the third level of the structure, we had to run to the third level as well. There were spirals on each end that cars used to go up and down. Today, they were covered with mats and had thousands of wet people scrambling to the top. Initially I thought that the transition run would be difficult. But on race day people lined the out side of the spiral and cheered us as we ran up to the top floor.
Reaching the top floor we ran into the main entrance and into a large ballroom. I grabbed my bag and ran into the men’s change room. Since the ballroom was carpeted the organizers laid tarps down to keep the carpet from getting wet and dirty. It did protect the carpet, but created a hazard for the athletes. As I sat down in one of the chairs and dumped my bag out I saw one guy slip on the slick surface like he was on one of those backyard Slip N’ Slides. He nearly crashed into me and I heard him mutter some obscenities as he got to his feet. I pulled on my jersey, stuffed some Power Bars in the pockets, strapped on my helmet and ran out with shoes in hand.
I was at the end of the row, nearest the bike exit. This was a great spot because I could run to my bike, put on my shoes and go. Then I panicked. I realized that I did not have my race number on. I must not have grabbed my race belt out of my bag. Without stopping I decided to just keep going and hope for the best. A volunteer had my bike out and waiting for me. I slipped into my shoes, said thanks and was off. Just before heading down the other spiral and on to the course I saw my parents. They were right at the bike exit banner. My dad pumped his fist and yelled out “You’re right on time!” That was a great boost and the perfect way to start the 112 mile ride.
Winding down the spiral was great. Shooting out on to the road you already had some speed built up and could settle on to the bars quickly. I like to spin early just to get the legs going so I wasn’t so concerned with speed. Looking down though, my computer read 23 M.P.H.! I was in the little ring and still moving. Other riders had different thoughts on the start though. Soon I was being passed by guys hammering the big ring. I stuck to my plan and thought that if they can keep that pace up for another 111 miles, then good for them. I was worried that a motorcycle official would notice that I had no race number on a pull me over. The first few times I saw a motorcycle I was so nervous. After a while I forgot about it and thankfully they never noticed it. I later learned that Courtney had tracked down Graham Fraser, told him that I had been at Utah and that they shouldn’t D.Q. me for not having my race number. What a trooper!
Having ridden the course previously was a great advantage. The course was constantly going up or down, the rear derailleur would get no rest today. I found my rhythm at about 84 to 88 R.P.M. and just got ready for the long haul. On the hills I would shift down, stay sitting and just spin up. While there were only two climbs that stood out, the continual effort took its toll on many people. Around mile 35 or so Paul Rapinz, a friend from Boulder rode up we chatted a bit (from a draft legal distance) and stayed together for a while. When we hit the first real climb and several guys took off, Paul said that we would see them again at mile 80 or so, and he was right.
The best part of the course was the section through Verona. Verona is a small town that had a huge impact on the riders. Organizers had bussed spectators to the town so that they could watch their athlete. Verona in turn had a festival to welcome them. There were pancake breakfasts, barbecues, games and even a nap place for children. Cresting another of the endless hills you ride on a slight downhill through the town. At this point you can reach 30 M.P.H. easily. Spectators lined the road three and four deep for about a mile cheering wildly. Both times through Verona I saw my parents and Courtney. My first time through I had to hold back the desire to start cranking because my adrenaline just skyrocketed. It is as close to the scene in the Tour de France as I have ever witnessed. There were also a few characters along the route. One guy dressed up as the devil and stood a top a hill cheering people up. A girl dressed up as Wonder Woman and encouraged riders along.
I was really feeling good on the bike. Having had back troubles in the past I was very worried that I might have a surprise on race day. The climbing and being able to sit up and stand were very helpful for me. My nutrition plan was working to perfection. I had practiced my race nutrition on several rides and everything went according to plan. Water on the 15, half a Power Bar on the 30, GU on the 45, and Accelerade on the 00. Not once did I feel nauseous, nor did I feel dehydrated and lethargic.
On the second loop I was starting to see people that had gone by me much earlier. Some were really struggling. The value of having previous experience on the bike course can not be underestimated. At the top of one climb a spectator was calling out numbers. He pointed at me and said “124”. At first I had no idea of what he meant. After a few moments I realized that was my overall place. It was another boost for me. On the way back in, the course seemed to drag on. I was counting off mile markers and just wanted to get off the bike and start running. Finally I saw the spirals. It was up to the top one more time. I got in the granny gear and spun right up. Again, spectators were lining the edges of the spiral screaming encouragement. I was hoping to finish the ride in 5:15 to 5:30. I came in at 5:35. I remember what Grant had told me, not to get caught up in making certain times and to just have fun. Later I was told the course was two miles long, so I like to think that I still made it. I was feeling ready for the run. The ups and downs that I had prepared myself for never came. I felt steady and strong for the entire 112 miles.
Into the same ballroom, grab my bag and back in to the men’s section. I threw on my hat, fuel belt and shoes and left. I was hoping that my race belt was in there, but it wasn’t. Out the doors and on to the run course, only 26.2 miles left. I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel at this point. I had done many brick workouts and the legs were always there, but anything can happen. Thankfully there were so many spectators that I was energized right from the start. The legs were firing and I felt ready to go.
Usually when I am racing I am constantly looking at my watch. I am always checking my pace to see what overall time I am looking at. This time though, I looked at my watch probably five times. I wasn’t concerned with my pace. The legs felt strong and I was constantly taking a personal inventory to make sure that I stayed hydrated and fueled up. One thing I distinctly remember though was the smell on State St. This section of the course takes you through the pedestrian mall in Madison. It is mostly restaurants, bars and local shops. The food smelled so good that if someone had offered me some pizza I certainly would have stopped. At that point the thought of another GU was repulsive. Coming to the next aid station I grabbed the most solid food I could find; pretzels. They tasted fantastic and I washed them down with more Accelerade from my fuel belt. Every chance I had I took a hand full of pretzels. But other than grabbing food I was in my own personal bubble.
People have asked me if I just zoned out during the race to ignore the pain. I think that really I zoned in, especially on the run. I became so focused on my stride, my nutrition and my mental attitude that I didn’t have the energy to look at the scenery or the other athletes. I was concerned only with me. I was running well and my energy level was steady, no great ups, but no real downs either. I had no intention of really pushing it to the limit. This was my first Ironman, I was doing well time-wise and I wasn’t going to risk blowing up.
I was so zoned in that I have little recollection of where exactly the hills were or who was around me. I do remember running through Camp Randall, the Wisconsin football stadium. We got to run on the Astroturf and it was so soft that I didn’t want to step off of it. I can recall the frat boys sitting out on their lawn chairs watching us go by. I also remember seeing Paul on some of the turnarounds, he was in front of me and looking strong. I was fortunate to see another friend, Cindy, on the run turn around. I was heading back out while she was just starting. Seeing her distracted me from looking at the finish line, which was only 100 feet away, but still 13.1 miles left to get there. I saw Wonder Woman again; she was near an aid station just cheering us along. The run course was packed with people cheering and clapping.
Only 300 yards away from the finish line and I had my first real problem of the race. A blister on my right pinky toe burst. My white shoe was now blood red. It felt like someone had taken a scalpel to my toe. I thought “I have been tough this whole race, I am not going to limp home in front of the crowd”. So I just kept running with my normal stride. The first few strikes were painful but when I saw the actual finish line it all went away.
Since I had no race number on I started to yell my number at the announcers. I was holding up fingers in an attempt to relay them my number. I wanted to hear my name when I crossed that line. Fortunately they figured it out and cheered me home. I saw Courtney behind the line with her camera. I looked behind me to make sure that no one would catch me, and that I would have the photo all to myself. Then shock took over. All of the thoughts of what I would do while running down the chute were gone. I could not believe that I was actually about to cross the line. Sometimes I hear everything in the finish chute and can see every face clearly. This time I heard nothing. I forgot to look for my parents in the crowd I was so stunned. I vaguely heard my name over the P.A. system. I crossed the line with my arms raised and fists clenched. After crossing I just stood there, I couldn’t move. I had finished the journey in 10 hours 25 minutes and 49 seconds.
Courtney came and gave me a hug. After getting my finisher’s medal we walked to the food tent. I found my parents and we took some photos. I felt good, not that I wanted to do another Ironman right away, but I was walking and I didn’t need an I.V. After getting my toe bandaged and talking with some other friends I wandered over to see where I had finished. My overall splits confirmed what I had thought, I had a consistent and steady pace all day. I came in with the 121st fastest swim, the 127th fastest bike and the 127th fastest run for 82nd overall. That put me in the top 5 %!
Afterwards we all walked to State St. to grab some food and cheer the last finishers home. I drank the biggest Coke of my life and ate the pizza I had craved earlier. I saw Cindy making her way to the line. I hobbled along with her for a bit and then wished her well. I finally got back to the hotel, took a hot bath and passed out on the bed.
The next morning my parents left for Iowa. Before they went I gave them my medal. I told them that for all the times they had sacrificed for me and because they have always supported me I wanted them to have it. Currently my dad is working on making a little case for it to be displayed in. After the awards ceremony Courtney and I drove back to Chicago for some much needed rest. I emailed all those who supported me and thanked Grant for all of his help. I ate like a pig for the next few days and didn’t lift a finger until it was time to fly back.
So now I can say that I have officially finished an Ironman. It may have taken me three attempts, but it certainly was worth it.