The traffic lights on East Washington were blinking yellow in the predawn hours. There was no one to whom a signal would have been relevant. I was alone with my coffee, moving toward the State Capitol illuminated in the distance. I was not nervous, because I was not racing. I was there to have fun and enjoy my friends. I had never seen an Ironman race before, but I had some idea what the day had in store. Boy was I wrong. Ironman is real. Real does not confine itself to predictable outcomes.
It was hard to tell when daylight actually began at Monona Terrace that morning. The overcast was so thick and persistant that we never saw the sun or knew when it came up. As 0600 passed and race time got closer, it did not become light so much as it got less dark. Even that changed so slowly that you almost did not notice. The terrace was nevertheless awhirl. With all the athletes and volunteers and family members and the voice of Ironman stirring the organized chaos, I was lucky to run into Trisaratops and Iron Wil on their way to body marking. With a thumbs up and a hug they were off into the vortex.
As the appointed hour drew near, one got to see how people handle stress. Some people talked. Some were completely silent. Some sought out strangers. Some sought out solitude. With Reilly urging reluctant athletes into the water, I saw one male competitor who was obviously very fit and obviously had absorbed much training; yet he sat with his back to the wall of the Monona Terrace, his eyes fixed in a 1000 yard stare straight ahead as if he had a date with a hangman’s noose.
With much cajoling, all the competitors finally made it into the water. About this time, Trimama and Trihubby showed up for their volunteer station as wet suit strippers. For those of you who have met them, you will understand what I am about to say. I fell completely under their spell. Trihubby is a mensch who drinks my brand of scotch and Trimama simply rocks. Coolest mom on the block. No doubt. The whole long day we were together, I had only one complaint: they did not bring the tribe with them.
Soon thereafter, the gun went off. My first thought at seeing more than 2000 competitors clawing through the steel grey chop was base and simple. “[Expletive deleted], I’ll never be able to do this.” Although I went to Madison intending to register, I started to reject the idea out of hand. At one point, the swimming “peloton” stretched nearly all the way around the two loop course. I was on top of the terrace at that point and had time to think. That sight was early 1.2 miles of human beings representing countless hundreds of thousands of training hours and all the dreams invested in them.
As age groupers started to emerge from the water, I went to the swim exit looking for Wil and Sara. In an ominous omen on the day, the wind picked up and a drizzle began. The lake lapped at the rocks on shore and the weather began to look hostile. It was impossible not to shiver, both from the damp chill, and from anxiety. 138.2 miles left for these athletes, and conditions were getting worse, not better.
After the swim champs, the “ordinary” Ironmen (if there is such a thing) started to emerge from the water. From the fright of seeing the swim start, this was all encouragement. It makes you think, “maybe I can do this.” I kept an eye on my watch and kept looking for Wil’s telltale red, Orca wetsuit. (I looked hard for Sara, but did not know what her wetstuit looked like. I thought I saw her, but I was not sure.). Orca after Orca came out of the water as Wil’s top swim time came and went. I started to worry for her, but then I saw one last set of red, Orca arms. Her face turned toward me as she breathed and I recognized her at once. The volunteers grabbed her up out of the water like a baptism at a camp revival meeting and she was all smiles. Trihubby and Trimama yanked the wetsuit off her, and with a huge hug and an even bigger smile, she was off to T1.
I snagged some coffee and cookies for Trihubby and Trimama, because they were all wet from their duties, and there was still 40 minutes left in the swim. The emotions were raw as the swim cutoff approached. Out in the water, you could see the last few sets of arms cycling through their strokes, trying to make it in. With each swimmer, you wondered, “Is that the last guy? Or him? Will he make it?” Very soon we found out. With less than one minute to the cutoff, a female age grouper wept tears of joy and relief as she was informed that she made it. A spare few seconds later, two or three others wept tears of heartbreak when their chips were removed and they were not allowed to continue. The weeping was not in solitude. The volunteers cried. I cried.
Here, the weather really started to turn foul. The wind continued to climb as the temperature and the rain continued to fall. Trimama and Trihubby and I hopped in the car and took off for Verona to catch some of the bike route. The drizzle was now an honest rain. Elites and age groupers alike were suffering from the cold. You could see the suffering. Some, you could tell, had not gotten warm since emerging from the water. Yet, on they rode.
I got the tribe leaders back into town for their volunteer water stop duty and actually had to buy some sweats and another coat at the expo, just to keep warm. I saw the first two men out of T2 and cheered the incoming bikes for three hours. The suffering was right on the surface, even on the best athletes. Elites had been caught by some of the uberstrong age groupers, and some of the age groupers who are normally strong were limping in with blue lips and early hypothermia.
Then it was on to my volunteer station. I saw the first men and first women finish, but that is not nearly the most rewarding part of Ironman. I saw the middle and end of the bell curve come cross the line, and I was honored to carry their weight until they met weeping or cheering or screaming family members. A few just hobbled off into the night, alone and looking for dry clothes. I don’t know if they were lonely. It made me lonely.
These ironmen came in all types. The whooping 30 year old tri-stud, the dad who carries the kids across the line and collapses, the Irongrandpa, and the competitors who could not tell you their names and did not know where they were. The rain fell heavier and the temperature dropped further. Athletes who did not get inside were getting shocky and occasionally falling over. This was real. One young man sprinted for the line to break 11 hours, made his goal, and then promptly collapsed into our firemen’s carry. He did not open his eyes in the medical tent, but he could stammer that he had broken 11 hours. That was all he knew.
In the midst of this, all of us that were within electronic communication saw that Sara had made it in from the bike, but her time told the story of the day. Her average speed revealed just how hard the course was in those conditions. She was not far in advance of the cutoff, and still no news on Iron Wil. 5:30 came and 5:30 passed. We thought Wil had timed out and were crushed for her. Five minutes later ironmanlive (may it rot forever in hell) springs up with her bike split--just under the wire. Down turned to up. Trihubby ran out, saw her, and ran with her to the first breakpoint.
Somewhat later, we projected a finishing time for Sara based on her half-marathon split. We positioned ourselves so that she would have her own, personal, TBC finish line catchers. Those of you who know her in real life will not be surprised that she was all smiles, all gratitude, all grace. On a very hard day she did some very hard stuff. Wow. Just. Wow.
But by this time. Up had turned to down again. We knew Wil’s split for the first half of the marathon. We knew that hopes were dim, and we were extremely thankful that Stu was right along with her. She would tell you herself that she was in very good hands with Stu for the entire race. I know she must have been hurting much, much more than we, but we felt a sliver of the disappointment for her. She worked so hard. She did everything right. She was prepared. But there are no guarantees. You can do it right and still not finish. I sent her a text that night. I don’t know if she received it, and I don’t even know if the attention from out-of-state internet strangers was even entirely welcome, but the sentiment was as real as the race conditions that day.
“ Trimama and Trihubby and I are feeling it with you, at least in a small way. Love and admiration are not born of what you do [or fail to do I will add now], but of who you are.”
I don’t really know Wil; but, I know who she is. Wil “is” a benediction, a “good word,” a blessing in motion. There are literally heart attacks that will not happen because of who she is. Her readers are inspired to “get on the bus” every morning, promptly at 4 a.m. There are pounds and eating disorders that no longer exist because of who she is. There are friendships that have formed, both with her and in her orbit because of who she is. That is “who” Iron Wil is.
Wil’s gravitational pull drags us along with her. It also continues to push her on. By 9:30 this morning, after her long, hard day yesterday, she stood with Run Bubba Run, Stu and Trihubby for a picture, all holding vouchers showing that they had signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2007. Unfinished business.
Oh. And I stood with them. I have one of those vouchers too. Thanks, Wil.