Ironman Wisconsin Race Recap – The Long Version
Hold on tight, this is a long one! Where to start…it’s hard to find a place as a whole year of training led up to this one event. But if I were to pick a spot, I may start with a quick recap of the week before leaving for IM WI. Our plan was to leave on Friday morning after school drop off so I figured if I started some of my packing the early in the week, I would be calm and ready to go come Friday. I was wrong. Life got in the way and all of the sudden it was Wednesday and I hadn’t packed a single thing nor had I finished my packing lists. I was in a bit of a panic at that point. I still had all of the kids’ activities to be the shuttle for and work commitments and training to fit in. It seemed like there just wasn’t enough time in the day. My stress was being mirrored in my many dreams about missing the race or not having my stuff when I was supposed to start the race, etc. Not a fun feeling. On top of it, I was also harboring some anxiety around the DNF topic. After spending so many hours training, blood, sweat and tears (for real), the last thing I wanted was to not cross the finish line on race day. So the days leading up to leaving for the race were filled with nerves and stress. Luckily, I was able to have a couple of key conversations that helped calm me down and get my head into a space of time management.
I used a system of packing for each of the different race bags we would be given at check in to keep things organized (swim start/morning clothes, swim to bike, bike to run, bike special needs and run special needs). This really helped me visualize the needs for each discipline and kept me organized. I then packed for the days leading up and the drive home. I was surprised how much easier it was to get things packed efficiently than I was making it out to be in my head. Before I knew it we were putting everything in the car and we starting our car trip to Madison.
It’s a fairly easy drive to Madison from our home, so about 4 hours later we pulled into downtown Madison to do athlete check in. I was anxious to get through check in as Ironman only allows athletes to check in up to a certain day and time. I still had a good 5 hours till check in closed but I didn’t want to be rushing through at the last minute. The check in process was fairly smooth. I got my bib number and my waivers, then waited in line for my race packet. There was some confusion about my USAT membership so I had to leave the race packet table to speak with the support staff before getting back in line for the race packet. Got the packet, the download of race info and proceeded to pick up my swag and timing chip. Spent some time at the expo following check in and bought lots of Ironman gear (1st timer syndrome). The hubs went with me to the athlete briefing, got lots of tips and then I talked him into driving the bike course with me. And I am glad that he came, because it would have been impossible to follow the directions in the athlete guide and drive at the same time. My eyes bugged out a bit at the amount of hills and turns that I would be taking on in a few short days.
As we finished our trip around the bike course, we decided to check into our hotel and get settled. I was feeling some nervous energy after getting everything moved into our hotel room so I went out for a light 20-minute jog and learned that there wasn’t a lot of running real estate around our hotel. I ran the same loop for what felt like 100 times. The evening was fairly relaxing as we ate a “brought from home” meal in our hotel room and lounged around. Needless to say, I did a ton of reading over the weekend just to occupy my mind and keep me off my feet.
Saturday morning, we followed our usual routine of coffee and oatmeal for breakfast and then headed into downtown Madison to meet up with a fellow athlete and friend for a morning swim. This was my first time in Lake Monona and I was pleasantly surprised at how great the water felt and how easy my swim felt. It was a perfect opportunity to loosen things up and get comfortable with the water (which I usually do right before the start of a race). After saying “see ya tomorrow” to my friend, I checked my bike into transition and dropped off my transition bags inside Monona Terrace. The process worked very smooth and soon I was done with my “to do” items and was free to relax the rest of the day with my book, some college football and visiting with my support crew. The day went by at both a snails pace and lightening quick. Soon, it was time to have dinner and settle in for the night. I decided on a new pre-race dinner feast (steak, salmon, baked potato) that we had pre-made and enjoyed in our hotel room. I was determined to have control over as many pre-race factors as possible so eating food that I was familiar with and cooked by us was a must.
After cleaning up dinner and getting ready for bed, I spent some time visualizing the day before me. I closed my eyes and saw myself getting to the course, standing in line to start the swim, swimming my way around the buoys in Lake Monona, transitioning to my bike and riding through the corn fields of Wisconsin, moving from my bike to running through downtown. I pictured my family and friends on the course, the energy of the spectators and the final steps before crossing the finish line. Even though I had yet to experience my first Ironman, I could picture it so clearly. I was ready and the only thing that stood between me and the biggest challenge of my life is a night of restless sleep.
After what felt like the longest night of my life, 4 am alarm went off and it was time to start preparing. IT WAS RACE DAY! My nerves and adrenaline had me dressed and ready lighting quick and soon we had finished breakfast and were in the car on the way to the course. We met up with my parents to take the bus at the Aliant Energy Center and I was having a hard time sitting still. I wanted to get my special needs bags dropped off, my nutrition on my bike and have a few moments to breath before heading the swim start. It all went by so quick. In a blink of an eye, I had dropped off the bags, got my bike prepped, my wet suit on and was already standing near the entrance of the swim start. My husband said his goodbyes and headed off to find a good place to spectate and I chatted with a few other athletes as we entered the swim start corral. It was fairly crowded but I was able to get a spot between the 1:10-1:20 swim finish time area, which was where I wanted to be. Then the cannon fired for the pro start and again for the age group start. We were finally moving forward and as I entered the last leg of the start corral, Mike Reilly was standing there giving high fives. I was overcome with emotion and nerves and a few tears rolled down my cheeks. I was actually going to do this, actually going to do an Ironman, actually going to realize a dream I have had for many years.
I blinked and they said go for my start group. I was in the water quick and set off for the first set of buoys. I quickly realized this was going to be a difficult swim. As I was swimming southwest on the first stretch, I could feel the waves beneath me, pulling me in the direction of the first turn buoy. I used the momentum and kept turning over my arms. After yelling “moo” at the first turn, I was quickly inhaling water as waves would be crashing into my face at each breath I was trying the take. All I could do was to focus on keeping my arms moving and trying to grab air when I had a chance to. The 3rd leg of the swim was the worse. The waves were coming in directly in front of your face or on the side. It was hard to sight and people were zig zagging all over the place which made passing them nearly impossible. I passed the time just thinking about how crazy the swim was and counting how many kayakers and swimmers I was passing. Eventually I came around the last turn buoy and again could feel the waves beneath me so I allowed my body to ride with them through my stroke. As I came up on the swim exit, I was pretty thrilled with how relaxed I felt in the water despite the wind, waves and other swimmers. That feeling came to a quick end as I kicked my left foot right into the concreate boat launch under the water as I exited. Boy did that hurt.
Running through transition, I quickly got my wetsuit stripped off and I was soon on the helix going round and round. The run up the helix wasn’t as hard as I initially thought it would be and I was thrilled to see my husband near the last turn. I entered the convention center, grabbed my bag from the volunteer and found a nice lady in the women’s changing room to help me. She quickly emptied the contents of my swim to bike bag on the floor. I changed into a dry kit, got socks and shoes on, she rolled my arm sleeves up my arm while feeding me my banana at the same time (seriously she is wonder woman) and I thanked her as I ran out the door with my helmet in hand.
As I ran through the bike area of transition, the volunteers were yelling my bib number as I went by so that as I got to the rack that my bike was on, it was already waiting for me to grab it. I bolted to the end of the transition area and heard my parents and friends cheering so loud, I couldn’t help but smile. Off down the helix I went, taking care to slow my speed so as not to crash as they warned in the athlete briefing. “No Ironman race will be won on the helix, but it sure can be lost”, they said. The first 16 miles (the stick) of the course went by quickly. I spent time getting settled on my bike and taking in the first of my nutrition. I had a goal to take in 1 Base Nutrition bar and 1 bottle of electrolytes or plain water every hour and salt every 5 miles of the bike. I was determined to stick to my plan as to not get into a nutrition deficient. I noticed that I had a side ache pretty soon after I started my ride and was working on a plan of how to get rid of it. Perhaps I needed more water or more salt, or maybe I just needed to take some deeper breaths, either way it wasn’t bothering me enough to slow me down, just an annoyance.
The bike ride was full of moments that I anticipated but were hoping wouldn’t happen. At mile 35 I had to jump off my bike for a dropped chain. At mile 43 I stopped to use the bathroom. I climbed the two bike hills on Timber Lane, with my friends running alongside me. I must say that a hill climb goes by a lot faster when you have a familiar face running next to you. At mile 50, the I got a flat tire. Ugh, just what I didn’t want but I was sure thanking my lucky stars that a few weeks prior I had replaced my tubular Zipp 808’s with new HED Jet clinchers. I pulled off the side of the road and quickly went to work on getting the flat tube off my wheel, getting the new tube installed, ensuring that nothing was twisted or pinched, filling it up with the CO2 cartridge and getting the wheel back on my bike. It took me 10 minutes, 10 minutes that I wish didn’t happen, but I did it all myself and I didn’t have to wait for SAG, which I was very proud of. I saw my family and friends just after that, yelling of my tire changing accomplishment. At mile 56, I stopped for my special needs bag. Other than needed my electrolyte powder, if I hadn’t gotten the flat tire, I may have forgone the stop. But due to the flat I wanted to make sure I had another spare tube and CO2 just in case. Back on the bike for the 2nd loop of the bike ride, it quickly became apparent that this is where it really hits you. My left ankle, shin and calf started to hurt and I was feeling the fatigue. I tried to keep on track with my nutrition and I just kept thinking about when I may see my family and friends again. Turns out I had to wait quite a while! Every corner or hill I thought they may be there but it wasn’t until nearly mile 80 that they popped up again on one of the crazy hill climbs. Again, my friends ran up the hill and I told them how much I was hurting and asked if I would see them on the bike again. It was hard and painful and I started to really question my sanity for even signing up for this crazy adventure. Luckily for me, my crew saw that I very much needed to see them on the bike again and they popped up 2 more times as I made my way to end of the loop and back into downtown Madison. I couldn’t have been more thankful, as they really kept me going. I did a little cheer as I wound back through a few parking lots and onto the road that leads directly to Monona Terrace. Finally, I would be getting off this awful contraption they call a bike. I veered right into the entrance of the terrace and up the helix I went. My family was hanging out on the helix waiting for me and I greeted them with a “this sucks” and a smile. They laughed and it helped lighten my mood.
As I got off my bike and handed it off to a volunteer, I thanked god for these saintly humans because I am certain I would have just fallen over if they weren’t there to hold things steady as I dismounted. Into the transition room I waddled and was met by more wonderful volunteers saying “welcome back”. A young lady grabbed my bike to run bag from me and dumped it out, holding up each of the contents asking what I needed. I threw on my running shoes, packed my pockets with gels, salt and gloves, traded my helmet for my hat and was out the door with my race belt and bib in hand.
Beginning to move again felt good as I wound through transition and out on to the streets of Madison. I saw my family and friends right as I came out of transition and Nick ran alongside for a brief few moments asking how I was feeling and giving me a big thumbs up. Even as I type this now I get emotional because those words of encouragement were so impactful and meaningful to me that day. I had a goal to run the first half of the marathon. Given that I had never run a full marathon, I wasn’t sure what I would feel like after 13 miles. So I settled into a nice conservative pace and took it all in. Running through Camp Randall, around UW campus, next to Lake Mendota was beautiful. There is one thing that Wisconsin has that I didn’t anticipate is its hills. I knew the bike course was going to be hilly but I certainly didn’t anticipate the hills on the run. Another thing that Wisconsin has is amazing spectators and volunteers. At every stretch of the run there were people cheering and they cheered for everybody. I tried to thank as many spectators as possible and soak up all of the energy from them that I could. Shortly after mile 10 I could feel my stomach start to lurch. I knew it wasn’t good. As I ran, it got worse so I stopped taking in gels and just concentrated on water and not losing my calories. After stopping for my run special needs at the half way point in which I grabbed my head lamp, I knew I had to start walking in order to finish the race. So I channeled a friend who told me that “if you have to walk, power walk to Pink singing in your head” so I did just that. I power walked and ran for the next 5 miles. I saw my husband at mile 18 and he asked how I was doing. I told him I was in bad shape, that I couldn’t run much because I felt like I was going to be sick when I did. He said he would stick with me as long as he could. I needed it, we power walked and talked for quite a while. It was a great distraction. I took in water and chicken broth as much as I could. It got dark quick and then it started to rain, a cold cold rain. I put on my gloves but those got wet and made my hands even colder. I was freezing but determined to cross the finish line. After what seemed like eternity, the Wisconsin State Capitol building came into view and I knew I would get to the finish. I picked up the pace and willed myself forward, mile by mile. The last mile, I found something deep and started running and kept on running as I turned the last corner leading to the finishing chute. Thinking back, I wish I would have slowed down even more to savor it. I wish I would have found my parents and hugged them, I wish I would have high fived more spectators standing there cheering for complete strangers but it was a blur and a whirlwind. I crossed the finish line, hands on my head in disbelief and barely even registered Mike Reilly saying “Julie Pagano, You Are An Ironman”, completing the journey that took me 1 year, 300,000 yards of swimming, 3000 miles of biking, and 700 miles of running.
As I crossed the finish line, I was “caught”, handed my finisher gear and escorted to the food tent where I ate the best tasting mac and cheese I have ever had in my life. I saw my mom with tears in her eyes and it all at once hit me that I had done it. And all I wanted was to hug my family members and friends who were their supporting me and thank them, from the bottom of my heart. I was so incredibly grateful for each of them, and all the people who were there for me along the way, as they were my fuel and my strength all day long. I know I couldn’t have done it without them. They all crossed that finish line with me that night.
As I reflect on this experience, a few days after, I am in awe of Ironman athletes, in awe of what determination and commitment can do, in awe of each person who finds their “everest” and chases it; maybe they conquer it or maybe they don’t but they didn’t give up. And that is what builds true character. They say that you will be changed after Ironman and I couldn’t agree more.