By Christopher Cudworth
The mission of Ironman weekend in Madison, Wisconsin was clear.
Drive up to Madison on Saturday. Hang with the Experience Triathlon crew for the pre-race dinner. Get up early to watch the swim start at dawn. Work as a volunteer during the middle part of the day at the first water station on the marathon course. Gather again near the capitol building to cheer ET people on at the halfway mark of the run. Then grab a bite to eat and wait for the marathon finish.
It was a long day for all of us. Of course it was not so difficult for as for those competing in the Ironman 140.4 in Madison. As in…2.4 miles of swimming takes a bit of energy. So does 112 miles of biking. And running 26.2? Yeah, there’s that too.
But for 2400+ people there was nothing they could think of better to do on a Sunday than compete for 8-16 hours. In fact the typical Ironman these days draws numbers like that, for which most local 5Ks would give their eye teeth. People pay quite a bit for the privilege of drawing themselves down into the abyss of fatigue and pain. It costs $675.00 just to enter the race.
Entering an Ironman
Want to enter an Ironman? They’re held in some interesting places. According to BlurtIt (a website with which I was not previously familiar…) there are 7 Ironman races on mainland US each year. These include: Ironman Arizona, Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Ironman Florida, Ironman Louisville, Ironman St. George, Ironman USA in Lake Placid, Ironman Wisconsin and Ironman Hawaii. The world championships take place in Kona Hawaii for a total of 8 U.S. Races.
That means about 14000 people will compete in an Ironman race each year in the U.S. with income from entry fees alone at about $9.5M in 2015.
So these are pretty big events in terms of logistics and budgets. The very next morning after Ironman, Wisconsin, the line to register for next year’s race stretched out of the Monona Terrace Convention Center for 300 meters into the parking lot. The orange shirts of this year’s volunteers colored the line because helping out means you get to register early for 2015.
Brand me an Ironman
The Ironman brand seems to have gone beyond even the top marathons in terms of event pull and draws. A visit to the website documents the worldwide influence and events including Half Ironman events, Sprints and Olympic distances.
Fans seem to love the events, and thousands lined the Wisconsin course in downtown Madison. Six deep in many places. Out on the hills west of Mount Horeb even more fans lined a series of steep climbs titled the Three Bitches, all situated in the unglaciated driftless region south of the Wisconsin River.
Like all Ironman races, the course in Madison is a combination of urban and suburban environments where the start, finish and transitions take place. Then the rides take off through the country into scenic terrain. The runs begin for most in mid-day glory and end in ignominious but still-thrilling darkness. In Madison, it all centers around the capitol building with its 15-foot-tall statue of a woman holding an Ironman Water Bottle.
Okay, we’re joking about that last part. But the city does pretty much turn itself over to the Ironman every September. The finish itself features the opportunity to circle the Capitol toward a narrowing chute filled with bright lights, thumping music and the chance to have your name announced with the words, “You’re an Ironman!”
But I’m not an Ironman
Of course if you’re new to all this Ironman stuff, the whole scene is a bit immersive. There’s really no half way in the Ironman world. You’re either training for your first Ironman, recovering from your last Ironman, planning for your next Ironman, or wearing Ironman gear ranging from Ironman watches to every other conceivable piece of clothing, gear or skin onto which an Ironman logo can be stitched or grafted. Ironman tattoos proliferate on those who complete the Big Kahuna 140.6.
Yes, it’s a bit rich, and overkill. So is the mentality in training for any event in which you’ll be moving for half a day. When you’re in the company of other Ironman athletes or wannabes, the question comes up all the time. “Are you doing an Ironman?”
Between ten and 30 times the question unfolded in my lap over the long weekend. Sometimes it came from sympathetic husbands or wives who, in seeing you in the company of a future Ironman athlete, asked you almost sympathetically. “Are you doing the race next year?” Then they handed you either a beer or a Kleenex, whichever seemed appropriate.
I got asked the Ironman Question by hotel clerks, waiters and one bum lurking in the sewer below the street right on the race course. I was staring down at the water trickling beneath the sewer grate when a wise old bearded face appeared below my feet. His eyes creased shut as he winced, “Are you doing an Ironman next year?”
Okay, I might have been imagining that thanks in part to the three beers I’d just ingested at Capital Brewery restaurant in downtown Madison. The entire town is one big party for Ironman weekend. That’s Madison…
And there really are some strange people in Madison and always will be. It’s a (thankfully) liberal town with a healthy dose of artsy hobos who sit on park benches talking as if they held their Ph.D’s in Park Benchiness. They look smart for homeless folks, in other words, and there’s no telling where they come from. One homeless yet well-known personality was named Art. He was a giant of a man and a window-washer by trade. His fame in the city led someone to produce a set of bright orange tee shirts that read, “What is Art? Art is a Window Washer.” So there you have it. Life imitates Art, and art washes windows. But he’s dead now.
Orange tee shirts abound
Those of us volunteering on the race course also happened to be issued orange tee shirts so that we could be identifiable while handing out a feast of race goodies ranging from flat Coke to brown bananas. Seriously, race food is pretty gross. The goo packs and other seemingly ingestible items could be mistaken for suppositories. Yet when you’re doing an Ironman you’ll literally eat anything they stick in front of your face if you know what’s good for you. You simply can’t swim, run and ride for more than half a day without eating and drinking. You’ll die.
Which fortunately was not the issue in the lake this year. The lake chop was low and the swimming was sweet. Even the heat held off on the bike and run, barely reaching the high 70s. So those of us in orange tees did not look like the horrid result of some heat-driven mirage. We did our jobs for a few hours and then retreated to bars in downtown Madison to drink and cheer the runners on.
The plot to succeed
The other goal was to get inspired to race 2015. Our group of four plus me was in attendance to volunteer and qualify to get in line for early signup for next day.
That meant keen attention was paid to the condition of all those competing. Were they fat or skinny? Tall or short? Big boobs or little boobs? Was anyone throwing up? The answer to all these questions was Yes, and maybe somewhere.
Ironman people come in every shape and size, including unreasonably out of shape looking human beings who can still go the distance. In fact this former track runner cannot conceive any range of attributes that actually make you an ideal candidate to compete in the Ironman. Where distance runners are lean and cyclists are strong-legged, Ironman competitors look like they just spilled out of an XSport gym on a Tuesday afternoon in June. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason why any one of them is there or able to swim, run or ride faster than anyone else. They just do what they can the best way they can do it. And people cheer madly for their efforts.
The scene of an Ironman would be a horrid joke if it weren’t compelling in its outlandish, determined sort of way. There were people completing the race that I would not have bet $10 on to finish a local 5K running race, much less 140.4 miles of everything you can throw at them.
Which is part of the appeal, we must suppose. It’s not about being a pro, or lauding the pros. It’s about promoting the idea that You Can Do It. That’s the plot to succeed.
The long way home
Therefore the main theme (as mentioned) when you’re decently fit and in the vicinity of an Ironman or an Ironman training club is this: When will you do an Ironman. People repeatedly ask you if you’re all tuned up and ready to go for the next Ironman race.
Conversations in such quarters feel like an Ironman slalom in which your primary goal is to get around the Ironman question without hitting any of the gates that would tip the person off. But when they ask, you learn to smile and say simple things like, “I’m still working on my first sprint triathlon.” But I’ve also been sarcastic at times, responding, “No, I tend to die when I swim,” or “I’d like to do an Ironman but I need a lobotomy first.”
Not so funny
Among true Ironman aficionados I have learned the sarcastic replies are not very much appreciated. People take this shit seriously and turn away or leave you to find your own way home after the party if you diss their favorite sport(s).
I don’t really think Ironman people are crazy. I really don’t. I’ve done plenty of crazy endurance stuff in my life and am proud of it. Why should I deny anyone else their particular brand of craziness? After all, our Presidential elections run much longer than they should as well and the results there are often crazy.
What I really mean to say about the whole Ironman thing is that it’s a great equalizer in terms of human experience. It’s not “just” men or women or anything inbetween out there competing and completing the race. Your tits and ass or the size of your crank don’t matter in Ironman World. It’s how long and hard you can keep moving, and moving on. As a New Rule, men are no better at Ironman than women. Blacks are no better than whites, and vice versa, or whatever. Race and religion simply don’t matter, unless you consider Ironman its own religion, and there is some signs of evidence for that.
It all has a religious feel to it when people come charging out of the darkness into the light. They raise their arms and slap hands toward the close of the race as if salvation were near. The Finish Line beckons, and that’s where you get to emerge from the hell of movement into the heaven of repose. That’s when you discover the mystery of becoming an Ironman, or something like it. Indeed.