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Lake Monona, September 13, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

The sun had just risen fiery orange to illuminate a few wispy clouds on the eastern horizon beyond Lake Monona. The winds were calm, the lake placidly flat to reflect a perfect early fall sky. I bobbed in the water and looked overhead from east to west. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace appeared almost red, painted by the first rays of sun. Other people – more than 2,500 of them – joined me in the water, each wearing a black wetsuit and neon green or fluorescent pink swim cap. Maybe there had been a more perfect morning but I couldn’t remember it.

While I bobbed, I thought a lot about a line from the Book of Esther.

“But you were born for a day such as this.” – Esther 4:14

Esther’s story is a little complicated. A Jew by birth, then orphaned, Esther became a queen who had not disclosed her origins to the king before she learned of a plot to rob and kill the kingdom’s Jews. Esther summoned strength by believing that she was born for that exact time and place. The fate of many thousands of people was up to her. In the end, she used bravery, charm and intelligence to get the king to prevent harm from coming to the kingdom’s Jews and saw to it that the man who perpetrated the plot was caught and punished.

Swimming?

In my case, I had not come out for an early morning swim to save anyone from pillage or murder. I was doing something frivolous and non-sectarian: Ironman is equally perilous to Jews and gentiles alike. But, like Esther, I felt like I was where I belonged at just the right time doing something really big. I tried to summon strength by believing that I was somehow born for this moment.

Strange as it may sound, I simultaneously felt profoundly grateful and scared out of my mind: grateful for my family watching from the shore and scared to death. I was not so scared of death as concerned that I would look foolish. I worried that if I did not do well, I would look like an idiot for having so fruitlessly expended so much time and effort training and racing. And my failure would be public; anyone can look up race results online. Then somebody shot off a cannon and the water around me boiled with more than 5,000 arms and 5,000 legs all heading for a red triangular buoy almost a mile away. For a few moments, I reconsidered; I was scared of death after all.

The first few hundred yards of an Ironman swim are far more chaotic than they look from shore. In the water, I couldn’t see much. I collided with swimmers on both sides as we all struggled to navigate. When we tried to untangle, a swimmer came up from behind and swam over us. Someone kicked me in the arm, another in the side and another on the shoulder. Sometimes my stroke ended up on someone’s back and I tried not to dunk him or her but that only slowed me down, thus risking being swum over again. After a few minutes of this sort of aquatic wrestling match, I ran out of breath. I needed to regroup. Eventually, my breath returned but it wasn’t easy. And I wasn’t out of the woods. Just before the first turn, someone’s heel registered firmly in my left eye socket. The left goggle rested askew, tilting slightly down my left cheek. It stayed watertight so while I couldn’t see much, I kept going.

Into the Fields

Riding out of Madison and into the surrounding fields felt very much like moving from the last of summer into the first of fall. Soybean fields shone yellow, grasses in the ditches stretched out parched and tan. Orange and yellow leaves of just a few trees here and there stood out from their neighbors showing off the first colors of the coming season. We rode along, mostly silently. I looked around to take it all in.

At the 80 mile mark, I felt a little tired but offered myself consolation: only 32 more miles of biking before the marathon.

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My sister Lynn letting me know that this was a race and that I might want to think about going faster.

An Afternoon Run

The temperature had only risen into the low 70’s by the time I shed the bike and began to run. Even that practically perfect day still felt hot. I put ice into my running hat every chance I got. Then I tried to forget everything except placing one foot in front of the other. I tried not to want anything. I focused on being where I was and doing what I was doing. I told myself that was what was meant for me.

Team Rossman

Margy, Katie, my sister Lynn, my mom and Katie’s childhood friend now living in Madison, Haley Lillehei, formed Team Rossman and they had a date with destiny. 2015 marked Team Rossman’s all time record: They saw me a total of 44 times during the race. Biblical. Over an 11.5 hour day, they saw me approximately every 15 minutes. Put differently, on a 140.6 mile course, they saw me, on average, every 3.2 miles. This was not just a feat of mathematical and navigational excellence. It required diplomacy to sweet-talk skeptical cops into parking illegally “just for minute,” athleticism to run up and down steep hills to intercept me along tree-shrouded running paths and dedication to the proposition that traffic laws don’t apply on Ironman Wisconsin day.

Team Rossman didn’t just settle for seeing me as many times as possible. They kept me up to date with my pace and place. Everyone had an assigned role, including family members not in Madison. My sister Ann monitored the Ironman website from Des Moines, as did my niece Sarah in Minneapolis. They relayed analysis to my sister Lynn who took all incoming calls. Lynn briefed Katie, the group’s fittest runner. Katie stayed off the course but ran near me briefly as I biked and ran to let me know whether I had gained or lost ground. Back in the car, Katie navigated. Margy oversaw the entire operation according to her master spreadsheet, which made Eisenhower’s plan for Normandy look lightweight. When it was too far to jump from the car and run to an observation point on the course, my mom’s job was to sit tight and appear vulnerable – but not abducted – should police approach the car while parked illegally.

As the afternoon wore on and I neared the 18 mile mark of the run, Katie said that the first three guys in my age group were probably too far up the road to catch but it was certainly possible that one of them would blow up. I held steady and protected fourth rather than risking overextending and needing to walk.

With about four miles to go, Katie said that they would see me at the finish. By the time I reached the 25 mile mark, trees formed an arch that shrouded the entire street. A cool, light breeze made it feel like fall again. From there, I pushed uphill toward the capitol as it gleamed white in the late afternoon sun. I felt happy and relieved but worried that someone in my age group might be gaining on me. At the top of the hill, I picked up speed as I headed down the finish chute. I let the slight downhill carry me.

The Catch

The catchers who met me just beyond the finish line hoisted my arms over their shoulders and tried to assure themselves that I was OK before they let me go rejoin my family. It was an on again, off again deliberation. I would let go and begin to walk, then I would list and they would grab me.

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

I didn’t answer but insisted on taking my arms off  their shoulders. I walked unsteadily and they grabbed me again. Finally, I met my family at the end of the chute and we returned to our hotel only a hundred or so yards away.

Once back in the room, Margy helped remove my race gear and I sat down in the tub making heavy use of the grab bars. We had a handicap room and that seemed entirely appropriate for the way I felt. She used a hand held shower to wash me off. I had a hard time catching my breath and coughed empty, dry, and raspy. It became clear that I had not left any race out on the course.

Eventually, Margy lugged me out of the bathtub and I put on clothes. We went to the hotel restaurant where I stared at a sandwich without wanting to eat despite having expended nearly 7,000 calories during the race.

The Morning After

Though I may have gotten even less sleep the night after the race than I did the night before the race, Monday morning dawned bright and beautiful. Then I stepped out of bed and felt as though I had been in a car accident, maybe two.

Margy and Katie left early to catch flights. Margy departed for Los Angeles, Katie for Detroit. I hated to see them go but I felt awfully proud of them and grateful for all that they had done for me. My sister Lynn and mom agreed to stay and accompany me to the awards ceremony. Having placed fourth in my age group, I would receive an award. Without friends or family there, it would have seemed almost as if it had not happened. I felt like a kid at a hotel swimming pool ordering my mom to watch – at 57, no less.

One Slot

My age group included 107 athletes, men 55-59. Given the way slots for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii were allocated, I knew that there would be two slots. If for some reason two of those who finished in front of me did not claim their slots, I would go to Hawaii. But few competitors in Madison traditionally give up their slots.

When it came time for our age group to go up on stage, the guy in second failed to show. I began to think that there was a chance.

The awards ceremony ended about 20 minutes before the Kona slot allocation. As we waited, I was not really concerned about getting a slot. I felt confident that at least two of the guys who finished ahead of me would accept.

The Kona slot ceremony was wonderful. People were overjoyed as the announcer called them to the podium. Each wobbled on stiff legs to receive a lei made of plastic flowers and wandered over to the registration table. Occasionally, someone turned down a slot and the person who received that slot erupted, families and friends cheering and jumping up and down. It was almost certainly more fun to watch the slot allocation than to watch the race.

Finally, the announcer called my age group. He read the name of the winner. Silence. He called the winner’s name again. Silence again. “Going once, going twice, gone.” I reflexively bent forward and looked at the floor. First place had passed and second place had no-showed the awards ceremony. What seemed impossible suddenly seemed possible.

The announcer called the second place finisher’s name. I saw his eyes track to the back of the room and acknowledge the second place finisher coming toward the podium. Then the announcer called the third place finisher’s name. I saw the guy in third stand and walk toward the podium.

“Moving on to men 60-64….”

I stood to leave but a woman in front of us reminded me that if a slot in the older age groups went unclaimed, maybe it would roll back into my age group. I sat down.

The man in 70-74 declined his slot. An official from Ironman spread out her papers to determine the age group to which the slot would allocate. She whispered to the announcer and handed him a sheet of paper.

“The last allocated slot from Ironman Wisconsin goes to the men’s 50-54 age group…”

And it was over. For the second year in a row I had finished one spot away from going to Kona.

Esther Again

Esther had the satisfaction of being the exact right person in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. She was clever and brave. She saved a lot of people. In short, she was really, really good at what she did. I envy Esther though I have no particular designs on having a Book of Scott in the Bible.

For my part, I regretted being good at something but not quite as good as I wanted to be. Perhaps I was the Ironman equivalent of the Philistines, the guys in the Bible who were always a day late and a dollar short. (Maybe a gold piece short; let’s not quibble.) Maybe my sense of destiny on that perfect morning, of being meant to do something special on a sunny fall day was just me flattering myself. Was I OK at Ironman? Sure, but back in biblical terms, I couldn’t even picture my name making a run at a book in the Gnostic Gospel. Even so, after saying good bye to my mom and Lynn, I had plenty of time to think as I-90 stretched west across Wisconsin in front of me. Who is ever as good at anything as they want to be? Even presidents, the leaders of the Western World, are humbled by the difficulties of their jobs. David Letterman never got Johnny Carson’s chair. How many jockeys have won 2/3 of the Triple Crown? I guess that not quite being exactly who you want to be is part of the human condition.

But the drive from Madison to Minneapolis took a very long time. Maybe that sense of destiny had less to do with what I was doing than who I was with. Maybe that perfect fall day was perfect because of who I was with: my mom, Lynn, Margy and Katie. Who else had the chance to enjoy the support and love of their family like I experienced on Sunday? I have raced 2,390.2 miles of Ironman and never seen their like. Whether I won or not seemed not to dim their enthusiasm.

I read once that we all are who we are only in relation to other people. If that’s true and I am even a faint reflection of my family, that’s a grand enough destiny for me.

By the Numbers

Margy did a bit of post-race analysis. Oh to be young again… Here is what she said in an email to Team Rossman:

“Scott was playing with younger kids on the playground yesterday. #1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8 in his age group were 55 years old. #5 was 56. After Scott, the next 57-year old finished in #9 at 12:23 (about 50 minutes later than Scott).”

I finished in 11:32:26, 4th of 107 in my age group.

Upon finishing Ironman Wisconsin in 2015, I had completed 75 marathon or ultra marathon-distance running races. Ironman Wisconsin marked my 17th Ironman.

I entered Ironman Wisconsin 2016 on the Friday before Ironman Wisconsin 2015. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

A Few Photos from the Weekend

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Sunday morning. Dropping off my bike special needs bag near the Capitol.

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I love the smell of magic marker in the morning. With one of the 3,500 volunteers who make the weekend.

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Margy and I waiting for sunrise over Lake Monona.

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Cleaning my goggles before entering the water.

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Good bye before the swim. The photo our attorney would have used to illustrate the value of careful estate planning.

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Passing through Cross Plains, Wisconsin.

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Along the shore of Lake Mendota. Head down.

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Thank you to Margy, Katie, Mom, Lynn, Haley, Ann, Sarah, Rick, Adam, Tom, Davis, and Harper: Sunday and always. For Dad and WT.

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One Comment

  1. I loved your blog, as usual. I fear you sound as tho coming in 4th is no prize when it is a real accomplishment. Your idea of the prize is Kona, of course, but making the podium is a big deal. Enjoy and take pride in your achievement, by all means…..it’s a very big deal. I loved being part of the entire race and am especially glad Lynn and I stayed for the awards ceremony. I am currently practicing my “vulnerable but not abducted” look. Love, Mom

    >


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