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People forget years and remember moments. -Ann Beattie

Day had turned to night some time ago. We were walking now, the quiet of a cool night enveloping us. We had just completed a stretch of the course that ran in front of bars, restaurants and college town stores. The crowd had been enthusiastic but the spectators were starting to get tired, too. The course turned onto a silent street. For a brief while, it was just the two of us, Katie and me, walking. The last glow of day had turned to a deep, deep blue in the western sky outlining the majestic old red brick Science Building. Katie moved faster. I walked a step behind. I said something to her. She said something to me. Seven words, total. We fought back tears. A minute of silence passed.

“OK, let’s start to run when we get to that street and turn right.”

Katie nodded.

September 2002

Fifteen years, almost to the day, had passed since Katie put her hand in mine. Our ten-year old daughter and I ran the last 100 yards of the first Ironman Wisconsin. If you ask her, she would say that’s when a dream began. I wasn’t that bold. I couldn’t picture having Katie by my side for practically an entire Ironman.

Body Glide

Like most hobbies, Ironman has insider tips and tricks. Several pre-race briefings for each Ironman race let participants know what to expect and share a few of those tips and tricks. Having done 18 prior Ironman races, I had ceased to learn much at athlete briefings but since this was Katie’s first Ironman, I recommended that we go.

In a conference center ballroom with about 200 participants, an Ironman staffer gave the briefing. The staffer advised those new to Ironman about the best use of special needs bags, large plastic bags into which each participant places items to access at the midpoint of each of the bike and run legs of the race. He suggested that salty snacks always taste good. Then he made one more suggestion.

“For those of you who don’t know about the product Body Glide, I suggest that you go buy some. Throw it in your run special needs bag. By the time you’ve run 13 miles, I guarantee you will know exactly where to apply it.”

That got a laugh from true believers like me. Body Glide had done wonders for me through the years. It helped my wetsuit slide on over my legs and prevented chafing under my arms on the run. Those who have ever applied deodorant to chafed underarms following a marathon understand why this is a very big deal. (Hint: Applying my Old Spice after a marathon has occasionally made it feel as though the flames of hell were licking my underarms, if that gives you the picture.)

Practice Ride

For years, I had touted my traditional Friday afternoon bike ride but I had last enjoyed company on that ride 15 years ago. Friday afternoon got away from us; we meant to take both a bike ride and swim but no longer had time. Katie knew how much I liked the bike ride and insisted that we go.

We rode around Capitol Square and down State Street. I narrated the final mile of the run course. Then I told Katie that I really couldn’t tell her how she would feel when rounding the last corner and heading into the finish chute. She would need to feel that for herself.

We rode up Bascom Hill, the terror of the run course, then west to the marching band practice field. From a couple of blocks away, we could hear the University of Wisconsin Marching Band play “Rhapsody in Blue.” We parked our bikes against the chain link fence and watched the kids hop-step to the music while belting out Gershwin. The band director stopped the band several times, in each case wanting bigger, bolder.

“Sell it! Sell it!”

I silently hoped that he would not hop in the van with our family on Sunday. Clearly, he was not easily pleased and would find our Sunday afternoon marathon shuffle on the running path nearby lackluster.

Our next stop was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Temple. Confession: I am a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan but we had no time for me to bore Katie with noting the horizontal aspect of the stone work and its contrast to the steep roof of the cathedral. Even so, it meant a lot to me for Katie to experience something that I so enjoy.

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Practice Swim

Katie felt nervous about the swim. I didn’t wonder why. For 15 years, Katie had watched me begin Ironman races with roughly 2,500 other swimmers thrashing and bobbing in a frothy sea of chaos. It’s scary. Fortunately, Ironman recently consulted the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment and learned that mass swim starts crossed into “cruel and unusual” territory. Ours would be a six wave start beginning with the professionals at 6:40 a.m., Katie’s wave of younger triathletes at 6:45, and ending with my geezer wave (more like a ripple) of women over 50 and men over 55. This would segregate us into more manageably-sized groups of roughly 400 swimmers each and avoid the dreadful thrash. Unfortunately, the swimmers bearing the heaviest testosterone load would start five minutes behind Katie. So Katie faced the unenviable prospect of being an aquatic doormat for two or three waves of mercilessly competitive swimmers coming up behind, through and over her.

We decided to swim on Saturday morning at just about the same time we would race the following day so that Katie could get used to the natural conditions – the sun rising, the chilly water, the bright blue sky.

We pulled on our wetsuits. (Thanks, Body Glide!) Katie repeated her emergency procedures. If dunked by an overly vigorous swimmer proceeding directly over her, she would make it to the surface, tread water, sight down the orange and red buoys marking the course, take a few breast strokes, then lower her head and keep swimming.

Once zipped into our wetsuits, we entered the water exactly where we would leave shore 24 hours later. Katie lowered her face into the water and took some pretty strong breaths but she didn’t hyperventilate as she had feared. We took a few strokes onto the course and began to swim more smoothly. The sun cast the Monona Terrace convention center in orange against the bright blue sky. Rhythm took over. Gulls flew overhead. Sounds from land receded, replaced by the swishing of each stroke. It would have been unkind for me to let that last.

I began to harass Katie. I started by swimming up directly behind her and knocking into her feet with each stroke, much as happens when a swimmer drafts behind another to let the front swimmer do the hard work. Not satisfied that I had upset her, I swam close beside her, my left arm interfering with the stroke of her right. Her rhythm remained steady. Finally, I put my left hand on her right shoulder and pushed her down. Katie popped up and looked at me.

“Dad, I know what you’re doing.”

I smiled and said, “Excellent! Let’s swim back.”

Cavalry

Des Moines restauranteurs and merchants grieve every year during Ironman Wisconsin weekend. Many think that the Iowa-Iowa State football game draws people from Des Moines to Ames or Iowa City but its really just our family leaving for Madison. Here we are going to dinner the night before the race.

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L-R, front: Katie, Harper Cope, Davis Cope (a broken finger, not THE finger), Ann Long, Margy. L-R, rear: Rick Long, Matt Wiegand, Tom Cope, Lynn Cope, the Paterfamilias.

I climbed into bed at about 9:30, lapsed into a lasagna-induced coma and slept soundly until 1:30. I wouldn’t sleep again for 23 hours.

4:58 a.m., Sunday, September 10th, Race Day

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5:00 a.m.

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5:47 a.m.

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The Hilton Monona Terrace Hotel provides coffee makers in each guest room.

5:52 a.m.

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Katie makes waiting look easy. Don’t be fooled.

6:05 a.m.

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Time to go.

6:31 a.m.

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Chase vehicle featuring war paint.

6:38 a.m.

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Seven minutes before casting our daughter to fate.

If I told you that I felt comfortable watching Katie walk off into the sea of wetsuits and neon swim caps, it would be a lie. Margy and I watched, feeling anxiety bordering on panic. The announcer, Mike Reilly, simply said, “go, go, go,” and Katie’s wave thrashed off.

“Where is she? Do you think that we can see her” Margy asked.

I looked, too, then pointed to where I thought she might be, then shrugged. We saw only splashing and identical green and pink swim caps bobbing into the distance.

I started 20 minutes later with a firm purpose: Catch her.

While I had felt almost unbearably nervous for the two days preceding the race, I needed only 100 yards or so in the water before I realized how I had wasted so much anxiety. The rhythm of my stroke comforted me. The huge orange sun entirely cleared the eastern horizon and the sky hung dark blue straight over my head. I felt relaxed and reminded that this place, this lake, this race, this was where I belonged. Halfway through the swim, I looked to see the capitol dome extend straight up over the middle of Monona Terrace, a sight I had described to Katie many times. I hoped that she had seen it, too.

The Ironman VIP services director, Nicole Geller, lent me an arm as I exited the water. She had been enormously kind to Katie and me. She heard our story and wanted us to finish what we had started 15 years before. I asked if she had seen Katie but she couldn’t hear me over the music. Volunteers yanked off my wetsuit and I ran up the Monona Terrace parking ramp helix.

“Katie’s a minute-and-a-half ahead of you,” Margy shouted.

The fates had tossed our daughter out of Lake Monona unscathed.

Having numbered myself among Body Glide’s true believers, I used my enthusiasm for the product and years of experience as a triathlete to try something new on race day. (Those of you who know triathlon can see this one coming from a mile away.) I had put Body Glide on my arms. It made getting into my wetsuit a snap. Ordinarily, the sleeves of my wetsuit were tough to negotiate but on that particular day, no sweat. Body Glide is not water soluble and remained very much on my arms as I attempted to put on a light, white, long sleeve shirt to protect me from the sun during the bike ride. The Body Glide that made getting into and out of my wetsuit so easy made getting into my shirt practically impossible. The polyester stuck to my arms as if the shirt was made of Gorilla Tape. It didn’t do the shirt much good but I finally got it over my head and arms, but not before driving my heart rate into the red zone.

8:28 a.m. 

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Katie prematurely enthuses about the 112 mile bike leg.

8:45 a.m. 

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The smile that melts my heart: late summer, cool morning in Madison – and 110 miles to go. 

I taught Katie how to ride a bike when she was 4 1/2 so I prefer not to criticize our daughter’s bike handling skills. This is the last I will mention them. After having ridden her triathlon bike around 200 miles, total, to prepare for a 112-mile race, her riding skills reflected her time in the saddle. Her proof of concept triathlon, the Ironman Wisconsin Half Ironman, featured a couple of falls at aid stations, the most dangerous place on Ironman race courses. Some riders hammer through at dizzying speed. Others pull over and stop. Some foolhardy volunteers wade out too far into bike traffic offering water, Gatorade and food, making riders brake hard or swerve. Other volunteers prudently remain affixed to the curb, requiring the riders to hit one another to get the food or drink offered. Suffice it to say that we believed it best for me to be the dad and to go hunt for food and drink, leaving Katie to stay well clear of each aid station melee. I’d cater her ride.

Noon

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Katie gloating on the virtues of youth while leading me up yet another hill. 

12:31 p.m.

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Davis and Harper Cope with Matt Wiegand. More cowbell! Harper succumbs momentarily to Ironman’s challenge.

2:03 p.m.

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When is that Tour de France thing anyway?

After about 7 1/2 hours on a narrow leather saddle, it felt good to stand up. Really, really, really good. Good like you can’t believe good. Katie and I felt confident that once the run began, we had this one. During the latter stages of the bike, though, it had become difficult for me to take nutrition.

4:47 p.m.

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Bascom Hill. Running, for now. 

As we approached Bascom Hill, I told Katie that there was something seriously wrong with her – and with anyone else running Ironman Wisconsin – if this thought was not front of mind at this point on the course: What’s really wrong with golf, anyway?

6:00 p.m. at the Run Turn Around

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At this precise point on the course, we looked 100 yards ahead and saw the finish, then needed to turn around to run another 13 miles. Katie smiled. I wasn’t so sure. 

Name Calling

So it had gotten dark. I didn’t feel cold – yet. We needed to keep walking.

“Once we hit the 25 mile marker, no more walking. Let’s run it in,” I said.

“Agreed,” she said.

We had ceased to be talkative.

As planned, we broke into a slow run at the sign along a darkened street. We passed a house where some college boys had watched pro football on their front step a few hours before. The course took a sharp left. We saw State Street with its shops, restaurants and bars a block ahead. The course made a very sharp turn right and, suddenly, there it was. The state capitol building towered above us, high on a hill, lit brilliant white against the black sky. Katie started to cry. We picked up speed.

We passed the last water stop without grabbing anything to eat or drink. We were inside a half mile. No time to stop. Once by the water stop, we began to hear the music and the crowd in the finish area. We turned right. The hill steepened. We sped up. The street along Capitol Square was dark and quiet. Spectators had concentrated near the finish.

We took a right hand turn and I surveyed runners so that we could position ourselves for the best finish photo. I saw that we would quickly overtake two runners ahead of us but a guy running by himself ahead of us had begun to pick up speed, too. The animal spirits had gotten hold of me. I said one last thing to Katie.

“Pass him.”

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Executing our pass at the entry to the finish chute.

It wasn’t a sprint but it wasn’t far from a sprint, either. Mike Reilly, the iconic Ironman announcer, called our names and let the crowd know that we were father and daughter. Then he said it to us both, but mostly to Katie. At least that’s the way I heard it.

“You are an Ironman.”

Once Mike Reilly calls you by name and then calls you a name, it’s permanent. It never goes away. You never forget it and it never gets old.

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Rejoined by our team captain. 

Tell Then Show

Katie is fully grown. She is capably creating her life as an adult. As each day passes, I can teach her less and less that she doesn’t already know. Soon, maybe even now, Katie has more to teach me than I have to teach her. Maybe IMW 2017 was part of this transition. With less to teach, I increasingly need to show. Katie had run the last few hundred yards of Ironmans with me so she knew what that felt like but she couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to put her face in the cold water under a giant orange sun in the early morning only to finish in the dark of a cool evening. Katie couldn’t have known what it would feel like to ride her bike and look out over farm fields just beginning to turn golden brown under the crystal blue sky of a very late summer day. Katie had cheered for me for years but knowing the profound gratitude of having family cheer for you from sun up to well beyond sundown was beyond her grasp.

Now she knows.

Postscript

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The packing list I used to ensure that Katie and I had everything we needed to cover 140.6 miles. 

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Here are turn-by-turn directions for the bike course. Since Ironman modified the bike course this year, Margy spent between four and five hours modifying her spreadsheet to see us on both the bike and the run. The result? Team Ross-Ross saw us 45 times during the day. So far as Katie and I know, no other spectators saw their athletes anywhere near so many times, nor cheered so enthusiastically. We are tremendously grateful to Margy/Mom, the most competent person we know.

6:13 a.m., Monday, September 11th at the finish line of Ironman Wisconsin

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Sleeping after an Ironman is surprisingly hard. Katie and I went to bed well after midnight and woke before 6:00 a.m. We decided to take a walk to Starbucks, then around Capitol Square. The grandstands had been disassembled and hauled away. The finish arch was gone. Only some stray paper cups and some folded tents gave any hint of what had happened on that very spot only nine or so hours before. But we will always remember.

Eden Prairie, Minnesota, 5:39 p.m., Monday, September 11

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Reality revisited: Our wetsuits, singlets and other assorted wet, sweaty and otherwise dirty gear had spent more than 24 hours getting very, very angry in these plastic bags.

7:41 a.m., Tuesday, September 12th, Frisco, Texas

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Katie cut off her Ironman weekend wristbands and rejoined the real world before walking into the office.

Thank you.

Thank you to Margy Ross aka Mom, aka team captain, Ironman’s reigning navigating, driving and cheering champion. Thanks to my sister and her family, Lynn Ross-Cope, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope. Thanks so much to my other sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Rick Long. Special thanks to our niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, who came to Madison even without Sarah just because Matt is (a) so into it and (b) preparing for Mike Reilly to call him a name.  Thanks to Marcus Schneider without whose help, love, and running support Katie couldn’t run, run, run like she runs, runs, runs. And of course, thanks to Nancy/Mom/Nanna who is always there for Katie and me. Calling this crew “the best” is always accurate but always inadequate. Katie and I can’t thank you enough – ever.

In honor of Lisa Lander Holmberg whose birthday comes around at about the time of IMW every year. Katie now knows the place on the course where we will always remember you. For Warren Thornthwaite and his patch of wildflowers that grow along the road near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Most of all, for Bob Ross, captain of the 1952-1953 Grinnell College swim team. Without you, neither Katie nor I would have put our faces into the cold water and set off.

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3 Comments

    • Anderson, Brett
    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 9:47 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Great story, Scott!

    Sent with Good (www.good.com) ________________________________

  1. Rosser, as always you amaze me with your writing skills, and memories.

    Katie and you have an incredible bond. Secretly I am jealous but my friend it brings tears to my eyes and a smile to know how happy it makes you.

    See you tonight.

    Vicki Leddy | Accounting Manager | Sightpath Medical
    5775 W. Old Shakopee Rd, Suite 90
    Bloomington, MN 55437
    o 952.345.5502 f 952.345.5539
    vicki.leddy@sightpathmedical.com
    Connect with Sightpath: Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Blog

  2. Every time your blog updates, I know i’m in for a treat. This was no exception.

    Your pride in Katie shines through every entry you write. It’s beautiful to see the things you accomplish, together.


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