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2002: The Inaugural Ironman Wisconsin

It was a stretch of road somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin. A ditch deep with yellowing weeds flowed off the interstate shoulder, giving way to a stream shrouded in trees. The weather felt perfect for a late summer day – about 70 and clear. My bike rattled against the cooler in the back of the car. Right there, right on that nameless prairie in Wisconsin, I told Warren that I knew that I could do it. Warren agreed.

I pass that place on I-90 practically every year and remember where I committed to someone else that I would finish an Ironman. At that place, in that moment on the Friday afternoon before my first Ironman Wisconsin, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I decided to ignore my own ignorance. Thinking that I could do something and committing to someone else are two different things. But I committed. I’m glad I did.

That first year at Ironman Wisconsin, everything felt new. When Warren, Dave Mason and I took an afternoon practice swim, Warren had to borrow a swimsuit from Dave who, characteristically, brought a tie-dyed Speedo as a spare. We swam into the brisk water, looking back at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace rise out of the lake’s western shoreline, majestic, modern, gleaming. Once back on land, we posed for a photo.

21 Warren Dave and Scott in their sexy suits

I think that Dave wore a swimsuit under the towel but I don’t really want to know.

Dave and I took a bike ride onto the University of Wisconsin campus. We watched the marching band practice for the next day’s performance at the Badgers football game.

After collecting Margy and Katie at the airport, then eating dinner, we walked to the university’s creamery on campus. Did you hear that Wisconsin is known for its dairy products?

On Saturday morning, Margy, Katie and I strolled around the Farmers Market on Capitol Square to admire the fruits, vegetables and flowers harvested as summer began to give way to fall. We strolled down State Street to take in the quirky gift shops and the Birkenstock store where our ten-year-old daughter wanted to get shoes for a new school year.

My mom and sister, Lynn, joined us that afternoon. Their commitment: to wake early the next day, then race around the Wisconsin countryside and campus while I swam, biked and ran for just a bit more than 12 hours. Katie wore an Ironman “M-dot” logo painted on her cheek.

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Mom and Lynn did not commit to staying awake, only to cheer when called upon.

During that first Ironman, in the thrash of an 1,800 person mass swim start, I survived a panic attack and managed to complete the 2.4 mile early morning dip in the lake. I pedaled my bike 112 miles around the ripening corn fields near Mount Horeb and Cross Plains, then back into Madison.  Apartments lined the course where college guys lugged TV’s and coolers onto porches to keep track of the Packers and the runners, more the former than the latter. People ate outside at restaurants and bars along State Street. They spared no enthusiasm for our efforts or their beer.

The best part came at the east end of Capitol Square when Katie entered the course about 200 yards from the finish line. She grasped my hand and took off. I needed to slow her down. We crossed the finish line and Mike Reilly said something that he would repeat to me 20 more times including last Sunday evening.

“Scott Ross, you’re an Ironman.”

Until you hear those words for yourself, spoken to you, you can’t know how that feels.

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

With Katie, just after 7:00 p.m., September 15, 2002. 

Dave Mason and I returned to work the following Tuesday, but only nominally. I’d dial Dave’s office.

“You able to work?”

“No. You?”

“No. Want to go out and get ice cream?”

“I’ll be right over.”

And so it went for at least a week, both of us returning, in some portion, and only gradually, to the real world outside Madison and Ironman.

Groundhog Day

Maybe you remember the scene from Groundhog Day. Bill Murray and Andie McDowell were building a snowman in Punxsutawney’s town square. Bill Murray began to talk about how much he wanted kids so that he could woo Andie McDowell. A group of boys lobbed snowballs at them to begin a snowball fight. Bill Murray wisecracked while tossing snowballs. Andie McDowell laughed and joined in. It’s charming, a perfect convergence of circumstances on a romantic night. Uncharacteristically, Andie McDowell found Bill Murray attractive. But every time Bill Murray woke up to repeat the endless loop of a day that had become his life, the snowball fight felt forced and Andie McDowell slapped him when he tried to rekindle the magic that worked out just one time.

2019: The 17th Ironman Wisconsin

I arrived in Madison on a cool, cloudy early Friday afternoon. I raced to claim a parking spot in the hotel adjacent to Monona Terrace, the convention center hosting Ironman Wisconsin, serving as the transition area and site of the expo where sponsors sold endless supplies of tee shirts, visors, shoes and hydration products. I darted into the expo to buy a book, Finding My Voice by Mike Reilly, the man who had sung out my name and said “You’re an Ironman” 20 times. Then I stood on line waiting for him to sign the book. When my turn came, I shook his hand and asked if he would make out the inscription to Scott, Margy and Katie because Ironman is a team sport. I stammered out something to the effect that he had been there for some really important, really happy times for me. I said that my daughter and I had run Ironman Wisconsin together two years ago. Then I said that he was the best. He said thanks and we posed for a picture.

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Mike appreciated my finisher’s tee shirt from the inaugural Ironman Wisconsin. Mike served as the principal announcer for his 189th Ironman at Madison on September 8, 2019.

Later that afternoon, Margy and I walked down State Street. We visited some of the quirky gift shops that had been there since our first trip in 2002. The street retained its fundamental charisma but the Birkenstock store closed years ago, the Gap store more recently, perhaps both victims of Amazon and the increasingly evident homeless population.

Katie would not join us because she was off vacationing with her graduate school friends. Lynn wouldn’t return to Madison this year, either, with two kids of her own to raise. Mom took a year off after coming with us to Kona in 2018. Dave Mason wished me well by phone as he recuperated from having major knee surgery a month ago. And, of course, Warren had been gone for more than five years after demonstrating real endurance while living with, and dying from, a brain tumor.

On Saturday morning, I woke up in time for a chilly ride down an empty State Street, beside a silent band practice field and out to the Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Temple. Upon returning to our hotel, my training for Ironman Wisconsin 2019 ended. Margy and I opted for free breakfast in the hotel, skipping Marigold Kitchen, the fabulous breakfast place that made such a strong impression on us the first year. Katie called from the other side of the world on Facetime to let us know that she was having a wonderful vacation and to wish us luck the following day.

After signing off with Katie, Margy and I strolled around the Farmers Market to buy some gorgeous beets and onions, not knowing whether to eat them or put them on display.

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These people (not us) opted for the flowers at the Farmers Market.

After lunch, I took my bike to the far end of transition where I took a slot among those few athletes my age or older.

Back in the hotel room, we holed up. I rested and Margy worked on the spreadsheet that would guide her to viewing points on the bike and run courses. All told, she spent more than five hours revising her spreadsheet to maximize viewing opportunities on courses changed since our last Ironman Wisconsin. It was hard to tell who felt more nervous, Margy or me. I have always felt anxious before an Ironman but maybe Margy suffered more before IMW 2019 because this would be the first time she had served both as driver and navigator without anyone along to help.

Sunday: Race Day

Surprisingly, I slept well the night before an Ironman. I woke at 4:30 and commenced the necessary preparations almost without thinking: Brush teeth, shave, drink first Ensure, dress in race top and shorts, fill bike and run special needs (food and drink) bags, pull on Bowdoin sweatshirt, throw a Clif bar into my pocket, head out to drop off special needs bags and go to body marking.

On the street outside our hotel, the air felt cool and dense with a hushed energy suffusing the pre-dawn darkness. Some people talked, but quietly. Most passed one another as silently as shadows crowding the sidewalk. I deposited my special needs bags in the places marked “2400 to 2500+”  for the oldest participants.

I walked to the body marking area where a man waved his wide Marks-A-Lot felt-tipped pen overhead.

“Kona qualifying marker here!”

As he wrote “2460” on my bicep and forearm, he guaranteed me a slot in the World Championships. I wasn’t sure it worked that way but no sense arguing if he knew what he was doing.

I returned to our hotel room to spend an agonizing 40 minutes. Having to sit and wait without really having anything to do as the sun rose ever so slowly amplified my anxiety. Margy continued to consult maps and update her spreadsheet. I finally applied plenty of Body Glide and wrestled my way into my wetsuit. Time to leave. I asked Margy to zip me in. Time to go regardless of whether either of us felt ready.

At Monona Terrace, we jammed into a stairwell, inching down five flights to lakeshore level. Nervous men and women in wetsuits stepped slowly alongside equally nervous family members carrying signs saying “Go Heather” or “Jake” or “Nathan” or any of the names of around 2,000 people who would soon splash away from shore.

Margy walked me to a place beyond which only athletes could go. Quick hug and I disappeared into a tangle of indistinguishable human forms clad in black neoprene wetsuits and neon swim caps. I seeded myself among the “1:11:00 to 1:20:00” projected finish time swimmers. I thought of lemmings and cliffs. Mike Reilly stood among us as we neared the water. Nobody spoke except for Mike whose upbeat morning patter I have never felt much like trying. My stomach twisted. My mind spun, helplessly nervous. I patted Mike’s shoulder as I passed, saying once again, “You’re the best.”

About ten feet from the water’s edge, steel crowd barricades sorted us into five lanes. A mechanical beep counted down with four of the same tones, then one louder, higher-pitched sound. A volunteer standing right at water’s edge held up her hand, progressively folding her fingers toward her palm. Five fingers, four, three, two, one and then she waved five swimmers at a time into the choppy, gray-green water. Five swimmers every five seconds.

I had no more time to feel nervous. The high tone sounded, the woman waved and I plunged into the lake, watching the guy less than a foot to my left match my stroke. Paddle boarders lined the first few hundred yards to look for swimmers in trouble. Inflated resting spots affectionately called “lily pads” dotted the first leg of the course. Swimmers overcome with anxiety grabbed one of those pads or hoisted themselves onto a paddle board to recapture their breath.

When the first cool water splashed my face, I had gasped. It took time for my breathing to stabilize and become regular, for my stroke to lengthen and strengthen. The waves washed over me from behind. Sea gulls swooped overhead. Yellow triangular buoys showed the way, occasionally obscured by the height of the waves. The sound of the crowd and the music and Mike Reilly’s voice receded. Soon, I could only hear the splash of each of my hands entering the water with each stroke and the water whooshing over my ears. (I’m not that fast so the “whoosh” wasn’t all that loud.)

At 1,100 meters, we turned and the waves rolled over me from left to right. I tried to adjust my stroke to coincide with the wave motion but never quite got it right. In only 300 more meters, we turned again, straight into the wind. Stroke rhythm coordinated with wave action became almost impossible. I felt myself rise and fall over the crests moving toward me, my leading hand entering early one stroke, late another. This continued for the entirety of the longest leg of the race. I took comfort from the sights on the shore that I had passed 15 times before – cars driving on John Nolan Drive, Monona Terrace, the power plant. Each of these landmarks passed ever so slowly.

After two more left turns, the wind began to carry me back toward the place I had entered the water. With increasing frequency, my hands plunged into seaweed in shallower water. I could hear music when I turned my head to breathe and, occasionally, I heard Mike Reilly urging us back to shore.

My hand touched bottom on the slippery green concrete boat ramp. A line of volunteers stretched into the water. I stood up, shaky, off balance. I grabbed a volunteer’s arm. She grabbed me back and pulled me toward shore. Standing up so quickly after having swum in a horizontal position for more than an hour, I felt dizzy and disoriented. Everyone yelled but with two ears full of water, I couldn’t tell what anyone said. The music blared. People pointed. I turned left, beginning to trot on the wet pavement, then flopped down on my back so that two volunteers could peel off my wetsuit. We used to call these people “strippers” but I guess that the world has moved on….

Once back on my feet, if I wasn’t yet dizzy enough, I began to run hard up a helical drive toward the fifth floor of the Monona Terrace parking lot. Cheering fans left a fairly narrow path up the helix. Lots of ringing cowbells.

The rest of the day offered less sensory assault. I mounted my bike in a windbreaker, necessary for me to stay warm on a windy, cloudy 55 degree day. Nearing Verona, about 12 miles from Madison, a guy flew by me like I was standing still. I noted the number “60” on his calf, letting me know that he was in my age group. Maybe the same guy who body marked me marked him, too. My Kona slot went up the road and disappeared. He wouldn’t come back. As I lowered my head to focus on pedaling, my jacket snapped and flapped as I traversed roads lined by ripening cornfields, bordering cattle feedlots and steep, wooded hills.

I pulled off my windbreaker at mile 40. Margy had gotten her rhythm and spotted me frequently during the bike. The sky remained cloudy. I worked hard on the bike but never really developed a sweat, even while inching up the feared Stagecoach Hill. Guys with beards dressed in tight skirts and wearing high top basketball shoes urged us on, not that there is anything wrong with that.

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State Street with the Capitol in the background.

By the time I entered the run course, I knew that I couldn’t contend for a podium finish and while that disappointed me, I still threw down my best effort. It began to rain lightly. I pressed through the first lap under a heavy sky. On the second lap of the run, I began to wonder why I wanted to kill myself with effort if I had no chance of making the podium. As the last 13 miles dragged on, the gray sky gave way to deepening night. I increasingly gave myself the opportunity to walk through water stops. Then I offered myself permission to walk up the steepest portions of slopes like Observatory Hill. And each time I began to run following a walk, my legs ached, my stride shortened, my pace sagged.

By the time I hit 20 miles, I had given up on Ironman for good. I told myself that I had given Ironman my all. I had been lucky. I had qualified for Kona once, gotten selected once. I had run good races and bad. This wasn’t a good race but there was no sense scolding myself. There was also no sense doing this to myself ever again.

At mile 25, I promised myself I would run the last 1.2 miles. But I passed the sign at 25 while still walking. After 50 meters or so, I struggled to trot. My legs loosened. My breathing began to flow. I started to pass people. Sharp left turn, sharp right. State Street. The capitol building rose into the inky black night sky, shimmering white marble towering over the street below. Shallow uphill. More people lined the course urging me on.

“Almost there!”

“You’ve got this!”

Left turn onto Capitol Square. I smiled. I refused something to drink at the last water stop.

Right turn onto a steeper portion of the course. Flat part on the top. Sharper right. Faster, faster. Sweeping left. Shallow downhill.

With the capitol behind me, I faced blinding lights at the finish line just 200 meters ahead. I glanced at the spot where Katie used to join me so many years before, smiled, then picked up speed from a happy memory.

As he announced my name and home town, Mike Reilly noted that I was a “21-timer,” meaning that this would be my 21st Ironman finish. Then Mike repeated himself to me for the 21st time, saying three words that have never failed to thrill.

“You’re an Ironman!”

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A Life of Continuous Improvement – Not!

I usually tell myself the story of my life using broader themes drawn out over periods of time. For instance, I think about what my life was like as an elementary school student in Harlan, Iowa, or how it felt to live in San Pedro, California, after I graduated from business school and got married. Sure, I remember a few particular days or incidents but for the most part, I average out the experience, connecting individual days to create an impression of a longer period of time. As a practical matter, that’s the only way I can make sense of all of those days.

The way I recall life and live life differ. I live life by waking up in the morning, one morning at a time. I live that day, then I go to sleep. I wake up the next day to repeat a lot of what I did the day before. By the time I woke up on September 8, 2019, to run Ironman Wisconsin, I had woken up to a new day exactly 22,250 times before. With all of that repetition, all of that practice, you’d think that I would have gotten pretty good at living a day.

I suppose that I should adopt a more optimistic attitude. I should believe that I can live my life with continuous improvement. Given the chances that I have received to repeat something over and over again, including Ironman, I should get better and better at it.  Like each day, I should learn lessons from each Ironman, then apply those lessons to the next. Just take the best from my good race days and implement the improvements. Simple. Shouldn’t that make all future race days better? That’s not how it has worked for me.

Think about the snowball fight in Groundhog Day. The first time is magic. Everything comes together. It’s euphoria. That describes my first Ironman during that beautiful weekend in September 2002. The satisfaction I experienced when Mike Reilly called me an Ironman 17 years ago has kept me coming back all of these years. I want to feel that way again, if only for a day – even a moment. Call it an addiction, and like all addictions, in my case, probably poorly regulated and implemented.

Why can’t I recreate euphoria with each succeeding race? For the most part, Madison and Ironman remain the same. But some days, it’s beastly hot. Other days, it rains. Still other days, the wind blows hard. Once vital with quirky charm, State Street has lost a little of its luster with the passing years. Katie’s no longer a little kid, becoming someone almost unrecognizable from the girl who wore the Ironman decal on her cheek. The girl who grabbed my hand at the finish is a woman now, not a kid. (Dave Mason’s refusal to run an Ironman on a leg surgically repaired five weeks ago is inexcusable but beyond the scope of this blog.) Warren is gone but I have lived up to my word to him 21 times. I’m proud of that. And Margy is always there. So it’s a mix. Circumstances change. Sometimes people can join me. Sometimes they can’t. Who is there – wherever “there” is – makes a difference.

Shockingly, as someone who has run 21 Ironmans and 90 marathons, I don’t easily embrace change though I crave improvement. Think about it: that doesn’t work. We live our lives one day at a time, often with little apparent changing around us from day to day. So why is it that some days feel so wonderful and others so hard? Shouldn’t we have enough practice from repeating each 24-hour day that we figure it out and just make things better and better with each repetition?

In 2011, I had run 12 Ironmans with one goal: qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. But by the time I stepped into the chilly water of Lake Monona, I had pretty much given up hope. I had tried so many times and come close but never qualified. I had given up, hoping to find other satisfactions in the pursuit. Having let go of the dream, my swim went pretty well. On the bike, I rode like someone else, someone better, for no reason I could imagine. Then I set my jaw and ran it down, much to my surprise. So even in a life dominated by repetition of fruitless trial and error, sometimes there is happy surprise, ecstasy. And there really isn’t much to explain that. So while I am not so sure about continuous improvement, I firmly believe in serendipity and happy chance.

Andie McDowell felt attracted to Bill Murray after the snowball fight exactly once. Every succeeding time, she slapped him even though Bill Murray had an infinite number of chances to get it right. So Ironman Wisconsin this year kind of slapped me, too, but I’m not worrying about it very much. Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But what would you be if you didn’t try? You have to try. Who knows? Maybe next time that guy’s felt tip pen will work.

Postscript

Unlike most people, Margy actually does live a life of continuous improvement. Despite having no companions to help her navigate the course, Margy saw me an all-time record 50 times at Ironman Wisconsin 2019. The Dane County Sheriff’s Department and Madison City Police were not contacted for comment. Thanks, Marg.

For Mom, Ann, Lynn, Katie, Marcus, Dave and Warren, even still.

For Matt: 9/29/19. Go!

For Griffin: On to Louisville.

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Lemon ricotta buckwheat pancakes, Marigold Kitchen, September 9, 2019. Some things make it all worthwhile. Maybe Ironman isn’t that bad after all. 

One Comment

  1. Rosser,

    I so looking forward to reading your blog this morning, coffee, quiet office perfect setting. As always your blog didn’t disappoint. I was filled with so many emotions. You are truly a gifted writer. Tears, smiles and shaking of my head about how things go day by day.
    Thank you as always for sharing.

    Looking forward to Wednesday.

    Me.

    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


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