Monday, September 8, 2008

The iron men (and women) of Wisconsin

Every year, a sea of finely toned, well-trained triathletes descend on our humble city to participate in one of the world's most difficult races: the Wisconsin Ironman.

A qualifier for the big show in Hawaii, the Wisconsin Ironman race involves a 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 miles of biking and a 26.2 mile marathon through the streets of Madison. To say this is a daunting task would be a vast understatement.

In year's past, my only real experience with this race came from trying to avoid it: "Oh man, don't go downtown today, it's Ironman and farmers market and a Badger game day!" This year, however, I decided to go check out the whole shebang, as up close as I could get without actually being affiliated with the race or any of its participants.

So at 6:00AM on Sunday morning, as the sun rose over clear skies and cool air, I rolled out of bed and made my way down to the Monona Terrace to catch the swim start. There was already a massive mob of spectators clogging the best vantage points (I got there a bit later than I ought to have), but I managed to sidle in atop a planter on the terrace roof for a good view of the churning, people-filled water below. It was quite a sight, serving to remind me, quite starkly, that I am not a great swimmer.

We then watched the first clump of racers out of the water running barefoot toward their bikes, then flying down one of the corkscrew parking ramps and out onto John Nolen Dr. for the next leg. So many pretty bikes, so little time!

Having gotten a tip about a good spot to watch the bikers coming up an incredibly steep hill, we drove out into the wilds of Middleton's far west side and went to snap more photos. Said hill was also well populated with spectators, all cheering wildly as each racer made their way up the daunting incline. We saw reams of custom-made "team" t-shirts supporting this or that participant: families and friends all out to show their support for what must have been months, if not years, of training and preparation. Nothing against the pro athletes who run these races, but I got a special kick out of seeing so many "amateurs" giving it their all, and getting special kudos from the assembled crowd.

After the hill (and lunch), we then headed back downtown to watch the final leg of the race: the marathon. Wandering up and down State St., I marveled at the fact that these runners had already done so much that day prior to hitting the pavement. Heck, I'm no slouch in the athletic department, but this was taking things to a level of which I have absolutely no comprehension. It was really impressive.

I managed to catch the top three women finish the race, as well as a handful of the under-10-hour men, and the joy/relief visible on so many faces was palpable and infectious. Perhaps most touchingly, we watched what I can only assume was a father/daughter duo come jogging toward the finish line, hand-in-hand. Talk about setting a good example for your kids!

All in all, it was a spectacular day to be outside, and an entertaining (and motivating) event to watch. Congrats to everyone who participated, and especially to all those who finished, regardless of time.

See more photos from the race at my Flickr photo set (more coming soon, too!).


George H. said...

I'm glad you caught the father-daughter photo, which was one of the sweetest visions ever.
I was probably near the finish turn at about the same time as you, as I know I saw the first three female finishers, and I also watched from State Street and the campus. I was struck by the ordinary, normal, person-you-see-on-the-way-to-work look of many participants. I found that inspiring. How many events, especially athletic events, can inspire the spectators to buck up and take the extra walk or bicycle ride?
Nice photos.

Emily said...

It was a lucky shot, too! I had been in back of the crowd when a small slot opened along the fencing, so I squirmed in and started snapping away. I agree, it was one of the most adorable things I've seen in awhile.

I, too, was mightily impressed by the "everday folk" look of many of the triathletes--inspiring stuff.

The Lost Albatross