IMWI Race Report: 26.2 mile run

My first Ironman journey was special. Everything was a first for my body while training for IMFL in 2006.

 My first 100 mile ride (which was celebrated with pancakes with my boyfriend Karel and my mom and dad). My first long brick. My first day off after my first solid weekend of peak IM training. I just loved that every long run became my longest run of Ironman training. On race day, it was the most incredible day knowing that my entire race was a day of firsts for my body. My first 2.4 mile open water swim. My first 112 mile bike ride and my first time running a marathon finish my first 140.6 mile event.

Although the distance hasn’t changed since I crossed my first Ironman finish line, each time the journey is different. There are obstacles, highs and lows but I have learned to accept nothing will be like my first Ironman journey.

Looking ahead, I will be training for my 10th Ironman and 4th Ironman World Championship. Just like IMWI and the ones the preceded it, I have had 9 incredible different opportunities (on 6 different courses) to race for 140.6 miles

Over the years, I have developed a great understanding of how to train for and race in an Ironman. But certainly, mistakes have been made, noteworthy workouts and races have been remembered and the learning/experiences continue with my amazing body and mind. I have used my education in exercise physiology and sport nutrition and with the help of learning from consistent, successful coaches/athletes, I continue to discover the best approach to have a successful Ironman journey and race.

Here are a few of my tips to keep in mind for your Ironman race day. 

1)      Train with the least amount of training stress to foster the most performance gains
2)      Arrive to race day healthy, not injured and not burnt out
3)      Do not race for a time, race your closest competition
4)      Know how to overcome obstacles that arise on race day
5)      Postpone fatigue for as long as possible

I have been very vocal in our approach to training as we focus more on intensity, strength training and recovery as oppose to high volume training to prepare the body for endurance racing. This approach provides us with a smooth and effective transition to taper and ultimately, makes for a body and mind that has adapted well to training and is hungry to race. 
Seeing that it is not easy to train for an Ironman, by focusing on #1, this improves the odds of #2. Because many endurance athletes do not believe (or trust) that #1 can properly prepare them for Ironman racing, the athlete who trains smart (less is more) may not need to be as fit as the other athletes. Consider that if you arrive to your race healthy, not burnt out and injury free, your odds of being able to race to your full potential are increased, regardless of if you felt you could have done more training. You are already putting yourself at an advantage by arriving with a healthy body. Because every day and course is different, feel free to keep an eye on your times to keep you honest with your potential and past training but 140.6 miles is too long of an adventure to chase a time. Keep in mind that no how competitive you are, your biggest goal on race day is to function optimally for as long as possible in order to cross the finish line.

This season has been incredible for Karel and me but IMWI really pushed our limits. It’s incredible to think that on the day when our biggest dream came true, there was a chance that neither one of us would make it to the Ironman Wisconsin finish line. 

After exiting the port-o-potty, I grabbed a sip of water from the first aid station before starting the official “26.2” mile run course. When I crossed the timing mat, I hit the lap button on my Garmin 910 (multisport function) and off I went.

The Ironman Wisconsin run course is challenging (elevation map for 1 loop above from Karel's Garmin) but the spectators are incredible. With many turns and ongoing terrain changes, there is really no way to get bored on this course.

As I was running away from the finish line (which we nearly pass to start the run and start the 2nd loop), I did not feel good in my legs. Certainly I was not expecting fresh legs but unlike IM Austria where I had a PR run of 3:39, I quickly realized that this was going to be a looooonggg 26.2 mile run…..unless I could figure out a way to overcome my tired, heavy legs.

While carrying my two NAPALM flasks, each with 150 calories to last me the first loop (sipping every mile and as needed), I made sure to stop at the first aid station. Even though the first 2 miles or so are slightly down hill (which means uphill coming back in to town), I was not going to make the mistake of not stopping. The way I was feeling, I either stop now or expect many unintentional stops on the 2nd loop. 

I was feeling really warm in my face so my first focus was to cool myself with sponges and cold water. If I let my body temperature rise, not only would my heart rate increase which would affect breathing and my ability to conserve glycogen but digestion would be severely compromised and I needed to make sure I consumed all of my calories/electrolytes in my flasks to postpone fatigue as long as possible.

Many memories of racing IMWI in 2010 came back on this run course so there were a few parts of the course that I was looking forward to…but first I had to make sure my body would get there. 

Although I had planned to walk every aid station, by mile 2 I started to feel a little better but I gave myself a little mental pep talk that it probably would take a few more miles of run/walk to find my rhythm. I was not concerned about my pace and rarely looked at my watch. The IMWI changes every mile so a pacing strategy is not practical on this type of a course for most age group athletes. 
My focus was only on who was behind me especially since I thought that I was 2nd female amateur at this time and 2nd age group.

Although this run course is entertaining with all the different parts of Madison that we run through, I really, really, really needed to see Karel. My instant pick-me-up. By mile 3, I started to feel a little better but still not the feeling I had wanted (I also didn’t expect to feel amazing). IMWI is one tough 140.6 mile course!

After a little steep incline toward the stadium, I ran down a steep decline and my legs did a little happy dance as we made a loop around the stadium. This was not only a great relief for my legs but it was also a good opportunity to scope out my competition. I had passed one or two pro girls but I was looking out for bib numbers in my age group (or 30-34 ages on calves). After running a loop in the stadium with only male competitors around me, I exited the stadium and I was getting more and more excited, just a few more miles until the crowds at State Street. 

I wasn’t feeling my best on this run but I knew I needed to keep on moving forward. This has been my go to motto for the past few Ironmans “keep moving forward and you will finish, keep moving forward.” It seems like a logical saying but after racing for over 7 hours, my body certainly thinks otherwise. Let’s just say that this Ironman Wisconsin marathon was a struggle as my mind and body were in constant battle since the very first foot strike on the run course. 
I guess if it was easy, everyone would do it!

In 2010, we stayed on the gravel trail toward State Street as Observatory Hill had construction. Well this year it was ready for us to climb. Although my legs were tired and every college student I saw sitting on the grass made me think twice if this was even worth it (sitting on the grass looked inviting), I had to focus on what I do best in the Ironman (or at least what I feel my strength is) and that is troubleshooting situations as I race. 

I had already overcome my heat issue by walking and making sure I cooled myself before it got too late. I had stayed up with my INFINIT Napalm, even if I was too exhausted to drink. I made sure to use the first few miles to find my rhythm rather than trying to go too hard or give up. I told myself that I may be tired but there is no way I am going to give up on a course that I can race smart on and especially run up a climb which my quads and short stature (typically) love to do.

When I got to the Observatory Hill which is a steep long climb, followed by a short descend and then another climb with a switch-back like descend just a few blocks from State Street, I put my head down, relaxed my arms while holding my flasks, shortened my stride and shuffled my way up the two hills. I made sure to stop at the aid station before State Street because there was absolutely no way I was walking on State Street. The screaming spectators have a tremendous amount of energy to give the athletes and I needed to soak up everything I could. 

Karel told me to keep my face relaxed. He says I smile too much. Even though I was suffering, I was happy and the spectators made me smile. 

After leaving State street I was feeling a bit better and couldn’t wait to get to my favorite part…the gravel trail! Oh relief to my legs!

I made sure to only focus on one mile at a time and since I wasn’t looking at my Garmin, I was just focused on each part of the run. Since I had remembered most of the run course from 2010, I simply broke it into sections and checked off each section.
I was nearing mile 8 and I really had to go to the bathroom. No sense trying to hold it (#2) so I stopped to go and felt SO much better.

What a different scenario than IM Austria when I felt amazing, so light on the feet, for the first 13 miles (which was also my longest run for IM Austria). But in IMWI (longest training run was 16 miles which is the longest I will run while training for an IM), it was like my legs were finally coming along….it only took 8 miles! 

I had not been passed yet but with each out and back section, I saw more and more females chasing me down. I was not feeling awesome, only better, but I was not going to settle for anything less than my absolute best effort on this day.

As I made the turn around on the paved section of the trail, I noticed Suzie Fox (had never met her before but knew of her and that she is a super strong runner and top age group triathlete) running really strong and it was only a matter of time before she passed me. I could just tell that my body was not going to be able to keep up with anyone faster than me and my only option was to continue to run as strong as I possibly could (which meant running strong on the uphills which are my strength) to at least get 3rd place...if I could stay ahead of the girls behind me
(And this was all wishful thinking, in the case that there were 3 Kona slots). 

So here is where the race gets interesting. 

I always believe that faster athletes can help me reach my full potential. As long as the ego is not part of the picture, I believe that every athlete should embrace faster competition and not see it as discouraging.

I continued to stop at every aid station for it was not just my initial strategy but now it was my only strategy to help me keep moving forward. I would grab water, sponges and the occasional sip of coke but really it was just my “interval” for quick recovery for 10-30 seconds.

After stopping at aid station #10, I am passed for the first time by a female since around mile 35-40 of the bike. Suzie had passed me running super strong and that previous thought of “there’s no way I can run with her” now became “just try.” 

And so I did.

And there I was, running behind Suzie for a full mile. It was probably the easiest mile I had ran and it was not on a flat part of the course! Thank you Suzie!

 Nearing mile 11, I felt as if I needed to introduce myself to Suzie. She was helping me run when I thought I was not able to run any faster. 
 It was just awkward to run behind her. I think if Karel found out I did this during the race, he would have said “you did what??!"

I’m pretty sure Karel was not introducing himself and making BFF's to the other athletes that he was chasing down.

I introduced myself to Suzie and told her I read her blog and then told her I have a doggy, since I know she likes dogs. She was super sweet and although it was not the place to get to know each other, my competition now became the person who was literally, keeping me going. I still tried to stop at the aid stations, they were short but I still managed to stay with Suzie.

I mentioned to Suzie if she could keep me going, that we were 2nd and 3rd and I thought there would be 3 Kona slots so we would all get slots. I also told her my husband was racing and trying to get a Kona slot. 

Before I knew it, my race was about to change.

“Oh, I’m not taking my slot so it is all yours! I hope you and your husband can race together!”

WHAT???? Oh this changes everything!!!

Should I believe her, do I keep going, should I hold back? Where in the heck is Karel? I still want to sit in the grass right now. 

Although there was a brief moment of relief and concern, I still needed to race. Kona slots are not easy to come by and even though Suzie may end up finishing ahead of me, I am still being chased by a handful of girls that want to go to Kona and be on the podium.

One thing I have learned, there is no easy race if you want a ticket to the big island for the World Championship.

After running side-by-side for a good two miles (and 1 mile to start behind Suzie), I told Suzie I would be stopping at special needs for my flasks and to keep running strong. I knew that I would lose her as she was not stopping even at the aid stations and she told me to keep trying to run with her. 

It was only a matter of time when Suzie was too far ahead of me and there was no way to catch her but I am incredibly grateful that she caught up to me because I really thought there was absolutely no way I was going to get my body to go up the steady climbs back into town.

As I made my way to start loop two, I had many thoughts going through my head. Now that 1st and 2nd place were ahead of me, I was in third. I had no idea where Karel was on the course and since most of my focus was on the women behind me now, the next few miles were extremely important because I knew that this is when the going gets tough, both physically and mentally. Whereas 13 miles ago I didn’t even know how I would finish the race, I found myself now with only 13 miles to go. 
It’s still far but it meant I made progress.

As I entered the stadium again on my 2nd loop, I could see girls behind me and they all looked so strong. I was happy they were having good days and I tried to channel some of their energy. I really dug deep to not walk except aid stations. I was starting to get really tight in my left shoulder and neck and I think the day of racing was just catching up to me.

Every time I had a low moment, I thought about the finish line. I thought about my dad and instead of thinking about his fight with cancer, I thought about how much he loved seeing me race in the Ironman. I always made sure to give him a smile for the camera. 

Oh and how great it will feel to cross in 3rd place age group and amateur!  
Come on body, you can do this! 
This may not be the way I envisioned my run legs feeling off the bike but I knew I carried experience and if anything, I had arrived to this race healthy, injury free and hungry to race!

And before I knew it, around mile 23 on the other side of the road...

Oh my gosh, can it be!!!?! It’s Karel!

We crossed paths under an overpass so as I was running down the street, he was running up a little incline. Although I was incredibly exhausted, I cheered as loud as I could “GO BABE GO!!! DIG DEEP!!!”

Karel didn’t even make eye contact with me. I thought he was just focused but it turns out that Karel completely blacked out the last 10 miles. I guess he was digging so deep, he couldn’t even think clearly!

Karel was pacing with an Austrian guy on the run, who had passed him on the bike. I'm pretty sure they were not talking about doggies or becoming besties. 

After seeing Karel, I got my second wind. It didn’t make me run any faster but I sure did feel inspired to keep on pushing. When I got to Observatory Hill, there were athletes on their first loop walking. This looked like the best idea ever! Oh walking, what a beautiful thing right now with less than 10 miles to go. But no…if I walked that would mean that my competition would gain seconds on me, if not minutes. I had very little wiggle room at this point and it was only a matter of miles when there was a good chance that the girls behind me would be in front of me.

I noticed that some of the girls that were once close to me where now out of the picture so I kept on believing that I could do this. But then again, I had new competition too. I really don’t remember thinking much of my Kona dream when I got to mile 20 because the going got really tough. I mean really, really tough.

I know that the Ironman is all about pacing and postponing fatigue. It is only a matter of time when the body slows down from glycogen depletion and dehydration. As endurance athletes we have to do our best to minimize these for as long as possible but because of the nature of our sport, we can’t expect to feel amazing for 140.6 miles.

When I got to mile 21, my walks were longer. I didn’t look behind me because now I was in survival mode. I never once thought that I overbiked or pushed too hard at any one point in the race. I accepted that this was the day I was given.

As I continued to find myself counting down the mile markers, I really appreciated the cheers from friends I knew on the course and volunteers telling me that they liked my Trimarni kit (it helps to have your name on your kit for the professional photos).

An absolute (mental) highlight of the day was approaching mile marker 23. I thought I was nearing mile 22 and when I saw 23, I nearly jumped and did a happy dance. Oh how mentally relieving it is to know you are 1 mile ahead of where you think you are! I kept on running. Almost home! OK body, you can do this!

Oh wait, maybe you can’t.

Yep, they happen at every Ironman. I was faced with a new one. I was not able to breath. I was breathing very shallow as I was running back into town and could barely catch my breath. This was not a good situation to be in for I knew that if I was not getting oxygen into my lungs and I was breathing shallow, I was building up CO2 and this would not be healthy for my body. It was only a few minutes of trying to figure this out that I did the only thing that I knew would work.


With less than 2 miles to go, you’d think that it’s only two miles, suck it up. Well, I can assure you that I stopped and did not move and 2 miles to the finish felt like another marathon that I needed to conquer. I am not sure how long it was, probably no more than 45 seconds (which felt like forever as I was being passed by three more girls between miles 23-25) but I stopped and tried to get in a deep inhale. I did this a few times and I felt better but the tightness in my chest did not go away.

One mile to go.
 I was in full survival mode. Hang in there body, we can do this!

Still climbing and nearing the final turn to the finish chute, I put my empty flasks in my Trimarni jersey pockets, zipped up my jersey and feeling as if I was sprinting (at the end of this exhausting marathon, 9-10 min/miles felt like sprinting for me), I had finally gotten my body to another 140.6 mile finish line.

The IM Wisconsin finish line is one of my favorites (aside from Kona) because it is long. There are spectators on both sides and I was high fiving everyone! It was a true effort to get my hands up at this point but the high fives were totally worth it. I figured I was 6th amateur but still not positive on my age group placing if the girls who passed me were in my age group. 

And just like every other Ironman, despite having huge goals for race day to Kona qualify, everything is forgotten when I am finishing an Ironman. It is the most unbelievable feeling to finish what you start, not just at 7am but the journey that started months and months ago (and for us, a year ago when the dream started).

As I was running on the right side of the finish chute, I immediately spot Karel and our homestay Ed and Judy! I ran to the other side and high fived Karel. This was the total highlight of my day!
I was smiling ear to ear, arms were up and I did it.
9x Ironman finisher.
And then my body said, you are done.

I collapsed in the arms of the volunteers and finally I could catch my breath. The volunteers walked me to some chairs to sit down and finally, after 10 hours and 44 minutes of racing, I could sit and didn’t have to move my body any more. Off season has officially begun!

I was in no hurry to talk to Karel but after I started to come back to life a bit, I realized that I had no idea how Karel did.
I hobbled my way over to Karel after a few minutes of sitting and I asked Karel how he did.

“3rd place. I did it. I’m going to Kona!”

This is Karel's happy face, now that the suffering is over. Karel suffering?

He's good at that. 

(Karel's longest run in training was also 16 miles)

I gave Karel the biggest hug and even though I didn’t know my place, I had no Ironman scheduled for 2015 (even though Karel signed up for Lake Placid as a back-up race to try to Kona qualify) and I had the most difficult 26.2 miles to cover, I was so thrilled for Karel. He had worked so hard and was so patient in his IM journey. It was just 2 years ago when Karel learned how to swim for the first time.

I was anxious to find out how I did because now the pressure was all on me if I would be joining Karel on the big island in 2015.
I had Ed pull up his phone to see the results and we couldn’t believe it.
I was 3rd too!

I anticipated 2-3 Kona slots in my age group but if it was true that Suzie wasn’t taking her slot, that meant I would receive the roll down slot which meant, Karel and I would both race in Kona together!
Let’s just say that it was a long 15 hours of waiting to find out if our dream was really coming true.

After we took our finisher pictures, I grabbed a space blanket because I started to get really cold. I spotted some grass behind the barricades in the finish line and Karel and I just laid in the grass for a good 10 minutes. I wasn’t able to lay on my back because I was still having trouble breathing and I would cough a lot so I laid tummy down on the grass and before I knew it, it all hit me. Ouch…this Ironman racing is hard!

Karel was so fast, they didn't have time to switch over the clock to show the age group time (it's still on the pro time)

Karel is now making friends.

Finally feeling able to move my depleted body, Karel and I hobbled our way to the Terrace to get our morning clothes bag and to change into dry clothes. Ed was amazing and grabbed our bikes for us and the IM volunteers had put seat covers on all of our bikes! (Probably a good call considering what goes on during the IM bike portion). I turned on my phone and was greeted by so many texts, emails and FB messages! Thank you a million everyone for tracking our day!

After returning home, I laid in bed (tummy down) for about 20 minutes and finally made my way to the most needed, yet painful (ouch – chaffing!) shower. I put on comfy warm clothes and Judy had warmed up some leftover pizza and soup for us. 

The best homestay ever!!
Although I couldn’t eat a lot, it really hit the spot. Fat, carbs and salt makes my tummy happy post IM. I continued to stay hydrated, had 1 FIZZ (hammer) in a water bottle and after resting until 10:30pm, we (Ed, Karel and I) made our way back downtown to watch the most exciting part of the Ironman, the last hour!

Post-Ironman exhaustion + Kona slot distribution anticipation. Let’s just say it was a very restless night with only a few hours of sleep.

Karel gave up beer for a little over a week! Cheers to a great finish and WI beer!

Karel: 9:44:02
3rd AG, 9th amateur

Marni: 10:44:47
3rd AG, 6th amateur

Karel stats:

Marni Stats

Marni Run stats (Garmin): 
(including all walks/stops which was every mile + my extra stop to breath)
  1. 7:32
  2. 7:58
  3. 8:40
  4. 8:06
  5. 8:25
  6. 8:50
  7. 8:29
  8. 9:04
  9. 8:36
  10. 8:31
  11. 8:28
  12. 8:13
  13. 8:30
  14. 8:33
  15. 8:37
  16. 8:48
  17. 8:41
  18. 8:45
  19. 9:22
  20. 8:42
  21. 8:58
  22. 9:03
  23. 9:08
  24. 9:14
  25. 9:34
  26. 10:04

Karel’s run stats (Garmin)
  1. 6:42
  2. 6:57
  3. 7:20
  4. 7:03
  5. 7:00
  6. 7:24
  7. 7:05
  8. 7:08
  9. 7:13
  10. 7:10
  11. 7:24
  12. 7:14
  13. 7:32
  14. 7:11
  15. 7:19
  16. 7:34
  17. 7:39
  18. 7:35
  19. 8:14
  20. 7:57
  21. 7:53
  22. 7:56
  23. 7:48
  24. 7:48
  25. 7:38
  26. 7:21
    .2 miles @ 6:42 pace(first ½ marathon @ 7:10 min/mile, 1:33)