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My First Ironman: Ironman Wisconsin
I was in the moment, living a dream and on top of the whole world! Honestly, I wish everyone could experience that feeling because it truly cannot be described.
From the very beginning, this event was unbelievable! Tens of thousands of people were everywhere, giving the swim start a true, stadium feel. The first half mile of the 2.4 mile swim could only be described as a human demolition derby! 2,400 people, all starting at the same moment, all vying for position. I was kicked in the head repeatedly as I kicked others in the head, all while getting pummeled by flailing arms from both sides. First instincts are to panic in this human blender and try to swim faster to avoid the crunch, but I knew to stick with my plan and maintain my stroke rhythm as best I could. As it turns out, Ironman is in fact a full contact sport!
The next half mile of the swim was only slightly better, more like human bumper cars, with an occasional kick in the head or side swipe, but thankfully, by the end of the first mile, the swim had started to mellow out. For the remaining mile and a half of the swim, I focused only on my stroke and my breathing and my rhythm. I pretended that I was back home in Laguna Beach, taking a leisurely swim up to Main Beach like so many times before, while practicing for this long-awaited day.
I knew that I had a good pace going as I exited the water. Heading up the spiraling ramp which led to the bike transition area, I was amazed at the hundreds of spectators who were cheering us on in just that one small area of the course. Looking around, it really started to hit me how truly huge this event actually was. People were literally everywhere! It’s estimated that in the sports-loving city of Madison, Wisconsin, over one-hundred-thousand people show up for this city-wide event to cheer on and support the competitors who come there from all over the world.
After a solid swim leg, I transitioned to the 112 mile bike ride and my time was right where I wanted it to be. I was a little intimidated, not having previewed the bike course before race day and hearing nothing but how “difficult the hills” were on this course and how “they will eat you up”. I was told by several people that this was “the toughest bike course in the Ironman North America circuit”, so I took it rather easy on the first 56 mile loop, expecting Mount Everest to suddenly appear in front of me.
I was pleasantly surprised, after the first 56 mile loop was completed, that these hills in my opinion, were a lot more bark than bite! The good people of the mainly flat midwest had turned mole-hills into mountains and although somewhat challenging, they were nothing like what I was anticipating. Knowing that I was banking time for the marathon run later, I got a lot more aggressive on the second half of the ride, charging the hills and then flying on the downhills, reaching a top speed of 47 miles per hour on one of the long downhills.
Amazingly, there were several places on the bike course which traveled mainly through farmland, where we would make a turn or top a hill and all of a sudden there would be hundreds of people, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but corn fields around us! Throngs of people yelling and cheering us on as we went by! I was amazed at the community turnout and the size of the crowds on these two-lane country roads.
There were car clubs there, little league teams, bars, businesses of every type, families, Girl Scout troops, college fraternities, hunting clubs, bowling teams, senior citizen centers, grade schools, churches and literally, just about every group of people you could possibly imagine. On those “tough hills” I heard so much about, hundreds more people lined the climb sections, encouraging us to keep peddling because we were “almost to the top”.
I had hoped to be close to the ten hour mark by the time I transitioned from the bike to the 26.2 mile marathon run. When my watch told me that I was a full hour and a half ahead of schedule, it suddenly hit me that my goal and dream of becoming an Ironman were very much within reach at that point. For the second time that day, I got really choked up and I had to fight back the tears as I took off my cycling shoes and clumsily put on my running shoes. The first time I had an overwhelming urge to cry that day was right at sunrise, while treading water with 2,400 other athletes as the National Anthem was sung. It was a deeply moving moment and a wonderful way to start the event.
Into the marathon run and the final leg of Ironman Wisconsin, I started to fall apart on the run almost immediately. Occasionally, I get some pretty bad pain in my right foot from a myriad of foot problems I’ve experiencedin the past, but this time the pain was excruciating! I had never rode a bike more than 90 miles before that day and my right foot was reminding me of that little fact as I began my run. I tried everything that I could think of to help ease the pain but nothing helped. At mile six of the run, with 120 miles behind me, I actually took off my right shoe and walked on some soft grass for a half-mile or so, hoping to ease the pain.
I didn’t travel all that way to go home because of a bad foot. I knew that this pain was not even close to being a game-ender, that I could grind through it okay, but I also knew that it was going to be a very, very long run ahead of me. I still had over 20 miles to go and my right foot felt as if someone had taken a baseball bat, full swing, and hit me directly on the bottom of my foot with it. It was not long into the run when I noticed one of the thousands of spectator signs being held up which read “PAIN IS TEMPORARY - IRONMAN IS FOREVER - UNLESS YOU’RE OVER 40” I actually laughed out loud at that one. At age 49, what a fitting message I thought to myself.
In one part of the course there were two men, dressed in kilts, playing their bagpipes. In another area, a little girl with her parents was playing her violin for us. Another woman, sitting in a doorway on the edge of town was belting out some great saxophone music. Throughout the course people were blasting upbeat music from their car, home and dormitory stereos, all to encourage and support the aspiring men and women who ran, walked and literally crawled past them. I saw dozens of dogs wearing their Iron-Dog outfits and many of them were barking wildly, completely caught up in their masters enthusiasm.
By mile thirteen, as we completed the first run loop back, very near the start / finish line, things really started to get exciting. Without exaggeration, there were at least ten thousand people lining that area of the course and most of them were cheering wildly. Old people and young people alike. People of every shape and size, many wearing Ironman clothes and holding up signs for the athletes and many were yelling at the top of their lungs. Hundred’s more were maintaining a triathlon tradition by ringing their cowbells. It was a total party atmosphere in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. The multitude of bars and restaurants were packed with patrons and the city streets were standing room only.
Our Ironman race bibs have our numbers and names on them so throughout the day, hearing “go Michael” and other friendly, personalized shouts of encouragement was very uplifting. Through the downtown area though, these cheers were literally energizing. This pass through downtown was a preview of things to come and my only wish was that I didn’t still have a half-marathon to complete before I could really get into the spirit of the crowds and celebrate with them.
As the run route led us back out of the downtown area, I suddenly realized that for almost a mile, my foot didn’t hurt at all! Amazingly, I was so caught up in the crowds and excitement, I had forgot to feel the pain, at least for a little while. This was the third time that day when I felt like crying. Truth be known, I did shed a few tears but with the sun still in the sky and my sunglasses on, the tears rolling down my cheeks could have been easily mistaken for sweat. I knew that barring something catastrophic, my Ironman title was only thirteen miles away and almost in the bag and I was totally pumped!
As dusk settled in and the temperature started to cool, my foot pain seemed to ease somewhat. Prior to this race, I had actually visualized a finish somewhere in the thirteen hour range but I would have been quite happy with any time, as long as I finished before the seventeen hour cutoff. I must have checked my watch a hundred times by mile eighteen and with only eight miles left to go, I knew that not only was I going to be an Ironman but I also had a very real chance of breaking the fourteen hour mark! I still had plenty of energy left but that bad right foot kept me from running for more than a half-mile at a time. I’d walk for a half mile and then run as best I could for a half mile and I repeated that “Ironman Crawl” as they call it, until mile 25 when the finish line and those amazing, incredible crowds were within sight and earshot.
The final half mile of Ironman Wisconsin was without doubt one of the greatest thrills of my life and a feeling unlike anything that I have ever experienced before. With the lit-up state capitol as the backdrop, downtown Madison was brimming with people and roaring with cheers and applause. The cramps, nausea and chills were no match for the adrenaline which was now flooding though every fiber of my body. I was almost there and nothing could stop me now! I must have traded a hundred high-fives during that final stretch of Ironman Wisconsin and so, with the finish line only a couple of hundred yards away and knowing that I was going to finish well under the 14 hour mark, I slowed down to almost a complete stop for a few seconds to basque in the glory of the moment.
Full of raw emotion, I turned to the huge crowds to my right and yelled from the very top of my lungs “you rock Madison - thank you”. Then, I turned to the crowds on my left and yelled it out again with everything I had left! The roar and applause became even louder, almost deafening and for a brief moment in time, I knew exactly what it feels like to be a rock star! This final attempt and holding back my tears didn’t work at all, but I didn’t care anymore because I was only seconds away from becoming the newest Ironman in the world and capturing my dream.
As I turned toward the finish line, picking up my speed to a full trot pace, I remember reminding myself to take all of this in, every last bit of it. Feel all of this energy and savor this moment by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching this incredibly wonderful, exhilarating, thrilling, life changing experience. I was in the moment, living a dream and on top of the whole world! Honestly, I wish everyone could experience that feeling because it truly cannot be described. No words have been invented which are cool enough to do so.
My supporters throughout the United States helped me raise over $7,300.00 for CHOC Children’s Hospital and I was going back to California with what I had come for, an Ironman medal hanging around my neck! The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction was phenomenal!
So, from the depths of my deepest despair, out of the ashes, a tiny seed of hope had blossomed into an incredibly charmed life of abundance on all levels. What once was not even remotely comprehensible, at some point became a dream. Then, with time and practice, that dream evolved into a possibility. That possibility became a reality on September 13th, 2009 and as with all of my other dreams so far, reality way exceeded my expectations!
With all glory going to this infinite source of strength, this purest form of energy, this merciful, forgiving and loving power which I choose to call God, I dedicate this effort.
To all of you who have picked me up and dusted me off or said the exact right thing at the exact right moment and to all of you who have manifested into my life and became my friends through this experience and to all of you whom I have never even met, yet your generosity and human compassion have touched my very soul and given me great hope in the true goodness and generosity of mankind, I dedicate this title to each and every one of you.
The title of “Ironman”
Love to all of you my heroes,
“Iron” Mike Callahan
*All photos were purchased by the author from
Action Sports International
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March 30, 2011
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