Surprisingly enough, I slept pretty well - for Steelhead, the half-IM we did earlier this year, I don't recall sleeping for more 10 minutes all night. This time, I was much more relaxed. Very strange, but also very welcome. The alarm summoned us awake at 4:00 a.m., and Cath and I silently assembled our special needs bags (goodies to be stashed at the half-way points of both the bike and run) and choked down some breakfast. We then went down to meet the rest of our masochistic friends in the lobby at 5:00 a.m.
As you can imagine, the tension was pretty thick as we nervously greeted each other and death-marched our way to the special needs drop off boxes, and then to the start area. This is always the worst part of the entire IM experience - 2500 athletes, all stewing in their own anxiety, waiting for the final moment when Mike Riley (the long-time IM announcer) orders everyone into the lake. The nervous energy is so powerful, and not at all in a good way. It's like every competitor's worst fears are all escaping from their heads out into the air at once, creating a huge cloud of dread in the air. Yuck.
Unfortunately, after we all (somewhat reluctantly) pulled ourselves into wetsuits, Cath and I got seperated from Drew and Danielle. They are both much better swimmers than either of us, and were therefore going to situate themselves in different start positions, but I was still sad that I didn't get a chance to wish Drew well out there - he and I did our first ever triathlons together, and have started both of my previous IM experiences together, wishing each other good luck just before the cannon sounds. I probably wouldn't be doing triathlon without his influence, and almost certainly not at the IM distance.
It's that kind of thing that you think about before an Ironman - at the risk of over dramatizing the whole IM thing, it really is an incredibly emotional experience. Maybe it's the thought of the full-day's racing that awaits, or realizing that you've put so much time and energy into one event, but it's hard not to get choked up during those last moments before the clock starts. I was admittedly a little teary-eyed just thinking of how Cath had successfully balanced her work and training for the last eight months, and how cool it is to have a wife that supports this arguably crazy lifestyle. I gave her a last hug and kiss and we drifted to our respective start positions, hoping that she'd have an easy and uneventful swim to start her day.
And, just like that, Mike told us that we only had one minute left to wait and then - BANG - the cannon sent us on our way. I seeded myself about halfway between the shore and edge of the rectangular swim course, hoping to let the speedy-McSpeedersons go ahead, but stay ahead of the truly swim-challenged. (An interesting aside, and not meaning to sound demeaning to anyone, but you would amazed at the number of truly BAD swimmers there are in a typical IM race. The rules give you 2:20 to complete the 2.4 mile course, and there are a substantial number of people that need the bulk of that time to finish. If they finish at all. Now, maybe some of these folks are kick-ass bikers and/or runners, and will blow away a lot of the field later in the day, but still, I'm always taken aback by the number of people that are still in the water long after I'm done, and I am by no means a good swimmer).
Anywho, the swim starts pretty well for me - there's contact, but I'm moving forward, and not getting pummeled. Much. At least not until we get to the first turn bouy. Then the beatings commence. To say that the seven turns that you need to make on this swim course are 'physically-challenging' would be an understatement. It's more like a bar fight. Or full-contact karate. But you get through it. I advised Cath before we started to just go with the punches - literally - and not let the contact throw you off your rhythm. I tried to take my own advice, and was able to get back on track pretty quickly. I actually thought the first loop went by pretty fast, but resisted the urge to look at my watch and just press on. The second loop wasn't as good - I think I got a bit off-course, and spent a goodly amount of time getting back on-line, which freaked me out a bit. I have a tendency to do this in open water, and it's frustrating to think that you're going farther than you really need to. But at least the water was becoming more and more open, and, therefore, easier to just swim with a nice cadence.
The backstretch also seemed to take forever, as it usually does - the intermediate bouys just keep coming and going, but you never seem to get to the big red one that signals the turn for home. Luckily, my shoulders felt good and I wasn't feeling overly tired, but I could have used a gel around the 3/4 mark. Having made the final turn for the swim finish, I successfully battled all the last-minute sprinters and exited the water in 1:17.43. I could hear Mike Riley tell the crowd that 1,100 athletes had already completed the swim portion, which was a bit disheartening - I know I'm a mediocre swimmer, but had half the field already passed me?! Bummer. But I felt good physically, and figured that was the most important thing - conserving energy and escaping the water without a fat lip or black eye (which, sadly enough, not everyone did).
Jogged up to an inviting-looking wetsuit stripper, who had me on my way in no time. The swim out requires you to run down a path and then up a multi-tiered parking ramp (the so-called helix), which was lined with loud and excited spectators. The support here, and everywhere on the course, was totally incredible. Madison is a great IM location - even the people who were stopped in traffic because of the race would be yelling support for the racers. It felt great. Ran into the Convention Center, grabbed my transiton bag, and changed into my bike gear. The appetizer portion of the race was done, and now it was onto the main course.