Bike: 112 miles.
Ironman Wisconsin is known for a very tough bike leg. My Garmin recorded over 5000 feet elevation gain. Some Ironmans are a lot worse, but Wisconsin is the most technical. You are constantly gearing, braking, and turning. You are constantly making decisions.
Here is a map of the course (click on it for a bigger view). It is a basic “stick and loop” course. Leaving transition, you ride a “stick” (one way) to the main part of the course. You then ride circular course (or loop) before taking the stick back to transition. In this case, the loop is ridden twice. The halfway point of the course is right where the stick meets the loop and you start your second lap.
I had the chance to ride the course back in July. I rode the loop 4 times (but never twice in a row), and I rode the hilly part of the stick twice (one out and one time back).
If there was one part of the course where I did not know if I could make the cutoff, it was on the bike. I am not a strong or fast cyclist. Doing just the loop would average 3 hours in training. That was for 40 miles. If I maintained that pace, I would miss the cutoff. The stick would take an hour each way. We had 7:55 for the bike plus whatever buffer we built up from the swim. (To clarify, you had to be in transition 10 hours and 30 minutes after the race started. You had a maximum of 2:20 for the swim, and 15 minutes for T1, for a maximum of 2:35. That leaves you with a minimum of 7:55 to do the bike. Any time you had left over from the swim or T1 could also be used). I was done with the swim and T1 in about 1:40, so I would have an extra 55 minutes. On the plus side, I would have right of way at all the intersections. On the down side, I had never done more then 40 miles on this course without a break, and I was already having stomach cramping.
I was nervous.
Leaving T1, we traveled down a highway leading out of downtown and were quickly turned onto a bike path. I later discovered this is the most dangerous part of the course. There are very sharp turns on a narrow path with a lot of cyclists jacked up on adrenaline trying to fly down the flat and easy part of the course. Many of the serious crashes that I heard about happened right here. Fortunately, everyone around me was courteous, rode slow and in single file. By that point, I was getting really irritated with my bike computer. It was frozen on the stats from my last ride, so I had no idea how far I had gone or how fast. After a couple on miles, I pull over to mess around with it. One of the buttons was stuck. Got it going about a minute later. By the time I started riding again, I felt the abdominal pain coming on. Two miles into a 112 mile bike ride, and I was already in pain. Wonderful…
The course is fairly uneventful until the last part of the stick (Whalen Road). This thing is hilly and goes on forever. There is actually one really big hill around mile 10 that nobody ever talks about. I was in granny gear and going about 6 mph (so was everyone else). Coming off the back side, I came close to 40 mph, and I was the slow poke of the bunch. This is all pretty standard for this course. This course is never flat, and there is always a whiff of manure in the air…
The stomach pains were bearable at this point, but barely. I was not passing any gas. Efforts to drink Gatorade were mostly unsuccessful. Small sips would dramatically worsen the pain. I had a bag of broken up Cliff Bars and tried a piece. That was a mistake. I was falling behind on fluids, salt and calories. My nutrition plan was falling apart fast. Fortunately, being bent over was the most comfortable position for me, and I was hoping that the pain would clear up fast enough to give me a chance to recover. In the meantime, I had to keep going.
We entered Verona, and the start of “the loop”. It was a quick ride thru town and we rode by the special needs area. We would stop there on lap two to recover anything we had set aside.
After that, the hills really started. Back into Granny gear and 6 mph, then flying down the back side again. Hwy G was a long and slow upwards grind. Nothing steep, but it was constant. There is a quick right onto Messerschmidt Rd (mini roller-coaster road) and then a right onto Hwy 92. Hwy 92 is the nicest road on the course. It is wide and newly paved. But it is an even longer upwards grind then Hwy G. Then, you round a corner and you see the hill heading into Mt Horeb(ble). This is the worst hill on the course. It starts steep and just gets steeper as it goes (and goes, and goes). There is a bit of a false flat, and then it gets steep again. Many local residents congregate on this hill to cheer everyone up, but it is still a thing of evil. I am always grateful to see the “Welcome to Mt Horeb” since I know that we have reached the summit and the pain is over (for a little while).
We pass by an aid station, but I fly thru. I have only been able to choke down half a bottle of Gatorade since I started riding a couple of hours ago. By this point, I had hoped to have consumed two bottles of Gatorade and would be getting two more bottles. But my stomach was still in knots. My mouth was so dry that I couldn’t even think of eating any of my Cliff Bars. I had a hard time swallowing my electrolyte tablets. I noticed to port-a-potties at the aid station, and realized that I had not peed since Lake Monona. Dehydration was already starting to set in. I was starting to get really worried that it would be my stomach that would derail this whole adventure. But, for now, I could just hope that the cramping would go away soon enough to recover.
There was a scary sight leaving Mt Horeb. An elderly women started crossing the street. She just hit the crosswalk button and started walking. Three bikers were flying right towards her. They all started yelling and she didn’t even look up. They tried to swerve away and one passed so close in front of her that I think he made contact as she staggered back a couple of steps. She didn’t fall, and started shaking her fist at the bikers while yelling some obscenities at them…so I think she was alright.
Heading out of town, we get to Witte Rd. This is my favorite part of the course. It is the cycling equivalent to a great roller coaster. Big flying downhills going 40+ mph followed by steep uphills that you can almost make to the top before going to granny gear and grinding your way to the next big drop. I am not a great bike handler, and I had the Vulcan Death Grip on my handlebars for this stretch. I also had nightmares about challenging this hill in the rain or in strong winds. But not today. Today I was flying!
Garfoot was next and that is mostly downhill, but with sharp curves, which makes it a little more nerve rattling. The first hill has a very sharp right hand turn and a lot of signs warning you to slow down. Despite this, an ambulance is parked at this intersection every year for this event. They even stack up hay bails to try to break the fall of the stupid and reckless. I rode my brakes down that hill and could barely get my bike under 15 mph (again, I could not imagine riding this course safely in the rain).
That road ended in Cross Plains…the final town before returning to Verona. This may be the only flat part of the course. Another aid station came and went. I tried to get some Gatorade in me. I had completed one bottle in about 2.5 hours. No other fluids or calories. No need to pee. It was getting worse then I feared.
A few turns out of Cross Plains, and we hit Stagecoach Rd. This is the equivalent of riding your bike on a washboard for a mile. I think I lost a filling, and every other cyclist was losing a water bottle or some other piece of gear. I was always concerned that this much rattling could cause a mechanical issue with the bike, but it never did.
Then, the part of the course that everyone talks about. The three bitches-three steep hills in rapid succession. Old Sauk Pass is the first. This one has a 6-7 degree grade, but is winding and just keeps going and going. The three bitches is also where the spectators come to party. People dressed in little devil costumes chase you up the hill with pitchforks. There are so many spectators, that they crowd onto the road making it even harder to get thru. But the energy there does help to propel you up the hill. A short downhill and a turn later, we hit Timber Lane. This is set steepest and the shortest of the three hills. You also get a short downhill leading into it, but the 9 degree grade does make you fight for the summit. After that, there is a bit of a breather and a few fun rollers before hitting Midtown Road. Another 6-7 degree climb on a curve. Fairly short, but a false flat at the top that keeps you in granny gear forever. This was also the most congested road of the bunch. When I went through, there was a car in each lane trying to get past each other on the steepest part of the hill. With all the pedestrians, there was only a narrow path between the two cars that we had to get in single file to pass. I am surprised that nobody fell off their bikes. At the top, well there were a lot of drunk guys in drag…
Afterwards, there was mostly downhills back into Verona. We passed by the Verona festival where they had a lot of vendors and some bleachers set up to watch us come thru. Another aid station was there as well. Another reminder of how much trouble I was in. The abdominal pain was starting to subside. Unfortunately, it was replaced by nausea, which was being caused by the dehydration. I still could not get fluids down due to the nausea, which was making me more dehydrated, which was worsening the nausea. This was the scenario I had hoped to avoid.
As we turned down main street, I choked down a little more fluids and almost choked on a salt tablet. I was closing in on the halfway point, but I have never felt this bad after a 56 mile bike ride. This was a tough course and I would have to tackle it again, under ever worsening physical condition. The good news was that I was keeping up a decent pace. I had 5 hours to complete the bike. Plenty of time if my body would co-operate.
But my stomach and bowels had shut down and I was going into acute kidney failure. I didn’t know how far I could go on.
I reached the split. A left turn would return me to transition.
I turned right and started the second loop.