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The Cheese Grater.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Two triathletes zipping up a wetsuit.

September 10, 2006 is the fifth running of the Ford Ironman Wisconsin Triathlon.

According to the event website, one hundred forty-two athletes from Michigan will toe the line.

Wisconsin, more than any other Ironman, has become a phenomenon. It is more than just a Midwestern phenomenon. It’s an Ironman event unique to the sport. It’s also a paradox. It is among the most difficult Ironman Triathlons in the world with a crowded two lap swim, difficult, technical bike course and animated run usually contested in extreme weather conditions but more first time Ironman aspirants attempt Wisconsin than any other race.

The gentlest version of Wisconsin was the very first edition in 2002. Since then it has been ugly. The first and second fastest times were set at Wisconsin in 2002 by Chris Lieto and Chris Legh. After 2002 the race has taken on an angry character that equates it to the Cheese Grater of Ironman Triathlons. A quick search of environmental conditions shows that the record high temperature in Madison during September was 99 degrees and the low was 25 degrees. That is a wild swing. Given these weather records it is as conceivable that you could be racing in 90 degree heat or a 50 degree chill. The past three editions of Wisconsin, especially last year, have been hot. The run course in 2005 looked like a civil war battlefield due to the heat. The race spared no one, including temporary race leader and bike course record holder Bjorn Andersson. Andersson nuked the bike course in 4:33:35 at an average speed of 24.6 m.p.h. Then the weather nuked him on the run. “There are too many turns… You can’t get going. It doesn’t suit me.” Said Andersson after the event.

According to one report the 2005 Ford Ironman Wisconsin had the highest drop-out rate of any Ironman Triathlon since they’ve been keeping track, somewhere around 20%. There are likely several reasons for that.

Firstly, Wisconsin is among the most populated of Ironman races. Since the event is located near several large athlete-population centers such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Minneapolis it is a huge destination race. Athletes don’t have to fly there. With concern over flying your bike and the attendant logistics the appeal of a big, international caliber race you can drive to is obvious. Even though races like Brazil, Florida, New Zealand and others may have less challenging courses and be more exotic destinations Wisconsin is more convenient. For that reason the race sells out every year in the blink of an eye. You get a population of participants that may be marginally prepared and you put them on a sinister course of hills, heat and turns.

Another reason is the race is easy to commit to, but hard to follow-through on. When you click on “submit” the day after this year’s race you invariably do so with visions of long training rides and strict diets. The reality that unfolds between hitting “submit” and the cannon sounding a year later on Lake Monona is something we can’t always control to the degree we’d like. Since the race is close, and they post your name on the website under “participants” a year in advance you almost get guilt-tripped into at least trying the thing. After all, it is just a six hour drive…

Wisconsin is a blue-collar race. There are no hula dancers, no mystic local lore to inspire you. The locals can be a trifle grumpy about all the bikes on the road (understandably) and the painting on the roads to support Uncle Al or Sister Nancy (don’t do that- use chalk please). But the fans are like a crowd at a Bruce Springsteen concert- loud, enthusiastic and in your face.

The course itself is truly challenging in every respect. There is little open water on the swim. With well over 2000 athletes and an in-water start on two laps the swim doesn’t shake out much. You always have company in the water. You go up and down a parking structure for transition and then the bike course.

My friends who have done Wisconsin tell me you only need to know three things about the bike course: “Climb, descend, turn left- repeat.” That basically describes the two lap topography of the rural course through Wisconsin farm land. There are over 80- turns on the bike course. That is a turn every 1.4 miles on average. At 20 m.p.h that means you are turning ever four minutes and twelve seconds on average. That is a lot of turning. And then there are the hills. The first year they did Ironman Wisconsin we sold a lot of 11-23 cogsets to people going there. The second year, a lot of 12-25 cogsets. Now people have surrendered to common sense and just take a 12-27 or use compact cranks. The hills are relentless and steep. Throw in some heat and wind and you are on your way to having legs that feel like grated mozzarella.

Because of the technical nature of the bike course in Wisconsin bikes take a beating. Your shifting has to be spot-on because you will use every gear over and over, shifting literally hundreds of times. The course favors fresh tires and brake pads since you are cornering hard and braking hard. The bikes we send to Wisconsin come back looking like they’ve done three Ironmans. If your equipment isn’t in perfect condition going to Wisconsin the chances of something going wrong with it are high. The course has a way of exposing little problems and making them big.

The run is unique among Ironman runs. It is entirely urban. There are fans the entire way. While this is certainly appealing to those who draw on the energy of the crowd it can be maddening when you are having a bad day. It is like being in the coliseum on the wrong end of the gladiator’s sword. Everyone is watching and it just keeps getting harder. If the course, the weather and your preparation give you the thumbs down there are thousands there to watch you bleed. At least at Lanzarote, Hawaii and New Zealand you share your humiliation with the earth, the sky and wind instead of your Aunt Bessy from Dubuque wearing a giant cheese hat and waving a sign with your name.

So that is the ominous bad news about Wisconsin. It’s tough, it’s crowded, its hot.

But the other side of the coin is that when you finish the race, and finish you will, you have a huge feather in your cap. It is the working man’s Ironman. A grating, difficult and metaphorical day that is like a few long shifts on the assembly line, a tough day in the farm fields under a hot sun and long overtime at the steel mill all rolled into one. If you make it, you’re tough. You’re an Ironman from one of the toughest of the 19 world wide Ironman events. There may be races in more exotic locales, there may even been one or two tougher races, but none more uniquely challenging and Midwestern than Wisconsin.

I’ve never done Wisconsin. I’m too scared. If I went there and had a bad day I’d look like an ass. So I’ve hidden under the bed and stuck to other Ironman races in sunny places with. I’ve never had the courage to hit “submit” for Wisconsin the day after the race.

I love the Ironman Triathlon. To me it is the big show. I’ve done four Ironmans around the world, five if you count the slightly shorter Isostar Nice Triathlon in France now used as Ironman France. I’ve never done great, but I’ve done OK. My best race was Canada 1997 in 10:43:20. I did Hawaii before aerobars, modern sports nutrition and training techniques back in 1986. I’m not fast, but I’ve been around a little. But I’ve never had what it takes to cross the line in Madison. I know one day I will have to walk the walk and get in Lake Monona for Ironman Wisconsin. But this year, I’ll hide under the bed again and watch you guys on the Internet. Best of luck and have a great race.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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