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Can't Look Away.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Man at IMoo, Ironman Wisconsin

On May 25, 1940 British forces at Dunkirk were trapped by the German Army and faced innumerable odds. The weather was bad and the Brits had their back against the English Channel with the German Army beating them into the water. They had no choice. They had to retreat. Their re-deployment (what the military euphemistically calls a retreat) was called “Operation Dynamo”.

In a miracle of humanity and courage nearly everything that could float on the Channel Coast of England was pressed into service to help evacuate the besieged British soldiers from Dunkirk. Civilians took to the oars of row boats, fishing trawlers and dories were sailed across the channel where desperate troops clambered on board to retreat back to the safety of England to live to fight another day.

Had it not been for the service of the countless brave volunteers on May 25-26, 1940, the British Army would have been decimated by Hitler’s hordes and the tide of WWII would have been turned almost before it began. What looked like failure was really the beginning of a difficult and hard fought success.

We had our own mini-Operation Dynamo here in the Midwest a week or so ago. It was called Ford Ironman Wisconsin. Those in the know call it simply “IMoo”.

The 2006 Ford Ironman Wisconsin was one of the largest Ironman Triathlons in history. Race entry sold out it in hours when on line registration opened a year ago last September. As the most geographically desirable Ironman race to a number of major Midwest population centers it was the Holy Grail for a lot of experienced and not so experienced triathletes. Of the roughly 2500 athletes to register for IMoo fully 1100 were first time Ironman distance triathletes. Many had only a few triathlons under their belt.

I wrote about IMoo in an editorial about a month ago. I mentioned the history of the event and that weather records for the area indicated wild volatility to temperatures and precipitation. It could be in the mid 90’s or in the mid 40’s on race day. The sun could blaze, the wind could howl or the rain could pour. They even had snow on race day several decades ago before the event. Bottom line: As far as the weather goes, anything can happen at IMoo. This year, it did again.

You guys likely already know the story. In an odd flip-flop of the weather conditions from last year, when it was in the 90’s with high winds and humidity, this year there were perfect conditions for hypothermia. Rain fell almost constantly throughout the day. It drove sideways, pouring on cyclists who struggled through gusting winds and falling temperatures. Athletes dreaded getting a flat tire not because they didn’t want to change it, but because they realized they couldn’t with hands chilled to numbness.

Despite IMoo’s growing reputation as one of the most difficult Ironman Triathlons in the world athletes arrived oddly under-gunned. Like the British at Dunkirk they had no idea what they would face and how they would survive to come back and fight another day. Oddly, the solution for many athletes at IMoo was very similar to how the British managed to escape at Dunkirk; it boiled down to the volunteers.

If you’ve done Ironman you may already know there is often a ratio of three volunteers to every one athlete in the event. For some reason unique to each volunteer, people love to help out at Ironman. They staff aid stations and medical tents; they mix Gatorade and cut up energy bars. They catch pee and snot-covered bikes in the transition area and strip wetsuits off at the swim finish. On Sunday, September 10, 2006 volunteers faced the same awful conditions as athletes but without the benefit of exertion to keep them from freezing. They dressed in Gore-Tex and Glad Bags. They boiled Gatorade and served broth to shivering athletes. The medical aid areas looked like Everest base camp with athletes swathed in Space Blankets sucking on thermometers. The army of Ironman volunteers pressed into action all along the 140.6 mile battle front with the weather.

At home we huddled around computer screens and watched like those guys at mission control during a moon walk. We keyed in names and hit refresh, looking for the latest splits to come up. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, as though the cold, wet weather even made the computer connection stiff and sore. Eventually the entire live video feed went down, shorted out by the downpour according to the website. And the battle raged on, athletes and volunteers pitched against the course and conditions. Most prevailed. Some did not. Eventually the signal came back up, the times started coming through. The splits were agonizingly slow. We began to see a stream of finishers in the dark. Our friend Matt came across. Jody was already done. Eric was missing on the course. Ric made it back. One after another finishers dressed in hats and jackets. It was crowded and dark at the finish line as we watched over the video feed. As soon as an athlete crossed the finish line a volunteer wrapped them in metallic swaddling clothes and ushered them away somewhere off screen. Some finishers looked happy. Some looked bad.

On Tuesday they started to come home. In an odd turnabout from previous Ironman races not one person came in the store wearing Ironman regalia. There was no conspicuous display of finisher shirts. No one wore the hats or the jerseys the following week. It was as though the race had a humbling effect. One guy told me, “It hurt so bad I just want to forget.” He was in the minority though.

The conditions at Wisconsin produced the same effect as a crowd gathering around a car accident. No one could look away. It went from race to ordeal on the turn of a weather forecast. When race entry went up on the web at 09:00 hr.s PST on Monday September 11 the race sold out in about 37 minutes. The thousand dollar community charity slots got snapped up in the following days. Despite the brutal conditions and the casualties strewn around the Wisconsin dairyland more and more athletes anted up to toe the line next year. Its reputation had been solidified again: Ironman Wisconsin may be the most difficult Ironman on the circuit.

The previous gold standard for Ironman difficulty was the Lanzarote Ironman. This esoteric race is contested in the bowels of the digestive system that dumps hurricanes on the Caribbean. An angry wind boils off the Sahara, slakes its thirst in a brief drink across the Atlantic before reaching the Canary Islands and then torments athletes with barren volcanic landscape that makes Kona look like Disneyworld. Winning times for Lanzarote usually run up to fifty minutes slower than Kona. The same held true for Wisconsin this year. The winning time was well over 9:00:00. If you finished around 10:00:00 you were firmly in the top 100. That time in Kona wouldn’t buy you anywhere near top 100.

I was one of those who couldn’t look away. The video stream of finishers was oddly hypnotic. We watched for hours. Person after person finishing. The announcer calling their names. Them being wrapped in space blankets. There were still a thousand people on the course. A thousand…

At midnight the white flag went up. If you crossed the line by then you made it. If not, better luck next year.

That night I thought about it. It was hard to watch people leave for the race and not be packed to go. We fawned over their bikes, stressed over them shifting and braking well, worried about their tires being fresh. By the Thursday before the race we had wished the last of them good luck and sent them on their way. And then we waited to find out what would happen. I’m not a very good spectator and not particularly patient so waiting was tough. Not being there was tougher. After four Ironmans I tried to visualize what was happening I the race.

The morning after race when registration went up I was at my keyboard for a chance to be one of the people on the video screen. I couldn’t look away.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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