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