Pedaling alongside Ironman Wisconsin competitors

Pedaling alongside Ironman Wisconsin competitors

I finally got into Ironman Wisconsin and, wow, what a thrill.

Not that I actually completed the 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running. I can’t swim 50 meters without resorting to side stroke and I’m not sure my aging feet could handle a marathon these days.

So instead of trying the actual race, which was held on Sept. 11, I had the honor of escorting the top professionals through the streets of downtown Madison, along the Lake Mendota shoreline through the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. They ran. I biked.

Along with seven others—including bike crazy Fitchburg Mayor Steve Arnold—I was recruited by the Mad City Velo racing team to pedal along with the top four men and top four women during Ironman’s marathon.

My job was to stay behind the fourth-place female as she navigated the final 26.2-mile leg of the race. There was a sign clipped to my handlebars reading “4th Place Female” alerting fans along the course. If another racer moved up, I went with the new fourth-place rider. Talk about a front row seat.

Just being on the course gave me goose bumps. Coming up State Street in a tunnel of noise was an incredible thrill. I can’t even image the buzz for the competitors.
Since its launch in 2002, Ironman Wisconsin has grown into one of the more popular stops on the nation’s triathlon circuit. The event consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 111-mile bike race and 26.22-mile marathon. It’s known for enthusiastic crowds, small town atmosphere and a challenging biking route that surprises people who mistakenly think of western Dane County as flatlander country.

The 2016 version drew nearly 2,400 athletes representing 17 countries and 47 states, with competitors ranging from 18 to 74 years old. Over 2,200 participants, who started at 7 a.m., finished by the midnight cutoff.

The top local competitor was Eric Engel of Madison, who was third overall in 9 hours, 31 minutes behind winner Clay Emge of Tyler, Texas, who won the men’s race in 9:07. Dustin Leutenegger of Monroe was 12th among men and Ami Hutchinson, of Middleton, was the top local female finisher, with an eighth-place effort.

This year’s race was not on the men’s pro Ironman circuit—something of little consideration to most racers—but was a women’s pro race. I had the honor of riding to the finish line with fourth-place finisher Alyssa Godesky of Charlottesville, Virginia, while Liz Lyles of Reno, Nevada, won her second Ironman Wisconsin in 9 minutes and 33 seconds. She also claimed victory in 2012 and was looking for a chance to come back.

“It’s a beautiful course,” Lyles told the State Journal. “I just wished the whole time that I had my iPhone and I had taken pictures because there were so many different things to see along the way.”

Small wonder that Ironman Wisconsin has proven so wildly popular and seems destined to stay in Madison for years to come. Although the contract between the owners of Ironman, Wanda Sports Holdings of Tampa, Florida, and the Madison Area Sports Commission expires after 2018, I can’t imagine either party wanting to mess up a good thing.

And Wanda Sports Holdings announced it will add a new Ironman 70.3-mile, or half-distance event, to Madison. That triathlon scheduled for Sunday June 11, 2017, will replace the independently owned Wisconsin Milkman Triathlon.
The Wisconsin Milkman Triathlon was a successful race put on by Ironman Wisconsin Race Director Ryan Richards, Ironman Wisconsin’s race director who will serve as director for both the full and half distance events. The new race will start at Olin Park with a 1.2-mile swim in Lake Monona followed by a 56-mile bike race on the rolling hills south of Madison and finish with a 13.1-mile run around the lake.
“Our goal is to build on the strong tradition of Ironman Wisconsin and continue to provide additional opportunities for athletes of all abilities to enjoy the beauty of Madison and the surrounding communities in Dane County,” Richards says.

Local tourism officials are certainly excited about adding another Ironman event to the calendar. Ironman Wisconsin has an estimated $4 million economic impact on the community in addition to scoring high on the “cool factor” in terms of selling Madison as something more than flyover country. Some 35,000 visitors pack hotel rooms and restaurants several days ahead of the actual race.

“Athletes from around the country and the world continually remark on what an exceptional race experience we offer, from our challenging biking to our clean lakes, to our fans and volunteer support along the way,” says Deb Archer, CEO and president of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And after hearing that for years, I finally got to see it from the front of the pack.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.