Last week I posted Newton athlete Chris McDonald’s race recap from his win at Ironman Wisconsin. It only seems fair that I post his teammate Hillary Biscay’s winning report as well. It was her first Ironman win and she did it wearing her pink Newton Cure Distance shoes (and a pink Newton visor).
The Double Double in Wisconsin: My First Ironman Win
I firmly believe that any measure of “success” that I have experienced in this sport derives from an approach to training and racing unlike most others—methods that most would consider somewhere between unwise and completely insane. It was only fitting, then, that my first ironman resulted from my eighth iron-distance race in 2008, and my second ironman in eight days—not exactly most people’s idea of a prescription for a racing breakthrough. But in my 31st ironman, after five second-place finishes in the past two years (including the past two Ironman Wisconsin races), I finally had my day last Sunday in Madison. Here is how it went down.
I have to admit that I really wanted to beat all of the boys out of the swim. I did it in this race two years ago, and after having possibly my best ironman swim ever in Louisville the preceding weekend, I thought that beating the boys might be a possibility in Madison. However, while in the midst of the lead pack, I made a couple of attempts to move to the outside and break away, and wasn’t able to make any headway. I knew that part of the difference between this swim and that of the preceding weekend was that this was a wetsuit swim, which inevitably makes it more difficult for me to take advantage of my strength; but there was no question that I also was simply not feeling too special. It did enter my mind that this could very well be the day that all of my racing might “catch up” to me, as everyone had promised; just because my first double ironman week was successful didn’t necessarily guarantee that my body would respond to another one–just over a month later–equally well. These thoughts were neither productive nor useful, however, so I sent them packing as quickly as I could; instead, I focused on conserving my energy and just sat in amongst the boys for the rest of the swim, until we all got separated amidst wall-to-wall age groupers finishing their first loop of the swim as we turned towards the finish. I ended up following a couple guys out of the water, but was still the first woman out.
I knew there were some strong cyclists in the field and I didn’t care to encounter any of them over the next 112 miles, so I set out to bike like I stole something. That is, I didn’t have any sort of pacing or strategy in mind other than to ride HARD. In case I had any confusion about this plan, I received a nice reminder just a few miles into the ride. I was riding through the twists and turns of the no-pass zone on the bike path when I heard a voice seemingly out of the sky; a man was yelling, “Belinda, Chrissie . . . Go Hillary!” As this stage in the race, because most of the competitors were still in the water, there were not yet many spectators out on the bike course, and I could not recognize this voice nor see a person attached to it (I later realized that it was Stu of simplystu.com, who had interviewed me on his podcast last year, and ended up being one of many people who provided incredibly enthusiastic support on the course all day long.). It made the effect of this chant all the more intense; I was reminded of the girls I am so privileged to have as my inspiration and best friends. I think I dug in just a little bit more immediately, thinking of how my TBB girls would be riding just then, and trying to live up to the standard that they set every time they set foot on a race course. While I was able to share the course in Madison with the TBB guys, my girls were also with me all day.
The hills in Madison start just a few miles into the ride and are relentless. Hills on the bike are not my strength—especially not short, sharp rollers of this kind, for which I have to get out of my aerobars and even—gasp—out of the saddle. I told myself to suck it up, buttercup, and do the best that I could to power over these things, rather than handing out time at the top of each one like I did last year. After the first several miles of hills, I found a bit of a rhythm and felt like I was biking along pretty well. I couldn’t be completely sure, however, as I had no idea where any of the other pro women were. One disadvantage of holding the lead on the bike is that the spotters who bunny hop the pro race in cars start their watches when the leader passes them, and then tell the next few girls where they are in relation to the leader, but the leader never receives information on what is behind. And on a course like Madison, where there aren’t any out-and-back sections, one can’t see what is in front or behind. I didn’t see many other competitors at all, in fact, until I began to pass age groupers on the second bike loop.
While I felt pretty strong during the first half of the ride, I truly felt as if I had a tailwind behind me every way I turned during the second loop. Besides the obvious headwind during the long stretch into Mt. Horab, my legs felt so energetic that each time I made a turn, I kept waiting to hit a headwind, since I felt like I was biking with assistance. But I never hit one!
My only issue was that with about 40 miles to go, my right cleat came loose. I’m not riding on speedplay pedals, but I suddenly felt like I was, and I knew that wasn’t good. There was way too much play down there. This was an ironman, after all, so we couldn’t have an entirely drama-free 112 miles! I did not want to rip the cleat clear off of the shoe, so I tried to keep my foot pointed straight forward and decided I wouldn’t get out of the saddle for the rest of the ride. Perhaps I have paid my bad-mechanical-luck dues over the past couple years, because the cleat managed to stay very loosely attached for the remainder of the ride. And while the last set of rollers on Whalen Road heading back to town is usually absolutely killer, I didn’t feel too bad. I had managed not to have to see any of the women I was racing—mind you they are all lovely, and Ms. Social here is most thrilled to see them on any other occasion. . .
Coming into both transitions as the race leader was awesome. The volunteers and fans surrounding the Monona Terrace went nuts and provided me with an instant infusion of energy. Then I headed out running past the capital and through downtown and the effect multiplied. I have said many times that the crowds in Madison are unlike any other, and again, I cannot thank them enough for their enthusiasm this year. It was very difficult to contain myself and not just start sprinting at mile one of the marathon with the deafening cheers from the crowds which lined the streets several-people deep.
I didn’t feel too bad running, and tried to keep the pace steady while not letting my adrenaline get the best of me during the first few miles. After not seeing my teammates Chris, Justin, and Luke all day, I looked forward to crossing paths with the pro men and seeing how they were going. I was especially thinking of Chris (McDonald), since we had a little bet/deal which had resulted in his being convinced to join me in this crazy back-to-back ironman stunt. While Chris’s tenacity isn’t something those of us who know him would ever dare to doubt, I know that women and men sometimes have different rates of recovery, and I wasn’t sure how well his body would cooperate. Nevertheless, for some reason, as I was running along, anticipating an encounter with the leader of the men’s race, I had a little fantasy that it would be Chris. So when I saw the lead bike with the bright green accents of Chris’s kit behind it, I started totally freaking out. He greeted me with a big smile and a high five, and once again, I almost started sprinting. We repeated this ritual each time we crossed paths, and when I saw how secure his lead was, I was thinking, “You can thank me later, mate . . .”
My smiles turned into a bit of stress and game-face a few miles into the run at the first turnaround—which provided my first glimpse of my competition. Karin Gerber was running about 3 minutes behind me, and Jessica Jacobs was just behind her. This sight was a bit of a shock because, during my second bike lap, a couple of splits had been yelled at me: first, “Ten minutes!” and then “Fifteen minutes!” Needless to say, after hearing those times, I didn’t exactly expect to see girls within just a few minutes at about six miles into the run! Turns out I had nowhere near a fifteen-minute lead off of the bike . . . And although I didn’t feel too bad, three minutes is not what I would call a “comfortable margin” six miles into an ironman marathon; in fact, that margin is what I would describe as exceptionally disconcerting, and most uncomfortable.
While mile six isn’t typically the time that I decide to change gears, I decided to go for it. Karin had obviously taken back a couple of minutes already, and I intended to make her work for anything else she was going to get. I figured I would either hold her off, make her blow up while passing me, or at the very least, die trying! So I spent the next half marathon doing this, until at about mile 19.5, she went past; I was still not ready to hand the title over to her, though, so I jumped in right behind her and tried to hang on. For about half a mile, I felt like I was attached with a rubber band that kept stretching back and forth; I’d start falling off the pace, and then claw my way back on, and repeat. Finally the band snapped and she opened up a gap, which appeared to grow quickly. I must admit that at this point I thought I might be done for; in fact, knowing that Jessica was running strong in third, I even had a little nightmare about nearly an exact re-run of my Lake Placid race, in which I lead all day until the last 10k, and then ended up third.
And then my teammate Luke ran up to me and got in my face: “Hills, just keep trucking, because anything can happen! She’s not looking good.” This seems to be the encouraging remark of choice to give one who is not in the lead, and while I always appreciate the encouragement, I can’t say I believe people when they tell me this; as far as I had seen, Karin was looking good, and I thought people were just trying to make me feel better. But coming from my training partner, these instructions got me going; while with just over four miles left and a sizeable gap ahead of me, closing it did not look likely, I knew he was right—anything could happen. And remembering some of the crazy, long run workouts I’d done over the past couple years, I reminded myself that “anything” should favor me at this point in the race.
While Karin’s lead stretched to nearly two minutes at one point, I think, at about mile 24, the lead bike seemed to come into closer view amongst the masses of age groupers up ahead. The gap was only about :45, but that still seemed like a lot with just two miles left and dead legs—almost insurmountable, really. I was running along thinking that I was giving this race everything I had and was going to come up just short of a win, again, when I was overcome by a sense of entitlement. It was a voice that said, “You can’t come this close so many times and let another opportunity pass you by. You deserve this. Go take it.” These thoughts drove me to dig in and find something inside me that I didn’t know was still there at mile 24.
I just focused on Karin’s back like a target and tried to pull her towards me by turning my legs over faster and faster . . . and it worked. At mile 25, I was able to pass her. But I wasn’t throwing myself any parties just yet. This pass had taken a massive effort, and I still had 1.2 miles to go, with a fair bit of uphill towards the capital. I had no idea how I was going to sustain this pace, or whether Karin would come past me again. The crowds through this area were incredible, and they broke into an uproar as they saw me coming; all the while, I was grimacing, and thinking, “Don’t get too excited just yet, people.” But once I hit the finish chute, I knew I had it. Finally, I could smile and take a second to realize that I was running through the moment I have dreamed of a million times over in the last two years. After 9:47, I finally claimed my very own ironman title: Ironman Wisconsin Champion 2008! And even better, Chris dominated the men’s race to make it a double-double. Our return to defend next year will have to include the patented “Louisville Warm Up” . . .
I could write a couple pages of “thank yous” to everyone who has helped me accomplish what was nothing less than a dream come true. But all those who believed in me and supported me in so many ways know who they are, and how much I appreciate them! I do want to mention my sponsors: Splits59 (www.splits59.com), Team TBB—especially my coach and training partners, ORCA, PowerBar, Newton Running Company, ISM, Cervelo, HED, and Oakley. And I want to add a final huge thanks to my homestay in Verona, Kari Myrland, for taking care of me three years in a row now, and for providing me with a big reason to return year after year.