Don your rainbow gear and find a spot along the Ironman route! Amber Ault provides a glimpse into what participants go through on this grueling day.
Ironman Wisconsin, the 140.6-mile swim-bike-run endurance competition, will reappear in Madison on September 13, and there will no doubt be LGBTQ athletes among the 2,000 participants facing down the elements, the distance and the little voice in the head that says, “Enough!” If you stand on the sidelines for a few minutes, or get so caught up that you feel compelled to watch the entire 17-hour event, you will probably find yourself wondering why anyone would want to push herself so hard and so far. And then you might find yourself wondering what it takes for a person to prevail in such circumstances. And then you might just find yourself wondering whether you might possibly want to get off the curb and into the race. This line of thinking could change your life.
Sheila Power, a Madison endurance athlete and realtor who holds several international titles and Ironman finishes to her name, has seen this sort of thing happen.
“I think IM WI has made a huge difference in interest and subsequent participation (in triathlons) here in Madison,” she says. “Spectators have been inspired, I believe, by the excitement and hence have gotten involved by giving it a try, loving the challenge and all it entails—the people you meet and sense of adventure—and then they gradually expand to longer distances,” she says, noting that not all triathlons are 140.6 miles. “Sprint” distance events generally include a quarter-mile swim, a 15-mile ride, and a 5k run, for example, and often serve as a good introduction to the sport.
“What hooked me,” she continues, after recounting a near-drowning incident at a sprint-distance race at Devil’s Lake, “was the feeling of speed, anxiety/exhilaration and the feeling of accomplishment when finished—despite the pain.”
Melissa Peyton, a Madison structural engineer and Ironman finisher, agrees. “Finishing Ironman Wisconsin was the most rewarding moment. It’s supposed to be about the journey, but finishing felt great!” she remembers. “I was injured at mile 11 on the run, and had to walk the last 15 miles. I spent many hours,” she recalls, “debating with myself whether I should stop or keep going. Dealing with that internal struggle, then finishing within the cut-off time, was an experience you can’t ever replicate.”
Madison is famous among athletes for the incredible spectator support at Ironman Wisconsin, a day-long fest for the non-competing crew that would make any gay party-planner or Pride organizer proud. Thousands of spectators assemble at Monona Terrace before dawn to find viewing spots along the Monona shoreline for the 7:00 a.m., 2.4-mile swim start. All day long, people position themselves along the bike course, which is 112 miles on two loops of a course from Madison to Verona to Cross Plains and around again, and then along the marathon course through downtown Madison. Spectators wear costumes and carry signs and beat drums, all to help the athletes finish their 140.6-mile, self-propelled journey before midnight. And the people on the sidelines can make all the difference.
Denise Lippa, a New York-based triathlete with ties to Madison, recounts an incident in which she was saved by strangers during a shorter-distance race. “I was so thirsty when I got off the bike,” she says, “and there were no water stations for quite a while on the start of the run course. I asked some spectators picnicking by the lake for one of their bottled waters, and they were so supportive. The whole family cheered me on loudly, which brought tears to my eyes as I ran, clutching this awkward, bulky water bottle for miles, so grateful for the hydration and love it carried to keep me going.”
The women I interviewed reported feeling at home in the predominantly straight sport, a place where mutual respect among athletes for the task at hand seems to trump some of the divisions of social life. Still, if you’re among the spectators at our world-class hometown endurance fest, if you carry a rainbow flag or chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, we will endure!” it would certainly buck up the energy of the LGBTQ athletes in that sea of spandex.
For information about how to volunteer for Ironman Wisconsin and details about the race course, visit ironmanwisconsin.com.