Several years ago, when I was on a road trip through the midwest, I attempted to visit the highest natural point in Illinois (the Willis/Sears tower, which I have climbed, is actually higher), not realizing it's on private property, and they only allow access four weekends a year. It's been on my list to go back on an open weekend ever since. When I was considering this year's dates, September 7-8 was the only weekend that would work with everything else I already had planned. That date seemed familiar, and I eventually realized that was the same weekend as Ironman Wisconsin in Madison, which is not far away. I decided to make a weekend of it: Fly to Chicago, rent a car, visit the highpoint, volunteer for the Ironman, and sign up to race next year.
I left the office early on Friday for an afternoon direct flight to O'Hare. It went without incident, I got in, picked up a rental car, and drove to a hotel nearby. I had dinner in the hotel, i had a slightly fancy version of a traditional sausage sandwich.
Saturday morning I got up, checked out, and picked up some fast-food breakfast on my way to the interstate. In general, I'm not a fan of toll roads, but in this case it was the simpler way to go, at least without a GPS. I got to the small town of Scales Mound. I don't know why I thought there might be some excitement to go along with highpointer weekend; the town looked to still be asleep. I drove through town to the gate leading to Charles Mound. Again, there was no fanfare, just five parked cars. I parked on the road, halfway into the ditch. Not only was there no hoopla, the gate wasn't exactly wide open. There is a dirt road that even my crappy rental car could have driven up, but instead I had to squeeze myself through the gate and walk the roughly half mile to the highpoint. It was hardly a strenuous hike, but it was a warm enough day and I was walking fast enough that I broke a little bit of a sweat. At the summit, with some shade and a little breeze, it was quite pleasant. I had passed three or four parties heading back to road on my way up; there was a party of three hanging out at the top when I got there. Another guy came up shortly after I got there. I signed the register, took some pictures, and got the guy to take my picture standing next to the sign. We chatted about highpoints for a bit before I headed back to the car. For no particular reason, I jogged most of the way back. Another group was starting up when I got back to the gate. In my estimation, Charles Mound counts as a major tourist attraction for the town of Scales Mound. I picked up a soda at the general store in town before heading on to Madison.
My first stop in Madison was to Monona Terrace to peruse Ironman Village. It was kind of neat to see the hubbub of the day before an Ironman from a non-racer's perspective for once. I scouted out the swim and transitions. The transitions are different than the two I've done (Louisville and Texas). With bikes on the upper level of the parking structure, T1 includes a climb up a helix from the water level. The changing tent is actually a room inside of the building; I didn't get a real look at it to see what they did to protect the floors from what can happen in an Ironman changing tent (a certain world champion has admitted to peeing in the chair in the tent). Bike in and out includes going up or down a helix on the other side of the building; run out is more or less level (the top of the parking structure lines up with the streets downtown).
I woke up earlier Sunday morning than many people do, but much later than the racers. I was eating a hardy breakfast at the time the race started (7am). After breakfast I headed downtown to watch some of the swim. It looked quite rough out there. There was a pretty strong wind, coming from the direction of the swim exit. I didn't see whitecaps on the water, but it must have been a tough back half of the course. I don't think anybody was under 50 minutes for the swim, which is kind of slow for an Ironman. I didn't stick around too long, not having anybody I was rooting for, before heading to my assignment in the town of Verona that started at 9.
I had signed up for two volunteer shifts, the first at bike special needs, and a second at a run aid station on the north side of the Capitol. As a major introvert, I'm not quite sure what I was thinking signing up for nine hours of being energetic and cheery. It's not that I'm a depressive sort, but my default emotional state is blank; as a race volunteer I want to be perky and attentive; I find that draining. After five hours on the bike course, even with a nap in between, I was not the most chipper at the run aid station. Plus I wanted to save up and recharge for something special later.
The coordinator was well organized, she had printed name tags for everyone (apparently this was not common, I later saw volunteers with hand-written name tags, if they had one at all). We met up for a bit of instruction, then fanned out to a section of bags (which are prepared by the athletes and dropped off race morning), which had already been laid out by an earlier crew. Then it was just a lot of clapping and being enthusiastic for the passing racers for a while. The bike special needs station is somewhere around mile 60 for an Ironman; because Ironman Wisconsin's bike course has two loops, they passed our location once before getting to mile 60. The athletes are not allowed to get to their bags on their first loop. There were a couple of people who did; they were desperate and not in any danger of winning the race. Basically, in an Ironman, unless you're in contention for an award, there are few rules enforced. Almost everyone tries to follow the rules, but when you're working at a high level for 10 or more hours, some things can go out the window. Volunteers at an Ironman will generally do almost any reasonable thing to help an athlete. Another "we're not supposed to but we will" was a husband dropping off his wife's bag that somehow hadn't made it in the morning.
I was covering bags in the 700-800 range (of bib numbers), which wound up being women 40+ years old. When athletes did start coming by on their second loop and possibly stopping for their bags, first it was pros, in the <100 range (mere moments after the last people had come by on their first lap, I might add); then it was a lot of men in the 1000+ range; a bit later the ladies started showing up. In the ideal scenario, the athlete's number would be shouted down the line, giving the volunteer time to get the bag, and guiding the athlete to the bag. This only happened very early on; as it got busy nothing was ideal. Everyone was trying to do their best, but it was organized chaos at best during peak traffic. What I would do when athlete and bag met would be to stand holding the bag open, usually such that I was supporting the bike. A number of people (much like myself when I have done when racing Ironman) wanted to get off the bike for a minute for whatever reason (more than one person took care of "personal business" just to the side of the road rather than stop again at the port-o-potty at the end of the station), so I was ready to hold the bike up. Most athletes had an idea ahead of time what they wanted from their bag. I would either pull it out or let them grab it. I generally gave an inventory of the contents of the bag, in case they had forgotten about something in there. A few wanted help mixing up some sort of drink; this generally didn't go as well as planned and left me with sticky hands. A lot of people had spare bike items, such as tubes, in case they were had mechanical problems. Because this race allows racers to pick up their special needs bags the next morning (which wasn't the case in the ones I did), several people had a cooler inside the provided plastic bag in order to have a cold drink. One woman had put frozen-solid water bottles in her bag; they were still mostly frozen when she came to collect them.
In addition to the "stuff," we tried to be as helpful as possible. We weren't an aid station, so we didn't have water or food to give them (there was a station a few miles down the road). One woman was particularly interested in getting some information about her husband. I pulled up the live tracker on my phone, but it was pretty slow. I felt bad because I put the bib number in wrong, and that guy was already through mile 60. I told her that and she took off, thinking she might catch him. After she left, I looked closer and saw the error. I did find her husband, and he had not made the swim cutoff, as she had worried. A woman who was there and overheard most of this said she would try to catch the other woman and relay the news. I'll probably never know what happened to them.
When a volunteer met an athlete with their bag, typically the volunteer would stay there with them until they were done and ready to get back to racing. If another athlete arrived with a bag in the area of a volunteer who was already helping someone, another volunteer nominally working another section and not busy would jump in and help that newly arrived athlete. Like pretty much every aspect of triathlon, at least by my observations, there's something of a bell curve to the arrival times of athletes to a particular point. There will be one, then a few more, then a ton, then a few, then one or two. Even though everybody started the race at the same time, each age group has its own curve to some extent, so not every section of special needs had its peak traffic at the same time. This is part of what makes it possible to help everyone in a reasonable amount of time. The coordinator indicated that there were more volunteers this year than last, which of course benefits the athletes and keeps the volunteers from having to run around every second. In addition to all the registered volunteers, the guy who wound up being next to me, Kasey, had two friends join him a little later in the morning; they were quite helpful when our area was slammed with athletes.
Once an athlete was done with their bag, it went into a bin. Once the last racer came through, any bags that hadn't been touched went in the bins. We then loaded all those bins into a truck, and someone took them to transition. We picked up the trash, and our job was done.
Like myself, several of the volunteers I talked to planned to sign up for the race next year. At least one other guy had done a full-distance Ironman previously, most had not. The main difference between them and me was that they were at least from that region, they hadn't flown a thousand miles to be there. Ironman Wisconsin is such a popular race, it's very difficult to sign up online. Since the number of entrants is capped (somewhere around 2800), and there is on-site registration, however many slots are left go online after the event, and that typically sells out within minutes. On-site registration is tiered to boot. Athletes have a chance to register for next year on Saturday (ie before they've raced), volunteers get to register Monday morning, and once they're done anyone else there can sign up.
From Verona, I went back to my hotel, avoiding downtown. I got a little nap and some relaxation, and headed back downtown for my 6-10 shift. I'm quite averse to paying for parking, so I drove around a while looking for some free parking. I finally gave up and parked in a garage very close to the finish line. I ate some dinner at a pub around the corner. The food was pretty good, but to me the most remarkable thing was seeing a finisher come in, obviously someone very fast to already be eating dinner 10 and a half hours after the start of the race.
As I said earlier, I wasn't feeling social when I got to the run aid station, so I avoided the "front line" of handing stuff to athletes, and worked at keeping cups filled and cleaning up some of the trash. Hygienically speaking, it probably wasn't the best thing for the guy picking up cups and gel wrappers off the ground to be pouring the drinks, but oh well. There were a lot of things being handed out: Water, sports drink, cola, broth, chips, cookies, pretzels, oranges, gels, sponges, and on. None of them were "selling" quickly enough that it was difficult to keep the tables stocked. The station was on two sides of the street, serving people going out and coming back. I stuck to one side, moving around to the various tables filling up cups. Last year when I worked Austin 70.3, for a while the cups were being handed out as quickly as I could pour them.
Things really died down after 9. Sometime around 9:30, the last runner came through the one side of the street, so those tables were cleared. I moved across the street and handed out water. The runners didn't come that frequently, and not all of them wanted water, so a lot of the time was spent chatting with a young woman named Kelly. When 10 o'clock came around and our shifts were over, the two of us walked over to the finish line. She decided not to stick around until midnight though. For a while I was at the final turn before the finish chute, trying to high-five people. That was pretty fun, I got a few takers. About 11, I went to the actual finish line and tried to squeeze my way up to the fencing.
I do not have words to convey anything beyond a blush of what that final hour at the finish line was like. It was lined with volunteers, finishers, and other various spectators. Upbeat music was playing loudly. Mike Reilly, "the voice of Ironman" was stirring up the crowd and declaring the finishers to be an Ironman. Occasionally he had the crowd collectively make the proclamation. The energy was palpable. The finishers were rock stars. Some of them were something of legends, like Fireman Rob who does the run portion in firefighting gear. The women's champion, Jackie Arendt, was there to cheer the final finishers in. I managed to high five Mike and Jackie. Everyone was beating the fence in rhythm to the music. It was raucous. It was everything I had heard it was. I was so glad to finally witness it, after being in medical at midnight both time I did Ironman. As the clock wound down to midnight, the official cutoff, a father and son, Dan and Zach Rotert, were coming down the chute. The clock said they were 8 seconds too late, but Mike declared them to be Ironmen anyway. Supposedly the display clock was off slightly and they were under the 17-hour cutoff, but I don't think they are listed as finishers in the official results.
I occasionally post especially inspirational stories on Facebook. At this race, beyond Fireman Rob, there were two outstanding stories. If you're familiar with Ironman, you've probably heard of "Team Hoyt," a father who tows and/or pushes his son, who has cerebral palsy, in marathons and Ironmans. Two guys did the same thing at this race. One was Christian Jensen, who toted his friend Mary, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, all 140.6 miles. The other was a pair of brothers, one of whom is afflicted with CP. As if just doing an Ironman wasn't difficult enough, imagine towing another person in the water, riding with them (one pair used a trailer, the other a trike), then pushing them in a special wheelchair. Obviously beyond the physical is the heart those men showed.
Shortly after midnight, the party was over and the crowd dispersed. I went back to my hotel and crashed. Monday morning, I got up at a relatively normal hour (7-ish), checked put, picked up breakfast, and headed to Monona Terrace. There was already a long line of volunteers waiting to sign up, but the line was moving. They said registration didn't start until 9, but they obviously started before then. There was a good deal of chatter about what our own volunteer jobs were like. Eventually I got to the head of the queue, gave my information to a woman with a computer, she swiped my credit card to the tune of $700, and I was officially registered for another Ironman.
I was hoping to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax building in Racine on my way back to Chicago, but I apparently didn't get the proper information, and didn't know until I got there that they don't do tours mid-week. It was disappointing. When I got back into Illinois, I took a somewhat circuitous route to the airport in order to avoid any more tolls. It was definitely not the fastest route, but since I didn't get to take a tour, I had the time to kill.