Big Hill Bonk – Wisconsin Backyard Ultra Race Report

When:  08/06/2021

Where:  Big Hill Park – Beloit, Wisconsin

Distance:  Endless 4.166 mile yards (loops) until there is only one runner left to complete a yard

Results:  DNF officially (only the last runner standing is a finisher, everyone else is a non-finisher and basically SOL), but here’s what I accomplished:  8 yards (loops) / 33.33 miles / 22nd furthest distance covered out of 35 runners 

Results Link:  Big Hill Bonk Official Results

BIG HILL BONK – WISCONSIN BACKYARD ULTRA – LAST RUNNER STANDING

Finally. After three postponements and nearly a year and a half after this event was to take place, the Big Hill Bonk actually happened!  And after 32+ years of running, I finally attempted and achieved my first ultramarathon.  

Last runner standing format ultramarathons have become very popular as of late.  I’m not sure when the first one was held, but it took a guy called “Lazarus Lake” to make it a very big deal.  Laz is responsible for the Barkley Marathons, and he decided to create an event called “Big’s Backyard Ultra,” named for his dog Big, and held it in his backyard.  Big’s is now the World Championship in this event, and qualifying for it means winning a similar race and getting the golden coin.  Good luck getting one.

When I first heard of it I found the format to be fascinating, and when the Big Hill Bonk was announced and it was somewhat local I made it my goal to be there and attempt my first ultra-distance run.  

Here’s the link to my previous blog post about committing to the race:  My First Ultramarathon?

TRAINING

Initially, I intended this race to be my “A” race – the focus for the year and not let anything else affect training for it and participating in it, but Covid-19 derailed those plans.  The race got postponed from April 2020 to October 2020 to April 2021 and then finally to August 6, 2021.  In between that span of time Ironman Louisville 2020 also got canceled and I was deferred to Ironman Chattanooga in September 2021.  Since I spend 30 weeks training for Ironman and it is such an investment in time and money, I made the decision to primarily focus on that race and apply that training to the Big Hill Bonk.  It resulted in me being somewhat ill-prepared running-wise to do this ultra, but it was the best that I could do under the circumstances.  I think my longest run in preparation was a couple 2-hour runs.

My goal for this race was pretty simple:  last at least to the 50K mark, which would be eight total yards.  As the race approached I was somewhat hoping to hit ten yards, but mainly I just wanted to be an official ultramarathoner.

RACE DAY/NIGHT

The race started at 5:30 pm, which is somewhat strange, but it worked out just fine.  I worried about a 5:30 pm start in April when the sun would set much sooner than it did in August.  I also worried about being able to stay awake through the night, but sleepiness wasn’t really an issue.  Thanks, caffeine.  

Kari committed to making sure that I wasn’t going to do this race without her being there to ensure I didn’t seriously injure myself or die or something.  So we drove up Friday afternoon and arrived about 3:30 pm.  I checked in and got my bib and t-shirt and then began unloading the car and setting up my campsite, for lack of a better description.  

I made my way through some serious tents already set up by those runners who were serious enough to get a spot as close as they could to the start/finish area.  I found the first open area I could and set up my little pop-up tent and laid out my junk.

My little pop-up tent worked just fine and I was glad I didn’t have to worry about a much bigger tent to deal with when I stopped running, as we had to clear out when we bonked out of the race.

I made some idle chitchat with a nearby runner and made myself eat some food and get some water in me.  Kari helped me get my hydration running vest filled with fluids.  At 5 pm we met with the race director Tyler and went over the rules.  We found out that there would be 35 runners, with three no-shows.  I can’t imagine had there been a full field of runners.  The tent area would have been super crowded, and running the loop would have needed some start placement strategy to make sure I was able to pace my run at the pace I was hoping to go.

Tyler admitted that he didn’t have a whistle to blow at 3, 2, and 1 minute before the start of the race, so he advised that he would just shout out how many minutes until the start as a warning to us all.  That worked just fine.

My home for Friday night/Saturday morning. All ready for the call to the start.

At “3 minutes!”  I took notice and got up and made sure I had what I need to run with.  

At “2 minutes!” I kissed Kari goodbye and made my way to the pavement where we had to assemble at the bottom of each hour.  

“1 minute!  10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… GO!”  And away we went.

Off we go on Yard number 1! I’m in red, waving to Kari.

THE YARDS

It’s not so much a race as it is an endurance event.  Who can go the farthest is all that matters.  One 4.166 mile lap or loop in this event is called a “yard” I’m guessing because Laz’s race consists of loops through his and his dog Big’s backyard.  So being the first to come in every yard really means nothing other than you get to rest longer if that is a benefit to you.  I was somewhat under the impression that resting may not be in your benefit, but Kari said that most of the others were coming in and sitting down and putting their feet up.  

I planned to be conservative and finish each loop around 50 minutes.  That would give me time to use the toilet, refill my water bottle, eat something and do any equipment changes that may be necessary.  

I started out with my Nathan hydration vest filled with water and Gatorade.  I also opted to wear my Hoka Challenger trail shoes.  Both of these decisions would be changed by Yard 3.  

The course was a combination of pavement, grass, dirt, rock, and a very bouncy wooden bridge thrown in just for fun.  And speaking of fun, there were plenty of tree roots, fallen trees, weeds, stairs and big rocks to navigate around, through and over.  I figured that I ran about 2.5 miles and walked about 1.5 miles.  Everyone walked the hills, even the small ones, myself included.  The namesake Big Hill was a 10-minute walk for me.

YARD 1 – 49 minutes, 37 seconds / 4.166 miles / 5:30 pm Friday

Heading past the tent area on Yard 1. I didn’t know it at the time, but the eventual winner was next to me.

I had run three loops of the course back in March 2020 prior to Covid shutting everything down, and thankfully the course was still familiar to me.  There weren’t any surprises and the first yard went pretty much as I planned.  I spent some time monitoring my watch, checking the time when I would pass certain checkpoints so that I would know how I was doing each subsequent yard.

It was clear to me even before starting the yard that a fully loaded hydration vest was probably not in my best interest.  I was carrying far more than I needed.  Plus, it was making me hotter than I need to be.  There were a few others also wearing one, but for the most part, everyone else was just carrying a small, hand-held bottle.

After finishing this yard, I went straight to the portable toilet and then back with Kari to my tent to refuel and discuss how I felt.  I decided to just take on some gel and drink some Gatorade.  

YARD 2 – 49 minutes, 33 seconds / 8.33 miles / 6:30 pm Friday

Yard 2 was just a few seconds faster than the first and I felt really good about that.  I came in and committed to the peeing again, which I think was a good plan.  I tried to urinate after every yard just to make sure that I was staying on top of hydration.  Back at the tent, Kari handed me some pretzels and some more Gatorade and I took another hit of gel.  I also decided to take a salt capsule at this time, as I was sweating a lot.  I’m not sure the extra salt was needed because I was eating plenty of salty snacks and drinking Gatorade, but I was leaving nothing to chance.  

YARD 3 – 51 minutes, 05 seconds / 12.5 miles / 7:30 pm Friday

I decided to take my iPhone with me and take some really crappy selfies and photos as I ran on Yard 3 because I figured it was the last lap with available sunlight.  I was also now pretty familiar with the course so I wasn’t too worried about carrying the dumb phone around and snapping a few pictures.  Here’s some of what the course looked like:

The yards were starting to become pretty routine – Start with running on the parking lot asphalt and transitioning to grass, down a paved bike trail, head up a steep dirt path, run across the grass to the road, down a technical path and over a bunch of roots and fallen trees, down the stairs, across a path and then head through the foliage portion of the trail always watching for tree roots and low hanging branches, across the trampoline bridge, up the gravel/crushed rock Big Hill, onto the dirt path then onto the road, back to a gravel road that changed to dirt, then back to a grassy path that leads to the finish.  Into the toilet, back to the tent, down some gel, food, and Gatorade.  Repeat, repeat, repeat…

It was on this yard that I decided that I was done with the hydration vest and opted to just use a handheld Nathan 8 0unce water bottle from now on.  I drained the water bottle every loop.  8 ounces seemed to be about the right amount of water on this warm and humid evening.

YARD 4 – 49 minutes, 06 seconds / 16.67 miles / 8:30 pm Friday

I changed my shirt and visor and added a light to the bill of the visor.  The little lights that I bought over a year ago got a good recharging and one little light provided enough light to see sufficiently.  I also grabbed a Nathan hand-held flashlight that I carried with me strapped to my right hand and turned it on when I got to the technical stuff.  At the start of this yard, Kari was telling me to turn my light on, but I was surprised at how well I could see just using everyone else’s headlamps and lights.  But when we spread out, it was time to rely on my own lights.

I was glad to be done with the vest and felt refreshed after toweling off and getting a dry shirt.  Simple things like this can certainly lift your mood.

In the dark, the course was now almost unfamiliar in a way.  Oh sure, I knew the layout and such, but not being able to see specific landmarks that were visible in the daylight made for some new challenges.  One time through the course in the dark was enough to build confidence in knowing the turns and course again.

YARD 5 – 47 minutes, 20 seconds / 20.83 miles / 9:30 pm Friday

Kari had left the park to go check into the local hotel and grab some dinner, so I was on my own for this yard.  After getting back to the finish, I immediately walked over to the water cooler and filled up my bottle.  After another bathroom break it was off to my tent to replenish my fuel and drink some Gatorade.  In addition to taking a shot of GU Salted Caramel gels, I was snacking on salty potato chips, salty pretzels (Dot’s Pretzels are the best), fun-size Payday bars, and a turkey and swiss sandwich.  

I also decided that I had had enough with the trail shoes and switched out to my normal Hoka Clifton running shoes.  The bottom edge of the trail shoes would clip my ankle so often that I couldn’t take it anymore.  The Cliftons were more than sufficient for this multi-surface trail.

I found a little speed this lap somehow, turning in the quickest time of the eight yards I ran.

YARD 6 – 50 minutes, 45 seconds / 25 miles / 10:30 pm Friday

As I ran through this loop I knew I was about to get to marathon distance and thought how strange it was to feel pretty good at this point. Normally in a marathon, I am holding on for dear life at Mile 25 trying to set a marathon personal best or get that elusive Boston qualifier. But today that was not in my game plan. Slow and steady was the motto. I didn’t have to remind myself to take my time on the hills and just kept that forward momentum going.

However, I was beginning to get a pain in my upper left thigh that would bother me when I ran. I started to think that I could definitely get in two more loops, but started thinking that eight might be my max. Besides having a goal of reaching 50K (~31 miles), I also had a goal of not wiping myself out to the point where Kari would have to deal with a dehydrated, shivering and cramping mess when I was done.

As I got back to my tent, Kari had brought me some chicken broth that she had warmed up at the hotel and placed into a soup thermos thing she purchased for this dumb event. I drank as much as I could and chased it down with some Gatorade and headed back to the start area for Yard 7.

I feel about as good as I look.

YARD 7 – 52 minutes, 16 seconds / 29.17 miles / 11:30 pm Friday

As we started off this yard, I burped up some Gatorade/chicken broth mix and that acid reflux was not a good feeling.  It was just a little too much in me for the jogging I was doing, but it settled quickly enough.  The pain in my thigh was not happy however, and my overall sense of reaching my limit was becoming clear.  I figured I had this yard and one more in me.  At 52 minutes and 16 seconds, I didn’t really leave myself much time to get through my routine.  My appetite was fading and I decided to tell Kari to start packing up the tent and junk as I made my way back to the start for the yard that would put me over 50K and make me an ultramarathon finisher.

YARD 8 – 53 minutes, 12 seconds / 33.33 miles / 12:30 am Saturday

When Tyler the race director yelled go for Yard 8, I could barely get myself going.  I began walking and quickly everyone else was into a jog.  I willed myself to join them.  On the previous lap another runner was running through a rough spot and the lady from Canada reminded him that he may feel bad now but be much better later.  I put that in the back of my mind and kept moving forward.  I was determined to get through this lap in the allotted sixty-minutes.  

As the steps passed I became pretty confident that I would hit my goal of eight total yards, and as I got to the bottom of the Big Hill I glanced at my watch and saw that it read 31.85 miles.  There was no celebration, but just some relief.  I’d never run this far before.  I kept climbing the hill and caught up with Viktoria, the runner from Canada.  

Viktoria looked tired as well, and she quickly corrected herself when she made a turn at the top of the Big Hill instead of going straight.  She admitted that she had made a few wrong turns, but was able to get back on track again.  She started off in the wrong direction again when we made it back to the road, and I made sure that she went the right way.  As we ran through the fourth mile, I told her that I was pretty familiar with it from having run it before.  She asked if I was the one who wrote the blog about the pre-event course run and I said Yes!  She said that she chose to use trail shoes because of how I had described the course.  

Seeing that she was from Canada, I asked her if it was mandatory that she liked the band Rush.  She said she had never heard of them, which gave me a chuckle. So much for making small talk.  She did say that she wasn’t born in Canada, so that explains it a little better.  I advised her that I was done after this yard and she was surprised at that because I was running a pretty good pace with her.  I said I was just finishing strong to make sure I didn’t miss the cut-off, but I was indeed done.  I thought she would be done soon too, but boy was I wrong about that.  Viktoria made it through the night and the next day, completing Yard 25 and 125 total miles, finishing third overall.  So impressive.  It’s so hard to judge these runners and how good they can be.

As I finished I found Kari and asked her if everything was packed up and in the car.  She replied no!  Coach Kari didn’t believe me when I told her that I was done!  But I was in fact done.  I had enough.  We walked back to the tent and started picking up the tent and stuff, and I just let the warnings of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute just go in one ear and out the other.  As I heard go, I wasn’t on the tarmac for the start, and officially out of the event.

Officially Bonked at Yard 8, 33.33 miles.

As I walked up to Tyler sitting at his scoring table, I advised him that I was tapping out and that I had a terrific time.  “You got your ultramarathon!” he said, and I was very glad to hear those words.  I went over and picked out a loser’s rock and threw it into my bag.

My keepsake of my first ultramarathon.
Couldn’t have done it without my love and Coach Wife, Kari

NOTES FOR NEXT TIME

I’m very pleased with how I did and I will definitely put this race on my calendar. The race director posted post-race on Facebook that he plans to have it again in April 2022. But as with any race or event, I will want to improve on this year’s total miles.  I made plenty of mental notes as I went around the park, so here are a few things that helped me and a few things that I can improve.

  • A hydration vest wasn’t necessary.  Fully loaded with water was enough to cover a large portion of the yards I ran.  I was much better off just using the hand-held water bottle and just refilling it after every yard.  
  • I think that the salty snacks were doing a good job providing enough salt for the amount of sweating that I was doing, but regardless, I was still taking a salt capsule after every even yard.
  • I brought one long-sleeve shirt, four regular shirts, and two sleeveless shirts and only used three of the regular shirts.  I should have changed the sweat-soaked shirts and visors more often than I did.
  • I planned on doing this thing solo, but that would have been dumb.  I’m so glad my wife Kari came along to monitor what was going on, knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t be making smart decisions later in the run.
  • Book a hotel ahead of the event next time.  
  • Having some extra shoes to change into would be beneficial.  Mine were very dirty and somewhat sweat soaked as well.
  • I had a plan of running each yard in about 50 minutes and I executed that very well.  I faded a little toward the end, but I don’t believe going faster or slower is a better option.  50 minutes gives you just enough time to refuel, rest, and prep for the next yard.

So there you have it, my first ultramarathon distance of 50K in the books! I can’t wait to give it another go.

The Extra Yard – There was a pro photographer at the event and captured these shots that I am glad to have found.

1st time up the Big Hill. Photographer caught us dogging it.
I wasn’t dogging it!!!
Changed to the visor means this is probably the 2nd yard.
Near the finish area of the 2nd yard.
3rd yard crossing the bouncy bridge and getting caught off-guard by the photographer again.

Today I Learned… Cross Country Skiing Is Fun!

56 years, 2 months, and 16 days into my life I found out that I actually like cross country skiing!

Now this isn’t my first attempt at XC skiing. Kari and I bought some skis for ourselves Christmas 1992. We took them out to the local park and fell down numerous times and had some fun. We got busy with our young lives together, having kids and moving that most of the time the skis were tossed up into the attic and forgotten about. We tried again shortly after moving into our current home, probably around 2001, but after trying them out on a very difficult place to ski, we brought them home and put them back into the attic again.

Flash ahead to February 2019 we decided to haul them up to our lake home in upper Wisconsin and give them a try up there, a place where winter is serious about being winter. We drove to a place called Minocqua Winter Park where they have numerous groomed trails. However that day the park was hosting a XC ski race, a marathon actually, and after deciding we’d be too embarrassed in front of this group of people we opted to head home and try them out on our frozen lake. That went well until I fell and my 25 year old ski boots ripped apart in the most comical way. The boot literally ripped itself from the sole and left the sole on the ski that was quickly skiing far away from me!

Me holding the ski with the sole of the boot still attached. Looks like I need some new ski boots.

We came up north on January 1st, 2020 to spend some time before the holidays were over and tried to give XC skiing another go. I think we were all a little nervous when we got there, but we checked in and strapped on the skis and found the easiest trail we could find. We all struggled a little at first and there were a few falls, but we quickly got the hang of it and off we went.

My three snow bunnies on the Cookie trail.

Ashley seemed to struggle a little more than the rest of us, falling on her tush enough times that she was having some pain with that. So Kari and her headed back to the chalet and Rebecca and I attempted to complete the loop.

I think we were having more fun taking selfies.

That hill looked seriously dangerous!

Last selfie out on the trail.

I forgot to start my watch’s XC ski app right when we started, but I did hit the start button after about 15 minutes of skiing. When Rebecca and I got back we had gone a little over 3.5 miles in an hour and twenty-one minutes. After reuniting with Kari and Ashley and finding out that Ashley was feeling pretty sore after falling so much, we packed it in and headed home for some much deserved hot chocolate. I can’t wait to go back!

Whew! This Week Flew By

IRONMAN CHATTANOOGA 2019 TRAINING

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WEEK 19 – Monday 7/8/2019 – Sunday 7/14/2019

 

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Bearskin Trail near Hazelhurst, Wisconsin

 

Training while on vacation can be challenging, mainly because you want to be doing vacation stuff instead of training stuff.  But fortunately for me, my family has a lake home in northern Wisconsin that allows me the opportunity to do open water swims, and run and bike on a beautiful trail.  I can’t complain about that.

The training you do during the week while training for an Ironman is pretty unremarkable, and I find that the only thing I really remember about them when Sunday comes and I write this wrap up is the Saturday long bike ride.  This week’s ride took place on the Bearskin Trail in Oneida County, Wisconsin, which is an old rail-to-trail conversion path.  I have used this trail for most of my rides when I am up north because it offers lots of beautiful scenery and it is awesome.

I really had to motivate myself to do this ride.  I was almost mad about it, but when I got to the trail, I realized how lucky I am to have this beautiful trail available to me.  The ride was to be four hours long and just like the ride I did in 2017 when training for Ironman Louisville, I got to the 2-hour turn around point I decided to go just a little longer to hit 30 miles before turning around.  I was feeling great, but I was getting low on water so I decided to ride by a couple of county buildings but found no outdoor water spigots.  I rode a little further and found the Nokomis Fire Department building and a firefighter let me in to refill my bottles.  Very thankful for that.

As I got to the three-hour mark I started to bonk.  Not sure why that happened, as I was using gels and feeling good up to that point.  But I limped it home in four hours and twenty minutes.  Not exactly what the plan called for.  I was also very sore from riding my hybrid bike on this crushed rock trail instead of my tri bike on the road.  My muscles and butt just aren’t trained and used to that bike.  I also made the mistake of trying to keep my pace on that bike equivalent to what I do at home on the roads, which caused me to push my effort pretty hard, only to manage a 14 mph average speed.  It felt like I was averaging 20 mph by the effort I was putting out.

When I got home I hobbled down to the lake and waded into it while my somewhat concerned family watched.  It took me a little bit to recover, but after a while, I was back to normal.  They say being near the water restores the soul.  It did that and a whole bunch more for me this week.

WEEK 19 TRAINING TOTALS:

Swims: 2 total, 2,035 total yards

Rides: 2 total, 72 total miles

Runs: 3 total, 20.5 total miles

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Back to the grind next week.  Getting close to being 2/3’s done.

 

Comparing Ironman Wisconsin & Ironman Lake Placid

I’m a veteran of exactly two Ironman races, Ironman Wisconsin in 2013 and Ironman Lake Placid in 2016, and I loved them both.  In my preparation for both of those races, I gained valuable information from many different sources, including the event websites, videos, triathlon websites, and race reports and recaps.  I found that some opinions on the two races were clearly subjective mainly due to allegiance to the race they did, and I also had that question in the back of my mind – how could Lake Placid be as good as Madison?  The two courses are often mentioned as being among the toughest of the courses in North America.  So I thought it would be interesting to compare the two, based solely on my experiences at both events and list some pros (lots) and cons (few) of each one.  I don’t think I could declare a winner, they both were awesome!

(Author’s note:  I’ve now also completed Ironman Louisville!  Someday I will update this post to include it as well.)

RACE RECAPS FROM BOTH RACES

Here are my race recaps/reports from both races to provide some background on how the races went for me.  Both days were outstanding!

Ironman Wisconsin 2013:  2013 Ironman Wisconsin Race Report

Ironman Lake Placid 2016:  2016 Ironman Lake Placid Race Report

 

RACE LOCATION

Ironman Wisconsin is held in and around the Madison area.  Madison is the capital of Wisconsin and is the home to the University of Wisconsin.  It is the second-largest city in Wisconsin behind Milwaukee.  The swim is conducted in Lake Monona in downtown Madison.  The bike course takes you through the communities of Madison, Fitchburg, Mt. Horeb, Cross Plains, and Verona on a two-loop course before heading back to Madison.  The run course is downtown Madison and also through the campus of UW Madison.  Overall, Madison is a modern, vibrant city with lots of entertainment options and things to do.  Ironman Wisconsin has been around since 2002.

Ironman Lake Placid takes place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and Lake Placid was the host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic games.  Since 1999, it is the longest-running American Ironman other than the World Championship in Kona.  Lake Placid is a small but awesome tourist town that seems like it would burst at the seams with all the athletes and attendees for the event, but it is more than accommodating.  The swim is actually held in the smaller Mirror Lake and is known for calm water and an underwater cable that marks the course, making it easy to stay on the swim course.  Biking is an exhilarating trip through the Adirondack Mountains, through the towns of Keene, Jay, and Wilmington.  The run course is an out and back from downtown Lake Placid.  If you can imagine the most picturesque lake and mountainous resort town, Lake Placid would fit the bill.

 

LODGING

For both races, I was blessed to have a great travel coordinator on my side (my racing buddy’s wife) who is very savvy at securing great lodging for our races.  At Wisconsin, our lodging was at the event host hotel, the Monona Hilton, which is ground zero for all things Ironman Wisconsin.  Everything is right there, the expo, the transition area, the swim start, and the finish line are all right outside the doors of the Hilton.  Being so close to everything was vital to me.  I had a lake view from my window and it was amazing.  There are many other local hotels nearby or within a short walking distance of the start and finish of the race, as well as options for renting rooms or local houses as well.

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The view from the Monona Hilton in Madison looking over the bike transition area and Lake Monona.  Madison, WI

Lake Placid seems like such a small and quaint town that you wonder how they could have hosted such a huge event like the Winter Olympics, but there are plenty of options available here as well.  Once again, my travel coordinator found us great lodging at the Mirror Lake Hampton Inn.  This hotel was directly across the street from Mirror Lake, and the race viewing options for your crew is awesome, having a front-row view of the swim, the bike, and the run courses.  My room faced away from the race, but if you have extra cash you can opt for a room that faces all the action with a balcony.  The expo and transition area are within a quarter mile or so walking distance.  Another nice option was the wrist strap door key, which allowed lodgers entry to the hotel and room without having to carry a plastic key card around.  I even wore the strap during the race.

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My Gunner teammates outside of the Mirror Lake Hampton Inn where we stayed.  Very bike and triathlete friendly.

I couldn’t have been happier with the above lodging options.  There is great lodging for both locations, but the key to getting what you want is to get it as early as possible.

 

DINING

There are plenty of options for eating at both locales.  Madison has quite a few higher-end restaurant options than Lake Placid did, but you won’t have any issues finding places to eat at either location.  In Wisconsin, we did eat at the athlete’s dinner, which really isn’t the best option for fine dining, but it fed us while we listened to Mike Reilly’s talk.

At Lake Placid, there is no athlete dinner, but in its place is a voucher for dining virtually anywhere you can find food in town.  I think I prefer this method as you can choose what you want to eat and when you want to use your voucher.

At Wisconsin, it seemed like you had to hunt for a place to eat.  At Lake Placid, all you had to do was walk down the main street for the many dining options.

 

SPECTATING

Both IMWI and IMLP have a spectator guide that you can download from the race page or pick up a printed copy at the expo.  But there are some key things about both races.

For the swim at IMWI, the best viewing is on top of the Monona Terrace or the car ramps (commonly referred to as the “helixes”) on either side.  Both will get you a prime elevated spot for a great view of the swim.  You can also walk along the adjacent bike path and watch from the lake level.  At Lake Placid, there really isn’t an elevated area in which to watch unless you consider the VIP viewing point from the second floor of the beach house next to the beach.   My wife chose to stay on the ground on the left-hand side in order to see the Swim In and Out.

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Even with the crowds, I was able to easily find my wife as I made the turn for the second lap at Lake Placid.

As for the bike, Wisconsin has more options than Lake Placid.  If you can find easy to get to parking you can drive your own car out of town to the best viewing spots, but a lot of the spectators opt for the free shuttle bus trip to Verona where you can see the cyclists come through the aid station.  Mike Reilly will be there and there are plenty of food options going on.

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Coming into the aid station in Verona, WI where most of the spectators come to view the action on the bike course.

 

Lake Placid is very tough to watch the bike portion of the race. Almost all stay in town and some will opt for walking to the Three Bears portion of the race, which is just northeast of Mirror Lake and close to the downtown event.  There are other viewing options on the backside of Herb Brooks Arena where the cyclists will be finishing loops.  This is where Mike Reilly and the other announcers will be if you need to be near “the Voice”.

The run course in Madison and Lake Placid takes the runners for an out and back, but if you like to see more than just the beginning, the half-marathon turn, and the finish, you can see quite a bit more at Madison by jogging a couple of blocks to see the runners around mile 6 before they turn around.

I found this webpage to be highly useful for spectating at Lake Placid.  It’s worth your time to read it.  http://triwivesclub.com/the-sport-of-spectating-ironman-lake-placid-2/

Here’s one for Madison:  http://bobber.discoverwisconsin.com/ironman-wisconsin-spectate-the-right-way-on-race-day/

 

THE SWIM COURSES

Mirror Lake is the winner here for me hands down.  I can’t believe that this little lake with its two-lap swim could handle that number of people in a mass start that was the norm prior to the change to a rolling start.  Lake Monona can handle that amount of people okay, but it still is a washing machine of swimmers.  Plus Mirror Lake has that cable running the entire course to guide you along.  I feel like Mirror Lake is probably less prone to currents and rough water as well.  IMLP feeds the athletes into the water to help spread out the field, and self-seeding helps keep the swimmers grouped with likeability swimmers.  Of course, there are a few that should seed themselves more realistically, but I found we were flowing along pretty well.

IMWI struggled to get all the athletes into the water prior to the start of the race and even though there are many with their favorite starting locations, there isn’t really an advantage in my opinion to being wide or along the buoys at the start.  Plus there seemed to be much more contact for me at Wisconsin than at Lake Placid.  One tradition that IMWI has is that everyone “moos” like a cow going around the first turn buoy.

 

 

I liked getting out of the water after one loop at IMLP.  It gave my mind a little rest and helped break up the swim for me.  I had a much easier swim at IMLP than IMWI.

(Author’s note:  IMWI has since changed from a mass swim start to a rolling seeded start. – Yay!)

TRANSITION

I think Ironman Wisconsin wins this one by virtue of one fact – it’s inside the Monona Terrace.  Being inside means that you don’t have to worry about the weather at all, and it’s air-conditioned and carpeted.  The trip from the swim exit is sand-free and paved leading to a circular car ramp that everyone refers to as the “helix.”  There are three trips on the helix, once from the swim to T1, and then during Bike Out heading down the other helix located on the other end and back up it when you return.  Going down can be interesting, but coming up is a little bit of a last-minute adrenaline boosted climb into T2.  The Run Out skips the helix and sends you on your way from another ramp to the street.

Lake Placid has all of the transition located conveniently in the Olympic oval. When you get to transition the gear bags are right there for you, and it’s a quick trip to the change tents.  Cycling down the helix at IMWI can be tricky, but IMLP has a tough ride out of transition as well.  Take caution leaving both transitions on your way out of T1.

 

 

THE BIKE COURSES

Both IMWI and IMLP have bike courses that come with a solid reputation of being tough rides and I found them both to be challenging and exhilarating.  The main difference between the two courses’ difficulty lies in the type of hilly terrain that defines the rides.  IMWI is very hilly, with one roller after another, whereas IMLP is very hilly in a mountainous way!  The climbing tends to be short and intense at Wisconsin, but at Lake Placid, you will be doing an uphill grind for large chunks of the course.

The course at IMWI is a two, 40-mile loop affair with a section leading from Madison to the loops that is referred to as “the Stick.”  The Stick is 16 miles long and gets you out of town with a mixture of park bike path, arena parking lot, highway, and then more rural roads leading you to the town of Verona.  The Stick is nothing heading out, as you are raring to go, but it will definitely get your attention coming back to Madison.  Pace yourself and don’t burn out your legs for the run on the Stick coming back to T2.  Overall, the course takes you through beautiful rural farmland of Wisconsin, with lots of changing scenery.

Both courses boast of a section of three hills that have garnered reputations as being miserable and difficult.  At IMWI these three hills are referred to as the “Three Bitches.”  The hills are tough but are easily tamed by just spinning up to the top.  The hills come about halfway through the loop, around mile 42 and again around mile 85.  After getting through the hills you will be treated to a nice descent back into Verona and onto the second loop or the trip back to Madison.

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Struggling up the last of the Three Bitches in Wisconsin.  The crowds get you through it.

 

At IMLP the hills are cutely referred to as the “Three Bears.”  They come at the very end of the first and second loops as you come back into Lake Placid.  Truthfully, I did not find the Three Bears to be as difficult as the Three Bitches.  Momma Bear comes first and isn’t a big deal at all.  Baby Bear is very tame, and in my opinion barely qualifies as a hill.  Papa Bear is the one that gets your attention.  It climbs, then turns, then climbs some more.  But it is short-lived.  I didn’t find them to be as difficult as the climb from Wilmington back to Lake Placid, a section called “the Notch.”  But if you are patient and can find a comfortable tempo to keep chugging along, you will get through this long climb.

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Riding up Papa Bear heading into Lake Placid.

 

Both courses have great fans along the route that many equate to a Tour de France feel.  These stretches are a real boost emotionally and help you get through both the Three Bitches in Wisconsin and the Three Bears in Lake Placid.

The best part of biking IMWI – the fan support along the course, and the descents on Garfoot Road and Timber Lane.  The parts to dread – the climb into Mt. Horeb, the Three Bitches, and the bumpy section on Stagecoach Drive.  You’ll feel like you are on a stagecoach.

(Author’s note:  Stagecoach Drive has since been repaved.)

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Wisconsin scenery includes farms.  And cows.  Lots of farms and cows.

You’ll love the scenery in Lake Placid and the Adirondacks on your ride.  And the descent into Keene is exhilarating.  It’s possible to hit 50 mph on that 6-mile ride, but it is scary as hell.  You’ll loathe the long climbs that pretty much take up half the ride.  Good luck with that.

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Lake Placid scenery includes mountains.  And trees.  Lots of mountains and trees.

 

THE RUN COURSES

Both of the run courses have great scenery, fan support, and awesome finishing chutes.  You will do two loops at both locations, which is very typical in most Ironman races.

At IMWI you will pass the state capital building and get to run through some impressive areas of the campus of the University of Wisconsin.  The highlight is heading into Camp Randall where the Badgers play for a loop around the football field.  In Lake Placid, you pass the Olympic Ski Jumps as you head out and back.

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On the run in Madison, you will be on the other side of town and run by Lake Mendota.

 

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Lake Placid has farms too!  (I shaved my legs for IMLP!)

As far as the courses, both are very similar.  They are mostly flat, with a couple of big hills that a lot of athletes will walk up.  I found that I never felt lost at Lake Placid like I did at Madison.  There was several times in Madison when I wondered where I was.  I went into a port-o-potty at one point and upon coming out I couldn’t remember which way I was going!  Never had that issue at Lake Placid.

The main difference between the two is the scenery.  Lake Placid takes you from downtown out to fields and trees, which is very nice.  At Madison, you will be near buildings and people for most of the run.

I love the finishing chute at Wisconsin, with having the Capital in the background all lit up as you finish.  But finishing on the Olympic Oval makes you feel like an Olympic champion.  Both are cool.

 

CONCLUSION

The day after the race, Madison gets back to being a state capital and back to business like the race was held a month earlier.  I kind of felt like I needed to get out of Madison’s way, as the town needed to get back to normalcy.  At Lake Placid, it seemed like everyone wanted to stay and take some time to enjoy the wonderful town without all of the race anxiety.

As I mentioned before I can’t pick a favorite, I truly loved my experience at both locales.  But I think I had my best race at Lake Placid only because I learned from what I experienced at Wisconsin.

In the end, you can’t go wrong with either race location, both are well run, beautiful and an experience of a lifetime!  Do them both!