I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin this past January without knowing much about the race. Sure, its reputation is pretty legendary as a challenging but well-spectated event. Beyond that, I knew two people who had raced there and the feedback was simple: The bike course is hilly, the swim and the run aren’t too bad, and the weather is largely pretty good. That was enough for me.
The months ticked by, the training ramped up. I didn’t even seriously think about Madison or the race course itself until around July. At that point, I realized how very little I knew. So this post is written for people who may consider Ironman Wisconsin in the future, and would like a one-stop resource on where to stay, where to eat, how to train and even smaller logistics like whether to rent a car, where’s the nearest Whole Foods, etc. All the stuff you don’t want to be thinking about in the last few weeks before your race. Or, all the things you may want to know before you click Register on the Ironman website.
Oh, and if you want to see how the race turned out for me, click here. (There's a kinda funny, kinda not funny video there of me driving on Barlow Road for the first time.)
Swim: Lake Monona is terrific. There’s some moss and ankle-high grass when you first enter the lake ramp, which makes your entry a bit slippery but nothing to concern yourself with. Beyond that, temperature is pleasant with a wetsuit – and for those of you who enjoy swimming with a sleeveless wetsuit, go for it. You’re probably looking at mid-high 60s temperature.
The swim is very straightforward. You’ve got about nine buoys on your left side before you make your first left turn – don’t forget to MOO as it’s a tradition apparently. The Lake Monona Terrace is on your right the entire time. You’re not facing the sun, and I’d venture to say that in my race, we were swimming with whatever current there may have been. You’ll swim past approximately 13 buoys after another left turn, back the way you first came I’d recommend polarized goggles as you are swimming into the sun. I used Aqua Sphere polarized Kayenne goggles, and had no issue with glare. You’ll eventually make another hard left turn, and then your final left turn can throw you if you’re not careful. It’s more of a diagonal line back to the swim ramp, and several folks swam a little farther than necessary because they were sighting to the beginning of the course rather than the shore. Try to follow the loudspeaker noise and angle yourself inland.
As you exit the water, the real fun begins. It’s time to run up a few story parking helix to T1. And it’s AWESOME. The helix is loaded with fans leaning out over the parking structure walls, encouraging you. I didn’t even feel the runand probably had a stupid grin the whole time. My point here is this though: If you’re not practicing deck-ups – where you propel yourself out of the water at your pool, jog in place or do a quick running lap if permitted before diving back in – you’re missing a chance to ensure an easier transition at IM Wisconsin. If you’re not careful, your heart rate can explode powering up that ramp, and at some point during the bike ride, it will come back to bite you.
One final note on the swim: Sometimes you hear people take outside lines slightly away from each buoy as a race strategy. Because there’s such little current and chop at Lake Monona (based on what I experienced), you will find the buoy line is littered with bodies – especially on the back-half of the swim. I found I was largely in the clear for the first three-quarters of my swim to the first turnaround and then I had to navigate a LOT of traffic the rest of the time. If you’re a strong swimmer, I’d start your swim about 30 yards to the right of the buoys on your left and gradually angle yourself left to the first turnaround, and then come out wide on the return trip and do the same thing. You’ll probably have much cleaner swimming. If I race here again, I’ll likely employ that approach.
Oh, the bike course. If you fancy yourself a strong cyclist, Ironman Wisconsin could be a great race for you. But it depends on what kind of great cyclist you are. I do particularly well on long, sustained climbs that require a steady tempo effort. I’m weaker on shorter but punchier climbs – which is a lot of what you’ll see on the Ironman Wisconsin bike course.
The first 16-18 miles of the course are called “the stick” as it’s fairly straight heading out of town. Then, you get to “the lollipop,” two 40-mile loops featuring the bulk of climbing. For the lollipop portion, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, the best approximation I can think of is the portion of Mulholland Drive from Topanga Canyon through and past Las Virgenes Road until you reach Cornell and turn right through that patch of pesky rollers. If you add a slow but noticeable swirling wind, you’ll be able to picture the course that much better. I recently rode this loop and it was about 28 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. So, it’s a little more climbing than you’ll encounter on race day on a per-lap training loop basis, but the up-down-up-down-turn-turn-turn nature of the ride is a good primer for what to expect in Madison. Two additional courses that remind me of the 40-mile loops at Ironman Wisconsin are the first part of Wildflower with its ranging hills and somewhat tricky descents, and the Silverman course in Hendrson, Nev. The latter especially because at Silverman, you struggle to build and maintain momentum because the road pitch is always changing.
Road conditions are largely fine, though this is a source of debate based on the many articles I read and podcasts I listened to going into the event. I found that most potholes were properly marked or covered with road patch that had been recently poured. Further, if you decide to visit Madison to ride the course (which I heartily recommend), the course is well marked with lots of arrows spray-painted on the ground. You’ll need them, as it’s a very turn-rich course.
One final note. I rode my bike with tire pressure at 110psi, on latex tubes. It’s been three weeks since the race, and my upper shoulders and neck are still sore. That could be the byproduct of not getting a post-race massage, a bike fit that needs adjustment, a low but steady wind that kept me gripping the aerobars, or filling my tires 20psi too much. The bike techs on site were recommending approximately 90-100psi on the morning of the race – I chose 110 because that’s largely what I had trained with. I’d take the bike techs’ advice in the future.
I think the run course is awesome. The climbing sneaks up on you – I hit 627 feet over 16 miles before I turned off my watch out of frustration. That said, it didn’t feel like a run that would approach 1,000 feet of total climbing for all 26 miles. There’s plenty of downhill running, and a nice-size crowd will do its best to keep you energized. Plus, there are plenty of aid stations that are very well-stocked and staffed. The only real “challenging” part of the course is a decent-sized hill you have to climb going into the end of the first loop of the marathon and the finisher’s chute once again. It’s “only” 1-3% for about .4 miles, but it feels a lot worse on tired legs. One caveat here is that a good portion of the run is on concrete, though you will have a nice trail break on the backside of the University of Wisconsin near the lakefront. Oh, and the football turf at Camp Randall Stadium.
From a training perspective, I would emphasize hill repeats for strength, and longer runs would ideally finish with some climbing too. My long runs were probably a little too flat, with most of my climbing coming from longer and more subtle gradients, punctuated by a couple sharp pitches.
All in all, this is a tough but fair run course. If you don’t overcook the bike, or are a strong runner, you can make up a lot of ground here if you’re patient.
Most of what I just wrote might be found in some form on other race reports or podcasts. I found it harder to figure out where to stay, eat, get a good cup of coffee, pick up groceries, etc. So here’s my recommendations for aspiring IM Wisconinites.
Hotel: With the exception of Ironman Arizona, where I stay three blocks from the finish line, I try to stay away from Ironman Village. The nervous energy is typically so palpable that it can drain you. Plus, the prices are much higher. It’s similarly true in Madison, especially on a weekend when the Badgers football team is at home.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn Suites West, about eight miles from town, in Middleton. I did so because there was a free race-day bus shuttle service from the hotel to the event start at Lake Monona. I also liked that each room had a microwave, and free breakfast each morning – though on race day it was too late to utilize.
I’d stay here again, though I think you could find a hotel closer in downtown Madison that may still be far enough away from the race. That said, you’re less likely to run into a party atmosphereon a football weekend. Our hotel was largely comprised of out-of-towner Badger fans who were in their 50s and 60s. The mood was mellow, which I appreciated. And the service across the board there was stellar. Really friendly staff.
This Hampton Inn was also a block away from a decent coffee/breakfast spot called Yola’s Café, and several other restaurants I didn’t venture to try but could have been fine. Better still, Trek Bicycles has a store about a half-mile away from the hotel – so if you were to have bike problems or needed some supplies, you could quickly address your need without wading into Ironman Village chaos.
Worth noting, there’s a Whole Foods for all your organic groceries just a few miles from the hotel, on the way to the University but not quite there. If you arrive on a Thursday night like I did (and rent a car), there's plenty of time to check into the hotel, eat dinner, and get your grocery shopping out of the way -- all within a two-hour window.
Finally, post race, depending on when you finish and how you feel, Uber/Lyft is probably your best bet for getting back to an off-course hotel quickly. The shuttles run every 30 minutes, and as the sun sets, wind is likely to increase and the temperature will drop. Not a good look if you’re draped in nothing much more than a Mylar blanket. I took the elevator back down to street level from the convention center and hailed an Uber. I was picked up within 10 minutes.
Restaurants: I spent a rather disproportionate amount of time on Yelp looking for restaurants. I found a couple I’d recommend to people staying out of the downtown Madison area, and one must-visit burger spot near the University.
Vin Santo: One of the upsides of this charming little restaurant is that it sits across the street from the Museum of Mustard. Yes. For reals. And there’s a 1950s-style diner across the street too if you’re hankering for a piece of classic apple pie. The food and service at Via Santo were solid, and I highly recommend the chicken marsala. The restaurant is less than 10 minutes from the Hampton Inn. And they deliver to the hotel too if you don’t want to move.
Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse: Don’t be sucked into Ruth’s Chris or any other steakhouse if you’re craving a good piece of red meat prior to your race. Johnny’s is where it’s at. Period. The steak was flavorful and cooked perfectly, while the sides were every bit as savory as the bigger-name steakhouses. The price is about what you’d expect for a premium cut of meat. This restaurant was truly a highlight of my trip.
Dotty’s Dumpling Dowry (downtown): I had been aware of Dotty’s since I visited Madison for the first time in the 1990s. Since then, I’ve been back twice more, and each time I try to find a way back. The burgers are solid, and the atmosphere is what you’d expect from a college burger joint. Think a Wisconsin Badgers-themed TGI Fridays in terms of décor. Ian’s Pizzeria is supposed to be amazing too, and it’s next door to Dotty’s. Both are just off the run course route, so your family can enjoy a good meal while you toil away.
Rent a Car vs. Uber/Lyft: I can only speak for my experience staying away from Ironman Village, but I particularly enjoyed the freedom of being able to drive wherever I wanted for nearly four days. That said, I had no friends or family in town whom I could snag a ride from, so I more or less needed it. I could drive the race course, go grocery shopping, or venture into downtown at will. And I had the peace of mind knowing that if I missed the bus into town for any reason at all come race day, I could speed there without issue.
Renting a car is a more expensive option though. For example, you’re not going to use your vehicle on race day. That’s more or less $50 out the window with taxes. But the costs are surprisingly similar over the long haul with a car service though. It’s roughly $30 from the airport to Madison via Uber, so roundtrip that’s at least one day’s rental fare. Each trip into town from Middleton to Madison is at least $10-$15 or more. And if you’re using a food delivery service instead of driving to a meal, you’re racking up fees there as well (though maybe gas cancels that out somewhat). Ultimately, you have to decide how much is peace of mind worth when you’re in unfamiliar territory for a race you don’t know much about.
If or when I return to Madison to exact revenge on this course, I’ll likely rent a car again.
Packet Pickup: woke very early on Friday morning, probably due to some mild jetlag flying in from Los Angeles the night prior. I arrived at packet pickup around 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes before it opened at Lake Monona Terrace, fourth in line. By the time packet pickup opened, there was a long line -- but not longer than any other Ironman race on a Friday. Several podcasts I listened to cautioned strongly against the long lines for packet pick-up but I didn’t see that play out. Instead, this was probably the most organized and well-staffed process on the circuit that I’ve experienced.
A good order of progression when you pick up your packet would be:
- Find parking across the street from Lake Monona Terrace, near the Hilton hotel there. (BTW, there’s a sky bridge to the convention center if you go through the hotel lobby…pro-tip!).
- Pick up packet, return to car, grab workout gear.
- The swim start is a quick elevator ride down from the convention center, and if you used TriBike Transport, you can dry yourself post-swim, claim your bike literally 20 yards from the swim entrance, and get a quick neighborhood spin in on the lakefront bikepath. You’re done with everything within the first 1.5-2 hours of your day. BOOM.
- If you start your morning around 8:30-9 a.m., that leaves you ready to grab a nice brunch-lunch in downtown Madison – then, if you stay away from the course, you’re home in the early afternoon at latest to enjoy the rest of your day stress-free. Or, you can use that time to drive the bike course like I did.
I hope this was helpful for you! MOOOOOOOO!!!