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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A participant races in the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon on Sept. 10, 2023, in Madison. A racer, who has yet to be identified, died during the race.

Students tackle the half and full Ironman in Madison

How University of Wisconsin-Madison student triathletes balance the rigor of work and school with grueling Ironman training.

Several University of Wisconsin-Madison students participated in the half and full Ironman this weekend, taking on training with a myriad of other responsibilities. 

An Ironman triathlon consists of a two mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run. There are about 150 Ironman races that take place all over the globe, and Madison happens to be one of the cities to hold one. 

This year’s event in Madison had 1,360 participants in the half Ironman and 1,253 participants in the full Ironman. 

For many, tackling an Ironman alone can be a large time commitment. Training for this race can become quite burdensome for students, who simultaneously juggle work and school commitments.

Senior Zach Spears explained the difficulty of balancing work with his athletics. While it took time to learn how to juggle it all, he emphasized the lessons he learned when it came to time management skills. 

“[I] definitely got a lot better at time management,” Spears said. “Sometimes it has been a lot. I would say overall I probably haven’t been able to do as much training as I would have liked to.”

Spears completed the Ironman alongside his roommate and friend Ryan Mares, another senior at UW-Madison. Together, they completed the race in 13 hours and 28 minutes. Mares and Spears said they had similar reasons for competing in the Ironman.

“I’ve been running forever, but a year ago I was in a spot where I had fallen out of love with it,” Mares said. “Watching the Ironman last year was incredibly inspirational. It looked like the final frontier of endurance sports — a final mountain for me to climb to reach closure on the current chapter of my fitness journey.”

Spears explained how training for the Ironman was a way to add variety to his already rigorous running training. 

“I was getting a little burnt out from running, hadn’t had the best streak of races and wanted to try something new where you could see improvement,” Spears said. “I always wanted to do what they consider ultra races. At that point I was looking at doing a 50k run and thought an Ironman would be up there and would be a cool life experience.”

For Mares, managing all of his facets of life and Ironman training meant getting his day started with training first thing in the morning.

“Getting all the training while also dealing with work and school meant a lot of early mornings,” Mares said. “If I woke up early and did a quality workout in the morning, it felt like I had gotten the hard part of my day done. I could tell myself the rest of it was going to be a breeze.”

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Sarah Dehnel, another Ironman competitor, steadily balanced graduate school and her Ironman training. Her training was not unfamiliar as she had already completed the half Ironman last year. 

“I started training in March of this year,” Dehnel said. “I did 9 workout sessions a week including a long run and a long bike [ride] each week. After doing the half Ironman last year, I wanted to challenge myself to complete the full.”

She explained how her experience with a half Ironman paid off as she ended up doing substantially better in the full than she had anticipated. She finished in 13 hours and 5 minutes. 

“The race went amazing!” Dehnel said. “I finished about an hour quicker than I expected. I felt really good and optimistic through the swim and the first half of the bike ride, but around mile 60 I started to get tired. The last 40 miles of the bike were especially hard mentally, but once I got off the bike I knew I could finish. The run was amazing too. I experienced some knee pain in the last ten miles, but nothing too extreme.”

Sophomore A.J. Hemink explained how he, like many others, used the half Ironman as a stepping stone toward a full Ironman.

“Doing an Ironman 140.6 has been on my bucket list since I was six or so, and starting with the 70.3 felt like a good step towards it,” Hemink said. “I also had a lot of support from family and friends, which helped me get through some of the tougher parts of my training.”

Hemink explained that he had never attempted anything like this and knew that starting with the half Ironman would be more beneficial for his final goal of one day doing the full Ironman. 

“I did a sprint triathlon this summer in June, and that was the first triathlon I had ever done,” Hemink said. “I have been interested in endurance sports since high school and currently ski on the Hoofers Nordic Ski Club. But nothing I have ever done has come close to this race.”

For many, the support people receive from the Madison community is something that makes doing this race so worthwhile.

“Getting to run down State Street was really cool … The spectators were amazing,” Spears said. “Then we finished and it was in the dark. It was super cool and decently emotional. We were super tired, but all of our friends were there, which made it feel so special.”

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