The journey to Ironman Wisconsin 2018 starts now.

I combed through our early blog posts to see if I ever shared my history regarding triathlon, which is pretty much the reason I started Tri 4 Schools in the first place.  After coming up empty, I thought that with a big impending announcement, now was the perfect time.

Inspired by Ironman

I watched the first Ironman Wisconsin in September 2002.  I was a college freshman at UW-Madison, and was looking to start running as a new fitness routine.  For most of my childhood, I competed in martial arts, working my way to a second degree black belt just before high school graduation. Though I was reasonably active, I would not call myself “athletic” or particularly great at most sports.  In fact, our annual timed run in PE class gave me considerable anxiety, and I was always placed in the beginner group in swimming lessons.

So, as I started a new chapter in my life, I was also looking for something new in the way of sports. I had been slowly working my way up to running two miles (a feat I was particularly proud of), but I still remember watching the tenths of each mile roll by on the treadmill and dying inside (WHY is this taking SO LONG?!).

It was with that curiosity that I watched my uncle participate in the first Ironman triathlon here in Madison. After chasing him around all day on the bike and run course (I didn’t get up early enough to watch the swim), I saw him finish and was EXHAUSTED.  That’s when I realized that while I was watching him all day, he had been exercising all day.  Since 7am.  Swimming, biking, and running farther than I could even fathom.  It was unbelievable.

After he finished, I stayed with a friend to watch more athletes finish.  With every hour, I got more and more excited, motivated, and inspired.  The fire was growing.  I saw a man with one leg finish, a mom with her young children beside her, and a 75-year-old grandfather.  “That’s it,” I said to my friend.  “I’m going to do this someday.”

He looked at me quizzically.  “This is really, really hard, Katie. I’m not sure you’re cut out for this.”

That settled it.  I looked up triathlon on the internet and found out there was a club right here on campus, who were hosting a meeting the very next week.

A Total Novice Joins the Team

The first year of becoming a triathlete was one of the most challenging I’ve experienced.  I had to fall on my “newbie” sword daily, as I learned to swim, which I still struggle with.  When I first started, I couldn’t even put my face all the way in the water, and wasn’t able to swim more than 50yds without stopping.

Running was by far the hardest.  It took me a few months to work up the courage to join my teammates for the Friday “Fun Run.”  I chose that workout because it sounded like a non-intimidating way to begin running with the team.  Remember earlier when I said I could run two miles?  Well, this “fun” run was four miles…followed by an hour of ultimate frisbee.  There were times when I couldn’t even see the rest of the group running ahead of me, but I didn’t stop the entire time.

I still don’t know how I made it back to my dorm room that evening. I just remember collapsing on the floor and thinking “I have never been this tired in my life…but I did it!”

Joining the team was the best decision I made.  It gave me a group that kept me accountable to training, a wonderful set of friends I still talk to years later, and resources to learn about this crazy sport.

Becoming IronKate

In April 2003, I finished my first sprint triathlon, and I was hooked.  I decided that I would try to work my way to the Ironman by my senior year of college in 2005.

In 2004, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile, for six months, and trained there with the goal of finishing my first half-Ironman when I returned.  It was challenging to train in a large, metropolitan city, away from my teammates and ideal training environment, but through the gym in my neighborhood, I made several triathlete friends, stayed in shape, and finished my first half Ironman in August 2004.

Finally, on September 11, 2005, I achieved my goal of completing Ironman Wisconsin, at age 21.  It was a hot, humid day, where the high temperature reached 95, and the drop-out rate for athletes was nearly 22%!  I finished in 14:47:20, just before 10pm.  I can still remember exactly how it felt coming down that final finisher chute.

Ironman 2005 bike course Ironman Wisconsin 2005 run course Ironman WI 2005 finish

By the way, the friend who doubted that I could complete the Ironman called me two days later to congratulate me.  That felt pretty good.

Triathlon had completely changed the trajectory of my life.  Instead of gaining weight in college, I lost weight.  Instead of late nights, I got enough sleep so I could attend 6am spinning classes.  One year, on the day of the Mifflin Street block party, I ran 15 miles!  I was far from a health-crazed super athlete, but when I think about where I learned about the importance of health and balancing work with working out, discovering triathlon in college was the turning point for me.

Jayhawk Triathlon 2006

Balancing Act, and Birth of an Organization

Upon college graduation in May 2006, I started working at Epic, and the travel schedule and demands of my position slowly eroded my triathlon hobby.  I participated in fewer and fewer events, and in the four years I worked there, I completed just two triathlons.  I did finish the Chicago Marathon in 2009, though, which reignited my desire to start participating in endurance sports again.  The balance I had worked so hard to attain in college was becoming harder and harder, and my health was sliding backwards with it.  Something had to change.

The following summer, I volunteered at a kids triathlon in Monona – the Sawyer Crossen Memorial Triathlon.  I was inspired by the kids who were giving it their all, literally sprinting as fast as they could through the entire thing.

“What a great opportunity – to do triathlons as a child, and learn the lessons of living a healthy lifestyle at an early age,” I thought.

Then, after seeing countless articles and news stories about the epidemic of childhood obesity, and the dwindling budgets for health and physical education, I decided it was time to take action.  I was worn out in my current job, and wanted a career where I could devote myself to something I was passionate about.

“What if I started an organization where we did triathlons for kids, and the money went to support health and fitness programs, resources, and other things?”  I asked my husband one night.

“I think you would be GREAT at that,” he replied.  He has always been the person who encourages me and believes in me, even when I don’t yet believe it myself.  “I think you should go for it.  We’ll be okay.”

So, with that, I quit my job at Epic, and threw myself into starting a non-profit organization.

Tri 4 Schools was born.

The Road Back Includes a Team

In August 2011, Tri 4 Schools hosted our first triathlon in Middleton, and over 400 kids showed up. Despite a severe thunderstorm that delayed the start, almost everyone stayed and completed that first race.  We raised nearly $10,000 for school health and fitness resources, and since that day, over 11,000 kids have completed our events and programs.  By the end of 2017, we will have donated more than $275,000 for local schools – keeping them healthy, active, and safe inside and outside of school, and creating a healthier generation of kids.

Lakeview Exercise to Achievement

Our Lake View Elementary Exercise to Achievement program in 2014

Along the way, my husband and I welcomed two healthy, sweet, and wonderful children. After my son was born in 2014, I decided that it was time for me to get back to the sport and community that started it all.

After having children, there was a lot more to balance, and getting my fitness level back felt a lot like starting over.  I ran a few half marathons, and had some successes (destroyed my previous PRs in the 5k, 10k, and 1/2 marathon) and failures (stomach pains and sickness in a few races that left me in the medical tent).  I told myself that if I was going to devote time to this, I wanted to give it my best.  I was going to need some professional assistance.

So, in 2016, I joined Madison Multisport, under the amazing leadership of Cindi Bannink (and now her husband and fellow rockstar coach, Steve Brandes).  I set the goal of running the 2016 Chicago Marathon in under 3:45, and also getting back into the sport of triathlon.  My eventual goal was to work my way up to competing in the Ironman in 2018.

Chicago marathon 2016

Long story short, I exceeded my goal last year in Chicago, and did very well in several triathlons.  After feeling strong, prepared, and happy, I set an ambitious calendar for 2017 – another marathon, a half Ironman, and several other smaller races along the way.  I finished the Ironman Steelhead 70.3 in August, nearly 12 years after my last half Ironman, and finished 42 minutes faster!  Now, with the Chicago Marathon on the horizon, I feel confident, healthy, and strong again.

im steelhead 70.3

Here We Go Again

I have debated a lot on whether I should sign up for Ironman in 2018.  This year, the balance was very challenging, and with a 3 and 6 year-old, time is so precious.  I know in a few short years they’ll be off to their own activities and not as interested in playing with me.  I have a full-time job, and a husband I genuinely like to be around.  There are plenty of other opportunities to race and be healthy without committing to nine months of intense training.

But, there’s something about Ironman that I feel is unfinished.

For me, it’s not about proving anything to anyone, or showing my kids that goals are worth working for.  My wise-beyond-her-years daughter told me recently that it doesn’t matter if I do races or not, she’s proud of me because I’m her mom (commence tears).

I just want to see how I will do this time around, and if all the lessons I’ve learned since 2005 will make a difference.  So much has changed in 13 years – I graduated, got a job, met and married my husband, started a business, and had two children – but the Ironman is the same distance as it was in 2005.

This year, I made a vow to enjoy this sport, enjoy the opportunity to be active and healthy, and treat it like the gift it is.  It has been a game-changer for me.

Now, it’s time for the ultimate test.  I’m going to need you all to help support my family and me in 2018: to keep my spirits up, to keep me accountable, and to cheer me on (likely wearing some silly t-shirt) on race day.

Because on September 9, 2018, you’ll find me at the starting line.