By Rachel Wittrock
With a smile on his face, a man dressed in a blue and white triathlete uniform strode across the finish line, his hands raised in a sign of victory.
A man and a woman, dressed in light blue T-shirts marking them as race volunteers, rushed up to wrap the exhausted competitor in a thermal blanket and guide him to water and a chair.
The athlete was none other than Edgerton’s own Jedd Wellenkotter, who began Sunday’s race with dreams of making it to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
But what does it take to be an Ironman competitor? The 140.6-mile race is not for the faint of heart or the weekend warrior. The grueling race challenges competitors to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and cap it all off with a marathon.
Yet every year, thousands sign up for the ultra-triathlon, which is held in different cities around the world.
In preparation for his return to the Madison Ironman - Wellenkotter competed but did not finish due to health reasons in 2009 - the Edgerton resident put in 15-25 hours a week for months. He trained two to four hours during the week, and put in four to five hour workouts on the weekend.
“It is a lifestyle,” Wellenkotter said, explaining his drive to compete in long-distance triathlons. “I am never bored, my weekends are always full and I always have something to do.”
The race began at 7 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 8 with approximately 2,800 competitors, both male and female, plunging into Lake Monona to begin the 2.4-mile swim. When Wellenkotter emerged from the lake an hour and three minutes later, he was ranked 128th overall and 14th in his male 30-34 age division.
The 30-year-old paced past the competition during the bike ride, picking up 87 spots throughout the 112-mile course. By the time he arrived at Monona Terrace and prepared to trade cycling shoes for running shoes, he had shot up to 41st overall and fifth in his age division.
The third and final part of the race was a marathon around Madison - including two loops up the challenging incline that is Observatory Drive.
Despite experiencing severe stomach cramps, Wellenkotter maintained a strong mile pace, running an average mile time of 7:52 for the first half of the race. As the Edgerton resident hit mile 16, trouble set in. His stomach cramps disappeared, only to reappear in his legs, glutes and hamstrings.
“It was pretty bad cramps that wouldn’t allow me to run more than a half mile, then I would cramp up and I would have to work my cramps out. Then I’d be able to jog a little more. It really slowed me up for eight miles,” Wellenkotter said.
Meanwhile, Tinley Park, Ill. resident Mark Higgins - who Wellenkotter passed during the early part of the bike race, began challenging Wellenkotter. Although the Edgerton resident had an eight minute lead on Higgins entering the marathon, by the time Wellenkotter crossed the 16.8 mile marker, Higgins was just 13 seconds behind.
When Wellenkotter passed the next checkpoint at mile 19, Higgins had passed him and had more than a minute’s lead.
Higgins went on to finish the Ironman in 10 hours, 5 seconds and garnered the last male 30-35 age division qualifying spot, with Wellenkotter finishing shortly after, in 10 hours, 11 minutes and 58 seconds.
“There is a lot of times during the race where you are not feeling good, and you can never really completely bag your race and get down on yourself because it really affects Ironman and your performance,” Wellenkotter said. “You just have to deal with the bad and embrace the good.”
When he was struggling, Wellenkotter found encouragement in the thousands of people who showed up to volunteer for the Madison Iron
“It is the best race I have ever done as far as crowd support and volunteers go,” Wellenkotter said.
“It really kind of shows how Madison is when it comes to events like that, people coming together, and I think it is kind of a Wisconsin thing too,” Wellenkotter added. “Of any place I’ve ever raced, Madison volunteers and fans are just top-notch.”
Despite his struggles, Wellenkotter placed 52nd overall and 11th in his age division, placing him within the top 2 percent of the day’s competitors.
While his dreams of competing with the best at the Ironman World Championships may have been delayed, Wellenkotter is not ready to give up. He has already signed up for the 2014 Madison Ironman race, and is considering signing up for Ironman races in other states this spring, with the hope of qualifying for the 2014 World Championships.
So what does it take to be an Ironman?
“You have to be motivated. It definitely takes a level of self-motivation. You have to train, you have to really put in the work to get there,” Wellenkotter said. “It just takes being open to new things too.
“Try running, try swimming, try biking, and if you enjoy even one of those things, start doing it,” the Edgerton Ironman added. “As you become more involved in the endurance-type community, it seems like all roads always lead to a triathlon, no matter what endurance sport you are in.”