The 2.4-mile swim during Sunday’s Ironman Wisconsin in Madison went well for Heather Peterson, but almost immediately after she hopped onto her bike to embark on a 112-mile ride she felt stabbing pain in her left hamstring and groin.
Peterson, 42, was no stranger to the pain of training. The three-sport athlete while at Altoona High School who was a basketball standout and later played at UW-Stout had completed her first Ironman event in Madison the previous year.
But her leg throbbed so much it made pedaling her bike difficult. She slowed her pace and mostly used just one leg, turn after turn, as she labored on. Only three miles into the biking portion of the event, she doubted she could finish.
“How am I going to make it another 100-plus miles?” she thought just a few miles into the biking portion of the race, which finishes with a 26.2-mile marathon.
A short time later Peterson’s sister and fellow Altoona resident Sarah Roseth’s muscles burned with fatigue as she struggled to climb one hill after another on her bike. The bicycling portion of the Madison Ironman is especially hilly, and Roseth, 43, was feeling every inch of those inclines.
Partway through the bike race she swerved to miss another bike that cut in front of her and crashed, landing on the pavement. Two bicycles near her also wrecked.
Fortunately, Roseth wasn’t injured. She got back on her bike and started pedaling again, mile after mile. The finish line couldn’t come soon enough.
“I don’t know if I can pedal another 500 feet,” she thought as she neared the end of the bike portion of the event and the start of the marathon.
Roseth and Peterson persevered, each sister overcoming physical struggles and wearying fatigue to finish the ironman event. Peterson finished 35th out of 111 in her age group with a time of 13 hours 10 minutes and 1 second, 31 minutes faster than last year.
Roseth completed her first triathlon in a time of just over 15 hours, two hours faster than the mandatory cut-off time. She said she walked most of the last 10 miles of the race after left knee trouble made running, and then walking, especially difficult.
“Those last 10 miles, when my knee gave out, I was in tears,” Roseth said Monday while she and her sister drove back to Altoona from Madison. “I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. I really doubted I would be able to finish.”
Peterson similarly overcame physical struggles. She focused intently, trying her best to block out the pain in her injured leg. She zeroed in instead on the finish line, willing herself forward. She finished the bike race, then the marathon, one pedal stroke and step at a time.
“I just kept telling myself I was going to finish, no matter what,” Peterson said Monday.
The sisters’ strong desire to finish the ironman was born at least in part by their dedication to training.
Early morning swims. Late-evening runs. Bike rides morning, noon or night.
Peterson, whom Roseth describes as a driven taskmaster, knew what it took to complete an ironman. So when Roseth got the bug to compete in the race last year after watching her sister finish the event, Peterson told her there was lots of work ahead.
The sisters trained together often, swimming in Lake Altoona, Lake Wissota and at the Eau Claire YMCA. They biked and ran at locations throughout Eau Claire and Altoona.
The sisters ran six days a week, biked four to five days weekly and swam two or three times each week. They sometimes communicated via Snapchat, sharing training tips and frustrations.
“Sometimes we would tell each other ‘this really sucks,’” Roseth said. “When you’re training so much, and your body really hurts, you don’t want to keep training. Having the two of us going through that together helped keep us going.”
Peterson worked with a coach in Madison to design a training regimen, then passed on that information to her sister. Roseth said the most challenging part of training was finding time for it, given that she has five children and works many hours as a nurse. Peterson also is a nurse.
“We joke that Heather is the training Nazi,” Roseth laughed. “She trains so hard. She kept me in line pretty well.”
Peterson decided to participate in an ironman after working as a nurse in Madison three years ago and providing medical care to participants in that year’s event who had crashed on their bikes.
“You think everyone who is in an ironman is an Olympian athlete, but that’s not the case,” Peterson said. “Participants come in all shapes and sizes. You realize that completing an ironman is really all about putting in the work and being in a positive state of mind.”
Roseth agreed. She said training for and completing an ironman taught her to push through difficulties to reach a goal.
“You just have to put your mind to it,” she said. “I want my kids to see that there are a lot of hard things in life ... but you get up and push through, and if you want something bad enough you can get it.”
At the end of the race Sunday Peterson told friends and family gathered at the finish she doesn’t plan on doing another triathlon. But on Monday, despite soreness “that requires lots of ibuprofen,” she said she most likely will try another.
Roseth had a different opinion.
“No way,” she laughed when asked if she plans on another triathlon. “I will probably never do another one of these again.”
The sisters said they may train again for a less-strenuous race. And they may persuade their friend and fellow nurse, Natalie Nelson of Boyceville, to join them.
“I can’t help but be inspired by them,” Nelson said of Roseth and Peterson.
Despite the pain they endured, or maybe because of it, the sisters said they treasure the time they spent training for the ironman.
“We were already close, and we grew even closer doing this,” Roseth said. “That’s the best part of all of this.”