BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
CAMBRIDGE, Maryland – “It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m an IRONMAN”.
Fort Madison’s Wes Holtkamp is an IRONMAN.
Not because it was on his bucket list. Not because someone challenged him. Not because he always wanted to be an IRONMAN. But because….and people who know Wes will agree….it looked like fun.
Holtkamp, and an entourage of family, trekked to Cambridge, Maryland over the weekend where he completed in the IRONMAN Maryland 2018. A grueling 140+ mile event where the Fort Madison native swam 2.4 miles in the Choptank River, a salt water tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, then biked 112 miles in a dual loop through the hills of Cambridge, and then ran a full marathon through Cambridge, finishing on the city’s historic Long Wharf.
“Two and half to three years ago, I decided I was going to do IRONMAN,” Holtkamp said from the family’s rented home in Maryland. “I had done a sprint triathlon and I liked it so I told myself I think I can push a 70.3 IRONMAN.”
The 70.3 are shorter versions of the full IRONMAN competitions and Holtkamp said he started training in 2016 for the Haines City IRONMAN 70.3 that he said he would know more about what he was getting into.
“It’s a whole different ball game at this level,” he said. “You’re not allowed to use audio. You’re out there 14 hours just thinking and paying attention to your body. Fighting through pain and cramping.”
He said the family got out to the location on Friday and started setting up itineraries as to where he would be at certain times during the day. The day also provided an opportunity for Holtkamp to set up gear for transitions and started to mentally prepare for what Saturday would bring.
Saturday morning was an early rise at 4 a.m. with a light protein breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and peanut butter toast. Holtkamp said he didn’t want so much in his stomach that it became an issue during the day.
“Once we got there a little after 5, I got stretched out, and then I just watched the water and got my heart rate down,” he said.
At about 6:30 a.m. he said he put his wet suit on. The water in the bay was about 73 degrees which permitted the swimmers to wear wet suits for warmth. Participants were lined up based on how fast each swimmer thinks they will complete the course. Holtkamp said he planned on a 1 hour, 45 minute swim, because he’d been training in a pool and not in actual water, but he knew his time in the pool was quicker.
“Once I got in the water I felt great and I made the course in 1:21. You have to swim two loops on the course which was like a box and you go through a chute where they get your time for the first half. You have to hit a time or you can get a Did Not Qualify and I didn’t want that so I pushed it. When I saw the first time was down, the second lap I swam in faster.”
After exiting the water and running to the bike, Holtkamp said he felt fantastic and having the family there cheering him on pushed him to get on the bike and start the 112 mile ride.
“Coming out and hearing the family screaming was a feeling I just can’t explain. It was awesome,” he said.
The bike course was a looped course as well, with a total elevation gain of about 1,500 feet throughout the course that started and ended at the same point. Holtkamp said he was able to meet up with the support crew at 24 miles and again at 60 miles, and each time it provided him with a renewed adrenaline. At the 60-mile point he was able to stop and snarf down a PB&J within three to four minutes and then headed back onto the course.
He said he set a goal to get the first 20 miles out of they way before he would consider a break, but he pushed through to the first 24-mile support group meet up when he chugged a Gatorade in 30 seconds and then took off. Then every 10 miles after that he would grab a water and do a quick leg stretch on the bike and be off again. He finished the cycling portion in under seven hours and then moved to the 26.2 mile marathon.
Entering the running portion, Holtkamp told himself it didn’t matter how long it took, he was going to finish
“Once I got off the bike, I just knew I had 26 miles, I was going to get there. I don’t care how long it takes me I’m just going to keep going forward. Even when I stopped running it was a walk. I never stopped moving forward and knew I was getting closer,” he said.
“It’s one of those feelings – I made it this far, but I have so far to go. You see mile markers and I set goals every 10 miles where they had tables for volunteers handing out nutrition. The end goal was just to finish for me.”
He said at that point, his forearms were burning more than his legs because of gripping the handle bars and that was different than what he expected, but shaking his hands out as the run started helped bring feeling back into his fingers.
The pain then shifted to his legs and calf muscles, but he said he didn’t get that pain until about 15 or 16 miles in and he was feeling pretty good up to that point.
“We had a stretch that shifted from concrete to a grassy area and I don’t know if that transition threw my legs to a different feeling, but that’s where it really started to hurt and I started cramping,” he said.
“That’s where the mental battles started and it was a rough last half hour for sure.”
He said he fought for the last hour or so and then the last mile was a siege on his senses.
“I fought through it four an hour and then the last mile it really hit me, but I was bound and determined to get across the finish line. I told myself I could cry after that, but I was gonna make it,” he said.
“The last mile you run though the downtown area, and the atmosphere was electric and was awesome …and then you hear everyone chanting. — ‘You’re an IRONMAN…You’re an IRONMAN. I have to get there.”
As he ran through the town he saw people who had collapsed and couldn’t finish the run.
“I saw a lot of people go down along the way and I didn’t want to have that happen. My heart was breaking for those people, because the athletes themselves are spectacular. They work together to get through the race. I had a local guy run with me for a couple of miles and that was good for both of us to help each other through that part.”
Fourteen hours, two minutes, and one second after running into the cool Chesapeake Bay waters, Wes Holtkamp ran under a banner and passed the high tech gadgetry that recorded his final time into a database that recorded him in 872 out of 1,462 participants, 641st out of all men, and 68th out of 104 men ages 30 to 34.
Wes’ support group included Sandy and Dave Holtkamp, his mother and father, Bobby and Jessica Holtkamp, his brother and sister-in-law, Scott and Abby Holtkamp, his oldest brother and sister-in-law, and his girlfriend Jenny.
“You hit this wall – and then you hear someone call your name and you push through. They were awesome. They were loud and I always knew they were around, even if they weren’t physically with me, I knew they were there and if something went wrong and I didn’t finish, they were going to be there celebrating with me for what I did get done. It was very emotional for me at times and it helped me find that next level.”
Holtkamp said he was also humbled the outpouring of support from back home in texts and social media posts.
“I had a lot of messages and phone calls from people in Fort Madison who wished me luck the night before and that’s awesome, too. Knowing that whatever happens happens and all these people have your back. That pushed me, too.”
“It was a lot of thinking and knowing I’d set this goal nine months ago,” he said. “I started training and part of that was training mentally. I’m gonna do it. Whatever it takes I need to to cross that finish line.”
The 14-hour time was pleasing to Holtkamp but he said his goal now is to deal with the soreness and make sure he’s healthy, but he said he felt good and was going to celebrate with a bottle of champagne and have an easy day.
“I haven’t done a lot of research on how to come down from a long day like that. I”m sure today’s going to involve a lot of Icy Hot and walking. I don’t want to sit because I don’t want to stiffen up and need to keep the blood flowing. My toes have been numb since the end, but I have read up on that and they say that’s normal and will return with time. At least that’s what the Internet says,” he said with a laugh.
The future may hold some shorter distance events that involve three or four hour works.
“The all day thing, I don’t see myself doing another one. Obviously, with the sweat and tears I put in, the outcome was fantastic. But I may look at doing Warrior dashes or something like that. I see these things and pick ’em as I go. I say, ‘Hey that looks like fun’, and then I set goals and just try to achieve them. I don’t even know what the next thing is.”
Holtkamp said this isn’t something you do everyday and probably won’t ever do again.
…But you never know.