By Matt Kane
DELANO, MN “I would never have described myself as being athletic, but I liked being around my friends.”
This sentenced was voiced by Alli Zens last week, when asked what type of athlete she was in high school at Vermillion High School in South Dakota, where she graduated with the class of 1993. That high school athletic career is two-plus decades ago for Zens. A lot has changed in that time.
Zens now lives in Delano with her husband of 15 years, Jason, and their three children twin boys Justin and Caden, 10, and daughter Alexis, 6. She is a successful lawyer, and, oh yeah, earlier this month, at the age of 40, Zens completed her first ironman competition.
An ear-to-ear smile flooded Zens’ face as she ran across the finish line at the Ironman Wisconsin in Madison Sept. 13, where she had just left a combined 140.6 miles of Wisconsin landscape in her dust.
“It’s such an amazing feeling,” Zens said. “This all came together and it felt so good.”
Zens’ official time was 15:18:37.
“Like your wedding day, it was like ‘Oh, it’s over,’” said Zens of the 15-plus hour ironman.
Zens ranked 1,938th overall; 467th for women; and 85th in her division.
The time and place numbers are just that, numbers, it quickly becomes apparent when talking to Zens. Completing an ironman was more about the journey.
“I always get satisfaction out of doing the seemingly impossible. I like convincing people they can do things they don’t think they can do,” said the pro bono counsel at Dorsey & Whitney LLP in Minneapolis, where she is known as Alysia. “The journey ended up being an important lesson to my kids. I felt a responsibility to them to finish what I started. When I crossed the finish line, I was like, ‘I did it. I showed them how to finish.’”
Those kids were there at the finish line, with smiles of pride on their faces.
“The kids and I were so proud of her when she crossed the finish line. We knew she would finish it, and she did,” said Jason Zens. “The kids had so much fun watching their mom become a ironman.”
Evidence that her finish time was not a concern was displayed when Zens decided to walk the final four miles of the marathon run.
“I was soaking up the energy from everybody who was there,” she said. “The positive energy part of it was the coolest part.”
Zens looks back fondly on her time walking with and talking to Darrin Albrecht, a handicapped man who was being pushed through the ironman, and cherishes the twig given to her by a random little boy in the crowd at mile 22.
“The whole race, I had a gargantuan smile on my face,” she said. “It was fun and I felt so grateful for the positive energy around me.”
Part of that energy came from Alli’s Support Crew, the group of family members and friends, who accompanied Zens to Madison. The members of the crew appreciated that Zens gave that positive energy right back to them as she passed by.
“What a joy it was for me to watch her participate in this event,” said Lisa Sequin, who was Zens’ primary bicycle training partner in Delano. “I witnessed many families spend hours watching for their athlete to bike or run past, only to have them barely wave as they went by. We followed her along the course and camped out at several spots to watch her go by. Whenever she saw us, she would stop and talk to us, give hugs, pose for pictures, and show genuine gratitude for the support. She made being a spectator truly fun and made us feel like we were just as much a part of it as she was. It was an amazing experience and I was inspired by her.”
That take of Zens being an inspiration is a common one for those who know her.
“Alli is amazing. We are all so proud of her,” said Zens’ running partner Natasha Werner. “She set a goal, trained and prioritized the goal, and achieved the goal. She is an inspiration to us all, and proves that all it takes is the right kind of motivation to get things done, as well as the support of her wonderful family. She is such a great role model for her kids; this further exemplifies that.”
The positive energy Zens emits is constant, according to Seguin.
“I did my first triathlon this year, and she supported me just as much for my two-hour event as I supported her for her 15-hour event,” Seguin said. “That’s the kind of friend she is.”
And that’s why Zens had such a large support group, not only in Madison, but back home in Delano, where neighborhood kids erected homemade signs of support, and on social media, where her Facebook page was alive with well-wishing comments.
“Race day ended up being a total day of gratitude. I had all these supporters and I felt healthy, and the weather was great,” she said. “During the race, I kept thinking of all of that. I am so lucky.”
Distance: 2.4 Time: 1:48.39
When close to 3,000 adults push off from the same lakeshore at the same time in a swim to the same ending point, elbows and feet become crude weapons that easily and regularly find a fellow swimmer’s skull.
Zens was warned of this, so, for the sake of her health, she laid back at the start of the 2.4-mile swim that opened the Wisconsin Ironman, and tried to take her time.
“I know when I try to swim fast I get anxious. I didn’t care about my time, just that I made the cutoff,” she said.
Zens’ leisurely approach was too leisurely early in the race. When unsuccessfully trying to get her family’s attention by waving and yelling as she swam, Zens realized her commotion threw her own breathing pattern off. After a minute, she managed to calm her early panic.
“The physical part you have, a lot of it is in your head,” she said.
Actually, Zens did not always have the physical part of swimming an ironman down. She used the breaststroke for her previous triathlons, but the distance and crowd of swimmers in an ironman warrants the front crawl. Prior to registering for the ironman, Zens took swimming lessons from Matt Strobl, and, in preparation for the big event, Zens turned to Kristen Nelson of MyBody Shop Fitness Center to fine tune her stroke.
The training worked.
“The swim for me was actually calm. For some, it causes the most anxiety,” Zens said. “The swim ended up being my favorite thing.”
Distance: 112 Time: 7:39:30
Zens’ second bout of panic came at the 30-mile point of the 112-mile bicycle leg.
“I realized I didn’t hit my time mark and thought I might not make it,” she said referring to the time needed to continue on in the ironman.
The bicycle route in Wisconsin is one of the toughest of all the ironman courses in the United States. Zens survived and made the qualifying time. She was more than ready to dismount her bicycle and get down to the pavement, where she is in control.
“On the bike, I was concerned about mechanical problems, because, on a bicycle, you rely on your equipment,” she said. “I was glad to be done with the bike, because I knew I could control the run.”
Distance: 26.2 Time: 5:20:41
Zens controlled her run so much that she intentionally ran two minutes slower than her typical marathon pace.
“The run was about interacting with the people on the course and the supporters,” she said. “I loved seeing my family at mile seven, where they were volunteering.”
Deciding to walk the final four miles was a “gift” to herself.
“The run was really fun. I made the decision to enjoy the run and not push myself too hard. I just wanted to feel good,” explained Zens, who began running 5Ks while in law school. “I was in no rush for the day to end and I knew it would guarantee feeling healthy and enjoying family after the finish.
“We celebrated with cheese dip back at the hotel.”
Weeks later, the celebration included chips and beer, two things she gave up one year before the ironman. Although she didn’t eat this many chips, Gens calculated she earned 1,149 servings of chips during her 30-week training regimen, which lasted from January to September.
The journey begins
Getting to the ironman was anything but chips and cheese dip.
Physically, Zens’ ironman journey began in January. Mentally, the initial thought of competing in an ironman came to Zens almost exactly eight years before the starting gun sounded in Madison Sept. 9, 2007. She remembers the date because she records everything in her well-kept journal. It was the day she completed her first half-ironman at Square Lake, near St. Paul.
As is often the case for athletes who compete in marathons, triathlons, and ironmans, the physical part of the training and competing is the easy part. The mental aspect is what can give an athlete problems.
Zens teetered for years before finally committing herself to take on the demands of becoming an ironman athlete.
“Life is so busy. It’s such a big commitment and it seems very selfish. And I didn’t have any specific reason (to do an ironman); I was just doing it because,” Zens gave as deterrent reasonings that went through her mind before committing herself to ironman training.
A year-long exchange of entries in Zens’ journal further reveal her mental tug-of-war over fully committing herself to becoming an ironman athlete.
9-3-13: Made the decision in last week to for sure do an iron in 2015. I am super excited about it and really happy with my timing of decision. Nice amount of time to truly train properly. Happy hubby and kids involved in my decision and very supportive. Did lots of research to make sure realistic for me. Going to do a plan with max being 16 hrs per week (vs some plans 25+). Diana Nyad very inspiring. Finished swim from Cuba to flor yesterday. No shark cage. 110 miles. Amazing. I can handle 2.4!
9-28-13: Seriously doubting decision now. Keep wondering if should instead spend more time volunteering, gardening, hiking, teaching kids, exploring with family, cooking, doing shorter intense workouts, etc.
10-1-13: Finally feeling at peace with decision to do. Talking with friend this morning about politics and house. She reminded me I don’t have to fix everything. She also said to follow heart and not logic when discussing house decisions. Applying that same advice to iron decision makes me ok with doing it. It’s ok that I don’t use that time to help other causes, charities, gardening, etc. I really want to do this, I have family’s complete support, I can do it AND still be a good mom. And not unimportant, I just really really want to do it. And so I shall. There are much worse things I could do with what’s surely coming as my mid life crisis ;)
8-3-14: Swam about 100 feet last night in lake Shetek. Hated it. Felt super hard and unnatural. Couldn’t wait to get out. Was glad was getting dark so I had to stop. No idea how I am going to swim 2.4. Terrified.
10-16-14: I am back to totally questioning whether I should be doing this. So expensive and time consuming. Physically I love the idea of doing it, I love endurance racing, I love following a plan and seeing the results. But budget wise, so expensive. And so many things I can’t control that could alter the experience could get sick, weather could be awful, someone could need me, work could be stressful and may not be sleeping well, etc, etc, etc. Also fear I should spend the time with my family, organizing my house, staying caught up at work, etc, etc., etc. Just not sure I can justify the time. Perhaps time would be better spent doing so many other things, keeping up on to do lists, practicing hockey skills with the boys, etc., etc. Ugh. OK, so I’ve just made the decision I will spend between now and January 1 working really hard to catch up on house projects and work. If I am still feeling super over-whelmed then, will re-evaluate the plan. January is when would start spending money on swimming and February is when training plan officially kicks in. So that will be good timing.
“I wanted to keep a balance,” Zens said I didn’t want to give it a 20-30 hours per week plan. My big goal was to do it in a family-friendly, healthy, non-burnout way. I thought it would be more impossible than it was.”
Somehow, Zens managed to sneak in her training sessions without missing a beat with family and career life.
“She didn’t want to miss kid events and she didn’t want it to be hard on the family. She did all of her workouts early in the morning or after the kids were in bed. She didn’t really miss any family time,” said Jason Zens. “She trained for nine months, six days a week. In that time, she only missed a few workouts.”
Zens’ new year’s resolution declared her intention, with a poignant note to herself: “Enjoy the ironman journey.”
Zens committed to become an ironman athlete with little time to spare, just before beginning the 30-week training program, which strictly followed Don Fink’s book “Be Iron Fit.” Lack of sleep, trying workout conditions and a severe calf cramp, to name a few things, send doubt through Zens’ mind, but the strong-willed mother paddled, peddled and paced on through the streets, dirt roads and trails in and around Delano. The support group at home, commonly referred to as her family, kept Zens going, and, so, too, did The Iron Cowboy, James Lawrence, who did 50 ironmans in 50 days through June and July of this year.
Also helping Zens get through training was her realization that, despite the ironman being an individual event, she was rarely alone during her workouts.
“I did a lot more training with friends than I thought would fit in,” the energetic Zens said. “I am impressed with how well it worked out, where I met people organically. I knew I couldn’t coordinate it myself, but met others who worked out in community who scheduled their workouts with mine.”
Zens’ training partners appreciate the time spent with their friend.
“I am so happy to have been part of the journey with her from the time she signed up for the ironman to the finish line,” said Werner.
Zens’ training regimen got Seguin back on her bike.
“We had been friends for years before her decision to take on this amazing feat, but I got to know her even more during our six-hour bike rides,” Seguin said. “She is thankful for me for accompanying her on those long rides and I am grateful for her for getting me back on my bike after several years’ hiatus.”
Zens gives great credit to the town of Delano, itself, for preparing her for Ironman Wisconsin.
“The reason it worked so well was Delano. Delano is such a healthy place and people are always working out,” said Zens, who founded the Girls With Goals running club in Delano five years ago. “I did all of my swimming at the Tiger Activity Center pool or at Lake Rebecca. I could do everything I needed to do in Delano.”
Zens claims that, while growing up in Vermillion, she wasn’t very good at gymnastics, basketball, tennis, volleyball or track. She is a Delano girl now, and, with 140.6 ironman miles and 2,817 combined miles logged during her 30-week training plan, it is safe to say Zens is, indeed, an athlete.