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Ironman Coeur d'Alene Race Report

What are friends for? They're for sharing your highest and your darkest moments. The joy, the suckage, and the utterly revolting bits. My friends are the best. This is what I learned at Ironman Coeur d'Alene in June, and after three months I have written it down so I don't forget it.

June 26, 2005. 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run.

I signed up for this race a year ago because of peer pressure. I had done my first Ironman in New Zealand a few months earlier, in March 2004, and in June I found that a big pack of my friends and training partners had decided to do CDA the following year. Almost all of them were iron-virgins. If I did this race, I would have automatic training partners. How could I say no? So I signed up.

Five of us did most of our training together. All-day bike rides. Long runs at 5:30 on weekday mornings. Mind-numbing 4000-meter swims. This was great for me, because when I trained for my first Ironman, I was pretty much on my own. I had friends who did long rides with me, and an occasional long run partner, but there was no one with the same training schedule and the same goal.

The five of us commiserated about our fatigue and our saddle sores, our constant hunger and our water-logged ears. The training still sucked, but it was way more fun to suffer along with a crew of iron-buddies.

When you've spent six months or more training for a one-day event, you become paranoid in the days leading up to that race. God forbid you should stub a toe, twist an ankle, or pick up a sniffle. So I felt immense relief when I woke up on race morning feeling healthy and calm.

One of my clearest memories from my first Ironman was the feeling of awe I had standing at the edge of the water before the start. I had spent so much time, energy and money to get to that point, I could hardly believe I had made it. Standing on the edge of Lake Coeur d'Alene, I was in awe of everyone else. There were so many people there -- those in the wetsuits and those watching from the sidelines -- who had invested so much. The day ahead was nothing but potential.

I was particularly proud of Barb, Deb, Julie and Marissa. We had pretty much stuck together through the immense stress of training, and these ladies made it look easy.

Right before the start, I remember hearing the announcer, Mike Reilly (The Voice of Ironman®™), comment on how there is nothing else in sport like the mass start of an Ironman. Few things match seeing some 2,200 wetsuit-encased athletes plunge into the water to start a day of hard work that will last anywhere from 8 to 17 hours. I've gotta say, the only thing that beats seeing it is being in the middle of it.

The cannon boomed and we strode into the water to start our long day. I was still wading in when I passed a man who had already lost his goggles in the fray. I hope he finished.

The swim was very rough for the first 15 minutes, but the water was clear and clean and not too cold. That lake is beautiful. I exited the water in 1:19, almost exactly the same time as in NZ. I could see that Deb had gotten out just seconds ahead of me. Woo!

One of the privileges of paying $400+ to enter a race is that you get fantastic volunteers. Out of the water I ran straight to the wetsuit peelers. Two men instructed me to sit down, shucked my wetsuit, picked me back up by the arms, handed me my suit and told me to GO! GO! GO! Awesome.

I got through T1 -- more great volunteers -- and grabbed my bike. (Note to the non-triathlon-savvy: the gaps between events when you change clothing and equipment are called transitions. That time is included in your total time. T1 is between the swim and bike; T2 is between the bike and run.) I started out slowly and kept my heart rate in check.

The bike was two loops of a pretty course through residential neighborhoods and farms, and not too hilly. But by the time I got to the first climb not far into the race, the sun was beating down. I was drinking lots of water and eating a third of a Clif bar every 20 minutes, as I had practiced in training, to keep a steady flow of calories coming into my system. But by around mile 40 of the bike, I was bored and not feeling great. I was barely a third of the way through the bike and I was dreading heading out for a second loop.

I returned to town to the cheering spectators. As I headed out for my second loop, I did something I hate to do in a race: I stopped to use a porta-potty. In NZ, I rode the entire bike ride without stopping. I did not unclip from my pedals for 112 miles. (How I relieved myself is TMI for most people; use your imagination. Let's just say that pee is mostly water at that point.)

I was just so sick of being on my bike that getting off to pee seemed like a good idea. Once again, spectacular volunteer work made it easier. As soon as I stepped off my bike, a volunteer offered to hold ithe bike for me while I did my business. He even offered to get me refills of water or food while I was in the blue box. (Kids who were volunteering were actually bickering over who got to hold the cool racy bikes. Very cute.)

That was the beginning of the end -- after that stop, I stopped four more times to use the loo. I took every opportunity to get off that damn bike for just a minute.

As if the increasing heat and my boredom weren't enough, around mile 60 I started to feel sleepy. I practically had to hold my eyelids apart. I was worried for a while that I might nod off and crash. That sleepy. At one of my many stops I asked a paramedic if I should be worried. He asked if I felt light-headed, nauseated or disoriented. No, no, and no. He said not to worry and that I was probably just bored and tired. Yeah, no kidding.

I should have realized that my frequent porta-potty stops were probably a sign I was drinking too much. Around mile 75 I realized that my belly was feeling bloated -- huge, actually -- and I stopped drinking for a while. I stopped eating, too, hoping my stomach would "reset" and process all the stuff that was sitting in there. As the miles clicked by, I started to worry that I wouldn't be able to run with such a heavy, sloshy stomach. I was starting to despair. I never doubted that I would finish, but I was trying not to imagine how hard it could be if things got worse.

I finally got off my bike after nearly seven and a half hours. My friends Deb and Julie had finished the bike nearly 30 minutes ahead of me, but pretty close to each other. I had hoped to finish the ride around the same time as them. Now I just hoped to catch them on the run before they finished.

I ran through T2 (yay volunteers, who helped me smooth my fresh socks, applied sunblock, and offered heartfelt encouragement) and braced myself for the start of the run.

I was able to run, slowly, sloshing stomach and all. About half a mile in, I saw Dave. I felt like crap. He must have been worried about me, although he says he wasn't. I was so relieved to see him after my miserable ride. I told him, "I had a horrible ride, and my stomach is sloshing, but I'm going to FINISH, dammit!"

Whatever my goal was at the start of the race, now my only plan was to catch Julie and Deb and finish with them. This was huge motivation for me, although I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I had to make up more than a minute per mile on them. And my big toes were starting to hurt.

I ran and I ran. And I walked some.

Who would have thought that warm chicken soup would taste good on a hot day? The salty stuff was wonderful. That, and Coke, and very entertaining volunteers and enthusiastic spectators, kept me going when I wanted to stop and sit down.

Every time I saw one of our spectator friends, I asked how far ahead my friends were. It didn't seem like I was gaining on them. At all.

Until I was around mile 17, as I headed out for the final turnaround. I crossed paths with my friend Missy, who was headed for the finish line. "Deb and Julie are right ahead of you!" she said. God bless her. At this point on the course I could see pretty far ahead, and I squinted and imagined that the two white shirts bobbing half a mile in the distance were Deb and Julie. I started running faster. Pretty soon I was sure it was them. They appeared to be walking. I ran even faster. I was so happy at the thought of catching up with them. When I got within earshot, I started singing, badly, "Almost heaven... West Virginia..."

John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was one of the songs we had sung when we were bored on long rides. And it was on the mix CD I had made everyone for the long drive from San Francisco to Idaho. They both turned around and started to laugh.

I had caught them! I had caught them! After feeling crappy all day, finally I could enjoy the company of friends. I was jubilant. And after having to force myself to run for several hours, suddenly I wanted to run. Fast! Deb and Julie laughed. They were walking. They were planning to walk for a few more miles. I convinced them to run a bit, walk a bit. Just run to that tree, then we can walk. We'll get to the finish line faster. It'll be over sooner. OK, they said.

We ran, we walked, we ran a little bit more. My big toes were not happy, but I ignored them. I told Julie and Deb that if I had my Sharpie, I would write "NO" in very large letters on the back of my bib number. I WILL NOT do another Ironman after this one. This sucks. This is hard. Enough!

The final seven miles flew by. We made several porta-potty stops, we cheered for runners who were still heading out toward the final turnaround, we hoped we wouldn't be out long enough that the aid station volunteers would make us take glowsticks so we would be easier to see in the dark. At mile 25 we could hear the roar of the crowds at the finish line.

We rounded the final corner that led to the finish chute and were blown away. The Sub 17 guys were there right at the final turn, offering high-fives and congratulations. We had bought shirts from them earlier in the week and we were happy to see them out there supporting those of us racing to finish. The rest was a blur.

The tunnel of people high-fiving at the end was so narrow that the three of us couldn't get through together. We made it through the mob and crossed the finish line hand in hand.

After the adrenaline wore off, after we got our medals and our finisher goodies, after we met up with our loved ones and our friends who had already finished, I took off my shoes and socks and examined my toes. It felt like nails had been driven through my big toenails. They were still intact, but I had a giant throbbing blister underneath each toenail. (CRINGE! And now, nearly three months later, my right toenail is finally about to fall off. GROSS.)

It is hard to explain the magic of the Ironman. I suffered through the training, and I suffered throughout the race, and I swore that I'd never do another one. But I am addicted. Training toward a huge goal, and relishing the accomplishment of finishing, gives me a huge high. There is nothing like crossing that finish line. It's a moment that you want to hold on to forever. It is magical. Watching the live video feed of the finish line at Ironman Wisconsin last night reminded me of that feeling, and it brought tears to my eyes. I'm such a sucker.

Which is why this morning I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin, September 10, 2006.

I just hope my toenails grow back by then.

September 12, 2005 7:32 AM

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oh ariel, i'm in tears. and i'm such a sucker. but not enough to sign up for wisconsin with you. this time, anyway...sooo wishing i could! but i promise to join you for your long early-morning runs, and loooong weekend rides. i'll even pull you through 5000 meters of swimming. just because you are awesome. and admirable. and you do Ironmans. love you!

Great report Ariel! Well worth the wait.