After twelve hours, eleven minutes, and forty-three seconds, my 140.6-mile journey had come to its end. This past Sunday, June 21, 2009, I became an Ironman. According to the bib numbers listed in the race guide, some 2,600 participants were set to begin the race, but, for a number of reasons, only 2,153 would complete the course. As I walked through the finishing area, fortunate to consider myself one of the "survivors," I could not help but think, "now what?" A big question, to be sure; after all, why was the journey even begun? To borrow from George Mallory, when asked why he had the desire to scale Mount Everest: "Because it's there."
"There" is Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a town of some 34,000 folks, some 25 miles from the eastern border with Washington state, and a couple of hours south of the Canadian border. Out of the eight Ironman-sanctioned races held in North America (one of which is the Hawaii Ironman, which, as the world championships, requires a qualifying time unattainable by mere mortals such as I), Ironman Coeur d'Alene (CdA) had the perfect combination of location, familiarity with the course (I know several people who have completed the course since 2005), and timing (it's difficult for me to take extended time off during the school year). Late June in northern Idaho seemed perfect. But, we had to get there.
Fortunately, everything seemed to fall into place in early March. Whilst reading a story on MSNBC of a six-pound burrito (yours for the eating at some casino in Las Vegas; finish it, and you get unlimited rides on the casino's indoor roller coaster -- how's that for a prize?!), N--- happened upon a link for Frontier Airlines and allegedly cheap airfares. After a few clicks, emails, and phone calls back and forth, we had our airfare. As for getting the bike and transition bag (traditionally, a backpack stuffed with all of the gear a triathlete needs to complete a race [wetsuit, goggles, bike helmet & shoes, running shoes, and nutrition for twelve hours of racing, for example]), plan "A" was to throw it all in a bike transport box loaned to me by a friend. That, however, can prove problematic (and expensive and cumbersome), as we would be without a rental car; given our hotel's proximity to the race course, we simply would not need to travel, save from the airport to the hotel, and the hotel provided a shuttle. But more on that in a bit. Plan "B" became such, as Jim Britton, local bike shop owner and now fellow-Ironman, was having a trailer hauled up to CdA a week before the race. Fortunately, there was room on board for my bike and related gear.
The hotel at which we stayed was the Coeur d'Alene Golf & Spa Resort. As it sounds, the resort was expensive as all get out, but its location could not be beat: ~100 yards from the swim start and right in the midst of downtown CdA, which put us within walking distance of both the athlete's village and numerous restaurants, thus no need for a rental car. Additionally, the resort had 24-hour room service for Ironman weekend, so the early morning rituals of race day could be observed with minimal inconvenience; I left the hotel barely an hour before the race start. Nice.
Ironman does a great job of presenting its races, allowing athletes the opportunity to peruse & train on the course in the days leading up to the big race. Gatorade sponsored morning swims, from 7:00 -- 10:00 AM, complete with buoys and watching of athletes' stuff (dry clothes, etc.) while the athletes swam; some athletes even got free Gatorade, but I was not so lucky. From last year's race, the biggest topic of conversation was how cold the swim was. Lake Coeur d'Alene is rumored to be glacier-fed, so it's expected to be cold. However, for 2009, the water temperature was perfect, hovering in the neighborhood of 65° all week. I did only one morning swim, given time constraints with scouting the bike & run courses, and it was perfect. Too bad, for it would have been better practice to have had some rougher water in which to train.
The only downside to not having a rental car was that it would inhibit me from scouting the bike course (two 56-mile loops through town and then off to hillier terrain of the northwest). However, a quick post to a well-known triathlon forum found a ride from a couple in town from Louisiana to do the race; they, too, would be scouting the course that afternoon, despite the rain. Travis & his wife picked me up from the resort around 2:30, and we navigated our way around the somewhat convoluted route. From the backseat of their rented Monte Carlo, I actually began to have my doubts as my ability as a cyclist: These were some serious hills they had in northern Idaho. Why did I have such a hard time believing this was the same course elevation profile posted online? Where was the flat land so evident in Napoleon Dynamite? The next morning, better weather allowed me time to go for an early-morning spin on part of the bike & run courses, where my legs were able to loosen up some, and my confidence came back. I could would do this. After the ride, it was time to pack my transition bags and drop them and my bike off for the next day's race. Ironman was here.
Sleep was something with which I had had trouble in the weeks leading up to the race. Being in Idaho only made it worse, as I was still running on Central time, instead of Pacific. Couple with that the fact that it gets dark late (nearly 9:00 PM) and light early (shortly after 4:00 AM); I was usually up shortly after daylight. Race morning, though, I was up at 3:00 for breakfast (huckleberry pancakes & eggs!), and then managed to go back to sleep for another 90 minutes before rousing myself and getting my remaining gear together for the race. With a little over an hour remaining on the countdown to race clock, N--- & I made our way down to transition. Thirty minutes later, I was wetsuitted up and standing on a beach with two-and-a-half thousand of my closest friends, ready to get the show on the road. The noise & excitement from every body on the beach made it near impossible to hear one's self think; I barely even heard the cannon fire at 7:00 AM, signifying the start of the race. It was time to do the seemingly impossible.
SWIM - 1:26:04
The swim in Lake Coeur d'Alene would consist of two loops around a rectangular course. I've heard horror stories of the craziness of the swim starts -- 2,400 athletes trying to swim in a relatively narrow corridor of water -- so my plan was to wait a minute or so before entering the water -- which I did: I was literally the last one in the water. That plan didn't pan out so well, though, for, by the time I made it to the first turn, I was already in the thick of it, and nearest the turn buoy -- which is where I did not want to be. Somehow, though, I still found myself nearest the buoys at every turn, getting conked on the head, whacked on the back, kicked in the side. Survivorship helped me make it back to shore for the completion of the first loop, and then it was time to do it all over again. Loop #2, though, proved to be more challenging. Granted, there were fewer swimmers ahead of me, now, but the wind had really picked up, making for rough chop on the way out. Some swells must have been three feet high, and I had little choice but to ride it out, swimming on what felt like a treadmill, going nowhere fast.
Finally, I made it back to shore, had my wetsuit peeled off of me, and I was off to the changing tent for transition #1 (T1). Because of the rumored chill that was to be in the air for race day, racers were advised to change out of their swim attire and into dry attire for the bike & run legs. I heeded this advice and had probably the slowest transition in the five years I've been racing: 11 minutes, 32 seconds. Abysmal, but I was now ready to go ride.
BIKE - 6:03:10
Typically, hills & such do not seem as bad from a car as what they really are. The opposite was true of the CdA bike leg. Whilst Travis & I commented on how tough the course was going to be from the confines of a car, once out on the bike, it really wasn't that bad. True, the hills were real grinders (and made me glad I had opted for a 12-25 cassette, just to give myself an extra gear or two, should I need it), but all that made the bike course really tough was the chill in the air and the unceasing wind: There was nary a tailwind to be found! However, there were bagpipes, just before the first turnaround at the top of the course's first climb. Hearing the pipes four times on the course was nothing short of awesome.
Loop #2 felt easier than did loop #1, for I had a better idea of what to expect for the climbing and descents. Mid-way through the second loop, I knew I would not hit my target finish time of sub-six hours for the bike split and began to recalculate my finishing time and what it would take to still hit a twelve hour finish. However, when I entered T2 (the second transition, from bike to run), I saw I was just over six hours, and still had somewhat of a shot at nailing my finish time goal. T2 was much faster (2:46), and I was off & running.
RUN - 4:28:12
I had run three marathons prior to Ironman CdA, and in none of them did I walk. Ironman, however, is a different animal. I felt great the first 10k (~6 miles) of the run, but by mile seven, the mile markers were becoming sporadic, and it became difficult to get my run splits, to see if I was on pace. Shortly thereafter, I gave up and had to walk, feeling like I was going too hard. Taking in the right amount of nutrition to counter the cold (it was barely above 50° when I began the run, and rain was coming) became paramount, seconded by finishing. If it could be done in twelve hours, super. If not, well, I would still finish; death before DNF and all that.
Seeing so many fellow runners and triathletes was really motivational. I ran into (no, not literally) another poster from the triathlon forum, recognized by the kilt he wore on the run. With a little over 10k remaining in the race, I began to increase my pace, slowing down only once more to take in some fluids at the aid stations. As the course wound its way back into town, a kid on a corner, shouted out that there was less than a mile to go. The pace intensified even more. At the top of the final hill, a volunteer patted me on the back and said to hang a left and then it was seven blocks to the finish. Rounding that final corner was an amazing sight.
With one exception (the weather), everything I had heard about the course at Coeur d'Alene was true: It was beautiful. It was just the right amount of challenge. The volunteer support was superb. The entire town turns out for the finish to cheer athletes on, regardless of finishing time. Running into town, through the finishing chute, and hearing my name (mispronounced) that I was now an Ironman was a one-of-a-kind experience. As I crossed the finish line eleven minutes & change over my desired time, I received my finisher's prizes (a nice hat, a bland t-shirt, and a medal that will make a lovely Christmas tree ornament), and found myself asking, "[I've finished an Ironman,] Now what?" For starters, work. I focused entirely too much on my training this past school year and not enough on my students. Additionally, taking the GRE and beginning work on a Master's degree, although in what, I have not decided; I'm barely a week across the finish line -- work with me. Most importantly, though, is getting married next March. N--- has been wonderfully patient with me through the training and selfishness that accompanies the prep for a race like this. It's my turn to now support her.
Other thank yous go out to:
- Dan & Kristine, for all of the help in getting prepared for what to expect from both Ironman and the town of Coeur d'Alene.
- Dad & Mom for use of the camera, watching after the cat while N--- & I went adventuring in the Pacific Northwest, and for rides to & from the airport
- Travis & Kristin for shuttling me around the bike course on a wet Friday afternoon. It's folk like you who make the triathlon community a great thing to be a part of.
- Jennifer, Skyler, Taylor, Keith, & Tamara for meeting N--- & I at the airport with Mom. It made for one heck of a landing & reception.
Although she has already been mentioned, not enough can be said to thank N--- for her love and support on every front in this venture. From the times she literally dragged me out to go run to warm meals cooked after long bike rides to the simple smiles and cheers given while out on course, nothing can beat having someone as kind and as caring as she. Thank you.
And thus concludes my lengthy race report for Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2009. Thanks for reading.