I wanted to take the time to write an Ironman Coeur d'Alene (IMCDA) race report while the memories are still fresh in my head. An Ironman is a long race, so this will be a long report; feel free to skim or skip it altogether. I've started with just the pre-race, swim and T1. Tomorrow I hope to do the rest and later this week I plan to post separately on the amazing amount of good advice I received prior to this Ironman; as the day went on I found myself extremely well prepared for most issues that arose. But more on that later.
My first impressions of this race came from the athlete registration, mandatory meeting and gear check-in, which happened on Thursday, Friday and Saturday respectively. Each of these experiences was a lot better than I expected and overall they gave me a really good feeling going into the event. At athlete sign-in you complete a wide range of waivers (legal and medical) and confirm all of your race weekend contact information in case of emergencies. When I attended the Oceanside 70.3 triathlon in California earlier this year I was a little overwhelmed by this process. It was very formal and felt ominous and foreboding. It had a totally different feel in Coeur d'Alene; far more upbeat. The gentleman going over the legal documents with me inserted some information periodically that was definitely not on the official forms. ("Sign here if you agree we can release your medical information to family, or sign here if you want us just to sell your body for parts.") The athlete meeting was also well-humored. At gear check-in one of the volunteers asked if it was my first Ironman, and when I said yes he spent the next 10 minutes walking me to my bike rack, explaining the complete layout and flow of the transition area, and finally repeatedly telling me what an amazing experience I was about to have. I went into race day feeling very prepared. Of course, I was still nervous as heck, but I had done everything in my power to be ready!
Race morning dawned beautifully; sunny and cool with a forecasted high of 74. I put my wetsuit on, applying a huge amount of lube to the area of my neck that chafed so badly in California. The water temperature was around 58 degrees, so I also wore a neoprene cap to be safe. Then I headed across the timing chip mat and found a place on the beach along with nearly 2500 nervous athletes.
The Swim (2.4 miles)
When the canon went off to signal the start of the race I was more relieved than anything else. After a year of waiting the race was FINALLY happening. I started in a location about 2/3 down the beach from the course markers (buoys) and put myself about 3/4 towards the back of the crowd. I'm glad I did. Where I was there was no one running to the water or fighting for position, just a lot of pensive folks wading in to start a swim. When my feet first left the gravel bottom I start doing some breaststroke to catch my breath and get my bearings. I probably did this for 30 seconds to a minute. When I tried to change to freestyle I just couldn't do it. I was not having an anxiety attack, but I was grappling with the magnitude of the moment and having trouble catching my breath. My head was clear, so I rolled over on my back and kicked for about 15 seconds to focus on my breathing. I was worried that I would be run over by other swimmers, but my position meant that the people behind me were swimming even less confidently than I was. I was able to steady my breath and focus my thoughts very quickly. Then with one final deep breath I rolled over, plunged my face into the icy water, and got to work.
Because the water was fairly choppy from the other swimmers I went to my "1-2" breathing on every right-side stroke pattern. Each time I lifted my head to take a breathe I would watch my wet-suited arm moving past my head, and then follow my pale, white hand as it pierced into the murky water. With that piercing motion I would exhale forcefully and actually made a "wooooooo" noise. The result was that I put myself in a very strong pattern of < breathe, "woooooo", breathe, "wooooo" >. The longer I did it, the more it gave me confidence that I could keep doing it. The other benefit was that it blocked out the noise of the others swimmers and allowed me to focus on my own swimming.
Unlike my fears about a mass-swim start, I really didn't feel like I was in a washing machine. In fact, having someone's feet kicking in front of my face gave me a little beacon to follow through the water. With the exception of the very competitive people up front, most of the people I witnessed were doing a very small amount of kicking. (There were some exceptions, and they just looked sloppy!) So being immediately behind their feet was not an issue. Occasionally someone's arm would come over me, and I would just accept that and keep swimming. If someone started repeatedly bumping me, or I felt the same arm twice I would start kicking harder and swim forward from them. In the entire swim I only felt like I was struck with any force once, in the ribs, and not enough to hurt at all. There was a lot of contact but it actually felt quite gentle. I tried to follow close enough behind other swimmers to draft and I have no idea if it worked, but I did enjoy having someone to follow.
This course is a rectangle that starts on shore, swims out about 700 meters, turns parallel to shore for 130 meters, then comes back. You exit the water, run over a mat, then run back into the water at an angle to swim around the original starting buoy and do a second lap. I am incredibly thankful that someone told me to "sight the landforms" on the other side of the lake, rather than trying to swim to the buoys that mark the course. Once I had my breathing pattern I could easily glance at the hills to get my bearings, so I just focused on swimming. This was great. So great that I was confused by the people that started swimming sideways in front of me, until I realized I had already reached the last buoy and they were turning to swim around it. This was also great because I had gone a bit wide, and was completely avoiding the back-up at the buoy turn. I took a couple of strokes to turn my body, then started swimming the second side of the rectangle.
At this point I was feeling very good. I had reached my first mental goal (the buoy) and I seemed to have everything under control. Now I had to swim into the sun, which might have complicated things on a longer section, but this 130 meter portion you didn't need to see much, so I just put my head down and swam. Occasionally I would breathe left to see if the other corner buoy was visible. That happened quickly (again, I swam wide) so I turned and swam for shore. Now the sun was on my right, where I was breathing. This wasn't great, but not terrible either. What I didn't like was that about halfway to shore there was a very strong smell of diesel fuel. It was while we were passing the resort's pier, which reached far out into the water. I felt a little bit nauseous from the smell, coupled with repeatedly staring into the sun. (Sun, water, sun, water, sun, water... you get the idea.) I did switch to left side breathing for stretches but it felt more awkward. I wasn't sure which was worse.
As we approached the beach I started hearing the Ironman announcer under the water. That was a neat moment. And I could make out the thousands of people on shore. I imagined what we all looked like thrashing around together. And then suddenly I could see the lake bed underneath me. It was still a ways off shore. I thought about how great it would be if this were a half-Ironman and I was almost done, but I quickly put the thought out of my head. When I reached shore I clicked a split on my watch and it was 40 minutes... right on schedule. I had wondered if I was going faster given how well things were going, but I had just swam exactly the time I predicted. I felt a bit woosy, but I ran over the timing mat, took a sharp turn and headed back into the water.
I waded a little more deeply than necessary on the way in to breath and burp up some water. I instantly felt better. I am amazed that I seem to swallow so much water without knowing it. I put my face down and got back to work. The second lap was much like the first, although much less crowded. Sometimes I couldn't see any feet at all. I was much closer to the buoys this time, and when rounding the second far buoy I actually ended right up against it. Everyone was being incredibly cooperative at this point (we'd been swimming for 60+ minutes) so it was not an issue, but I remember smelling the plastic of the buoy and thinking about the fact that I was smelling an Ironman buoy, in an Ironman swim, which is not something many people in the world do! Then, it was back to the swimming. When we passed through the diesel-smell area again I started to feel a little more sick, so I flipped to my back to get a few extra breaths. That "flipping" movement seemed to make things worse. At this point I was probably 2/3 of the way back to shore and I could hear the announcer again. I was starting to feel just a little bit cold for the first time. But I definitely was more worried about feeling sick. I finally switched to breastroke for a moment and expelled some of the water that had gotten into my stomach. Again, instantly more comfortable. And again, I saw the lake bed under my feet and the big red timing arch on shore coming closer. I remembered to start kicking hard to encourage some circulation in my legs. When I stood up I was in really good shape; I felt even better than at the halfway point! I started to unzip my wetsuit right away, and did a little walk/jog down the beach. I even saw people in the crowd cheering for me that I knew. It was such a better experience than California where I was so sick to my stomach and disoriented at the swim exit. It's amazing to think that this was twice the distance, but I felt so much better.
First Transition (T1): Swim to Bike
While I felt great, I was still operating with "swim brain" when I came out of the water. I got my shoulders out of the wetsuit but could not get the neoprene over my watch and ID bands on my wrists. I trotted up to the wet suit peelers (volunteers who help you remove your wet suit) and presented myself.
"OK," I said. They stared at me.
"Take your hands out of your suit," one said.
"I can't!" I said, and we all started laughing. I said something about how this would be easy to do normally. They freed my hands, helped me to the ground, and with one smooth, gentle motion pulled the suit off, lifted me back to my feet, pushed the suit into my arms and pointed me towards my gear. I knew exactly where my bag was, and had marked it with pink construction ribbon so it was easy to find. (I have no idea how people find their bags quickly without this stuff.) I grabbed it and ran into the changing tent.
There were a lot of people who were "changing" on the grass in front of the tents because they were wearing trisuits that go straight from swim to bike. They only need to pull on socks, bike shoes, etc. I wanted more comfortable bike shorts for my 112 mile adventure, so I headed into the tent to change. As soon as I walked in a volunteer (woman) came straight down one of the aisles of chairs, took me by my shoulders and said, "Over here!" while pointing at empty chairs. I sat down.
She started racing to open my bag and I said, "oh, it's okay, I'm not in a rush." She laughed and explained how frazzled some of the women before me had been. I untied the bag and reached in to find my list. This was one of the best things I did; when I packed my T1 bag I wrote a list to myself explaining what to do. It seems silly, but with wet suit brain it's hard to remember how to dress yourself. At the top of the list it said TOWEL OFF. The volunteer reached into the bag and found the towel. Then she started going down the list, pulling my items out of the bag in order. There was this moment where I realized I needed to take my swimsuit off, and as I stripped it as fast as I could manage I thought, "Wow, I'm totally naked, about 6 inches from this woman who is staring at me." I felt like a 4 year old changing clothes. I looked up at all the other women who were also wet, shivering, confused and naked in front of perfectly coiffed volunteers. I thought to myself how totally bizarre, yet also primitive and communal this changing tent was.
The wonderful volunteer helped me go through my whole list of items to put on (in the correct order) and then items not to forget, like sunglasses, sunscreen and food in my cycling jersey. It was smooth, flawless and friendly. By the time I came out of the tent I was in great spirits, much more oriented, and also trying not to think about the fact that leaving the tent meant I was about to cycle 112 miles; further than I've ever gone before! I jogged out of the tent, went straight to my bike (did a good job choosing land markers to find the row it was in) and as I arrived at my bike I pulled my wedding rings out of the bike bag (didn't want to risk them in the swim) and realized my family was probably nearby. Sure enough, as I started to jog down the row I spotted them. In fact, at the end of the row a volunteer directed me to turn right for the bike mount line, and I was able to take a wide right to blow them a kiss. Then I trotted out to the line, mounted up and headed out on the next part of my adventure.
Coming next... stayed tuned for the bike, T2 and run!