July 1, 2012

Ironman Coeur d'Alene (Race Report)

Ok folks, settle in! This is gonna be a long one : ) My journey to my first Ironman began nearly a year ago when I finally let myself consider that it was possible; that what felt like just a dream could become a reality. And so I made the commitment and registered, telling myself I'd figure out the rest later. A few months later I realized I'd need some help along the way so I hired an awesome coach, and when January rolled around, I got to work. It's strange to think how much preparation goes into an Ironman. My training plan was on the low end at "only" 6 months; plenty of people spend 9 months to a year or more getting themselves ready. And then, in one day, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it happens, and it's over.

For me, however, that day was perfect. I couldn't have asked for a better experience at my first Ironman, or a better reward for all the hard work and sacrifices over the last several months. It was at once everything I'd hoped for and not what I'd expected at all. And while I can certainly give you a play-by-play of my day, it will be much harder, perhaps impossible, to convey the many emotions that pass over you throughout the course of the day. This was undoubtedly one of the most memorable days of my life and one of my proudest achievements.

When I first heard about the Ironman a few years ago, it seemed impossible, and yet a seed was planted. From that day, a part of me began working toward that goal, cultivating that seed, until I finally realized that the impossible was instead inevitable. I shared with you my time goals before the event, but my main goal was to stay in the moment. I was told that although it's a very long race, it will go by incredibly quickly. I wanted to savor each moment, the good and the bad, and I think that's partly why I had such an awesome day.

Per Ironman rules, we'd dropped off most of our stuff - gear bags and bikes - the day before, which actually made race morning a lot less hectic. It had taken me a while to fall asleep but once I did, I slept fairly well and woke up easily at 5am on race day. I got dressed, made a bagel for breakfast, made sure I had all my stuff in my morning gear bag, and then we hopped in the car for the short drive to the start. The sky was dark and overcast, but so far was holding off on the forecasted rain, so we just crossed our fingers that it would stay that way. 
all ready to go!
We headed to transition first to check our bikes and load them up with fuel. There was a definite energy and excitement in the air, but you could also see a wave of nerves and anxiety in the faces of many athletes. as we were getting our stuff ready, we heard a gun go off, signaling the pro start, but also letting us know it was almost game time! After getting our bikes ready met up near transition to get our wetsuits on. Soon enough we joined the throngs of other athletes near the exit, trying to get out and down to the beach. The crowd wasn't budging, so we knew we wouldn't have time to meet up with our friends and family, and instead just waited and tried to be patient. This was when my nerves suddenly got the best of me. I started shaking and felt a little panicky at what was about to happen. It was so helpful to have my friends with me to reassure me and keep me calm. It turns out they were just waiting for the pros to start their second lap before unleashing us onto the beach. And so, with just a few minutes to spare, we were funneled down onto the beach to begin our Ironman.

The swim start is from a small beach on the lake, so it was pretty crowded with over 2,500 athletes. We tried to move to the right and away from the buoy line as much as possible, and were maybe halfway back from the front. We were still getting situated when, all of a sudden, the gun went off! I didn't have time to think or freak out, I was just swept forward in the crowd and into the water.

The next 10 minutes are almost indescribable. I'd been told by experienced Ironman athletes that a mass start is like being in a giant, human washing machine. That there was an almost guaranteed chance of getting kicked, hit in the face, and/or swam over. This is all definitely true; and yet, it's something I think you just have to experience to understand the utter chaos. All around me bodies were flailing. It was nearly impossible to swim any kind of real stroke. Your instinct is to keep your head up - both to see where you're going, but mostly to protect yourself - but that causes your legs to drop and allows those behind you to literally just try and swim over you. I immediately got panicky, and thoughts entered my mind wondering how I was going to do this.

I kept telling myself to keep fighting and moving forward whatever way I could, and that eventually, things would space out and I'd be able to swim. Being so freaked made it hard to catch my breath so I resorted to breathing just on one side and every stroke. This calmed me down a bit, and soon enough I was able to find some space and try to swim with my usual rhythm. I still found myself occasionally being hassled by another swimmer, and often found myself getting "boxed out" (swimming between two people who slowly move closer together and force you to drop back). I also couldn't help but notice, both before the start and during the swim, how many green caps there were (men) and how few pink caps there were (women). The event program reported that only 27% of athletes this year were female. I can't help but wonder if that was why the swim was so crazy!

The swim course itself was pretty straight forward. Two laps of a long rectangle, with a short run between laps. Although there were only two turns, they were incredibly chaotic as everyone funneled together to get as close as possible to the turn buoys. The first turn came sooner than I expected, I think partly from being caught up in the chaos for the first 10 minutes, but also because the one upside of a mass start is the insane drafting it causes. You literally get swept up with all the other swimmers for a while til you find your own space. I was able to get into my usual rhythm on a few stretches, but still found myself breathing more often to stay calm. On the way back for the first loop I couldn't help but think of how nice it would be to get out of the water and be done, rather than have to get back in for another loop. The only thing that kept me positive was knowing that at least the second loop wouldn't be so crazy.
 swim course

As I approached the beach we were helped out of the water by volunteers and steered to our left to make a short run over the timing mat before hopping back in the water. My friend and coworker, Anandi, finished the first lap just when I did and when I saw her all I could say was, "That was f*cking nuts!" When I got out of the water I checked my watch, but I think it got kicked or hit because it wasn't recording my time right. I knew I was around 38 minutes, though, and I was quite pleased with that.

I (somewhat reluctantly) got in the water again for my second lap, and as I predicted, I had much more space this time around. As if to make up for the lack of mass start chaos, Mother Nature decided to kick up the wind and create some nasty chop. Almost immediately I was asking myself if it had been this choppy during the first lap, but there was no way. It felt like I was in a completely different body of water! Breathing became difficult again, but for a very different reason. I'd turn my head to take a breath, and instead just get a mouthful of water. I was able to keep my cool and was so thankful that I'd swam in some chop at Lake Natoma and practiced dealing with it. It also made sighting difficult because the waves often obscured the buoys. As far as sighting goes, however, I was pretty proud of how well I did. I tend to swim off course very easily, but I made sure to use the other swimmers and buoys to regularly check my position, and as a result stayed pretty close to the buoy line.

The chop continued to get worse, and the I found the second loop to feel much longer than the first. When I finally found myself around the turn buoys and on the home stretch, I couldn't help but think how badly I just wanted the swim behind me and to be on my bike! Finally I could see the bottom of the lake and hear the music and announcer, and then my hands were scraping the sand and I stood up, never so happy to be done with a swim in my life. My second lap was 44 minutes - nearly 6 minutes slower than my first - which gives you an idea of just how bad the waves were! The chute up to transition was lined with cheering spectators as I walked up, and I heard my name called and saw my parents and smiled. I was so happy and proud to have survived such a crazy swim, and ready to get on with the rest of the day!

swim time (2.4 mi): 1:22:46

At the end of the chute they had wetsuit strippers, so I found a free one, plopped onto my butt, and had it off in seconds! I grabbed my gear bag from the long rows of bags and headed for the transition tent. I really needed to pee, but for some reason the port-o-pottys that were right there were zip-tied closed. I didn't want to waste time so I sat down on the grass and just started getting my gear on. Now, this might be TMI, but while I was sitting there, I just did it. Peed. I figured it wasn't much different from peeing in your wetsuit, and I did not want to stand in line at a bathroom. At the last moment I decided to wear my arm sleeves as it was still overcast and chilly, and I was glad I did. I got up and threw my gear bag into the pile and headed out to find my bike!

Fortunately I knew exactly where it was, right next to a tree in the the front, and very close to the bike out. I heard my dad yell and smiled, but then it was all focus as I grabbed my bike and ran toward the exit. At one point, a thought flashed through my mind that I was in the middle of my first f*cking Ironman. I smiled again : )  Just past the bike mount line I hopped on, clipped in, and was off!

T1 time: 7:59

The bike course consisted of two laps, with two out-and-backs on each one. We started off in town, and then out on what would later be part of the run course. This was also the section that we'd rode on Friday as a preview of the run course. There was one big hill that we rode up, then down before turning around and heading back up. I kept telling myself to just keep it easy, spinning up the hill and keeping it comfortable on the flats. My legs felt pretty good from the start, and for some reason I just felt like it was going to be a good day : ) We headed back toward town along the lake, and as we got closer the crowds got bigger and louder. I heard my dad yell my name again, but it was impossible to find him in the crowds as I was zooming by. But once again, I smiled.

Then we were out on the longer out-and-back, about 21 miles on highway 95 that took us out into gorgeous rural Idaho. My friends and I had drove this section the day before, and it definitely lived up to it's reputation of "rolling hills". There were a couple big climbs - which also became screaming descents on the way back - and the rest were gentle rollers. Even the big hills, however, weren't very steep and the longest was 2 miles. The scenery, however, was amazing and a perfect distraction (pics below taken the day before). Everything was so green and lush, at many points taking your breath away (sometimes an issue on those climbs!).
 so green!
 the resort across the lake

As I approached the first climb, I just threw my bike in an easy gear and focused on staying nice and steady. I knew I would get passed by a lot of people on the bike, especially on the hills, but I just wanted to focus on my race and not get caught up. Just a ways up the hill a familiar face called from behind me and it turned out to be Nicole! We chatted for a while and ended up leapfrogging a few more times the rest of the ride. She ended up having an awesome race - congrats girl! This was the longest hill, and after about 2 miles I was happy to reach the top. A few miles after that first climb we had our first long descent, and boy was it fast. The roads were in great condition, so I opted to stay in aero, and ended up clocking my fastest mile ever - 33 mph! As I was passing people like crazy and picking up more and more speed I just tried to keep a steady line and focus on what was ahead of me. While it was certainly thrilling, I was also happy to reach the bottom in one piece.

At this point I was feeling pretty good. Even my butt was cooperating so far! But - I had to pee again. I really didn't want to have to stop, and I figured I'd just let it get to the point where I peed on the bike. I know plenty of athletes do this, especially guys, and I honestly tried, but I just couldn't let go (haha). So I hoped it would just happen. I didn't know exactly where the turnaround was, but around mile 35 I realized I was going to have to stop. I was so uncomfortable, and, hard as I tried, I just couldn't pee on the bike. I passed an aid station but decided to continue on to the turnaround and stop on the way back. I finally made the turn, inwardly fist pumping that another section was done, and eagerly headed back to the aid station. I quickly unclipped, racked my bike, and hopped into a port-o-potty. I was probably only stopped for a minute, but it made such a huge difference! I was much happier over the next several miles : )
happy that I no longer had to pee?
The way back on the highway, while not without climbs, had much more descents and thus was faster and more enjoyable. There was one big climb around mile 50, but it was shorter than that first one and my legs were still feeling strong. The nice thing about this course, at least for me, was that the out-and-backs really broke up the ride mentally. Instead of thinking about riding 112 miles, which was incredibly daunting, I just focused on getting to the next turnaround point. It also allowed you to see other athletes along the way and I saw my friends a few different times which was great. Eventually I found myself back in town and done with the first lap in 3:31, which was even better than I'd hoped. I knew if I could keep that up I'd finish the ride 30 minutes faster than my goal! I heard my dad again, and this time I managed to catch a quick glimpse of him. Then it was back along the lake for a 14 mile roundtrip. The hills were a little harder this time around, but this section was mostly flat so I focused on making up some speed while also trying to save my legs for the hills to come in the last section.

one of the big climbs going back toward town

As I headed back through town and back out onto the highway, things were still looking up for the most part. My legs still felt pretty good, the sky had cleared and the sun had come out, and I was still in good spirits. Even though I knew I still had almost 4 hours to go, it felt like it was all going by so fast. I was sticking to my nutrition plan, eating half a waffle every half hour and sipping my Gu Roctance regularly, and I think this helped pass the time but also kept me feeling strong. I did have to stop a second time at an aid station around mile 80 to refill my bottles, but it was quick and more than worth it. I ended up consuming 7 waffles and 3.5 servings of Gu Roctane over the ride (~1900 cals). I stuck to my plan religiously, and thankfully my stomach handled it like a champ.

About 60 miles in, as I'd expected, I started to get uncomfortable on the saddle. I was actually surprised to make it that far with little discomfort, but I knew it would eventually happen. It got worse as I went on, making it hard to ride on the flats as I constantly needed to stop pedaling and sit up off the saddle to relieve the pressure. I also found myself wishing I'd carried some chamois cream on me to reapply. My legs were starting to get fatigued, but for the most part it was just my bum that was holding me back which was frustrating. I just kept telling myself to focus on reaching the turnaround because then I had several descents in which I could just coast. It seemed to take forever to get there, much longer than it felt during the first lap (duh!), but eventually I got there.

I knew I needed to stop again to stretch and relieve the pressure, so around mile 95 I pulled over to the side of the road for a minute. It helped for a while, and I was glad I took the time to do it. Not long after my One10 teammate Kevin pulled up behind me. He'd passed me earlier in the first lap and is a much stronger cyclist than I, so I knew something must have happened. He told me that he'd gotten dehydrated and wasn't able to keep any food or fluids down. I felt so bad for him, but I also knew that despite this challenge he would still finish. And he still managed to forge on ahead of me as we reached our last big climb around mile 110!

Although I'd mostly enjoyed the bike, I was very much ready to be done at this point. Those last 10 miles seemed to stretch on forever, but eventually the crowds grew bigger and I was making the final turn toward transition. With a mile left I'd slipped my Garmin off my handlebars so that when I crossed the dismount line I was able to just hand over my bike to a volunteer. I was simultaneously excited to be done with the bike, happy with how well it went, and surprised that it already behind me.

bike time (112 mi): 7:18:09

With my bike handed off I ran as best as I could into transition, grabbed my gear bag, and headed to the tent. Another volunteer was immediately by my side, asking me what I needed and what she could do. I took of my helmet and sunglasses, peeled off my arm warmers, and began changing shoes. I stuffed all my Gu into my pockets, grabbed a couple ibuprofen to take, threw on my visor, sucked down a gel, and was ready to go. As I headed out of transition, something didn't feel quite right. I ran through the run out, and within a few meters I realized what was missing - my sunglasses. I stopped in my tracks, turned to a volunteer and asked if I could go back in. Looking back, I don't know what I was thinking. It was the middle of the day and it was bright out, but they weren't going to make or break my race. Without thinking much more I was running back in, sidestepping the run out and hoping I wasn't messing up my timing.
grab 'n go!

I ran back over to the tent and tried to find my volunteer, but she was no where to be found. I explained to a couple other ones that I left something in my bag, and they directed me to a pile of bags outside the tent waiting to be transported. I probably spent a full minute searching for mine - again, what the hell was I thinking!?! - but it was in vain. Finally, I decided it wasn't worth it and headed back out, feeling like a fool, and still wishing I had my sunglasses. I wasted at least a couple minutes, and for nothing!

T2 time: 5:14

As I left transition, I knew I was already a little behind on the run since my time started when I first exited transition. I also couldn't stop worrying that I had somehow messed up my timing by running back in. I tried to push these thoughts aside as I ran through the cheering crowds of spectators and began my marathon. From the first few miles, I was surprised at how good I felt. I focused on keeping the effort easy, which pretty much meant a slow jog, but I knew I had a long way to go. The course took us through town and then into some great little neighborhoods with throngs of people out cheering. It was a great boost to see so many people cheering us on, and I tried to make eye contact with as many people as I could and smiled and thanked them. About this time it also hit me - I was on the marathon portion of my Ironman! The great thing was that at this point, I knew I was going to do it. Even if I had to walk the whole thing, I would finish, and by the end of the day I would be an Ironman. I smiled.
sans sunglasses : /

Around mile 2 I ducked into a port-o-potty and grabbed some water at the first aid station. Around mile 3 the course emerged from the neighborhoods and took us along the lake. This was the section we'd biked earlier in the day, and quite beautiful with the water right next to us. Around mile 4 I spotted my teammate, Kevin, up ahead and soon caught up to him. He was still feeling pretty bad and knew his run would be slow going, but he was fighting and doing great considering. After a couple minutes I went on ahead, knowing that I'd at least see him again on the way back.

The run course consists of two out-and-backs, mostly flat with one big hill to go up and over twice. The great thing about this was that, like the bike course, it broke up the marathon mentally, and it also meant I got to see a lot of other athletes, including a few familiar faces. I took my first Gu about 45 minutes in, and continued to do so the rest of the run. When I reached mile 5 and started the climb, I was still feeling surprisingly good but I made myself walk the whole hill to save my legs. It was only a half mile long, and then we got a nice descent on the opposite side heading down to the turnaround at mile 6.6 or so.

As I crossed over the timing mat I thought of all my friends and family tracking me and following along, and I was hit with another wave of emotions. I kept thinking I was going to jinx myself; after having such a great day so far, I felt like it had to take a turn for the worst somehow. Didn't an Ironman include suffering and pain? Looking back, I still don't know if my perfect day was due to luck, good training, or something else (or perhaps a little of each), but I am so grateful. As I made my way back up the hill I slowed to a walk again, and thought about how crazy it was that I was already a quarter of the way through!

At some point on the way back to town I saw a couple I know from back home, ran into Kevin again, saw Nicole ahead of me still having a kickass race, and eventually saw Anandi and Cris, both looking good. It was great to see the familiar faces and gave me a great boost of energy. Plus, I was happy to know they were all still out there and looking strong. By this point I was stopping at every aid station, taking two cups of water, one to drink and one to dump on my head. It had warmed to the mid 70s and I wanted to stay as cool as possible.

I made my way back through the cheering neighborhoods and eventually was back downtown, although the turnaround seemed like it would never appear! I saw my folks across the street and smiled, made the turnaround just ahead, and stopped briefly to chat with them on my way back out. I was still worried about my time and tracking, so I made sure they were still getting my updates. They were, so I tried to just let it go once again. I knew that the next time I saw them, I would be an Ironman!
stopping to talk to my dad
The last half of the race went by so fast. There was a lot more two-way traffic as nearly everyone was out on the run course. I continued to stop at the aid stations, and started grabbing a cup of cola and an orange slice in addition to my usual water. I'm not even a soda drinker, but that cola was wonderful! I also must add that the volunteers - throughout the race - were incredible. So positive, helpful, kind, and encouraging. It inspired me to volunteer at an Ironman in the near future! Anyway, the miles kept ticking by, and soon enough I was climbing that big hill again. I think I mentioned to an athlete near me that it didn't seem this long the first time! But for the most part, I was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I continued to be surprised at how good I still felt. Going into the race, I fully expected to walk portions of the marathon, and I was more than ok with that. I saw tons of people, including some really fit looking ones, forced to walk, and I couldn't help but wonder why I was feeling so good. I certainly was feeling tired at this point, but I never felt like I needed to walk. My legs felt great, too, which I attribute to the brand new pair of shoes I'd saved just for the day. And not to be overlooked, my excitement at being so close to an accomplishment I'd been working towards for nearly a year buoyed me forward.

I kept reminding myself to stay in the moment, because my thoughts kept jumping forward to that moment. With just a few miles to go I made an effort to make eye contact with the athletes heading in the opposite direction and smiled. I was just so happy I wanted to share it with everyone! I also had a lot of respect for everyone out there, both ahead of me and behind me. Going back through the neighborhoods for the last time I tried to savor it. I thanked as many people as I could and started counting down the miles. I'd been doing some math during the marathon and knew if I could run sub-5 hours, I'd also finish sub-14 hours, which I of course wanted to do. There's just something about finishing sub-whatever that is appealing, right?

With one mile to go, I started getting emotional. I was hoping to finish before dark, and the sun was just setting. The finish of this race is like no other; you round the corner onto the main street downtown, Sherman Ave, and it is just lined with people cheering. I saw the finish chute up ahead and the first tears filled my eyes. I couldn't believe I'd made it! I smiled and looked around, trying to breathe through awkward gasps as my emotions overwhelmed me. There were a few other athletes around me, so I slowed to let them go ahead and have my own finish line moment. I heard and saw my parents cheering, threw up my arms, and crossed the line. I was an IRONMAN!
emotions flying high!

run time (26.2 mi): 4:53:18

A volunteer grabbed me immediately and steered me through the finish line, getting me a medal, hat & t-shirt, space blanket, water, and getting a finish picture taken. I was crying and just so, so happy. I found my folks on the sideline and made my way out to them. I looked at my phone for the first time since before the race and was overwhelmed with a fresh wave of emotions as I saw all the messages wishing me luck throughout the day and then congratulating me on my finish. It was wonderful.

total time: 13:47:26
I wanted to keep moving, so we headed over to the lake to take some pictures of our own before the sun set. I've always been blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents, and it meant so much to me to have them there. They've put up with a lot these past 6 months of training, and I am so thankful for their support. After taking pictures my dad headed to transition to pick up my bike while my mom and I went to grab my gear bags. I still wanted to hang around for my friends to finish, so my dad took my bike and gear back to the house and my mom and I hung out.
 couldn't have done it without them

I felt pretty good, if not a little hungry and cold, so I bundled up and headed into the finish area to grab some pizza. As we waited, I got more and more tired, and my body started to ache. Still, nothing could diminish the feeling of finishing. Sitting there on the sidewalk, I felt like a total badass : ) Eventually Kevin, Anandi, and Cris finished. They all had their own individual struggles, but they made it all 140.6 miles, and I couldn't have been more proud, nor asked for a better group of people to share this experience with.

The rest of the night was a blur. We got a ride back to the house, I took a glorious shower, then collapsed onto the couch. We shared brief stories from the day, commiserating about the tough parts but sharing the great feeling that comes with an accomplishment of this magnitude. Eventually my exhaustion caught up with me, but I went to bed that night on cloud 9 : )


  1. Congratulations to you! This is amazing and I loved reading it! All your hard work led to a great day and an wonderful accomplishment!

  2. Wow, wow, wow! You make it look so easy...though I know it's not. I'm so happy to read how well it went! You felt great and strong the whole way. Clearly your training paid off in a huge way! Well done, you did it and did it so well! Congrats again...so happy and proud and hugely inspired.

  3. Congratulations on a job well done!!!!!!!

  4. Congrats!!!! What a well-written account of your day! I'm so glad that it went so well for you and that you enjoyed every second! I was definitely in the pain cave but all in all it was a blast in a weird way. I am so glad we got to see each other out there. I'm sure we'll run into each other at future races as well. I can't wait to see what's in store for you in the future - you crushed this race!

  5. Congratulations! I'm so glad to hear that you had such a great day and amazing first Ironman experience. It doesn't sound like it could have gone much better.

  6. You have such a positive attitude and I believe that and your training really paid off on your Ironman! You write really well and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story. You are an Ironwoman! Woohoo!

  7. Thanks for sharing - this was a great read. As someone else said, you make it look easy - and like tons of fun! It almost makes me want to sign up...

  8. So awesome Rachel! I remember when I did a few runs with you in Cross Country in high school and we would run side by side. 3 miles seemed like a daunting challenge to us...and NOW LOOK AT YOU! You are truly an inspiration...I am doing another half in a week or so and I will remember all your positive words. :) Congrats girl! -Reyanna

  9. I'm CRYING! haha So so proud of you, Rachel! You really worked hard for this and it payed off big time. I hope you realize the magnitude of your accomplishment. You are truly a badass chick!

    Ps. Your pictures are awesome! (as always)

  10. Congrats Rachel on a totally awesome acheivement. I'm so bummed I missed seeing you after the race. I lost my phone at the race...( well actually I think it was stolen out of our team tent while I was out volunteering on the course) but I did see you out on the course and was cheering for you. I'm so glad you had such a fantastic day. You deserve it. All you training certainly paid off.

  11. Congrats Rachel! And thank you so much for sharing your race day. It gives me encouragement as I train for Arizona and helps me to believe in my training and that I can do it. You are inspiring.

  12. Rachel, Congratulations to you on an amazing accomplishment. I am just beginning to start my own Ironman journey, in 2015 I hope to have this same experience. Stories like yours stoke the flames of inspiration for me. Thank you so much for such a well written story! -Gordon