Monday, June 22, 2009

Trail Note: Ironman Coeur d'Alene, Race Report

Disclaimer: this was a long race; the following post will be an endurance event in itself.

Yesterday, Jeff and I competed in our first ever Ironman 140.6 mile race. For the unitiated (non-crazies), Ironman is a race conceived of by a Navy guy in the late 70's. He, and few others, decided to combine 3 existing events in Hawaii: a 2.4 mile swim event with an around-Oahu (112 miles) bike race, and the Honolulu marathon (26.2 miles), do them back-to-back, with the idea that anyone who could complete this combination should be called "an ironman." The race became an annual event and eventually an institution. The Hawaii race moved to Kona, and there became official versions all over the world. There are also races that cover the same 140.6 distance, that are not branded with the official, corporate Ironman title.

Up until about 15 or so months ago, Jeff and I agreed that anyone who would sign up for such an event was a pretty crazy person with no life, and that we would never be that crazy. Unfortunately, we've gotten caught up in a crowd of people that includes crazies who have done the event, and eventually we started thinking that perhaps it wasn't so crazy after all, and we could attempt to do it ourselves. We registered for the race in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, as it is the closest one to home, about 300 miles or 6 hours drive time from Seattle. We registered online almost exactly a year ago today; online registration opens for the next year's event the day after the race, and usually fills up in a few hours.

We started training in December, based on a loose training plan that we got from a friend who has done Ironman 3 times. He had a log of his exercise in hours per event per day. I then converted that into miles per week based on how many miles he packed into an hour of run/bike/swim, removed all of the weight lifting and yoga in the plan (who has time for weights and yoga when logging all of those miles?), then redistributed the run/bike/swim workouts into my formula that I think is ideal for triathlon: 45% run, 45% bike, 10% swim (per my running-equivalent point system), and then split the results into 3 runs per week (one long), bike commute miles, a long bike ride per week, another weekly ride, and two swims: one longer, one shorter. The short version: I totally made my training plan up, starting with something based in real sports knowledge.

I logged all of my bikes, runs, and swims over the last 6 months, and I came to about 90% of the original plan. I also added two core workouts in a week, having read in various publications that a strong core is critical in reducing aches and pains associated with long training hours. For my swims, I started swimming with a local masters group once a week that is coached by a highly recommended local tri coach. I kept meaning to

.... that first part was written June 2009. The remained was written May 2010. I have no idea what "I kept meaning to" do last summer, other than write an insanely long race report. I'll try to pick back off where I began and pick up the pace.

We got up about 2 hours before race start, ate breakfast (toast, peanut butter and banana for me) and got our final stuff together. We'd already checked in our bikes earlier in the weekend (a requirement) along with our transition bags. The swim to bike bag had bike shoes, shorts, socks, sunglasses, helmet, nutrition, etc. The bike to run bag had hat, shoes, shorts, socks, dry running bra and shirt, more nutrition. Race morning we had to bring our two "special needs bags" which contained any snacks that we thought we'd need mid-ride and mid-run as well as swim stuff - wetsuit, cap, goggles, and fluids for the bike and anything that we didn't want to have sitting out the 24 hours before the race. We were staying a little less than a mile from the race start / transition area, so could walk to the start. It was a zoo - tons of spectators, nervous athletes everywhere. It took a lot longer than expected to find where we dropped off our special needs bags, fill up bike bottles, and wait for porta potties than expected, and I never really had the thorough sunscreen application that I wanted. Then, off to the beach to join 2000+ other nervous athletes clad in black neoprene and white or red caps (women and men, respectively). I actually managed to spot two of the three people I knew there that morning before the swim, and Jeff and I stuck together until the gun went off. It was very nice having a friendly (albeit equally freaked out) face to wait with.

The swim is a mass start - 2200 people all trying to follow the same loop and be in the same place at the same time. I think we started in the exact middle - probably not the smartest location, but it was appropriate for my pace. I was completely unprepared for the chaos of the swim. The water was really choppy, so there were a few times I swallowed water and stopped to tread water to get my breath. There was no stopping, however, as everyone behind me was not going to move around me or slow down. They just kept pushing over. I got a few tough kicks to the head and shoulder (shoulder ended up with a bruise), but fortunately didn't lose my goggles or get more than shaken up. For the first half of the first lap, I was literally afraid that I might not be able to get my breath back and drown and no one would be able to see or do anything about it. The way the 2 laps work is that you swim around the buoys for the first half of the swim, then get out on the beach and run across a timing mat and then swim the course again. The second lap was much better than the first. People had spread out a bit, and while the water was even choppier, I appreciated having a little more room. I finished the swim in 75 minutes, which felt very good (I swam the first half in 35 minutes, faster than I would have otherwise because I was trying to just keep up with the speed of the pack).

The first transition (T1) was full of supportive volunteers pulling wetsuits off people (I got mine off on my own) and providing sunscreen. The woman who put sunscreen on my shoulders also gave me a nice little shoulder massage, that was very appreciated. Unfortunately, she did not put sunscreen on my back and I got a funky little sunburn between my tank top and bra straps. While it had been sunny for the swim, the front that was making the water choppy had clouded up the area, and it was overcast and in the low 60's for most of the bike ride. I wore bike shorts, a tri tank, and arm warmers for the bike (classic triathlon geek look). I ate a clif shot in the transition area and headed out on the bike course.

The bike course is also two loops that starts along the water (Lake Coeur d'Alene) for a short out and back (that is essentially the run course) and then does a large loop to the north. The ride is really lovely, rolling hills past lakes surrounded by evergreens and mountains. Afraid I'd ride too hard and not have enough for the run, I focused on keeping my average speed to 16.5 mph and kept repeating what I suppose was my bike mantra: "it's just a beautiful bike ride; let's just enjoy this beautiful bike ride; what a great day for a beautiful bike ride." Whenever thoughts of the run crept into my head (how am I every going to be able to run a MARATHON after this??), I pushed them aside. I would deal with the marathon later; now I was just enjoying a beautiful bike ride. There were a few places where there were little out and backs, so I would look forward to looking for the few other people I knew in the race. There was someone I swim with who was also racing, and she passed me at the very beginning of the bike, and I kept watching her ride further and further ahead of me. The hardest part of the bike was finishing the first loop and thinking about the fact that I had to do it all over again. It was all better from there, however, and I felt good throughout the ride. I spent almost no time on the aerobars. It was windy enough that I felt a little nervous on them. The wind was continuing to pick up throughout the ride, and I was just hoping to get off the bike before it started raining. There were a few curvy downhill sections of the course that I really did not want to do on wet roads. I drank and ate throughout the ride, at least 3 liters of gator aid along with water, perpetuom, mojo bar, and the most delicious peanut butter sandwich I've ever eaten. I had to stop for the porto potty every 30 miles or so, just because I was hydrating so much.

Despite having brought dry socks, bra, and shirt for the run, I just changed shorts and shoes in T2. I had bought wool socks for the bike, and with the now very dark grey sky, I wanted to keep them on in case it rained. I should have kept my arm warmers, but had taken them off some time late on the bike course, and didn't think I would need them on the run. I started the run feeling much better than I'd ever expected. I ran a few fast miles before realizing that I really needed to slow down. I then settled into a 10 - 11 minute mile pace that I dubbed the Ironman Shuffle. (Every time I say that phrase, the tune of "do the hustle" goes through my head.) I walked through every water / food station as I sipped water or gator aid, but otherwise ran then entire way. The hardest part of the run was (again) starting on the second loop. It had gotten much colder (down into the 50's) and started to rain a bit, and my stomach started bothering me around mile 14. There was chicken broth, which was very welcome, I found a porta potty, and kept on going. The fact that there was a water /food stop every mile or so was my mental game. When I got to the next one, I would get to walk, enjoy something sweet and cold or warm and salty and would feel better. I never really did feel much better, but it was nice to think I might. The rain started coming down harder durning the second loop, and I was pretty cold, but did not take one of the space blankets they were handing out, as I was sure that I would walk if I had a blanket. I knew if I started walking it would be really hard to start running again, so limited walking to times when I was eating or drinking. I think I visited every porta potty in the last 6 miles that there was on the course. I think it was all of the high fructose corn syrup in the gator aid I was drinking. I train with clif products, which use rice syrup, which I think I digest better, so the HFCS was just not sitting as well. I kept pushing the calories and fluids, however, thoughout the entire run, knowing I needed them.

The supporters and volunteers thoughout the race (and all of race weekend, for that matter) were absolutely amazing. They cheered, they celebrated, some had microphones and provided color commentary, they handed out food and drink, they helped you get dressed, they handled your bike, they did whatever they could to help you succeed at this crazy race they could without actually racing it for you. The last few miles of the run, the supporters were particularly helpful for me.

My informal goal was to finish before the sun set. It was the solstice, so that gave me a little time, although the clouds made it hard to see. When I was starting the last mile, however, I realized that I could finish under 13 hours if I kept pace. I think I picked things up in the last mile, and finished just under 13 hours (barely). As I crossed the finish line, I started to raise my arms above my head, but then felt too silly and tired to really complete the move. My finish picture is pretty pathetic looking. Jeff finished about 40 minutes ahead of me, and was waiting in the finishers corral for me. Apparently, he had been walking in circles waiting, and volunteers started worrying about the poor guy who didn't move on. What's funny about an event like this is that you are pretty focused on finishing, and at some point you are excited about finishing just because that is when you're going to stop feeling terrible. Then you finish, and for a while, you still feel terrible. I tried to eat the pizza they had available, which sounded pretty good, but I couldn't swallow anything solid for about an hour after the race. We slowly collected our bikes and gear and hobbled back to the hotel for a shower. After cleaning up, we headed back into town to find food and watch more of the finishers. We'd brought beer to celebrate with (one we'd bought when we went to Sierra Brewing before our "tune up tri" half in Napa), but that was far from what we wanted post race. By the time we returned to the finish line, I was ready for my post race pizza, which they were nice enough to let me have, despite having finished about 2 hours earlier. We headed back to the hotel room and I made a few emails and facebook posts (one friend said she was reading them and wishing that I would just stop and go to bed, as I was obviously exhausted and incoherent). We finally turned out the lights and could hear the crowds cheer on the final finishers. As midnight passed, we thought about those who just made it in and those who didn't make the midnight cutoff.

The next day, I was sore and stiff, but considering the effort, didn't feel too bad. I think I was running again within a week, injury free. We did not sign up for this year's race, but started thinking that Ironman Canada in 2011 might be a fun plan. A friend of mine who had traveled out to watch the race did sign up in person to race this year. She's in full-on training mode right now, and I alternate between pride and jealousy as I see how fast and strong she is getting. Jeff and I signed up to volunteer for this year's race as bike catchers - we'll grab bikes from those finishing their rides and rack them for post race pick up. This will give us time to either sleep in or watch the swim start, and then enjoy watching friends finish the race.

In retrospect, I think everything went as well as it could have considering the fact that I started a new, time-intensive job just as the training plan began and that my sister had a baby a few weeks before the race. We didn't dramatically change our lifestyle. I should have been better about my diet and lost 10 or more pounds before starting the intensive training. I also should have slept more throughout the training. If I do this again, I will try to take everything a little more seriously, and train for speed, not just to finish. All in all, however, I am extremely pleased. No Ironman tattoo, but maybe someday.