... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ironman Coeur D'Alene RACE REPORT

The Morning
My alarm went off on race morning at 2:45am and I set about eating, showering, and the having my mother-in-law kindly braid my hair. I had actually managed to sleep soundly for about five hours, a new record for me on race day! Time absolutely flew and before I even knew what was happening we were almost late to the start. I wiggled into my absurdly tight wetsuit as fast as humanly possible. The race started at 6am and I think we left the house at 5:10am, speed-walking to the transition area. I got body marked, practically jogged to drop off our special needs bags, searched desperately for a bike pump, and then slid out of transition and toward the start just as the announcer on the PA started getting really insistent that all athletes exit now.

I found Sean again and together we walked down onto the beach and joined the crowd of athletes gathered on the shore. It was just pre-sunrise, the sky getting light but the sun still not showing itself. We hugged goodbye and wished each other well one more time, (there may have been a few tears --- it was emotional after a year of training together to send him off to do the thing we’d been focused on for so long!) then lined up with our respective swim start groups -- me with the 1:15 group, Sean with the 1:30 group. I felt the cold sand under my feet and looked around at the athletes surrounding me for clues about how they were feeling. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, no one seemed particularly panicked. I was very surprised by the calm I felt. Unlike 70.3 starts where I inevitably feel nervous and jittery, this Ironman journey has been so long and intensive that all that was left was an overwhelming sense that whatever would come during the day would come, and that I was as ready as I could be.

Also, I had to pee, but I decided i’d just have to hold it.

A very wise older gentleman, an Ironman veteran, was standing next to me and told me to enjoy my first Ironman to the fullest. He advised me to take time throughout the day to take “mental pictures” that I could relive in the future. He had a very peaceful presence and I was grateful to make my way toward the front of the line standing next to him. Before long we were fed into the start chute and then it was my time! I still had to pee but clearly this was neither the time nor the place. I was awash with excitement and happiness as the timer went off and I ran into the water to begin my Ironman.

The Swim
I kept the kind stranger’s advice in mind throughout the swim. On the way out I looked at the sun slowly appearing above the horizon, splashing golden light across the glassy water, interrupted only by the splashes of the swimmers’ arms, and seared it into my memory. The first loop went by quickly and easily, with the exception of a few patches of “lake weed” grabbing at my arms. The buoys were numbered 1-8 on the way out and 8-1 on the way back, giving me a mental focus point. I checked my watch as I approached the end of the first loop and was surprised to see that I was swimming faster than my regular 70.3 swim pace. (Six minutes faster than my God awful Honu swim time this year, by the way. Redemption!) I exited the water, crossed the timing mat, heard someone from my entourage scream “go Crystal!” and reentered the water for the second loop. I thought I would hate getting out of the water in the middle of the swim but it ended up feeling like a nice little opportunity to get mentally checked back into reality before continuing.

Somewhere in here I started second guessing my pace and form and things got a kind of weird. I lost my little pack of swimmers and then started getting passed. I assumed I was just fatiguing until I got about a quarter of the way back in and realized I was tensing my hips, putting my legs in a position that created drag. As soon as I relaxed this it was like I had turned on a propeller. I flew by the people who had been passing me and caught up to the group that had dropped me. It was a pretty awesome way to close out the swim. I reminded myself to slow down a little at the end to catch my breath before getting out of the water. I also reminded myself not to look like a total spaz getting out of the water in hopes of breaking my bad swim exit photo curse (it worked!)

Transition 1
I easy-jogged to the wetsuit strippers, who everyone had promised could get even my stupidly tight wetsuit off in a matter of seconds. I laid down on the grass as instructed as an older man and teenage girl grabbed the suit and gave a strong pull. But instead of the wetsuit sliding off, I just went sliding across the grass, suit and all, about three feet. I had suspected this might happen so as they apologized over and over and tried to figure out a plan B, I just laughed and told them not to worry. After a couple more botched attempts off it finally came off. I thanked them and then off I went to get my T1 bag.

The changing tent was a new experience for me. My volunteer was so incredibly helpful -- loading my pockets as I struggled to pull my bike shorts on, helping me put on my DeSoto skin-cooler wings, and making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was so appreciative of her calm, warm presence. Always paranoid about cramps on the bike after my first two Olympic distance tris, I made sure to chug some of my Skratch as I jogged to my bike and put my helmet on. I still had to pee, but decided I could wait until I was out on the bike. I clickety-clicked my way out of T1 (note to self: learn flying mount!) and I was off!

The Bike
As I pedaled through town, the streets were lined with spectators. I saw my family and Sean’s family and Kate and Jordan, and tried to pretend I was cool even though I was actually struggling to get my helmet’s eye shield to stay in place, having forgotten to put in down before getting on my bike. Oops. Then a strange feeling started creeping into my consciousness… cold. Like, really cold. Living and training only in Hawaii, it had never occurred to me that I might get cold bombing through the morning air at 18mph still soaking wet from the swim. But I was freezing! I pushed it to the edge of my mind since there was nothing I could do about it, telling myself I will warm up as soon as I get out of town and shade and get into the sun. My legs felt great, I was energized, and the first loop along the lake was beautiful. I passed some people, I got passed a few times, and was generally pleased with how I was feeling. After about six miles it was time for a Huma gel, and I strategically decided that this would be the optimal time to take one with extra electrolytes to avoid any possible cramps on the upcoming hills. I reached into my pocket and immediately fumbled it (and another gel) in my frozen, numb fingers and dropped both of them. For a moment I looked back and considered stopping a) not wanting to litter and b) only having so many gels to last me through the 112 miles but it was a downhill, it was congested behind me, and in my post-swim shaky state all I could picture was getting run over by fifteen angry cyclists. So with a silent “shit!” to myself I kept going.

Clearly during one of my bursts of energy
There was nothing too eventful until I went through town and out onto the intimidating highway section of the course. Even then I suppose I can’t really call it “eventful,” just hilly. Soooo hilly. The first big hill, just as it looked, was steep and seemed endless. I will never forget spinning away, trying to keep my cadence high and torque low, and looking upward at the endless single file line of cyclists curling up and around the mountain. No one seemed to be in any particular hurry. My focus was purely on not annihilating my legs so I was content just to keep my place in line. Up, up, up. Beautiful, surrounded by mountains and pine trees, and silent, with the air palpably full with the athletes’ focus and intention.

The problem soon became clear: there wasn’t an end to the hills. I knew this from driving the course, but I had allowed myself to believe that somehow it was going to feel different on the bike than it looked in the car. It wasn’t. It was freaking brutal. The uphills seemed to last forever and the downhills seemed to be over in a matter of seconds. At this point my having-to-pee problem was reaching crisis level. At each aid station I planned to stop and then decided against it at the last minute, not wanting to lose precious time, but finally there was no more denying it and my legs were getting so tired that a break sounded pretty damn good.

As soon as I went I realized I should’ve done it much sooner. I hadn’t realized how much “holding it” had been tensing all the muscles in my upper legs and pelvis until I got back on my bike. I felt a million times better, at least for a few miles. The nagging pain I get sometimes in my upper calf and lower quad has kicked in early and I was concerned what it might mean for my run, but I had little choice but to keep going so I tried to ignore it. I had one little burst of energy that lasted about 40 minutes but other than that I don’t remember much about that first loop except that it hurt, and that I was short on gels due to my early fumble and very worried about whether I’d have enough nutrition to make it to Special Needs. I couldn’t remember whether I’d put two or three extra gels in my bag and I prayed it was three. Somewhere in the 48-mile range my legs got that deep, irreversible ache that signifies absolute fatigue and usually appears somewhere around Mile 95 on training rides. I was terrified that it was happening already, before I’d even made it to the end of the first loop. I felt awful and lightheaded and I had taken all my gels, so in desperation I accepted a Clif bar mini from an aid station. Luckily it seemed to be okay on my stomach and did perk me up a bit, at least enough to make it up the last few hills.

 No more than a third of the way up the last long, 1-2 mile hill was an unmanned sign reading “Almost to the top!” I swore at it under my breathe for the next ten minutes as I fought my way upwards. As I crested this final major hill and relished the thought of flying down the long descent that had terrorized me on the way up, I was dismayed to find myself stacked up in a long line of cyclists all stuck behind one very, very slow guy. He appeared to be coasting, although I don’t know how he was coasting so slowly! For a mile or so everyone gamely stayed behind him since this was a no-pass zone, but finally everyone’s frazzled nerves won out and one by one we broke the passing rule to get by.

Now I was headed back into town. I felt like I should be feeling relief, but all I felt was dread that I had to do this whole thing again. My legs ached in that deep, tired way and had no power whatsoever, and the thought of seeing spectators made me anxious instead of excited. I honestly didn’t know at that point whether I’d be able to get through the second loop, but I reminded myself of my race motto (“the only way I’ll leave the course is with a medic because I passed out or a course marshall because I missed a cut off”) and kept pushing. I tried with moderate success to enjoy the easier, scenic first out and back of the second loop. As I passed the point where I dropped my gels I spotted them lying untouched on the road and once again considered stopping to pick them up but decided against it for the same reasons as I had the first time. When I reached Special Needs, I almost cried with joy when I saw that there were three gels. Still vastly insufficient, I knew, but a relief. I actually got all the way off of my bike and stretched my legs for a few minutes, trying to come to terms with how I was going to get through repeating the Highway 95 section of the course. There wasn’t really a good answer, so I just got back on and kept going. I saw my mom, sister, niece, Kate, and Jordan at the corner going back through town and for a moment felt a little happiness.

The quiet, focused energy that I had found so mesmerizing the first time up the big hill was gone this time. It just hurt, and it seemed to go on forever. All of the uphills seemed longer, and the gears I had ridden them in the first time around were much too hard this round. I was in a very negative head space for much of this portion of the ride, to be honest. I didn’t really want to keep going… in fact I didn’t really want to ride my bike ever again, but I knew I’d regret it forever if I quit so on I went. I gave up trying to keep any particular pace and just focused on the “forward is a pace” idea. Someone had told me to remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling during an Ironman, it probably won’t last, so I clung to that thought, hoping that I would start feeling better again.

My memories of the second loop are vague -- a cyclist/vehicle crash with ambulances present as I came down a hill, pain, feeling lightheaded and having to stop at an aid station and sit stationary for a moment to regain my bearings, more pain… I finally made it to the aid station at the bottom of the final big ascent and stopped one last time to clear my head and ready myself for the climb. A volunteer who appeared to be no more than ten years old ran to get me water and another mini Clif bar, and I gave her my red volunteer appreciation bracelet as a thank you for her kindness. Her excitement made me smile for the first time in 80 miles.

Resolute and at least temporarily refreshed, I got back out in the road and hit the hill. It was hard, but my pitstop had drastically improved my mood and suddenly it seemed manageable again. A quarter of the way up the hill my mood got another boost when I saw that the inaccurate and taunting “Almost to the top!” sign that had driven me so crazy on the first loop had been dismantled and thrown in the bushes. The thought of an irritated, exhausted athlete taking the effort to get if their bike and tromp through the weeds in their bike shoes just to throw that stupid sign into the bushes made me giggle for the rest of the race. Whoever you were, dear Angry Athlete, I salute you.

A little more riding and I hit the last major descent. This time there were not many other cyclists around me so I relished the thought of flying down the hill at high speed, but before I could get going I saw another ambulance parked on the side of the road in the middle of a sea of shattered bike parts. I couldn’t see the cyclist , but the sheer destruction of the bikewas sobering. A newly planted Ironman sign warned cyclists to come off their aerobars on this hill to avoid high speeds, so I popped up to sit.

Suddenly it kicked in that I had only a few more miles to go and no more big hills. I was going to make it! There was no one around and I cruised down that huge hill feeling the wind in my face, looking at the scenery, and smiling a big goofy smile. The dry heat, the landscape, and the smell of hot ponderosa pines reminded me of going to my grandmother’s house up in the hills of Montana and I felt her athletic, warrior spirit carry me. This is another one of my “mental pictures” from the race.

So happy to be off my bike!
Then I was back in town to cheers and cowbells, and the moment I had dreamed of had arrived: I got to get off of my bike! I bid farewell to Beastie and handed it to a volunteer, then headed for T2. My family and friends later commented on how good I looked at this point, smiling and happy. What they didn’t know was that I was only smiling because I was so thrilled to be off my bike!

Transition 2
Many athletes I spoke to before the race had stressed the importance of staying in the now -- don’t think about the run while you’re on the bike, just focus on the mile at hand. Well, I had so effectively conpartmentalized the race that this was literally the first time it occurred to me that now I had to go run a marathon, and the only thought that appeared in my head was, “how the fuck am I going to do this?” Slightly nauseated and with legs feeling like aching anchors, I ugly-ran out of T2. It felt awful. Again I dreaded what was ahead, and again I reminded myself that how I felt would probably change.

The Run
My plan had been to run 5:00 walk 1:00. When I looked down at my watch I was doing an 11:00/mile pace, which I judged to be too fast, so I forced myself to slow down a bit. I still felt like death. I trudged along to the first aid station where I took a big gulp of warm, chlorine-filled water that made me gag a little. I prayed that it was an isolated incident and that chilled, fresh tasting water was not a Hawaii luxury. Luckily, the rest of the aid stations were great.

You can see how I was feeling in my first few race photos. I couldn’t even be bothered to smile for the photographer. Somewhere around Mile 9 my body started to settle in and cooperate, but the first 8 miles were very, very rough. Pain and nausea aside, the run course was actually very pleasant. I had been dreading a three loop course, but as it happened an 8 ½ mile loop is actually very manageable and gives you the illusion of being in control of each repetition. 8 ½ more miles is much easier to stomach than 26.2. The first part of the loop wound through the lakeside park, then into some neighborhoods before hitting the scenic boulevard skirting the lake to the turnaround. The views along the lake were really breathtaking, with sparkling blue water and wooded mountains. I do remember that it was very hot, however, as there was little shade on that first loop. It took every ounce of self control I had not to jump into the lake, shoes and all. I reminded myself that I trained almost exclusively in 90+ degree weather and put it out of my mind.

Way too much pain to smile
The neighborhoods were where Coeur D’Alene truly shined as a race venue. Hundreds and hundreds of local residents had turned the entire residential section into a giant party, with music playing, hoses set up on ladders to provide cool showers as desired, and constant kind words from the spectators. These people were not volunteers, mind you, they were just the amazing residents of this wonderful town. The “Happy Fun Corner” provided a constant stream of jokes, laughs, and commentary courtesy of a guy who had set up a microphone and speaker in his front yard, and the increasingly intoxicated inhabitants of several houses played Ironman-themed drinking games while providing boisterous encouragement.

I had been concerned about Sean coming off the bike because he’d been fading farther back each time I’d seen him instead of catching me as expected, and at Mile 7 we crossed paths and my fears were confirmed. He had started throwing up at Mile 26 of the bike and hadn’t gotten any nutrition, including water, to stay down since then. He was walking and looked like death. I was so nauseated, tired, and in pain that when I actually cried a little bit. After the sweatiest, most disgusting hug in the history of our relationship, we parted ways and kept moving.

Finally smiling, loop 2
Finally at Mile 9 the nausea went away and my heart rate and breathing were fully under control. My legs were still like anchors, and would remain so throughout the run. The bike had simply taken all they had, but as almost any Ironman will tell you, finishing is more mental than physical, and I once I was feeling better mentally I dragged my anchor legs mile after mile with a big smile on my face. My 5:00/1:00 interval had turned into a 5:00/2:00 interval somewhere along the way, but I was still moving. I saw Dexter Yeats, a new acquaintance who at 73 years old is an incredible inspiration -- she was steady and determined. I was stopped by a man with one leg who was balancing on his good leg while he adjusted the prosthesis on his other one. He asked me if I’d hold his leg, and handed me the prosthesis, which I took without hesitation, totally in awe of his badassness. Then he started laughing and said “just kidding! But thanks!” and grabbed his leg back. I couldn’t help but laugh back! I danced my way through the Base Salt Tent where they had awesome music blasting. The second loop was fairly enjoyable, all things considered. The only concern I had was that Sean had faded so much I hadn’t seen him all the way up until the park, and I actually worried he might have been pulled off by medical. When I finally saw him, I resolved to do whatever I had to do to catch up to him (by getting ahead a lap) so that I could help him along.

I tried to pick up my pace, but about a quarter of the way through the third loop I was hurting a little again -- mostly my feet, which felt beaten to a pulp. The sun was setting over the lake and it was mindblowingly beautiful, and I was trying to focus on that instead. At Mile 14 I felt a riiiip and bid adieu to my left big toenail. At Mile 18 I walked almost the entire mile, briefly succumbing to the pain, and this was when I started talking to fellow athlete Josh. Josh had a mechanical malfunction on his bike and had completed that entire God awful bike course with only his three middle gears. He was, understandably, quite irritated and said he was just going to walk the rest of the race, telling me that we had plenty of time to make it to the cut off doing so. Talking to someone was a wonderful respite for my tired mind but I kept picturing Sean back there somewhere suffering, so at Mile 19 I told Josh that I had to go get my husband and took off once again on my raw, bruised feet.
As I neared the neighborhood section I came upon an older woman who was standing, apparently immobile, and crying out in pain each time she tried to move. I stopped and asked her if I could do anything for her, and she told me that she had suddenly started having blinding pain each time she tried to take a step with one leg. Despite this she kept trying to move, each time making the most horrible noises… After staying with her for a few minutes I asked her if she wanted help to a medic station and she said no, she wanted to keep going. We hugged each other before I started running again. I later found out that her leg, which had a stress fracture she wasn’t aware of, had completely fractured due to the repeated impact and she was flown out for surgery the next day. Thinking of her, and of Sean, I pushed as hard as I could possibly push all the way through the neighborhoods. At one point, just when I felt I might pass out an incredibly adorable, fluffy golden retriever puppy was thrust into my face by one of the residents who had been outside playing music all day.
“You look like you need a puppy!” He said.
WIthout a word I cuddled my face into the soft fur and looked into its soft little eyes, and then Mystery Puppy Man pulled it back and said, “Okay, now get running!” So I listened.

It was dark now, and I made one last push. I passed the beach where we had struggled to swim in our wetsuits earlier in the week and marvelled at how beautiful it looked with the moonlight dancing on the water. The streets were quieter now, and had a unique and special feel. Then out of the darkness came Sean, well in front of where I expected to see him! He had made a friend and seemed much better. I was so relieved I almost cried again. After a hug and a few words of encouragement between us, he took off for his last loop as I headed toward the park and the finish line.

I was a mile from the finish when I heard a “hey!” from behind me and turned to see Josh! He had changed his mind about walking! We joined a little group of people walking the last hill, realizing in awe and surprise that we were at Mile 25. We were going to make it! Our group all broke into a run, excited and energetic once again despite our tired bodies. The trail through the park that we had traveled three times reached the fork, and this time we turned right toward the finish. Over a little bridge, and then we were in town, running down the main street lined with cheering people. I could hear music and Mike Reilly’s voice, and the lights began to come into view. I slowed down a little to savor every moment, to take my final mental pictures of this epic day.
As I came down the finish chute I heard someone scream “CRYSTAL!” at the top of their lungs and there was my mom, jumping up and down and waving her arms like a madwoman. I ran to hug her and no hug has ever felt so good. I honestly can’t remember a time I’ve seen her more excited. I turned back to the finish line and ran the last few steps to become an IRONMAN.

Somehow as soon as I crossed the finish line my mom was there too! I asked her how she got inside the chute and she said, “I don’t know! I was so excited I just ran! Am I not supposed to be here?” It was awesome to have her with me as I got my timing chip removed, received my medal, and had my photo taken. I checked the tracker and saw that Sean was making better progress and that he was projected to finish within the cut off. I limped as quickly as I could back to our rental house, took a quick ice bath and shower, put on my finisher shirt, and limped back to the finish line to cheer him home.

I have never been prouder of my husband than I was watching him come down that finish chute to cross the line, knowing the battle he’d gone through to get there. I took a lesson from my mom and just ran past the security people without a word into the finish area to meet him. Being reunited after this feat felt better than our wedding day.

So there it is! We did it! Hard to believe that this journey we began eight months ago has reached this victory! It was worth every second, every moment, every workout. I AM AN IRONMAN.

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