Ironman USA Coeur d'Alene 2003
It was brutal! I talked to the run director and he told me his in-car thermometer showed 97 degrees! Later I heard reports of peak temperatures on the course of 103 degrees!
1574 triathletes entered the water at 7:00 am on Sunday morning and 1345 finished the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26 mile run later that day in the stifling heat. A whopping 230 participants failed to finish, which According to Ironman North America, is the highest DNF (Did Not Finish) percentage of any Ironman race in history.
The swim was as frightening for me as it usually is - there's just no way around the pummeling when 1500 swimmers spread out along a 100-yard wide beach converge toward a 3 yard wide inflatable boey 500 yards out into the middle of the lake. Thankfully, it was a two loop course, and I was able to scoot way over to the far left for my second loop and avoided the traffic. I probably added on a few yards, but due to being able to swim more relaxed, I did my second loop faster than my first to finish the swim in a pretty crappy 1 hour, 13 minutes which put me at 151st out of 241 in my age group (64%). But, that's almost exactly what I was expecting for the swim, and the difference between my swim time and the time of the top 20% swimmers is only around 5 minutes which I can easily make up on the bike race.
My biggest concern with the swim was how my wife Helen was going to make out. It was her first Ironman, and although in training, she had done that distance many times in the pool, the real thing adds many complications you can't simulate in training. Like the close proximity of your swim buddies and the chilly 65 degree lake water. But, she successfully completed the swim only 12 minutes after me!
The 112 mile bike ride went pretty much as planned. In training, I added more longer rides and also tried to speed up the pace during those rides to closer simulate race-day effort levels. I was hoping to average out between 32 and 33 km/hour which would be a couple of km faster than Ironman Canada. It seemed to work because I was able to finish at an average of 32km/hour, a total of 5:41, which placed me 30th out of 241 in my age-group - a top 12% bike finish.
Even more encouraging was my 1/2 way bike split time of 2:40 (that's 34km/hour average) which if I had been able to duplicate that time for the second loop, would have netted me a 5:20 bike split which would have put me at the top 5 finishers of my age-group (that's Hawaii qualifying territory!). Surprisingly, when I took my should-a, could-a, would-a's to the race officials, they opted not to adjust my finish times...
I finally realized just how hot it was that day when I tried to get out of my chair in the change tent after the bike ride. I couldn't move. I was dizzy and queasy, and my stomach, hamstrings, quads and calves were cramping up. So instead I let the change tent volunteer drape ice cold wet towels over my head and shoulders. That felt SOOOO good!
Without a whole lot of enthusiasm, I finally coaxed my legs to stand, and exited the tent, got lathered with sun screen and looked for my kids and dad to get news of Helen's swim. I found my dad in the crowd and he told me that she had exited the water only about 10 minutes after me. At that point I knew that she would finish, and that our number one goal for Ironman Idaho would be accomplished - to have Helen finish her first Ironman. Whatever other accomplishments that were possible at this point became totally secondary to me. Which turned out to be a good attitude to have because that's exactly when the possibility of accomplishing anything else that day vaporized into the hot dry air.
My run was mostly walking - 6 hours and 45 minutes of walking to be precise! I tried to vomit a number of times, but my stomach muscles would cramp up into a knot doubling me over in pain. For some reason I lost my voice and both my ears started to ring and plugged up. During my first of two loops I had talked myself into quitting when I got back to the transition area. It's funny how that thought process works - the fantasy of stopping the pain and just lying down somewhere becomes all-encompassing - after you imagine it once, you can’t stop imagining it! Then you make deals with yourself: "make it half way to the aid station and then you can DNF yourself. Save your health and your legs for another day. Do the SMART thing Greg". Ok - I agreed. I would quit at the half way point - first chance I got to speak to an official and disqualify myself.
As I neared the transition area at the end of my first loop, I encountered a fork in the path: path on the left is where FINISHERS go, and the path on the right is for those who have another entire loop to endure. I watched some runners choose the path on the left to the finish like and glanced at my watch. Total time at that point was around 11 hours - exactly when I 'would' be crossing if I had been able to run as planned. How upsetting. I would not be joining those runners, I would not be crossing the finish line. Yet.
I could hear the announcer calling in finishers. I could hear the music, the cheers from the crowds and feel the excitement. I though of Helen - how she would probably keep going even if she had to crawl. Then I remembered my own goals for every Ironman Race:
1. To finish
2. To set a personal record
Since goal number two was no longer achievable, goal # 1 was still possible. In my mind, the reason most people never succeed at anything is because they give-up. When you start giving up on the small things, then you start giving up on the big things as well. And that was another change I had made to my training - when I set out to do a 100 mile bike ride, I would NOT stop until my bike computer showed that three digit number. It was more symbolic of my intent on achieving my goals than any real training benefit, but I really do think it matters. It must have worked because I decided to gut-out the remaining 13 miles and do whatever I needed to do to cross the finish line.
After a brief thunder shower rolled through, the temperatures cooled a bit and my stomach started to feel a bit better, so I started running a bit. I ran into my friend Greg Bradley at some point during the long out and back. He was lying down on the run path. The MIDDLE of the run path. I picked him up, dusted him off, and encouraged him to walk with me to the finish line.
The remainder of our journey treated us to sights such as runners passed out at the side of the road, pools of vomit here and there, bicycle EMT's racing around the course with radio's squawking out emergency reports, and more than a few ambulances speeding to who knows what kind of misery.
Since the course is a two loop out-and-back style, I ran into Helen a few times. She had finished the bike ride in a little over 7 hours - better than she expected and was in the same condition as Greg and I, stomach issues like most of us. I was not surprised to hear that she was as determined to get through the marathon as I knew she would be.
Greg and I sprinted through the finish line together at somewhere around 9:00 pm - an ugly accounting of something like 14 hours total. I met my kids and my dad at the finish line, got some pizza and went back to the hotel for a shower and a beer. Then we all went back to the finish line to wait for Helen. She crossed the finish at 10:30 holding the hands of our two kids. She is an Ironman.
Boy - if you have never seen an Ironman finish line after dark you have not lived! It is absolutely intoxicating. Music blasting from this incredible sound system, announcer shouting out "Helen - YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!", runners crying with joy, people screaming, shouting, and clapping. A mega screen TV showing finishers breaking the finish ribbon with loved ones, kids, babies and yes, even pets. It bring tears to my eyes now as I recall it.
It's an incredible moment - in someway a metaphor for life itself. I think it provides hope for people - real live proof that success is possible, that you can accomplish something if you want it badly enough. As you watch a triathlete cross the finish line at Ironman you can almost 'see' the tremendous effort they invested preparing for this moment cross with them. It's like a cloud that surrounds them and if you look closely enough you can catch glimpses of a 2 hour training run after a full day at work, mile 95 of a bike ride in the rain fixing a flat tire at the side of the road, or a moment spent alone in a freezing pool at 5:00 am on a snowy winter morning. You can see determination, and you can see success. And it's not just about sports or athletic accomplishment. It's living proof that ANYTHING is possible - that if you want it badly enough, you can accomplish ANYTHING and I sincerely believe that.
My next race report will be Ironman Canada at the end of August. Until then, I hope you have an accomplishment filled summer!
Following are some various photos of the day:
Over 1500 swimmers enter the lake
Helen finishing the swim
Me finishing the swim
Me on the bike
A less-than-enthusiastic me on the run (walk)
Helen on the run
Me finishing with Greg Bradley
Helen is an IRONMAN! Her finish with Cody and Krista