Heather, YOU are an Ironman!!!
That’s what they said when I crossed the finish line. I did it! I really did! I’m happy to say that I finished a full Ironman in 13 hours, 38 minutes, and 51 seconds. And I finished without medical attention. It was a long, long day, so this is a long, long post. If you want the “executive summary,” read the paragraph below.
The cannon went off promptly at 7am. I swam 2.4 miles in 59 degree water in 1 hour, 6 minutes, and 2 seconds. I was about 1 minute slower than my projected time, but the times overall seemed a bit slow. I was 7th out of the water in my age group (151 women ages 35-39) and 218th overall (out of 1942 athletes). I was super happy about that. I biked 112 miles in 6 hours, 50 minutes, and 2 seconds. My projected time was 7 hours. I went out too fast on the first lap, completing it in 3 hours 10 minutes. Then I sort of died off and took 3 hours and 40 minutes for the second lap. Finally, I ran the 26.2 mile marathon. It took me a long, long time – 5 hours, 29 minutes and 31 seconds. I was projected to take between 5 and 6 hours. It was a tough run, particularly miles 12-17 when I couldn’t keep any food down. (More grotesque details on that in the write up below. J ) The weather was perfect. The fans were amazing. The course was beautiful. And I was surrounded by family and friends for plenty of support and encouragement. It was a perfect day.
Now, for the details…..
Dave, Kevin and I arrived in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday afternoon. I checked into the race and picked up my bike. We spent Thursday night in Spokane and made our way to Lake Coeur d’Alene early on Friday morning for a practice swim. The water felt *extremely* cold that morning. When I first got in, I couldn’t breathe and I was convinced I wouldn’t even be able to swim! I swam one lap (1.2 miles) and by the end, felt much better. Still cold, but not frigid. I did a short bike ride that afternoon to make sure all was in working order. I did another practice swim on Saturday morning and figured out where I would start the race and where my sight lines would be. My brother, Dave, and I drove the bike course on Saturday. That was eye opening – the hills were much steeper than I had expected, albeit short. We spent the rest of Saturday preparing our bikes with race numbers, organizing food/drink, sorting gear into various bags, etc. We had to check in our bikes, transition bags, and special needs bags on Saturday. We watched the Hawaii Ironman from 2006 to end the night and get pumped for the next day.
I didn’t actually sleep more than an hour or so on Saturday night. My alarm was set for 4:40am. I choked down a big bowl of steel cut oatmeal, a bagel, a banana, and a yogurt. Dave recommended a big breakfast to ensure our glycogen stores were topped off and we had enough calories to make it through several hours.
Dave dropped my brother and I off at the race start around 5:30. We got our tires pumped up, transition bags ready, and then headed to the swim start. The water temperature was the talk of the town for weeks prior to the race. It was only 49 degrees in late May. But the warm weather in Coeur d’Alene did its duty and made the lake temps reasonable. I still wore a hood and booties, but the cold didn’t bother me.
The anticipation 15 minutes prior the race start nearly killed me. Standing around, looking at all your competitors, watching the helicopter fly overhead, listening to loud pump-you-up rock music…..it was almost too much. Keish shared his “secret” starting location with my brother and I – waaaay off to the right hand side, out of the fray. So, there we stood, waiting for the start. The cannon went off without warning (if there was a warning, we didn’t hear it) and we all charged down the beach and into the water.
Starting way off to one side was key for me. I never touched another body, and thus got into a swimming rhythm (i.e., never panicked) right away. Sighting was a cinch – there was a perfect bell curve hill in front of the final buoy before the turn and I just swam straight for that. I swam extra wide around the buoy – those corners can be brutal because everyone slows down and gets crowded; that’s when you get kicked in the ribs or the face. I always figure swimming a little extra helps me – keeps me calm and I stay in my rhythm. A short stretch straight into the sun, then we turned another right angle and headed back toward the beach. We had to swim to the shore, get out, run over timing mats and back into the water for a second loop. I have no idea how fast my first lap was – there was no clock!! My first (of many) low point of the day was starting a second loop. Another 1.2 miles, I thought to myself. Yeeesh, it felt like a long way the first time. My second loop was slower – I lost focus many times, lost rhythm, didn’t swim very straight, and my arms were getting heavy. I was happy to be done. My best event over, now the hard stuff started.
Here’s a short video clip of the swim start. If you only watch one of the video clips in this story, watch this one. The swim start is quite a spectacle.
After you get out of the water, volunteer strippers help you strip off your wetsuit and booties. You lie on the ground, stick your feet in the air, and they pull your suit off with one big tug. Very helpful!
I headed for the women’s changing tent for Transition #1. I bypassed two brand new Sundance hot tubs they had available to warm up. I sat down in a chair and a kind old woman volunteer helped me get ready for the bike. She put my wetsuit, booties, hood, cap, and goggles in a bag. She helped me get my arm warmers, helmet, glasses, shoes, socks, and watch on. I opened a Clif bar and took two huge bites and started chewing (I think I was still chewing miles later). I headed out for my bike. The whole transition seemed very quick, but it took me 7 minutes and 6 seconds.
The weather was still chilly at only 8am. I was very glad I decided to wear arm warmers. Within the first mile, I saw my family and friends on the sideline. That’s me waving in this video clip.
We headed out first to a short (~14 miles) out and back along Lake Coeur d’Alene. It was relatively flat and I was pretty excited – my adrenaline was flying and I was moving! I saw my family when I returned about 45 minutes later and then headed out for the long loop (~40 miles). We had driven the course the day before, so I knew what to expect: lots of fast flat stuff at the beginning and then many short steep hills. My goal was to keep my heartrate average at 145 and I was averaging 160 for the first hour. Not good! I kept trying to slow down, and successfully did for a few minutes. But then I’d creep back up – adrenaline, excitement, all the people – I don’t know why. I finally managed to slow down and averaged a heartrate of 152 on the bike – still too high and that may have hurt me for the run.
The bike course was beautiful. Plenty of rain and snow melt offered up very green hills and numerous types of trees. Aid stations were placed approximately every 10 miles and the nutrition offered was exactly the same at every station in exactly the same order. By the end of the day, I realized how important that predictability was. Gatorade, water, Power Gels, Bananas, Oranges, Gatorade, water.
I had planned out my nutrition very carefully for the bike. I drank Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy – 360 calories per bike bottle. In my aerobar drink bottle, I had regular concentrate Sustained Energy that lasted for the first hour. Mounted on my down tube, I had super concentrated Sustained Energy – enough for two more aerobar drink bottles, to last for the next two hours. After three hours, I planned to switch to water and Gus (which were in my “Bento box” mounted on my top tube). Everything worked out well until I got to the GUs during the third hour. I used a new GU flask (never use something new on race day!) and it took too much energy to suck the GU out! That was frustrating. I hit the “special needs” stop on the bike at mile 62. There, I had a plastic bag with another GU flask, a previously-frozen-now-cold bottle of regular concentrate Sustained Energy and a cold bottle of super concentrate Sustained Energy. By this point, I was having my second low point of the day. My legs were getting tired, I had pushed too hard earlier, and my stomach was feeling unsettled. When I saw my family at mile ~70, I actually pulled over and stopped. I had Dave turn my bike upside down to empty my aerobar bottle (it was full of unwanted water) and gave him my GU flask. I learned that Kevin was at our hostess’ house, taking a nap with Grandpa. J
I was off again, headed out for the 40 mile loop for the second time. The hills seemed steeper and longer the second time around. And we had a good headwind on the flat, fast section toward the end, which caused my 3rd low point for the day. Dave always said that the race starts at mile 90 of the bike. Then the race becomes a test of who slows down the least. Ugh.
I averaged 16.4 mph for 112 – slightly better than I had expected. The average for all competitors was 16.2mph. I was hoping to finish the bike in 7 hours, so I was 10 minutes faster than projected. I didn’t eat any solid food for 7 hours – just liquid calories. I think that may have caused some stomach issues I had later on in the run.
Arriving in transition after 112 miles…..I had never been so excited to run!
Here is a graph showing the elevation on the two loops of the bike. Total climbing was about 5600 feet.
I took my time in Transition #2. My legs were feeling like jello, I was hot, and I was covered in salt from all the sweat. I changed out of my one-piece and into my favorite pair of Brooks running shorts and a t-shirt. [Dave and I had funny t-shirts made for our family and friends, so I wore that.] The transition lady got me a wet cold cloth so I could wash my face, arms, and legs – that felt good! That was followed up by some other lady dousing my face and arms in sunblock. So much for being clean!
Leaving transition on the run was a blast. The crowds were 3 or 4 people deep along the running path. My bib number had “Heather” printed on it, so people were screaming my name. It was all very exciting – I felt good, I was running 10 minute miles, and I was happy. This video clip shows my happiest point during the run. The rest of the day got tough and ugly.
I kept up a pretty good 10-11 minute/mile pace for the first 12 miles. The crowds helped push me along for quite a while. And I enjoyed cheering on my brother and friends that were also competing in the race. Similar to the bike aid stations, the run aid stations were very predictable: Gatorade, water, Power Gels, food (bananas, oranges, Clif bars, pretzels), chicken broth, Power Gels, Gatorade, water. Since I had lost plenty of salt, I opted for water, chicken broth, and bananas at every aid station.
Low point #4 and very low point #5. [If you don’t like to hear about vomit, don’t read this paragraph.] After mile 12, I was unable to keep any food down. Thankfully, there were plenty of porta-potties along the way, so no one had to witness my nausea. I was miserable. My ribs and stomach ached from throwing up and I was starting to get worried about how the rest of the day would pan out. I had no intention of quitting – I was way ahead of the time cut off, so I knew I could slowly walk the final half of the marathon and still finish. But yuck. Very low point #5 was at mile ~13. I stopped to throw up in a porta potty. I had my sunglasses perched on top of my running hat. And next thing I know, the sunglasses are IN the porta potty! Lucky for me, this particular potty was full to the brim, so I didn’t have to go in too far to get them! J I washed them off at the aid station and perched them back on top of my hat. It sounds really disgusting, but at the time, I didn’t really care. Guess that tells you what kind of mental state I was in.
I ran by my parents at mile 14 and stopped to chat (I was walking at this point). My Mom convinced me to get rid of my hat and let my head breathe (that felt great), so she took my hat and potty glasses. I did warn her where they had been!
I was very low on energy from miles 12-17. I walked nearly all of it, continuing to try bananas and chicken broth at the aid stations. I saw David and Troy at mile ~16. Troy encouraged me to keep eating and he said, “Just know, it CAN get better.” I stopped throwing up after mile 17 and started to regain some energy just in time to walk up a big hill at the final run turnaround near mile 20. I began running (slowly) at mile 20, vowing to run between each aid station until the finish line. That seemed to work – I ate a chunk of banana each mile and half a cup of chicken broth. Our friends Sid and Brian were biking alongside the course and checked in on me every so often. They were lifesavers! They also called Dave to keep him apprised of my progress.
The final few miles of the run were brutal – I was excited to finish but my legs were throbbing and tired and I just couldn’t turn them over any faster. I started running the numbers in my head about what a potential finishing time would be. I could break 14 hours! I was delighted by the prospect of that, considering how lousy I had felt earlier in the run. The last couple miles went quick, with massive crowds lining the streets. I saw Kevin and Dave just a couple blocks before the finish line. I managed to muster a big smile, but I was hurting.
Here is a graph showing my heartrate on the run. You can see the “low points” – my heartrate was much lower than it should have been because I was walking. Then, I picked it up again for the final 6 miles.
As I went through the finish line, the volunteers held up the finishing tape and the announcer boomed, “Heather, YOU are an Ironman!” Yay! I was done! 13 hours, 38 minutes and 51 seconds. I was hoping for something between 13 and 15 hours. My family and friends were all there at the finish. It was a long day for them too, so I was happy they stuck it out till the bitter end.
I spent some time in the recovery tent, getting warm and drinking some soda. I felt pretty grimy – covered in chicken broth and banana mush. My stomach wasn’t interested in food until the following morning. But for the following three days, I ate non-stop like a crazy woman.
I have a short list of “lessons learned.”
1) I probably didn’t appreciate the training required for this length of a race, given that I had a baby in August 07. Losing a bunch of extra baby weight and restoring my stomach muscles after a C-section gave me extra challenges to be ready in time. But the timing was good – training gave me something other than baby, baby, baby to think about. It was a good, big, lofty goal to focus on.
2) Never try anything new on race day (even just a GU flask).
3) It is a long day. Unless you are trying to win or qualify for Hawaii, you’ll waste more energy trying to hurry up.
4) I wish I had done more long brick workouts. I only did a few of them, and my longest runs were just 6 miles. Doing a couple long bike workouts, followed by 10+ miles would have been helpful. I think Ironman boils down to just that – getting through the bike feeling good and then being able to run strong for many hours.
5) Coeur d’Alene is an excellently run race – very organized, very smooth running. The course is perfect and the volunteers are hard to beat. I would recommend it for anyone, particularly a first-timer Ironman.
6) Support from family and friends is crucial. Training for an Ironman is a big commitment and you sacrifice a lot in many areas of your life. Other people pick up the slack because you are just too tired. I’m thankful for Dave, my husband and coach, who helped prepare me in a methodical, reasonable, and loving way. I’m thankful for Kim, my brother, who never wavered in his training and his upbeat-ness was a big motivation. And I’m thankful for all my other family members and friends who supported this wild idea and helped me get to the finish line.