When I was a cyclist, I would never focus on any particular race. Rather, I would get in shape and then compete in any race I could find. Because bike racing is so unpredictable, I couldn't afford to put all of my eggs in one basket. That is, I couldn't point all of my training toward a particular race because there were always so many factors--factors that might have had nothing to do with who the strongest cyclist was--that would determine the outcome of the race. I always disliked that about cycling. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I switched to triathlons.
As a triathlete, I'm able to pick a single race and focus every training day on getting stronger for that race. I like that. As I have made clear in nearly every blog post since January, the focus race for the first half of 2012 was Ironman Coeur d'Alene. It went very well!
My wife Kacie left to compete in 8-person RAAM a week before I left for Coeur d'Alene. This was a bit jarring for me given that I'm very attached to my wife. For the ten days leading up to CdA, I had to be content with looking at her race updates on Facebook and tracking her team's progress on the RAAM web site. More importantly, I had to travel to Coeur d'Alene alone, and it was a LONG trip. I flew three hours to Denver, had a four-hour layover, then flew another two-and-a-half hours to Spokane. There, I rented a car and drove the forty minutes to Coeur d'Alene. I checked into the Super 8 at about 1:00 a.m. Pacific Time. I would have felt very lonely had I not met up with my wife's teammate, Anthony Beeson, in the Denver airport. Anthony and several other people from the Denver/Boulder area were on my flight, and they were very welcoming to me in the days leading up to the race. I appreciated that.
I spent a lot of time in the three days ahead of the race in my dismal hotel room. I tried to liven up the place using a poster from the Athlete Guide that I got at check-in:
It kinda worked . . . but not so much. I soon discovered that I had bigger problems than a boring motel room.
On Thursday afternoon, I picked up my bike from Tri Bike Transport, and I did a brief ride from my motel onto the run course and back. From the very start of the ride, my heart rate was significantly higher--like twenty beats!--than it should have been based on my training numbers. I didn't feel bad and I wasn't breathing hard, but my heart rate never really came down. For the next two days, it hung out about ten to fifteen beats higher than it should have been, even when I first woke up in the morning. I'm still not sure why this happened. Nerves? (Yes, I was nervous. Duh. But nerves shouldn't cause that much of a spike.) Travel? (It was a long trip; see above.) Overtraining? (This couldn't be it. I had been very careful.) Lack of sleep? (Possibly; I had had trouble sleeping, but an eleven-hour night on Thursday didn't bring my heart rate down as I had hoped.) I really don't know what caused the heart rate spike. It didn't start until I arrived in Coeur d'Alene.
By race morning, I was resigned to having a sub-par race as a result. I ignored my heart rate in Ironman Cozumel to my detriment, and I refused to ignore the lessons that I learned there. I was frustrated, though, that it appeared that I wouldn't be able to go as fast as I had hoped because my heart--normally the strongest part of me!--wasn't cooperating. I tuned my TV to the 80s music channel to get my mind off of things, and "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was playing.
(Fortunately, it wasn't a video channel. I'm not sure that I would have found this video very relaxing.)
I decided to take Frankie's advice. I relaxed, ate my oatmeal, drank my tea, and I made my way to the start thanks to a ride from my bud Sonja and her husband Troy. We got there well before 5:00 a.m., and unlike every other triathlon I have ever seen, it was completely light outside. Cool.
Because Sonja and Troy got me to the start so early, I was able to get ready for the race without much worry. I checked my bike several times, I used the bathroom, I ate the bagel I brought with me, and I put on my wet suit. They announced several times that the water was around 60 degrees, which was warmer than years past but cold enough to keep it "booty-legal." (And, yes, there were plenty of jokes about that term every time it was used.) I didn't wear booties, though. During my practice swim on Thursday with Anthony and crew, I wore a neoprene cap and ear plugs, neither of which I had ever used before. Even though I had spent six months worrying about the cold water, it really wasn't an issue during the practice swim. Thus, I decided to stay with that setup for the race. It's worth mentioning that there was a guy that started next to me wearing only a black speedo.
I lined up on the far right of the swim, believing that even though I would be very far off the buoys, I would perhaps have less punching and kicking over there. I was actually standing on the front line, and I even got to dip in the water before the start because I was willing to go so far to the right. I had high hopes for a solid, clean swim.
Anthony posted some great pictures on his web site of the swim start. He somehow had a lot of clean water. I did not. [By the way, Anthony, your new bike looks SWEET.]
The swim was, without a doubt, the most physical swim I have experienced in a triathlon of any distance. In the first lap, I didn't make more than five strokes without either hitting someone or having someone hit me. It's worth saying clearly: for a mid-pack swimmer--at least this mid-pack swimmer--the cold is not the main issue in the Coeur d'Alene swim. It's the physicality.
Here's a video that someone took of the start. I'm about as far as you can get from the camera.
Based on my races in Knoxville and Quassy, I knew that the fastest I could expect to swim was about 1:17:00. I had mentally prepared myself to swim 1:20:00 or so even though I swam 1:20:00 in Cozumel and I have improved IMMENSELY as a swimmer since then. The first lap was a bit under 39:00, and the second was over 44:00. There was nearly a six-minute drop-off between laps one and two for me, even though things spread out and cleared up a little bit--a little bit--after the first lap. I attribute this slowdown to three things. First, I was getting a bit frustrated. The constant contact had worn on me after 45:00 or so, and I was getting tired of people either swimming sideways or simply stopping right in front of me to rest, to sight, or to just assess the situation. ("What are you doing?? Swim, motherf******!!" No, I didn't actually say it, but I thought it.) I was not the only person getting frustrated. There was a lot of yelling mid-pack during the second lap. I swear that I saw a dude in a red and black TYR wetsuit rear up and throw a punch. Being frustrated only slows you down, though. Smooth is fast, and it's hard to be smooth when you're angry. Second, the cold started to get to me a bit. Specifically, I couldn't keep my fingers together. I imagine that it was probably affecting me in other ways, too--like pointing my toes, keeping my head up, or lengthening my stroke--but the fingers were the most obvious to me. Third, a great deal of waves kicked up in the third lap. The wind picked up, and that made swimming more difficult. Of course, I didn't realize it was the wind, and my frozen brain thought that the waves were coming from boats on the lake. That only served to make me angrier and more frustrated--"What are boats doing out here!?!?"--thereby slowing me down further. Sonja told me that she had the same thought two years ago in Coeur d'Alene. She also called the swim "one of the toughest IM swims out there."
I ran out of the water quickly, noted my time, and just kept going. I knew when I was approaching the swim finish that my time would be slower than Cozumel, so I didn't let it bother me when it was. The goal was to be in the middle of the pack in the swim, and when I checked my results at the race's conclusion, I found that I was 1246th swimmer out of just over 2300. I was 166th out of about 300 in my age group. Middle of the pack.
The big drawback of being middle of the pack--in addition to the constant contact with other swimmers--is a crowded transition area. The tent was so full that I had to sit in the grass outside and I had very little contact with volunteers. In addition, my cold hands made it hard to put on my socks and arm warmers. Finally, when I grabbed my bike, I was kinda stuck behind a lot of other people walking their bikes out of transition. All of these things conspired to make T1 at least two minutes slower than I would have liked. In the end, I don't think that it mattered.
I was very eager to get on the bike. Not only does the beginning of the bike signify the end of the stuff I can't do (i.e. swim) and the start of the stuff I can do (i.e. bike and run), but I spent A LOT of time on my bike in the last six months. In addition, I had chosen Coeur d'Alene for its hilly bike course, and I knew that I was stronger than most of my competitors going uphill. At the same time, I knew that I would ruin my race if I tried to catch everybody on the first lap. Here I am in the first ten miles, telling myself to stay within my limits:
(Wait . . . are those quad muscles?)
My plan for the bike was fairly straightforward. I would keep my HR below 150 on the flats, and I would keep my wattage around 270 watts on the climbs. I ate a PowerBar in the first stages of the bike (which served the dual purpose of refueling after the super calorie-intensive swim and getting me off to a relaxed start on the bike.) I would drink one bottle an hour and take one PowerBar gel each hour. I started training with PowerBar drink when I found out that it would be on course at Coeur d'Alene. This enabled me to keep only one bottle on my bike, which I like.
The bike loop--which was new for 2012--consisted of a short out-and-back of about 15 miles, then a longer out-and-back of about 42 miles. Then you did the whole thing again. At the center was the town, which was jammed with spectators and fans from the very start.
In the opening miles of the bike course, I got my first glimpse of the Coeur d'Alene fans. By the end of the race, I would realize that this was the best group of fans I had ever experienced as a racer. There were people in costumes, people playing bagpipes, people dancing, people singing karaoke . . . it was a very festive atmosphere. I highly recommend Coeur d'Alene not for the scenery (which was great) or the hills (which were awesome), but for the fans. I'll never forget that girl standing on stage, singing "Baby" by Justin Beiber at about the six-mile mark of the bike. I nearly burst out laughing, which is exactly what I needed at that point.
I hadn't expected wind on the bike course. I had spent so much time reading and thinking about the hills that I didn't even consider wind. In fact, it was very windy on race day. The same wind that brought waves in the second loop of the swim made a difficult bike course even harder. In addition, the downhills on the bike were not as fast as I had thought they would be. There was a lot more gradual climbing and descending--1% to 3% grades--than I expected.
There were some uphills in the first part of the bike, but the first true climb came around mile 18. When you use a power meter, you can't keep your power reading constant. Thus, if you are trying to average 275 for a segment, you try to keep the readings between 260 and 290. Because I wanted to keep my wattage going uphill around 270, I needed to keep it between about 250 and 290. In other words, my wattage readings needed to be in the 250s, 260s, 270s, or 280s--the 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s. As soon as I started going up it, the first ten seconds of Huddle Formation by The Go! Team caught in my head:
Literally, just the first ten seconds: "5, 6, 5, 6, 7, 8 . . . duh, nuh, nuh . . ." I began to look forward to the uphills because I was enjoying singing this song to myself so much.
I also looked forward to the uphills because I was much stronger than most folks on the uphills. Months of climbing and watching what I ate paid off in that every time the road pitched up, whoever was with me disappeared. As soon as I would crest a hill, I would try to bring my HR back under 150 and heavier, more powerful riders that I had crushed going uphill would suddenly re-appear and pass me. Because there was so much uphill on the course, though, I would eventually pass these riders and not see them again. In my head, I began to refer to the riders that would pass me on the downhills as the "Clown Parade," and when I would pass people going uphill, I would think things like, "I bet that he's going to be leading the Clown Parade in a few minutes." It happened throughout the entire bike ride.
During the first few hours of the bike, I found that my heart rate, as I had feared, was higher than it should have been. Around the 75-mile mark, though, I decided on a whim to check my average power. To my surprise, I found that it was about what I had hoped to average. Thus, even though I thought that my heart wasn't quite cooperating, I was managing to still put in the wattage that I had planned to ride. That gave me a boost, and it made me feel that even though my time-checks were not super-fast, I may well have been putting in one of the faster bike splits. In fact, I felt so good that I decided to push a bit more on some of the uphills in order to get just a little bit more distance on the Clowns (who, by this time, I had started calling by a much less polite name).
This was one of two places that I strategically deviated from the plan on the bike. The second was in regards to nutrition. Because it was cool and overcast for nearly the entire bike, I ended up not drinking as much as I had planned. This is only a problem because I drink the majority of my calories on the bike. No drinking meant fewer calories. I had to make up the deficit by grabbing extra nutrition on course. It worked out well, and in retrospect, I am very proud of not only having stuck to my plan, but also knowing when I needed to modify it to fit in-race realities.
My back wheel started misbehaving on a downhill around 100 miles into the bike. I had to pee from about mile 30. I got stuck behind a very slow rider in the final uphill No-Pass Zone with only about a mile left in the bike, which probably added at least 90 seconds to my bike split and let about fifteen people that I had distanced catch up with me. Otherwise, I couldn't have been happier with my bike split.
My bike split was the eleventh-fastest non-pro split in the race. It moved me from 1246th in the race to 130th in the race. It moved me from 166th in my age group after the swim to 24th in my age group. I averaged 214 watts on the hilly, windy course, and my normalized power was 229. My average HR was 151. Most importantly, I felt ready to run.
This was slowed by a much-needed bathroom stop and hastened by a very helpful volunteer. I changed into my neon tangerine Adidas, switched out my sunglasses, and took off.
About eighty miles into the bike, I had a key revelation: I came here to run. Yes, I enjoy cycling, yes, I am a solid cyclist, and yes, I had spent more time on my bike than in the pool or on the roads and trails. What I do best, though, is run. All of that time spent on the bike was not intended to speed up my bike split. It was intended to make that split easier so that I could run faster. I didn't come to Coeur d'Alene to bike, I came to run.
As soon as I realized this, I began to get very excited for the run. I started thinking, "Wait till you see me run!" I had trained to have a good run, and I had executed the race that would lead to a good run. It was all I could do not to explode onto the run course.
My nutrition plan on the run was to drink only water and take a PowerBar gel roughly every two miles. I had trained this way, and it seemed to work. PowerBar gels are thinner than other gels, and they therefore feel "cleaner" to me--as if they won't sit in my stomach, weigh me down, and cause cramps. I had begun taking caffeinated gels about 2/3 of the way through the bike, and I alternated between caffeinated and non-caffeinated gels on the run. In my T2 bag, I had two baggies: one with caffeinated gels that I emptied on the run and stuffed into my right pocket, and one with non-caffeinated gels that I emptied on the run and stuff into my left pocket. Those made for full pockets, and I dropped two gels that I had to turn around and pick up in the first mile going uphill out of town. Nonetheless, I ran a 6:25. I came to run.
The second mile was a 6:12, even though I spent the entire mile telling myself to relax and slow down. (Because my heart rate had given me so much stress in the days leading up to the race, I refused to run using HR and instead decided to go on instinct. I have good running instincts.) The third mile was 6:27. The fourth mile, which included a long uphill, was 6:18. I actually laughed when I saw that split because I knew I was running relaxed and I was on the right pace. And as it happened, the right pace was a 6:18.
Things continued this way for the first half of the run. The only mile that was over 7:00--a 7:10--was the one with the big uphill (where we had to run on slanted pavement--that sucked). I kept taking gels every two miles and kept pausing to drink water at the aid stations. I was using sponges a great deal because during T2, the sun came out. Then, around the halfway point . . .
I saw Kacie for the first time in over a week and a half. My wife and I don't spend very much time apart, and in fact, the stretch between June 13, when she left for RAAM, and June 24, when I saw her at the halfway point of the Coeur d'Alene run, was the longest that she and I had been apart since we were married five years ago. We love each other, of course, but we're also very attached to one another. We're buddies. We're close companions. I had been looking forward to seeing her on course since she left eleven days earlier. As we had planned, she flew in from the east coast during the early stages of the race and arrived near the end of the bike. When I saw her, I kid you not, I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I almost threw up.
Fortunately, I held it together. She was wearing a shirt that said "Catch the Swimmers!" that she had custom-made for this race. (My mantra during my long runs had actually been "Kill the Swimmers!" but she rightfully thought that that would be in poor taste.) I looked at her and told her how well I was running--I dropped an F-bomb in my description for some reason; sorry, CdA parents who were lining the course with your ten-year-olds--and of course, I said, "I came to run!"
I ran around the town and back out to where she was, and I nearly got sick again. I held it together, though. Around mile 14 (6:21), I passed a guy who said, "How old are you?" 38. "Are you on your second lap?" Yes. "Are you doing the run/walk method?" No. "F***, you're fast!" That might have been my favorite comment from a competitor. I also got a lot of comments (mostly from fans along the course) about my shoes. Sweet.
I ran on, and my splits on the second lap were, as could be predicted, a bit slower than the were on the first. They stayed mostly under 7:00 per mile, though, even though I was taking a bit longer walking through the aid stations. I caught up with a fella in the age group below me, and he and I ended up running together for several miles. During this stretch, I began to focus heavily on two things: going under three hours and having the fastest non-pro run. I stuck to my nutrition plan, even though I was damn tired of gels by the time I got to mile 18 and had to take my ninth gel of the run. I kept passing people and passing people and passing people, even though it became difficult to tell who my competitors were as the course began to fill with runners on their first loop. In the twenty-fifty mile, I thought I saw a few people who looked to be my age and my speed up ahead, and I dug deep for a 6:33 twenty-fifth mile. Soon after, the course directed us across a parking lot and down a long, straight, downhill avenue to the finish.
The finish line was brilliant. It was nearly half a mile of a four lane road, with hundreds of fans lining each side of the road. It was slightly downhill, and I was the only person on the road. My run had moved me from 130th overall to 21st overall (10th non-pro) and from 24th in my age group to second in my age group. I had no idea of my place, but I knew that I had had a great race, capped by a great run. I high-fived the fans in the last 200 yards or so and crossed the finish line in 9:45:02. I had the fastest non-pro run of the day by about five minutes. Here it is in black and white:
(The finish line was so fantastic that I won't even mention that the distance between mile 25 and the finish was more like 1.5 than 1.2.)
The third-fastest runner--Ivan--was the winner of my age group. The fourth-fastest runner--Justin--is the guy I ran with for a few miles between 16 and 24. The eighth-fastest runner--Anthony--is my wife's teammate from Boulder. Also of note: I had the fastest non-pro bike/run combo of the day.
Kacie ran down to the finish line from the spot where she had been cheering and told me my place. "We're going to Hawaii!"
I limped my way through the finish area, and I gathered my medal, t-shirt, and hat. I got a massage and drank some chocolate milk. My legs were tight and tired, and the bursitis that has plagued me since January really hurt. Nonetheless, I can say that I was as satisfied with this race as any race I've ever done. I was indeed pleasantly exhausted.
Kacie and I made our way back to the hotel, where we found what happens to your back in an Ironman when your wife is not there to help you with your sunscreen:
We went out to eat at a local pizza place, MacKenzie River Pizza, where the manager bought me a beer and gave us a discount on our meal. (Like I said, Coeur d'Alene folks are pretty awesome. The ladies next to us offered to buy me a second drink, but I declined.)
After Kacie--who, remember, had just finished RAAM and was working on less than twenty-five hours of sleep over the previous seven nights--took a nap in the car, we went downtown to watch the final finishers. It was fantastic.
(No snarky caption here. It was very nice to be back together with my wife.)
The next day, I claimed my Kona spot:
I was presented with my award:
(I am the handsome one second from the left.)
Finally, after this long race report, I want to give thanks to all of the folks who supported me throughout my training for Coeur d'Alene and during the race. Chief among these people is my wife, who is a source of both support and inspiration. My parents also supported me a great deal, and they even followed along on race day. (My dad reportedly had tears in his eyes when he saw how well I ran.) Several friends and teammates followed online, including Erik (who kept everyone updated on Facebook), Dani (who evidently danced throughout her house), Jason ("This is sick!"), Harvey (who never let one of my tweets go unaddressed between February and June), and the rest of the folks at All3sports.com. My wife's teammates were also instrumental in their support, including Jill, Anthony, Kelly, Colleen, Andree, Mark, Michael, Josh, and several others. Needless to say, I couldn't have done it without the guidance of my coach, Will Dillard. The good people at H20 Audio and Cycleops also deserve thanks for sponsoring me and providing me with vital training and racing tools that I used both leading up to Coeur d'Alene and during the race. I look forward to flying the flag for them in Hawaii.
And now it's on to the Ironman World Championships in Kona!