At 3:45 a.m. on Sunday I woke up to Eye of the Tiger blasting on Justin’s cell phone. It was the perfect alarm tone, and I cracked a smile and rolled out of bed. I could immediately feel the adrenaline kick in as I made my way downstairs to pour a massive cup of coffee. Justin prepared my favorite pre-race meal and smeared a bunch of avocado on toast, topping it with salt. The atmosphere in the house seemed a little tense but fairly tranquil as we all gathered our gear and made our way out the door by 4:45 a.m.
It was still dark when we arrived to the Athlete’s Village. Participants, supporters, and volunteers were bustling about on a mission and you could sense the nerves in the air. It was electrifying. I made my way to my bike to fill the front hydration bottle and to place another bottle in the cage. The plan was to carry two bottles instead of four to avoid the extra weight, take advantage of the aid stations, and switch out bottles at special needs. I dropped off my special needs bag and then reconnected with Justin near the swim start.
As I put on my wetsuit and munched on a Luna bar, Justin gave me a little pep talk and we shared some tears. I was extremely nervous… actually, downright scared… about getting into the water. He said a few choice words that helped calm me and then brought up the memory of my father, who had lost a hard battle with cancer. He reminded me of my dad’s strength during some of the most difficult days of his life, and told me that when things got hard out there – and they would get hard – to fight through and tough it out just as my dad had done. That was all I needed to step forward and begin my race.
Lake Coeur d’Alene is known for chop and whitecaps, but thankfully today it only had a few ripples and I never thought twice about the conditions. Don’t think about what you can’t control. As soon as 5:50 rolled around, I kissed Justin goodbye and shook out the nerves as I made my way to the sandy beach to join the other athletes. One of my favorite things about the swim was the self-seeded rolling start, as it allowed athletes to trickle in to the water and provided a lot of space out on the course.
Everyone who knows me or reads my blog knows that swimming is my Kryptonite. I struggle in the water, partially because I just don’t enjoy swimming all that much and I have poor technique. I am one of those people who tends to work harder on the things I am good at (cycling and running, for example), at the expense of the things I should be working to improve (mainly swimming). My goal this next year is to work one on one with a coach and master good technique in the water. For this race, I knew I’d be fine once I survived the swim.
The course in Coeur d’Alene is two loops and requires athletes to exit the water, run across the timing mat, and then re-enter the water to begin the second loop. Initially I thought I would like the two loop set-up, but I actually found getting out of the water and back in to be a challenge, mostly because it triggered some cramping.
By the second loop the water was fairly choppy and the sun was directly in my eyes during the home stretch back to land. Surprisingly, I wasn’t cramping as much as I had in previous races (WIN!) and was able to maintain a steady pace during the entire swim. As soon as I heard the music roaring around me and exited the water, I felt a sense of joy. It’s over. The hard part is over! That was “high” moment #1 for me that day.
Swim Time: 1:26:08
As soon as I entered transition I made eye contact with two energetic wetsuit strippers and fell to the ground, having my wetsuit stripped from my body in seconds. I cramped a little while getting back up, but proceeded to grab my suit, thank the volunteers, pick up my bag, and head into the changing tent.
I can’t believe how different the Ironman transitions are compared to the shorter distance races. I felt like the volunteers were almost pampering me as they emptied my bag and helped me get organized. “Is this some sort of spa for triathletes,” I thought to myself.
I will say that having the tent, chairs, and volunteers almost worked against me because I got a little too comfortable. As soon as I sat down in the chair my calves started cramping and I took some time to work them out before exiting the tent. In the future, I might avoid sitting altogether and just blast through transition like I do during the shorter distance races.
T1 Time: 5:07
Ah, my happy place. As soon as I got on my bike it felt like all was right in the world. I immediately settled in and started chasing down the swimmers, picking them off one by one. It was hard not letting my adrenaline and excitement push me during the first 50 miles, and I really had to make an effort to stay within my designated power zones. Because this was my first “solo” 112-mile ride, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body and mind later in the race.
The bike course is two loops that starts in town, does a little out and back near the lake, and then exits away from town for a 40-mile out and back on the highway. This is where the climbing begins and wind starts to roar.
According to my Garmin there was roughly 5,700ft of climbing, which seemed more accurate than the noted 7,000ft on the Ironman website. The climbing was fairly gradual throughout the course and was never steep or overbearing. I love my hills, so I used them to my advantage.
My one frustration with the bike course at CdA was the no pass zone on the biggest downhill descent. I understand this is for the safety of the athletes, but it was discouraging getting stuck behind riders who were braking hard and going slow on the downhill. This is where I wanted to make up valuable time (fearless), not lose it. Oh, well.
After the first loop was complete I felt surprisingly good. I was nailing my nutrition and my power was staying within the range my coach and I had discussed. My stop at special needs was a success and I refueled with two bottles of Tailwind, a Snickers, and Lenny & Larry’s double chocolate cookie. On the second loop, the notorious Coeur d’Alene wind picked up hard (20mph +) and it was a battle from miles 70-90. This was the only time I struggled on the bike and it was more of a mental resistance than anything. It was incredibly defeating pedaling into a wall of wind, expending extra energy, and feeling as though you are going nowhere. Plus, these were the miles with the uphill climbing, so it was double trouble.
As soon as I reached the turnaround point at mile 90 I knew it was time to fly. And so I did – all the way back to Coeur d’Alene feeling strong and determined, ready to start the run. I had exited the water in 36th place in my age group, 220th female, and 928th overall. I came off of the bike and into T2 in 4th place in my age group, 21st female, and 217th overall. I passed over 700 people during the 112 miles on my bike and had the second fastest overall bike split among women (the woman who finished ahead of me only beat me by 24 seconds!). All of my hard work on the bike paid off. Not to mention, I have one of the best cycling coaches around.
Bike Time: 5:38:48
As I dismounted my bike and passed it to one of the volunteers, I began to think about the 26.2-mile journey ahead. I ran through transition, picked up my T2 bag, and headed back into the changing tent ready to get all geared up for the run. As I sat down in the chair (those dang chairs) to switch out my bike shoes for running shoes, the muscles in my legs started to twinge and cramp. No. No. No. I took a deep breath, swallowed a handful of endurolytes, and made my way to a porta-potty for a quick bathroom break. Once I was finished “readying” myself for the run, I made my way through the run out, shot my family a quick wave and smile, and settled in for the long voyage to the finish line.
T2 Time: 6:04
I’ll admit, I had a lot of confidence going into the run. Probably too much. Before triathlon, I had logged thousands of miles running various distances including eight marathons. Although I had never done a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112, I felt as though I could handle the grueling demands it would require to get me through a marathon under 3:45. Let’s just say the experience was humbling.
It took me about 2 miles to realize just how HARD the steps ahead would be. I started the run feeling strong, but the little aches and pains gradually started getting worse and I watched my 8min/mile pace slowly drop after each mile. I tried to take in calories and drink something other than water, but I could not stomach Gatorade and the Coke was too warm. I could NOT do warm in the heat of the day. I ended up eating four GUs throughout the run, taking in a mere 400 calories during the entire marathon. This only provided another learning experience of what I would do differently next time → eat MORE calories!!!
During the first lap I could feel the sun pounding away my energy. It was 91 degrees and hot. I questioned whether I would be able to handle the sun for 18 more miles, as my body grew more and more fatigued. During the second loop I noticed an eerie orange hue in the air. All of a sudden the sun’s impact was not penetrating my skin like it had the lap before. I turned my head and saw a huge plume of smoke from a forest fire rising from the distant hills and trees, covering the sun, casting shade onto the run course, and creating a bright orange ball in the sky.
I found myself getting choked up, nearly falling to tears as I instantly thought of my dad and felt his presence in a momentous way. See, my dad was an accomplished smoke jumper for many years before managing the fire cache (where they store, maintain, and deliver all the equipment necessary to fight forest fires) for the remainder of his career. He spent his life fighting forest fires. Watching the smoke rise in the distance and creating a shade from the sun made me feel as though in some weird way, my dad was sending me a message, watching over me, and providing much needed shade for me. That shade empowered me and dissolved any thoughts I had of walking.
Once I got to the half marathon point, I had been running for 1 hour and 50 minutes, my goal pace. But I knew that pace wasn’t sustainable for another 13 miles. The reality and harshness of the day began to set in and my mind started to wander. I questioned my ability to finish more than 100 times. I wanted to stop. I wanted to fall in front of my family and quit. I remember seeing my friends Kayla and Brandon out on the course and telling them how “stupid” this was. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?
Your mind plays games during those 26.2 miles. Ugly games. But there are beautiful moments as well. I witnessed kids of all ages cheering and smiling with looks of amazement on their faces. I watched volunteers pour their hearts into each and every athlete out there, making sure we were all taken care of and able to go on. Thousands of spectators lined the course and cheered for hours and hours as athletes wisped by in a matter of moments. I heard my name over and over and over again, and every time I did it gave me a little more fuel to take another step. And then the most beautiful, unforgettable moments – those of my family and coach – being there for me every step of the way. I could not have done it without them.
At some point late in the afternoon, I came upon a Y in the road for the third time, and for the first time, veered left on a path that would lead me to the finish. As soon as I entered the home stretch and saw the large finish chute in the distance, with the plume of smoke rising directly behind it, I felt a flood of emotion overtake my body. There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing “the end” and for some reason part of me did not want it to end. I wanted to live in that moment and breathe it all in – so I did. I looked around to find there was no one behind me, so I took my time, soaked up the cheers from the crowd, and celebrated with each step to the finish.
As I approached the chute I saw my husband taking pictures and capturing video (best Sherpa ever). I wanted to stop and give him a big kiss, but spared him the sweaty PDA moment and decided to wait until I saw him after.
Another familiar face quickly appeared along with an arm that was reaching out as far as it would stretch. It was my coach. As I reached out my arm and gave him a high five, the joy was too much and my eyes swelled up with tears.
And then, I heard those infamous words explode from the loud speaker. The words I had dreamed of since watching the world championship so many years ago. “Kristen Yax. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.”
I had run the marathon in a time of 3:56:36 and finished the race in 11:12:43.
What a moment…