What a day! Ironman Coeur d’Alene has been on my bucket list for a long time. I love mountains, pine trees, and lakes bordered by pine trees which pretty much sums up IM CdA. I did the 70.3 in 2018 and I was ecstatic when they put the full distance back on the circuit. My last Ironman was IMAZ 2019 and this is my 3rd Ironman. So while I understand the distance, in many ways it feels like I am a totally different athlete taking on a new challenge.
Once I realized that we were actually going to race again, I was super excited about IM CdA and thought I could have a really good performance there. After 70.3 St George (race report), I was pretty deflated and didn't think I had a run in me that would be good enough to really do well. In the two IMs I have completed, I have yet to execute the run. I have bonked on both and slowed down considerably to a hunched over shuffle by the end. I have been working on it, but I feared I still didn't have the run legs after StG. Even when they announced there were 150 spots to Kona (more on that later) I didn't think I had a chance.
Since we knew my bike was strong and my swim was good enough, my coach Marilyn Chychota and I turned our focus to running. I had a pretty decent 15 miler after StG but the following week I crushed my18 mile run and all of the sudden I realized that perhaps my run legs had just been hiding for the last few months. You know that feeling when you are running and you are seeing new pace/HR combos and decide to push it a little more and you actually have more? That sums up almost all my long runs leading into IM CdA. I was pretty stoked. Marilyn made it a point to tell me that I am “never EVER allowed to count myself out of a race before a race.” Point taken.
My family and I moved up to Flagstaff for the summer so I had 3.5 weeks training at 7k elevation. Excellent timing for IM prep. The downside to elevation is that it throws a wrench into all your numbers and basically you have to set a new baseline. Recovery can also be tricky and fueling needs change. This is my 4th summer training at altitude and I know what to expect, but I still had a few really hard long rides made worse by not adding in more carbs to my general diet. Going into IM CdA I felt really strong but I wasn't really sure where my numbers would land.
In the end, numbers didn't mean a damn thing. It was 100+ degrees on race day! What?!! I don't know you if you know this, but 100 degrees is really really REALLY hot to race 140.6 miles in. It took awhile to wrap my head around it. All of the sudden my sub 8:30 paces for long runs meant nothing. I live in Phoenix, I know heat. I knew exactly the kind of suffering that was going to happen on that course. It was going to be a war of attrition. And an ugly war at that. My watts and paces in training didn't mean anything. What was going to matter was managing effort, nutrition/hydration success, being smart and when the time comes at mile 20, having the mental grit to keep going.
Leading up to the race, I got in my head. "150 spots to Kona… just dont fuck up…" was pretty much on repeat. For anyone that doesn't know, Kona is the IM World Championship. It takes place in Kona, HI. Kona is the shorthand. If you have ever seen a triathlon on TV it was likely this race. It is the triathlon of all triathlons. The race that people kill themselves trying to qualify for so they can spend a crazy amount of money to race against the best in one of the harshest environments in the world. Triathletes are weird like that. I remember watching in awe as a kid. I distinctly remember the 1997 IM World Championship when Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham crawled to the finish line. I thought that it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen and I wondered if I could ever do something like that. The obvious answer was no, never. I was a terrible athlete as a kid. Like picked last in gym class bad. How could I do something like that? And yet, the curiosity always remained. The dream of Kona was sparked watching that race. It came alive full force when I started triathlons. I wondered if I could dare dream of such a crazy goal. For my age group (35-39) you typically need to be top 1 or 2 in an IM race to get a spot. Kona is for the best of the best. Could I achieve that one day? I remember joking to Marilyn about 5 months into triathlons that my goal was Kona by age 50. She said, “you don't need that long, you are going to surprise yourself.” That floored me. I didn't even really think it was possible. I was just making a joke. The spark that was lit as a kid was a full fire now.
150 spots to Kona is a once in a lifetime opportunity (usually there are just 40 available at every race). Or so I thought, 2 days before the race it became 200. With shut borders and Covid travel restrictions, races are limited and some athletes cannot travel. So the spots are allocated to remaining races. 200 slots, now I really felt the pressure. I can get one, I should get one if I do what I am capable of. My dream is SO CLOSE!! All that stands in the way is a brutally hot day, hard course and my brain trying to tell me I can't.
The training hay was in the barn, so I spent the days leading up to the race tackling my brain. It went something like this:
Did I over bike StG? Yes. Did I learn my lesson? Yes!
Is it going to be a hot day? Yes. Can I change it? No! Ok then let it go.
Am I afraid of messing up? Yes! Have I done everything in my power to control what I can leading up to the race set myself up for success? Yes! Then let it go and trust.
Do I have an amazing coach that is a former IM pro and won IM Malaysia and competed in Kona like10 times and can clearly race in the heat? Yes! Then for god sakes just do what she says!
Whew. It was a lot of mental talk, but it worked and by race morning I was ready to go.
Coeur d’Alene is hands down the best IM venue. The town is adorable and so happy to have us there! I took my daughter Azella so she could see me race and my stepdaughter Elaine and her partner Mikayla came in from Washington for a girls weekend. We had an amazing cabin at Hayden Lake which I highly suggest. It's a bit of a drive depending on where you stay, but the lake is insanely beautiful and quiet.
Azella did the .5 mile IronKids race, which was so awesome. She was so proud. I taught her about negative splitting and she nailed it!
I had a massive bike scare. After putting together my bike post-flight, the Di2 wasn't engaging the front derailleur. I am generally pretty handy when it comes to bikes so I tried everything I could think of and at least 10 youtube videos trying to figure it out. I eventually gave up and took it to Playtri the next morning in the Ironman Village. The guy fixed it in about 10 secs ;) I had pressed some combo of button taps on the junction box and put it into a setting that I couldn't get it out of. Unfortunately, he refused to tell me what I did so I have no idea how to fix it in the future. I supposed its a smart business move on his part.
I really focused on hydration and fueling leading into the race. For electrolytes I drank The Right Stuff + Skratch all day the 2 days before the race. Per usual I ate all the carbs and cut out fruit (except for bananas) and veggies 3 days before.
Bike check in was a breeze and I was personally very happy about the traditional transition set up. Why? Easy pee breaks while changing. Triathletes are also very gross.
Race mantra: Steady, Smart, Manage, SHINE
Hello 2am! That came fast. With the 100 degrees temps, they made a very wise choice to start at 5am pros, 5:35 age groupers. But good god 2am is early. Drove to the race, unpacked all my shit, swim cords, wetsuit and it was basically go time. I typically do a running warm up, but I wanted to stay as cool as possible. I sipped on ice water and stayed loose but cool.
The atmosphere was both electric and full of tension and nerves. More tension and nerves than usual. You could tell people were concerned about the heat. Rightfully so. It is one thing to do 140.6 miles and all the problems and complications you have to face with that adventure, but to do it in 100 degrees, I think we all knew we were stepping into the unknown on this one.
This is slow for me, but this is a notoriously slow swim with chop so I think overall pretty close to on target. Perfect water. 70 degrees and totally clear. I started in the sub 60 mins. And yes, I am aware that I was in no way going to sub 60. But I wanted as much cool weather as I could get and all the fast feet. And feet I found! I had feet the whole way. I have never been able to follow feet for the whole race and I was stoked! Whoever I followed was bang on for navigation. I kept hitting my head on the buoys. At one point on lap 2 when it got crowded with swimmers just entering the water, I looked up and saw hundreds of people ahead and I decided to stop looking and just follow feet. Somehow my swim buddy navigated us without touching another swimmer. Whoever you are, thanks for the pull and sorry I grabbed your feet so many times. I had a dead straight swim and for the second time ever, I did not swim over in yardage. Bonus, I did like zero work on the swim thanks to the draft from my swim buddy.
Wetsuit off, pee while putting on shoes, confirm with other athletes swim was about 2 mins slow, grab gear and go!
Plan was STEADY and CHECK EGO! I do have an ego on the bike. I do not like to be out biked and I can easily use matches when it doesn't matter. My focus was nutrition/hydration staying within my target watts and being smart. This is WAY less fun than going bananas, but Kona is on the line.
It is a two loop course and I went a bit harder the first loop since it was cooler. The second loop got hot and it got REALLY hot around mile 80 (my Garmin recorded 104) in a big open farm space. I took water at every station and poured the whole bottle over me and then another one to keep in my cages and I tossed the old warm bottle. I ditched my aero helmet for my road helmet. This was key in keeping cool. I have the Kask Protone which has tons of vents and is pretty aero. I had to laugh watching athletes trying to get water into the tiny aero helmet vents. Staying cool was the name of the game and losing a few watts was worth the cold water on the head.
Overall I did what I needed to do. I checked my ego (mostly), executed my hydration and nutrition plan and stayed as cool as possible. I think the bike is where being from Phoenix gave me the most advantage. It is impossible to avoid riding in 100s training for a June IM. I know exactly what my GI can handle and what my body needs to perform on a hot day.
Skratch Superfuel - 3 bottles
The Right Stuff (high sodium concentrate) - 1.5 packets
Cliff Bloks (4-5, lost count at some point)
Skratch Chews (2 packets)
Water - so much
Pee break in grass, gear on, cold water from cooler (hell yeah I brought a cooler!), frozen Skratch Hydration + The Right Stuff combo hand held bottle in pockets and off I went.
I dropped my chapstick like 10 ft into the run and decided to not waste the 4 seconds to get them. Was that stupid. My lips were so chapped by the end I was dying. If I had found chapstick on the ground I 100% would have used it.
I started at a really conservative pace - 9:30s and it felt easy but also I could really feel the heat and sun. When I saw a good chunk of the pro field walking, it confirmed that extremely conservative was the right choice and this was about as fast as I was going to go.
First loop of the 3 loop course felt great! At the start of the second loop I saw Azella, Elaine and Mikayla. God it felt so good to see them! Automatic boost in my step! They told me I was in 9th and 10th was 5 min behind. Hmm. I guessed there were 8 Kona spots (I later learned it was actually on the app the whole time!!) and I know Kristen Yax (who is crazy fast and had a killer race) already had a spot, so 9th would do it. 10th? 10th was on the bubble. I didn't want to be on the bubble. With no ages on legs or bib numbers by age groups it was impossible to tell who I was racing against. So I focused on me and kept my pace and stayed on top of hydration and nutrition.
By mile 14 I could feel my toenail start to come off. Ouch and gross. Bad things happen when you are wet for basically the whole race. I looked down and said “I hear you are in pain, I cant do anything at the moment, but I promise I will take care of you later” shockingly the pain went away. I also looked fucking insane talking to my foot, but whatever it takes. By this point so many people were walking. A woman passed out in front of me, people were balled up on the side of the road in cramps, people were vomiting. Like many many people. It was over 100 degrees and it was really taking its toll. We later learned it was 27% DNF (did not finish) rate the highest in IM history. By comparison, the average rate is 5%. But me? I felt great! I was able to stick with a SiS gel every 3 miles and water at every aid station + ice in my hat, bra, kit basically everywhere. At one point I was like "bring it Idaho! I am from Arizona, this isnt hot!" Of course if you race IM you know that was a high point which was quickly followed by many many low points.
At the start of lap 3 I learned 10th place was 2 mins back, so she was going to catch me. I didn't know where 11th was and I thought 11th might take me out of Kona. I decided to walk every aid station and really make sure I cooled off and got in nutrition. If I get run down by running steady, so be it. But if I lose Kona because I blew up I was going to be pissed. That was my fear the whole time, losing Kona over bad decision making. So remembering my race mantra (Steady, Smart, Manage, SHINE) I did what I thought was the smartest and most patient choice. Every aid station I walked and took water/gatorade/coke to drink + water and ice all over. This is a huge amount of liquids, probably 12-15 oz all at once. I think the only reason I could tolerate it is because I was running so slow and on my long runs, I started taking about 14oz of hydration/nutrition in between 5 mile intervals. I did it out of logistics, but it also trained my gut in the process.
After mile 20 everything really started to hurt. My “I hear you and I will fix you in the end” mind game totally failed when literally every muscle and bone in body was screaming “OH MY GOD can we please stop!! This is insane! Why are we doing this?! Look that person is walking. Wait everyone is walking, why the fuck are we still running! STOP!!!!!” My pace slowed some and HR dropped a bit. As I hit the turn around at mile 23 and saw 11:00 mile/pace I said out loud “no! You are not going down like this!” and picked it up. I never realized my IM crazy was talking to myself out loud, but I guess we all have our own crazy at that point. It wasn't much, but I got my HR back up and my legs moving faster. After that I was just hanging on until the end. I was full on animal grunts when I turned to the finish line.
When I turned down Sherman Avenue and ran towards the finish line, I had the street almost to myself and it was magical. I saw Azella, Elaine and Mikayla screaming for me, and I ran with everything I had and soaked in Mike Reilly saying “Jennifer, you are an Ironman”. I had no idea my overall time or even my run time. So I was surprised and elated when the screen displayed 11:35:37. My second best IM and my second best IM run. I grabbed Azella with a big hug and walked right into the lake to cool off. OMG it was so hot! I don't even think I realized how hot it was until I stopped. I was pretty out of it and almost threw up on the way home. But I held it together and after some burgers, beers and hot tub I felt much better.
16oz Skratch hydration + The Right Stuff
Sis Gel every 3 miles (roughly 2/ hour) until mile 20
Water every aid station
After Mile 14 gatorade every aid station
After mile 16 coke every aid station
When I finished I knew I was in 10th, but I wasn't sure about Kona. Later that night I saw that there were 9 spots for my age group (thank you for telling me Mandi) and since I knew one would roll, I was in! OMG OMG, I am going to Kona. I ran into the room to hug Azella, Elaine and Mikayla. They were all a part of this crazy journey and it was awesome to celebrate with them!
The next morning I went to the slot allocation and accepted my spot to Kona. It still feels like a dream. A few people have said to me “dreams do come true.” They do, but with a lot of hard fucking work! Now, this was the easiest it has ever been to get to Kona. Barring future pandemics, a once in a lifetime shot. But I showed up on a hard day to take advantage of it. I squeezed out every ounce of fitness and mental grit to stay strong and steady and it paid off. Next time, I am going to have to be on top of the podium. But for right now, I qualified for Kona and Azella was there for it and that is what matters to me.
I am really proud of this race. I knew that if I could stick to my race mantra of being steady, smart, and manage, I would shine. I am not the fastest athlete, but I am one of the grittiest. IM CdA was a race for the gritty. I 100% nailed my nutrition. On a super hot day I took in the most calories on the bike and run that I ever have and for the first time didn't bonk on an IM run. I finally executed an IM run. I did slow down, but started at 9:30 and ended with a 9:42 average pace. For 26.2 miles in 100+ degrees I killed it. I slowed down the least of any of my IM runs and by comparison to many other athletes I stayed the most consistent. I was calm and focused and made smart decisions. And when shit got real, like it always does (I will spare you from post-race toe photos),I moved forward with grit and strength. The night before the race, my husband Jaime told me to "show up and do the best version of Jennifer." That is exactly what I did. I showed up mentally and physically, ready for all the unknowns of the day and I was the best version of Jennifer.
The result? Azella got to see her Mama put her mind and hours (and hours and hours) of effort into a dream and achieve it. She saw the pain and suffering I was in and she saw that I never ever stopped. And I got my Kona slot. That 13 year girl who watched some of the most bad ass women in sport history battle on their fallen arms and legs can finally know that she CAN do it. She will race that same course against the best of the best in the harshest elements. She is capable. She is an athlete. She has the grit, resilience, and strength it takes to cross that same finish line (let's hope on 2 feet).
Before I hit the big island, it's time for another Pura Vida Cycling Challenge! Headed back to Costa Rica for 5 days of epic riding in September with an amazing group of cyclists. Then it's Kona baby! Time to rest, recover, then jump into another block of training. Kona is just 14 weeks away. Yes, "holy shit I am going to do this all over again in 14 weeks" was my first thought the next morning. It also happens to be on my 38th Birthday. Not sure there is a better way to ring in 38.