You just have to spend a few minutes scrolling through the Ironman Coeur d’Alene Facebook page to know that the 2021 event was one of the toughest Ironman events that most athletes have ever done. With one of the highest DNF (“did not finish”) rates in all of Ironmans (26.7%), it was the oppressive heat on race day that did most athletes in. For me, looking at the predicted forecast in the days leading into the event, I knew the day was going to be incredibly tough. Just knowing that the level of suffering was going to be insanely high helped me manage expectations on race day. That, in addition to making a few changes to my race day nutrition plan the week before the race, were the 2 biggest factors that got me to the finish line. Luckily, I was one of the 73.3% that did make it to the finish line to make this my 8th full course triathlon finish (7 branded Ironmans + Challenge Roth).
My training into Ironman Coeur d’Alene was one of the best preparations I’ve ever had coming into a full. I felt more ready than ever to tackle this course, both mentally and physically. Some of that was my extra long “off-season” (aka- COVID) strength training program that started in summer 2019 and continued into spring of 2020, some of it was the new programming I followed from Dan Plews (loads more swimming and much more L2 training than ever before), but most of it was my new training partner.
For 10+ years, I’ve trained mostly alone. Of course I’ve participated in group training with my friends and fellow Tri club members and I’ve done a TON of training with Sean. But I’ve never really had someone who shares similar paces (let’s be clear that he is WAY faster than me running, but we’ve managed to swim and ride some key sessions together and push each other well) and the same goals as me. But this year, that changed. I’ve been pushed in great ways to get faster and in general be a smarter athlete because of this new friendship. I know this is incredibly hard to find, but when and if you ever find someone who can push you in positive and constructive ways like Matt Cressa has for me, cherish it. It will make you a better athlete.
Sean and I purchased a Ford Transit Van in fall 2019 with the intention of outfitting it for road travel (bed, kitchen, “garage” for all the gear, etc). When COVID hit in March 2020, that dramatically slowed down our progress on outfitting the van. But luckily (thanks to Sean for a few weeks of long hours spent on the van), it was done enough that I was able to take it on the road to get to Coeur d’Alene. Since the drive from Grass Valley to Coeur d’Alene is nearly 14 hours without stops, I decided to split it into 3 days. I drove from Grass Valley to Klammath Falls (5 hours) on Tuesday. I drove from Klammath Falls to Boardman, Oregon on Wednesday. And from Boardman to Coeur d’Alene on Thursday morning. This allowed me to still prioritize training and recovery while on the road. If I had it to do over again, I would do it exactly the same way.
I arrived in Cd’A on Thursday morning and was able to get checked into the race right away. I’m SO GLAD I was able to do that since they were assigning numbers based on a first come first serve basis. That meant, the earlier you completed athlete check in, the better your location in transition. I was assigned bib #204 which meant I was racked near the professional athletes and incredibly close to bike in/out. Prime location for sure.
That evening, I was able to get checked into the Air BnB we rented for the weekend which was just a few blocks from all the race action. We were 2 blocks from the main run loop, 2 blocks from the bike course and just 3/4 mile from the race finish. Everything was walking distance. The rest of our crew showed up Thursday evening as well (they flew into Spokane airport, which is just a 45 minute drive from Cd’A).
Both Friday and Saturday felt long. I was certainly ready to be racing. However, I never felt rushed the entire week which I’m grateful for. Having just 1 day to get checked in, do a gear check and settle in is too short for me. I loved being able to get into the NormaTech boots, walk around downtown a bit on Friday (so I could prioritize keeping my feet up on Saturday) and in general, relax. It also allowed ample time to paint toe nails and play games with fellow athletes and race supporters! :)
The age group race start was scheduled for 5:35am, so that meant a 3am wake up time for me. I naturally woke up without my alarm at 2:45am anxious to get going. After a small breakfast, we walked down to transition from the house and arrived around 4:10am. We had plenty of time to set everything up, use the restrooms, visit with our spectators and line up for the swim start.
I self seated in the 1:05-1:10 swim group. There was a very short warm up allowed, which I took since it was already very warm outside. Matt and I lined up together with a plan to start together, but each race our own race from that point forward. They had 2 lines of athletes and were releasing each line every 3-5 seconds. Matt went first, and I followed a few seconds behind. I was able to keep an eye on him until the second turn buoy and then I lost him.
This swim course is a 2 loop swim course where you have to exit on the beach between loops, then merge back into athletes starting their first loop. The first loop was a dream. I generally found clear water and was able to get some good pacing with other athletes around me (so great drafting and not a lot of swimming over/around folks). I finished the first loop in :34.01 which was about 2-3 minutes behind where I wanted to be, I was certainly not pushing the pace or trying to set any records with this swim. I knew the day was going to be long and I did not want to burn a single match on the swim.
The second loop was a $hit show. Merging into athletes whose swim paces were much different than mine was a nightmare. It required tons more sighting and lots of maneuvering around athletes whose paces were not matching up with mine. I finally found clearer water on the inside of the buoy line and took it which helped. Then I only had to get into the water polo style swim around the two turn buoys.
In the end, I finished the swim in 1:11.37 (about 4 minutes slower than my goal pace) and had the 13th fastest swim in my age group on the day. Although slower than hoped, I’m SUPER happy with my swim. I feel like I swam smart and conserved energy for the remainder of the event.
The bike is two loops of the 70.3 course (which I completed in 2016 and 2017). The course is certainly hilly, measuring a total of 5,400’ of elevation gain over 111.8 miles of road (according to my Garmin). At the start, the temps were in the mid 60’s F and felt comfortable. My frozen bottle of Skratch SuperFuel had already melted by the time I made it to T1 which just indicated to me that it was going to be a hot day. I felt good with my HR, RPE and power over the first loop. My goal was to get as much nutrition in as I could (within reason of course) while it was still cool so I didn’t wait long before starting to eat (see my notes on nutrition below for more details). I decided to go with 3 bike bottles for this race: 1 aero bottle that holds about 30 ounces of clean water, 1 bottle on my down-tube with 400 calories of Skratch SuperFuel and 1 more down-tube bottle with plain water. Unfortunately, this still wasn’t enough for me. Once the heat turned on at the start of the second lap, I ran out of water and overheated. I got dizzy, my vision was blurry and I felt like a drunk driver who required a ton of concentration to keep my bike moving in a straight line. Once I finally hit the next aid station I had to stop completely, putting both feet down next to a volunteer who just kept bringing me bottles of cold water. I doused my body with one, drank one, and reloaded my bike bottles with clean, cold water. Once I left that aid station, I felt like a new human. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long as my legs were just getting tired. My HR was staying low, but I wasn’t able to push power like I’d hoped to. In addition to losing strength, my bike shoes were KILLING me. In the days of training leading into this event, every time I rode at home in the heat, my feet would expand and create pain on the sides of my feet. I knew getting new bike shoes was needed, but I felt like it was too close to race day to make a change. That was a big mistake. Temperatures radiating off the pavement were around 135F and my feet obviously couldn’t handle my narrow shoes. I’m mad at myself for not changing these before, but new shoes are certainly on their way to me now!
In the end, I finished the bike in 6:39.12, a whopping 40 minutes slower than my goal pace and had the 24th fastest bike split in my age group on the day. Not what I had hoped. Hindsight is 20/20 so besides switching out my bike shoes, I also plan to change my fit slightly, change up my training (more threshold and VO2 max work), and execute my nutrition strategy better than I did here (see details below).
I think the picture above says it all. LOL! Loop 1 wasn’t bad. I felt the heat, but it wasn’t oppressive. I started cooling myself at the vest first aid station by taking a cold town and wrapping it around my neck. I also carried with me an empty ziplock bag and filled it with ice. I rotated it around by sticking it down my shirt, in the back of my jersey on my neck, and just held it in my hands. This helped me feel cool without getting my shoes soaking wet.
By lap two, I felt pretty hot. I was stopping at every aid station to refresh my baggy of ice, rewet my towel and at the aid station around mile 13, refill my hydration pack with ice. At this point, I started feeling quite nauseous. With the temperatures in the low 100’s, I knew it was likely going to happen, it was just a matter of time. I feel pretty lucky to have had it start so late in the marathon. At that point, all nutrition stopped. Even water was making me feel nauseous. The only thing I could do at that point was suck on ice, so that’s what I did. My energy dropped, but every time I felt a surge of nausea pop up, I kept telling myself “yes, but you're not actually throwing up, so keep running.” That wasn't the case for most athletes. So many athletes were becoming sick and using trash cans and bushes to expel their nutrition. Gross. By lap 3, it seemed like everyone was walking. In the past, my chimp brain would have thrown a tantrum that everyone else was walking and that would’ve been permission for me to walk too. But not this race. I actually felt really lucky to be well fat-adapted and be comfortable racing on little to no nutrition by the end. Although I felt terrible, I wasn’t actually throwing up and nothing on my body was hurting so badly that I couldn’t run. I did however question my gut. I wasn’t totally confident I wasn’t going to have to make an ER stop at a porta potty, so I pulled my race kit down just in case. Disaster averted though. Phew! I managed through the entire marathon to keep a slow run from aid station to aid station and walked nearly all the aid stations to manage my body temperature. I look back on the run now and wonder if I could’ve skipped a few aid stations here or there, but in the end, I finished feeling strong (EXHAUSTED and completely out of energy, but strong in the body). That feels like a HUGE step in the right direction for me both physically and mentally.
In the end, I finished the marathon in 4:24.35, 25 minutes slower than my goal pace and had the 13th fastest run in my age group on the day. I’m happy with my run performance.
With high temps being predicted on race day, about 1 week before the event, I changed up my nutrition plan. I still used all foods I had tried prior in training, but removed all solids (except in transition).
PRE-RACE DINNER was my usual: grilled chicken thigh and sweet potato with butter. No veggies. No alcohol. And sadly, no chocolate.
PRE-RACE BREAKFAST was 2 pieces of gluten free cinnamon raisin bread with butter and an iced coffee with coconut milk and 1 scoop of Vital Proteins Lactose-free Protein Powder.
PRE-SWIM (about 1 hour before race start) I sipped on 1 serving of Skratch hydration mix.
IN T1 I ate ½ almond butter and jam sandwich on gluten free white bread. I did this because I know myself. I’m not the type of athlete who is going to feel full and/or satiated on liquids alone. I need to chew. This seemed like a safe place to put this for me and I feel like it was. I was hungry when I got out of the swim and was REALLLLY looking forward to this. :)
In T1, I also took 500mg of tylenol. I did this to help keep my core body temps down throughout the day.
ON THE BIKE my plan was to take on 60g of CHO per hour for as long as I could tolerate it. To my surprise, I actually felt really stable in the gut and was able to easily get this down for the first lap. I took 1x 180cal Spring Gel + a few sips of the Superfuel + a few Skratch chews + 600mg of salt + 1g BCAA every hour (slowly dripped in). To my surprise, by the time I started lap 2 and did the math on how many calories I had left on my bike, I realized I was very short! I stopped at my special needs bag to refill my pockets only to find that I didn’t add anything to my bag except for an extra tube and 2 single serving packets of Skratch! ROOKIE MOVE!!! So lap 2 not only did I deal with some overheating/dehydration issues, I also was lower in caloric intake than I know I should’ve been. See...even nutritionists make nutrition mistakes (I’m not proud...but I am human).
4 hours into the bike, I took another 500mg of tylenol.
IN T2, I ate the other ½ of my almond butter and jam sandwich and walked (feeling a bit sorry for myself to be honest) out of transition.
ON THE RUN my plan was to take 1 Spring gel every segment of the course (basically 3 out and back sections which means I was planning 6x gels for the whole marathon) + coke at various aid stations. The first gel took about 4 miles to get down, but it did go down. After that, coke was all I could manage until mile 13 when I switched solely to ice. I did take a few Otter Pops from a pop-up aid station near the turnaround and those were great for the first 2 laps. I managed to get my last 500mg tylenol down about 2 hours into the run along with a few salt tablets at the beginning.
I really don’t think there is anything I could’ve done differently here with nutrition. The high temperatures were wreaking havoc on everyone's gut and honestly, this is a fat-adapted athlete's time to shine. I’ve done SOOOO MANY fasted workouts and I know I can survive 13 miles without food pretty easily. It won’t feel great, but it’s better than a DNF!
POST RACE I felt pretty awful. I was nauseous and exhausted and for the first time that I can recall after a full Ironman, I went straight to bed. Sleeping it off felt like the right thing to do and the next day, I felt so much better!
Final Race Thoughts...
This race was generally awesome. Mostly because, as usual, the support we all received was top notch. Not just from the town of Coeur d'Alene itself which is exceptional, but from all the support that came from my hometown! 3 athletes (Matt, Todd and I) came with 13 additional support crew. Honestly, the yelling, water squirting, cow belling, high fiving and just non-stop support from them is what keeps me going on race day and beyond. They can never be replace. It really does take a village!
Overall, I feel really happy with my swim and especially happy with my mental toughness on the run. I made a few mistakes on the bike in addition to not being in as good of bike shape as I should've been heading into this event. All things that are 100% in my control to fix for next time (Ironman California in October).
Due to COVID (I hate hearing that saying!!!), there were 200 (yes, you read that right...TWO HUNDRED) slots to Kona for the 2021 World Championship. I personally had 12 slots in my age group and I felt confidant that if I could string together a good day, my chances would be high to earn one of those slots. Unfortunately, my final time of 12:25.59 was only enough to put me in 16th place and the Kona slots rolled to 14th in my age group. Close, but not quite enough. I know there are things that are within my control to change for the next race, but I'm also really sad that despite some pretty great improvements both swimming and running, it feels like Kona is getting further and further out of reach. That won't stop my from continuing to try to improve in all areas of the sport and keep pushing on to better myself and those around me in the process. If I'm meant to go to Kona, I know someday it will happen.
Post Race R&R!
One of the reason I race triathlon is to see new places. After this race, Sean and I took the van into Yellowstone for a few days of camping. Without wifi or cell coverage for 3 days, I was forces to chill out and was left without a way to agonize over my times and results in Cd'A. I highly recommend it! ;)
I've already got myself registered for Cd'A 70.3 in 2022. This venue just never disappoints. The neighborhoods, the scenery and the course are some things that will never get old!
See you again in 2022 Cd'A!
Tiana Rockwell is a certified nutritional therapist, avid endurance athlete and dark chocolate lover. She believes that by eating REAL food, we can balance our body and reach optimal health and wellness!