June 29, 2003
Ironman Coeur d’ Alene
Coeur d’ Alene
One of my triathlon objectives still needed to be accomplished, to be an Ironman triathlete. Being a triathlete/parent/business person/professional/ requires doing important things that are uncomfortable. I could have stopped after the Ironman Utah since I did the training for a full Ironman. I could have rationalized the decision. A coach could be found for concurrence. I didn’t seek one out though. I didn’t let bad managers hold me back at work. Poor bosses don’t always have your best interest in mind, nor parents for kids, nor coaches for sports or other development activities. I sought to understand the fine lines of controlling people and thriving in opportunities to reach my own defined achievements.
A year earlier, in my first attempt of completing an Ironman triathlon, my greeting at the finish line from the official Ironman announcer, Mike Reilly, did not say, “Doug Morris you are an Ironman”. Which to a triathlete holds its own compared to “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” “Congratulations you are a proud parent to a healthy baby,” and “Your cancer test results are negative”. Once hearing my name with these words: “You are an Ironman”, at the finish line I would come of age as a triathlete and enjoy eternal fulfillment.
Mike Reilly is the vocals front man for Ironman racing. His commanding voice confirms what every competitor wants to hear after 140.6 miles of racing. The racers’ energy is spent. Mike is the first guy who deposits some energy back into a triathlete’s mind and he does so with great enthusiasm. Mike looks like anyone’s sport loving neighbor with his fit-in height, weight, looks, and appropriate wardrobe. He owns the most powerful voice at the Ironman races. Since 1989 he has continually announced newly christened Ironman competitors as they morph from premier endurance athletes on the run up to the finish line to staggering, sobbing, and smiling grown-ups just beyond the Ironman Finishers’ Arch.
Unlike Ironman Utah, the training commitment for Ironman Coeur d’Alene (CDA) didn’t consume my life, only training time. Still, I was motivated, damn motivated to earn Ironman status. After all the mental effort of thinking about Ironman Utah from sign-up to race day, Ironman CDA flowed through my mind like just another triathlon; still, a painfully long triathlon. My results in Utah made for a much more confident race approach one year later at Coeur d’Alene. And I was still hungry to succeed in finishing an Ironman triathlon.
Becoming an ironman required following a process. Workouts, part of the process. Motivation to complete the workouts and compete in the race, parts of the process. Swim workouts with a Master’s group, competing against others, and support family; all parts of the process. Physically and mentally challenging my body, were more components of the process. That is the outcome learned at Provo. The outcome cannot be controlled. I learned that at Provo. I control only the parts of the process and the attitude adopted during the process.
The kids were a piece of the training process early on with family based training on the bike and run before moving up to the mega miles of training. Some parents of special needs kids them away from the public eye and public participation. We wanted our kids in the public so they would grow up understanding they belonged in the public view as peers, not as special needs people and definitely not behind the scenes. Hayes and Caroline logged hundreds of training miles in the Burley Trailer in 2003. Over the years sometimes they were both in the Burley, side-by-side. As they grew taller, one would get the front seat to watch the landscape unfold in front of them and the other sat in the trunk, or cargo hold located behind the seat, and watch me smile at them. Sometimes the Burley was in front being pushed on the run. At other times the trailer was pulled behind me on the bike. In 2003, with Hayes at age 11 and Caroline at age 9, either one joined me almost always as a solo rider. We wore out the wheel bearings by summer end. Of all the miles covered in training, those with the girls were always the most enjoyable.
The physical training for Ironman Coeur d’Alene tracked a similar seasonal path as Ironman Utah the year before. Again, I followed the project’s goals set for Ironman Utah, and now CDA. I needed to finish a full Ironman and be identified as an Ironman by legendary announcer, Mike Reilly. The project’s scope included training in all three disciplines. I followed last year’s training template though added an extra swim day when possible and a mid-week, early morning 50-60 mile bike ride from the Arizona State University campus to Fountain Hills and back, to get some bike climbing in. Also added specific weight lifting exercises for arms, back, stomach, and legs. During the project timeline my training increased, plateaued, and tapered. I did five races while ramping up training prior to Ironman CDA to gain some speed, build endurance, engage in actual pre-race mental preparation, and gain experience of coping with race day anxieties. I walked the talk of working the training plan of 13 weeks to Ironman.
Early on in the journey doing triathlons became an addiction. Growing up we learned smoking cigarettes was addictive too. Urban legend stated for every cigarette smoked your life’s expectancy would decrease by seven minutes, the average time to smoke a cigarette. Doing the math, a single daily pack addiction of smoking took 2 1/3 hours out of your life each day (7 minutes x 20 cigarettes in a pack = 140 minutes / 60 minutes ~ 2 1/3 hours). I was training an equivalent of one pack a day and doubled that on weekends. Smoking or training took weeks of time away doing other things. I did enjoy the trade-off, as do most smokers but that is from two confirmed addiction groups.
Triathlete age groupers feel attracted to the motivational spirit to accomplish what was once thought to be unachievable and repulsed by fear of failure in races. Many of us find jobs with similar characteristics. We need a steady and relatively high paying job to afford our hobby, compulsion, and addiction called triathlons.
To prevent withdrawal symptoms on May 8th, I woke up 3am and went for a two-hour long run with wind gusts up to 25 mile per hour, showered, jumped in my car, drove 30 minutes to the airport, caught a 7:00am flight to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California for a strategy building meeting and returned home late that night. Yes, triathloning is an insane sport, with insane participants. Work careers can be insane too, especially ones for people with insane international aspirations.
I like to travel and wanted to see the US and the world. As a kid, wanted to be an astronaut to travel outside this world too. By 2003, I had traveled thousands of miles to hundreds of locations for personal and work covering 48 of the 50 states and single trip to Europe. My employer acquired a competitor with international operations. After getting buy-in with the family, I put my name in the hat for consideration of an international expat position. That was in September 2002. Now eight months later in early May, the international assignment possibility became more of an opportunity. Both my workouts and work demands were peaking in distance and time.
The Managing Director of my employer for Thailand was in the States for an unexpected family visit. My first and only interview with him would be at lunch in Texas. I flew in and out of San Antonio the same day. This was the day after my insane one day flight to Southern California. Because of my addiction, compulsion, and determination to be ready for my first Ironman, insanely I woke up at 2am on Friday, May 9th. Did a run workout of four miles and jumped in our 12 meter long backyard pool. I swam, doing flip turns, for an hour, showered, jumped in my car, drove 30 minutes to the airport, caught a 6am flight to Texas to meet the interviewer, my potential new boss. Neither of us knew each other. We had never talked to each other or traded e-mails before. If there was such a thing of a blind date interview, this was it.
The interview went well. Our conversation covered specific areas needed to make decisions about him offering me a position, and me accepting, if given an offer. Areas covered included job responsibilities and lots of questions and answers in both direction between the two of us with short stories serving as examples, antidotes, and entertaining dialog. He did a great job of setting expectations for both work and life there. Thailand earns a great deal of tourists’ monies from its sex business. One in three Thai prostitutes have a sexual diseases. Half the expats from all countries come to Thailand and screw around on their spouses. Half of the cheaters end in divorce. Any expat from our company found cheating on their spouse will be fired and sent home. He told me the good and bad things of living in Bangkok, taking an ex-pat assignment, and leaving the US for two-four years. I was definitely interested in the position and he held most of the decision cards on my career’s next step to be considered for an international assignment.
The following week was just as busy for work and training. On Wednesday, up early for a run and Master’s swim practice with a late work dinner scheduled. At dinner, unplanned, sat between two people who influenced an offer decision on the international assignment. Dinner went late and next morning came early. Still put in a five mile run followed by a 17 mile bike ride to work before 7am. Worked on little sleep and little rest. For the bike ride home after work my balance was off when trying to stop at a traffic light. I didn’t clip out smoothly and ended up jamming my big chain ring down into the inside flesh of my upper right calf. The wound, a slice below the skin and above the muscle, exposed the fibers as seen in a textbook from college Biology101. Kind of cool and gross at the same time. It helped being exhausted when making this self-assessment. There was no gushing of blood, minimal pain, and skin was still attached. I could call an ambulance with EMT’s and wait for them to arrive. Or get a car ride with a willing witness to the hospital but risk bleeding all over the inside of their car and I would need to return to get the bike. Or simply re-mount the bike and ride to the clinic five miles away and on the way home. I went with Option #3.
At check-in the clinic receptionist did not believe the serious nature of the wound based on my relaxed demeanor and delivery of the description. Her face went pale when peering over the check-in desk and seeing exposed muscle fibers first hand. She quickly ushered me behind closed doors to leave the more squeamish people remaining in the waiting room. After cleansing the wound, sewing in nine stitches, and covering the skin with a bandage the doctor released me. I pedaled the remaining seven miles home. I still have a cool “M” shaped scar one inch by one inch that serves as a reminder to get more rest and to release out of pedals quicker while approaching a stop sign.
More often than not, I did get seven hours of sleep a night. In the Phoenix desert I drank lots of water in the evening to get rehydrated from the day’s training. This resulted in a need to get out of bed in the middle of the night to relieve my bladder. On these excursions I first experienced the “Ironman Shuffle”. Not on the marathon run leg of an actual race but on those leg stiff jaunts between the bed and the head. The legs were stiff from all the bike and run training strain on the legs. Once returning to bed I was relieved for a second time when looking at the clock and seeing the time of 2:00 am, knowing I could sleep three more hours. Every night became a drink and repeat event until tapering, when the shuffle went into recession.
In late June the race day opportunity came due. Payment included all the months of storing spiritual energy provided by support from family, combined with gained physical and mental strength developed as an individual during training. I flew to Spokane, picked up a rental car and drove 45 minutes to Coeur d’Alene. Checked in at race registration located in a large tent along the shores of Coeur d’Alene Lake. Decades earlier across the American landscape traveling preachers would set-up tents and host hundreds to thousands of followers who would come, rejoice, and pay to participate in the celebration of an event. Now in the 21st century, Race Directors set up tents around the country for modern day triathlete cults to attend and pay money to rejoice in races and embrace their inter-spirits with Ironman events being near the pinnacle of the pecking order!
Before leaving home, Hayes and Caroline, gave me a crayon drawing wishing me good luck for the race. These were the first things put up in the hotel room upon check-in. The drawings were also the first things put on the dresser when returning home.
The pre-race bike set up went well. No blown tubes. No sheared bolts. The handlebar labels with coaching tactics and a motivational goal to be a Kona qualifier were still cleanly attached a year later: “Eat”, “Drink”, “Breathe”, “Relax”, “Laugh”, and “Palm Trees Ahead”.
That night I met up with Wade Grow again at the pre-race dinner two nights before race day. However, instead of sharing a room, he stayed with his parents who retired there. Wade raced in Coeur d’Alene many times before including the USA National Age Groups Championships held there the previous summer. He knew the course, the climate, and many of the competitors. To me, Coeur d’Alene was a place our family wanted to visit while living in Seattle seven years earlier; we just never made the trip there since the kids were too young to appreciate its beauty.
Racers are generally easy to spot around town. Most triathletes wear shirts from previous races around the race site, at restaurants, and walking around downtown. The higher the status race, the more often a shirt gets worn. An Olympic distance race t-shirt trumps a sprint distance shirt. A half-Ironman distant shirt trumps Olympic distance. Ironman races trumps a half. A shirt from a current year race trumps last year’s old news. Wearing the shirt from the current year’s race before it has been contested was perceived as a questionable decision. Hawaii Ironman clothing is the tuxedo of a triathlete’s wardrobe. An informal game exists amongst a small group of triathletes based of apparel sightings during race week. Points are earned by spotting different types race related clothing. I usually yielded zero scoring when walking around in shorts, a short sleeve button shirt with a non-business casual design, and either sandals or retired running shoes.
Other triathletes wear their workout clothes because a small minority of them never stop working out. If not swimming, biking, or running, triathletes go through a long transition process in workout clothes. A fair amount of triathletes were showing off their shaved legs. Some just show a determined face, with minimal smiling, a serious look will silently signal for others to steer clear of small talk or any type of verbal engagement. Others, with or without these markers, just look fit and by default were considered triathletes.
When in town with a big race to occur, all of the above appear as bright dots of competition on each other’s triathletes’ radars. That’s what happened when I converged at the exit of McDonald’s with two other diners. The other guy and I each gave the other an evil eye look while sizing each other up as competition for the next day’s race. His wife quickly picked up on the silent exchange and spoke to break the tension asking what she already knew, “Are you racing tomorrow?”
“Yes. Are both you racing?”
She said her husband John was competing and asked if I had a chance to qualify for Kona. Standing on my performance from last year in Utah, I answered “Yes, if I had a great race,” and continued in the exchange to ask, both out of courtesy and curiosity, if John could qualify. She responded by saying if John had a great race he would go to Hawaii. Coming to an equal and agreeable stand-off, we all parted to rest up for tomorrow’s race.
The hardest thing prior to a race was resting. I never worked so hard to do nothing but rest. Transition bags were packed. I’m not hungry because I’m burning fewer calories in a day than in an off-season workout done out of boredom to avoid shoveling snow. Lunch time comes and the stomach was still full of hotcakes. I walked next door and stuffed down some protein and rice at the Chinese buffet and walked to the hotel room to do more of nothing but rest. I read, The Necessity of Empty Places. It helped me realize the need for the hotel room, and not to leave it empty only to go outside and get tired by doing something that would be detrimental to a race performance.
My sister shared an observation one time that American’s generally have an engrained nationality trait to be doing something: work, workout, play, study, talk, etc. Even fishing was acceptable for people to do something while doing nothing.
Late afternoon I left the hotel and racked the bike 15 minutes before the mandatory competitor meeting. The lake was smooth. The turn buoys were not as menacing as at Ironman Utah the year before in a single rectangle lap layout of 2.4 miles blew apart on Lake Utah. In Coeur d’Alene the swim course was set in a 1.2 mile triangle layout. We had to run on the beach under a balloon arch and swim the course for a second lap. I still hadn’t completed a 2.4 mile swim before but completed at least two stand-alone 112 mile bike rides in training and two marathons. Though one of them was 11 years before in Chicago. I still had to fill 15 hours of rest time before starting the race to determine whether or not I would be an Ironman by the following midnight.
Wade invited me for dinner at his parents’ house in a quiet neighborhood of town. I brought flowers and was greeted with warm hospitality and delicious food from his mom, dad, and siblings. After lots of pasta carbs, some meat proteins, and relaxing conversation; I drove to the hotel for an evening of wishful sleeping.
The downside of tapering was the difficulty of falling asleep, especially the night before a race. Not enough tiredness and too much energy to tone down the mental preparation of the race, or worse, keep out the personal fears of self-imposed doubt. Sometimes during training, the body was too tired to fall asleep. Ironically, the reverse situation of the body being too rested to fall sleep occurs when tapering. When athletes workout and push the body too its extremes in endurance, speed, strength or all of the above, they take for granted how easily one falls asleep. When tapered before the race, some people wonder if they will ever fall asleep before it is time to get out of bed to start warming up for the race. Throw in some pre-race anxiety that always lurked in my body all night before an Ironman race, then sleep became harder to find than those lost training days and hours due to work, family, and illness earlier in the year.
Race day morning arrived, too early for some and not in time for others. I woke up after a light sleeping night, stretched, ate a peanut butter sandwich and downed two cans of vanilla Ensure. George Esahak-Gage, an experienced Ironman triathlete and fellow short race competitor from Arizona, recommend the pre-race meal. The motel was filled with other competitors, their families, and friends. Sounds were muted throughout the hotel as race traffic picked up in the lobby before 5am. People spoke in hushed tones with few words and general vagueness of good morning, good luck, and good riddance as we focused on ourselves with continued prep for the pending race of the day. The hallways and reception area reminded me of being in a place where certification exams were administrated. You know like those required to earn the status of a certified public
accountant, an attorney, a professional engineer, and to pass the boards of whatever; or maybe the SAT’s, ACT’s, LSAT’s, GMAT’s, or simply a driver’s license. People moved with uncertainty of whether the outcome would be the certainty of attainment or the confirmation of too much distance to cover in one day with not enough training or the skills and speed needed for success. Definitely a déjà vu feeling for me. I experienced these settings before due to multiple sittings of the CPA Exam, re-sitting four years later for GMAT’s to boost scores to get into graduate business school, and trying again to earn Ironman status after last year’s attempt in Utah.
A couple of things were for certain on this Sunday morning in Coeur d’Alene, everyone was moving with a focused purpose to get calories and get to the race site for the three part exam to commence. Drove to the race start for this Ironman race, no buses but I would have stood in an aisle if provided.
Throughout training and into race morning my mantra remained “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator.” Racing is what I’m doing today, all day, nothing else matters except competing in and completing this Ironman race. As warm-up started anxiety gave way to a continuous feeling of calmness. More about the action plan for the race ahead and less about the wait to the start or results of the race finish. The training action plan for the last four months, hell, since June 2002, combined with the desire and capabilities to power myself over 140.6 miles converted into implementation at the sound of the cannon to become an Ironman triathlete before midnight struck.
Everyone at the race site sensed the feeling each entrant was motivated to accomplish what was once thought unachievable. The 7am start time, which opened a 17 hour window to prove it, was quickly approaching for some, while ticking agonizingly slow for others. In reality, the clock was the best paced of anything moving forward at its pre-programmed precise interval of measurement.
The swim setting at Coeur d’Alene City Park was simply superior with its convergence of western wilderness, vacation destination, and small town civilization. Others said: “Outstanding”, “Awesome”, “Beautiful”, and “Spectacular”. CDA is eye candy, an equal mix of man-made and mother nature. The race start was a focal point of what the town’s people had to offer with their personal services spread across the entire route of the pending race. The word inaugural, when used with conjunction of the race name, didn’t have a subliminal message of “we’ll try and do our best but be aware we’re not sure what to do since this is our first time”. Everyone in this city of 35,000 people, volunteers, residence, and visitors were ready for the race and they pulled it off like experienced professionals in everything they offered. Over 10% of the town’s population volunteered in some capacity for a ratio of greater than 3 to 1 for the 1,573 triathletes who started the race.
For the shoreline start I entered Coeur d’Alene Lake on the far left hand side of the 100 meter stretch of sandy beach with a relative clear path on the triangle shaped course. Competitors lined up over one hundred people wide and up to 15 people deep on the beach. The lake was flat being churned only by other triathletes. The sun shone bright. The sky blanketed us in a clear blue hue. A helicopter hovered above stirring the air with a whump~whump~whump rhythm. We listened to the Star Spangle Banner. Winds were picking up. The cannon sounded and the race began with the pros out front spotted with a 20 meter lead. I found my swim box quickly with swimmers a few bodies in front of me slowly extending their lead and people behind me slowly dropping back. Competitors on either side of me kept common pace. The traditional V shape of a swim pack developed with me closer to the outside edge. The shape slowly collapsed and stretched out to a narrowing line of swimmers who resembled a slow moving snake when bending clockwise around the turn buoys. A year earlier my biggest issue was survival. Here, I dealt with a raw spot on my neck from the wetsuit. And that was after the race when wearing a shirt. I put in my two swim laps and ran towards the T1 transition. Only 138.2 miles to go to earn Ironman status.
Volunteers are great. We cannot race without them. At least a couple of different groups of volunteers have special names, strippers and catchers. At CDA the “strippers” were strategically placed just beyond the swim exit. In the wetsuit legal Ironman races volunteers greet you upon exit from the water. They tell you to unzip and lay down. I did, pulling down on the lanyard attached to the oversized zipper on the back of a wetsuit and hit the ground. Before I knew it, the volunteers grab the wetsuit sleeves and legs and peeled it off quicker than peeling a banana, let alone getting out of the suit myself. I’m back on my feet, with wetsuit handed back, asked if I needed lathered up with sunscreen (I did) and directed to the transition bag and change tent.
Spectators lined the course from the transition pen through City Park on to the main streets of downtown CDA. We could not have received a better send off if we were in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade at 6th Avenue & 34th Street in Manhattan. People were cheering and clanging cowbells. Loud music with a strong beat pumped up our heart rate. The start of the bike route led us on an eastward 18 mile out and back loop with early views of the beautiful blue Coeur d’Alene Lake, lots of tall and lush trees, competitors streaming out on the bike course. Our first climb came near the turnaround part that finally stretched out the tightly packed cyclists.
The same energetic spectators welcomed us back after the short loop and cheered louder boosting our adrenalin for the trek out of town to the west. There, we were met with two serious climbing hills and their complementing backside technical descents with tight turns. A few rollers were thrown in on the course to keep the stronger competitors riding fast and the faltering riders to begin some painful pedaling. On the first climb we gained 600 feet over two miles. I was overanxious and threw a chain when gearing down to the smaller sprocket on the front. I stopped to put the chain back on thinking I will need to wait another day for that magical 100 mile plus day of riding without stopping. I also spotted my recent sprocket scar as a reminder of how much commitment I put into training to get ready for this day. I mounted the bike and started spinning again. The second climb was longer with the same elevation increase though steeper in sections. Everyone enjoyed the ride down leaving the towering trees behind reaching the west end of the course. American flags flying in front of farmhouses teased us they stood almost straight out confirming the wind was to our back, at least for now.
We turned towards Coeur d’Alene on a flat section of road. Now in the open, and as broadcasted by the flags, we were greeted by an unusual summer headwind out of the east. We dealt with it for the next 25 miles or so. We rode over some rough pavement, onto a greyhound dog track, over a wooden bridge, under a concrete one and into some newer housing developments. A different group of spectators lined up outside their houses to greet us as we rolled back into town. In front of one house I gave a “low five” finger touch to each of the three kids cheering with their mom curbside. The rush they got in turn gave me energy to see their thrills. I had an enjoyable flashback to pressing flesh with my daughters during my first Tucson Tinfoilman triathlon. Kids, not only do many have unlimited energy, they exude so much of their energy back that racers use it in our drive to the finish line.
From Tin-man to Ironman, I was working my way through parts of the Periodic Table, the chart of all chemical elements, breathing oxygen, sweating sodium, taking on potassium, and riding on carbon fiber. I did some molecular combinations to drinking H2O, breathing out CO2, and eating something like primordial GU. We rolled back through town with the roar from the crowd as loud and energetic as three hours earlier at 8am. We continued east as everyone started loop two for another 56 miles under temperatures that continued to climb with winds that increased too. The snake of swimmers who formed in the water by 7:30am morphed into a 3,000+ legged caterpillar across the Idaho landscape by mid-morning and continued to grow in length and hunger. The volunteers did an awesome job in keeping it fed.
On the last flat of Lap 2 when coming back towards downtown the bike to run transition could not have come any sooner. At the pre-race dinner someone said the course was originally supposed to head out west on the flat section and the circle back on the climbs which, while delivering harder climbs on the return, we would have been sheltered from the winds. Instead, we were in the open and I tucked into an aero position as much as the bars and my back allowed and willed my way through the wind to T2.
Five miles from the transition on the edge of town I rode past a fading triathlete from the masters swim group in Phoenix. He was an ex-collegiate surfer and on any other given day a much stronger bike rider than me. It just was not his day to race well. I was not happy about passing him. I could relate to him being tired and exhausted. We exchanged brief greetings and words of encouragement. Geoff recovered as he kicked my ass the following season in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
We ran along the lakefront for most of the run course. Lots of heat, direct sunshine, and more ultraviolet waves from the reflecting water punishing our skin. Temperatures were hot, just shy of 100°F and stayed long as the race was within eight days of the summer solstice. The run course was mostly an out and back arrangement with a steep incline marked the end of the out with a 180 degree turn started the way back. The climb was sponsored by Degree deodorant and called the “The Degree of Difficulty Challenge”. Multiple people walked up the hill on the first loop, more competitors walked up the hill on their second loop. It’s doubtful anyone, and for sure the racers, had body odor concerns at this point of the race.
During the climbs I experienced a double déjà vu. A couple of years earlier, my sister Greta, gave her nieces, Hayes and Caroline, a book entitled, The Little Engine That Could. We read this to our girls as a nighttime story to encourage them to adopt a positive mental attitude that each of them could overcome many obstacles life would place in front of them growing up and living into adulthood. During the race I dug deep into my memory bank as a book my mom read to Greta and me as kids. With each stride being a separate word as I ran up the climb: “I think I can, “I think I can, “I think I can, “I think I can.” Just shy of the top, and at a slower pace, the cadence stretched out to: "I think I can, I think I can." Once at the top and crossing the validation timing mat confirming I didn’t cut the course, I did a 180 degree turn and strode down the hill: "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”
After the first run lap my body started breaking down. A toe nail turned black in May during a 15 mile run workout, now had worked its way loose, not lost, just loose. With every step the Adidas racing flats hit the pavement. The left foot would slide forward and the toe nail would press against the inside top of the shoe and the soft nail bed would be jabbed by the loosening, sharp edged toenail. “Take that!” the toe would shout through the nerves to my brain. Relief came with a push off the left foot and a right foot strike. I pushed off with the right foot then another sharp pain jab came when striking the road with the left foot again. “Take that!” Another relief step followed by another shout, “Take that!”
I kept taking the pain. I kept running. Pain gets experienced in different situations. We don’t like it but we accept its presence as another challenge thrown at us in life. We make the decisions in how to control to work through the pain thresholds in difference scenarios. As a kid we heard stories about North Vietnamese who shoved bamboo shoots under the fingernails of US prisoners as a form of torture to get information out of them. I realized on the run I would not have been a courageous prisoner of war (POW). I developed respect for Senator John McCain, a former POW, along the course. He returned to the US to represent Arizona as one its US senators in Washington. The toenail jabbing hurt but bamboo shoots inflect an unbearable amount of more pain. This was as close to feeling bamboo being jammed under my toe nails I wanted to experience. I returned home to Arizona missing a toenail with no political aspirations.
I tried to redirect the toe pain and focused on something else. Like the pain from a hotspot on the right pinkie toe finally succumbed to a new blister. Or the stinging pain felt on the back of neck where the wetsuit created a skin abrasion some nine hours earlier. The salty sweat seemed to linger in the raw skin depression just below the hairline. Other choices considered were my hamstring muscles on the back of either leg. Both were sore, exhausted of fuel, depleted of salt, and straining with each stride. Additional options included the left calf muscle that hurt on the uphill runs or the quads, those muscles located on the upper front portion of the legs that sucked up oxygen when working, as they burned with near hellfire pain on the downhill slopes of the run.
The arms were tired. The lower back was stiff again, this time in the upward position instead of the onset brought about from being in an aero like position for all the minutes when not climbing on the bike. The head was hazy from the heat and lack of fluids. The inner self kept asking, “Why did I choose to become an Ironman in the first place?” The throat hurt from breathing so deep, for so long. The hot air only acerbated its tenderness. My nipples were sore from the required run top for all participants. Usually I ran shirtless but Ironman had a tops mandatory policy for all athletes to ensure uniform equality among sexes. The white tank top sported blood as the sweat dried and turned a salt encrusted shirt into an abrasive like sand paper that wore down the nips. To the left, similar actions took place in the armpit area as more skin went raw, this time in an arc aligned with the curvature of the tank top.
Wade should have passed by at least four times on the run. Never saw him though, or his family. Focused and tired though not as focused to learn firsthand Ironman races do weird shit to competitors any right minded person would never do. On the run I passed a competitor lying down on the ground not moving and surrounded by people not providing first aid. The weirdness? I would not in any other situation continue running if seeing someone else in need. Not on a training run. Not in a smaller race. Yet I ran by like everyone in front of me and those who followed. No one gave outside support to the racer. He refused all offers for aid so he could continue in the race and not get disqualified for outside assistance. Once a racer receives aide by a non-volunteer or a professional medical volunteer, he is DQ and must withdrawal from the race. The guy on the ground was Emilo Desoto, Founder and CEO of De Soto Sport, a supplier of high tech race and workout clothing for triathletes. Most triathletes have worked out or raced in company’s products. After a recovery period he pulled himself up and finished. Many others did not as the wind, heat, and later the rain brought carnage to all in an attempt to prevent them from reaching the finish line. Almost 15% of starters never made it to the finish line within the 17 hour cut-off. At the time, the highest dropout rate for any Ironman distance triathlon.
To help you get a visual concept at how many people are a part of the Ironman events, including race organizers, competitors, competitor families and companions, volunteers, spectators, and innocent bystanders caught up in the moment of missed communication or pissed because of screwing up their weekend routine. Not once since leaving my hotel room at 5am had I been out of sight of another human being. Ironman racers are more observed by other people than gamblers entering a casino. I’ve been moving forward for over 10 hours without a pee break. First, lying face down in water. Followed by sitting on a leather saddle, stretched over titanium rails, and on nothing wider than ½ the size of my butt. Then running over beautiful terrain with high temperatures in clothing that covered less skin than anyone with normal modesty would wear inside, let alone outside in front over 20,000+ strangers. I burned over two pounds of body-stored calories while replacing a third of them with nothing you could find listed on a restaurant menu with the exception of Coca-Cola.
And now step into the mental state of an age grouper over the period of our race day. The day started so early from lack of deep sleep I’m not sure I reached REM stage. Night flowed into morning instead of a defined wake-up call. Anxiety kicked in early by just thinking about starting the race while still in the hotel room. During the race my mind vacillated between a positive and a negative outlooks and outcomes. At this point the desire to complete the task of what we chose to start comes into question. People rarely reach this point in a single day at work or as parent or even a triathlete in a local race. The similar feeling usually ebbs and flows in more routine activities over time. The same day polarity was a hurt so good attraction to racing in a single day Ironman distance triathlon. The arduous race provided an opportunity to push myself to experience absolute maximum physical, emotional, and mental limits. And knowing we can handle, opens up further opportunities to push our biased boundaries of what parenthood, work, and life as a whole can and cannot be as defined by us. .
While the body was breaking down on the run the mind continued to break down the remaining race distance in segments. I thought in terms of fewer units of the distance to the finish line. The 26.2 mile marathon run leg became two 13.1 mile loops. These loops were broken down into two 10K’s, one out to the last climb and the second for the return leg. After all the spring time training, I knew I could always run a 10K. To keep a positive attitude I thought in terms of what was already accomplished for the day. Already swam almost 2 1/2 miles. Already biked 112 miles. Already ran over 13 miles. Now, less than two 10K’s to the finish line remained.
To prepare mentally for races I envisioned all race day segments from pre-race warm-ups to the finish line. I did a mental walk-thru focusing on stretching, approach to the starting line, swim technique, changing out of a wetsuit to my bike kit, grabbing the bike, pedaling the course with flats, hills, competitors, turns, head-winds, tail-winds, and a properly timed dismount and running into the transition area to put on racing flats, run top and hat. Then striding out for the run slowly but steadily passing everyone in front of me to the finish line. I did my mental-vision training while resting in bed before races and at the race sites. At CDA I laid on the grass by the beach near the starting line. The resting surface didn’t matter, what did matter was mentally practicing my race strategy and tactics to be race ready for the task at hand for the big day.
Ironically, what I experienced on the run, somewhere before the finish line, reaching the end of the race started to unveil itself as a possibility and when there was some empty space between me and runners ahead, I would close my eyes and run 10-20 meters to get some mental rest from the passing scenery of the actual race. I envisioned lying down past the finish line and other times, back in bed lying down sleeping. This imaging helped me relax when getting through a stage of pain. While racing in my first Ironman, being in the moment, sometimes meant putting my mind in another place.
I could not endure much longer to be done with it though “it” was still a 10K to go. A racer said to his racing partner all he had to do was average eight minute miles to finish under 10:30. With all my hurt I should be able to keep pace. These two competitors were the rabbits to lead me to the finish line. I was on pace to place. The pain already subsided.
The people of Coeur d’Alene put forth a wonderful effort to support the race organizers. The aid stations were stocked full with official volunteers, fluids, ice, and calories to keep us going. More residences helped out between designated aid-stations where they stretched out their garden hoses to the streets converted to the race course for the day and sprayed us down in a mist of water as we ran by to provide some additional cooling.
The run course was lined with homemade signs cheering on their favorite competitor: dads, moms, spouses, training partners, and friends. Specially made signs by CDA residences showed up on the sides of the race course. These served as encouragement for the triathlete visitors who came to prove their athletic and mental capabilities. The hometown signs were the most heartfelt after racing in a more than a few towns where locals communicated the race was more of nuisance than a welcome. One sign near the finish read, “This house to the winner.” Michael Lovato, the overall race winner, made a joke about the sign during his victory speech at the awards dinner the next evening. The current owner didn’t attend since no one came forth with the house keys during the ceremony.
My favorite sign of the day, though it repelled me near the end of the first run lap but attracted me, and boosted my morale on the second lap, was “THIS WAY TO FINISH.” It included a big arrow pointed left directing us back into Coeur d’Alene City Park. Not much further down the road was the finish banner, a welcomed and multi-color Ironman squared off arch. As I passed beneath the banner Mike Reilly was my favorite person in the world for three seconds when he said at 5:30pm, “Doug Morris, YOU are an IRONMAN!” I earned that finish line greeting by swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running a full 26.2 mile marathon in, around and through Coeur d’Alene during the previous 10 ½ hours. Really though, I had impatiently waited to hear those six words since signing up for my first ironman race almost 20 months earlier. Other than getting married or becoming a parent, there is no better rush than hearing you are an Ironman for the first time!
Immediately after Mike’s announcement each competitor was greeted by two volunteer “catchers” working in tandem one inch beyond the finish line. Remember no outside assistance is allowed or as a competitor you will be disqualified. Their sole purpose is to “catch” you before you fall after the finish line. We competitors are dialed into the finish line from the start of the race. We engaged our minds and muscles in overloading our nerve centers with never ending commands of movement. Whether we cover the Ironman distance of 140.6 miles in eight hours or 17 hours, we programmed our minds to give it all for that distance, and not another inch or centimeter longer. The catchers know this race plan too. Just past the finish line they catch us, then greet us, with one of them on either side.
At CDA on the next step, the one just after the finish line, neither of my legs were able to support the weight of my body. I’m done. The body shuts down. My mind shuts down. I’ve been running on fumes for miles. My energy is fully depleted. My mind is mistakenly messaging the nervous system I’m still moving forward because that’s all it has known for the past 140.6 miles. Physically I’m trying to lean back as a counterbalance to the mind messages. The catchers know this, and now combined; we are a dependent, three-pronged support structure to stay upright. They are there to make sure we do not fall over and hurt ourselves or create a triathlete pile up that surely would be formed if not being cleared out from the finishing area. The volunteers were also highly trained to ensure our safety. Oh they tell us what a great job we did. Both of them asked us questions like a group interview. What is your name? How do you feel? Does anything hurt? Do you have family or friends meeting you here? What is your name (again)? Do you know who the president is? Are you a communist? I’m joking about the last one, but had the race been further north in the Idaho panhandle, then this could have been a real question. In reality the catchers are doing medical triage. Together they assess and decide whether to escort you to the medical tent, enroll you into re-indoctrination (okay, I’m joking again), or release you for a well-earned celebration with family, friends, and everyone else onsite. I’m spared the first two and circle around to look for Wade.
Billy Oliver, another Arizona competitor who raced in Tucson triathlon races multiple times, finished. Wade followed him in. Both pass through triage, and we began recovery in the nearby dining area with post-race refreshments. We ate what we could (very little), took in a massage, and agreed to meet up for the awards banquet set for the following evening.
I came across the finish line more than two hours after the winner. To get there every competitor passed through a picket fence corridor of cheering, clapping, and noise making humans on either side of the run up to the finish. The flexing human structure was still in place an hour after I finished and would remain there for another five and half hours until the midnight cut-off. The make-up of the spectator fence posts would change as competitors and relatives matched up to be replaced by yet additional set of relatives and friends of different competitors still moving toward the finish line. Previous finishers would circle back to provide encouragement to others in return to those who just previously provided encouragement to them. Local volunteers came in from their earlier assignments and provided words and sounds of celebration to the athletes soon earning Ironman status at CDA. Ironman triathlons are undoubtedly the only athletic competition where all the finishers between first and last get cheered on every bit as much as the winner and the last place finisher at the same noise levels and efforts across a span of 11 hours. Whatever adrenalin the race didn’t suck out of us, the emotional release of this amazing spectacular celebration did.
A storm came in 20 minutes after I finished which brought welcomed relief to the heat. Still, the fence of people held steady as did the stream of runners headed towards the Park. While the storm dumped less than an inch of rain, it fell in a short period of time. The only runners affected were the dehydrated ones as others were already soaked from perspiration from head to toe and beyond from hat to socks and shoes.
I gathered my race equipment from the transition area and a backpack that sat lonely and seemingly undisturbed beneath a tree outside of any fenced in or secured area not far from the starting line all day filled with other stuff like warm-up clothes, wallet, car keys, and cell phone. Hiked up the hill to the rental car and pulled out the keys and cell phone. These Ironman races are expensive but the organizers put on a well-run and first class event for participants, sponsors, and spectators. They also go an extra step and keep those who did not attend the event informed of race progress and finishers’ results. I already had more messages on my cell phone reaffirming my Ironman status than work calls received the previous week.
Went to the hotel, quickly showered and walked to the closest restaurant which was an Arby’s. The stomach did not feel much better than at the race site but the eyes were ready to eat. Walked inside the near vacant Arby’s, between the storm and race, few people wanted to be inside a quick serve restaurant. I’m their only customer. Five employees simultaneously asked if I wanted the special, five roast beef sandwiches for $5. Why not. I burned off more than enough calories and then some for the day. I added an extra-large chocolate shake and an extra-large Coke. Grabbed the sack filled with sandwiches and drinks and headed to the hotel. With full intention to return to the finishing line before midnight and cheer on the final official finishers, I made it through only half a sandwich and all the liquids before falling asleep. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night starving. The beef sandwiches were now tainted. My mind rejected the idea of consuming another gel as the body reached the point of diminishing returns the prior afternoon. No clean utensils remained in the room. I was a savage. I grabbed a slice of bread, opened up the jar of peanut butter, dipped the bread and ate. I fell back to sleep and woke up three hours later.
I looked at my finisher’s medal one more time just to ensure I didn’t sleep through the alarm on Sunday and experienced a delightful but unfulfilled dream of being an Ironman. The Sunday race indeed happened for me and 1,343 other finishers. I was alive on Monday morning. Stretched out some of the stiffness and ran/walked for a 30 minute recovery jog. More relaxed than Saturday morning’s pre-race workout but more in pain. The body’s sensation was a familiar feeling of a post-race yin and yang pain recovery. The muscles and nerves felt good in a masochist sort way and only made the value of my finishing time feel much more earned. To summarize the 100 days, the dread of training can last months. Yet, once you get yourself to finally race, it’s over before you know it.
Bought a local newspaper at the hotel more to confirm I finished by vainly searching for my name in the results. John Weston, the guy from McDonalds at Saturday’s breakfast, was in a picture coming out of the water in first place. Ahead of all the pros! He swam a great first leg. Saw him with his wife at dinner that evening and told him what he already knew, his picture was in the paper. He said the officials told him to jump back in the water for his second lap. John said no, he already swam two laps. The officials were leery an age grouper, a 45-49 year old age grouper at that, would dominate the pros. He did. John went on to have the third best time of all competitors, pros and amateurs in the swim leg at the Ironman World Championships at Kona, Hawaii later in October.
For me, no roll down spot this year. I earned a Kona entry with age group places to spare and a podium spot outright. I signed up Monday morning to secure a spot in the world’s most coveted triathlon, Hawaii Ironman, scheduled a mere four months away.
From the registration tent I strode over to the pier on Lake Coeur d’Alene and signed up for my first float plane trip. Within minutes I’m riding shotgun with an Idaho bush pilot and a husband and wife competitor team in the back seats. The pilot throttled the engine up to full speed as the water released its grip on the pontoons and we went airborne over the lake where we raced just over 24 hours earlier. The pilot pointed out the swim, bike, and run courses for us over the landscape. In my relaxed state of overloaded alpha waves, my mind registered the natural and manmade beauty of the Coeur d’Alene countryside: the vastness of its evergreens, its city park with the hill in town that overlooks the lake, the modern designed hotel, various vintage cottages and newer, grander lake houses. He added other highlights such as the first million dollar plus lake lots, history of the area, and tails his most challenging flights. The latter were mind boggling compared to the simplicity of my swim, bike, and run workouts of the past six months in contrast to his world of survival flying in the bush. For me, yesterday’s accomplishment was a checked box for a Type A’s bucket list. For the pilot, his accomplishments in flying continued to give him the ability to check off his items on a different bucket list.
Originally I set aside a special bottle of wine, Far Neite Chardonnay, right after signing up in December 2001 to celebrate a finishing Ironman Utah, This was my self-designated finisher’s bottle to celebrate the successful completion of my first Ironman triathlon. The bottle with its fancy label went into the garage fridge so every time grabbing bottles of Gatorade for workouts, it served as a motivational reminder to stay committed to the training plan. Since Ironman Utah was cut short, didn’t feel worthy of the wine award last summer. My boss at the time, a real wine connoisseur encouraged me to celebrate any way since the race change was outside of my control. Showing classic delayed gratification of many athletes, the bottle sat in sight on the shelf for another year as motivational eye candy. Our new celebration date was set.
After the race Saturday night, the bottle was uncorked with the wine poured, and consumed. Unfortunately, I didn’t know until returning home two days later. Chris and a neighbor enjoyed my finisher’s bottle of wine hours after I became a certified Ironman. She never knew of its motivational significance for me. Never did replace it. The race completion became the real reward I wanted.
On a flight back home United Airlines stepped into the Ironman act by acknowledging on the PA system Michael Lovato, the inaugural winner of the CDA Ironman Triathlon, was bound to Denver with us. While the flight attendant’s voice was not Mike Reilly’s, it sure sounded great to hear the winner being acknowledged. And in my mind, just like at the race, the announcement came across like an acknowledgement to all Ironman triathletes on the plane. Sometime during the trip home my thoughts turned to a new milestone, I hoped Mike Reilly becomes my favorite person in the world again at Kona in October.
Results: 53rd Overall. 5th in age group.