Noonish, Race Day: “You can just stay here and cool down a while,” the volunteer said, crouching in front of me. The tent was dark and there were, maybe, two or three other female competitors seated near me hearing similar lines from the volunteers which attended them. The light outside was a blinding white and my eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness just as I hadn’t adjusted to the heat once I’d dismounted the bike and there was no longer a constant source of air coursing over my body.
Not an inch of me is dry from the sweat running in rivers down every crack of me. “You’re in no danger of missing the cut-off time,” the volunteer says, “it’s OK if you stay and cool down.”
I shake my head and stand. “I really... I really just want to finish.” I stand, adjust my visor one last time and stride into the 98-degree heat to begin my 26.2 mile run.
How to begin? Usually race reports are easy for me to write-- the play-by-play of either my failure or victory. I have struggled, however, getting my thoughts down for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, where I was nowhere near the champion I’d wanted to be, and yet, I have never been more proud of myself.
I remember that final transition and although it’s not the start of the race, it is (in many ways) “my start”-- where I had a clear decision to make and no one there to make it for me.
Unprepared as I might have felt, I didn’t realize how prepared I really was for what that race had in store for me. But, before I reveal too much, let’s start at the literal start line. And, if I’m still enough of a writer, I will (I hope) circle back to this metaphorical start for my final lines.
3:45 am: my phone vibrates under my hand, and I nearly jump out of bed (I hadn’t really been asleep anyway. In the darkness of the room, I can hear my parents sleeping and I do my best to side on my tri suit and flip-flops without making any noise. I leave the room to grab a quick cup of coffee from the hotel’s breakfast room while running through my mental checklist for the day: grab the bottles and the potatoes from the fridge, don’t forget sunscreen, grab the toast, hard boiled egg and slice of turkey you made the night before... and, for God’s sake, don’t forget hair ties!
When I get back to the room, my dad is already awake and tells me he’s ready to go when I am. Although there’s a shuttle which runs between the hotel and the start line, my dad wants to watch me swim (despite the fact that the start has been moved to 5:30 am due to the unusually warm weather.)
We drive and I try not to be too anxious. I’ve never done a full Ironman before, and certainly not one with over 2,000 entrants. I want to make sure I get body-marked, that I have time to drop off my bottle of chocolate ensure and water on the bike and that I have enough time to triple-check my transition bags so that I know exactly where they are when race-time arrives.
4:45 am: Two girls about 17-18 years old ask me my race number and I’m so nervous I forget. This is ridiculous because I’d done nothing but recite it to myself since I picked up my race packet on Thursday (it’s Sunday morning.) I laugh it off, and say it’s pre-race jitters.
“How old are you?” one asks who kneels to write my age in black permanent marker on the back side of my right calf.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I really don’t know that, either, in that particular moment. They both exchange glances (wondering, probably: does Alzheimers hit women in their 30s these days?) and after doing the math, I tell them I’m 33.
I think about cracking an old-lady joke, but hold myself back. I’ve already forgotten enough lines for one day.
I wander to the edge of the concrete steps which lead into the lake and contemplate swimming here (as a warm up.) No one else is in the water yet, and I quickly decide that I should probably pee at least one more time before the lines get too incredibly long and before too many competitors have accidents in the porta-potties.
5:25 am: A local 17-year old girl sings the national anthem and I’m back near the concrete steps and still not swimming. Half my wetsuit is on and I was doing light calisthenics when she began to sing.
I find the flag behind me, right where the sun is rising, and I raise my hand to my heart and hope this isn’t my last Ironman.
5:30 am: The professionals begin racing. I don’t watch them start. Instead, I keep warming up by battling my way to the start line. I want to get at least ten minutes in the water before the start and given the crowd of spectators (the most I’d ever seen at a race) doing that seems unlikely.
5:40 am: I’m swimming laps in the warm-up section. The water is perfect (72-degrees) and I haven’t panicked once. This worries me. The beach is packed with competitors, so much so that my pace group for the swim is unreachable.
When the announcer calls “5 minutes to the start, I slide into the sardine-line as best I can. I’m with swimmers who will complete the course about twenty minutes slower than I will. However, this might have been a wise choice since there is nothing more awful than being swam over early in a race.
5:50ish am: Over 2,000 competitors enter the water in less than ten minutes. I step in, begin to stroke and talk myself though the suggestion of panic which rests at the back of my mind. The water is churned and murky from everyone in front of me, but the sky is beautiful and the water itself is the perfect temperature. I try to ignore the fact that there are so many people swimming around me. I close my eyes, I focus on my breathing.
Sooner than seems possible, I round the first buoy and then the second, and I realize I’m over a quarter of the way through the swim. I feel fantastic. I pass everyone around me. Swimming, for the moment, is effortless. I sing songs to myself. You are kicking ass, I tell myself again and again.
When I reach the end of the first lap, I stand, run along the beach and I’m back in the water again for the second half of the race. I’m kicked in the face a few times and someone panics, tugging at my leg as if to save their life. I take all of this in stride, so to speak, and breathe and stroke and soon, the swim becomes peaceful again.
I exit the swim and run up the beach to the wetsuit strippers. I lay on the ground, and they rip my suit off. I run to my transition bag and in less than five minutes, I’m on the bike, riding through downtown Coeur d’Alene, loving the feel of early-morning air on my skin and optimistic about the miles in front of me.
7:00ish am: I pass people like mad on the bike. I pass them in town because they cannot seem to handle turns the way Rich has taught me to. I pass them on climbs because that is my strength as a cyclist. I pass them at aid stations because I hardly slow to grab the bottles of water which I open with my teeth and pour into the bottle mounted between my aerobars.
I am one of the only competitors NOT on a tri-bike. I love my black-and-yellow Focus (my Bumblebee, I call her) and I am careful to stay far behind the competitors in front of me, unless I am going to pass them, which (at least on the first lap of the bike) I nearly always do.
We ride to Higgins Boat launch, make a 180-degree turn and head back to town before riding on Highway 95 (the highway my parents and I had driven on to get here on Thursday.) Most of the climbs happen on this section of the course (South on highway 95).
As I ride, I smile. The morning is beautiful and I am still feeling (surprisingly) great. You are going to be an Ironman, I tell myself and the thought, even that early in the race, makes me cry. So, I push it away and find another thought: my nutrition.
This race may just come down to what and when I eat.
9:00ish am: My nutrition for this race was a little unorthodox. I’ve never been a big fan of sugary foods and lately, my tolerance for sugar has dropped considerably. I’ve found on the several double-centuries I have done in training that my body performs the best with a steady stream of calories which contain minerals and electrolytes (I’m a total salt-sweater)... and also a great deal of water.
I have always had stomach issues with using sport gels and chews and with sport drinks. Even back in my marathon days, I would reach a “saturation point” and feel, well, sick, after more than four gels or over a bottle of sport drink. This time, I planned ahead. One of my favorite foods on 200-mile rides have become boiled potatoes and salt. It’s weird, but the combination of potassium, calories and salt has helped me through several tough challenges.
To say I did Coeur d’Alene Ironman on two potatoes, salt, two bottles of ensure and tons of water might sound ridiculous, but it’s pretty much the truth.
I had two boiled russet potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks in a bag mounted to my bike frame. I had two bottles of ensure cut with ice in my insulated bottle. I also had a small bottle of salt which I literally licked (like a horse) every five miles... and all the water I could possibly drink. It might sound strange, but this is the only race in 100+ degree conditions where I had absolutely no cramping or stomach issues the entire time.
11:00ish am: The competitor in front of me-- a man-- stands on his pedals and, at first, I wonder why he is pouring out all his water all over himself and the bike. Then, I realize he’s peeing-- everywhere.
I wonder if I should have/should do the same: in the bike, I will have to stop and pee twice. But, even then (and more so now) I realize that that would have been a rash waiting to happen.
11:30ish am: I’m still passing riders. I feel great and not the least bit fatigued.
Then, it’s as though someone turned an oven on broil and I’m in it.
It is unbelievably hot.
I stop eating solid food, knowing that my body is going to use its reserves to cool me, not to digest. If I eat anything, it might just sit in my hot stomach and ferment. And as much fun as having a mushroom-cloud advantage (ew, don’t run by the stinky girl) I don’t want to risk the discomfort.
As I said, I want, more than anything, to finish.
My final thoughts on the bike concerned the run. I had no idea what to expect. I did feel really good-- hydrated, prepped and ready-- but I know from experience that a marathon is a long way to run and so many things can go wrong.
It’s also over 100-degrees out, and I feel the heat in the wind which moves across my body as I ride the final miles to transition.
Can I run a marathon? So many people have told me I can’t, mainly myself, and it would be a lie if I said I didn’t have a little bit of doubt as I dismounted the bike and ran into the changing tent.
But, if there is one thing I have learned about Ironman, it’s the golden rule of “Don’t Stop.”
That’s why I ran out into the heat even though there was, even at that point, not a shot in Hell that I would finish very well.
Afternoon: Time, during the run portion of the race, bends. It’s like gravity suddenly increased its pull and I’m in a black hole where time travel is possible, but I’m stuck in the event horizon where things slow down.
The first mile takes us through a neighborhood where I watch a tall, slender competitor (male) choke on his vomit so horribly, the ambulance comes to take him away. Residents are out in force, though, to combat the temperatures which continue to climb. Children spray me with green garden hoses and sprinklers.
At the first aid station, volunteers stuff ice down my sports bra and douse me with water. When I start to run again, I sound like those little coolers you bring for your beer and wine coolers to the beach: slosh, slosh, slosh.
I’m shocked less at the sound than I am that the ice doesn’t seem the least bit cold. I can’t even feel that it is there.
More afternoon: I don’t know if I was wetter in the swim or run portion of the race.
At every aid station (as temperatures climb to 104 degrees) volunteers drench me in ice water. They stuff ice down my sports bra, my back, they soak my visor in ice water, they put sponges which had been soaked in ice water under my shirt, my shorts, they squeeze them over my head.
I drink water. I pee more on the run than I have probably peed in my life.
But, I am hot. So unbelievably hot. Nothing feels cold or even mildly cool.
I want to run, but my legs don’t obey the commands I send them. I want to breathe--and, I know I can-- but my lungs tell me I’m not able to.
At one aid station, a volunteer drenches me with water and says: keep moving, don’t stop, I will run with you, don’t stop, keeping moving Rebecca, keep moving. I will see you running in a few miles, OK?
I can’t tell him more than: “Thank you.”
Afternoonish: I had been third off the bike. One by one, female competitors pass me.
But, it is not a wordless pass. This is not like the races of my past where you looked someone up and down and you crushed them, if you could. Here, these women shared the miles with me. We nod to each other, we say, in between the intervals of silence that “We are going to make it. We are going to do this.”
I tell them they are so strong.
One woman, around mile 15, turns around and smiles at me. “You’ve got this,” she says and there’s not a trace of malice in her voice or face.
They ask me about Ironman Lake Tahoe and I tell them it was cancelled due to the smoke. I hear snippets of their lives-- of early morning runs through snow-covered forests, of children waiting at the finish line.
At mile 16, my knee begins to hurt... probably because I am not running like I usually do. I adopt a run/walk pattern because I want, more than anything, to finish.
I don’t care if I have to walk or crawl or claw my way to the finish line. I’m finishing this race, I tell myself.
Afternoonish: Maybe it was the heat. I hear Rich in my head asking how I am.
And I respond: “I’m coming home to you.”
I repeat this line to myself. I am coming home. I am coming home.
I’m a steam-powered locomotive which might not be fast, but it is steady, and it will cross the finish line.
5:20 pm: A man asks me: “Do you know how close you are to the finish line?”
“No,” I call back.
“8 blocks. You have eight blocks. Give it all you have.”
Eight, I repeat to myself. Eight. I am slow-running again and I try to run faster, but there’s nothing left in the tank, really.
I’m sunburned and dehydrated and tired and soppy-wet. I don’t know it then, but I’m also in the top-ten for my age group (which isn’t that bad, really)
I think of that finish line and what it means that I have, after all these years, reached it. I start to sob, and so I try to think of something else because I can’t breathe when I’m sobbing. I think of my running form, the sound of ice sloshing in my bra, the swing of my arms, the time of year-- anything than that finish line. I have to hold it together.
But, when I turn on the main street I see the finish line before me. The street is lined with spectators and they call out my name, cheering me on, cheering for me to finish, me with my incredible story like each and every athlete here-- and each and every athlete-- has an incredible story.
I think of my mom and dad and stepmom and of Rich-- I think of the cats and the chickens and all the plants I have planted which I love so much. I think of how hard it was lose everything, literally, in 2014, and how much I wondered if I was going to survive.
In those final steps, I realized that no matter what, I will.
5:35 pm: Someone once said that I would never run another marathon.
That I would never do an Ironman.
That I would never "make it" as a writer.
That I would never survive on my own.
That I would never have a full-time job.
That I would never be loved.
I hear the words Rebecca Eckland of Reno, Nevada, you are an Ironman as I cross the finish line, and I realize, for the first time in my life, that no matter the time it takes me, I can.