The morning of June 24th, 2007 was crystal clear and calm when I awoke around 4:30 am. It was a perfect day for a race and even though it was early, I was ready to go. This was my first Ironman competition and my wife’s second. A triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile open water swim, 112 mile bike ride, and the a full marathon (26.2 mile) run.
I have been a runner and cyclist for years and felt fairly comfortable with those portions of the race. A year earlier I could barely swim a lap in the pool, so the swim was a bit more daunting of a task. Arriving at the Coeur d’Alene race site, it was in a buzz.
There were 2,200 athletes getting there last minute preparations ready. We had gear bags to drop off, bikes to get the last preparations ready for and wetsuits to get on. Not to mention all the officials, volunteers and spectators there to encourage us along the way. Just being there was a adrenaline rush. Upon arriving at the lake it was not hard to notice that our calm morning had disappeared during the drive. The lake had a brisk wind coming off of it and the water was full of 2 foot swells with white caps. Not your ideal swimming conditions, especially for a novice like me. Nonetheless I got my wetsuit on and proceeded down to the beach where the mass start takes place. If you have never seen this spectacle, you should, it is amazing to watch the rush of 2000+ athletes run into the water and begin their swim. The conditions were so rough that the race director actually gave us the option of not doing the swim and just doing a duathlon, of course you would not be an Ironman.
Even though some opted out, I did not spend the previous 6 month training and learning to swim to back out now. So down on the sand we went. Standing down on the sand the adrenaline was pulsing through my veins and my heart was beating like the race already began.
The gun went off and people started charging into the water everywhere. My strategy was to let some of the faster swimmers go first to avoid getting beaten and swam over the top of. My swim began better than expected. The main drawback was the waves. I am not a very straight swimmer so I need to sight fairly often. This became a problem, everytime I looked up to see my way I took a wave in the face. Doing this over and over again started taking its toll, not because of any pain but rather because I felt like I had swallowed half the lake. The first lap went fairly quickly, I looked at the clock and I was at 52 minutes and feeling fairly good. The second lap was similar to the first, I swallowed the other half of the lake and swam a bit slower getting out of the water at 1 hour and 56 minutes. No worries, I survived. I then proceeded up the beach wobbling around trying to find my equilibrium again. Up on the grass I came to the strippers, yes you read that right, they are there to assist you on removing your wetsuit. You lay on your back and they grab your suit around the collar and just pull it off you. You have your race clothes on underneath and after the swim it is much appreciated to have the help. After drying off and getting my bike shoes on it was out to the racks to find my bike.
Fortunately with my slow time there were not many bikes left so mine was easy to find. The bike was nice to get on. I felt relieved to get to cycling. I have more comfort in my ability, but 112 miles is a task. Not long onto the bike I realized that everything was not good, I felt horrible. I had swallowed too much water during the swim and my stomach was bloated. I could not get into my aero position. The bike course is a beautiful two loop course. It has an out and back along Lake Coeur d’Alene and then heads through town for a loop of rolling hills to the north. Fortunately for me, the scenery and spectator support helped alleviate some of the discomfort but this was going to be a long day. Uncomfortably and slowly I made my way around the course, I was in such bad shape I would stand up and coast whenever I was going downhill to relieve some of the pressure. I came back through town at the halfway point and was a good half hour slower than I should have been based on my training rides. At about mile 60 something happened, I am not sure it was the amount of time or just 60 miles of riding but I finally started feeling like I could start to ride. My stomach pains abated and legs started spinning fast. For the first time in hours I was not hoping my bike would break down and end the misery. I can’t say that the last 52 miles were easy, but they definitely were not as uncomfortable or miserable as the first 60. After 112 miles of riding, I came into transition almost 10 hours after beginning the swim. The transition between bike and run was fairly uneventful as compared to the first transition. I found my gear bag and proceeded into the tent to get my run gear on.
After a couple minutes I was out of the shoot and running down the sidewalk bordering the lake. I felt pretty good and it was a nice afternoon for a run. Only a slight breeze off the lake now and temperatures in the mid 60’s. The run course is a two loop course all along the lake. It goes through town twice on each loop and finishes in downtown Coeur d’Alene. After the bike, running felt surprisingly good. I even was moving at a decent pace for the first 15 miles before the effort of the day started to catch up with me. My legs started getting heavy and my body started hurting more and more and I began my slow shuffle to the finish. Along with this inevitable slowdown came the night. At times towards the end you would leave the lights of the support and be running in almost complete darkness. A lighted neon loop around my neck would be the only light I had and the sound of my feet were all I heard. By this point though, the race was nearing it’s end and I started feeling that I would in fact finish. At mile 25 I started to not feel the agony that my body was in and was being driven with the adrenaline of finishing the race. The last half mile is a slight downhill run through downtown Coeur d’Alene with thousands of spectators lining the street. When I rounded the last turn and saw the finish line I started to sprint towards the line the best I could. I arrived at the finish using up my last bit of strength and heard the words that I waited for all day. The announcer said “Justin Johnson you are an Ironman!”
It took about 15 hours and 19 minutes and was a tremendous struggle, but I made it. I must also mention that my wife finished as well. Her day went better than mine, she shaved an hour off of last year and beat me by nearly an hour.
It was an amazing experience, and it is incredible to think of what you can accomplish. Even those who do not think they can, really deep down can make it if they train correctly and put the effort into it. Get out and see what you can accomplish, your mileage may vary.