(guest blog by Keith)
This journey to my 2nd Ironman begins like most do…well before race day.
June 19th 2013, one of my best friends took his own life. (I know, I just ripped off the Band-Aid, sorry) After a brutal weekend involving a funeral, visitation, eulogizing my friend and my 1st foray as a pallbearer, I sat in our den chair staring at my laptop. I asked Star if she would be agreeable with me training for another Ironman and she said yes. I registered instantly for IM Coeur D’Alene. (This is not because permission is something we need within our house but I can tell you with 100% certainty that NO ONE does this endurance stuff alone.) Now don’t get me wrong, the decision to train for another IM was not quite so cavalier. I had been thinking for months about this but the recent events were definitely enough to push me over the edge.
**Fast forward through some boring months of training to race week** :)
We hopped a plane Thursday of race week and headed to the Pacific Northwest. The travel went about a smooth as we could wish for and after a quick 35 minute drive from Spokane, we were in our hotel room by 2:00 pm. Packet pick up was an event that I did not remember well from IM Louisville but it definitely causes the first bit of internal excitement. You get your wristband, special needs bags, race numbers, race goodies and your first interaction with the volunteers. This race had 2500 participants and more than 4000 volunteers!! They do such an amazing job of making you feel like a superhero. They spend all of their time telling you how inspiring you are. If nothing else, it truly helps with your confidence.
Friday – let’s go check out this beautiful lake Coeur D’Alene for a practice swim. I like to pick big races for different reasons. Will it be a cool place to hang out and semi-vacation? Will this race help me work on a weakness? I have done very hot races, very windy races, but I have not really dealt with cold or very hilly triathlons. I knew IMCDA would check these boxes. The water was choppy but plenty of people were already swimming so I donned my wetsuit, and thermal swim cap and hopped in the water…..what the F*&K?!?!?!?! I knew this was glacial fed water but damn. I don’t know the temperature for sure, but everything I read leading up to that day was low 60’s. That is cold. Your face, feet and hands go numb & within 15 seconds you get the most intense “ice cream” headache you can imagine. I “swam” for 10-15 minutes and got out…feeling a little defeated and intimidated. Star did a great job of trying to help me blow this off but I think she was a little concerned as well. As a distraction, she had the idea for us to go out and ride the course. Most of the run course was the same as the 1st part of the bike course. Then the remainder of the bike course goes out on a highway at mile 15 to the turn-around at mile 35 and back to mile 56 and you do it all again. Fortunately we only had to ride the course once to see it all. We cruised through town, down by the lake, up a decent hill and back through town to highway 95 and started to drive one of the longest stretches of any Ironman bike course without any turns. I know we were having a conversation but I don’t remember what it was about because we started to go up hill and the car went silent. Again, I had seen the course elevation and we knew the course had 5600 feet of elevation gain but this…kept….going….up. The course was beautiful and wide open but damn these hills were intimidating. Again, Star did a great job of minimizing my nerves although I feel certain she was as unhappy as I was.
Saturday – Star needed to get in a longish run and I wanted to ride an easy 20+ miles just to make sure everything felt good. The weather to this point had been overcast, cool temps in the 50’s and misty at times so we suited up and headed to the side of the lake where the bike course and run course would both travel twice. It was on the shore of Lake Coeur D’Alene and by far the most scenic. There was one steep climb on this section but I quickly learned I could shift to my easiest gear and be up the hill in 2 minutes. Good to know for tomorrow. This hill would also require me to run it at miles 6 and 19 on race day and from what Star gathered on her little recon run, this would be unpleasant at best.
Race Day – I started my race day nutrition when I woke up at 2:00 am and quickly drank an Ensure Plus then fell back asleep for 2 more hours. The plan was to wake up around 4:00 and get ourselves out of the hotel. We stayed about 2 miles from the race so we thought having a car easily accessible for Star would be great if we could make that happen. As it turned out, we were able to park 5 minutes from the race start and transition area. This lot was also along the bike course where I would pass 4 times!! Perfect for my #1 cheerleader. (Phone charger, reclining seats, Heater/AC). Now let me back up. The first thing I did before we EVER left the room was check the weather. My trusty app told me it was cloudy, 53 degrees and 5mph wind. FYI – I have now deleted this weather app from my phone, because when we walked out of the hotel the wind was HOWLING 20mph++!! We walked over to the transition area, dropped off my special needs bags, put air in the tires, and put my fuel on my bike, made a pit stop and back to the car to chill. We sat around and talked about the day ahead while I worked to choke down some pop tarts and my accelerade drink. Just as I was getting antsy to get moving towards the start it happened… “Drink A Beer”. So no, we did not drink a beer. Have you heard the song by Luke Bryan? It’s about losing someone too early and if you jump back up to the first paragraph of this already too long report, that’s how I got here in the first place. Well, needless to say, we both lost it. There was total silence as we sat and listened to every word of that song. I will tell you, it is very difficult to have a complete meltdown while trying to conserve energy. (I can only guess but I would imagine this memory will be the most lasting of the entire day) Once this fiasco was over we got moving to the swim start. We found a great spot on a stone wall near the beach and watched all of the chaos. The wind was cutting, the waves in the lake were white capping and it was generally unpleasant. All of my 70.3 races and 140.6 races have been in hot climates so I was looking forward to racing in cooler weather but this was not my cup of tea. Star finally convinced me to suit up in my wetsuit, neoprene cap and booties and head off. We weaved through the crowd until it was time for us to separate. A quick kiss and “I love you’s” and I was winding to the beach. I did see Star at the last possible moment and of course had one more thing to tell her but when I turned around…she was gone. It just got real.
Swim – The Coeur D’Alene swim allows swimmers to seed themselves similar to road races. They had corrals for 1:00-1:15, 1:15-1:30 and beyond. I jumped in an isolated warm up section that was roped off just to splash around and get a feel for this frigid water, then hopped into the 1:15-1:30 group. I spoke to a very nervous guy named Jose from Louisiana who was starting his first Ironman. I always find comfort when I engage others in conversation, especially those who look worse off than me. I guess I am looking for some good karma. 12 minutes after the horn sounded I was under the arch and in the water. The swim took us out approximately ½ mile, left hand turn, few hundred yards, left hand turn, ½ mile back to the beach where we got out of the water, walked 15 yards down the beach and did it again. The first stretch to the turn buoy was ROUGH. That 20+ mph wind was coming straight at us so the water was choppy. This is also where people started to freak out so I ran into countless “friends” who were breast stroking, backstroking, panic stroking or just treading water within the first 300 yards. I felt for these people, I truly did, but I just wanted them to scootch over and let me by. I tried to stay to the far right and avoid contact but it did not matter. This swim was physical so I just needed to mix it up. It was not until I made the second turn and headed back to shore that I finally found a rhythm. As I stood up on shore, I looked at my watch to see 40:34 for 1.2 miles. All things considered, I will take it. I fully expected lap 2 to be a little smoother and less congested…wrong again. This time I chose an inside line but it was just a clustered. I actually ran into 2 swimmers in 200 yards swimming completely sideways in front of me. I know they must have been wiped out so I just kept plugging along. I did notice some fatigue setting in earlier than expected. I’m pretty certain this was a combination of the cold water (which must take a toll on muscle contraction) and fighting the chop. I did make a point to tell myself as I plodded along to the finishing arch, “you may very well be swimming in your last ever Ironman swim”. I do believe there are more in my future but you never know what can happen. I wanted to be present. I happily hit the beach and looked to see my time, 1:25:39…meh.
T1 – we ran up the beach to the wetsuit strippers. If you don’t know what this is, look it up on YouTube!! The athletes peel their wetsuits down their arms and torso, approach two volunteers and lie back on the ground. The volunteers each grab an arm of your wetsuit and yank the whole damn thing right off your body. Fantastic!!! I grabbed my transition bag and hit the porta potty. This was necessary but took no less than 2:30. Ironman transitions are slower than normal but this was really slow. My face and hands were very cold from the water and I noticed the sky was still very cloudy. Oh yeah, the wind was still whipping. I changed shorts, put on my shirt and a volunteer had to help me put on my compression sleeves, toe warmers, gloves and arm warmers…my fingers were just not cooperating. (That’s right, another grown man had to help me get dressed.) T1, 14:28 Hehehe.
Bike – Hey, there is Star!! This will be a theme of my day. The bike course winds through downtown and a residential neighborhood then out along the lake where I rode the day before. The cardinal sin in an Ironman is to start smashing the pedals early on the bike without regard for the entire 112 miles. I was very cautious of this in Louisville, but I also came to this race much more fit and curious…curious to test myself. I was not stupid, but I was riding my bike, eating and putting my heart rate right where it should be. I shot back through town looking for Star but did not see her. As I took a right to head up towards the highway, there she was, right by our parking lot at approximately mile 15. Cool deal. Now I knew where she would probably be the next 4 times I rode past. 1 hr into the ride I was passing mile 19 with a very conservative effort. This made me hopeful for the day but of course I still had 93 miles to go J Mile 20 was when my life changed…no really, I think this is where I will look back when people asked me when it all happened. Remember those hills we talked about from Friday? Here they were. Remember that wind we spoke about this morning? Well I’ll be damned if it wasn’t here too!!! This stretch of road was from miles 15 – 35 with 1900 ft of climbing, 20mph sustained winds and gusts over 30mph. The biggest was the first climb, 2 miles, 615ft climb into the wind took me 13 minutes, 9mph. “This is going to get old.” As I said before, I wanted to walk a fine line between working hard enough and maintaining a good heart rate, blah blah blah blah. None of this matters when you are in your easiest gear, working your ass off to go 9 mph. What was my other option?? 7MPH?!?! At least I will get over this hill and catch a downhill or a nice flat to recover. I was able to pick up some speed before climb #2. This was a series of climbs with flats & false flats thrown in. Did I mention the wind? At this point, we were pedaling the short downhill sections at 12-16 MPHs. Mile 20 – 35(lasted 69 minutes, 13mph if you were wondering). Praise God for the turnaround, tailwinds and some good downhills. We don’t have descents like this in Memphis so these were quite terrifying for me. I learned that 35mph is the ceiling on my comfort zone and at 42mph I am no longer interested in being on a bike. After white-knuckling back the way we came, I did make another potty stop around mile 40 but this was very fast with no waiting. (Maybe 2015 will be the year of peeing while I ride!) I exited the highway and started to look for Star. There she stood at almost exactly the 56 mile mark, 3:25, when I shouted “I can’t believe I have to do that again.” Approximately mile 62 I was able to pick up my bike special needs bag. I had my bottle refills, some treats and a sweet card from Star and Georgia. This stop lasted around 3 minutes and I was off again, back through the crowds of downtown, past Star and her perfect spot on the course and onto the highway again. This was much of the same for round 2. Speeds of a whopping 7 mph, heart rate over 170 and winds approaching 30mph. This time, that same 15 mile section from miles 75 – 90 was 80 minutes…11.25mph. That turn around was the most welcomed sight of my day. I tried my best to get back some time heading back to town…down-wind, down-hill (mostly). And averaged 18.5mph for the final 22 miles. Total time 7:07:11
T2 – this was rather uneventful. Quick change of clothes, which is always nice after that long on a bike. Grabbed my hat, fuelbelt and headed off to run 26.2 miles. T2, 8:04. Who knows where the time goes?!?
Run – I had several goals heading into this race in order of importance to me, total time, bike time and run time. That bike ride was so brutal I did not hit the goal I wanted but I knew early on to throw that out the window. The big question was how would that affect my run, and more importantly, total time. Three minutes into my run I must have heard my name at least 15 times. It was a little disorienting, “go Keith”, “looking good Keith”, “great job Keith”, then it dawned on me #1 my name was on my race bib & #2 this crowd was incredible! Off to the right before ½ mile I saw my little Sherpa/coach and stopped to chat. The only thing I remember saying to her was “if I stopped right now and did not run another step, this race would be more difficult than Ironman #1”. That seems extreme but I was serious, and still unclear how the bike damaged my body, but I knew it did. The course winds through some beautiful neighborhoods for 2.5 miles before the long stretch along Coeur D’Alene Lake Dr. The support in these neighborhoods was like nothing I would have ever expected. House parties, bands, extremely loud sound systems and the most encouraging course support I have ever seen…and 2nd place is not even CLOSE. I believe it was mile 2.4 (19th st & Mullan) with the most unreal house party I have ever seen. It was straight out of a Hollywood movie where the parents are out of town and the nerdy kids can’t stop all of the cool kids from crashing the party. I could not hear my thoughts because the music was so loud. I believe there was a wrought iron fence around the front yard, which kept most of the people out of the street, but I would guess 200 people were behind that fence. I saw girls in bikini tops, beer funnels, cowboy hats, mardi gras beads and dozens of people SCREAMING at the top of their lungs at every person wearing a race number. Holy shit…that was intense. The first time I ran by this house was just before 4:00pm and I can tell you, they were just getting started!! My main focus was eat, drink, run, repeat. The sun started to peak out a little so I did not want to battle dehydration as well so eat, drink, run, repeat. Lake drive is a beautiful stretch of paved path that goes out and back from miles 2.5 – 6.7. There is actually a little crushed gravel path running along the pavement which is where I chose to spend my time. The one climb is almost 150 feet over ½ mile just before the turn around. By the time I got to this hill my hamstrings were talking to me. I could feel some potential cramps but I had been taking S-Caps every hour so I just thought some fatigue was building up. I made a decision to walk the entire hill. I didn’t want to cost myself the ability to run all day just to push myself up this hill. Overall, it took 8 minutes to walk it so I probably only cost myself 4-5 minutes. Down a hill to the turnaround, walked up that same hill and got back into a rhythm heading back to town. Oh yeah, it started to rain at this point. Fortunately it did not last very long but it was enough to get everyone’s attention. It is also worth noting this section had 3 of the best aid stations throughout the entire race. Plenty of support with music, costumes and almost anything you could ask for to eat or drink. Mile 11 = PARTY HOUSE again and they were a little more “juiced up” as it was closer to 5:30pm. Just before mile 12 I ran into Star again. She had walked through downtown to this fantastic neighborhood right on the lake. We talked a little as she walked with me. I told her my fear was if my hamstrings would hold out. Apparently massive amounts of climbing and low RPMs on a bike really engage the hamstrings…who knew?!? She pumped me full of good coach speak and I headed off towards the halfway point…and my special needs bag. The 12.5 mile marker was when I got additional powder for my water bottles, a few gels, a bag of peanut M&M’s and another great card from Star and Georgia. This time I put the card in the top of my sock. For some reason I wanted to keep it with me. Quick bathroom break and back to running. I was carrying two baggies with my Accelerade powder until I got to the next aid station, but where WAS the next aid station? I got to the halfway point at 2:33 but I knew the 5:00 run I wanted was probably out of reach. I was working really hard to keep the cramps at bay and the thought of a negative split just seemed unlikely. I got back to Star around mile 15 and still no aid station so I’m carrying two baggies like a dummy. She walked with me a while longer as I moaned about my aching parts and pieces. I think we were both a little emotional knowing I still had 11 miles to go but I would not see her again until the finish line. I was on track for an IM PR but a lot can happen those last few miles. We had a smooch and I was off again, through the same neighborhood and then back to the party house which was jumpin off the ground by this point. They were so loud it was a little disorienting. There was also a group of guys 1 block before the party house with a microphone and PA system. They were calling our names out (remember the bib) so passer-bys and fans would be aware that “Keith was looking strong and headed for his final lap”. Very cool spectators. By this time I had changed my 6:00 run 1:00 walk intervals to a 4:00 run :30 walk interval and even this was getting more difficult to maintain. Any incline/hill was putting tremendous stress on my hamstrings so I was hitting the ground like a butterfly with sore feet. Extremely cautious. The hill came again at mile 18.6 and I walked to 19.1 and reached mile 20 at 4:05. I now knew for certain that 5:00 was out of reach but a PR WAS and by how much. ** As an aside, I truly believe goals are necessary but I also hardly ever reach my time goals. That’s how I know they are good goals. Slightly out of reach if things don’t go perfectly.** I tried to strike up a few conversations, tried some chicken broth, drank water/coke/perform, ate cookies/gels/chips and tried anything and everything to get myself through the last 6 miles. There was even a guy who was passing out a product called Base Salt near Star’s post up spot during my run. He was actually out on his bike at mile 22 and I took another shot of his product. We chatted briefly about his sister who lives in Memphis. His stuff is extremely concentrated and hard to ingest but I was willing to try anything and everything, the cramps were winning. My 4 minute runs felt like 20 minutes by this point but I was still passing the “walking dead” also known as my fellow racers. Mile 24 took me by the party house for the final time and I told a guy I was “coming back to throw down” with them. I have only done this distance one other time but the last 2 miles of an Ironman are extremely emotional. I thought of all the training hours. I thought of Georgia, my wife, and our good friend we lost, Michael. I let myself shed a few tears but I also continued to concentrate so very hard on keeping my cramps at bay. (I don’t remember these inclines the first time through those miles.) I was able to muster up some grit and fly through 12 minute miles for my final 2 miles. This race takes its final turn on the busiest commercial street in Coeur D’Alene, Sherman Ave. Both sides of Sherman are lined with shops, restaurants and bars but the street is barricaded at the sidewalk from the thousands of spectators. Spectators screaming your name, soliciting a high five or any acknowledgement an athlete can muster. I tried to soak in the atmosphere but I also wanted to stop running. I also wanted to see Star. We had not discussed a meeting place but I know how good she is at navigating race crowds so I just trusted she would be where I needed her to be. Mike Reilly!!! There he was like a beacon in the night. For those of you who don’t know, Mike Reilly works the finish line of Ironman races. He has made himself a celebrity by hyping the crowd like no one could imagine and as you approach the finish his tag line is “_____<insert name, you are an Ironman”. Well there he was, waving his white towel, jumping around like a psychopath and shouts it out… “Keith Ritchey, for the 2nd time, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. Within seconds I saw my Star. Run: 5:27:26
And it’s over…for now. :)