IM Boulder: A Coach's Race Report

The iTri365 team car: the Batwagon

The iTri365 team car: the Batwagon

A bit of time has gone by since IM Boulder and I have read each of my athletes' race reports. It was a challenging race for me personally and professionally and, after some consideration, I realized that it was worth writing a race report from a coach's perspective. I've never actually read one so I'm kind of winging it here. I hope you gain some insight from this telling of the tale. Please apply the appropriate amount of tongue-in-cheek tone when reading this.

When three of my athletes decided to do IM Boulder, Nate and I decided that it would be a good opportunity for a work related vacation. I like to make it to at least a few races every year because it keeps me connected to the emotions of the day that my athletes feel and, without fail, my athletes are always grateful when I can be there. So we rented a little house, loaded the dogs, 5 bikes, and an astonishing amount of luggage into my VW and headed for Colorado at the beginning of August. When we got there on Monday night, I researched ALL THE PLACES!! I would ride and ride and hike and hike and do some coaching too. It was going to be GREAT!

Tuesday I rode part of the course. I was short on time as storms had taken out part of the day and I didn't make it as far as I would like but I definitely got a feel for a portion of it. That proved to be helpful in planning race strategy and let me bolster the athletes confidence about the nature of the bike course. My plan was to ride the entire course over the course of the week.

Rainbow over the Boulder bike course: GOOD OMEN!

Rainbow over the Boulder bike course: GOOD OMEN!

Wednesday. Oh, Wednesday. Nate and I found a sweet, non-technical 15 mile mountain bike loop. We headed out after he was done at work and there were 11 fantastic miles before I misread a bit of trail and faceplanted on a couple of big rocks. The result was a badly broken nose, a shattered elbow, and a large abdominal hematoma (seriously the most painful of the injuries). They put on a temporary cast and I had to wait until I returned to Austin for surgery. Nothing about this was in my plans for the week.

It was an amazing ride... until it wasn't!

We can pretty much fast forward from the ER room to the race... it was bed and drugs and not much else. I walked the dogs with Nate for a few blocks once.

The night before I went over to the house that they had rented and had a private conference with each athlete. For each of them, I had concerns and areas of confidence. We discussed the race strategy, the course, and I tried to plant ideas in their heads that may help them if they got into trouble on race day. The theme of all of it was “problem solve”. Most things that go wrong in a race can be solved or improved with calm, clear headed thinking... the very thing that often seems so out of reach when your brain is a soup of adrenaline and cortisol, and your legs and gut are running the show. I believe in the power of planting suggestions though, and did just that. I focused on choosing words that were simple and catchy enough that they might resonate through all the confusion on race day and actually come to mind in the moment that they are needed. I was a bit tickled to read that each athlete felt like she was going to the principal's office though. That was not my intent. My main interest was to not clutter their heads with other people's instructions and since they each had a different race plan, I didn't want them to start in the ego game of comparing themselves to anyone else. In all, the conferences were a success as they each mentioned remembering my words in the heat of the moment. As a coach, those are the little victories that drive you forward.

The mountains made for a beautiful backdrop on race morning!

The mountains made for a beautiful backdrop on race morning!

Race day. I'm not going to say this day was easy. I was not very comfortable walking because everything was raw and intensely painful. I still wasn't eating well and my energy was is short supply. But you know, a major race holds as much adrenaline at the start for me as it ever did, even though I am no longer racing. That adrenaline helpfully gave me the energy to make it to the swim start without falling over. This was a victory in itself. I looked in vain for my three athletes and though I found their waves in the corrals, I never did pick them out from the sea of neoprene clad athletes who all looked the same in their color coded caps. Chances are I looked right at them and didn't realize it.

Kat partied from one end of the course to the other!

I did connect with our group of supporters and stayed with them to watch the swim exit. It was the first time I had gotten any day of info. Keith told me that Gina was not wearing a wetsuit (what??!!! why didn't I know this?) and was freezing cold at the start of the swim. She had been doing the breast stroke to cope and unable to fall into a good swimming rhythm. The next hour felt like 100 years. Ryan was down at the swim exit and the rest of us were further up the chute. Suddenly Ryan was yelling and running... our first athlete was out of the water. It was Kat. She was rocking and dancing out of the water. She looked relaxed and fantastic. Check. One discipline down and she was one swim closer to being an Ironman!

Cori was next even though she went off in a later wave. Cori! Cori who worked SO HARD on her swim... who had so little confidence... who was so worried... had overtaken parts of the wave in front of her. Gina and Kat are both accomplished swimmers who teach swimming on a regular basis so to see Cori right up there trading punches really made me proud. As Cori running up the ramp, I got a look at her face and she looked good at that point. 

I did a little happy dance but was still deeply concerned about Gina. Last up the ramp was Gina. She looked cold and stiff. My worry didn't abate much when I saw her. Even though she clearly had her game face on, it looked like that swim took a lot out of her. I really wished I could get inside her head right then but of course, that can't happen. We screamed and cheered and made sure she knew she was not alone out there. Really, that is all you can do. Once she passed us, we circled to the backside of T1 to see her off on the bike. Heading out on the bike, she looked better. She had her game face on. Her husband and I agreed that she looked solidly determined. She was also moving better. She no longer looked totally frozen. I relaxed a bit. I got to breathe a sigh of relief as all three athletes had successfully departed on their bikes and there was nothing more to do but wait. We had made it through the first set of challenges. I say we because when you coach an athlete through a race like this with months and months of preparation, you are also very invested in the race by the end.

At this point, the pain and nausea caught up to me. The bus ride back from the swim start to downtown felt like a form of torture. After conferring with the crew as to where they would be and how we would regroup, I went back to the house to pass out for a while.

A couple of hours later, after a nap, I mustered some resolve (took more drugs) and headed back out to find my three intrepid souls on the bike course. But before we would do that, we would find all the traffic in Boulder. We turned down a road headed for the “flux capacitor” (a central spot on the course) where the Cobb Mobb tent and a chair was waiting.... and turn right into a parking lot.... no, actually it was a bit of road construction on the road that all the race traffic was shunted onto. It was full stop. After debating the best way to sit in traffic with Nate for about 15 minutes, my phone rang. I looked at my phone.  Ryan. Uh-oh.

“Gina is on her way to the medical tent”

No, No.  No P-o-J pics.   Look at these nice windmills.

No, No.  No P-o-J pics.
Look at these nice windmills.

What?! CRAP!! Honey! Turn the car around. We have to get to the med tent now. It's at the finish like. Nate is Batman when it comes to impromptu U-turns and in moments we were speeding off in that direction. The Batwagon whined a diesel-toned objection as we headed back to the same parking garage we had used that morning in a big hurry. There was no way I was going to let her pull out of that race through the med tent and not have me there. I needed to know what was wrong but I needed more for her to not be alone right then.

It was a few blocks of walking and my hematoma (nicknamed the edema baby because a more accurate description was too disgusting to be funny) whined with every step. I felt like a hot mess. Right then, my front zip sports bra, the only thing I could get on over the cast, decided to let fly. By the time I arrived at the Med tent, I had redefined “hot mess”. The security guard had mercy and gave me permission to use the oversized port-o-john so that Nate could help me get... reorganized. Right before heading into the P-o-J, I found Gina coming out of the Med tent. She looked disappointed but largely okay. If nothing else, my predicament provided her with a much needed laugh. We whisked off to the P-o-J, got me sorted, and I stepped out, trying to regain a little dignity and put my coach's hat on before addressing my athlete.


We chatted for a few minutes. She had ultimately succumbed to the effects of the cold water a little more than halfway through the bike. I felt so badly for her. Something as simple as a wetsuit, one detail out of place, had robbed her of her day. Her head was in as good a place as I could have asked for.... she wanted another shot. (Fast Forward a few weeks... Gina is a renewed athlete with a focus and single mindedness that I had not seen in her previously. She will get her second chance and I really believe she will nail that race to the wall.) She headed home to change and eat and would meet us at the Cobb tent later.

We knew that the traffic was likely just as bad now as it had been earlier and we decided to walk. The edema baby eventually stopped whining with each step and the walk, while exhausting, felt good. About halfway there, we saw Kat towards the end of the bike leg. I screamed and yelled to get her attention. It worked but I had no idea if she registered that it was me. It was all I could hope for from an athlete at that point. She looked good, strong, and relaxed. She was smiling and was nicely down in aero (YES!). I put another check in the box and kept walking. Kat was doing great.

When we finally got to the tent, I was wrung out but the excitement was overwhelming. Many of the Cobb Mobb crew, friends and acquaintances, were already out on the run course. So was Cori. It wasn't long before she came through the first time. She looked tired but not unexpectedly so. I sat and relaxed waiting for her to pass by again. I don't remember which pass it was that she came through clearly unhappy. The next pass she was in tears. I have never wished I could run so badly in my life. I wanted to pace her for a bit and talk her through this. I call these moments course demons. They lie in wait for everyone. Sooner or later they catch you. Maybe not this race, maybe not the next, but sooner or later, IM tests everyone. They had caught Cori today.

I gave her a quick hug and told her to put one foot in front of the other. I knew she would get through it if she leveled her considerable determination at it. Ryan took off after her and I could do nothing but wait. I chatted with Clay (the race winner) a bit about the challenges of the course and speculated about what went wrong. But of course speculation is useless. It's just a thing you can do when you really can't do anything to help. The next time she came through, eyes were dry and she had her game face back on. She looked grim but she was going to finish... and finish with a huge PR. I knew we had some issues to address and was mentally taking notes for the conversation I knew needed to happen later on.

Gina and her husband enjoying the perks of the location.

Gina and her husband enjoying the perks of the location.

We watched her pass by the final times. Gina showed back up and proved her quality as an athlete and a team player. She set her own disappointment aside and cheered for her friends. We talked a bit about future plans and that resolve I mentioned was already showing. It was clear to me that she was still in the game.

Kat was out on the run course and from appearances, making sure that everyone within a mile radius was having as much fun as she was. She wasn't setting any land speed records but she was putting in respectable, even splits. As much as you can ever make this assumption, I was pretty sure she had this in the bag. It was time to head back to the finish and wait for Cori.

I had not been able to eat all day and once we arrived at the finish, I was nearly passing out. Nate ran to a nearby store and returned with a smoothie and some juice. He started to force feed me so that I didn't fall victim to a course demon. In what was literally the longest group of minutes I have ever endured, I stood near the finish and waited for Cori. Finally after what felt like 200 years, Ryan came running up and said Cori was 5K out, holding steady, and gaining on some other athletes that we knew were out ahead of her. Course demons or not, she was making this race her B***h! When she did run down that chute, I was beyond proud of her.

Cori was dehydrated. The problems had been hydration and nutrition. Her gut had rebelled and she had been unable to take in the necessary nutrition. That was why she had fallen apart on the run. It's common for athletes to struggle with this at altitude and she was no exception. She went to the medical tent for an IV and after waiting a bit, Nate and I gave in to hunger and headed to find food.

We found a quiet Japanese restaurant where I was served rice with chopsticks. With my right arm in a cast, that was a cruel joke. I did secure a fork and managed to get some rice and miso soup into my angry belly. Revived we headed back to the finish and hooked back up with the crew. Kat should be bringing it home any minute.

Kat, YOU are an IRONMAN!

Kat, YOU are an IRONMAN!

When Kat finally came across the line, it was a celebration. She rocked her way across that line and found us shortly. The emotions that came flooding out of her son, Carson, were incredible to see. She had worked so hard. She had struggled against the idea that this goal was beyond her. She had gotten up early, stayed up late, fought back insecurities, beaten back her tendency to stay injured through correct work and consistency... and she had set an amazing example for her son to see. I remembered when my father ran the Western States 100 in 1980 and how that show of fortitude shaped my adult life.  I think Carson has been given a great gift.

Hugs were given and the day was done. I was overdue for some self care (drugs!) and sleep.

This day, this week, was an exercise in managing unexpected disappointments. It was also a chance to be there for people I care about and see my work with my athletes through to race day. It represented, for me, my coaching career. Not every race will be perfect but you make the best of the bad times and go as hard as you can when it's good. With my own racing once again shunted to the back burner, it reaffirmed that I am in the right line of work. I learned, I grew, and I saw my athletes do the same.

Kat, Cori, Gina... iTri365 could not be more proud!

Kat, Cori, Gina... iTri365 could not be more proud!

People often ask me why they need a coach. Personally, I am inclined to rattle on about training principles, numbers, science, etc. All that is so true but when someone spends all day thinking about how to make you better and then conveys those thoughts to you in the form of a training plan, you are going to reap the benefits. But it also matters when someone else cares about your success and works towards that end. Objectivity is probably the most powerful thing a coach has to offer. I know, since my athletes all mentioned remembering some piece of advice I gave them out on course, that being there helped them to succeed. Even Gina, who did not finish, made a wise choice and pulled out before endangering her health because she was thinking clearly... because she was recalling the advice I had given her about what to do if the wheels fall off. Gina will race again...  Smarter, stronger, and even more ready than she was in Boulder. Cori PR'd by an hour. She's hungry for the podium. Then info I took away from that race will get digested and end up as ideas to conquer her nutrition issues and make her even faster. She will build on this performance rather than starting back at ground zero the next time she decides to do a race because she has focus and direction rather than just being burned out. Kat had never been able to string together a reasonable amount of time without an injury. We micromanaged her rest, recovery, stress, nutrition, and workload every day and she did it. She came across that line and owned that race. She went to the start pain free. She trained pain free. She succeeded and learned what she has to do to get the consistency necessary to take herself to the next level. All of that? Its the product of objectivity and accountability.  ALL OF THIS... this was my finish line.

Boulder, CO... until next time.

Lora Popolizio
iTRI365 Head Coach