Monday, July 4, 2011

An Ironman Race Recap!

Saturday Night Dinner in Spokane 

Driving to Coeur D'Alene, I was a ball of nerves.  I kept thinking of all of the possible things that could go wrong during the race (choppy water, flat tire, broken chain, a massive bonk on the run).  If I didn't finish, my biggest concern was that I would disappoint the many people who have been so supportive throughout our entire training.  I didn't want to let them down.

Yet during our pre-race pasta dinner with Dave's parents and my own, my nerves started to be overshadowed by excitement and joy.  Getting to spend time with people that I love in such a beautiful part of the country was amazing.  During our carbo-load, I was able to truly appreciate kicking off our Ironman weekend with such supportive and loving family members.

Swim 2.4 Miles (Emilie 1:44:52/ Dave 1:19:24)

At 7:00 am, Dave and I stood on the Lake Coeur d'Alene beach with 2,400 other athletes, staring out into the calm water of our first leg.  I started to tear up in my goggles, in disbelief that this moment had actually arrived.  When the gun went off, everyone charged the water, having their breath taken away by its 55 degree temperature.  After ten minutes of a congested and chaotic frenzy, things started to open up.  I found a rhythm in my stroke and settled in for the swim, passing the many volunteers on boats, jet skis, and surf boards lining the course.

Coming out of the water after the first lap, I couldn't believe I was already half way through the swim.  A length that seemed like hours during training flashed by in what seemed like minutes during the race.  I ran over the timing pad on the shore, then eagerly headed back into the water for my second lap.

When I sighted the red swim finish chute from the water near the end, I was filled with excitement for having completed the swim in a decent time.  Knowing that I was well within the cut-off time limits, I felt really good about the swim portion of my race.  The cheers from the many spectators became louder and louder as I got closer to the shore.  When the water was shallow enough to put down my feet, I stood and looked up to see a sea of encouraging, proud faces surrounding the swim exit.


Transition 1 (Emilie 11:54/ Dave 12:01)

My legs were a little wobbly running onto the shore.  Volunteers were helping me stand and guiding me in the right direction.  Wet-suit strippers pulled off my suit, I ran to grab my transition bag, and then headed into the changing tent.

In the changing tent, one kind volunteered helped me the entire time.  She took out the contents of my bag and handed each thing to me as I needed it.  My fingers were still frozen from the water, making my transition much longer than I expected.  I could not move my fingers, so the volunteer was a huge help in getting the velcro open on my shoes, getting my socks on, etc.  When I was finished changing, she even put everything back in the bag for me so that I could quickly continue with my race.

After being slathered with sunscreen by more volunteers, I ran to my bike.  The transition area was pretty empty by then, so it wasn't hard to find.  I spotted my parents, feeling encouraged by their big smiles and cheers.  Then I made my way to the bike exit, ready to begin the second leg of the race.

Bike 112 Miles (Emilie 7:20:37/ Dave 6:13:20)

The first twenty miles of the bike course was relatively flat and full of spectators.  I was feeling very good about my pace and my spirits were high.  While many people were passing me on expensive tri-bikes, I was holding my own on my road bike and felt confident that I would make the cut-off times.

Then, after twenty miles, the course climbed up into the hills behind Coeur d'Alene.  It was here where my pace slowed and I began to feel the exhaustion of the day set in.  There was hill after hill, climb after climb, on roads without much crowd support.  Most athletes struggled up those hills and I saw some people walking their bikes.  While I didn't need to do that, a few times I had to take it down to the easiest gear and still had to stand to get up and over the hill.

Entering town after the first lap, I was relieved to be back by the crowd and the flat portion of the course.  I tried to eat as much food as I could on the bike: gels, gu, Power Bars, etc.  This started to make my stomach very upset, but I knew it was important to take in as much nutrition as possible.  Those hills were waiting for me once again and I wanted to be ready.  

The second loop was much slower than the first.  With every mile, my average pace was decreasing.  I started to calculate cut-off times in my head and was worried about finishing in time.  The hills seemed bigger and longer the second time around, but with each one, I knew that I would never have to climb it again and I was one step closer to the run.

I ended up finishing the bike with an average mph of 15.25.  This was much slower than I expected, but considering the hilly course, I am happy with my time.  Seeing the bike finish was exhilarating and energizing.  Unlike the swim, which seemed to go by so fast, the bike was a long and challenging leg that I was happy to be done with.


Transition 2 (Emilie 4:28/ Dave 6:37)

This transition was much faster than the first for two reasons: my fingers were not frozen this time and there was much less to change.  Volunteers grabbed my bike and gave me my transition bag.  Again, one volunteer helped me exclusively in the changing tent to switch my shorts and shoes.  I was covered with sun screen, once again, by volunteers and was sent on my way to start the final leg... THE FINAL LEG... of my Ironman journey.

Run 26.2 Miles (Emilie 5:19:55/ Dave 4:18:51)

I had a race plan for the run; I would walk the water stations and the hills, but run everything else.  I was able to stick to my race plans and keep a slow jog the entire time.  I drank the chicken broth and cola at the aid stations, ate some pretzels and chips, and just kept my sights set on that next mile-marker ahead.

The run was really a struggle for me.  Blisters were forming on my feet in places that I had never had problems before and my stomach was still upset from the bike.  The two most uplifting times on the run were seeing Dave when we passed each other, and spotting our parents.  Their enthusiasm and pride filled me and I tried to figure out a way to carry this spirit through the last ten miles.  When I was running, each time there was a spectator cheering on the course, I would pretend that it was someone that had encouraged me during training.  All of my friends and family, people at the Burn Center, work colleagues, SJS survivors, and other survivors that have reached out to me along the way, they were there, cheering me on.  Each face along the course was a different supportive face from my life, one right after the other, unfolding in front of me as I passed the mile markers one by one.  I started to become very emotional, having such an amazing group of loving people in my life.  It was a very humbling, incredible experience. Even as the sun set around mile 20, the loved ones of my life helped me run those final few miles in the dark.



Finish (Emilie 14:41:46/ Dave 12:10:13)

Crossing the finish line of an Ironman is as unbelievable experience.  Spectators there know what this means to you.  They get it.  They are sharing this victory with you.  

I started to tear up during that final .2 miles.  I couldn't believe that I was staring at that Ironman chute with so little left to go.  I saw Dave and our parents on the side lines, waving their arms and jumping up and down.  Each step filled me with an overwhelming cascade of emotions: pride, relief, appreciation, pain, satisfaction.  I was exhausted, and yet I was more alive than I have ever been.  

As I was getting closer, I heard the announcer proclaim, "Emilie Nickoloff, you are an Ironman"... yet at that moment, I was so much more.  I was an SJS survivor, coming out of a coma just a few years ago, taking slow walks to the mailbox covered in burns without nails and sections of hair, scarred eyes and a shortness of breath, knowing that at any moment I could find myself fighting for my life in the Burn Center once again.  There I was at that Ironman finish line, an SJS survivor, proving to others, but mostly to myself, that being a survivor means more than just surviving, it means living.  





Thank you for all of your donations.  Together, we raised over $1,500 dollars for the University of Colorado Burn Center.  Burn patients, their families, and the community will greatly benefit from your contributions.

Your encouragement over the last seven months has meant the world to me.  You were there in the uplifting faces of the people along the sidelines for the last ten miles, helping me to put one foot in front of the other.  I am overwhelmed by your support and am filled with humility and gratitude.  Thank you for your kindness and compassion.  You have helped to make me a better person.


  1. Emilie-
    What a great post about your journey. You are an inspiration and YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!!!
    Can't wait to spend more time with you!

  2. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your race story. We are so proud of you. Congrats again!

  3. Totally choked me up! You are sooooo amazing!! What a fighting spirit you have, no wonder you kicked SJS to the curb! You make me proud to share the name Survivor with you!

  4. Hi Emilie,

    I have a question for you regarding your blog. Please contact me when you get a chance.