Ironman Coeur d’Alene: Course Review

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Beginning of the AG swim.

This post offers a detailed Ironman Coeur d’Alene course review. Based on my experience racing there in 2014, I give you my perspective of the swim, bike, and run, as well as some tips for racing.

If you aren’t interested in the intricacies of the IMCDA course, no need to read any further :). But, if you are planning on racing or even thinking about racing IMCDA, please read on!

If you are interested in reading my race report of my experience at IMCdA 2014, you can click here to read it.

The Swim

Lake Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful clear body of water that is typically cold with average water temps in the high 50s to low 60s for race day. In 2014, the water temp was 61 degrees on race day, although warmer temps were reported in the days leading up to the race (around 63-64 degrees). Thanks to several days of rain, it brought the temperature down a few notches. All of this is to say: don’t take the water temperatures in the days and weeks leading up to the race to mean much. It will change.

I’m warm blooded so I didn’t find 61 degrees to be a problem at all – despite the fact that I have Raynaud’s. I wore a neoprene cap, which I’m not sure I needed, but I was happier to have it than to not have it. I did not wear booties or gloves, nor did I feel like I needed them at any point. My suggestion: get in the lake in the days leading up to the race to see what you will need to be comfortable, and to give your body some time to adjust to the cold.

The swim is a two-loop rectangle. After the first loop, you must get out of the water and cross the timing mat on the beach before you start the second loop. For this swim, in addition to the cold water, you should also expect some chop. From what I hear, the chop we had in 2014 was not typical (with reports of 2-3′ swells and ample whitecaps), but it’s highly unlikely that the lake will be flat.

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This image shows the choppier-than-typical conditions of the 2014 race. Some kayakers reported swells around 2 feet out in the middle of the lake. Oy!

IMCdA is part of the swim start initiative, so they use a rolling start method, which I absolutely love (and I wrote about last year when I did Ironman Lake Placid). Corrals are set up, starting with those projecting under 1 hour for total swim time, and then +15 minute increments after that. While there is still contact during the swim portion (not sure you can ever get rid of that), I think it is significantly less contact than a mass start with almost 3,000 people, especially for swims that begin in a small area, such as Coeur d’Alene, Lake Placid or Mont Tremblant. For swims with a wider area, such as Cozumel or Kona, a staggered start may not be as important for the swim portion. But, it does help with the congestion on the early portion of the bike.

The race directors provide an area for a swim warm up or acclimation prior to the start, and it’s accessible from the corrals. Give yourself time to get there as it can get crowded with all of the bodies, making forward progress toward the beach a little slow. After you exit the warm up area, you can just wait until your corral comes around – unless you plan on swimming 1:15 or less, then you can walk up the beach to your corral.

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View of the swim course extending out into the lake. Choppy conditions in 2014, thanks to big winds.

Transition Area

This is one of the more compact transition areas of the races I have done, which you can see evidenced in the transition times. They are fast. You won’t find a very long run from the lake to the bags and the bikes, and similarly, no long run from dismount to the run bags and exit.

The gear bags will sit on the ground overnight after you drop them the day before the race, so be sure to either double bag the items you don’t want to get wet, or otherwise secure those items. You do have the opportunity to access your bags in the morning (at least you did in 2014), but this is something you should double check each year as the rules do change. (Note: SPECIAL NEEDS BAGS ARE NOT RETURNED. Plan accordingly.)

IMG_7442The Bike

The course is a two loop route with about 4,600 feet of climbing, based on my data. **Note: all elevation data comes from my Garmin Edge 500, which I use with elevation correction enabled for data analysis. The Ironman website reports 5,700 feet of climbing, so there is a discrepancy. Generally, I’ve noticed that the elevation on the official Ironman profiles tend to report more elevation gain than my Garmin files. But, I will use my data since it allows me to provide more fine tuned info for you.

The 56-mile loop features two primary out and back sections: 1) an out-and-back along the river on Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive, which is a little shy of 15 miles with about 320 feet of climbing, and 2) an out-and-back along Highway 95, which is about a little over 41 miles with about 1,950 feet of climbing. So, yeah, you can see which is the hilly portion.

The out and back along the river is the first part of the loop. As you exit transition, you will head out through the city to get to Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive. This segment is mostly flat, but just shy of 6 miles in there is a three-quarters-of-a-mile climb, with an average 3% grade (this climb is also part of the run course, just prior to the turnaround). This lake portion is a great opportunity to settle yourself after the swim, or as you start the second loop to re-group and re-energize. It’s easy to find a rhythm here, and there’s no need to come out of aero. In fact, most of the climbing on this course can be done in aero.

Bike course as it goes out and back along Lake Coeur dAlene Drive. Image from http://sunnyrunningdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/eventpagecarousel-cdabike2.jpg.
Bike course as it goes out and back along Lake Coeur dAlene Drive. Image from http://sunnyrunningdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/eventpagecarousel-cdabike2.jpg.

During the first loop, you will likely find that this section is packed with other cyclists and it’s hard to find a legal space. I had to soft pedal a few times, as well as burn a few matches to stay out of draft zones.

The out and back along the highway is where the climbing begins, with the “out” portion of this segment featuring most of the climbing. You can expect to take significantly more time getting to the turnaround out on the highway than you will need to get back to town. For both John and I, we came back into town about 20-25 minutes faster than we went out. This was due in part to the hills and in part to the 20-25 mph headwinds we had during the “out” portion. Yeah, 2014 was a windy year 🙂

The first big climb is part of a no-pass zone, and comes just past mile 20 (mile 74 second loop), and is a little over 2 miles, with about 471 feet of gain. The no-pass zone begins with the on-ramp to the highway. Be aware of who is in front of you. If you need to burn a few matches to get in front of someone who looks like they might be a slower rider, do it. Otherwise, you will be stuck for about 2 miles or so. This is the same for when you are descending on the way back to town. I got caught behind some riders, and it gets tricky.

Following this first climb, you will have a fast descent of approximately equal distance and elevation loss. Hold on and have fun! After this descent, it’s all climbing either via extended climbs or rollers until you get to the turnaround. There is very little extended descent at this point, so take advantage of what you can. Be sure you can take in fluid and nutrition while climbing, as you won’t have much “coasting” terrain.

The second main climb begins just before mile 24 (mile 80 second loop); it’s about 3 miles with 386 feet of gain. The grade on this one is not quite as steep as the first one, but it grinds on and on and on and on again. After this, the course rolls, mostly up until you get to the turnaround, which is a hair past mile 35 (or mile 91 on the second loop).

Image from http://www.ironman.com/~/media/8c42802beb7d4fc4b1650d0b06cdcdd5/cda%20bike.jpg?w=740&h=370&c=1. Section of highway 90.
Image from http://www.ironman.com/~/media/8c42802beb7d4fc4b1650d0b06cdcdd5/cda%20bike.jpg?w=740&h=370&c=1. Section of highway 90.

After the turnaround, you get to descend all of those hills you just climbed, and it’s fast. So, in terms of pacing, you can work to the top end of your power and HR cap on the way out, because it will be hard to get there on those descents – especially if you have a strong tailwind, as we had. This was my primary error in pacing my bike. I was too conservative on the way out, and I didn’t need to be.

That being said, you do still need to work within your limits on the way out, as you can blow yourself up with the climbing. But I think if you are experienced, you can work to the top end of those limits, and even burn a few matches. The way back in to town gives you some opportunity to recover from the climbing. For those of you doing your first Ironman, I don’t recommend taking an overly aggressive approach on the way out. Steady gets it done all day long 🙂

After you make the turn to leave the highway, it’s a short ride back to transition if you have completed the two loops, or to begin your second loop. This section has a good amount of spectators and it’s a nice pick-me-up when you are halfway done, and a great boost if you are getting ready to start your run.

If it’s a hot day, the highway portion will cook, as there is little shade. 2014 was a very cool year, so the sunshine was actually welcome. But, you should take the time to apply sunscreen regardless of the temperature as the sun will be on you the entire time.

How does this bike compare to other courses I’ve done?

In terms of climbing, I’d say IMCdA has less sustained climbing than Ironman Lake Placid or Ironman Mont Tremblant, but not much less. There are no super steep climbs, in comparison to those two courses. That being said, the IMCdA course reminded me a little bit of the highway section of IMMT. There are climbs that are similar to that portion of that course.

The wind that we had on race day (20-25 mph) made it an equal challenge, though. From what I understand, you should always expect at least some wind on that course – but maybe not the high winds we had. Without the strong winds, I think CdA is a faster course and significantly less technical than most of the other courses I’ve done (IM-distance or less). In fact, there isn’t a single turn – other than the turnaround – along highway 95. The turnarounds themselves allow ample space to make the u-turn, compared to some of the hairpin turns used in other courses, such as the Haselton Road turnaround in Placid.

I believe IMCdA is a more challenging course than Louisville in terms of climbing. But, Louisville is more technical (requires an ability to work short rollers, with more turns), and it’s a hotter course (or at least it was until they decided to move it to October for 2015).

Please note: Just because I’m saying I think IMCdA is faster than IMLP or IMMT (minus the winds), I’m NOT saying it’s easy. There is no such thing as an “easy” Ironman course. Some courses are faster, but that doesn’t make them easier. You can blow yourself up on this course, just like those other courses. Trust me. I offer this comparison to help you find a course that speaks to your strengths and experience as a triathlete (not just a cyclist). As someone who is not a highly skilled technical rider but someone who can grind hills fairly well, I found IMCDA to match well my abilities (even if my bike split for the day doesn’t necessarily show that).

Run gear bag area.
Run gear bag area.

The Run

I think this course is very friendly for runners, with ample opportunities to make time on competitors who are faster cyclists, but perhaps not as strong as runners. Unfortunately, my Garmin 910 file is not providing usable elevation data, so we’ll have to go with the official Ironman profile, which reports this course as 1,000 feet of gain. As with their bike profile, I think that’s a high estimate, but somewhere in the range of 700-800 seems about right.

The course begins by heading out through town toward Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive (where the bike course also goes). The route to get to the lake drive, however, is different from that taken by the bike, as it takes you through neighborhoods that hug the lake, roads which are lined with spectators.There are little rollers in and through this section, but none are terribly steep or long. On the second loop, however, they can begin to take a bite out of you, especially as you make the twisting turns. It can play on your mind a little bit – don’t let it. Stay focused!

If you are looking to see where your competition is, the turns in this section make that difficult. So, I would recommend having a spotter on the course. It helps!

The biggest climb of this run comes just prior to the turnaround out on Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive, around mile 6 (mile 19 second loop. Sorry I don’t have an exact here due to my file). You will run up about 3/4 of a mile, then run down about the same on the other side, hit the turnaround and run right back up and then down again.You’ll recall this hill from the first part of the bike loop.

It’s quite the lung and leg buster – especially by the time you get to the second loop. This point is where the runners get separated out from the non-runners. This point is where you’ll likely see the most carnage during the run course.

If you want avoid being part of that carnage, then be prepared for this double hill at the turnaround – both mentally and physically. Just keep running, and you’ll pass plenty of people. There were a lot of people who didn’t even bother to try running this hill, and began walking at soon as they reached it. If you do find yourself walking, then speedwalk, and keep your chest proud and your head up. Keep the feet moving at a quick cadence. Don’t hunch over and let the fatigue settle in. Stay upright, proud chest, work your arms. Get it done 🙂

The run along the lake portion doesn’t have many spectators, but it’s a beautiful scene, and a perfect opportunity to get inside of your head and find your rhythm–which is exactly what I like, the quiet places on the run.

Aid stations are well-placed and easy to access.

Image of the Centennial Trail, which is the run course. This image is obviously not on race day, but gives you a sense of what the lakeside portion of the course looks like. Beautiful! Image from: http://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/Sesqui/CDAPKWY-Trail4.JPG.

On a hot day, this would be a pretty steamy run, as there is not much shade available. For the 2014 race day, that wasn’t an issue with temperatures barely hitting 70 degrees, and there is absolutely no humidity to speak of – at least not for those of us who live in humid climates. Some locals said that it was “pretty humid” for Coeur d’Alene. I think maybe 40% – ahahahahahahaha! We consider that the total absence of humidity here in the Dirty Jerz.

Ironman Coeur d'Alene Finish line
Steps from the finish line in 2014. Excited much?

I think this marathon is about as challenging as the Ironman Lake Placid marathon in terms of climbing, although IMLP might edge it out because it is more likely to be hot and humid there, at the end of July. That being said, there is more shade at IMLP than at IMCdA. So, it’s a toss up as to which marathon is more challenging between the two depending on weather conditions. Both have hills. Train for them.

My recommendation for hills? Work the downhill. Don’t fight gravity. Climb up steady, and bomb down. This is an approach that you MUST train for – otherwise, you will blow up your quads and knees. It is not an approach I recommend for anyone who already has problems with their knees.

The Finish Line

One of the best parts of Ironman Coeur d’Alene is the turn on to Sherman Avenue to the finish line. It’s a downhill portion (slight grade), with ample spectators, that goes for about a quarter of a mile. Enjoy this and soak it all in! Unless your Kona slot or a time goal is on the line – slow down and enjoy it. Too many people rush the finish line – don’t. Enjoy this moment!

I wanted to race Ironman Coeur d’Alene for several years now, and 2014 was finally the year. The race did not disappoint. It was beautiful and challenging, well-organized and supported, with ample and incredible volunteers. We will return.

I cannot say enough words of gratefulness to those people who volunteered their free time for all of us who were chasing the Ironman dream.

THANK YOU! 

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Pre-Race Prep

Pack clothes for all types of weather: cold, hot, rain, sun. You’ll get a little bit of everything during your stay. Be prepared for weather on race day – the forecast will change every day. It’s very mountain-like weather in that way. It’s also just like a box of chocolates ;).

Lodging: We rented a house using VRBO, and we were able to find one just a mile from transition for a reasonable price. We shared that with our amazing friends Patti & Danny, and our new friend Tina–who is also amazeballs :). It was definitely one of the more economical race venues to find a house – not super cheap, but not way blown out like Lake Placid or Mont Tremblant.

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Celebrating at the Moose Lounge the night of the race. John, Patti & Danny.

As for hotels, I can’t speak to those, since I didn’t stay in any. Sorry! If you have lodging recommendations, please leave a comment below. Thank you!

If you stay in town, it’s relatively easy to get around, and even if you have to drive in, there are places to park in and around the various neighborhoods. I’m not sure how challenging it is to park on race morning, but my advice: get there early so you don’t have to worry about it.

We didn’t eat out much, since we had a kitchen in the house. But, we did go to a few places.

We ate at Tito’s the day after the race, and it was delicious, with italian comfort food that made my post-Ironman stomach happy.

We had breakfast at Java on Sherman twice, and really loved it (even though it was pricey for breakfast fare). The avocado toast is simple – and delicious. We have completely stolen that idea and eat it all of the time now.

Lastly, we celebrated at the Moose Lounge with good friends, beers and fireball shots. We also had some of their bar munchies, which were perfectly fine as far as bar munchies go.

Have other food recommendations? Please leave a comment to help others. Thanks!

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If you have questions about Ironman Coeur d’Alene, please feel free to contact me or leave a note in the comments. I happy to offer whatever I can by way of assistance.

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Race evening – fun with friends!

12 Comments

  1. Mike Benny Benedict

    Very nice write-up! This is my 5th IM race. Still chasing an age group Kona spot. Your info was just about perfect. My take away was “really concentrate on my hills training” for this one. Thanks a ton!! Wish me luck. Benny.

  2. Fred

    I really appreciate the insight on the course. I am doing the new IM CDA 70.3 in a week and a half and I have been worried about the bike course since I live in a pretty flat area. The information you provided gives me a good idea of what to expect. Thany you!!

  3. caroline wilson

    Thank you for your review of the course. It was thorough and informative. I’ve raced Texas the past 2 years, but have raced Louisville, Mt Tremblant, and Los Cabos. I was wondering how this race stacked up to the others. It’s time to train hills again. I just signed up for CDA. Looking forward to the challenge!!

  4. Best write up I’ve seen so far! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m doing IMCDA and it’s supposed to be in triple digit heat. This helps me plan my strategy better and hopefully make my 1st IM (maybe last!) a wonderful experience.

    1. Thank you, Hollee! I’m glad this was helpful. You will absolutely love this race – it’s wonderful! As for the heat, you just manage the heat as you would any other weather issue (cold water, big wind, whatever). Recognize the impact it can have, and adjust for it. Be sure to hydrate well – and with electrolytes. Stay on top of your nutrition. Managing heat is a lot about what you are putting in your body to help counteract the impact it has. Here are some tips for managing heat, which I posted on my other site: http://www.nolimitsendurance.com/2012/07/03/keep-your-core-cool/. Hope this helps!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experience!