Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

Cold water course for Ironman

By the time Ironman participant Michelle Schwartz, of San Diego, finished her swim Wednesday in Lake Coeur d'Alene, she was so cold she could barely talk. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By the time Ironman participant Michelle Schwartz, of San Diego, finished her swim Wednesday in Lake Coeur d'Alene, she was so cold she could barely talk. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A little cold water shouldn’t intimidate an Ironman triathlete, say race officials, who expect a 55-degree Lake Coeur d’Alene to greet swimmers Sunday for the grueling world-class competition.

“There are no plans for shortening or canceling the swim,” said Andy Emberton, Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene race director. “They just need to either cowboy or cowgirl up.”

Emberton said the water temperature, likely the coldest in the Coeur d’Alene race’s five-year history, has sparked a rumor mill of potential race changes. But the only change planned is that Ironman – which also includes a 112-mile bicycle course and 26.2-mile run – will let swimmers wear Neoprene booties, gloves and caps to fight the cold.

Yet Ironman lifeguard captain and participant Nancy Lowery is concerned about swimmers’ safety, pointing out that most of the 2,400 athletes aren’t elite swimmers and that many aren’t acclimated to Lake Coeur d’Alene, which can cause instant numbness in hands and feet and produce a pounding headache.

“It’s like swimming in a bathtub full of ice cubes,” said Ironman athlete Bruce Logan, of Sacramento, Calif., who was so cold when he got out of the lake Wednesday that he couldn’t speak for minutes.

Lowery, a swim coach and lifeguard who has swum in Lake Coeur d’Alene for decades, hasn’t managed to stay in for longer than 40 minutes at a time, she said. In many cases, the 2.4-mile Ironman swim that starts from City Beach could take at least an hour longer than that.

That has Lowery worried about hypothermia, because the disorientation it causes could be dangerous in a mass swim. Still, she’s not advocating – at least not yet – any race-day changes.

“I have a different perspective as a lifeguard and doing my fifth Ironman,” she said. “I don’t want anyone from my watch going down. It’s Ironman’s call to make, but I hope people are really smart about it.”

Her advice to swimmers: Don’t risk your safety. If you get in trouble, raise your arm for help.

“It’s not worth it,” she advised. “There are other Ironmans. There’s another year.”

Sunday’s Ironman athletes are competing to qualify for 80 slots in October’s world championship in Hawaii. About 275 competitors live in North Idaho and Eastern Washington.

Sunday’s forecast is for a slight chance of showers, clouds and a high of 70 degrees and a low of 47, according to the National Weather Service’s Web site Wednesday.

Lowery said that if the wind kicks up Sunday, as it has this week, it could create big waves and even colder water. Rough water caused by wind last year prompted officials to let participants skip the 2.4-mile swimming portion. Swimmers also could opt to turn back after the first lap and still complete the bike course and marathon. But doing so prevented them from qualifying for the world championship.

Lowery said that her lifeguards pulled about 50 people from the water and that she had a difficult swim because of the pummeling waves. The water then was 62 degrees, at least 7 degrees warmer than the current lake temperature. But her lifeguards are prepared; Lowery said she has been requiring them to get in the lake and acclimate themselves.

“I have my team prepared to pull out hundreds of people,” Lowery said.

Even though the temperature is expected to linger in the low 70s, she worries about the possibility of heat exhaustion, especially after athletes’ bodies are shocked by the cold water.

“Talk about Ironman,” she said. “It could be really, really extreme. I may get an Ironman tattoo if I make it through this one.”