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Ironman challenges triathletes and volunteers alike

Chris Phenicie, of Missouri City, Texas, has sunscreen applied by volunteers Miranda Snook, left, of Hayden, and Dixie Ziegler, of Post Falls. 
 (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)
Chris Phenicie, of Missouri City, Texas, has sunscreen applied by volunteers Miranda Snook, left, of Hayden, and Dixie Ziegler, of Post Falls. (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)

The trick to being a supportive spectator at the Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene is all in the equipment.

When a friend, family member or significant other stumbles out of the chilly waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene after a 2.4 mile swim, pedals past in the middle of a 112-mile bike race, or sprints or trudges by in the final 26.2-mile run, it’s important to get his or her attention.

Support crews had different strategies for that Sunday as they waited on the sidelines. Nancy and Walt Erikson, of Liberty Lake, wore yellow T-shirts with “Kelly’s Mom” and “Kelly’s Dad” on the back, and the name and number of their daughter and her running partner on the front.

Kelly Lynch, a physical therapist in Spokane Valley, had trained for about a year for the grueling event, they said. Her goal was to finish, and their goal was to urge her and training partner Sara Breen on. They expected as many as 20 family and friends to be making encouraging noises at the finish line.

Nicole Rader and Alison Fernandez, of Orlando, Fla., had a more gadget-intensive system. They’d brought a tambourine, a drum, two cowbells and three turkey callers to use as their husbands, John Rader and Jason Voskamp, and two other friends passed.

Turkey callers?

Voskamp attended Virginia Tech, where it’s a tradition to use them as noisemakers during football games, Fernandez said as she checked the times of their contestants on her Blackberry.

All four participants they were tracking are experienced triathletes but were competing in their first Coeur d’Alene Ironman, Rader said. They had to make some adjustments for the North Idaho race, including buying or borrowing wet suits for the morning swim.

“They don’t swim in wet suits in Florida,” she said.

The competition started with an early morning rush into Lake Coeur d’Alene. Several dozen elite triathletes hoping for a spot in the Ironman world championship in Hawaii sprinted into the water at 6:25 a.m., and the rest of the nearly 2,100 contestants followed at 7 a.m.

The lake was warmer than had been expected just a few days ago, with an announced temperature of 59.5 degrees. For more than two hours, the water churned as swimmers twice circled a course marked with colored buoys and watched by spotters in boats, canoes and kayaks.

Although dozens needed to be warmed in tents after the 2.4-mile swim, race officials reported no serious injuries.

Once out of the water, competitors ran, walked or stumbled to a transition area, where volunteers helped strip off wet suits and point them toward changing areas to prepare for the bicycling leg of the course.

Jenny Stratton, of Kalispell, Mont., one of about two dozen volunteers in the transition area, said she and her three friends signed up for the job nearly a year ago.

Wearing surgical gloves, they pull off wet suits, gloves and footies of hundreds of athletes and get soaked in the process. “It’s exciting,” Stratton said. “It’s up front and personal. It’s an adrenaline rush.”

Volunteers also look for any signs athletes might need medical attention. Sometimes they ask, but other times “you can see it in their faces,” said Stacie Hull, of Seattle.

The most serious health issue Sunday appeared to be a cyclist who crashed and was taken to Kootenai Medical Center, apparently with a broken collarbone The amount of time needed to train is a serious commitment, said Tammy Barnhart, of Seattle, who hopes to work up to entering the Coeur d’Alene event in 2010. Until then, she said, getting the swimmers out of their wet suits and off to the bike race is “the best ticket” at the race.

Runners came from across the United States and 16 other countries. In the mix were 150 from Kootenai County, a sharp increase from the first event six years ago, which only attracted eight home-grown contestants.

For most contestants, the goal was just to finish. Detroit attorney Richard Bernstein, who is blind, was swimming, running and biking with Matt Miller, a companion from C Different, a national organization that pairs sighted athletes with visually impaired ones.

This was his first Ironman, but Bernstein has run eight marathons and each one seems to make everything else in life a little easier, he said.

“It’s amazing how it builds your confidence,” Bernstein said.

Dave Bigonie, another blind athlete running with a companion from C Different, said his goal was finishing and “just having a good time.”

He defined a good time as “laughing, joking, not crashing and not throwing up.”

Bigonie also runs in other events and competed in the Coeur d’Alene Ironman in 2005.

“I absolutely have fun,” Bigonie said. “I love challenging myself.”