Craig Alexander was so sick for a week his coughing injured his ribcage.
That’s good for those interested in watching Ironman Coeur d’Alene on Sunday.
Instead of opening this season in his native Australia, Alexander, a two-time Ironman world champion, was forced to take four weeks off and start his season with his first trip to Coeur d’Alene.
“I’d be lying if I said I was in the same shape I’m in in October for Hawaii,” Alexander, who won the championship showdown in Kona in 2008 and 2009. “I don’t think I’m that far off to be honest. I’m going to go as hard as a can as long as I can. I’m here to try to win.”
With that in mind, former world champion (1994) and triathlete Hall of Fame inductee Greg Welch, a fellow Australian, tabbed Alexander as the favorite.
“Let’s say Craig is 100 percent; I would say Craig first, Malik Twelsiek second and Tom Evans third,” said Welch, who was dominant in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.
“Julie Dibens will probably win the women’s race ahead of Caitlin Snow and Meredith Kessler. Hayley Cooper-Scott (of Spokane) will probably be in there.”
Dibens is a newcomer from the United Kingdom.
“She’s probably the toughest girl out there, probably one of the toughest competitors in the whole field,” Welch said. “She’s as hard as nails and she knows how to hurt. … If the elements play a role in it, it bodes well for her.”
For everyone the goal is to compete in Hawaii, where the Ironman – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run (marathon) – was hatched more than 30 years ago.
For the age-group competitors, spots are open at each of the 23 worldwide races, but the format has changed for the pros, who compete for just 40 spots for men and 25 for women.
The format is now like NASCAR or PRCA rodeo, with season-long qualifying for the finals. However, the past five world champions only have to finish an Ironman to return.
The top 30 men and 20 women as of July 30 are in for Kona in October.
“If it comes down to swallowing his pride and having to validate his spot for Kona, Craig has to do that,” Welch said. “We shouldn’t be disappointed if he comes in sixth. “If he wins or comes in the top three, we know that he’s really back.”
Alexander said it would be almost impossible to consciously back off.
“I won’t have to make that decision, my body will make that decision,” he said. “I’m going to try to win the race.”
A final handful of events determine the last spots.
Each race has a set amount of points available, ranging from 6,000 to 1,000, depending on prize money. CdA, with $25,000 available, is a 1,000-point race.
Neither defending champion, Linsey Corbin of Missoula and Andy Potts of Colorado Springs, Colo., is entered.
There has been an adjustment to the running portion of the course. Instead of a mile and back from downtown at the start, the runners head straight through town, and a mile has been added to the far end of the run.
After years of focusing on Olympic distances – and representing England at the 2004 Games in Greece – Dibens increased her mileage just enough to become the half-Ironman, or Ironman 70.3 world champion in 2009.
“I never had the big dream of doing an Ironman,” she said. “I thought it was just crazy.”
However, after qualifying as a 70.3 champion she went to Kona last October and led most of the way before finishing third in her first race at the Ironman distance.
“I absolutely got the Kona bug,” she said. “It’s an unbelievable experience. Doing an Ironman, unless you do it or spectate, you don’t get what it’s all about.”
Coeur d’Alene is just her second full-distance Ironman.
“I very much still feel out of my depth in Ironman having done only one,” she said. “It’s very much a learning curve for me here. I want to learn as much as possible and take that to Kona.”
She also had a good tip for beginners, who usually have high hopes.
“It’s important to have goals. … I haven’t thought about the time I’m going to do, that’s not even in the picture. I’m looking at it as a two-lap swim, two-lap ride, two-lap run. I’m not thinking about how far it is. … Just break it down into different sections and try to get through the different point.
“The ultimate goal is always just finishing the race. You’ve got to really think about how you’re going to do that and not worry about all the other pressures, or the other goals you have.”
Kessler, from San Francisco, returns to Coeur d’Alene after finishing second behind Corbin’s course record of 9 hours, 17.54 minutes.
It’s a race she really needs.
“Five weeks ago wasn’t my ideal race,” she said. “I attempted my 40th Ironman in St. George (Utah). It just wasn’t a magical day for me. I didn’t play my nutrition cards right. At mile 22 (of the marathon) I was pretty much passed out.”
“I’ve worked the last five weeks on what went wrong, what I can do better. I’ve learned from it and I have a whole new game plan. It’s water under the bridge, I really haven’t thought much about it.”
A temperature around 70 degrees, about 25 lower than the Utah race will help.
“You wake up the next morning and you feel gutted,” she said. “It’s never a pleasant feeling, it was my first DNF. Four miles shy, I would have walked it in. Nothing was getting me off that course unless I was carried off, which was what happened.
“When you are a pro triathlete you have to remember what’s important. I’ve learned to move onward, learn from it instead of sulk about it. I keep saying I’m the same athlete I was winning Canada as I was DNF’ing St. George.”
Evans, the 2008 CdA champion, recalled his earlier battles with two-time winner Viktor Zyemtsev. The Ukranian beat the Canadian in 2007 by about a minute in the closest finish to date.
“The battles with him were always pretty intense coming towards the finish,” Evans, from Penticton, British Columbia, said. “I’m glad I finally beat him once. The race in 2008, I thought about Viktor and rode my bike on the trainer more than usual through our Penticton winter.
“It’s always to be exciting in a race like that. A lot of times Ironman races are solo efforts … some of these races where the pro fields are smaller you’re by yourself a lot of the day. That’s a different mental game. I enjoy it but I also enjoy the times you get into a race. It keeps you sharp.”
Evans grew up as a competitive swimmer and had some advice if the winds don’t die down and the lake remains extremely choppy.
“There’s not much you can do, just stay relaxed,” he said. “The rougher it gets the more you try to stay relaxed. Don’t fight it. The only thing you change is your breathing pattern. … When you’re breathing, make sure you breathe way off to the side, don’t even try to look where you’re going when you’re breathing. When you look where you’re going, hold your breath.”
Snow is in Coeur d’Alene for the fourth time but the first time as a competitor. The first three visits were in support of her husband, Tim.
“I wanted to give a different race a try,” she said. “It’s a little bit earlier so if things work out well and I get a spot for Kona I have a few more weeks to prep for that. I’ve wanted to do this course for a while … it’s beautiful out here.”
Her husband is also competing.
“I’m chasing him and he knows it,” she said.
Snow is considered the strongest runner in the female field. She said the hardest part wasn’t the last miles, but rather the first.
“The biggest part is coming off the bike and still having a marathon to do,” she said. “You tend to go out too fast, by the 10-15 mile mark, you start to pay for it.”
Although there are goals, such as a three-hour marathon, if the clock is winning, don’t panic.
“The biggest thing is to go out on a pace that is reasonable for you,” she said. “If you don’t, you’ll start to pay for it. Instead of 3½-hour marathon have a 4½- hour marathon. It’s good to go in with a plan that’s reasonable for you.”
As for those final miles?
“The last part of the race, you’re tuned in, you’re just going. You’re on your way home, there isn’t too much to mentally prepare for that part,” she said. “One of the big things that gets me through those last four miles is getting excited to see … family and friends.”
Twelsiek, who is from Germany, was second at St. George and he came to CdA almost three weeks ago because it was so hot at his training base in Tucson.
“You don’t need air conditioning here,” he said. “Good. I’m from Germany, this is pretty much like home. It feels great.”
Biking is considered his strongest suit for a simple reason: “I like to ride my bike.”
Though some may disagree, Twelsiek said he like the course because there is not much climbing. He also had a bit of advice.
“I never attack, really; I just go,” he said. “You have to keep a little bit in your tank for the second loop.”