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Wednesday, June 26, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Change is good for Ironman Coeur d’Alene race director

Zach Ukich is a skier, volunteer firefighter and skilled woodworker. In April he added diaper changer to his repertoire.

The 29-year-old Sandpoint resident also runs triathlons – without stepping in the water or mounting a bike. Ukich on Sunday will direct his third Ironman race in 14 months in Coeur d’Alene, where he was born and raised.

“I’m more passionate about this race than other races I go to because I’m from here,” he said.

Race director is an endurance run through a million details, solving problems big and small to prepare for the 1,700 athletes and thousands of volunteers and spectators gathering for the 140.6-mile event.

In June he directed the first 70.3, or a half-Ironman, in Coeur d’Alene.

“I looked at my phone after race day, and I had walked 23 miles,” he said. “I almost walked a marathon just working that race.”

But Ukich has never personally attempted a triathlon.

“I’m tall and skinny, so people think I’m a triathlete. But I have different hobbies actually,” he said.

He’s a volunteer firefighter for Selkirk Fire, Rescue and EMS serving the Sandpoint and Sagle areas.

“To me that’s my fun outlet,” he said. “That’s my stress relief, is to go help out there and hang out with the guys and gals. I call it my philanthropy.”

He earned his degree in recreational sports at the University of Idaho, where he also trained as a firefighter and EMT while living at a Moscow fire station during his college years.

That background helped him launch new swim safety initiatives for Ironman after he was hired in 2010 by the World Triathlon Corporation, which organizes, promotes and licenses the Ironman Triathlon and other races.

Ukich had learned the ropes of race management from assisting former Ironman Coeur d’Alene race director Mac Cavasar. In June 2014, he was given his first shot at directing a race, the Boulder Sprint Triathlon.

In 2015, after living in Colorado five years, Ukich moved back home and took on the role of race director for Ironman Coeur d’Alene. The race that June was the hottest on record, with the temperature surpassing 100 degrees.

“It was a challenge right off the bat. But for me personally it was the best way to learn - literally trial by fire,” he said. “We got through it.”

In his second year at the helm, Ukich has overseen big changes: moving the race from June to August to give swimmers warmer lake water (it’s around 72 degrees this week); laying out a new marathon course to improve access to downtown businesses; and the addition of a second race, the 70.3-miler, in June.

“He is very receptive to new ideas, very creative,” said Steve Wilson, president of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, where Ukich had a college internship. “Most importantly he is very interested in making this an event that is good for as many members of the community as he can.”

Hearing that downtown merchants long have desired some relief from the barriers of the marathon course, “he was willing to put in the time and energy to creatively come up with a solution and make the change,” Wilson said.

Was Ukich a bit anxious about making the changes?

“Yeah, like any good race director should be. We’re nervous for good reasons, right? We want people to have a safe and fun experience,” he said. “I look at these races as always moving in a positive direction. Not to say that it was wrong, it’s just always worth looking into better ways of doing things.”

Just two months before the 70.3 debut this summer, Ukich came up with a new course for the run, the third stage of the race. The goal was to free up Lakeside and Sherman avenues earlier in the day to give shoppers and diners better access to merchants. He worked with the chamber of commerce, downtown association and Coeur d’Alene Resort.

“We all collectively worked on this plan together, and it worked out,” he said.

For Sunday’s race, the 26.2-mile run entails three loops from downtown to the Silver Beach area along Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive. No longer will runners go all the way to Higgens Point and back - a revision that eliminates the exacting climb of Bennett Bay Hill.

“Depending on which athletes you talk to, that could be a good thing,” he said. “Bennett Bay Hill is a big hill, obviously, and it’s a big course, so it’s a lot of ground to cover.”

The new course takes runners around McEuen Park next to Tubbs Hill. The June race showed that to be popular among fans and families supporting competitors, Ukich said.

“I call it a home run. It was a huge success,” he said. “I went down to the park and it was a party down there. People were having a great time, the kids could use the water features.”

For Sunday’s Ironman, runners will loop through McEuen three times before heading to the traditional finish line on Sherman Avenue.

“I think McEuen Park is one of the best places to watch the race,” he said. “You can see your athlete three different times, and in 360 degrees. You don’t have to move.”

The route change also eliminated two spots on Front Avenue where cars used to cross the marathon course – a big safety concern.

Ukich was married last year, and he and his wife Cody welcomed a baby daughter, Presley, in April. They met at Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s fall festival. She had competed in several Ironman races and noticed he was wearing an Ironman jacket, and they struck up a conversation.

“He loves working for Ironman and the challenge of it, and he likes the logistical side of that,” Cody Ukich said.

It isn’t easy to find fulltime work with a recreational sports degree, she said. “Mostly it’s like raft guides and stuff, so he’s lucky he found that.”

In addition to coordinating the Coeur d’Alene races, Ukich travels around the world for Ironman. In October he’ll go to China, where he developed the swim course for two races. Last year he traveled to Uruguay to oversee a swim course there.

“His main goal is to make everyone happy, which is hard to do when you’re working with the public,” his wife said. “I think it’s really cool how well he’s done at keeping everyone happy and accommodating different needs of businesses or athletes or the company.”

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