My Journey to IRONMAN Coeur D’Alene

Its February 2006, I’m working in Phoenix AZ on a three week detail when I receive a call from my wife Tammy. It seems as though an anomaly is present in her mammogram and it doesn’t look good. I return home hoping for the best and expecting the worst. After multiple CT scans and MRI’s it is determined that the cyst, the anomaly is benign and nothing to worry about. Of course to discover this relieving news it’s taken a couple of weeks and Tammy and I have had some heart to heart conversations. A couple months later Tammy decides that she needs to make some lifestyle changes that will positively impact her health, she decides it’s time to start eating healthy and working out. My support consists of….good luck with that.

A couple of weeks pass and I fully expect her health resolution to pass, but she has been diligent and made a new friend, Connie Jacobson, who is willing to work with her to get her into shape. During their conversations Tammy learns that Connie husband Mike has completed his own personal transformation, has dropped about 100 pounds and has completed an IRONMAN. Honestly I have no idea what an IRONMAN is but I think I remember seeing a race called the IRONMAN on the Wide World of Sports some years previous. In fact it seems to me like I remember a lady collapsing and losing control of her bowels near the finish line. I wonder to myself…what kind of a masochist would want to compete in an IRONMAN??

It’s now June of 2006 and my bride comes to me one evening and begs me to go running with her. Seems as though she is afraid that she may fail and decide to quit working out. Now I’m about as thematically opposed to running as I possibly can be. I’m 41 years old and I’ve never ran a complete mile in my life, why in the world would I want to start now?? However as wives do Tammy convinces me that I should start running with her and by some bizarre twist of reality I convince myself that it really can’t be that hard. So I grab an old pair of running shoes out of the closet, I’m not really sure why I even have them but they must have been on sale very cheaply, throw on a pair of old cotton Russell shorts and a t-shirt and out the door I head with my bride. Our first sojourn is from the top of Saddle Drive down to Gold Rush and then up Gold Rush with our intended destination a snow removal sign that is a mile from our house. The first 200 yards is pretty easy, it’s downhill after all, then a left hand turn and up we go. I distinctly remember hearing my heartbeat in my ears, my lungs gasping for air and the feel of my mouth drying out. I made it about ¼ mile overall before I bent over and grabbed my knees gasping for air. Oh my god, what I have I got myself into?? But I made a promise to my wife to help her stay healthy and those who know me know that I am loyal to a fault, I’ll never break a promise I make to someone, so after a brief stop to catch my breath up the hill we went again. I’m not sure that I will ever forget the pain or the embarrassment of being that out of shape. When we returned home after our 2 mile 35 minute saunter I set one goal…to run an ENTIRE mile without stopping. If I could just do that then that is all that I would ever need to do. That mile came in time and I decided then that a real lifetime accomplishment would be being able to run three miles without stopping…..several weeks later that goal was achieved. That was as far as I ever needed to run, I was absolutely sure.

Connie and Mike invited us to come up to their house early one Saturday morning and run down to the “v.” A distance of about 5.5 miles….what the hell, who in their right mind would ever run that far?? But I went and had my first run with Mike and Connie. I remember they and Tammy chatting away as I struggled to keep up and to stay upright. We made it to the base of Grizzly and Oro Fino Gulches with some effort, and a stop or two for me and I couldn’t believe that I’d made it that far. A cup of coffee followed, hey this running and coffee thing is a pretty good idea. Months and miles passed, many of them with Mike and Connie, conversations evolved and I even completed a 5K race, though I don’t remember where or what it was…but I had a race shirt finally. Somewhere in there I started asking Mike about his passion for Triathlon and before I knew it I was training for the inaugural Queen City Triathlon…a pool swim because open water was for crazy people. I survived, and enjoyed it, another race shirt. Spring Meadow….open water, I’m not a good swimmer…here borrow my wetsuit said Mike…hey this is pretty awesome…OK I’ll give it a try. Another race shirt and my introduction to a community of really great athletes but primarily really good people. This is pretty awesome…maybe next year if I worked really hard I could possibly complete an Olympic….the following summer…done. Mike is in my ear again…”if you can do an Olympic a Half Ironman really isn’t that much further, at least the swim portion…hmmm maybe next year 2010 in Three Forks at the Headwaters Half.

May 13, 2010, Mike and I are riding in the Valley when a car blows through a stop sign at the intersection of Applegate and Lincoln Road. I don’t remember a whole lot, but I do remember my head impacting the asphalt and a loud crack…I remember thinking that it was probably my neck breaking. I woke up some time later and looked at my hands, they still moved, then my feet…they still moved, guess it could have been worse. OMG you are laying in the middle of the highway get up and get out of the way before you get run over….but there is that nice nurse lady holding you down and telling you not to go anywhere, that seems like a good idea because a few things including your face seem to hurt and things really aren’t making sense anymore. An ambulance ride, a brief period of complete paralysis (dehydration and shock) and a thorough check at the St Peters ER and you are home again. Thanks again to Iron Mark Rabold for being there and helping out. Guess racing is out for 2010, maybe I can get going again and race in 2011. Plenty of work and more than a few nightmares and recurrent headaches find me sending out a message to this group asking if anyone might be interested in training with an old, slow, fat, bald guy who was looking to try a 70.3 race in Boise in June 2011. Mike had committed to Ironman Coeur D’Alene for 2011 and I didn’t think I could keep up.

This is where I met Britt Ballinger and Carrie Strike who let me join their workout group as they worked towards Boise. I was severely out classed. Carrie swam at the University of Iowa and Britt ran cross country for the Grizz, me well I was old, fat, and bald, I continued to struggle to swim and I wasn’t much of a runner or a cyclist, but I’d do my best to hang with these two young girls. Months, miles, laps and revolutions passed. Ironman Boise came…I survived, it wasn’t pretty, but I survived just the same. What’s next?? Britt is going to sign up for IRONMAN Coeur D’Alene……oh what they hell, time to get busy living or get busy dying. Carrie signed up and we convinced Peggy Stringer, the victim of another one of Helena’s finest drivers during Queen City 2011 to join our merry little group.

December 2011, hunting season is over, it’s time to start focusing on IM CDA training…and it began. Britt and I met five days a week at 5 am to do some form of workout, we really had not started our “plan” that we borrowed from Iron Mike Jacobson and included suggestions from Iron Carolyn Blasch…but it was time to get some base. The weeks moved into months, the plan evolved, spin sessions and Yoga with Iron Rebecca Shaw, conversations with Iron Mike, Iron Aubrey Curtis, Iron Ann Gilbert, Iron Sean Slanger, Iron Karen Powell, Iron Ann Siefert, Iron Randy Beckner, Iron Jason Fruh and others occurred. The miles, laps and revolutions built and built and built. Weight came and went, body composition changed, I ate like a teenager simply unable to get enough calories. Century rides, 5000 yard swims, 18 mile runs, 10 hour Saturday workouts…sleep and more food, tons of laughs, tons of smiles, tons of sweat and about 100 gallons of coffee later and it was June 1st. Ahh taper…but I’m not sure that taper is a good thing, I’m neurotic about working out now what will I do…ahh cookies, ice cream, coffee it’s all good after all Aubrey said I might need a few extra pounds.

June 21st, Britt and I are loaded up and headed to Coeur D’ Alene for the culmination of our adventure, where we meet Peggy and Carrie. Registration, a dip or two in the lake, oh I NEED this and this and this from the Ironman Store, Athletes Banquet Friday night and I am pumped up and ready to race, this will NOT be my only IRONMAN I’m just too stoked to stop at just one. Saturday is restless, bike check in, gear bag check in….need some rest…grumpy, grumpy, grumpy I don’t even want to be around myself….and it’s my 22nd wedding anniversary. Time to go to bed.

June 24, 4 am. Alarm goes off but why, I’ve been up for hours. Time to eat, text Britt, you up…yep up for hours, let’s eat. Force feed some carbs but not that hungry, force some more, COFFEE….uh oh, time to clear the decks…thank God that’s out of the way I don’t want to lose my bowels in front of people at the finish as a replay of the Wide World of Sports flashes through my mind. Time to go to the transition area, tic tock, tic tock 630, transition is closed wetsuit on, potty time yet again. Pros in the water, can’t find Britt, can’t find my safety blanket but….right there JUST like ALWAYS is my beautiful smiling bride and my beautiful red haired girls, my own personal cheer squad. OK everybody down to the beach….

Oh my god where did all these people come from, no crap this many people are as insane as I am…wow there are some really screwed up people in the world. I move to the right, it’s a counter clockwise course and I want to stay out of the melee. 6:59:00….BOOOOOOOM and we all move to the water as one. It takes 28 seconds to get to the water and when I arrive it’s as if a school of piranha are in the water in front of me. Time to relax, I’m not a good swimmer so I need to relax. BANG, CRASH, GRAB, Pull, it’s full on combat for about 500 yards when I’m hit by a boat….WTH!! Oh thanks….didn’t realize I was that far off course…thanks for being out here. Two minutes later about 600 yards in I see the first casualty, a guy younger than me hanging on a kayak telling the volunteer that he is done for the day. WTH!! The party is just getting started….I tell myself no matter what, no matter what time..today there is absolutely no quit, no way in hell. In the right arm sleeve of my wetsuit is a small plastic container holding my father’s ashes. He was always afraid that I’d hurt myself working out so I thought I’d take him along for the swim bike and run…I might need some company anyway. 43 minutes later, lap one, 1.2 miles done. Lap two, first 500 meters are good a little choppy from all the people and still a full on combat mission but good just the same. Then the wind came up, three to four foot swells, being tossed and thrown…keep moving, turn left, 150 meters to the next turn buoy, absolutely pummeled by the waves, literally rolled over on some of them…but in some strange fashion I’m very relaxed and having fun. 91 minutes total and I’m out of the water…right where I had hoped to be. A beach walk, no run for me, wetsuit stripper and the changing tent….absolute carnage!! We had been swimming in Spring Meadow so the water seemed fine to me but apparently it was pretty cold to some of the competitors. People were unable to pull on socks, gloves, shoes, bike shorts. Time to get on the bike….ahhhh.

Lap number one averaged 15.5 mph, right where I wanted to be. I know that may seems slow to some of you but this course is hilly with long sustained climbs. I was shooting for a 16 mph average that would equate to a 7 hour bike. Lap two….things started to go downhill, not really they were uphill but my performance went downhill…why, heck I don’t know, nutrition, heat, hydration, age….I don’t know but at mile 90 or so I felt a familiar twinge in my left knee, an unfavorable reminder of disappointing races past. Time to do some math….If Mark averages X miles per hour on the bike and X minutes per mile on the run when will he be done. My hopes of a 15 hour finish were probably gone, my secret aspirations of a 13 hour finish were clearly over. But remember Iron Ann Gilbert saying that the race is 33% mental…others like Iron Laura Morin suggested a higher percentage. Stay positive it’s a long day and you have until midnight after all you were never a threat to make it to Kona. Wow not only does my knee hurt by frankly my butt is killing me I can’t wait to get off this bike. T2, 7 hours 45 minutes on the bike.

Jump off the bike, knee buckles a bit…uh oh GOD DAMMIT. I worked way too hard to let the old body give up now. It’s just about 4:45 pm…just over seven hours left. Looks like the old knee just isn’t going to cooperate…hustle through transition, don’t change your socks, you don’t have time for that get walking old man. Tammy, the girls and my cousin Todd are waiting outside T2. I’m really disappointed and tell them to settle in, it’s going to be along walk….and long it was. About mile two my feet started hurting, well that’s kind of unusual…hmm wonder what that is, probably should have changed my socks huh, oh well, walk old man get moving time is passing….MOVE, walk with purpose, walk with purpose, walk with purpose. Mile 10…a beautiful girl walks up next to me…a girl I haven’t seen in 20 years but who I went to high school with in Rudyard, she lives in CDA now, saw on Facebook that I was racing and decided to see if she could find me. Wow, it’s still such a small world, what a nice surprise and what a relief, just when I needed it. Mile 13, special needs bag…socks and body glide. Blisters on the balls of my feet the size of eggs, literally. Hmmmmmm, I wonder why. Christ I still have sand on my feet, the T1 changing tent was so dark that I didn’t get my feet clean, and I’ve been pouring water on my head to help deal with the 85 degree heat and my shoes and socks are soaked, and with plenty of sand. Guess that solves the blister mystery. Body glide, fresh socks, lap two. Mile 20, chicken broth oh my GOD that’s good. Darkness, people continue to pass, walk with purpose, walk with purpose. Pitch black…..a faint noise in the distance…..wah, wah, wah…you are an Ironman. Mile 23, people laying down on the course…a girl playing a violin concerto, that same faint noise in the distance…you are an Ironman.

Mile 25 11:00 lights, people…holy crap lots of people… oh my goodness look at all these people. Racers continue to pass, I don’t really care I’m going to high five everyone I see…..OK I don’t have time for that, too many people. There’s Iron Rebecca Shaw yelling at me….you are an Ironman, it doesn’t register, I’m not there yet. 26 miles….point 2 to go. There’s my daughter Jeri with the sign I asked her to make, she hands it to me and I nearly cramp up. I get to the lights of the finish chute and unfurl the sign….THIS ONE IS FOR MARCIA…LIVESTRONG!! My only sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma a few weeks prior so I had dedicated the race to her and her upcoming battle. Time is precious, so much more precious than the time in a 17 hour race.

The announcer reads my sign….THIS ONE IS FOR MARCIA!!……. He then says….Mark the people here have something that they want to tell you……MARK COPENHAVER….YOU! ARE! AN! IRONMAN! But wait I’m not done, two feet before the finish I reach into my race belt and take out a small yellow plastic container it’s been with me all day, in the swim, on the bike and throughout the run, everyone is watching, I take the lid off and place my Dads ashes on the top of the last M DOT before the finish line. You see Dad, I’m fine, wish you were here to see this and hope you are proud of me. A HUGE fist pump, arms raised and a medal around my neck. There is my cheer squad, my girls, my wife, Britt. It’s 11:20 pm, it’s been a long day. Hugs, cramps and hunger follow. A fitful night’s sleep and a drive home the next day.

I’ve been disappointed in my finish time for over a week but finally last night I came to the realization that the race is the celebration, IRONMAN is about the journey. The journey from being scared of ending up a single father, scared that my wife had breast cancer, to hoping to be able to run a mile, to setting a goal of running three miles, to a Sprint, to an Olympic, to a Half Ironman , through a bike wreck and traumatic brain injury to completing an IRONMAN. Along the way I made so many friends, traveled so many miles, had great highs and crushing losses like the loss of my Father and my Sisters recent diagnosis. Through it all my family, my wife, my kids and my Mom, along with all my friends have supported me, why…I’m not sure but I’m glad that they all did because the journey has been worth all the work.

Thanks to each and every one of you in the Helena Triathlon, Swimming, Biking and Running communities, I would not have had this opportunity without you. To Carrie and Peggy….thank you for all your time and assistance. To Britt….well I don’t know what to say…you are awesome and one of my very dearest friends, so many miles, so much time together…what’s next?? To Jacki and Jeri…..LIVE your life…fitness is a blessing…you never have to run, bike or swim….rather you GET to run, bike and swim and so few have that opportunity…..don’t waste this gift. To all my IRONMAN friends and predecessors… you are all my hero’s what you have accomplished is absolutely phenomenal and I am proud and honored to know each and every one of you. IRON MIKE Jacobson…. I would have never even tried to accomplish this without your friendship and mentoring….THANK YOU! And finally to my bride of 22 years, the genesis of this entire story, Tammy, you simply are the best thing to happen in my life, I love you and am proud and honored to have you in my life. It seems so small but all I can say is THANK YOU!!

Anyone can achieve if they are willing to commit to the work and make the sacrifices, trust me if I can do it anyone can.

In closing I have one final thought that is just now starting to sink in………………..and I can’t believe it or how lucky I am to say it!!!

MARK COPENHAVER….YOU! ARE! AN! IRONMAN!

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