Ironman Coeur d'Alene Swim: race report

For months, I've been reading race reports about the swim start at Coeur d'Alene.  Many people have called it the worst swim start out of all the various IM races they have done.  I tried to take it all with a grain of salt, but the part of the race that I was most worried about going into the weekend was the first 10-15 minutes of the swim.  

On Friday morning, I met up with my fellow pony Emily to do the practice swim.
We joined a largish group and someone counted us down so we could "practice" the running mass start from the beach.  As soon as I threw myself in the water, my open water swim panic attack showed up.  The water was cold - and I'm not complaining about the temperature, part of the reason I picked this race was because I race better in cooler temperatures - but no matter what anyone says, 56-58º plus an running beach start is a bit of a shock to your system.  But I've worked through this panic attack enough times to know how to handle it.  I swam Tarzan-style for a few hundred yards until I had calmed down enough to put my face in the water.  By the time I got to the first practice buoy, I felt fine.  By the time I had stroked across the lake back to the steps, I was having a fantastic time.  
We walked around to the beach to take another shot at it, and this time I ran into the water without hesitation, did my lame attempt at dolphin-diving and was swimming strong by the 5th or 6th stroke.  Emily and I swam back to the steps and were done.  We stalked Robert from First Endurance and raided his free handouts box and then closed up shop on the swim.
From there, I was able to put together a plan for race morning.  I knew the water was going to be cold and make my feet hurt and my heart race for the first few minutes, so I decided that I absolutely had to figure out a way to get into the water before the race started.  I knew the pro start would be happening on the beach, but the lake is big enough that I thought I could figure it out.

I slept surprisingly hard the night before the race.  I thought that I would be up late with anxiety, but we were tucked into bed well before 9pm and I didn't wake up until my alarm went off at 4:00am, 3 hours before the race start.  I knew that this was FAR more time than I would need to get ready, but I wanted to make sure that I built in time for mistakes, errors, long lines to pee and time to sit and be calm.  I was able to get down two english muffins and a cup of hot tea before the shock of what I was about to do set in.  Every five minutes or so after that I would remember that it was race day and say, "OH MY GOD" to the poet, but then it would pass for a little while.  Pictures show a reasonable amount of terror.
We found a parking spot less than two blocks from the race start, arriving just after 5am.  I fought my way into transition, added all my nutrition to my bike, fought my way back to the street and then realized I hadn't turned my Garmin on near my speed/cadence sensor.  I swam my way back upstream through the human ocean to transition to do this, and by the time I made it out again I was ready for some good soothing energy.
The masses were congregating near the beach already, so I went clear to the other side of the steps where there was no one around or in the water.  I spent about 10-15 minutes in stillness, just gathering energy for the day and breathing.  It was exactly what I needed.
After a little while, I realized that I really had to pee (another theme of the day), so I quit the stillness crap and started getting ready.  There's a lot of prep that happens before and as the wetsuit goes on, and I kept forgetting to spray or glide or lube various places.
Happily, my family was around to document important pre-race rituals.
Once I got my wetsuit on, I hopped in the water and shrieked like a baby started adjusting to the temps.  It really wasn't bad once a few minutes had passed and my feet had gone numb.  I got in and out a few times, making sure to test my goggles and swap them out for a non-leaking pair, swim a few strokes, kick my legs, just splash around a bit.  Emily joined me for a stoic pre-race dunk.
After a final round of family hugs and high-fives, we started making our way very slowly over to the swim start.  The area leading to the beach was ridiculously congested with spectators and athletes trying to fight their way in, but we made it to the beach with a few minutes to spare.  I didn't really care where we started, as long as it wasn't either on the front line or the very back.  Emily picked out her perfect spot and we were chatting with other athletes when suddenly the cannon went off.  There was no time to freak out, I just walked into the water.
My goggles had been flipped around on my forehead, so I stopped for a minute and splashed some water into them before settling them on my face.  I started stroking right away, breathing every 1-2 strokes and trying to find clear water.  For whatever reason, we seemed to have chosen the perfect spot to enter the lake.  I was ready to be attacked and pummeled and drowned by other athletes.  I was ready to defend my water and my right to breathe and instead I felt....kind of fine.  There was certainly a lot of contact, but no more contact than I've dealt with at any of my half-IM swim starts.  I took a few kicks to the stomach and legs but that was about it.  

I swam about 200 meters before it sank it.  I was swimming my ironman swim.  It was happening.  And at that part I started smiling hugely (smiling makes you drink half the lake, FYI) and really enjoying myself.  Swimming has turned into almost my favorite leg of triathlon, and there's a lot of peace for me in the water.  Somehow I was able to find that place in my head in the lake.  I knew the first turn buoy was roughly 900 meters away from shore, but I was surprised when it showed up (probably because I swim in a yard pool).  The water was very crowded all around me, and I found no reason to search for feet because there were several hundred athletes sucking me along. 
When I came out of the water at the end of the first loop, I glanced down and saw a 33 on my watch, which surprised me a little based on how much dicking around I was doing (just a heads-up: "so much dicking around" is going to be the theme of my race reports).  I walked across the sand so I could have a few extra seconds to search for my family.  The poet is pretty loud, and I was able to pick him out and wave happily before wiping the boogers off and flinging myself in for the second loop.
On the second loop the chop started to get pretty bad, but Sonja had warned me about it.  I felt like I dealt with it fairly well by trying to swim under it instead of over it - kind of letting my body rock with the waves instead of fighting it.  Whatever it was, it didn't bother me that much.  Usually at some point in the half-IM swim, I get bored of swimming and want to get out.  This didn't happen.  I just kept keeping an eye on the shore and the buoys and the other athletes and smiling big, counting strokes, singing songs.  The most annoying thing to happen during the swim was that several times, the men on either side of me would start pinching together unconsciously, and I would have to stop swimming, let them pull ahead, and then swim on the outside.  I did this rather than fight through.  I didn't care how fast I was moving forward.

The second loop was longer for everyone because of where the split mat was and a little extra swim distance on the diagonal, but my effort felt the same.  I know what it feels like to work a little, work a lot, and work anaerobically on the swim, and I didn't touch any of those effort levels on race day.  I just happily paddled along at my gentle pace and tried to stay out of everyone's way.  I was almost a little sad to reach the end of the second loop, but then it hit me - the swim was done.  One leg of my ironman was over, and I was having a blast.
Swim: 2.4 miles, 1:12:03 (split 34:45/37:18)

I ran into transition, threw myself on the ground in front of some teenagers and let them rip off my wetsuit.  I found a pretty clear corner in transition and got my socks and shoes on (I don't normally wear socks on the bike but it was 54º out) and then started fighting with my arm warmers.  I hadn't pre-rolled them the day before and it took two volunteers and several minutes to get them yanked up my arms.  Once they were up, I had them spray me with sunscreen and then I chirped, "I'm going to go ride my bicycle now!"  I thanked everyone and clomped out the exit in my bike shoes.  I glanced down as I came down out of the tent and saw 1:18 on my watch and total threw myself a party of effing awesome transition in my head (spoiler: I cracked up after the race was over when I realized that 1:18 was obviously total race time, not transition time, but in the moment, I thought I was a goddess of wetsuit-to-bicycle changing).  My bike was racked pretty close to bike exit, and by the time I got there someone had pulled it off the rack for me.  I made sure to get both feet over the mount line before hopping on and rolling out.  I was thrilled to have survived - no, enjoyed - the swim, and was even more ecstatic to be on my super sexy QR.  I was ready to chill out and feast on some hills.
T1: 7:17