WALLA WALLA - Chaos surrounded Marcella Rietz when she dove into Lake Coeur d'Alene in 2009.
Cold, churning water matched the grey sky. Around her, bodies thrashed, hands grabbed, feet kicked. Her goggles were smashed into her face, and daylight was far away.
"There's a moment, and you're telling yourself, it's OK, it's going to be OK," Rietz said this week, a few days before taking that dive a second time. "You tell yourself, you will breathe, eventually."
And after 2.4 miles - yes, Rietz said, it eventually calms in the water - it's onto a bike for 112 miles and then a 26.2-mile marathon to cap the race off.
It's all in a day for about 2,000 Ironman competitors amassing in Coeur d'Alene this Sunday.
And Rietz, a Walla Walla mother of two, will be one of them for the second year.
Rietz competed in Ironman Coeur d'Alene last year, finishing in 12 hours, 13 seconds to place 18th of 126 competitors in her category.
Although she hopes to do better this year, the big thing, she said, is just finishing.
"I was happy last year," she said. "I finished well. It's a new year and I have a new goal, but if I don't accomplish that, it's not a failure. You learn from every race and you take something away from it. Where you finish isn't tied to failure."
As Rietz cycled and ran on last year's course, three faces in the crowd kept her moving.
Donning bright T-shirts and carrying signs, Rietz's husband, son and daughter accompanied her last year, and they'll return this year, supporting Mom from the sidelines.
"You're on the course by yourself - you've got other people around you, but you're doing this solo - and you come around a corner, and there they are," she said fondly, remembering last year's event. "Seeing the faces of your children and your spouse, and you're so excited that they're there for you. It's incredible to see them."
Rietz and her children - Blaz, 8, and Makena, 10 - even turned it into fun last year, she said. Blaz would move every time she came by, and it became a game to find each other through the crowd.
"That was something I looked forward to," she said. "I even stopped and gave them hugs and kisses. My husband said, ‘Go, go,' but that was so emotional."
Although Rietz is the one wearing the number, her whole family has been behind the Ironman experience.
"I don't think I could do this if I didn't have a supportive spouse," she said of husband, Doug. "The whole family has to be on board, because this really is a lot. I'm so thankful they support me."
Always active - Rietz played basketball for Whitman in college and has kept in shape with marathons and other competitive activities - she never thought Ironman was in the near future.
"I always thought this was something I'd do later, when I had an ‘empty nest,'" Rietz said. "It was a later-in-life thing."
But a trip to Kona, Hawaii, to watch the Ironman World Championship in 2008 changed her mind.
"I knew I was going to do it," Rietz said. "I decided, you never know. In five years, it might not be possible. I still vacillated - it was daunting. It's a huge endeavor. The training alone was almost overwhelming."
It didn't help that she had no training partners.
"That's one of the disadvantages to living in a small town," she said. "In Seattle and Portland, they have triathlete and running groups, but not many here. And the ones here, like the cycling groups, didn't meet my schedule. So there was lots of solo time."
Rietz's schedule was strict, because she wanted to work her training around her children. Evening and weekends were open to them - leaving early mornings and long hours alone.
The training - 20-26 hours per week, since she began working in earnest early this spring - became her "Marcella" time.
"It was my personal time," she said. "As a mom, I know you can give your all and forget to take care of yourself. But this made me a better mom. I go stir-crazy if I don't get out and do something. I definitely notice it in the middle of the day - I go, yeah, I didn't work out this morning."
So, she fit in training where she could.
Sometimes, Blaz joined her, biking along on her runs.
The family dog, a 1-year-old Labrador, also got a workout.
"We'd go for a 12-mile run and the puppy would still come home and chew stuff up," Rietz laughed. "Imagine how much worse she'd be without the run."
She began training heavily in February, which includes running 30-45 miles, swimming 6-7 and biking 120-200.
Which means she spends 156-252 miles per week moving her entire body.
One thing she avoids is repetition.
"I don't like to do the same thing two days in a row," she said. "What I do depends on the day. I mix it up."
Rietz swims in Bennington Lake and runs and bikes on the trails and rural roads that cover the Walla Walla Valley.
And yes, that means she started swimming in Bennington Lake in February.
"I figured it was good training," she said, shrugging. "Coeur d'Alene is colder now than Bennington was then."
Running came the easiest for Rietz - she ran her first marathon in 1996, a year after she graduated from Whitman. Biking was the hardest, and the part of the triathlon she'd done the least before beginning to train. And swimming kept her limber, stretching without thought.
Training has been harder this year than last year, Rietz said. The dreary spring weather played a part, as did the fact that this year, nothing was new.
"Last year, I didn't know how to train," she said. "I did a lot of learning. But like with any level of athlete, some days you feel good and some days you don't, but you always feel better after you do it."
This year, Rietz has a better idea of what to expect on Sunday.
"The first time you do a new thing, you wonder, at what point do I push? When do I hold back?" she said of her thoughts on the course. "With last year under my belt, I know what I can take and what I can do now."
And she intends to enjoy it.
"Training is the hard part," she said. "Now it's the fun part. It's been working for how many months for the one day?"
She hadn't intended to participate in another Ironman. Her family and most of her friends expected the 2009 event to be a one-time occasion.
But when a fellow competitor asked at the finish line, she immediately spoke her heart.
"I said, ‘I can't wait for next year,'" Rietz said. "My husband was standing there, and he was like, ‘You're kidding.'"
She wasn't, but she couldn't do this without him and the kids, she said.
"This is something I've fit in where I can," Rietz said. "I'm lucky - I couldn't do this if my spouse wasn't behind me 100 percent."
They're supportive. Doug, Blaz and Makena are all making the trek with Rietz back to Coeur d'Alene this year.
But she's not sure if she'll compete again.
"Ten years ago, I never thought I would do this," she said. "I'm so glad I did it now. This is for me, it's not for anyone else.
"Will I do another Ironman? Perhaps. Ask me at the finish line Sunday," Rietz said. "I'm just an everyday person with big aspirations."
And Sunday's finish line is just a swim, run and ride away.