Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ironman DNF -- What Happened?

I have been asking myself how this happened ever since the moment it happened. In case anyone missed it, I had to DNF (Do Not Finish) shortly after I got in the water because I couldn't breathe. Here is what happened on race morning:

Everything went fine with my gear, with getting to the start, with catching the shuttle bus to the swim start. No issues with anything, and no nerves. I can't say I was excited -- I was not. I can't say I was actively dreading any part of the event, although I certainly was not looking forward to it. (Especially not the bike -- I hate the bike. Even my new, faster, better bike. I hate it less than my old bike, but I still hate it.) At the swim start I hung out for an hour or so, then got in line. This swim start is self-seeded, meaning you put yourself in line based on your predicted finish time. I put myself in line at about one hour 45 minutes, even though I did this exact same swim at Tri Nooga camp a month ago in one hour exactly. No need to be at the front where I might get kicked in the face or have someone swim over me, was what I was thinking. I wasn't afraid of those things -- they both happened at Tri Nooga and neither one particularly rattled me -- I just thought why risk it if I could avoid it. It took a long time to get to the start line -- about 40 minutes. I was not nervous. I also was not feeling the energy that everyone claims is present at an Ironman start. I would describe my feelings as a combination of boredom and vague annoyance that I would be working so hard all day (the same way I felt before the start of every one of my long training days).

Slowly we all made our way down to the dock, our jumping-off point. The river was beautiful just like it was last month. I felt slightly relieved that finally I could start, because the sooner I started, the sooner I could finish and be DONE. I didn't jump in because I didn't want water in my goggles like I had last time I swam here. I sat on the edge of the dock and slid in. The water temperature was perfect -- cool and refreshing, not cold. I swam about 50 yards and couldn't get my breath -- this has never, not once, happened to me. I stopped doing freestyle and started dog paddling. The kayakers saw that I was in trouble and one of them asked if I was okay. I said yes and waved her away. She didn't believe me, and continued to follow me. She asked if I wanted to hang on for a minute. I said yes. You are allowed to take rest breaks on the kayaks as long as you don't make forward progress. My chest was still tight even after a couple minutes of hanging on, and I still couldn't breathe normally. In every way I felt fine. The water still felt comfortable. I didn't have any panicky thoughts in my head. I really thought it was impossible that I wouldn't be able to keep swimming no matter how I felt, so I shoved off from the kayak and started again. I told myself to just move my arms and breathe, the way I have done religiously three times a week since March and never once needed a rest break while doing it. I swam about three strokes, sucked in a little water, and started gasping and coughing. Another kayaker was there instantly. I grabbed onto his kayak and held on. "Take as long as you want," he said, so I did, about three minutes. I said I felt better and could keep going, but I could not -- I still couldn't breathe. The kayakers knew I wasn't in good shape and followed me as I swam a few more strokes with the same result -- water in, no air where I needed it. I had to stop and grab on again. I could see Will and my other Sherpa up on the river path watching me. I knew they would be worried about me. I didn't want to disappoint them. If I was riding or running I could force myself to keep moving even if I was slow, but if you can't breathe when swimming, you sink. I told the kayaker, "I might have to stop. I can't breathe." He said, "Let me know if you want to stop. You can come back and try another day." I thought about it for about thirty more seconds and then called it. I was in the water for eighteen minutes total and swam less than 200 yards.

I really wasn't that upset for myself, other than wishing I hadn't lost $800 AGAIN. I have never DNFd before in over 100 races, but I always knew I would do it some day if I did enough challenging events, and my ego isn't so fragile that I could be destroyed by a DNF. As I crawled onto my rescue boat, I was mostly sorry for my Sherpas who spent all this time and money to come up here and expected to see me finish. I thought my mom would probably be bummed for me but secretly relieved that I didn't die of heat stroke on the bike. Let me be completely honest here -- while my predominant feeling was feeling sorry for letting my Sherpas down, an EXTREMELY CLOSE SECOND was relief bordering on joy that I did not have to be out in the heat all day. God, what a relief. I was almost grateful to my brain for whatever trick it played on me by shutting down my ability to swim.

After three days of mulling over what could possibly explained what happened in Chattanooga on Sunday, I am almost sure I have the answer. I think that what happened had almost nothing to do with the swim. I think it happened because I didn't want to do the bike. Since I wouldn't decide for myself not to do the bike, my subconscious took over and made the decision for me.

Let me explain: I have not had one single good long ride this entire training cycle. Every single ride I have done that was longer than three hours (and plenty of shorter ones, too), I have spent miserable, uncomfortable, afraid of traffic, and desperately wishing for it to be over. This improved slightly when I bought the better bike, because it was more comfortable and at least I didn't feel like I was undergoing physical torture when I rode it. (Yes I had a bike fit, and tried multiple seats, but I never did feel comfortable on that bike.) The new bike is at least comfortable. I gave up on aerobars because I could never get comfortable riding in them (started practicing in October -- gave up in May). I could ride in that position for up to 40 minutes on the trainer, but on the road, every time there was a curve, or a car, or a hill, or a possibly uneven patch of road surface, or a gust of wind, I panicked and grabbed onto the regular bars and usually was so twitchy about it that my bike swerved. Also, I am just not a good cyclist. Despite 10+ years of riding on the road, much of it very long rides, I still can't descend hills without braking due to fear of losing control. This is a legitimate fear given how unsteady I am on the bike. I also can't drink or eat while still moving -- I swerve into the road and drop bottles. These things are the reasons I do not enjoy the bike.

I did one 105-mile ride a few weeks ago, up in the hills of San Antonio. (Florida, not Texas. San Antonio is a town an hour north of me with a 52-mile loop course that has the same elevation gain as Chattanooga.) It was a nightmarish experience -- 94 degrees, 7.5 hours of overheating, hating the cars, hating the hills (downhills -- I enjoy the uphills), half an hour of lying in the grass trying to cool off. That ride was one of the most miserable experiences of my athletic life. I consoled myself after with these thoughts: I still would've made cutoff time (barely); I forced myself to keep going so I'm mentally tougher; I now have this ride in the bank so I'm stronger than I would have been without it; and the biggest thoughts -- it won't be this hot in Chattanooga and the roads will be closed to traffic. Those were the two thoughts I held onto throughout this last month of training, where I forced myself to ride hills every weekend. Each ride was slower and left me feeling more miserable than the previous one. But, I did them all and everyone says, "trust the training." I did all the training, without skipping any of it -- except for a two-hour run and a couple swims in the second-to-last week -- so I trusted it.

As race day got closer, the predicted temperature kept going up -- 98 degrees was predicted on the 7-day forecast. That is hotter than I've ever worked out in in Florida, but I told myself, "It's fine, I like the heat, I'm acclimated, all my training was done in the heat." Secretly I was hoping they would cancel the race. The hurricane saved me from Ironman Florida last year; maybe the heat would save me from Chattanooga? But no. The predicted temperature dropped slightly, to 95. It felt like 100 when we got to Chattanooga on Thursday. I spent Friday and Saturday relaxing and spending as much time inside as possible. I did do a short bike and short run on Saturday. Both were fine. I was not excited about the race. I was expecting to feel inspired, but all I felt was hot and annoyed that all of the events in Ironman Village were outside. Couldn't they put them INSIDE? And why was the merchandise tent so hot? By the way, I could not find one single thing in the merchandise tent that I wanted. Was I thinking about not finishing? No way. I knew I might not make a cutoff, but I also knew (or thought I knew) that I would keep moving until they stopped me.

I got plenty of sleep the night before the race. No nerves, no tossing and turning. I wasn't anxious, but I wasn't excited either. On race morning, I methodically went through my checklist.  I still wasn't excited. Physically I was fine, mentally I was blah. Here is a true statement -- I don't enjoy triathlons. I like what the training does for my body, and I am determined to be able to say "I am an Ironman," but the actual training and racing? I hate all of it. Unfortunately I want the Ironman just a little bit more than I hate everything required to earn that title. This is a problem with no obvious solution.

All of this is leading up to my conclusion that my brain stopped me from doing the swim subconsciously because I wouldn't do it consciously. My brain was like, "You won't listen to me? Watch me take away your ability to breathe. Then you'll listen to me." And that is exactly what happened. I have swam 3500 yards three times a week -- in the pool and in the ocean -- for the past ten weeks. That's almost a full Ironman swim three times a week. I've never quit, I've never shortened a workout. I've never once been nervous in open water. I am not a fast swimmer, but I'm steady as can be. I had no hesitation when I swam in the Tennessee River a month ago -- it was a beautiful swim, and I was fully confident and swam like a machine. The swim was the ONE thing I never worried about, up to the second I got in the water. I thought it was going to be a nice way to ease into a long, crappy day. I had read about people panicking in the swim at all types of races and thought, at least that's one problem I don't have. Group start -- not scary. Not being able to see the bottom -- not scary. None of it was scary. It wasn't even like I was having a panic attack! I wasn't consciously scared at all -- just astonished that this was happening.

So that's what happened. How to fix it? Good question. MAYBE more races at shorter distances, but I honestly don't think lack of race experience was the problem. I don't worry about shorter distances so I am nearly positive I wouldn't have the same reaction, plus I don't want to spend any more money than I have to, and race registrations are expensive (and I HATE RACING!). I will keep up triathlon training because it has given me the body of an Amazon warrior, but I really think I am not going to be an Ironman unless I have not only the easiest possible course, at least on the swim and bike, but also good weather conditions. I don't even know which one to aim for. Not Florida -- the water is too cold. Even with a wetsuit, I won't put my face in water that's cold. Nothing with hills unless I miraculously learn to have confidence descending. Nothing too expensive to travel to. Something that's warm but not as hot as Chattanooga. Something that doesn't sell out so I can wait till the long-range forecast to sign up (better to pay Tier 4 pricing than to lose the whole thing because I don't like the weather). I know a lot of people say that Ironman is about being tough and adapting to conditions -- well, for me it is about covering the distance in as near to perfect conditions as possible. I just don't want to do it any other way, and am not going to. That's what I'm thinking right now.