August 7, 2016 at Ironman Boulder was going to by my day. For 20 weeks, I had trained, putting in 15-20 hours of swimming, biking, or running a week, meticulously tracking my progress and ensuring every piece of the puzzle laid in place. Ironman Boulder, my second full distance race, was my chance to make right what I felt had gone wrong for my at my first event. I was a faster swimmer now, a confident cyclist, and my running had improved enough I felt pretty sure I wouldn’t take 7 hours to run a marathon ever again.
The day was going to be my day. Until it wasn’t. All of the best laid plans, the bright outlook, the excitement and enthusiasm proved to be not enough and instead, on race day, I learned something new: what failure felt like. I learned a lesson that is real, emotionally raw, heartbreaking, and hard enough that even now, days later, I’m still dazed. When the medic pulled my chip at mile 101 of the race, my heart sunk and my stomach knotted- not only in my own self-pity, but in the realization that I would be breaking the news to a lot of amazing cheerleaders that I had failed.
This trip did not start with failure, though, and I feel that in time, it won’t end with it either. What follows is an attempt to wrap my head, and my heart, around what happened, what can be done, and how to bring myself back. My hope is that, through my lens, anyone else who has been there, or may be there one day, can feel less alone in the knowledge that DNFs happen, and not just to slow racers. Everyone, from back of the pack to seasoned pros, might find themselves where I laid on the side of the road.
My swim went great, and I achieved over a 15 minute PR compared to when I raced IMTX in 2015. I knew I’d beat my friend on the swim, but expected her to catch me quickly on the bike. I rode until almost mile 100 before I heard her behind me calling my name (so close!) I had noticed my speed decreasing a bit, thanks in part to a wind that picked up on the second loop, but it wasn’t until I saw her riding away that I began to feel…..off. Just, not really right.
That’s the only way I can describe it. I came around a bend from mile 100 to mile 101 and realized I really needed to stop. My heart rate was too high for the pace I was riding. I was warm, but not hot (and not burned, so my sunscreen was working), but my breathing was shallow and I felt woozy. So, at a corner under the adorable Ironman turn indicator stick figure man, I stopped to catch my breath and relax.
A police officer approached me and asked if I was Ok. I said yes, but his face indicated he didn’t really believe me. He had me sit in the shade and offered me some water on my head, which I was fine with. This is when I started to get worried. My heart rate wouldn’t go below 121, even at rest. Normally, my rate will drop 20-40bpm rapidly, even when I’m tired, as long as I stop moving. I also got a brief, but painful cramp in my quad when I moved to stretch my lower back out. That is also very much not normal for me.
I got up after about 5 minutes of rest and approached my bike, determined to finish the last 11 miles and get on with the run. But, as soon as I stood over the handlebars, my heart rate shot up and I had to put my head down. Right then, a medic on a motorcycle drove by, and the officers who had been watching me flagged her down. She helped me back to the shade, had me lay all the way down, and took my pulse, blood pressure, and checked my capillary refill, asking me all the while how I felt.
After her assessment, she asked me, “Do you think you need to get on your bike and ride 10 more miles?” The me I know, the me who is stubborn, proud, and determined, wanted to look her in the eye and say, “Duh.” But the me that was there, in that moment, taking in what my body was saying, just stared at the sky above me without replying. I knew what was coming. I knew I was done.
The medic took my chip, saying she couldn’t allow me to keep going, and let me call my husband on her phone while she radioed for a SAG wagon. When I heard his voice, asking me if I wanted to talk about it before quitting (he also knows “the me I know”) my heart splintered, threatening to break right there on the side of the road.
When I arrived at the main medical tent and saw him standing by the entrance, the splinters got sharper, and I struggled to keep my composure. The medic in the tent went through the same routine- heart rate, blood pressure, capillary refill, and asked me about my fluid and nutrition intake. After filling in my paperwork, she handed me a sheet of paper and said I was welcome to leave whenever I was ready. I was more than ready- I wanted to run out of that tent and straight to the airport, fly home and bury myself in my bed. I wanted to grab my bike from their hands and ride back to where they’d found me, call for a Mulligan, and pretend my ride in the truck never happened. I wanted a time machine. I wanted a nap.
My husband met me at the tent exit and folded me in to his arms, where I finally broke down and cried, adding snot to the sweat and salt I was already caking on his shirt. He told me over and over that it was OK, that I was OK, that I was the strongest person he knew and that he was proud of me. I had to catch my breath enough to look at him and say no, I am not OK, this is not OK. This hurts. A lot. He knew that, of course, but what else could he say?
You Spell Heartbreak “D-N-F”
I knew I’d have to write about this, but I’m not sure that I know how. It is, to other people, especially non-athletes, a bummer, a sad moment, and a learning opportunity. And they’re not wrong.
However, the experience is more. It is real grief. It is psychologically traumatizing, emotionally wrenching, mentally abusive sudden loss that has left me at once full of things to say, and at a loss for words all the same.
It is anger that my body betrayed me, no matter how I willed it to get in line.
It is confusion as to how it happened, how I let it happen.
It is horror as I think of the thousands of dollars spent, vacation time consumed, stress put on my marriage, all for nought.
It is bereavement for the dream I had, the dream I was well on my way to achieving, that was suddenly no longer tangible, but still a vision in my head.
It is frustration that the pressure I’ve put on myself to achieve that dream now has no relief. It will continue to build until I can try, again to find relief.
It is shame and embarrassment. I wanted to cover my uniform, so as not to embarrass my teammates. I wanted to rip the athlete wristband off, to throw everything related to the race in the trash, and never see a Colorado C again. I wanted to call all of our team sponsors and swear to them that I’m better than this, that I can still do them proud, that I really, really enjoy being on an team and can pull my weight, just watch.
It is sadness. Ultimately, it is sadness. I have crossed that finish line, and know the joy, and yet, with this moment, felt not only the loss of my expected joy at this finish line, but the robbery of the joy I felt a year ago as well. It felt like I had gone backwards, fallen down, lost all the pride I’d ever felt in racing.
Thoughts on Healing
All of those emotions, rolling together, one after another, from the loss of my timing chip until now, and still further to a point I can’t yet see on the horizon. And yet, I knew right away that I’m not done, that I’ll be back on the starting line, more determined, more focused, more dialed in to make it happen. I also knew that I had two more days in Colorado, and that my sorrow could not and would not overshadow the joy and celebration around me. That would be selfish, unsportsmanlike, and frankly an even further waste of time and money, so I began saying out loud any positive thing I cold think of from the situation.
1. I didn’t die. No really, it could have been worse. In 2015 at this very race, a man died of severe dehydration and an exercise-induced over-exertion syndrome. I wanted to be stubborn. I wanted to shove on, but the reality is, I could have done that and made a deadly mistake. Listening to our bodies, and to medical professionals who know our bodies better than we do, is vital to longevity in this sport.
2. I did awesome on the parts I finished. I PRed my swim significantly. I was on my way to doing the same on the bike. The training, the work, the heart I put in to prepping for this race worked, and the results were there, ready to be had. It is heartening to see at least some of the fruits of my labor, even if they didn’t come in the form of a medal and a shirt.
3. Speaking of swag, I didn’t have to buy any of the ugly swag in the tent, and saved myself money by waiting before getting the cute stuff. But for real though, the name shirt for this event was uglier than sin, and I’m relieved I get to spend my $34.95 on something else frivolous that isn’t highlighter yellow. The finisher shirt was cute, so that was a bummer, but, well, my Texas backpack is bigger anyway.
4. I sure wasn’t as sore as everyone else. I saw some miserable faces at Rocky Mountain National Park the next day, and mine wasn’t one of them. I plan on doing a long run this weekend, and the only reason I should feel like death is that it’s still the approximate temperature of the sun outside in Texas, but my IT bands are in great shape!
5. My shoes live to see another day. I planned to toss my shoes in the recycle pile as soon as I crossed the finish line. Now, they’ll last me until my next paycheck when I have enough reward points to get a new pair for free on Amazon.
6. I didn’t have the chance to crash and burn on the marathon. My 7 hour time at Texas is far less than I am capable of, and I was chomping at the bit to sweep that under the rug with this round. Had I somehow fought through the rest of the bike, there’s no way my run would have been what I had worked for. In a tiny way, a forced DNF is better than plodding another 26.2.
7. It makes me truly marvel at my previous finish. I finished IMTX last spring and felt wow, if I was able to do that, anyone can. I’m certainly not that strong or special, Or so I felt. Now, I can see just how remarkable making it through to the end is- and just how fragile it can be. I took for granted that I’d finish at Boulder, since hey, I’d done it before. I’ll never be that caviler again, and I’ll for sure start giving myself some damn credit where it’s due when it comes to my “slow” time at Texas.
8. I have amazing friends. I had people
from all over the country cheering me on as I raced, and it was an awesome feeling. I had friends checking in on me before, during, and even more so after the race. Through my tears, I read words that I knew were more than platitudes, but earnest attempts to heal my heart and take away my pain. My friend Tasha, all the way from her vacation in the Virgin Islands told me, “You’re allowed to be sad. Even Olympic gymnasts fall at the beam sometimes, but they’re still Olympians. You’re still a big deal, you know.” My girlfriends, even the ones in the midst of their own celebration, gave me license to complain, to talk it out, to be upset, all the while telling my to pick up my chin and remember who I am and what I can do. They reminded me that I am not the first, nor the last, to feel like this, but that strong women who conquer the world brush it off and move on. They asked me, knowingly, what my next move was, because it was a given that there would be one.
9. My husband is amazing and was totally worth marrying. Wedding planning is a pain in the butt, and relationships are sometimes hard, but man, he’s really awesome. Even when he is at a total loss for what to do to make me feel better, knowing he really doesn’t have any options that will, he is there for me, trying anyhow. After we got back to Austin, he pulled me in to the office at our house where my medals are hanging and made me look at them, and say out loud that they’re not meaningless. He calls me an incredible athlete, which I think goes a bit far, but to have a cheerleader and a teammate like him, it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes.
The Next Moves
I’m doing better physically. Mentally, this is going to take a little longer. I know what I need to do to pick myself up, but sometimes, allowing a little wailing and gnashing of teeth does the soul some good, too. With Maui on the horizon for XTERRA worlds in 2017, my redemption tour for Ironman will have to wait until 2018. But, you’d better believe I’ve already been scanning course profiles and narrowing down my choices…
A big congrats to everyone who did finish, and I mean that with my whole heart. As it turned out, the Texas Rangers were playing in Denver for an afternoon game before our flight left. Bryce and I sat 1 mile high in Rockies stadium, eating nachos and churros and cheering louder than the home crowd, and had a great time. It was then that I informed him that the entire past 6 months and this whole trip had really just been a long con to get him to the game. He doesn’t believe me, but he can’t prove I’m lying, either.
At least the Rangers won….
Jenny is a Moxie Cycling Ambassador and blog contributor. Check out her bio here!