Usually I would wait to write out the full race report until after I got the pictures, but I guess these count as special circumstances. I do have a few pictures from family iPhones, but you'll have to wait for the pro pics.
Anyway, the first thing that I can say is that I finished my first half-ironman. My family isn't sure how they feel about my glorification of this fact, considering the circumstances in which it happened. I understand that I must do a better job of listening to my body and being reasonable and realistic with myself. But I am still proud. I worked damn hard for that stinkin' finisher's medal. Much harder than the sheer distance of the event.
That being said, every time I retell this story it becomes more clear to me how insane it sounds and how crazy I may be.
Also, because of how this day went and the mistakes I know I must have made, I am going to explain my nutrition and health etc. very thoroughly (AKA THIS IS A VERY LONG POST). I am hoping for insight here from my fellow triathlete followers into whether not my assessment of my hydration and nutritional mistakes is correct. Looking back on the day, I believe that there were some things going wrong with my body and electrolyte levels before I started, and then during the race I had too much caffiene and too few electrolytes. We'll see what you all think.
So here it goes:
SATURDAY: Erin and I drove up to Delaware for the weekend to see our families and prep for the race. We stayed with her parents Friday night, and then Saturday took care of last minute errands. My friend Mary was also doing the race, and it was her first triathlon. I met her at packet pick-up on Saturday and we took a quick little spin on our bikes to check out the area a bit and get our legs moving. After she left I ran for a few minutes, threw in some strides and felt pretty good. My taper week had been mentally tough and I had been having trouble sleeping. On top of that, (here's your first warning sign), my heart had been bothering me a little bit. Let me qualify that statement with a back story: In 2001 I had a catheter ablation for AV nodal tachycardia. In other words, my heart sometimes beats too fast and I had a surgery to fix the little electrical short circuit that was causing it. I haven't had any major issues since then, but every once and a while I get a strange feeling in my chest that is a preliminary symptom of my cardiac episodes. The week leading up to the race I was just getting that strange feeling more frequently, but it would go away. And the day before my race I felt all right.
Saturday I was fueling up on easily digestible foods all day. We went to my parent's for the evening (after I went on a wild goose chase for a run/number belt that could hold my inhaler since I had left my belt at home. I had to explain to Erin that a fanny pack simply wouldn't work, made a huge stink about it, and then ended up getting a running pack that even I had trouble denying was basically a fanny pack. graaarrr. No Erin, it's a sleek, running waist pack!). Anyway, for dinner I had a small amount of pasta (cause I didn't love it) and then a bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter and a G2 lowcal gatorade. Before bed I got hungry again so I had a small PB sandwich. After switching rooms and fussing for a while to get comfortable (the first room was too hot, the second had too many allergens...what a flipping princess!) we went to bed and warning number 2 occurred. Around 2 am I got cramps in my foot, the muscle along the shin and calf of my left leg. I had to stomp around on the bed and stretch them out before I could go back to sleep.
RACE DAY: Up at 4:15 am and into my race gear. For breakfast I had oatmeal with apples and cinnamon, coffee and a banana. Had another banana in the car on the way to the race and some water. Once I got down the race site, about an hour drive from my parents', I had a Stinger Waffle while I set up in transition. I was stoked about my spot in transition because my bike was literally right in front of the Swim In/Bike In so I knew I wouldn't get lost running down rows of bicycles. Props to myself, I set up my transition area really well. I felt great and was chatting up my fellow racers. I was also SUPER excited that the swim wasn't cancelled. My friend Mary was only a few people down from me, so we were able to get ready together. Very fun.
Before the race started I had a bag of the Limeade Stinger Chews (caffeinated) and a G2 low cal gatorade. My parents and Mary's mom were at the swim start, which was awesome. We were in the second wave with an in-water start, and the water was about chest-neck height at the start buoy. The water was really pleasant at 77 degrees, although it's a large pond so it's quite murky. My swimming felt strong and Mary and I were armpit to armpit for almost the entire time in the water. I stayed on course (as did she since she was literally right next to me the whole time) and was super happy until I rounded the second turn bouy on the U-shaped course. My left foot and toes started to cramp. So I swam with one flexed foot and one pointed foot for a while. It would go away and I could swim again...but then it would come back. After the last bouy and about 400 meters from the swim exit, the cramp crept up to my calf and shin. I tried to see if I could touch the ground, but I couldn't yet, so I made up a strange turtle kick and mostly pulled hard with my arms (thank you paddles for my arm/back muscles!). Just as I got close enough to shore to touch the ground, both my legs cramped up entirely. I waddled for a few strides in the deep water to work the cramps out and then combo swam/walked to the exit. Obviously I lost Mary by then, and added a few minutes to my time, but I still was probably out of the water at 35 or 36 minutes (for 1.2 miles). We had a quarter of a mile to run before the timing mat at transition, however (I ran it barefoot, some athletes put shoes on at the swim exit) so my official swim time was 39:27.
When I came out of the water I was fighting back tears (my legs HURT!) and yelled to my parents that I had charlie horses in both of my legs. Erin was camped out on a chair right in front of the Swim In/Bike In so I passed her on my way into transition. Mary was still there when I got in but left before I did. T1 was really pretty good. I got my wetsuit off quickly, the cramps were basically gone, and I got my bike gear on with ease. 1:29. Not amazing, but much better than my previous attempts.
Got out on the bike course and let it rip. My first goal was to catch Mary and see how my legs felt. I caught her relatively quickly and I had no cramping. I knew going into the race that bike might now be my new strongest leg and I suddenly felt pretty darn great. The Zipp rentals were faassstt and the course was mostly flat. I had my first Gu (Roctane Vanilla Orange with double caffiene), drank some water, and flew. I went a little off course once relatively early on because the guys ahead of me did. I make it a point on the bike course to thank every single police officer and volunteer that I see. I guess karma paid off, because as I thanked the officer at the turn my fellow competitors took incorrectly he said "Oh triathletes go that way!" and pointed me in the right direction. I made a quick turn around, thanked him again, and got back on course. Shortly after, Mary caught up with me and I decided it was time to kick it into high gear and make up for lost time, so I started to hammer. I didn't see her again till I was coming back from the turn-around, but found out later she got a flat. Over the 56 miles I had a total of 2 Gus (both with double caffeine) and 2 packages of Honey Stinger Chews (one with caffeine, one without). Honestly I hadn't even thought about the fact that almost all of my nutrition products had caffeine in them. They're the ones I use in training, but I'm never consuming this many at a time I guess. I also had a full water bottle and took a bottle at the exchange. I only drank about 2/3 of my low cal gatorade, however.
The bike course was mostly flat, although we went over a HUGE bridge which constituted one substantial climb. I felt awesome and came in from the bike totally amongst the men. My bike split put me at the 10th female overall, and second in my age group (the girl who won my age group came in 6th OVERALL, first woman). I averaged 19.4 mph over 56 miles for a 2:53:56 bike. At T2 I was half an hour ahead of where I thought I would be. My cycling has seriously improved this year.
T2 was great for me at 1:10. Again, not incredible, but for me, great. I still had almost all of the water from the bottle exchange, so I drank some as I ran out of transition and poured some on me. Going into the run, I started to realize that I was feeling pretty drained. Of course that is to be expected after 57.2 miles. I also knew that my run was under-trained because I had been struggling with injury so much. I was so happy with my swim and my bike, I was content to shuffle 9 or 10 minute miles and finish with a smile. So that was how I started. But very quickly, things started to go terribly wrong. My heart felt funny. I had the fluttery, pressure in my chest that I associate with my tachycardia episodes. I started trying to take my pulse probably around mile 2, but it was impossible to tell if i was tachy or just had an elevated heart rate cause Hey, I was working out! I got water and gatorade at every aid station. It was at this point when, around when I took my first Gu on the run (Roctate Vanilla Orange, double caffeine) that I realized that all of my nutrition was caffeinated and that probably wasn't helping my heart rate. duh. I started picking up hammer gels at the aid stations because they weren't caffeinated.
As the run progressed, I felt worse and worse. Not just tired, but really icky. My hands were going numb and when I would straighten my arms, numbness and pain shot down them to my thumbs. I was lightheaded and I felt like my heart was in my throat. Between miles 5 and 6 I convinced myself that I just needed to pee and I would feel better. I tried that. Didn't fix it. At the turn around I let myself do something I have never done before. I walked.
By then I was furious at myself. I couldn't believe that I was going to let myself walk. But as soon as I did, I knew I might be in real trouble. I thought I was going to pass out. My hands were numb, and it felt like gravity got extra strong and I was shrinking. I was covered in goosebumps and I had poured so much water on myself that I couldn't be sure, but I thought maybe I had stopped sweating. At this point I thought about flagging down the truck I could see further up on the course bringing water to the aid stations. I thought it would be better to get his attention before I hit the ground, cause I thought I was going down. Then I thought maybe I was just being dramatic.
That was when I made the (possibly very stupid) decision to finish. I just thought about getting carried back to the finish line in a truck, and somehow, short of two broken legs and a heart attack, I just couldn't fathom it. There was just no way. I tried to reason with myself. I was saying "hey, pros DNF all the time when something goes wrong!" but I am not a pro. I am a stupid age-grouper who glorifies the finish above all else cause it's not like I'll ever redeem myself by winning the whole damn thing one day. In my deranged state, finishing HAD to happen.
At the mile 7 aid station I stopped completely and talked to the guy there. I told him I was dehydrated and needed help, but that I wanted to finish. He gave me several gatorades and a hammer gel. I started using all the techniques I had been taught 10 years ago when my heart problem was more active to lower my heart rate. After a few minutes I began to run again. I started to Galloway Method (run 4 telephone poles, walk one) and during every walk I practiced heart-rate lowering techniques. Over the course of the run I had 2.5 double caffeinated Gus and 3 non caffeinated hammer gels. After I mile 7 I drank as much gatorade and water as I could without puking at every aid station, and poured it all over me. It was the longest 13.1 miles of my life. Parts of it I don't remember too well. At around mile 9 my legs began to cramp again. I would run until they cramped, then walk until they stopped. Several runners, including Mary, ran and walked with me before moving on. I was going pretty darn slow. At around mile 11 I told Mary to go on and tell everyone I was coming. I remember seeing her stop to walk up a hill ahead of me and yelling at her to keep going, she was killing it. With 1 mile left I saw my dad out on the course and picked up my pace to the last aid station, poured 2 cups of water on me, and then ran the last mile with a nice lady named Anne. 100 yards from the finish we turned a corner around some trees, saw the finish line, and suddenly there were many people yelling my name. I couldn't really focus on who had shown up at that point, but I was so happy they were there. I turned to Anne and said "Ready to sprint?" and she said yes. I sprinted to the finish line (for all I know I my idea of a sprint at that point was a crawl), turned to high-five Anne, and stopped for the volunteer to take of my timing chip.
I am sure that my parents' or Erin's account of what happened next would be more accurate than mine. I mostly remember reaching for a finishers medal, falling on Erin, shade, the ground, my parents, and then the glorious ice and cold water being poured on me. There were people all around me but I couldn't lift my head or arms or upper body and my body kept trying to lie down without my telling it to. There were a lot of voices telling me and other people what to do, but I'm pretty sure all I did was sit there. I remember telling my mom about my heart bothering me the entire run and telling Erin not to lose that (damn) medal. The EMTs arrived and took info and my vitals. After a while I started to feel a bit better and began to understand where I was and who was there. I was very very embarrassed and kept apologizing, I couldn't believe what a dramatic display I had made. I was plopped down right in the middle of a local team's tent (THANK YOU TRIDAWGS FOR YOUR HOSPITALITY!!!!) and someone was giving me gatorade and swedish fish and fritos. I kept saying that I hadn't had fritos in years.
Slowly I felt better and started talking to people. When I started to feel more human, I tried to stand up, but both my legs started cramping. The pain was crazy. I had decided not to go to the hospital, but when the cramping wouldn't go away, the decision was revoked and onto a stretcher I went to get IV fluids and balance my electrolytes.
So one ambulance ride and 2 liters of fluids later, I was sitting in the hospital chatting with my parents and Erin and feeling very tired although much more normal. Dad brought me a chocolate milkshake (another treat I haven't had in years) and turkey burger sliders, which I housed. I think I also had some of an apple and a banana. Eventually it was clear I was fine and I could walk without my legs cramping. IV fluids are incredible. But I hate the flipping IV. By the time the doctors got to me (they were slammed that day) my heart was behaving correctly so there was no point in an EKG. Erin brought me my finisher's medal and said "I hope this was worth it..."
Post-hospital I had a chocolate milk, 2 gatorades, a bag of veggie chips, a turkey hoagie, a bit of dark chocolate, and a bag of peanut butter pretzels, spread out over the rest of the evening. I was stiff, sore, and exhausted, but worlds better.
My time was 6:08:53. I finished 8 minutes off of my goal time. After T2 I was half an hour ahead of schedule, which made up for my 2:32:50 run.
Mary, btw, finished 5 minutes ahead of me for a stunning triathlon debut at the half-iron distance, and that included a flat tire! She's a natural talent.
So now of course it's time for the"next steps" and "lessons learned" section. It's time to start mining my resources to figure out what really happened to me. My mother has put me in contact with a triathlete friend of hers who is also in the medical field, and he and I should be chatting soon about nutrition and prep. I honestly don't think that my training itself was an issue. I had plenty of training to finish, and although I needed more run training to go fast, the distance shouldn't have been an issue. I believe that there were a few specific things that went wrong: 1. I think something was not right before I even started the race because of my heart symptoms and leg cramping. 2. I think I consumed too much caffeine during the race 3. I think I did not have enough electrolytes on the bike. Trying to make them up with gatorade on the run after I was already in trouble was just way too late.
So my next steps? First a full cardiac work up. Then I think I need to talk to a sports nutritionist or someone of that nature. I also think that for my next half ironman (my family thinks I should do two more before I attempt a full iron distance race) I should get some real coaching instead of doing it myself. In addition, I need to redo my race nutrition strategy entirely with better supplements. And I am likely going to start trying to cut significant amounts of caffeine out of my diet.
The issue with most of these endeavors will honestly be monetary. The good people for this stuff will likely not be cheap. I don't have $100 a month to spend on coaching. But I will figure out the best way to make it all happen, because unless the cardiologist says "Keep it up and you'll die" I do not plan on quitting. I love triathlon.
That being said, I also understand that I need to listen to my body. I know I can finish a half-iron distance race now, so if next time things go this far south, I promise to my family and friends that I will not do what I just did again. No more dramatic finish-line collapses. It's not worth dying over. And I truly am sorry.
My veterinarian mother says that if I were a horse and had blown up like this, she would make me go another season at prelim before I could move up a level. In triathlon speak that means
two more perfect half-irons before a full. :) Hopefully in one season though. I'm ready to do better, because I know that I can. Thank you everyone for all of your love and help and not telling me I have to quit or you'll all disown me. Mom, Dad and Erin: You're the greatest.
Everyone else: thanks for reading this short novel. Event pics soon, I hope.