Sunday, September 28, 2014


Before yesterday, dropping out of a race had never been a real consideration to me.  I freely admit that I always felt that there was a way to finish what I started, even if that meant dialing down the effort or walking my way in.  I don't consider myself a quitter (though realize this is not judged by me), and likewise tended to view the DNF as a pretty drastic measure.  

I was a late entry to IM Mallorca only a few weeks ago, after learning I needed to be in Spain for work.  At the time, a friend had planned to race as well and it was an opportunity to add a race that I would never choose organically, arguably extending my 2014 race season a little past its shelf life.

It is one thing being a little worn and edgy from the cumulative miles of wear and tear that a season of training brings.  I have done late season races before (Cozumel, Kona) and know full well that it is demanding to be in full training load while the others are blissfully enjoying the spoils of off-season alternate, cross-country races, wine.  I chose to continue the SBR routine, and I expected what that meant - early morning 30k runs, clicking off the 4 hour ride while the rest of the team is in coffee mode, and getting a little aggro in the swim lane (c'mon...3k is not a workout!!).  In the weeks preceding the race, though, life outside of the training bubble occurred as it does - topsy, turvy, tumultuous, and emotionally draining.

Game face

Ten days ago, I would have told you that if anything was going to derail this race, it was my emotional state.  There is a dialogue that enters your mind during a race that you either control, or let control you.  If you let yourself get emotionally charged, your mind will cause your focus and your body to fall apart in equal succession.

And, perhaps, the outside criticism is that I was not fully invested.  Perhaps that is at least partially true.  It is obviously terribly difficult to be fully invested in a race when you are fully prepared to fly home at a moment's notice.    

When it became apparent that Bogey's health had settled sufficiently for me to race, however, the emotional outlet turned off.  I showed up at the start line with my game face and a plan to stay in the moment, execute each section of the race methodically and forget (for just a while) what the future might hold.


Having participated in a European race gives me all kinds of appreciation for the awesome races we have in North America.  As the inaugural full-distance race in Mallorca (there have been 70.3's for a few years), there were some logistical kinks.  With over 2600 starters, and less than 300 women - the field is male-dominated and fast.  The small women's field, likewise, was Euro and scary fast (and, as one of the guests at my agriturismo commented..."you seem awfully small compared to those other women"...).

The swim was a no-wetsuit, mass age-group land start, on approximately 150m of width into a shallow beach.  It was pretty close quarters for 2600 people and I expected a rough start, akin to Kona.  As a "40th percentile" swimmer, I never really get out of the shitty mess in these mass swims and it is particularly bad when it is predominately big, overenthused men doing aquatic WWF.  Good swimmers know not this pain - in the pack, it is 3.8k of bedlam.  Either I deal with it or suffer a bad time.    

Photo of the Mallorca 70.3 swim start to add some perspective.  There were even boats moored in the harbour during the race!
My swim strategy was simple - stay "in", be engaged.  Stay in the pack, stay in my head and don't freak out.  Don't look around at the flailing mess, sight only when you have to and directly forward.  Stay confident and know that everyone else out there is facing the same crap as you.    

I was speaking to a friend a few weeks ago about the imagery and mental cues that unconsciously occur in a race.  Sometimes it is the song that you cannot get out of your head, sometimes it is a complete inability to recall ANY song or logical thought (this friend mentioned that the only song she could remember during Ironman Canada was "twinkle, twinkle little Star"...torture!).  Counting.  Repeating a mantra.

The mental image / mantra that occurred to me yesterday was odd - laughably odd - but worth sharing.  There is a scene in Top Gun where Tom Cruise's character is about to enter into a  gunfight, but hesitates in self-doubt.  The radio tower shouts at him, "engage, Maverick, engage",  In true Hollywood fashion, he comes to his senses, engages and kicks everyone's a**.  

So, as cheesy as it sounds, the mantra I had was simply "engage, Richele, engage".  I'm no fighter pilot, and I have no idea why Top Gun came to mind in the swim, but it helped enormously.  For the first time in a mass swim, I was cognizant that the other swimmers dislike contact as much as I do.  Whereas in the past, I would move away and seek calmer water if I got bumped - I stayed in, held my line and fought back when I needed to.  In most instances, the swimmer bumping me moved instead.

The swim was a "M" shape, with a beach exit after 2600m to start the second piece.  My energy really dwindled after going upright to the beach the first time, and the diagonal placement of the swim buoys was very confusing / disorienting so I battled the pack a bit to stay in line.

I never wear a watch during the swim and I don't look at the time on exiting - as a relatively weak swimmer, I feel that this information has no positive relevance for me.  Swims can be short or long, and what is more important is feeling ready to hit the bike - my litmus test is whether there are still bikes in transition! Effort wise, I swam pretty hard and, albeit not knowing my time at that point, had a great swim (for me) - 1:07.

Ride like you mean it

I have had some frustration this season on the bike.  Normally it is my strongest of the three sports, but for a variety of reasons it has not been my happy place.  Not intent to let this become my achilles heel, I was prepared to ride hard and make it count.

The course is shaped like a figure 8, primarily flat to rolling for the first 110k, big climb at 120k in the Serra de Tramuntana mountains in the northwest of the island (so spectacular!) and flat to rolling for the remainder.  Some technical descents, rough road and wind make it an honest course - and one that pacing is critical on.

The stunning climb
I took the first hour fairly conservatively, warmed up and got into a rhythm.  I was, however, pretty shocked at what was laid out in front of was impossible to get clear of other riders.  With a predominately male field that exits the water in quick succession, I suppose this is inevitable.  What I was not prepared for, however, was the general willingness to deliberately pack ride.

I hate this and it creates a very unfair race for the women cyclists wanting to ride a clean race in a male-dominated race.  I was absolutely killing myself to break off the front, and only succeeded in dragging a pack with me that would swallow me on the next downhill.  Uphill and flat, break free, downhill swarm.  It is unnerving, and makes me very uncomfortable to ride in my aerobars when I am being swarmed.  What I really don't understand is the unwillingness of some of the participants to even try to ride legal - it is very simple to ride 10m back.  Quite advantageous really.  And if everyone plays by this rule, it creates a fair ride.

The motorbikes started breaking the packs (or at least scaring them into riding legal), thankfully, and for an extended section before the climb I was able to find space to ride my own race in my aerobars.  The crowd in Alcudia and Pollenca was invigorating and heading into the climb, I felt great - I had ridden the first section conservatively enough to attack the climb, and had lots of energy to attack the hill.

At the base of the climb I quietly relished passing every single person in the draft pack that had whizzed past me around 80k.  Climbing brings out the real deal...and I love that there is no faking it.  There was also more shade and the slower pace meant having time to eat and drink.

There is simply no way of dancing around what happened next, however, without a bit of criticism directed at the race organizers.  And, to be fair, I really appreciate and accept that there are logistical challenges and experience that come into organizing a race of this size, particularly in the first year.  However, the fact that the only bike aid stations were 30 kilometers apart is inexcusable.  Worse, the bottles we were being handed were half full of water.  So if you were lucky enough to grab and rack two still only had one full bottle.

So assuming that, under normal riding conditions, you are a camel and can go an hour on one bottle of water in hot, windy conditions, you are getting a mere one bottle roughly every 50-60 minutes (I was averaging about 34-36 kph at this point).  But what they are forgetting is that 115 through 130k features a climb, averaging 5.5%.  So you are no longer averaging a bottle an hour - it is more like 90 minutes to the next bottle (if you are a good climber), after a hot, sweaty climb.  Hydration failure at precisely the point in the race where you need it the most.    

I went dry at the top of the hill - around 130k.  Rather than avoid missing my nutrition as well, I decided to choke down both my gel and salt tab sans liquid.  Bad idea in case you ever consider it.  The salt tab stuck in my throat and I was parched.  I have done enough racing to know that if you feel thirsty, you are already well dehydrated.  This was an alarm in my mind and by the time I eventually reached the aid station, I felt dizzy and headachy.

I decided to come to a full stop at the next aid station and do damage control - I drank a bottle (well, half!) of water immediately, asked for two FULL bottles to rack on my bike and drank a half bottle of Cola.  My abdomen had already started cramping, as had my legs, but I chose a lower gear than normal and "spun" through the next 30k.

I always find that the last 30k of the Iron distance bike are a bit of war of attrition under normal circumstances - you are hot, tired and ready to get off the bike.  At the same time, I am mentally preparing to run and I usually ride more conservatively to spin my legs out.  This is absolutely not the point at which you want to be in disaster recovery mode, and I knew that adequate nutrition and water into the last hour of the bike was imperative.  

All the people I had worked to pass on the hill whizzed past me as I was stopped to refuel, but I desperately hoped that the decision to stop would pay off.  Every other athlete I spoke to after the race had run dry as well, and several had experienced cramping issues to boot.  Certainly it was hot and humid - everyone was coated with white salt stains on the bike.  Not a good sign.

Time-wise, I had a great ride relative to the field even though I sacrificed some time at the last aid station and over the final 30k.  I rolled into T2 about 40 seconds shy of the 2nd place girl in my AG (she passed me after the climb) and knew that if I could run, I could well challenge her for the position.

Full stop 

Thoughts of chasing were fleeting - my head was all in, but my body had started checking out.  When I dismounted and started rolling my bike through transition, it felt like a knife was stabbing me in the gut.

I breathed, and walked my bike to the rack.  Walked to pick up my bag.  Sat down in transition and slowly breathed, got dressed.  I knew that if I let the cramp ease off that I had a chance.  As soon as I started moving again, it returned vengefully.  Not surprisingly there was no water and no aid in T2 - the vollies informed me that I was going to have to get to 2.5k on the run course before I could have a drink of water (seriously...aid stations every 2.5k on a hot, sun-exposed run?)

I have been in tough spots before in races.  The roughest race before yesterday was the 2012 ITU long distance worlds, ironically also in Spain.  Searing abdominal cramps through the run forced me to walk/run 30k, doing yoga breathing through the searing pain.  It was a horribly painful experience, and one I later attributed to dehydration.

So I knew this pain.  Debilitating pain, not the mind-over-matter kind of pain that you expect during a race this long.  I ran 500m and stopped.  Held my side, breathed hard to get rid of the cramp.  Brendan was cheering on the course and convinced me to give it 10k to work itself out.  I wasn't emotional, I wasn't upset - I was focused on that moment and doing what I could to get to the next.  

I made it to 2k, then 5k, then 7k.  Slowly.  Instead of getting better, the pain spread - from my left side to my whole abdomen.  Then my legs, then my calves, and into my feet.  My trusted "easy" run stride - the one that gets me through the start of the shit that is always the Ironman run - was not possible.   I made a bargain to myself - run one kilometre, then walk for a minute.   

I was totally, and perhaps stupidly, optimistic that I could make it better.  I wanted to race.  I wanted to run.  In retrospect, however, I recognize that I was on a slippery slide - my belly sloshed around with the massive amounts of fluids I was trying to replace, and it simply stopped accepting them.  I felt nauseous and GI distress started.  I got cold, shivering and goose bumps.  I was dizzy and lightheaded.  The knife pain in my chest started every time I moved.    

I walked to just past 11 kilometres, deliberating my options.  It may have been possible for me to walk the remaining 31 kilometres, but to me it was not a question of whether I could finish - I had nothing to prove.  And despite wanting to go, my body was telling me it was done.  The medical assistance at the aid station told me the same thing - go on and risk the consequences, and it was certainly not getting better until I had stopped and rested.  It did also occur to me that putting myself in a place of needing medical assistance while essentially traveling alone in a foreign country was not the brightest decision.  

The moment I handed by bib in, I felt nothing.  There was a calm knowing I was making the right decision at the time.  There was absolutely no point in pushing myself further - no race, no medal, no finish is worth seriously damaging myself over.  


I do not take the DNF lightly.  With an endurance resume that over the past 10 years has 7 iron distance finishes, a dozen or more half-irons, various other distance triathlons, 15 open marathons and two dozen half marathons, quitting has not been part of my repertoire.  I don't consider myself lacking in tenacity either -  I raced an Ironman with pneumonia, another one with an injured achilles...possibly both very stupid things in retrospect.  I have battled through physical and emotional distress to varying levels of success, and I really felt like I had nothing to prove yesterday.  

The place where I chose to race was at the edge.  I wasn't cruising the race to finish - I was going hard, or going home.  I knew that, and accept the consequences.  Racing in that place, particularly over 10+ hours, requires diligence and precision in maintaining pace and effort, recognizing the signs of exertion and managing nutrition.  I am pretty (brutally) honest with my self and my self-assessment.  The race was fully "on" and then it wasn't - and it took 10k of horribly bad "running" to convince myself to quit.  

And despite not finishing, there were small victories in the day - I stayed in my head, I stayed engaged, had a great (for me) swim, and I rode well.  My confidence in my cycling is somewhat restored (and pretty chuffed to be the Canadian that out-rode the Euros in their own backyard).  That being said, a triathlon is three events and failing to run after swimming and cycling well is really not the point.  So I do need to get to the bottom of the problem before I race again.  

To me there was a recognizable difference between "hitting the wall" and what transpired yesterday - all the stubborn will  in the world does not trump a body that stops functioning.  At the same time, I take full responsibility for not managing my hydration on the bike, and you can bet I will be extremely diligent about managing the fine details of aid stations going forward.  Would I enter another hot race knowing aid stations are that far apart?  Will I race a WTC event in Europe again?  Both highly unlikely.

I am very thankful for the people who have reached out in the last day, knowing my disappointment.  Athletes who I respect and look up to, who listened to my explanation of the situation and understood my decision.  I feel a much less emblazoned with the scarlet letters D-N-F than I did yesterday.  I am also very thankful that Brendan convinced me to put 10k into the run before deciding - it sealed the decision.  I may have regretted not trying.     

I see no point in regretting or looking back.  Was it truly dehydration?  Or perhaps a subconscious culmination of that and everything else - emotional toil, lack of investment, fatigue?  What I do know is that I need a break to recharge and take the time for the other parts of my life that are, quite frankly, more valuable to me than swimming, riding and running.  

I believe that racing adds an element to other aspects of your life that is truly irreplaceable - focus, determination and a belief in yourself.  However, my life simply does not revolve around a finish line or a singular goal.  If and when I choose, there are more adventures, start lines a plenty and never ending sweaty pursuits to dream up.  However, there are also rainy morning sleep-ins, doggie beach walks, fun runs sans watch and Sunday morning football brunches that pique my interest...starting today!

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