On Monday, I hinted at a few medical problems I had during my less-than-stellar performance at the Eagleman AquaVelo, but didn’t really detail anything. And of course you all want details of how I managed to run myself into the ground in a race that is far shorter than the race I’m planning on doing in just 10.5 weeks. So here it is – complete with underlined text in the areas where I should have perked up and said “Well this is not right.”
Pre-race: The week before
I had multiple meetings to run and presentations to deliver every day of the week, which didn’t leave much time for preparations or, well, sleep. That whole career thing obviously takes priority over racing activities, and even if I stay on top of everything and get my work done in advance, I don’t work in a vacuum. Last-minute changes come from other directions, and there’s just no rescheduling that 7 am meeting with people who are more important than I am. I’m accustomed to sleep deprivation after 15+ years of long-term insomnia, but I wasn’t sleeping for more than 1-2 hours at a time or 3-4 hours total a day. Not ideal, but life isn’t ideal.
That all wrapped up by midday Friday, and figured I’d get some rest and pack. Packing, sure, rest, not so much. I had an odd experience in the afternoon, and again around dinnertime, where fluid seemed to sit in my stomach and not move, leaving me feeling queasy. It was pronounced enough that I only ate about 1/3 of my dinner.
That probably should have been pretty alarming, but I still had the next morning to make up for any glycogen deficit I might have accumulated over the week, and eventually I got some fluid in later that night.
Pre-race: The day before
Following a morning of coaching and a light swim workout outdoors, I packed up the car and headed out for Cambridge, MD. Nuun-filled water bottles in tow.
Fluid stopped moving again somewhere around Annapolis. Felt sick. Not optimal. Issue resolved itself about 10 miles north of the race site, so I got to check in and saw a bit of the pro forum and snagged a picture of Crowie.
The race organizers required bike check-in the day before the race, so I did a short ride to check out my bike functionality, and was sweating quite a bit, even while just unloading my bike. It was not cold outside. More like low 90s and no shade. And again, water just wasn’t sitting right when I tried drinking some on the way over to the B&B where I was staying. That passed again, and then it was time to get dinner with Ed and some of his Philadelphia-area triathlete friends, which gave us a chance to talk race strategies (read: debate the merits of peeing on the bike versus stopping to empty your bladder).
Got back to the B&B and found the smoke detector in my room beeping every 90 seconds. Finally get to bed at about 11. No worries about the 4:30 am wakeup time, since I woke up at 3:50-something without an alarm.
Pre-race: The day of
Normal pre-race breakfast, aside from using half a cup of coffee for my caffeine source. Headed over to the beautiful race site.
Parked about a mile from transition, got set up, and then waited almost 3 hours for my wave to start. The DC Tri Club tent was in a prime location. I mean, if you like getting your eardrums blown out, that is.
Sat in the heat, which had reached 80 degrees shortly after 7 am. Hydrated, ate my pre-race snack, wandered into the water with my DCRP teammate, Laura, and finally got lined up to start almost 5 hours after waking up in the morning.
Swam towards the buoy, easy sight line, strong and steady, and enjoyed some relatively clear water on a clear, sunny day. The field spread out quite a bit, as our wave included the aquabike athletes as well as the relay swimmers, who didn’t have to save anything for the rest of the day after getting out of the water.
Suddenly, I found myself next to a guy who hit me on the head – hard – on one of his strokes. The hit was hard enough to make me hear a “thud” inside my head, but not hard enough to keep me from continuing to swim.
I mean, really. What could make me STOP swimming? Probably nothing.
Eventually, we came to the final leg in to the finish, and were met with some not-so-gentle cross current. Out of the water, ran to the bike, and started the second, and final, leg of the race.
The Bike: Miles 1-20
Settled in on the bike, hung out in the aerobars, and hammered out an average speed of almost 20 mph over some hot blacktop with no shade. Sipped on the Nuun, tooked Endurolytes, chomped on bits of Larabar.
Not a bit of what I take in moved. My stomach started filling up. Odd.
The Bike: Miles 21-30
Headwinds. Rising temperatures that made the bike course feel like a convection oven. Such is life. Backed off on the water, let my stomach settle and then took in a little more.
The Bike: Miles 31-40
Sleepy. Really sleepy. And kind of nauseous. My average speed was dropping, partially from the headwinds and partially from fatigue. Threw up in here somewhere (of course without stopping, if I don’t stop to pee, I’m sure not going to stop to throw up). Felt better after.
The Bike: Miles 41-45
Aid station. Master the bottle grab, pour water on myself to cool myself off and get rid of the chunks of salt that had built up all over my face. I drank a bit of what was left in the bottle. That, plus more, came back up about a mile later. Then more. Then I noticed that my breathing was getting really shallow. It kind of reminded me of the last asthma attack I’d had back in 2006.
Hmmm…probably because it was an asthma attack.
The Bike: Miles 45-56
I started seeing spots and intermittently began blacking out. I’d already had to get out of the aerobars to be able to breathe a little bit (well, and to be able to throw up without hitting myself with it), but now I had to stay out of them to keep my balance.
I realized it was dangerous and decided that I needed to quit the race.
Then I realized that I was on deserted roads in the middle of rural MD, towards the back of the race since our wave was last. I did the math and decided that the quickest way to the medical tent, where I could get something to address the asthma, would be to just bike to the finish. I’d been done racing for a while, so this turned into a matter of keeping the bike upright and focusing on breathing just enough to keep myself moving forward, but not exerting myself so much that I fully blacked out or completely lost the ability to breathe.
I’d passed at least 50 people in the first 40 miles. Many of them re-passed me. Asked how I was doing. Offered salt tabs. Nice folks out there. One of them said she was so proud of me, because most would just quit.
“Oh, I’d quit too, it’s just that there’s nowhere to quit.”
There was a big tent of spectators about 1.5 miles from the finish, and I hit it right after a particularly scary dizzy spell. I still thought about dropping out there, but reasoned that I’d get to medical faster by continuing to ride.
Post-race: The Medical Tent
Since I basically biked at about 13-14 mph for the end of the race, I could still move on my own feet, and got myself over to the medical tent, filled with dehydrated folks and some very serious cases of heat exhaustion. Some of them had finished, some of them hadn’t. The very attentive EMTs listened to my breathing and checked out my pulse and blood pressure.
Tachycardia (very rapid pulse) and dangerously low blood pressure. That, combined with my reports of not getting in any hydration, got me an IV of fluid while they looked for supplied breathing air. I got to hang out on that for a while, they checked on me, and found that without it, I still couldn’t breathe. Back on I go.
I felt pretty lame being in there – people were in really rough shape, and most of them had done the complete race, run and all. I mean, the doctor overseeing the operations there was talking about getting an ambulance for somebody. These people were hurting.
Er, apparently that ambulance was going to be for me. I protested loudly – I mean, as loudly as you can when you are stuck on supplied breathing air and still not able to stand up without passing up – and finally got told that if I could breathe on my own for 5 minutes, I could sign a form stating that I was refusing hospital care and be gone.
And that was it. My time was 3:50, which was really slow compared to my goal time (3:25) and the time that it took me to do the swim and bike at Charleston (3:39).
And to preempt some questions that I’m sure have come to your mind, here are some answers.
- Why the breakdown? Could be the heat. We had some uncharacteristically cool weather in late May and early June, and I hadn’t done more than 1-2 training sessions in temperatures above 80. It was well over 90 by the time I finished on Sunday. Acclimation just hasn’t happened yet. If I’d been more disciplined about it, I could have trained midday and in heavier clothes more often, but I didn’t.
- Why were you feeling sick for days before the race? Again, this could be the heat. I was out in the heat and sun for a while on Friday and Saturday, and maybe my body isn’t used to taking in fluids at a rapid rate yet. Or I could have been sick. Hard to say.
- Why did you start feeling sleepy on the bike? Are you really that lazy? It could be the residual sleep deprivation from the week. I also wonder if, when I got hit in the head during the swim, I had a mild concussion. I’ve had several of them before, and getting sleepy and then sick falls in the normal chain of events. I’d completely forgotten about that incident while I was in the medical tent, so I didn’t get evaluated for it. At this point, nobody would be able to tell me if I had one or not, but it would explain the sleepiness and the vomiting, as well as the odd auditory and visual distortions I experienced for the days following the race.
- And why the asthma attack? The running theory on this, between my coach and I, is that the combination of the stress of the race slipping out of my hands while I lost all my hydration and the aspirated stomach acid (sexy, I know), it flared up. The air quality was poor the day of the race, but I’ve not had problems on poor air quality days for a long time, so that seems like the best explanation.
- Wait, you have asthma and don’t carry an inhaler? I was diagnosed with asthma when I was 8 years old, but hadn’t had an attack for six years (aside from one that was triggered by complications from kidney surgery, which I don’t count). I therefore no longer carry an inhaler. Yes, this will change.
- Tachycardia is a big word and it sounds scary. Is it? It is. I had bouts of it in high school. I’d like to not experience it again if possible.
- You could have really hurt yourself if you’d totally blacked out while on your bike. You could have crashed. Why didn’t you stop? Like I said, the easiest way to get to medical was to keep biking. Plus, if I’d been pulled from the course in an ambulance, I’d have been stuck at a hospital for hours for no reason.
- You’re so badass for not stopping. False. I’d have done it if there were a convenient place to do it. But biking was the fastest way to get the IV and supplied breathing air.
- Fine then. You’re stupid for not going to the hospital. Also false. I’d have just been stuck in the hospital for hours instead of getting home sooner and recovering there.
- Did you come in last place? Surprisingly not. It turns out that I won my age group in the AquaVelo. So I get to have my trophy mailed to me.
- What? And you didn’t stay for awards? See above comment about getting home ASAP.
- But you weren’t driving yourself after all of that, were you? Oh, but I was. And yeah, I got dizzy driving across the bay bridge. Not fun.
- You’re officially stupid. Nobody should be driving themselves 2+ hours home after that. Probably.
- So how are you going to do an IRONMAN in KENTUCKY in AUGUST if you couldn’t handle this? By training in the heat of the summer in DC, adjusting my salt intake after experiencing that heat, and by getting some serious cooling clothing. And with a little bit of blind faith and a lot of hope.