Top To Bottom

The inimitable quote machine Sir Winston Churchill is the source of the philanthropic phrase, “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” The spirit of this idea has largely defined my racing in Arizona, in a variety of ways. At first, it was a way to share my racing with my family, as the spectator friendly course allowed me to give back to those who truly enable me to race and who supported me when triathlon was just a dream of “someday…” I’ll never forget stopping (briefly) on the run to hug my mother in April of 2008. In 2009, it became even more primary, as I discovered World Bicycle Relief and the amazing work they do with a $134 bicycle that truly changes the world. Last year, in 2010, I “gave inspiration” to some people by making my return to racing after my near-fatal accident in March; but really, it was the race, and the volunteers, and the spectators, and the other competitors who truly gave to me – they gave my dream back to me. This year, I set out with the goal of continuing to give back to World Bicycle Relief through the Rappstar Charity Challenge, to honor the legacy of Sally Meyerhoff – who, tragically, did not end up as lucky as I did in her accident with a car – by wearing a pink band during the race, and to – of course – give the one thing that I always try to give to honor and respect the race – my best effort. But this year, the race gave me something – a lesson in humility and consequences and disappointment.

I’m currently reading a book called, “The Black Swan,” which focuses on the potentially large impact of “random” or unexpected events. The title comes from a Latin phrase of Juvenal’s, “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” The Wikipedia translation is, “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan,” which is good enough. Ironman is a reasonably confined environment; there are only so many unplanned things that can go wrong. I’ve done my best to prevent a black swan from swimming up and biting me. I race with a spare derailleur cable and a spare chain link; I don’t rely on special needs for my nutrition and have a plan that works that I stick to. I try to control as much as I can and to be prepared for those things which I cannot. And, in seven tries at an Ironman, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a black swan that I wasn’t able to handle. In all the races I’ve ever done at any distance, I’ve never not finished a race because my body wouldn’t let me. My last DNF was at the Boise 70.3 in 2009, when I flatted in the rain, and then flatted my spare, and then got so cold waiting for neutral support that I couldn’t finish. I’ve never had to say, “I am physically not able to finish this race” (without something else – such as the flat tire and the rain – preceding). Never has my body just not cooperated from the outset. But there is a first time for everything, and in my eighth Ironman, at the race that has taught me more than any other race, I got another lesson. I got my first real Black Swan.
After ITU Worlds, I seem like I was recovering well and was eager to finish the season on a high note. My swimming was not stellar, perhaps the result of tapering my swim and then not racing the swim in Vegas, but it seemed “good enough” to at least come out in a “normal” position. My biking and running continued to be my strong suits, and I felt like I was ready to put together another fastest bike-run combo, just as in Canada. While there was obviously no way to know how any deep seated residual fatigue might affect me in the late stages of the race, I certainly thought I could be in contention, and at least fulfill my goal of back-to-back podiums. The day before the race, my sharpening workouts were solid. Everything was – it seemed – locked-and-loaded. I had a reasonably good sleep the night before the race and woke up feeling ready to go. Nervous, to be sure, but I think when you stop being nervous before something like an Ironman, it’s probably time to find a new career. I had my typical pre-race breakfast. I had made some very slight tweaks after my GI issues in Canada, which seemed to pay off in Henderson where I had – from a gastric “comfort” standpoint – one of my best races ever. And then it was off to the race site. Got my special needs bags dropped off, used the port-a-john before the crowds really arrived, turned on the MyAthlete GPS tracker in my swim-to-bike bag, turned on my Garmin 310XT in my bike-to-run bag so it’d be ready when I started the run, and then it was off to do the final touches on my bike. It was awesome to have Jeff from Specialized, who is THE MAN and our Team Mechanic, in the days leading up to the race and especially on race morning to help pump tires and just generally be supportive and helpful and pretty much wonderful. I started to feel a bit “off” about 6:15 or so, but I chalked it up to the chilly morning and to race nerves. Jeff snagged me a chair so I could take a load off, and sitting seemed to alleviate some of the general light-headedness I was feeling. My stomach seemed to be a bit more uncooperative than normal, but – having done this race four times before – I know where all the secret port-a-johns were so it was easy to find one without a line, and no, I won’t say where there are until I know I’m not racing here ever again… Nothing seemed particularly out of whack when I made my last trip to the loo; nothing like that scene in Austin Powers with Tom Arnold. But I still felt a bit “funny.” But I tried to put it out of my mind as I put on my race suit and my wetsuit and headed over to the swim start. The 61F water was, as always, a shock, but my first strokes felt good, and I started to warm-up quickly. But suddenly I had the strong urge to use the bathroom again. While I can think of worse things that going #2 in one’s wetsuit, I thought I’d wait and see if it’d pass as I warmed-up. The strong urge to go subsided, but even as I waited on the inevitably creeping line, I didn’t feel great. I still thought it was mostly nerves; the swim start – given that I’m not a stellar swimmer and an even less stellar starter – is always the most nerve wracking part of the race for me. And even if my stomach wasn’t going to be 100% cooperative on the day, I figured I could get through it. With a big breakfast, I could back off on my calories early and let things settle. Or so I thought. 
The swim start seemed to go okay, as I saw what I believe was the lead stand-up paddler reasonably close after the really hard strokes were done. I seemed to be moving up through what I figured was the second pack, as a line from the left (where I was) looked to be joining with a prong from the right. I felt a bit more winded than normal as we hit the halfway mark, but I figured it was a fast second pack with the deep field. With no media caps, I couldn’t tell if any of my “marks” were near me. I couldn’t see any groups up ahead as we rounded the corner, so I thought I was in reasonably good position. Coming off the second turn, things started to – rather suddenly – go south. I started to feel light headed, though this time I attributed it to the gas fumes from the nearby boat with media. Media is a good sign, right? It’s always hard strokes out of the turns, but I don’t expect those hard strokes to push me to the point where I literally think I might black out. Did I put my wetsuit collar on too tight? I checked it before the start and then again in the water, and it seemed fine. Maybe the pace is just really on. Maybe I’ll break 51min for the first time (last time I came out sub-51, in Nov 2008, the course was definitely a tad short)! I don’t race with a watch, so I had no real reference to that point. Not that it would have meant much anyway. “To a random point somewhere past halfway you are at AB:CD.” Yeah, that’d would have been super helpful… Things started to get a bit strung out on the way back in, but I tried to focus on long strokes. I didn’t expect it to be easy. As I said earlier, my swimming seemed to be “good enough” in the pool. And if it was a really fast group in the second pack, well then of course it should feel hard. Maybe that yellow (woman’s cap) in the lead is Leanda. My only real indication that something was wrong – and I largely ignored it at the time, though it did stick in the back of my head – was that there was a woman in a sleeveless wetsuit near me. None of the top women swim in a sleeveless. Oh well, it must be one of the names I didn’t know. Jill used to swim in a sleeveless, and she swam plenty fast in it…
Coming out of the water, I searched for a clock, but unlike in previous years, there didn’t seem to be one. But then I caught a glimpse of some of the athletes around me. And I heard Mike Reilly calling out names. Uh-oh. Lots of folks I normally come out of the water well ahead of. Then I heard Jill yell out, “it’s a long day Jordan!” which is triathlete-code for, “you have a LOT of time to make up…”I was pretty flustered as a result – this field is way to deep to expect to win the race with a massive hole out of the swim – and did not have the smoothest transition. Off onto the bike, though, I was finally back into my comfort zone, and I thought that – at the very least – I’d get myself back into contention to at least podium, as my 4th place in 2010 was my first time outside of the top-3 at this race. Plus, with 10% of my potential prize winnings going to WBR – and that 10% being matched by a few other folks – I owed it to a lot of other folks to get’er done. From the outset, it was clear that things weren’t 100%, as I normally struggle to keep my watts UNDER my ceiling and I was struggling to keep them above my floor. But I finally got rolling and the watts seemed to be coming, though I did feel a bit harder than I thought it should given how things had been going on the bike even since racing in Vegas. But the more I rode, the more I started to feel some real pain – like a punch in the gut – in my stomach. The pace wasn’t hard enough to cause it (at least not normally). That sort of pain doesn’t usually come until I try to hold really big (for me) power numbers  for some reasonably long period of time. As I made the turnaround at the halfway point on loop one, I thought I’d take advantage of the slight downhill to let off the figurative gas and see if I could clear what I assumed (hoped?) was just some literal gas. Well, there was indeed some literal gas and a whole lot more. Unlike, as I joke with Jill about Quentin, it was both the sound and the fury. Well, that has never happened before, but if that was the cause of my stomach pain, at least it was gone. Grab some water bottles at the aid station, rinse off my legs, and I’ll be good as new. I joked to myself that certainly it would keep guys from drafting…
I hadn’t eaten anything for the first hour on the bike as I tried to get my stomach to settle, and with what I hoped was the offending party now sitting in my shorts, I knew I needed to get on top of my calories. I started slowly, not wanting to overwhelm my system, which clearly wasn’t firing on all cylinders (though the exhaust seemed to working fine). But even the first little bit didn’t seem to sit well. I grabbed water at an aid station, drank some, and then used the remainder to clean up a bit. It’s hard to get really clean while racing your bike. Coming in to start the second lap, I was continuing to catch people, and I seemed to be holding steady on the leaders. Not my best ride on a day when conditions were certainly good, but every Ironman is really decided from 120km on. I started off well coming into the second lap, but then my watts fell off pretty quickly. I managed to lock in a bit more conservative pace, and I still thought that with my running being so strong lately, I wasn’t out of it. But the calorie deficit was starting to become urgent now. So I took in a bit more. And the going down of the drink coincided with a punch from an unseen opponent to my gut. Well, I already was sitting in my own #2, so let’s just get this over with. If there was something that wanted out, let’s just get it out. I had a race to do. I waited about 15min (I think), and then tried to drink again. Same result. Now I was starting to worry. I couldn’t run my way back into the race if I couldn’t fuel myself for a marathon. I pounded the rest of my bottle. Even if it pushed stuff out the back, at least I could get “new” fuel in. More of the same. Starting the third lap, I tried to make a push. This is when this race is really defined. If I could even just match my first lap, I knew a lot of guys would come back to me. I finally had some calories in, so I should have been ready. The first section – on Rio Salado – needs to be paced mostly by feel, since there is so much traffic there. When I made the first turn, I looked down and saw bad news on the display. Big drop off. I punched the pace and grabbed my “big calories,” thinking I could still get this ship right. More calories in, more “calories” out. Whatever. I was well past the point of “dignity.” I did grab some water at an aid station, though it was now helping less and less. As I did so, Chris Bastie of France surged past me. I finished my “shower,” and then I surged back into the lead. As we passed another aid station (there are two reasonably close together early on in the bike), he passed me again as I grabbed water. I thought, well, at least I can just focus on chasing him instead of how disgusting and depressing this is. But he slowly pulled away. On the bright side, as I chased him, the power numbers were slowly ticking upwards. I put in some surges to try to catch him, and I seemed to make some good progress, but the cost of each surge (which wasn’t really all that much of a boost power-wise) was significant. I started to feel a bit dizzy, and then as I was passing a group of riders, I nearly ran into another rider. I’m not sure if she veered left, or I veered right, or some of each, but that really made me nervous. As I hit the turnaround at the halfway mark, I saw that in addition to breaking away from me, Chris and I had also finally broken away from a lot of the guys who had been on my tail.
While it’s always tough to decide to stop when you’ve finally cracked some guys, I also thought that if guys really had finally cracked, I could afford a minute or two in the port-a-john at the aid station to really rinse off (I grabbed four bottles), finally empty any residual into something other than my own race suit, and hopefully get things settled for a solid run. I knew what I thought I could run if everything was going well. Clearly knowing that things were not going well, I figured I still could run well enough to earn some money and, as a result, send some more bikes; you’ve got to think of things other than your own pride when you’ve been racing around covered in your own poo-poo for a long time. But as I peeled off my race suit in the port-a-let, it was obvious just how bad things were. Nothing like really being confronted with “it” to make you take stock of the situation honestly. Triathlon has an unfortunately large group of people missing portions of their intestines due to racing “through” gastric troubles. I was not – and am not – eager to join that club.
My next thought was to take a longer break – long enough that I’d end up doing the “just finish” thing. But I’d rather end the season as a finisher of any kind than end my season in an aid station toilet. I tried to figure out how I was going to finish. I used my helmet as a “loin cloth” and the totally, absolutely unbelievable aid station volunteers at aid station #3 loaned me some t-shirts, jackets, etc to use as temporary clothes while I tried to salvage my race suit. But this was nothing of a pressure washer could fix. And I still wasn’t feeling any better. I still didn’t even want to eat or drink. Eventually I sat down, and the aforementioned above-and-beyond aid station folks got me a blanket. They tried to figure out if anyone had clothes I could use to at least ride back to transition and made sure to give me cups. I think they might just have been placating me though, as they also suggested that I talk with medical. The medics came over, gave me the once over, and pronounced that I didn’t seem to be in any imminent danger. In the brief moments when the aid station folks focused on the countless other people who needed their help, I considered that really, I might not finish this race for the first time. Despair is really the only word that I can think of. I cried a little, but held it mostly back for numerous reasons relating to all manner of things; at the very least, if that’s the worst thing that happens in my life, I’m ridiculously lucky…
Eventually, I found the courage to say what I think was probably inevitable and what every one there knew, which is that I was not going to finish. I asked them if I could wait for a SAG pickup, and I mostly just sat and thought. I talked Ironman, feeling very much like a non-expert, with Andy, one of the captains, who is doing IMAZ next year as his first Ironman. I really almost lost it when someone racing, who had pulled over to the use the port-a-johns, came over, hugged me, and said, “you are a still an inspiration.” I’ve never felt like such a disappointment. But everyone – EVERYONE – seemed like Churchill’s quote was the first thing on their mind. Everyone gave me so much. Even when it hands out a brutally hard lesson that knocks you down, this race also gives you plenty of hands back up.
From the top of the world in Henderson two weeks ago to feeling like I was at the bottom of a deep hole today, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a swing. From the top of the race to the kids of volunteers helping to pick up trash, who are certainly no “bottom” in anything other than a very loose metaphorical hierarchy, I can’t imagine more support and kindness. And, of course, from the top to the bottom, it seemed like everything today was interested in the quickest way out (of me)…

While I normally try to write something clever or funny or interesting about races, I wrote this mostly as catharsis. Sitting in my hotel room, all I can think is, “I could have finished. I should have finished.” But everyone except for me is glad I didn’t. On a day when I set out to make a life by what I could give, I ended up instead needing to ask that of countless others. Thank you to everyone who gave.

11 thoughts on “Top To Bottom

  1. It might not feel like it, but you made the right choice.

    Is one race worth potentially damaging your long term health?

    Of course it's not. Better to know when to fold them (so to speak) and save it for next time.

    Hope you feel better very soon.

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  2. Sh** Happens!!

    Two Reasons you probably feel you should have finished. 1. is that you didn't want to let others down, and 2. Ego. For the first time ever last year I stopped in the middle of a race in Quassy, as much as my ego didn't want me to stop, I knew I was doing the right thing. I felt I had nothing to proove, I just had a very bad day (and week), and knew I had to see a Doctor as every race I kept doing got worse and worse. As a result I am currently getting help to try to fix my back and GI prblms that were causing my races to be miserable. In your case, you did the right thing. Hell you could have run the rest of the race backwards (even though you were feeling kinda poopie). Lets face it, You are in it to win it – period.

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  3. Jordan,

    I just finished The Black Swan myself; thought-provoking points conveyed via wry prose.

    If you are reading the first edition (2007) you may be interested in the following links from Taleb's website which cover some new material added in the second (2010) edition:

    Why I Do All This Walking

    On Robustness and Fragility

    The first is particularly apropos here since it deals with an 'Extremistan' approach to fitness and exercise.

    Hope your future races are free of any more BS¹.

    Dan (djm2150 on ST)
    ___________________

    ¹Black Swans, of course.

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  4. This post made me feel a million times better about my IMAZ race. On my way to a big PR on Sunday I got very suddenly and violently sick until I just couldn't keep going. It was such a terrible feeling knowing that my day was over with less than half of the marathon to go. It's a good reminder that whether you're one of the top pros in the world or just an average age grouper, the disappointment from having to end a race is a universal bummer, but it's also something you can absolutely regroup from. Thanks for your excellent perspective! I'm sure you're going to kill it next season!

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  5. I listened to a good podcast on Freakanomics the other week discussing our innate desire to finish tasks begun and the intelligence it requires to quit.

    I have more respect for Haile G's numerous DNF's than for the athlete who is determined to finish a race for the sake of finishing. Haile has potentially extended his career, making intelligent decisions while attempting to understand the physiological damage a marathon can take on the human body and treating each marathon as one closer to his last; so why finish if it is going subpar? If he is experiencing an asthma attack or GI issues, he stops. What is the average number of races Macca DNF's in each year? I love that those two never make excuses or whine about wanting to have finished. They focus on their wins and their intelligent decisions. If an athlete is experiencing GI issues, but chooses to continue racing, limiting blood supply to the GI tract and becoming further dehydrated, the potential long term damage may not be seen in the immediate years to come, but may prevent an epic career of the likes of Haile G or Macca. There's racing with your brain and then there's the illusion that you can race with your heart.

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