Ironman Chattanooga: DNF … the story of what ultimately led me to not finish Ironman Triathlon #3
Ironman Chattanooga: DNF
Last Thursday my family and I headed to Chattanooga, Tennessee for my third Ironman Triathlon. I was excited, but very nervous about the event. I did the 70.3 there in May 2018 and despite the blazing heat, I loved the course. I also really enjoyed the city and thought it would be the perfect place for Ironman #3.
About a week before the race, I took a look at the weather report to see what the day would be like. When I saw the forecast would be in the high 90’s every day while I was there, I checked my weather app again to make sure I had plugged in the right city. As dumb as this may sound, I had no idea that it would be that hot in Tennessee at the end of September. It was in the 90’s when I did the half there the previous May, but I did not anticipate that the Fall would also be the same. Yes, this was not smart planning on my part and one of 100 lessons learned over the past week.
The Race Expo
Once we got settled into our hotel room at the Hampton Inn in downtown Chattanooga, we walked down to the race expo. I was surprised at how few people were there on Thursday and there was no line at the athlete check-in. I signed the waivers, turned them in and got my bracelet. One of the amazing volunteers reviewed the course information with me. He pointed out that the water temperature was 80 degrees and the swim would be “wetsuit optional”. However, they were strongly encouraging people to not wear them as the temperature was going to be so hot on race day.
I quickly decided that I would not wear mine. I was already very concerned about the heat and I did not need to start the day with a *hot* swim. I was also not worried about my time, my goal was to enjoy the day and finish the race by midnight. Cue Ironman tent $…there were several racks of swim skins for sale. I took a look at a few, but just could not justify buying one for the race. I ultimately decided that swimming in my tri kit would be just fine.
It was so nice to get to Chattanooga on Thursday and spend time enjoying the city with my family. It is a small city and easy to walk around. There are several good restaurants, a wonderful Aquarium and a great children’s museum. The town also rolls out the red carpet for athletes and there are signs about the race everywhere! Little Debbie sponsors it and the kids and I really got a kick out of the display below!
Pre Race Days
As much as I enjoyed the city, the heat was oppressive and I did my best not to fret about it. However, by Friday, our hotel was filled with athletes and it was hard to escape the continuous buzz about how hot race day was going to be.
We decided to get out of the chaos and take a drive into Georgia. The majority of the bike course takes place in the “Peach State”. It is a beautiful course with a lot of rolling hills. In fact, the main reason I wanted to do the race was because I enjoyed the bike course so much when I had done the half. It is similar to the terrain I am used to in Maine, so I thought it would be perfect. I was not remotely concerned about making my way through the 116 mile route (yes it is 4 miles longer that other Ironman courses) on race day!
On Saturday, I took my bike for a short spin and discovered my power meter was not working. I got pretty annoyed, but took a few deep breaths and ended up realizing the battery just needed to be replaced. So, I scurried down to the race expo and got a new one at the bike booth and replaced it. I went for another short spin and then gathered all my gear to drop off. It was so hot out and I was drenched in sweat by the time I got to transition. I checked, double checked and triple checked my bags. My nervousness had settled in and my OCD was at it’s max. The 97 degree weather was getting to me and I knew I needed to get out of the heat and relax.
I took a quick walk by the river to check out the swim course. I saw the last buoy was #9, so I figured there would be a total of 18 to count (9 out and 9 in) the next day. It keeps my mind occupied in the swim to count things in the water.
I headed back to the hotel and got in the pool with my kids for a bit to cool off. We ate dinner early and I was in bed at 8:30 that night. I slept surprisingly well, despite my nervousness. The first time I woke up was 3:30am, then I went back to sleep tossing and turning until 4:30am. I got up and had my coffee on the balcony. There were already a lot of people making there way to transition. I had plenty of time, but I decided to get moving.
My husband walked down with me and I pumped up my tires and put my nutrition on my bike. Then, I headed over the bus to take me to swim start. Despite the sun not being up, it was already hot and the air was thick with humidity. I sipped on water and tried to keep calm.
I had about an hour once I got off the bus, so I headed to the port-a-pot line. Once I got through with that I rested under a tree for a bit until the sun came up and everyone started to line up for the swim. At 7:20am I heard the gun go off as the pros started their race. I got in line at 1:21-1:30 time for the swim. I thought I would likely swim it in less than 1:20, but I wanted to pace myself and enjoy my time in the water. I had a long day ahead of me!
I chatted with a lady while we were in line and her husband and kids were there too. Her three kids all had on t-shirts with her race number on it. It was very sweet and they were so excited for their Mom.
I was surprisingly calm as I got closer to the dock to head into the water. I looked at my watch and it 7:58am when I hopped into the river to start my day. The water felt good after standing around in the heat and humidity. I got into a good swimming rhythm right away and felt great! I ticked off the buoys as I passed them…1….2…3…4…5 (over 1/4 of the way done!)…6 (2/3 to go), etc. The swim was completely uneventful, I did not get kicked or hit once. It was seriously the most pleasant one I have ever done at an Ironman or any triathlon for that matter.
I got out of the water and my watch said 1:17…perfect! My only goal here was to get out of the water and T1 within an hour and 30 minutes. It would give me plenty of leeway on the bike course. It was nice not to have a wetsuit or swim skin to worry about peeling off too. I saw my family as I headed to transition and stopped to say Hi quickly. This was such a boost for me and my heart was full as I headed to T1 to get my bike gear on.
The changing tent was like a hot oven as I walked in. It was a flurry of athletes and volunteers. I thanked each volunteer as I passed them, they were just all so incredible. I got my equipment on, stopped and got slathered with sunscreen and headed out with my bike. I checked my watch again and all of this had only taken about 10 minutes…yes! I was a little ahead of schedule!!
I took a deep breath and ran a little past the mount line to get on my bike. I saw my family again and felt tremendous relief to be on the bike course. The course was crowded, but spread out after the first few miles. I was pleasantly surprised that people seemed to also be following the rules on the course. The prior 2 Ironman races I did I encountered people acting like idiots on the bike course…passing on the right, etc.
The Bike Course
I felt really good on my bike and just tried to keep my heart rate down. I was in good spirits when around mile 6 I shifted and my chain fell off. My chain NEVER falls off this bike…ever…I pulled off the side of the road and nervously put it back on. I had trouble getting it on for some reason and it took me several minutes. Unfortunately, this minor incident frazzled me. I know it seems silly that something like this could get to me, however I have a little bike PTSD. At Ironman Mont Tremblant my shifter fell apart on my bike at mile 40 and I ended up riding the the remaining 72 miles of the course with 6 gears and a shifter made of duct tape and twist ties. You can read about that <HERE>.
I pulled it back together and got back on my bike. After a few miles of riding, I felt calm again and pushed the negative thoughts out of my head. I came upon the first aid station and decided not to stop. I had plenty of fluids and I was keeping up with my nutrition plan. A few miles later I started to really feel the heat of the day and knew I needed to be careful. There was no shade and the sun was beating down on me.
I stopped at the aid station around mile 30 and poured water in the vents of my helmet and all over my body. I saw one of my Smashfest Queen teammates there and it was a real boost! This girl is truly amazing. She had done Ironman Maryland on Saturday and was here the day after doing Ironman Chattanooga! It was so inspiring to see her smiling face as she was doing back to back Ironman races!
I continued on and despite the heat felt ok. I stopped at the next aid station around mile 45 and took my time. I took my helmet off and poured water directly on my head. Then, I put ice in my shirt and pants to cool down. I poured more water on myself and made the mistake of getting it into my bento box and completely saturated my Honey Stinger gels, electrolyte tablets, and pretzels. It was a mess! Fortunately, I had more in my back pocket, so I ended up throwing the mess that I created away as I left the aid station.
It was after this stop that the 96 degree weather started to really seep into me. I don’t know why, but in all of my worries about the heat, I just did not think it would hit me on the bike. I was only concerned about the run and I had a solid plan for how I would handle it there.
Next, I passed the Special Needs station, but I did not stop. I did not have anything that I really needed at this point and I was just happy to be almost done with the first loop of the course! At this point, there was a long shaded descent, which felt so good. I was thrilled to be out of the sun and going downhill. Then, I saw the mile 58 marker, which was the halfway point. There was an aid station there, but I had filled up at the prior one, so continued on. Of course, I should have stopped.
Shortly, after this, everything unraveled. I hit a wall unlike anything I have ever experienced. I took a gel, an electrolyte tablet, drank my Nuun. Nothing helped. It all started to come back up. I was confused, I was hot, I was sick. My right toe was burning inside of my bike shoe…WTF? I could see blood on the top of my bike shoe where I assumed I had developed a blister while riding, which NEVER happens!
Ok, I told myself there is an aid station at mile 70, I just need to get there. I passed a guy lying on the side of the road with his bike beside him. I yelled to see if he was ok? He said yes, but he was done. Then, I passed another person who a police officer was helping off the ground. Ugh, the heat was un-freaking-bearable.
I made it to the aid station. There were several people there off their bikes and sitting in the shade. I got off my bike and threw up in the grass. I could not believe this was happening. I somehow needed to get my shit together. I poured water all over myself and put ice in every imaginable place that I could. I walked to the medical tent and took off my right bike shoe and attempted to put bandaids on my bleeding toe, but they would not stick. I just sat there under the tent for a while trying to pull it together.
Finally, I got up, felt much better and got back on my bike. Initially, I felt 100 times better…maybe I just needed to throw up and now I’m ok? A few miles down the road there was a lady off her bike on the side of the road vomiting. Then, I passed another person doing the same thing. I continued on and had 40 miles to push through. At this point, I started looking at my watch and worrying about time cutoffs. I had not even remotely considered it would be an issue for me, but now it was.
Then, I came upon the only real climb on the course. There were several people off their bikes and walking it. I slowly made my way to the top. There was a guy laying at the top of the road with his bike beside him. He said he was waiting for medical. As I crested the top of the hill, there was another man double over vomiting. I told myself, I just need to get back to Chattanooga and get off my bike, then I will feel better.
The clock was ticking and a lady passed me. She was in good spirits and said “Woohoo, we are going to be Ironmen today”. I needed that boost, “Yes, she is right, we are!” as I nervously looked at my watch. I made it to the next aid station at mile 90. I was dizzy and nauseated again. I took my helmet off and drenched my entire body again with water. Then, I got right back on my bike, rode 2 more miles and threw up. At this point, I got off my bike and put it up against a tree and got sick again. I looked down and noticed some weird red rash all over my thighs. “Jesus Christ…what is this?” I threw up again. At this point, I was so dizzy that I laid down in the grass for a minute. Then, an EMS car pulled up and a paramedic came over to help me. I told him I was ok. He told me I was not, he was right. I tried to sit up and got dizzy again and he mentioned calling an ambulance. I said “No, please don’t!” Then he asked me where I was from… I told him Maine and his response is my favorite part of the day…He said “Bless your heart Ma’am”.
Then, he told me that I could not get back on my bike. He said he had spent the past hour picking people up off the course and he did not want me to be one of them. Next, a police car pulled up and told him that a lady had gotten hit by a car at the aid station up the road. She had swerved into the car, it was not serious, but she needed attention. He called SAG to pick me up and made me promise that I would not get back on my bike, which I did.
Right after he left, I tried to stand up again and immediately got dizzy and sat back down. Then, a few cyclists passed me asking if I was ok? One of them turned around and headed back toward me yelling “Are you tapping out? So, am I!” She put her bike beside mine and doubled over as she got sick. Afterwards, she sat down beside me and said her entire family was there and had t-shirts made to cheer her on because it was her first Ironman.
Shortly after this, the SAG van arrived. There were other people in it that had succumbed to the heat. I sat next to a lean, muscular guy. He looked at me and said with tears in his eyes “I just DNF’d at Ironman Wisconsin a few weeks ago…this was my redemption race.” I felt so bad hearing his story and everyone else’s in the van. We stopped and picked up 2 more people on the side of the road. The van was full and we kept stopping to check in on people that were off their bikes. One of the people was the Mom I had chatted with at the swim start. Again, I felt so sad as I knew her kids were all excited for her to become an Ironman.
They ended up sending a school bus out on the bike course to pick up the remaining people. I still have not looked at the results or stats and probably never will, but apparently 300+ people did not make it off the bike course that day.
I had borrowed a cell phone to let my family know what had happened. They were at the medical tent waiting for me when I got back. It was very emotional to see my kids. They gave me giant hugs and told me they were happy I did not finish as they had witnessed so many sick people going into the medical tent.
The Sun Did Rise on Monday
I have had a thousand different emotions since last Sunday. However, the sun did indeed rise the next day. I am healthy, my kids are healthy. I met so many people and I have heard dozens of stories about people’s struggles and successes on the course that day. I have replayed each and every step of it to figure out what I could have done differently. In all honesty, there is nothing I would change, I gave it 150% of what I could and knowing that I did that gives me complete peace. This precious experience was a privilege many will never have. It is one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I only see good things from it…It is living, it is learning, it is struggling, trying and failing. It is knowing in my heart that I have the courage to try again.
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