On the heels of my last blog post about wrecking my bike in a race and getting up to win, there have been some misconceptions that I need to clarify.
Last month in an Olympic triathlon, I was passing a guy on the bike who veered into me. My bike went out of control, but I was able to get it off the road before the bike stopped in a ditch, and I ejected like a javelin, head and shoulders first, into the dirt. I spent nearly 3 minutes out of the race before getting up to win.
What I failed to describe is: What happened in that 3 minutes?
To explain, first I must go back farther to another race: the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in 2012. I was there on a slot through the legacy program, which is set up for people who have done at least 12 Ironman races, but who have not qualified. To the best of my knowledge at the time, this might be the only chance I ever had to compete at this race.
Things were not going well from the beginning. I had a subpar swim, and couldn’t hold my goal watts on the bike from the start. I accepted this, adapted my goals, and developed the mantra “Preserve the Finish”. I did everything I knew to make sure that I finished the race. Sometimes what gets you is what you do not know. I had a major flaw in my nutrition plan, both leading into and during the race. In retrospect, it is one that plagued me at every race up to this one (and the one that led to my future use of Skratch Labs products) – I sweat a lot, and I lose a lot of sodium in my sweat. I had diligently stayed hydrated with water up to the race, and I was drinking water on the bike, supplemented with salt pills….but not enough.
Things got worse. I was vomiting on the bike. I spent 20 minutes in T2 (2nd transition from bike to run) with cramps, waiting until I felt I could safely stand without medical personnel pulling me off the course. The marathon went from running, to walking, to moving in and out of a blackout. I was confused and didn’t recognize my roommate (who was uniquely recognizable as an amputee). I continued to focus on my “need” to finish the race. I knew I was in trouble, but I did not realize how much trouble I was in. I crossed the finish line, and have no memory of it.
I was taken to the medical tent with dangerously low sodium levels. There is some evidence that it was 116 (things are unclear). After several hours, they got it up to 118, and sent me to the hospital for further treatment. Hyponatremia is defined by a sodium level less than 135, profound hyponatremia is defined at less than 125 and has a high mortality rate. The brain swells, you can have seizures, coma, the brain can herniate through the foramen magnum, and death.
When I became cognizant the following morning, I looked at my husband and commented, “You seem awfully calm about this.” His response disturbed me. He said, “I have come to accept the fact that you may kill yourself doing this, and there is nothing I can do about it.” I was not OK with that on any level. It was then that I (finally) realized that as much as I love my sport, and as competitive and driven as I am, that I am not willing to die for it. Preserving my life and my ability to race is more important that any finish.
So, what happened in that 3 minutes in the Olympic race?
Once I ascertained that I had not broken my neck and could move, my mental process was this: There were 2 options, and both were equally acceptable. I could go on and race, or I could drop out and accept a DNF (did not finish). The deciding factor would be my physical state, NOT what anyone else thought then or later. I spent that time evaluating myself. Admittedly, that can be hard any time your brain may be involved with the damage. However, I had some concrete things to hang my hat on: most people know that I have a degree of face blindness; I have trouble recognizing faces as well as remembering names. At the scene of the wreck was someone I knew, but not well, and he was supposed to be racing. I saw him, recognized him out of context, and asked him what he was doing out of the race by name. I was able to reassemble my helmet, bike and gear. In those 3 minutes, I assessed my condition, saw zero signs of head trauma, and made the choice to continue the race. I could have just as easily chosen to walk off the course. I also considered my long term goals – in 7 weeks I would be racing Kona again (as a qualifier), and did not want to endanger that race; but if things were ok, I wanted the workout effort for training purposes.
“Death before DNF” is a damaging and dangerous motto. Dropping out of a race can be the single most difficult and courageous move an athlete can make. I am not suggesting that one should give up whenever the going gets tough, but there are plenty of opportunities in this sport to “prove” our mental and physical toughness without endangering our life or our ability to continue to train and race. We are driven people, and we invest a lot in the outcome of each race. To achieve our biggest goals, we must have the strength to do “whatever it takes” that will allow us to continue to consistently train and race – “whatever it takes” includes walking off the race course or away from a training session when it is in our best long term interest.
Susan Ford is a coach, triathlete and veterinarian who enjoys sharing life with others.