The Agony of Defeat

This past weekend, I traveled to Oklahoma City for my third go at the Redman Triathlon, a full Ironman distance triathlon. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run — 140.6 total miles. Being an “Ironman” is a goal I’ve had since high school. It has always seemed like the ultimate test of endurance and stamina, a challenge that’s just as much mental as it is physical.

2012 was my first year at this race, and it was filled with drama. I had trained hard all summer and entered that race in the best shape of my life. I was ready to attack those 140.6 miles with all I had and to do it somewhere close to 12 hours.

It didn’t work out that way.

On the drive up to Oklahoma that Friday in 2012, my stomach was doing flip flops. I knew beforehand that I was a bit nervous about the race. Actually, that’s an understatement. This race scares the hell out of me. There’s no avoiding the fact that if I want to push myself for the entire time, it’s going to hurt. A lot. And there’s a palpable fear that grips me in the 48 hours leading up this thing every year. I know that now, and I’ve come to expect it. But this was my first time, and it was all new to me; the way my stomach felt surprised even me. I barely managed to get down a small bowl of yogurt with some cereal for breakfast before getting on the road for the six hour drive. When we stopped at a gas-station Subway shop for lunch, I ordered a banana but couldn’t finish it. When we got to OKC at around 1:00, I asked my dad if he would mind me taking a nap for a few hours in the hotel to calm down before we headed over to the race check-in.

By the time we got to race check-in at 3:30, I knew something was up. I felt clammy. I felt awful in the heat and kept looking for places to sit down in the shade. Still, I kept telling myself it was just the nerves. I eventually managed to get my race packet, checked in my bike, got it racked up, and went to dinner with my father.

The night before a big race is a time to load up on good food. The body needs a lot of fuel to power through 140.6 miles of torture. Many athletes go for a pre-race meal of pasta with chicken; carbs for energy, protein for the muscles. I ordered a salad, but I couldn’t finish it. My father, himself a veteran endurance athlete, grew concerned. He reminded me about what I needed nutritionally for what I’d be doing the next day. He told me that I needed to get over my nerves and eat, but I just couldn’t. My stomach was up in my throat, and I felt nauseous the entire time.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel, and I began the process of getting ready for the next day… shaving my legs, prepping my breakfast, prepping my water bottles, getting all my energy bars ready for the day, packing my race-bag, etc. Because of the three different disciplines and the long day of nutrition needs, I find there to be few things in life more stressful than packing for a triathlon. So many little things need to be ready to go that can make the day bearable, and if you forget even one of them the results can be disastrous. You need the right socks for the run. The Body Glide to prevent chafing. The sunglasses. The electrolyte pills. The Clif Bars. The sunscreen. The hat. The bike helmet. The swim goggles. The swim cap. The bike gloves. The bike pump. The race number pinned to your jersey. A fresh shirt to change into when the first one become soaked with sweat. It feels endless, and I always have that “what am I forgetting?” feeling.

By around 9:00 that night, I was finally convinced I was ready to go, and crawled into bed to try to get a good night’s sleep. And then it started.

At around 9:45, my stomach gave me that all-too-familiar warning we’ve all experienced which says “You’ve got about 30 seconds to get yourself on a toilet.” I barely made it before the diarrhea started. My wife, who had to work that day, arrived at the hotel around 10:45 with my son, surprised to find me not asleep yet. For the rest of the night, I got maybe 30 minutes of sleep at a time before I had to jump up and run to the bathroom, either with vomiting, diarrhea, or both. By around 3:30, my wife was in a panic and called my parents’ room. My mom went to the hotel lobby and bought me some medicine to calm my stomach, but nothing worked. I was in bad shape, crying and cursing my body for getting sick on the night before one of the biggest challenges of my life.

At this point, logic should have told me to cash it in, pack up my stuff, head home, and hope that an email to the race director explaining my situation would convince him to defer my entry until the next year. I’m not always logical.

I loaded up the car and headed to the race. Once there, I got parked and spent multiple trips in and out of the port-a-potty waiting for the race to start. When my wife and parents arrived, they questioned me often about whether I should be doing this. I’d had a small bowl of yogurt, half a banana, and half of a small salad the day before. I’d lost all of that and more out of both ends throughout the night. I was completely depleted of fuel and still having trouble keeping anything down. But I’d put in too much work and training to quit before it even began, so I started the race.

For many triathletes, the swim is the scariest part. Most triathletes are runners and cyclists who decide to try a triathlon, and their biggest challenge and fear is going out into the middle of a lake for a 2.4 mile swim surrounded by other people thrashing and kicking around them, equally scared. I was a Division I college swimmer, and I coach swimming for a living. I’ve done open water swims much longer than 2.4 miles. My longest ever was a 26-mile, 11-hour swim across the English Channel in 2004. The water is my safe place, my home, and the only place in my life where I truly feel elite. My typical strategy in a triathlon is to get up near the front for the start, sprint like crazy for about 100 yards to get ahead of the crowd, and then settle into my pace.

swim 2012 2012 swim

(Getting ready to swim)                            (Me out front, getting away from the pack)

In every triathlon I’ve ever done I’m usually one of the first 5 people out of the water, and I’ve been the first one out several times. This time was no different, even though my time at the end was about 8 minutes slower than the goal I’d set for myself. I was the 2nd person to exit the water, but as I stood up on shore I felt my right calf lock up in a painful cramp. I stopped to stretch it out to a place where I could walk and then limped my way to the bike transition. I got dressed, hopped on the bike, and took off for the 112 mile ride.

bike 2012

For a while I felt okay. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. But I started to feel like maybe it really had just been nerves all along, and now that I was out on the course and racing I’d be okay. That’s when I knew it was time to fuel up. I grabbed a Gatorade bottle from an aide station two miles into the ride and quickly slammed it down, and then I followed that up with a mini Clif Bar I had in a carrying pouch on my bike. I put my head down and tried to focus on my pace and enjoy the atmosphere of race day. That lasted for about five minutes before that Gatorade and Clif came right back up, and I vomited off to the side of the road. This continued for the rest of the ride. I tried desperately to get fuel down into my stomach, but nothing stayed. I would throw up in my mouth, look over my shoulder to make sure another cyclist wasn’t behind to get it in the face, and then I’d spit my vomit onto the road. I was miserable.

The bike course on this particular race is a 56-mile loop that we complete twice. The turn-around point is back near the race starting line where all of the competitors’ friends and family are waiting anxiously to take a photo, see if their racer is on his/her pace, shout some words of encouragement, hold up silly signs, etc. When I spotted my dad at the turn around, he jogged alongside me for about 100 yards.

“How ya doing?” he asked.

“Not good,” I replied. “Nothing is staying down.”

I saw the concern and panic in his face as I said this. He knew this was bad. I’d just spent an hour in the water and nearly three hours on the bike with no fuel in my system. Bad things could happen.

The bike portion of the Redman is an open-road course. This means that the city does not officially shut down entire roads for the event. Some roads have a lane blocked off for the racers, and there are policemen and traffic coordinators at every intersection holding up traffic so we don’t have to stop, but cars are still out there. My parents and my wife decided to hop in the car and get out on the course to check on me. The course heads out of the city for a while, and a large portion of the ride is on country roads with very little traffic. They eventually found me and decided to follow me for a while since there were no cars around and no traffic that they’d be holding up. After trailing me for about five miles, they pulled up alongside me. My mom opened her passenger side window as they began talking to me, asking me how I was doing.

“Terrible,” I mumbled. “I’ve got no energy, and everything I put in comes right back up.”

“We know. We’ve been following you for about the last 20 minutes, and we watched you puke at least four times. Do you think you should stop?” my wife asked.

“No way,” I mumbled. To me, that wasn’t an option. I’d dreamed of finishing an Ironman triathlon since I was a teenager, and I was damned if I was gonna let a stomach virus stop me from finishing.

My family knows I can be stubborn when I have my mind set on something, and they decided to stop trying to talk me out of it. Instead, they decided to be proactive. They drove back to the starting line to wait for me to come back in from the ride. My wife used Facebook to contact a friend of mine who is a triathlete, an Ironman finisher, and a veterinarian. My wife thought maybe she would have some insight or medical advice for what my body might need. They also tracked down an EMT who was stationed at the race with an ambulance. My wife explained to him that I’d been sick for the last 36 hours and was in bad shape.

“My husband is stubborn,” she told him. “He won’t quit voluntarily.”

I don’t remember finishing the ride. I vaguely remember the stretch along the dam on Lake Hefner which makes up the last two miles of the ride. I don’t remember entering the transition area, taking off my biking shoes, or putting on my running shoes. I do have pictures to prove it happened, but I don’t remember this at all.

2012 transition2 2012 transition

I only know what happened next because my family told me. I arrived into the transition area, racked my bike, and put on my running shoes. I grabbed my hat, my GPS watch, and wabbled aimlessly, not sure where the exit chute was to head out on the run. My wife grabbed one of the race volunteers and the EMT. “There he is,” she said. They approached me and started walking me toward a nearby ambulance, while I incoherently argued with them that the run was the other way. I needed to go run. But they weren’t having it. I was visibly out of it, not fully aware of where I was, and in no shape to go run a marathon.

What I do remember is waking up in an ambulance with an IV in my arm and my father and wife nervously looking over me. I asked where I was and it gradually sunk in what had happened. I had gotten severely dehydrated and they were giving me an IV drip to replace the fluids.

“You were tough as hell today son,” my father said. “I’m proud of you.” Then he left the ambulance and waited outside nervously.

dad ambulance 2012

“How long have I been in here?” I asked my wife.

“Forty five minutes.”

“I gotta go,” I pleaded. “Please take this out.”

The EMT grabbed my hand to stop me from ripping the IV out of my arm on my own. “Mr. G______, at least let this bag finish. It needs about three more minutes.” I angrily agreed. When they were finished, he wanted to put another bag in, but I refused. I had a finish line to cross. The EMT drew my wife a map to the hospital. “We’re off duty here in about 20 minutes,” he said. “Another crew is coming in. You may need this. He should not be going out there.”

As I exited the ambulance my parents and son looked at me with concern and sympathy on their faces, ready to comfort me over the fact that I’d failed to finish the race. “He says he’s gonna keep going,” my wife told them.

“Son, are you sure this is a good idea?” my father asked.

“Nope. It’s probably a really stupid idea.”

“Then why are you going back out?”

I looked at him incredulously for a minute. I’ve seen this man do crazy things my whole life: riding his bike across Texas from  Dallas to Lubbock in the summer heat, running 35 miles on his 35th birthday, finishing countless marathons and triathlons, etc.

“Really?” I shot back. “YOU are asking me that?! Who do you think I learned this from? You’ve never let me give up on anything in my life. Sorry, but I’m your son, and I didn’t train all those hours to come here and quit.”

At that moment he understood. “Okay, son,” he said. “But be careful. Take in fuel at every aid station. Even if it comes back up, maybe something will stay in there. Walk when you need it. Run in the shade when it’s possible.”

dad and me 2012 run

(You can see the IV bandage still on my hand)

I walked out through the transition area and out onto the run course. Technically, I probably shouldn’t have been let back on the course, but nobody noticed that I’d come out of an ambulance or that my T2 transition time was just over 55 minutes. Many would probably say that accepting the medical treatment meant I hadn’t “really” finished the race legally. I didn’t care. I had a race to finish.

The run course at Redman is a 6.5 mile loop that runners complete four times. I like this because it doesn’t take long to learn the route. I begin to anticipate sections that are coming up and to measure my progress by the various landmarks. I look forward to certain aid stations where the volunteers are particularly positive and energetic. I love the big black and gold RV that’s there every year, with guys out drinking beer watching college football, patting you on the back, and giving you score updates. I love the aide station by the marina where all the volunteers are always in costumes and cheering. I love the turn around at mile three that takes us through a park and some shade. I look forward to seeing my family and taking a few minutes to walk and talk with them. I get to see the same runners over and over again. Some of them high five me as they pass by going the opposite direction. Spectators cheer for me by name because it’s printed on my race number. If you’re feeling healthy and just need an emotional boost, it’s one of the best atmospheres of any race I’ve ever done. If you’re nauseous and sick, it’s the uplifting motivation that can pull you through when everything else says quit.

2012 run  run2

The next four hours and forty five minutes were miserable. I ran some. I walked some. I drank something and ate something at every aid station, and within five minutes it always came right back up. I vomited all over that course and took at least three stops in a porta-potty when the diarrhea came back. Yet somehow I managed to finish. My time of 14 hours and 20 minutes was over two hours slower than my goal, but I’d finished. I was an Ironman.

2012 finish1 2012 finish2tears

(Crossing the finish line and breaking down in tears)

fararas dad

(Relieved family after it was over)

Within three weeks, I was ready to go back. I knew I wanted to tackle it again without being sick, so I signed up for 2013. I trained all summer, but without the sense of urgency I had the year before. If I could finish under the conditions I did in 2012, I wasn’t too worried about finishing in 2013. I just wanted to stay healthy, enjoy the race in a positive mindset, and hopefully go faster. Looking back and being honest, I didn’t train hard enough for 2013. Sure, I put in a lot of hours in the pool, on the bike, and out on runs. I was in good shape. But at the starting line for 2013, I was 12 pounds heavier than I was in 2012. That may sound like not much weight, but go run a marathon with a twelve-pound weight strapped around your waist and tell me if it makes a difference.

2013bike2013 run1 2013 run4

(These photos show the extra weight I carried, Dad doing his coach/motivator thing, and the familiar black/gold RV that’s there every year with beer and college football on the TV)

In 2013, I wasn’t sick. I finished the race in 12 hours, 13 minutes – two full hours faster than the year before. I felt awful at the finish line. Everything hurt. But I’d stayed in a positive frame of mind the entire race, had fun the whole time, and felt like I’d proven something to myself. I told my wife, “Never again. If I sign up for next year, you have permission to punch me in the face.”

2013 run2

2103 finish

That sentiment lasted for about one month. Then that little voice started to creep into my head again. It was the voice telling me that I still hadn’t done my BEST race. I was physically ready to do my best race in 2012, but I’d been sick. In 2013 I wasn’t sick, but I wasn’t as fit and ready as I’d been in 2012. There was still a “better” race in me that I hadn’t done yet. I registered for 2014.

My wife still owes me that punch in the face. She reminds me of this often.

This past summer, I was “back.” I trained with a vengeance. I was hungry. I was focused. I was dedicated. I felt ready. I knew this was going to be my best race ever. I was at my goal weight. I was excited. Two days before we left, my young swimmers I coach threw me a surprise party and showed me a video they’d made full of them giving me advice that I always give them, parroting all my coaching aphorisms back at me. It made me cry and made me want to race well to make them proud. Here’s their video:

Then I packed for Oklahoma on Thursday night, and the panic set in. I felt a sense of dread and fear creep in that I couldn’t shake. I was rattled with nightmares about the race, flashbacks to 2012, and dreams of showing up at the race without my bike, or without my running shoes. It was awful. I was in a completely negative place mentally on Friday morning, and I don’t know why.

The entire drive up to OKC, I was in a shitty mood. I argued and bickered with my wife. I closed off and tried to lose myself in social media and reading a book. I could not shake the feeling of doom and gloom. What the hell is going on, I wondered. I’ve done this before, in way worse health. I’ve done it weighing 15 pounds more than I weighed this year. Why was I so scared?

My son didn’t make the trip up with us because he wasn’t feeling well. He had a head cold and sinus congestion and didn’t even go to school on Friday. That should’ve been my first warning.

We got to OKC around 2:00pm on Friday, went to packet pick-up, checked in my bike, went to the hotel, did my night-before-the-race rituals, and I was in bed by 9:30. All systems go.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, my nose was congested and I had a pounding headache. Whatever my son had, it had hit me. I tried to eat, but negative thoughts and that familiar fear in my stomach made it difficult. My wife asked if I was okay, and I barely spoke. I just shook my head. “Are you sick?” she asked.

“No. Just nerves,” I lied. If I didn’t say it out loud, maybe it wouldn’t be true. But deep down I was already spiraling downward. The demon of doubt was singing a concert in my head and chipping away at my confidence with every passing minute. Could this really be happening again?! Another year’s worth of training and preparation, and my body gets sick on race day? My mind was going darker and darker as the minutes ticked by.

The weather at the starting line was awful. Wind was whipping up out of the south creating whitecaps in the water, and every racer in the pack looked nervous. We all knew that an Ironman distance triathlon is hard enough without a windy day. Wind is the bane of a triathlete’s existence. It makes the swim miserable, and the bike ride even worse. But we all had a job to do, and it was time to race.

2014 start

(Fear)

The gun went off, and I jumped into my usual strategy. Get out fast ahead of the pack, then settle into my pace. There was one other guy in the group who was a seriously strong swimmer. He took off and beat me out of the water by about three minutes. I was seven minutes slower than my goal of being under an hour, and I was having trouble getting a deep breath.

I got on the bike, and the first twenty miles felt okay. The wind was at my back, but the sun was heating up and it was getting hot. My head was pounding and my nose would not stop running. By mile 35 I was getting miserable. By mile 40 I was angry. By mile 45 I was in tears. By mile 50 I wanted to stop. My body wasn’t responding. The wind was brutal. My head hurt. My sinuses hurt. My legs were burning even though my pace was slower than even my usual training rides. I continued to spiral deeper and deeper into negativity.

I got to the 56 mile turn around in 3 hours and 5 minutes, nearly 40 minutes slower than my projected goal time for where I wanted to be at that point based on my training. As I approached the turn around, I saw my wife cheering and taking a picture, and I veered my bike toward her and came to a stop.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I broke down crying. “I can’t,” I sobbed. “I can’t go back out there.” I then unleased all the negative things going on in my head.

“Then stop,” she said.

“But what about my kids? I tell them every day that if they want something bad enough, and if they believe in themselves enough, they can overcome anything. If I stop now, I’m just a big, f—ing hypocrite!”

“No you’re not,” she comforted. “You’re sick. It’s not your fault.”

“I was sicker in 2012,” I retorted, “and I still managed to finish.”

“You felt like you had something to prove then. You’ve done this race twice. You’ve got nothing to prove. But it’s up to you. You’ve got to live with the decision. Do you want to stop or keep going?”

I knew my answer, but it still felt like it took forever to say the words. “I want to go to the hotel and go to bed. F— this race. I don’t care anymore. I’m done.”

And just like that, for the first time in my life, I’d quit a triathlon. I was officially a DNF.

Did. Not. Finish.

I cried the whole way back to the hotel. I cried throughout the day at the hotel. As I type this, three days later, I’m still not sure what gave out. Was it my body, or was it my mind? In 2012, I felt worse, but I wanted it more.

I don’t deal with failure well, and the last three days have been really hard on me. I’ve cried multiple times with shame, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and regret. It was so hard to face my swimmers again, all these young eager faces who look to me to be the role model who shows them what they can do with hard work and a positive attitude. It took all I had to not break down in tears in front of them when they asked me how it went and I had to say the words out loud, “I quit.” I’m tearing up now just typing those two words.

So now I gotta teach them a new lesson. And just like all lessons we teach, it’s a lesson I first need to learn. Failures mold us. Defeat can strengthen us. If we can figure out why we failed and learn from it, then even the bitterest loss can be the thing that makes us stronger in the end. I know this is all very cliché, cheap sports psychology, but like most clichés, it’s rooted in truth. I’ve got to figure out why I went to such a dark place last week, and I gotta figure out how to not go back there next time.

What beat me on Saturday? Was it the sinus congestion? Was it the headache? Was it the wind? Was it the fear? Did feeling sick make me think negatively, or did thinking negatively make me sick? Was it my body that gave out? Or, more frighteningly, was it my mind?

I still don’t know the answer. But I do know this. I’m hungry again. The preparation for next year starts today. I’ve learned that triathlon success requires three things… proper training, proper health on race day, and a proper mental preparation. In 2012, my brain and training were there, but I was lacking the good health on race day. In 2013, I was healthy and my mind was in the right place, but I hadn’t put in my best training. This year, I did the training, but I was missing the health and the mental fortitude on race day. Next year, I have to learn to put them all together. My “best” race is still out there, and hopefully it’s somewhere in the low 11 hour range, or maybe even under 11 hours. I know my body can do it. I know I’ve demonstrated the mental toughness to do it. Now I just gotta figure out how to get the mind and body to show up on the same day.

Redman 2015, get ready. I’m gonna kick your ass.

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2 thoughts on “The Agony of Defeat

  1. None of us is ever quitters…until we stop trying again. Temporary setbacks happen to all of us. Occasionally those setbacks result in a day, a week a year….even a decade. What matters is we keep trying the next time. Until we stop doing that, we can’t be labeled quitters.

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