The very short story is that I DNFed (Did Not Finish). The slightly longer story is that I completed the swim but I was two minutes over the cut-off time so I was pulled off the course.
The bottom line is that, while I worked very hard, I wasn’t prepared enough and I have a lot of hard work ahead of me for the full IRONMAN.
So, here’s the play by play. It’s pretty long, it’s split up into before, and during, the race. I’ll do after-the-race/lessons in another post (and the story of how my cyber-stalkers became in-person stalkers at this event is here.) You can also just skip to the pictures at the bottom if you want.
Before the Race
As I walked into the fenced-in transition area which contained about 1600 neatly racked bikes (and which Julianne referred to as “bike jail”) I heard the announcement. “The water temperature today is 77 degrees…” Everyone groaned. In IM events there is a wetsuit cutoff by temperature. This race would be wetsuit optional, so anyone who wanted to wear a wetsuit would have to swim in the final wave.
Steve (my coach) and I had talked about what I should do in this situation. Not wearing the wetsuit would mean swimming with a group of women my age. Swimming in the wetsuit would mean swimming in a co-ed, mixed age group and, because it was the last wave, if I didn’t finish the swim in time I would be pulled from the course and wouldn’t even be able to start the bike.
Because I got my wetsuit so late I’d been entirely focused on learning to swim IN the wetsuit, so while I swam the distance many times in a swimsuit in the pool, I was kicking myself because I had never done any open water swimming without the wetsuit. I had completed the distance in the wetsuit many times, and always with significant time to spare, so I decided that I didn’t want my first 1.2 mile OWS without a wetsuit to happen during my first IRONMAN 70.3.
I wasn’t the only one worried. When they announced the water temperature the girl across from me started crying and said that she had never swum in open water without her wetsuit, and that she had never swum the full distance ever.
I finished setting up transition and went back out to be with my family. I put my timing chip around my ankle, securing it with a safety pin, and got into my wetsuit, smiling at the woman beside me who was trying to put on her wetsuit for the first time with the help of a friend who was assuring her that spraying your legs with Pam cooking spray is totally normal. (Well, normal for us…)
We headed to the swim start and I looked at the course. I was feeling pretty good mentally, though my stomach was starting to get pretty upset. I chalked it up to nerves and got in line. Everyone was super friendly, a lot of people were talking about how nervous they were, how they had never swum this far before, how they had DNF’d the last one etc.
We wiggled around nervously and watched every other group get in the water and take off. Finally they told us to get ready to get in the water. All of a sudden I was hit out of nowhere with an intense wave of almost paralyzing fear. (As I type this I’m feeling the anxiety again.) I noticed I was now shaking a little which did nothing to help my upset stomach situation. A woman near me told the person she was with “I’m sorry, I just can’t” and walked way. I had to do some quick self-talk to keep myself from following her out.
To start the swim, each wave had five minutes to descend a set of stairs that end just under the water line, jump into the water, then swim a short distance to the starting line.
There was no seeding by expected finish time, age, or gender. Our wave was just everyone who wanted to wear a wetsuit, in the order that we got in line. People were still getting in line as I got ready to jump in.
I jumped in and my feet hit the sharp rocks on the bottom, hard. Ouch. I figured it would probably be fine by the bike and didn’t give it another thought, it would turn out that my feet were totally fine.
Our wave was huge compared to the other waves and so, unlike the other waves, though I had made it to the start line in time, some people were just getting into the water when they told us that it was one minute until the horn blew.
I had found a place with some space around me near a group of women. As the last minute ticked away people, mostly guys, started to swim in front and on the side of me and I started to get bumped around. I reminded myself that this was all part of it and tried to stay calm. (In fact, the wave start is fairly new – in the past all the athletes would have started at exactly the same time, I can’t even imagine what that must be like.)
Only a 1.2 mile swim separated me from the bike section.
During the Race
The horn blew. I hit start on my GPS watch.
I put my face in the water and before I could even get my arm in I got kicked hard under my chin, so hard that my head snapped back up out of the water. Then someone grabbed my foot and pulled me backwards. My nose and mouth filled with water, I came up sputtering and coughing and then threw up.
The fast swimmers who had been in the back of our wave were now pushing and thrashing to get past the rest of us and we were just getting worked. I started to use the modified breast stroke that I use to catch my breath, just to try to get moving.
I can’t do this. Oh my god. I can’t do this. This is nothing the like the group swims I did. Why did I think I could do this? I can’t. Not today. I have to get out of the water! There’s a kayak over there, I have to get to that kayak. I have to get out of the water. As soon as these people pass on my left I’ll swim to the kayak and this will be over. Just try to breathe, it will be over in a minute.
I started looking around and realized that a lot of people had gone completely vertical trying to get out of the way. One person I could see was crying and several were headed to the rescue swimmers in the kayaks, some already there. I was getting bumped a little less. I was still doing my little breast stroke because, even though I was going to quit in a minute, it seemed desperately important to me that I keep moving forward as long as I was in the water. I started to take stock.
I got kicked in the head and then threw up, that could be a concussion, but I don’t think it is, I think it was just the water I took on when I got pulled back. At least my stomach feels better. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m going to quit before I even get to the first buoy. All those lessons, all those workouts, all those hours and I’m going to quit before I even get to the damn bridge. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Wait, I’m past the rescue kayak. I’m ok. I’m ok as long as I do this breast stroke, maybe I’ll do this for awhile and then see if I can swim.
The modified breast stroke that I do is almost like a doggie paddle. I just paddle gently with my arms in front of me. I don’t kick or anything, it’s not meant to propel me forward quickly, it’s meant to help me catch my breath if I need to and/or have more than just a breath to sight. I only ever do a few of them at a time, almost never more than 5.
I noticed that even doing that stroke I was keeping up with people near me. I saw a floating thing near me with people holding on. I remembered that you are allowed to hold on to floating things as long as they don’t move you forward.
Ok, ok, ok. You’re ok. Just keep moving forward. Get to the floating thing, relax for a minute and then try to actually swim. I was so cocky when he said we could onto things at the course briefing, I was so sure I would be fine. The group swims I did definitely didn’t prepare me for this. I should have done more. Ok, I can’t fix that now. Keep moving forward.
I got to the floating thing and hung on for a second, then got hit by another wave of anxiety:
I am not moving. I have to be moving forward. Let go. Let go now. Ok, this breast stroke isn’t going to get us there. You have to swim. Start swimming.
I put my head in the water and it popped out, as if involuntarily.
What the f..?
I went back to the breast stroke.
Ok, do this for a little while longer and then you have to swim. You have to start swimming. How am I keeping up with all these people using this breast stroke? Ok swim.
I put my face in the water and took one stroke, as I started to take the second stroke someone grabbed my arm and pulled me under. I pulled hard and I was able to free my hand. I came up to see who did it – and it was a woman in real trouble. She was in full on freak out mode – gasping and coughing and obviously panicking. In reality her wetsuit would likely have made her buoyant enough to float but she wasn’t in a place of logic. She just kept coughing, flailing her arms under the water, and saying “help me, help me.”
Whatever was happening with me, this woman was in a much worse place and I was acutely aware that it could easily have been me. I gave her my arm to steady her and tried to help her calm down “let the water and your wetsuit hold you. You are fine. You are safe.” She started to calm down a bit and at that point someone who obviously knew her swam back to her and helped her float. He started giving her a pep talk and I swam away. [Edit: Some people have suggested that I saved her life and some have suggested that I would have finished in time if I didn’t help her. This is giving me way too much credit. While she definitely seemed to think she was drowning, her wetsuit would have helped her float and there were tons of rescue swimmers out there. When I say that she was in real trouble, I meant psychologically and in terms of progressing in the swim, not in terms of her life being in actual danger. I wasn’t looking at my watch but I don’t think there’s any way that this took 2 full minutes so even if I had pulled my arm free and kept swimming I still would not have finished in time.]
Ok. You’re ok. Just swim, you have to swim. Come on, do five strokes.
I did three strokes and then my head popped up. I tried again and it was the same thing.
Why is this happening? What am I going to do? There’s no way I can swim the rest of this with this much breast stroke. I’m never going to make it in time. Ok, freaking out is not helping. Just keep moving forward until you calm down a little more.
I realized I was at the third buoy. I was oddly torn between wanting to quit, and being worried that I was so far behind everyone that they would force me to quit. I looked back and was surprised to see that there were a number of people behind me. That helped me calm down a little bit. I started to swim the crawl again.
This time I was able to keep my head in the water, I took three strokes and then did my sighting stroke (during normal breathing you breathe to the side, when you sight you look forward on the course to make sure that you are still swimming the right way. If you’ve never done open water swimming you might be surprised how easy it is to get off course and end up swimming the absolute wrong way – and way farther than you have to swim – I know I was.) I did my sighting stroke, but I didn’t see the buoy. I tried again, didn’t see the buoy.
What the ever loving hell is going on? Why is nothing going right?
I had done almost all of my open water practice at a beach where I could practice with the buoys on the left because I knew they would be on the left in this event. I had never once had a problem seeing the buoys. I don’t know if it was because of the distance, or angle, or what, but I tried again and I couldn’t see it. So I would do three breaths and then sight using the breast stroke. That was ok except it stopped all my momentum every time I went to the breast stroke, and sometimes it took me a while to convince myself to start swimming crawl again.
In this truly ridiculous manner I got to the first turnaround buoy. I looked at my watch for the first time. 30 minutes.
Oh my god, I’m so far behind. But it’s not as far as I thought. If I can swim crawl I can finish in time. I just have to swim.
As I made the left turn my left hamstring cramped up. Then my right. I had thrown up twice more since the first time, so if I was dehydrated, I would not be surprised. I actually laughed because it was so damn ridiculous, which made me swallow water and cough.
I’m getting to the damn finish line, so whatever you’ve got swim, bring it on.
My hamstrings wouldn’t un-cramp until after I got out of the water. I got to the second turn-around buoy and started back. I was really angry because I wasn’t even a little bit tired – I hadn’t even done 10 strokes in a row and the entire swim had been defined by stuff that had never happened to me before.
I decided to try to do 10 strokes (now without a real kick since my hamstrings weren’t really working). As soon as I turned my head to breathe water went up my nose. I thought it was a fluke but it happened on the next three strokes, I went back to my breast stroke.
What fresh hell is this? I wish I hadn’t have thought that “bring it on” thing. Dear god I need this to be over.
Another thing that had never happened in any swim ever before. It felt like drowning and it made me feel really panicky. I was getting air through my mouth but could not stop the water coming into my nose. I could handle about five strokes before I had to stop and do the breast stroke. It was frustrating because I would gain ground on the people ahead of me while I was doing my crawl, and then lose ground when I had to go back to my breast stroke.
I looked back, a lot of the people who had been behind me seemed to have dropped out, but there were still several people back there.
Ok, fuck it. This is what’s happening. For god’s sake just get into some kind of rhythm. Try to go as hard as you can with the 5 crawl strokes, use the breast stroke to sight and blow the water out of your nose. It’s going to be close but there might be enough to finish in time and get on the bike.
At some point I was trying to blow the water out of my nose and a rescue kayaker yelled “don’t be delicate, do it like a DUDE!” I tried to blow harder, it was completely disgusting and it didn’t fix the problem, but it was a tiny bit of funny in a nightmare swim. The rescue crew, and the volunteers, were all encouraging and amazing.
Finally I could see the final red turnaround buoy. I had to get past the rest of the orange buoys to it, then execute the turn and get to the stairs. I checked my watch. 1 hour and 3 minutes.
Damn it. I was supposed to be out of the water 13 minutes ago.
Based on how fast I had been going, it was going to take me about 12 minutes to get to the stairs, and then I had to get out somehow and get across the timing mat.
Oh no. The stairs.
Before this utter disaster of a swim, the only thing I was really worried about were the stairs. They say that you shouldn’t try to stand up on them and I wasn’t sure that I had enough flexibility in my wetsuit to get my foot up that high anyway. They say to just float up to them and let volunteers pull you out. That didn’t seem like a good idea. I thought that if I could get my butt on the stairs I could then turn and stand up. But there was still the fact that it looked like it was going to take me 1 hour and 15 minutes total to get to the stairs and I only had 1 hour and 10 minutes to get up the stairs and across the timing mat.
Go. Go as fast as you can. You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t try as hard as you can to get this done in time. Just fucking go.
I think for the first time I was able to do 10 strokes in a row and then the water in my nose just became too much and I did a couple strokes of breast stroke. A rescue swimmer was yelling at those of us in the water “YOU HAVE TO MOVE! YOU CAN’T STOP!” I knew it was coming from a good place and I appreciated the encouragement. I did 10 more strokes and then as I did my breast stroke and sighted the stairs, I had drifted right. I saw the volunteer signal that time was up.
It’s over. It’s over. Don’t stop and don’t slow down. Keep moving forward. Get there as fast as you can.
In what seemed like forever I got to the stairs. I floated my butt onto the first stair and pulled myself up with the railing. My hamstrings were still cramped and I was incredibly dizzy. For a horrifying second it seemed like I was going to fall back into the water. I heard my family and the other people screaming and clapping for me for me.
A volunteer told me “You don’t have to rush” which I understood meant “You are over time.” Then someone said “Good job, you only missed it by two minutes.” When I got to the top of the stairs a volunteer told me that I needed to turn in my timing chip. As I struggled to undo the safety pin I saw the pile of timing chips of those who finished before me, but not in time.
I went and hugged my family who didn’t care that I had failed or that I was covered in seriously smelly lake water and told me that they loved me and were proud of me. I asked if they minded staying to cheer everyone who was still in the water. They agreed because they are awesome. I high-fived and hugged women who came after me, all of whom looked exactly like I felt.
We had to get out of the way because they were pulling up the carpet and the fence. I hugged my family again and cried a little (I would later find out that a group of trolls had actually stalked me at the event, taking pictures and video of me and my family. One of them, standing unnoticed just a couple of feet from me, took a picture of this moment and posted it online to ridicule me. I know because they proudly posted it to my Facebook.)
I’ll talk more about the aftermath and the lessons in a different blog. For now I want to thank my family and friends – including those I know in person and those I know online, and everyone who has supported me thus far including before, during, and after the race. I want to thank the staff, volunteers and rescue crew who were, to a person, amazing and friendly and helpful and encouraging. I want to thank my coaches – Steve and Ingrid. The successes and skills I have are to their credit and the failures are entirely mine.
If you’re worried that I might quit, don’t. I’m still on this journey. This was a setback, and it did well and truly suck, but I am undaunted and I’m taking the lessons I’ve learned on the road to IMAZ 2016.
In the meantime, here are the pictures: