Reflections on a DNF

In August 2009, I volunteered at Ironman Canada to get some exposure to the Ironman community prior to my own trek South to compete at IM Florida in November of the same year. My friend’s husband – Ian Young – was competing as an age-group athlete but unlike me, was looking to own the podium. I had never seen an IM race in person, and was especially excited to watch a friend compete and hopefully do well. I had a beer with Ian and Liz the night before the race, and he seemed to be in top form ready to dominate in the morning.

After finishing my duties as a wetsuit stripper (Best. Job. Ever.), I headed out to the bike course to meet up with Liz and to watch Ian as he zipped by. A few hours later, Ian pulled into T2 2nd in his age group, and raced out of T2 looking strong. Knowing his finish was a few hours away, I headed back into transition to see if I could help the volunteer team.

Well, about 30 minutes later I bump into Ian – in transition – as he’s heading BACK to his bike and calling it a day. I rubbed my eyes and checked my watch – trying to figure out how Ian finished a marathon in 30 minutes! He was looking good out there, but not ‘Kenyan’ good!

Ian apparently decided it just wasn’t his day, and he pulled out. WHAT?! You can do that?! I had no idea this was an option.. I mean, he was doing really really well – what would possibly motivate you to end your race if you weren’t in an ambulance or ditch? It turns out, when you’re out there to win, and you don’t think you’re going to win – you cut your losses, pull out, and live to race another day.

Fast forward a couple of years to Vancouver and my recent 1/2 Ironman with Irondad. Now – we all know I’m not looking to own any podiums in the near future, and this race certainly wouldn’t be the exception. My training to date has been as busy as my blog posting, so the outlook wasn’t terribly positive. I did have a 1/2 marathon under my belt, with a solid finish for me, and a sprint triathlon – so I knew there was at least a chance of finishing but it would likely be a long, and painful day.

Well it turns out it was both to no ones surprise, especially me. Without going into too much detail, the swim was ‘almost’ as slow as Dad’s 🙂 But he left the water feeling a lot better than I did! (I had a panic moment on the beach run heading out for the 2nd lap where I thought my Dad was in front of me, and I knew it was going to be a bad day!) The bike was pretty dreadful; I felt like I was on a cruiser bike with a trailer attached, and being out on an empty course for almost a lap and a half didn’t do much for my self-esteem or motivation. Spending more time in my aero bars in one day than I had in the past few months combined did very little for my back comfort, and it turns out it did very little for the run ahead.

Well, the walk ahead.

So I’m now at – oh- about 4.5 hours on the clock.. and it’s not exactly getting faster from here. I started off with a quick walk, my legs weren’t feeling awful, but a muscle in my lower back down into my left ‘cheek’ had a different plan for me. By the time I made it to the second aid station (about 1km in ) I had collapsed onto the grass in an effort to stretch out – which had temporarily eased some pain and made me think I could finish this thing – until the next aid station, where I repeated this exercise.. and then the third….and, well you get the picture. 5km, 1 hour.. it wasn’t going well. At this rate – I would be out there for another 4 hours.. the sun was high in the sky and I was already one of the ‘last on course’… who knows if I would even make cut-off.

So my mind started going back to IM Canada 09 – Ian Young. Slight difference with the 2 pictures – he was leading the pack, I was leading the race clean-up crew… but I suddenly remembered the ‘Plan B’ option of cutting your losses and living to race another day. But oh the shame! I can’t do that! How would I justify that? I felt pathetic. An Ironman finisher who can’t drag her carcass through a 1/2 Ironman.

So I decided not to decide until I found Irondad on the course. He would bring reason to this situation. Passing by the finish area to head out on the 2nd loop of the figure-8 (another ‘boost’ of motivation to watch people finishing).. I found my dad heading out for his last 6K. At this point, I had already tried to pull the chute (took off my race belt.. started to head off course… ) but couldn’t bring myself to do it. The tears of failure were already welling up in my eyes which I did a poor job of hiding.. and told my Dad I was thinking of calling it a day. It was a short conversation – I wasn’t in the mood to chat and realized quickly I was definitely done. Brutal.

I slid my race number off and snuck around the trees in an effort to stay anonymous… running into the owner of my local bike shop didn’t help my feelings of shame so I scurried away and headed to transition to do a quick change and find a spot to cheer my Dad in at the finish. My transition neighbours, who had just finished with medals around their necks were full of ‘how was your race’ kind of questions, which I tried hard to answer while acknowledging their achievements, without bursting out into more pathetic tears.

I slid away again to the finish area to grab some food… probably not a good choice as I ran into more friends/finishers full of questions. I focused on the other athletes.. cheering them into the finish corral…waiting for Irondad to cross the line – which he did at an incredible 6:17! By this point I had calmed down considerably, and was starting to feel better about my choice as I imagined still being out there for another 10k/1.5-2hours in the blazing sun…..

I still didn’t know why I chose to stop. Yes, my back was in pain and I knew I would likely end up walking the rest. But I figured I could squeeze out a finish, like I had done at IMFL 2 years before. I would by far be the LAST person on course.. which didn’t seem to carry the same celebrity status as it did for the final finisher at IM. I knew how untrained I had been, but still, shouldn’t I just suck it up and finish? Punish myself for poor training?

2 weeks after the race, I’m realizing that that’s not really the point, now is it? Why do you do triathlon? We all have different reasons I’m sure, but I’m going to fare a guess and say it’s probably not for the ‘rush’ of not knowing if you’re going to finish. It’s not to punish yourself for not being in good shape. It’s likely not to struggle through race after race just to say you’re still ‘involved’ in triathlon.

So I had to ask myself the tough question – why do I do triathlon?

I realized – that when I AM in shape, when I AM training well, when I AM eating well.. I’m a LOT happier. Life is a lot more organized. I’m not wasting away on the couch with a bottle of wine and take-out (not that that’s a bad thing once in a while!).

Struggling to make it before cut-off is NOT why I do triathlon. It’s not the point.

My older brother Mike – who takes more chances to mock me than he does to support me, surprised me with a ‘relatively’ kind email with words of support post-DNF. As a former competitive snowboard athlete for Team Canada.. he has some experience with the highs and lows:

“It’s better to finish with no time than a slow time (somehow though, I don’t think this adage applies as well to Ironmans as it does to snowboarding).  You’re actually smart in not finishing: you want to keep the feeling alive of completing a full Ironman last year, not some mediocre half…that’s insulting.”

Then he continued with some mild-mocking.. but I would be concerned if he didn’t.

So there you go. No real closure.. it was a pretty simple ‘didn’t train – didn’t finish’ scenario. But it really was a kick in the butt with IMFL staring me down 16 weeks or so away. I still got in a good 5.5 hour training day, and was walking just fine the next day.. so it wasn’t ALL that dramatic. And I realized if I’m committing to be a ‘triathlete’ – then I have to remind myself why I’m doing it every day, every workout.

I’m back in the pool and on the roads.. ramping up towards a full training schedule 2 weeks away and feeling GREAT about how it’s already impacting how I feel about my health and the control I have over my life.

It’s all about choices at the end of the day. A wise man once reminded me that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and I think how we choose to spend those 24 hours defines our priorities, and ultimately who we are. This year, I’m prioritizing my health and happiness through Ironman.

And now, I have a date with the pool 🙂



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