This blog post is hard to write. I’m not going to sugar-coat anything, nor am I going to make excuses or assign blame. If you’re a first-time reader of my stuff, know this; I’m not a great writer. I write like I talk.
So I’ll just get right to the point; I was a DNF at Ironman Chattanooga. I’m now 2 for 3 in Ironman events, and the reality is this is my 3rd DNF in two years in a triathlon. Hard to swallow.
Let’s get to it.
Leading up to the Race
My year has been well-documented prior to this post, so I won’t get into the whole thing, but just a quick update for those who don’t want to read back. T and I came into the year with high ambition of finishing two Ironmans within 8 weeks of each other. Ironman Boulder and Chattanooga. Chatt fell on our 5th wedding anniversary and I promised her we could do that as an anniversary present.
I spent the first half of the year commuting to the east coast for my old company. I struggled most of that time to find the work/rest balance and more often than not, rest took priority. In June, I was offered a chance to interview at Delta Air Lines, and my priority shifted from training for two Ironmans to studying for this interview. I was successful and had landed my dream job. I also finished Ironman Boulder on August 7th.
So coming into the race, I felt good and de-stressed, but also mentally exhausted. I had also been battling gastro issues all year. We think it may have been due to stress (more on this later).
T and I left Denver on Monday morning in reliable Fiona for a jaunt across the USA. I had quite a bit of time off from Delta until I was to be back in Atlanta, so this was perfect. We enjoyed the early part of our road trip. Stopped in Leavenworth, Kansas to see our friends Norm and Emily and crash with them for the night. We had a layover day in Nashville where we saw the Country Music Hall of Fame and ate some BBQ. Then on Wednesday we arrived in Chattanooga. I was immediately impressed with the town and was excited to be racing there!
What we both were keeping an eye on and trying not to think about too much was the weather forecast. Late September in the south can be a tad unpredictable, and it looked like this year was going to be interesting. When I say that, I mean it was forecasted to be over 90 degrees on race day. The previous two Chatt years wwere in the 70’s and 80’s, respectively, so needless to say this was highly unusual, and made me apprehensive. I am not a good at racing in heat as evidenced by a DNF last year due to heat exhaustion. I tried to think positive and remind myself that I have ridden in very hot temps this year and as long as I combat the gastro issues that will allow me to take in fluid, I’d be fine.
Thursday morning we got checked in. Immediately we ran into some of our Colorado contingent and had a good time catching up with them. We also played with Normatec boots (because why not?). One of the Normatec guys remembered me as the pilot from Boulder and asked if I got the Delta job. I thought that was pretty cool. Thursday night, we met up with our friend George and some of his friends and went to a sushi place. The mood was light and fun. I was impressed with how much sushi George put away. Seriously, this dude was cracking me up all night!
On Friday morning, we went to get an early morning swim in the river. Clearly, we weren’t the only people interested in this. There were several hundred athletes all patiently waiting to get in. T and I swam a couple hundred yards up river very slowly, and then a couple hundred yards back very quickly. The water was very warm and I knew I would be okay without my wetsuit. I did the swim in a backup tri kit and felt just fine.
After that, we met up with our friends Jeremy and Melanie, who had come all the way from Colorado to cheer us on at this event. Their support was unreal. We are blessed to have them as friends. We did the Chattanooga Aquarium then headed to a place just out of town for dinner which was fantastic food.
On Saturday morning, we rode our bikes to check them in. I stopped by the Quintana Roo booth and asked them to look at my rear derauiler. It had been sticking in a couple gears and not shifting the way I liked. The Q Roo guy said that it was slightly bent and that if I had continued to ride it the way I had been, I risked my tire being blown up. I got it fixed up (or so I thought).
Then we had lunch with Jeremy and Melanie at a biscuit place. Really good! We talked a bit about the race and what to expect. Then we headed back to our hotel room to lay low for most of the afternoon. T and I were going to get breakfast for dinner at a diner nearby around 5:30. Jeremy and Melanie had attended a football game that afternoon but met up with us at the diner. We thanked them and then headed back to our hotel for the final wind down of the evening. We watched a bit of TV, and right before we went to bed, we watched the end of the movie Everest. I had seen it, T had not. (spoiler alert) It’s a pretty depressing movie in which a lot of people die on the mountain. Probably not the best thing to watch before an Ironman event…
We both woke up butt honking early as usual. We had planned on leaving the hotel at 4:30 am so we could hit the diner for a to-go breakfast sandwich. I had confirmed with the person the night before that they were open 24 hours and they were. He said one of their busiest days was Ironman day. I drank some Pepto trying to ward off the stomach bug that had plagued me at Ironman Boulder and we headed to the diner.
The wait at the diner was way longer than either one of us would have liked. Both of us ordered breakfast but I don’t think either person wanted it. We got our stuff finally and headed to transition to prep our bikes for the big day.
We got body marked early, then walked into transition. T and I split up and I headed for Amaryllis. I prepped my bike with the appropriate food and water bottles. We had picked up Chick-Fil-A minis the day before to eat on the bike. I packed my Bento Box nice and tight. Included was a baggie of meds (Advil, Tums, and Gas-X). I also borrowed someone’s pump and inflated my tires.
I found a spot near T’s bike and just sat down to eat my breakfast sandwich. In a way, this was perfect. I had a bit of quiet time just to myself. I ate over half of my sandwich and then found T. We started making our way to the bike bags so she could drop off some last-minute morning stuff. Then as we made our way out of trans, we found someone in a T-Rex costume. Naturally, we had to get a picture!
After that, we found Jeremy and Melanie. They were tired, but excited for us. Jeremy had a small cup of coffee for me (THANK YOU!). We worked our way to the busses.
The bus ride over to the start of the swim was quick. T and I made our way to the porta-potty line for our last stop. Then the 4 of us found a spot in the grass and just hung out, waiting for the beginning. I was drinking a bottle of Gatorade. Our friend George found us and hung out, even napping. I also turned on my chill playlist on my phone. As I said in my Boulder recap, the pump-up music stressed me out so I switched to chill and it worked much better.
Eventually, the line started moving and we knew we were going to be heading to the water. We walked towards the start. I decided at the wetsuit line I’d peel off from T and time it by about 10-12 minutes after she got in so we could hopefully see each other at T1. I kissed her goodbye and Melanie walked with her. Jeremy stayed with me. We killed a bit more time and then about 10 minutes later, I made my way towards the bottom of the river to the start. Jeremy wished me luck, and like at Ironman Boulder, I took a moment to reflect on the journey. While it was going to be a hot day, it would also be fun, and a great way to spend our 5th wedding anniversary!
I walked towards the water, stepped on the timing mat, jumped in the water, and began my swim. My 3rd Ironman was underway!
Ironman Chattanooga is a downriver swim, so the entire swim you have a current pushing you. I’m a decent swimmer, so while I didn’t necessarily need the assistance, I certainly welcomed it.
Unlike a lot of open water swims this year where it takes me a few hundred meters to get my breath under me, this swim didn’t have that problem. I was in my groove right away. I was passing people left and right and my sighting was sharp. I kept looking to my left to see if I could see Jeremy walking on the path, but it was definitely too far away. We had joked earlier that he could throw a football to me, but that wasn’t happening (sadly).
At some point, there was an island that we swam to the left of. The current definitely picked up in this channel and I felt even quicker (obviously). At the end of the island, I thought I heard someone mmrraa at me, but I wasn’t sure. I looked around to see if I could see T but didn’t, so I figured I was just hearing things. Then I could see the glass of the aquarium and knew I was close to the finish.
I turned to the river bank and the steps. I was very conscious of my actions, remembering that T hurt herself climbing out of the Tempe Town Lake. I let the volunteers pull me out of the water, and just like that, my swim was done. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was a good omen for the bike, which would be Hell.
I saw Melanie on the way up to T1. I was a bit out of it, so I think I mostly grunted at her. She said T wouldn’t be too far behind me. Maybe only 7-8 minutes. I smiled at that and headed to grab my bike gear bag. Finding it, I ran for the change tent. I was surprised at how crowded it was and moved towards the very back of it to get my stuff together. I went slow and methodically, to try to buy more time for T to catch up. I had a volunteer slather sunscreen on my hard to reach areas in the shoulders, and put on arm coolers. I didn’t wear them at Boulder and regretted it. I also wasn’t wearing an aero helmet this race. I figured the vents on the helmet would help me stay cool. I schnarfed down some Clif Shot Blocks and left the change tent. Ready to go, I walked to my bike, grabbed it, and mounted up my steed. Ready for 116 miles!
I kept it simple early. Immediately taking a Gas-X and a Tums tablet to combat any possible gastro issues, I began hydrating. No problems there. I forced myself to dial it back a bit just to allow more time for T to catch me. You may be wondering why I wanted this. The feeling was it was our 5th wedding anniversary. Wouldn’t you want to spend that with the person you love? So yeah, even on a bike, we could be close to each other!
Riding out of Chattanooga, I felt strong. I don’t remember crossing into Georgia but obviously we did. I was enjoying the ride, but was also a bit jumpy. Every time I heard a siren, I thought about Michelle Fields and her horrible accident at Ironman Boulder. I couldn’t shake the feeling that T could be in trouble too. It’s a heavy thing to ride with and clearly I have demons to battle.
As the ride went on, I focused on food intake and hydration. The good news is I was not dealing with any gastro problems so it made taking in water and Gatorade a lot easier. I vowed to hit every aid station and douse myself with water, drink electrolytes and water.
Eventually, we turned back north towards Chickamagua and special needs. Shortly outside Chickamagua, T caught up to me. I was so happy and relieved to hear her voice that I said something along the lines of “it’s 10 degrees cooler with you here” or something like that. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that it was getting hot. Very hot. And it was quickly taking a toll on me. With T there behind me or in front of me though, I was excited and motivated.
We stopped at bike special needs and saw our friends Jeremy and Melanie. I had a volunteer glob on sunscreen for me and gave her my Chatt wristband for being so awesome. I also ate ½ a bag of Jimmy Johns Salt and Vinegar chips and drank a small bottle of Dr. Pepper. I grabbed my 2nd bottle of Dr. Pepper, threw it in my jersey pocket, and put the chips in my Bento. I ditched the chicken minis as they were no longer tasty. We then continued the slog.
As we turned out for the 2nd loop, I was hurting. The heat was starting to get to me and I slowed down considerably. Also, the shade I had been hoping for wasn’t there. T and I leapfrogged each other for awhile until about mile 73-74, where the aid station was. At this point, I started to get fuzzy. T was at the aid station with me and said I asked for a lot of water, but I don’t remember this. I just remember dumping water on my head and moving on.
The next thing I remember is water being splashed on my face.
I was lying in a ditch. My knee and left shoulder hurt. There were about 5 people around me, including T.
With the help of my fellow athletes, they dragged my haggard, beaten down, defeated carcass to the road along with my bike. With further assistance, T and another female athlete, who was a nurse, got me to a house’s driveway, where there was shade. They sat me down and the nurse took my pulse, which she said was low. I think I asked if that was good, and she said no, it wasn’t. I then remarked how I wanted to keep going but both her and T said no, to wait for EMT’s before I could go. T said she’d stay with me and the nurse left. Bless her.
T and I sat in the shade. She helped me drink water and a bike tech came by. He radioed for EMT’s and told me my race was done. I was devastated and started crying. I had failed my wife, failed myself, failed the community. Yet again, done in by heat and a lack of taking the race seriously. I told T to go on, that I could wait for the EMT’s by myself. I told her to finish her race. She refused, saying that she wanted to spend our anniversary together, however that would be. That made me cry even more, knowing she was sacrificing her day because of my incompetence.
The EMT’s came by and checked my vitals. They gave me water and advised against taking an IV. Not sure why? Anyone have any ideas? One said I could continue if I wanted, but it wouldn’t be a good idea.
And the wait began. Someone from Ironman stopped by to call in the sag wagon for me, as well as numerous Georgia State Troopers. Everyone was very nice to me and sympathetic. Someone said that the athletes were dropping like flies and the temperature had reached 98 degrees. I believed it.
And the wait continued.
Eventually, someone from Ironman in a truck, who I believe was the sweeper, said that he wasn’t sag, but would take us to Chickamagua, where a bus would take us back into town. Riding in his truck, we could hear the radio calls. Athlete done here. Athlete done there. We drove by the previous aid station and saw at least a dozen athletes who were cooked. It broke my heart to see so many people defeated. And to have to count myself amongst them.
At Chickamagua, I gave my bike to a volunteer and T helped me to a bus. The bus driver was this very sweet southern woman who was encouraging and supportive. I was joined on the bus by other athletes whose bodies had betrayed them that day. Some didn’t make the bike cut, others had to call it a day for their own safety. The bus was certainly not happy, but at the same time, it wasn’t unpleasant. Eventually, about 2 ½ hours after crashing, we made our way back to town. On the way back to town, the chatter died down and the mood definitely turned somber. The air hung thick with sadness and disappointment. (I’m crying as I type this)
Back in Chattanooga, we found our way to transition. After a lengthy delay, I was finally given my morning clothes bag with my flip flops. T and I were also determined to find Jeremy and Melanie, so in addition to letting them know we were okay, I could call my parents and tell them what happened. They track me during these events, so they had to know something was amiss.
As T and I were hunting for our friends, we saw our friend Aaron start the run. We were both pulling for him and were so relieved he made the run. I was very sad to hear the finishers being called at the finish line. (again, crying). It’s a sobering thing to realize you won’t be a part of what you set out to do.
Somehow, by pure luck, we found our friends. They hugged us and told us we weren’t failures. I sure felt like one though. I got my phone from Melanie and called my parents. After a lengthy convo, they told me they were proud of me.
Eventually, we made it back to the hotel. I bathed, and I think T did too. We met up with Jeremy and Melanie at the diner for a night of bad food and eating our feelings. T and I, as our final act of the evening, went to transition to retrieve our bikes.
I’m a candid writer and I don’t sugarcoat things. What went wrong that day?
1. 97 degrees for a high, breaking an 80 year old record. I don’t care who you are, that’s hot. I’ve heard from people who train in Florida and the deep south that they thought it was brutal that day. There’s no doubt the heat directly affected me and wrecked my day.
2. Undertrained. There’s no doubt about it. That being said, would a lot of training helped me? I’m not sure.
I learned some amazing things that day though. I’m incredibly blessed to be married to who I am. T willingly gave up her race for me. I know that was not easy for her to do, yet she did it without hesitation. Seriously, I’m blessed.
I’m also blessed to be in the triathlon community. Athletes stopped for me and helped me, giving up precious water to help me. I recently made contact with one of them on Facebook and thanked her for what she did. I’ve also been reassured by a lot of athletes that I’m not a failure. The DNF rate at this race was over 27%, which means that 1 in 4 athletes who started the race that morning had their dream crushed. A couple of our friends were in that group.
So you may be wondering what’s next for me? Truth be told, I’m not sure. A lot of people in my position would be of the mindset of either go balls out and get registered for another IM, or give the sport up at this point. I’m not ready to do either. I do know that I need a break. I don’t want to think about long distance triathlon at the moment. Since 2011, I have been so focused on long-distance triathlon that I have missed out on a lot of things in life. Not only that, but I have lost the love. I didn’t love training this year. I didn’t love Ironman. It became something I needed to do, not something I wanted to do.
I have a career to focus on. As much as I want to do another Ironman, simply put, it will have to wait.