Not dead but sort of last

Yesterday I did something that I hadn’t done before in over 10 years of races of various sorts. I failed to finish a race. I’ve been a DNS (Did Not Start) before, for various reasons, but when it comes to starting a race I have always pushed through and finished. I ran the Edinburgh marathon once with an injured knee (not the best plan).  But I’ve never before got part way through a race and quit.

I was a bit nervous before the start of the Castle Howard Triathlon; I was doing the half-iron “Gauntlet” race, and it would only be my third time over the distance. I hadn’t slept well due to noisy fellow guests attending a wedding in the hotel we were staying at. The food in the hotel wasn’t great and I think it must have been really salty because I was also kept awake by thirst, and may have started the race a bit dehydrated. 


The lake before the mayhem started!

The swim was good – the last time I had raced in open water I’d had a bit of a panic due to other people swimming into me. But this time I kept my head (I may even have been the one barging people out of the way at some points). Once or twice I even managed to deliberately swim on someone’s hip in order to draft them. When racing I have a bad habit of not regulating my breathing properly and breathing every two strokes, but by the second lap I’d sorted that out and was breathing properly every three, as I do in the pool. 


Swimming action shot!

I jogged up the hill to transition, stripping my wetsuit off at the bottom of the hill (as advised by our club president and veteran of many, many races) so that the water didn’t get a chance to drain out and make it harder to remove. I didn’t have any trouble in transition, and was soon heading out on the bike.


Getting ready to leave T1


Setting out on the bike leg

The first lap of the bike course went really well. I ate a Clif bar over the first few k, and drank plenty of my SIS drink. I had actually been both hungry and thirsty during the swim, and thought I’d better rectify this. I loved the course – plenty of short, sharp climbs that suited me well and some lovely fast descents. When I came to the end of the first lap at 45k, I was averaging over 17mph which put me well in the frame for a PB. 


Coming up to the end of lap one

At the start of the second lap I thought I had better eat another bar. I had got a Honey Stingers bar, which I’d tried on a training ride and found much easier to eat than the Clif bars (much less chewing involved). So I ate that.

I don’t know if it was the bar not agreeing with me, but by about a third of the way into the second lap I was starting to feel queasy. I do get that a lot in longer races, but not usually until I’m into the run. I’ve never run a marathon without feeling sick later in the race, and at Aberfeldy the first time I did the middle distance I actually threw up 5k into the run. Halfway through the bike was very early for it to start, however, and I wasn’t even feeling tired. 

It got worse. My average speed dropped. I’d pressed the wrong button on my Garmin and had to re-start at the beginning of lap two, so I knew my average speed for the current lap. 16mph, then it dropped even further. 16mph is my usual average speed when I’m riding alone and not pushing it particularly hard, so when I got to 15.7, 15.6 I knew this was bad. I was thirsty but couldn’t stomach my SIS drink, and had already passed the water stations by this point. 

I asked myself some hard questions during the last 10k or so. Could I run off the bike, feeling like that? Probably, yes, a bit. I’d be slow and would probably be sick. Could I run 10k? Maybe. Could I run a half marathon? Not a chance.

I’m not a quitter. I’ve had a lot of tough races. I’ve run through injury and sickness before. Yesterday, I knew I didn’t have a half marathon in me. I wasn’t tired. The swim was less distance than my usual club session, and the bike was on a par with my regular club rides. My legs felt fine. The only bit of me that hurt was my neck, from looking up while riding on the drops! But I felt so ill.

The last 5k of the bike was horrible. I was actually in tears for some of it. It was weird to struggle slowly past points that I’d flown past with glee in my first lap. After what felt like forever I crawled up the final hill and into transition. Racked my bike and burst into tears. A couple of helpful spectators tried to encourage me to eat something and continue, but I knew I couldn’t do it. After a few moments Chris, who had been waiting at the start of the run course and had seen me ride in looking unhappy, came to see me and gave me a big hug over the barrier. 

It took probably an hour before I could eat anything, and even by the evening I still felt slightly queasy.

On a much happier note, all my club mates had good races (some doing the standard distance and one other, the aforementioned president, doing the half), including two podium spots in the vet and supervet categories – well done, ladies!

So, let’s consider the experience in a logical way. I am a teacher, after all. What have I learned?

What went well?

  • I was nervous, but not as terrified as I often am before races!
  • I swam confidently, managed to do some drafting and really got into my stride (stroke?) in the second lap.
  • I rode well during the first 2/3 of the bike leg. I’ve got stronger and stronger on the bike over the last couple of years and all those miles under my wheels are paying off. 
  • Arguably, knowing my own limits well enough to take the decision to retire from the race.

So what went wrong?

Candidates for the cause of my discomfort are:

  • Under-training. I didn’t put in as many hours this year as I have in previous years, due to a promotion at work and having less time and energy. On the other hand, I feel pretty strong and I’ve been completing club rides faster and more easily than ever. I’ve been swimming well and I ran a PB in the Alloa half marathon back in March with hardly any run-specific training. I didn’t feel tired yesterday – I felt unwell. So I don’t think this is the answer, or at least not a large part of it.
  • Lack of sleep. While severe lack of sleep does leave me feeling nauseous, I felt great during the first half of the race so I don’t think this was the reason. Besides, I usually sleep badly the night before a race anyway.
  • Nutrition. I think this is the key. I’ve struggled to get nutrition down on races before – I’ve not been able to stomach gels, for instance, since my last marathon. I started feeling ill a short while after eating the Honey Stingers bar. Whether it was the salty food the night before, starting the race under-hydrated, eating a product I’d only tried once, or eating it too quickly – those are all things I can easily avoid in future.

I don’t think sorting my nutrition out will necessarily be easy. I rarely have a problem in training – it’s only in races I get sick, as a rule. But it’s a problem I’ve had in every marathon and half-ironman I’ve done (except for Aberfeldy last year, which went brilliantly). It needs sorting. 

What am I going to do next?

  • Get back on the horse. I’m doing the bike leg for the Aberfeldy relay in a few weeks, followed by the short course at Aviemore at the end of August. I’m tempted to enter another tri late in the season – probably a standard – so I can do a race where I know I can race hard and finish strongly. 
  • Experiment with real food. Maybe I didn’t even need that second bar. Maybe I should try some savoury foods as well. I’ve got the Feed Zone Portables cookbook and I’m going to try some of the recipes in that. 

Yes, I could have changed my entry to the shorter distance beforehand. I could have eaten a different bar. Or no second bar. I could have stayed in a different hotel and eaten different food the night before. But you know what? I’m philosophical about it. There were some good points and some lessons learned. I don’t mind having the odd bad day as long as I learn from it. 

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