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Not Yet On the Podium: Managing A Race That Was Not Meant To Be

July 22, 2014


Earl-PainPain, ache, discomfort, irritation, distress, soreness. Disappointment, displeasure, disenchantment, frustration, regret.

I trained 13 months for my most recent Ironman race. It was a great first 8 months:  I was down from 197 to 166 pounds;  my climbing on the bike was comfortable; I ran a 5K race averaging 7:45 per mile. I was cruising and setting myself up for a great race.

I lost my focus. Foreshadow some pain…

December came with a vacation in Aruba. Christmas and New Year’s with family in Michigan and the associated party, food, and not-nutritive caloric intake. Training all of a sudden took a back seat to my life. I missed workouts midweek. I got lazy. Foreshadow some pain…

It is a bizarre feeling to know that you are about to experience a great deal of pain. I had many opportunities to prevent it from happening: I could have put a hold on the race, or put it off for another year. I didn’t.

You can’t race Ironman without the requisite uber-focus. I didn’t have it. I consumed some V8 juice during the race, but mistakenly bought “spicy” rather than regular. (What a surprise at the 56-mile point on bike.) I forgot to check my brakes (rubbing until mile 25 on the bike). I was late into the water (gun had gone off and I was not in yet) and swam in a pack with no clear water for 2.4 miles. I finished the swim 15 minutes behind schedule. Begin mental pain.

There is something to be said for those of us who know there is a pile of pain coming and push through. Sure, I have three full IMs under my belt and never a DNF; but when I realized what was happening, believe me, it took every ounce of mental fortitude I have ever mustered to finish.

Pain, ache, discomfort, irritation, distress, soreness. I’ll leave the swim alone for now, it was a rookie error. (Get your wetsuit on early and get in the water.) The real pain started at mile 20 in my lower back and hamstring. Could not understand why I was going 17 mph and not 20 mph on the bike. I finally began to do non-fitness-based triage and began inspecting bike. I looked down and saw BOTH breaks rubbing. Quick actions flipped them open, increased quickly to 20 comfortably – but it was too late, and I knew it. Luckily the pain went away for a while after the brake rubbing was fixed, and I just had a dull ache leading to the IM normal discomfort. It progressed to mile 80, where I could not think of anything other than just getting off the bike. The thought of running a marathon, even though it violated my mantra of Faith, Pace, Focus, Strength (I should have been focusing on the bike), was almost too much to bear. Isn’t it remarkable how mental distress can enhance pain? Seeing my girlfriend and my family at mile 100 was a short, welcome, and fleeting consolation. I knew soreness would be the order of the day on the run (as well as the following few days). All I could think of was getting off the bike. I finally finished at slightly less than 7 hours, 45 minutes slower than scheduled.

Disappointment, displeasure, disenchantment, frustration, regret. I was now an hour behind my planned time. It is hard not to let the disappointment run rampant, but I trudged along running 10:45s as if on schedule. The first three miles were great, next two curious, next three challenging, and then the not-so-surprising “uh-oh” and I was done at mile 14. I walked the last 12 miles with the worst pain on the planet. The kind of pain that no amount of Advil will cure. I was not going to PR. I was not going to revel in 13 months of great training (more or less). I was, at this particular point, not sure I was going to finish. Calves cramping, quads screaming, hips giving out and all I could do was walk. My family was very supportive, as was my soon-to-be fiancée, Laura. Luckily I had her to walk the last 12 miles with me, as well as my teammate Anthony Fleming, who ran into similar challenges at mile 14. Ironic, but welcome, company.

I could barely feel my heels from the blisters. We varied from intense conversations about how to handle the displeasure of a bad race and the long way to go, the disenchantment of a race which seems so amazing prior to the start and the frustration of having your body fail you after you thought you prepared it. Anthony and I compared notes of missed weekday workouts and the regret we had for blowing off training days. It is hard to see the cumulative effect of all the missed days, even if they are not so many. By this time we knew we were going to finish the race, so a first DNF was not a possibility. Perhaps that gave us some solace. We considered trying to start running, but came to the conclusion that we were not sure we could; walking was pretty painful as it was, and what if those cramps that we were barely holding at bay overtook us and prevented us from finishing? That would be too much to bear. So, walk we did. Seeing so many family members and good friends on the course kept me going. Period. I had a huge support network.

How will I handle this emotional pain? How can I push through the physical pain? How mortifying would a first DNF be? Pain, ache, discomfort, irritation, distress, soreness. Disappointment, displeasure, disenchantment, frustration, regret. All of these feelings and emotions streamed through my brain. Perhaps I knew, subconsciously, after the gun went off and I was not yet in the water, that the day was sunk. Rookie mistake, and I am no rookie; get in the water and wait. Perhaps I knew after the brakes on my bike were rubbing for 20+ miles that my marathon was sunk. Rookie mistake; ALWAYS do a quick check on the bike in transition. Perhaps I should have kept running and not walked with my girlfriend and teammate, and MAYBE would have had a PR. But I’ll say without hesitation that walking with them was what got me through. I could not bear to have a DNF in my racing, so that one I’ll take.

Have pain? Visit the Endurance Athlete Center

Have pain? Visit the Endurance Athlete Center

I don’t care how I feel. I don’t care how much I hurt. I will not DNF. Whatever it took to not DNF, it allowed me to push through the incredible disappointment of a serious IM bonk and the very painful physical aspect of Ironman. What did I learn?

  • Get in the water.
  • Check your brakes.
  • Have a support team. The bigger the better.

Never again, I said. No more Ironman. I have finished three. Never again. I am still saying this one month later. No more. Maybe a half Iron. Definitely more triathlon. But I am done with Ironman…for now.

I am still, Not Yet on the podium.

This article was authored by Earl Furfine






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