Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Falling Short

This is one of the more difficult posts I've had to write.

Anyone who has read this blog in the last couple of weeks is probably aware that August 2 was the Ironman Boulder and my "A" race for the year. Events took place that caused me not to finish which is regrettable but probably unavoidable.

I am fortunate not to be seriously injured (or injured at all for that matter) and alive and well. Given that this is a disappointment, I'm not inclined to dedicate my usual long post to the event. For a good recap, you should read my brother's blog. He had a great day and I'm sure will have a great race. Here's my abbreviated summary:


Checking in to get race materials (numbers, stickers, swim cap, etc) was pretty easy and we go that done on Thursday though Friday was an option as well. It was a good opportunity to scout out some of the area and then head back to my home in Parker.

Bike and Run Check-In were on Saturday and we arrived at Boulder Reservoir shortly after 10:00 along with throngs of others. Unlike more traditional races, the bike is checked in at one location and the equipment you need for it is kept in a plastic bag outside a change tent. When that was done, we drove most of the bike course just to get a view of it.

Later in the afternoon we dropped off our run gear bags (containing things like fresh socks, running shoes, etc.) and attended a race briefing which pretty much told us what we already knew.

The balance of the day was spent getting a few snacks for the special needs bags, having dinner with my coach and then getting back to the hotel for an early bedtime.

Race day started for me at 2:30 am. I was up, eating a bagel and cream cheese, drinking a bottle of Odwalla smoothie and gathering my remaining gear to bring to the race. Mostly, that was a morning clothing bag in which I brought my swim gear and would deposit what I wore to the race.

It was still quite dark when we dropped our special needs bags at a park just outside of Boulder High School (the site of T2) and still dark after the shuttle transported us to the reservoir.

I found my bike and managed to get my hands on a working pump so that I could re-inflate tires that I had left low the previous day. This was to prevent the tube from exploding while sitting in the hot sun the previous afternoon. I heard that actually happened to someone else.

The biggest event during the set up was news that the reservoir temperature had been taken at 4:00 that morning and was sitting at 78* F. That mean that if you wore a wetsuit, you would not qualify for any Kona slots and you would be in a wave at the back of everyone else. Kona qualifying really was not on the table for me, but swimming at the back sounded especially unappealing so I opted to do the race without the suit.

There's always a lot of waiting, especially when you are the first one on site. That's never fun, but it went by pretty quick and soon I was doffing my covering clothing leaving only my tri shorts on--I put the top in my bike gear bag.

As is becoming the case at many events, the swim start was a self-seeded rolling start. Given that I did not have a wetsuit, I put myself in the in the 1:15 - 1:30 group. This kind of start moves quickly and within 5 minutes of the 6:25am gun, I was in the water splashing and kicking with hundreds of others.

It's no secret that most triathletes are terrible swimmers and they proved that here. While plenty of people passed me, many others were struggling and doing things like breast-stroking and frog-kicking (dangerous) or back-stroking (maybe should have practiced in the open water. Despite this, I was making decent time and I felt great. I could tell I was slower, but then I figured so was everyone else.

After rounding the first buoy (which was utter chaos) the field was heading west. Soon, as I turned my head to the left to breath, I was treated to a spectacular view of the Flatirons as the rising sun was striking them. I've never been in a swim where that was the case. It was really amazing and it was one of the things that helped me just enjoy the day and not worry so much about performance.

Despite being slower, I was exiting the water around 1:23 and I felt good. I walked up the boat ramp and then jogged onto the grass, grabbed my gear bag and entered the change tent. Of course, tents are divided between men and women just as if they were locker rooms.

Unlike any locker room I've been in however, quarters were close. I found an empty folding chair, sat down and proceeded to start pulling on my jersey, socks and bike shoes. I also managed to slather a generous portion of Chamois Budd'r around my crotch and then pull some bike shorts on over my tri shorts. It was kind of slow going but soon enough, I left the tent, dropped my bag (which now contained my googles and swim cap) and ran up to where two volunteers rubbed me down with sunscreen.

I had plenty (maybe too much) water and I made a trip to the port-a-john before grabbing my bike and jogging out of transition. Unlike a short course race, the pace was easy. I carefully mounted the crowded area and was on the bike headed out of the reservoir.

I found my rhythm fairly soon and was moving easily along Highway 36 headed north out of town. It's a climb and it's crowded but I felt good. I was being super careful about drafting having seen officials on the backs of motos multiple times already. I made good time to the first down hill as well as to the turn off at Neva Road now heading east.

It was along here that I was really able to open up in the big ring and pick up some speed as the road sloped gently downward. Turning right onto 63rd Street also provided several opportunities to gain a little speed though there were some rollers as well. I was being diligent about nutrition and taking advantage of the water offered at the first aid station.

At Nelson Road, the course goes left and now you climb. It's not especially steep, but it was long and felt harder after the relatively easy first portion. I struggled a little bit up this and was kind of disappointed to only cross the 20 mile marker after over an hour and five minutes had passed. Fortunately, after turning right and now back on Highway 36, things eased up a lot. Hills were shallower and shorter and downhills were plentiful. I spent more time just cruising down and easing my legs so that they would stay as fresh as possible.

Much as I had recalled at the 70.3 event on the same weekend two years prior, the stretch down Highway 66 was flat to down and also a great place to gain a little speed. After turning right again and now heading south on 75th Street, I approached the small town of Hygiene at a good pace. I slowed as I approached some train tracks at the edge of that town. Despite the fact that they were covered with carpet, I still managed to eject a bottle. I shook that off knowing there would be plenty of replacement water soon.

The rest of the turning and twisting through back roads went fine and though I felt some fatigue and a little concern about pace, I decided I was doing pretty well. In short order, it was time for lap two and I did pretty much everything the same with exception of stopping at special needs around mile 60. I scarfed down a KIND bar and chased it with a bunch of water and probably was only stopped for about three or four minutes. The solid nutrition tasted good after so many gels and concentrated Gatorade and it gave me a little boost as I approached Highway 36 for the last time.

Shortly after passing Hygiene again, I started to feel a little tickle in the back of my throat. It was annoying and I did my best to cough and clear it but it persisted in coming back. I just kept moving and hoping it would pass.

As I cleared the final miles of the second lap, the heat had started to come on. I felt it wafting off the asphalt in places. When I did, I splashed a little water on my head front and back which helped some.

As you complete the second loop, you ride past Jay Road about a mile or so to a place where a bike path actually intersects the shoulder of the Highway 119. It's curves left and then passes under the highway eventually putting you back on the opposite side, now headed east away from Boulder toward Longmont.

The heat persisted and so did that scratchy feeling. Sometimes it abated, other times it became very present but seemed to go away for a while after some cold water and also when I was rolling down hill.

Shortly after making a right turn onto Highway 52, the steepest hill on the course awaits you. This is after over 90 miles so legs are not fresh and the heat of the day is really pressing down. I rode steady and in my lowest gear and was feeling okay. It's steep, but I've done steeper and longer. At one point, I thought I rode over a large pebble and heard it pop away under my tire.Unfortunately, I had flatted. I got off the bike and first tried just adding some CO2 but to no avail.

I pulled the bike off the shoulder and got the bike rim off and the tire pulled part way off. Getting the tube off was no trouble. Getting the new one on was a little difficult and I had to sit down so that I could relax a little bit and focus on what I was doing. Finally, the tire seated back on the edge of the rim and the tube was tucked in just as it should be. I used the same CO2 cartridge and filled it back up to very high pressure. I'm not sure that it was the same 105 to 110 PSI that I had at the start of the day, but the tire was hard enough that I could not depress it with my thumb. I waited for a break in the bike traffic (2800 people registered for this one) and then I was back on my way up the rest of the hill.

I was really tired and spent as I crested it and looking back, I think the heat was having an impact. But I felt good as I cruised down the back side of the hill and okay after turning right onto Highway 287. Not long after that, it was time to turn west and climb again now going the other direction (west) on Lookout Road. There was no jumbo hill here, just a series of three short but pretty steep ones. I was hurting a lot at this point and the tickle was back.

There was an aid station offering snow cones (basically just unflavored shaved ice) and I had a little but could not really enjoy it. I also could hear something rubbing every time I pedaled and by the time  I turned left onto 75th Street, it was bad enough to make me stop. Apparently the back break had been knocked out of adjustment after the tire change so I lost a couple of minutes getting that straightened out. I remounted and continued.

The road heads down hill and now the scratch and tickle started to feel more like my throat was closing. I tried to relax and breath easy as I rolled but apparently the lack of oxygen was also making me dizzy. I knew I needed to get of the bike and rest.

As luck would have it, there was an aid station around the corner on Jay Road so I rolled up, got off my bike and sat down on the shoulder. A volunteer put a cold rag on my back and I just stayed there until moving off the shoulder on the grassy weed on the side of the road and laid down. I was feeling pretty lousy at this point and just hoped it would pass after some rest.

I had been in that position for about 5 minutes when an EMT came by and asked how I was doing. I told him about my symptoms and he noted that my jaw was clenching when I took a deep breath. I finally managed to sit up on a camp chair and he moved the tent over to me.

At this point I was thinking maybe I could make it back to T2 and end up walking most of the run. I took some more deep breaths and they hurt and I started coughing. Right around that time, the EMT asked if he could persuade me to go to the medical tent. He said a couple more paramedics were coming by in an ambulance and would check me out.

I think I knew this was coming, but part of me was still clinging to the idea of staying in the race. The more rational part of my mind knew, however, that if riding was hard, how would I handle running? I had to accept that this was not going to happen. I got in the ambulance.

One of the paramedics in the ambulance lent me his phone and I called my wife to let her know what was up. She and my parents had been tracking me via the Ironman site and saw that I was only 10 minutes behind my brother at the last timing mat but now I was nowhere to be seen. I told her to wait and I'd let her know when I got more information.

The staff at the medical tent were helpful and I saw two other guys so I knew I was not the only one having a bad day. After lying down on a plastic lawn chair, they hooked me up to an IV and to an EKG as well as a pulse oximeter. The EKG machine printed out a chart that was handed to a Physicians Assistant working the tent. I figured it was normal since they always are when I have my annual physical/

Shortly thereafter, however, an MD, an ER doctor who was also the race medical director came and told me about his concerns. The EKG readings along with a family history (my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack when he was in his late forties) gave him pause. He felt that they needed to do some blood testing that could not be done in the tent. He wanted me to be taken to the hospital.

Therefore, about 15 minutes later I was loaded into a transport ambulance (a different one) and taken to the Boulder Community Hospital. It was here that blood was taken as well as a chest x-ray. I was pretty much on an IV the whole time and in the ER treatment room, I was also given an O2 tube for my nostrils.

Keep in mind through all of this, I felt fine. The problems on the bike were behind me though my throat still hurt when I took deep breaths. Nevertheless, healthcare staff are trained to be cautious and they were.

 The initial blood work looked good with the only notable finding was dehydration which was to be expected. The more complex testing would take longer. In the interim, my wife and father-in-law who had been spectating arrived and not long after my parents. I felt a little ridiculous having all these people there because again, I felt fine.

The chest x-ray was normal but the blood test indicated that I had slightly elevated levels of troponin which was not unusual in athletes during exercise but was still cause for concern because it can also be a marker for serious heart issues, in other words, a heart attack.

I knew I had not suffered a heart attack. I had no chest pain nor any of the other classic symptoms. However, the ER doctor at the hospital wanted to have the test run again. If it was trending down, great, I would be sent home. If not, they would want to keep me overnight.

I eventually persuaded my parents to leave and go watch my brother finish. He was having an phenomenal race. I also got my wife and father-in-law to go out to the course and pick up my bike and gear bags.

The hospital admitted me to a short-term stay ward where short-term means hours. I was introduced to a couple of nurses who would attend to me and then I just had to wait until it was time for the second blood test.

Eventually that was done and there were no longer any troponin levels in my blood. I was able to return to my hotel.

I would be a liar if I said I have not experienced some pretty profound feelings of disappointment. I've trained really hard all year and not finishing the race--not even starting the run, is a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Put into perspective, however, this is not a really big deal. People out there are dealing with diagnoses of terminal illnesses, the death of friends and family and a whole host of real problems that will trouble them for years. I'll get over this in a couple of weeks.

For now, I'm going to ease back into some off-season training. My legs are still pretty fresh and I think I was doing pretty well until I had to drop out due to the throat issue. Had that not manifested itself, I think it would have been a very satisfying day.

As for what actually happened, that was and probably always will be a mystery. I have a couple of theories. One is that the high heat caused a spike in ozone levels. It would explain the acute but localized irritation. Another thought is that pollens (which are high right now) affected more than normal. I don't know what grows in greater Boulder that does not also exist in Parker, but who's to say? The most important thing is that the problem does not present again. I'll know in a couple of days when I go for a run.

The obvious question now is will I try again? Barring any actual underlying health issues, absolutely. No, I'm not going to try and find a late season race. That feels too reactive and I want to proactive about racing again.

Doing Boulder again next year is an option but I expect I'll want to take a year off from grueling IM training and focus on shorter course events.  I might change my mind, but right now, I think 2017 will probably be my year and Boulder will probably be my race.

Putting an IM race on the back-burner is not easy. A big part of me wants to try again as soon as possible, but I have to be calm, logical and unemotional about this decision. Right now is certainly not the time to make it.

Now my short post has been quite long. Apparently I had more to say than I realized but putting it all down has been cathartic. I'll have more in time but for now, thanks for reading!

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