I did not finish Ironman Canada. As Lisa Smith-Batchen says “I DMB” I did my best.
I’d like to say I’m sad but I strangely am not. My overwhelming feeling is thank God it is all over because I’m tired, so very, very tired. Not about Ironman, about my year. I’m more mentally tired than physically tired. Ironman was to be my punctuation point for the end of The Year of the Suck (TYOTS). When I think about this year, tears come to my eyes, when I think about not finishing Ironman I really don’t have much emotion. I am just done. I don’t give up, I give in. I surrender. I have been fighting, fighting, fighting for so long, I just don’t have another ounce to give.
Ironman training was a vehicle for me to cope with TYOTS. By focusing on training and that challenge I didn’t have to focus on my own medical problems and my family woes. Ironman was a long shot but it was also a life line. For getting me through the year, I am grateful for Ironman.
The huge irony for me about the race was that all of the demons that I thought would get me, nerves, weakness, stomach issues, fatigue, heat – none of those happened. I got sneak attacked by cramps. Not just little cramps, huge seizure-like cramps that literally kicked me off my bike. But like all good stories I should start at the beginning so you get your money’s worth.
On Thursday, my flight into Kelowna went over the Rockies. I was blown away by the sight. majestic didn’t begin to describe the mountain range. I was getting excited. This really was going to be a get-away destination race and everything was going so smoothly.
The drive from the airport to my condo was nothing short of jaw dropping. I drove one hour mostly following Okanagan Lake from Kelowna to Penticton. It is most impressive and impossible to describe.
The condo turned out to be exactly as described (maybe a little better). Two bedrooms, two baths and a 15 minute walk to the race start (my walk pace). Simple but clean and bright and nice balcony for sitting out and nice little backyard. Nothing spectacular but extremely comfortable and cheery and moderately priced for the week. My teammate Peter showed up a little after me and we set about getting some groceries and getting to know town a little. (Peter had been here before so he knew his way around already which turned out to be very helpful.)
Friday morning we did a test swim in the water. Although I had been doing a lot of swimming lately, I had not done an open water swim since Rhode Island. I wanted to get my face into the dark water and remind myself how that felt. I was shocked when we got down to the beach. First – it was freezing cold. Second the water was so clear you could see the bottom with no problem. Wow, I was not expecting that. We talked about the race course with a couple of people. For the first time, I was not intimidated by the distance. Was that because Okanagan Lake was so huge and we were only swimming in a tiny corner of it? Versus Mirror Lake where you see you are swimming the entire length? Interesting…
I got into the water and pretty quickly had an asthma attack. I couldn’t breathe, I was gasping for air and then coughing. I have to say that although I get asthma attacks they are so infrequent that I rarely bother with my inhaler. After my Colorado nightmare, I had inhalers tucked in every corner of my suitcase. For the race I would take a hit off my inhaler and see if that helped. I only got in about 10 minutes on my practice swim and it wasn’t encouraging.
Saturday morning was check in. I wanted to be done by noon so I could put my feet up. I stopped by the expo to pick up a few things and they had a massage tent set up with ART massage therapists. I asked them how long to see someone and they took me immediately. I explained to the guy that my calves are really tight and I can feel something pulling in them. I had been stretching every day and slathering Tiger Balm all over every night but they seemed to be getting tighter and not looser.
The guy worked on my legs for about 15 minutes. Fairly gently because the race was the next day. He said he didn’t want to cause any pain beyond a 5. Nice and easy. It wasn’t painful at all. But he agreed – “your calves are made of steel.” I told him I knew and I hadn’t been able to get them relaxed no matter what. He suggested I needed to do a foam roller. I didn’t think that was smart to do the night before the race.
That night my calves cramped and I had a hamstring seize while I was in bed. I slathered more tiger balm and stretched stretched stretched. The more I tried to stretch the tighter I seemed to get. I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually everything settled down and I got a decent night’s sleep.
Race morning I felt okay. I was very organized. Ate a big breakfast. No stomach problems. Woo hoo. No stomach problems. Took a banana and Infit with me to the start would be at 800 calories when I finished them. Nice.
I was set up in transition in no time. I had a great spot for my bike – right next to the bike mechanic who pumped my tires for me and the water station where I filled my bottles. I took three shots from my inhaler. Saw my hands shaking right away. Was okay, just knew to let it pass. Struggled into my wetsuit which felt tighter despite having dropped a few pounds in the last couple of weeks.
The strange thing about IM Canada is the race start. The beach is very wide and they let you approach from any which way you like. The lines of buoys dissect the center of the beach so some people choose to start far to the left and swim a straight line to turnaround, other people choose to start far to the right (I cannot understand that one). I didn’t really know where to start so I just looked at the buoys and said “well why not start right in front of them and swim straight for them?” Then they reminded us to seed ourselves and I realized that perhaps the front row was not that smart and I backed off toward the shoreline and let more people in front of me. I would just watch how it played out.
I got swam over a little bit but really for the most part it was fine. It only took about 3 minutes for the people who were going to pass me to pass me and then it was pretty much smooth sailing. I think next time I should just start up front and save the couple of minutes. People are going to swim past me either way, at least if I start up front I have those couple of minutes ahead.
There were 27 buoys. They numbered them which was fantastic. I wish all races would do that. I zig zagged getting to the first buoy and declared I would have none of that this race and really concentrated on pointing toward my target and following my hand. By the second buoy I was on target. 3rd, 4th, 5th, I was in a groove. It was true!! I actually could swim straight!! Woo hoo. More than that I could breathe. Wow, it was a miracle. None of the tight chest from the day before. Tons of air getting into my lungs. Wow, go figure, that inhaler the doctor prescribed actually works. I wonder if I should use it more often.
I got to the 1 mile point (1600 meters on the map) at 42 minutes. That was about 4 minutes of my good pool time swim and only 2 minutes off my bad pool time. Considering the mass start and my conservative start I was okay with that. The water was beautiful. The mountains were beautiful. I was filled with an abundance of gratitude. I started singing the song “I am Superwoman” song by Alicia Keys. Thank you, thank you to everyone praying for me. I could feel all the good vibes.
The turn around was ~1/2 mile. Seemed to be no problem. I turned the corner and for some reason decided to breast stroke for a second and get my bearings. Immediately both of my calves seized up. I was vertical trying to tread water and my legs were cramping under me so I couldn’t kick them. I became quickly alarmed. I was about 10 feet from the large boat that was acting as the turn around buoy. I felt myself start to go under. I was just about to start flailing my arms when a little voice spoke in my head. “go horizontal.” So I leaned forward and got my legs back up to the surface and they calmed down. I was able to breathe. Whew, emergency diverted, but I was aware that something was not right.
I continued the swim with a relaxed knees. That seemed the only way to keep my calves from cramping. Relaxed knees made it hard for me to drive my arms and turn my body. So I did a kind of alternating, straight body until calves cramped then limp body till they relaxed. Just keep your arms moving. I was extremely proud of myself for figuring it out and I was still swimming straight and I was really catching the water the best I have ever done. I thought I was doing great.
I had been warned about the swim exit. It gets shallow very quickly and stays shallow for quite a way. Don’t fall for it, continue to swim as much as you can to the shore. It is too taxing to stand up and slog through the water. I swam until the water was about 3 feet deep but I still had about 50 meters to get to the shore and I had to walk over the rocks.. It was very difficult to get a good footing. I thought that was very strange, why not make us exit over there where the water was deeper and sandy bottomed?
No worries I got out and saw my watch said 1:48. I was disappointed but I totally understood – iffy start, cramping calves, rocky exit. It probably would have been a 1:40 otherwise. Not as fast as Lake Placid but I was fine with it. Wet suit strippers great. Helped me down, helped me up. Super positive and nice.
The volunteers at Canada are so above and beyond it is incredible. Not only did I not have to find someone to help me. They got my bags and handed it off to a helper who literally took me by the hand and said follow me into the tent. She got me to a nice spot and dumped out all my stuff. To my horror my bike glasses were broken. Broken, broken. Non-fixable. I had put one pair in my run bag, one pair in my bike bag and I still had another pair in my morning clothes bag. I told her if I could get to my run bag I would have a pair in there. She said she would go get it. While I finished getting dressed she ran and got my bag. How awesome was that? Inside was another pair of my favorite glasses. I was good to go. Only took an extra couple of minutes but was totally worth it to be able to have sun protection. I was out in 7:59 – I think it would have been about 4-5 otherwise.
As I started out on the bike route I heard the guy on the PA system announce that Sister Madonna Buder was pulling out of the race due to wetsuit problems. I was very disappointed and sad. I think a cloud passed over the sun right at that moment and everyone let out a collective moan. My fantasy of running or biking with Sister Madonna was over.
Bike started out a little slow. I told myself to just try to spin, spin to get my legs warmed up and moving. My bike felt strange. I couldn’t get full extension on my legs. Was it my imagination? I saw a bike support vehicle and waved them down. They raised my seat ½ inch. Felt much, much better. How could that have happened? All I could think is somehow in tribike transport they had to lower my seat or something? It didn’t make sense. Didn’t take more than a couple of minutes and was worth it. (I had tested my bike the day before but was distracted by my loose cleats so I worried about those and not my seat height).
So far so good. First big hill was a struggle but after that it was flat, flat, flat. I started to gain time. I was feeling pretty good but I was aware that I was trying to pedal lightly so I wouldn’t really hammer on my calves. I think I ended up transferring more of the workload to my quads and hamstrings. This was the most gorgeous bike course I have ever seen and I was savoring all of it.
At mile 28 I was feeling okay. I remember looking at my watch and seeing 1:35 for 28 miles. I knew that was not a fair number to translate forward because the first 28 was mostly just flat. But I was very optimistic that I could maintain it. I was warning myself that an 8 hour bike was probable but if I just kept focused all would be good in the end.
To celebrate at mile 28 I treated myself to one of my boiled potatoes with salt. Oh my God, I do not think I have every tasted anything so good in my life. I had used boiled potatoes on training rides and runs but this was my first time in a race. It was the best thing EVER!! Bananas and Potatoes, two foods I knew I could keep down in a pinch.
The scenery became got more and more incredible. I started to feel tightness in my quads. Then I felt a pinch in my calf. They all went away. Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling. I was aware I was slowing down a bit but maintaining high cadence to try to loosen up my legs.
There was one hill before Richter pass and that’s when I really started to feel the beginning of cramping in my legs.
I finally hit Richter pass and it was hard. Up until this point I thought IM Canada bike was significantly easier than Lake Placid. I had already done more flat riding in the first 40 than Lake Placid had at all. But the climb up Richter pass was pretty hard – nothing like this in Placid.
I did not have the same legs that I did when I did my ride in Litchfield. I was struggling. Richter pass is not undoable by a long shot. It’s long and it is steep but it has sections that flatten out so you can get a rest. I realized that if I was only going 4.5 mph and Richter pass was miles, that added up to trouble. I just kept moving forward. I felt the stress in my legs. They were getting tighter. I was trying to save my legs but I needed some muscle from somewhere to work.
I wanted to stop and take a breather (I saw two different people doing just that). But something told me if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start again. My legs were barely moving and I knew there was something not right.
As I neared the top of Richter pass there was someone waving to me. Willing me up to the top. I let her. I needed her. I wanted to stop so badly but I could see the top and I commanded myself to get to her. Go, go, go (always avoiding the negative ‘don’t stop’ which is a death sentence.) I refused to stop. I absolutely refuse to stop even if this kills me, this is how I choose to go, right here pedaling up Richter to get to the final top. It’s me or this hill. Period.
As I was getting near the top she ran down to me and started to run next to me as I was trying to crest. ‘I was here at the first Ironman in 1983. I was one of 23 people who started and the only woman to finish.’ I was impressed. What’s your name? I asked? She told me her name was Diane Lynch. She was in phenomenal shape. ‘you can do this, she was telling me.’ All of a sudden it became a huge confessional. I started to blurt out all the reasons I wanted to finish this race that it meant so much to me to put an end to this terrible year and she ran ahead and told the guy with the megaphone my story (yes she was running faster than I could bike up the last leg of Richter pass). The guy at the top started yelling my name through his pa system … ‘you are amazing! Yelling my name over and over again.” I heard him still yelling my name as I started the descent down. It took a lot out of me but damn it, I didn’t stop and I made it up. (on another day that would not seem like such an incredible feat but on that day it was all I had and more.) I knew I had asked more of my legs than they had.
The descent in Similkameen valley is more than I can describe. It is like entering a painting. It literally takes your breath away. There is no way to not feel lucky to be alive. It is also where the seven sisters live. The seven sisters are the rolling hills after Richter pass. The seven sisters are what finally did me in.
Ironically I had planned to make my “move” on the seven sisters. They were rolling hills but my kind of hills, a big downhill before a big uphill. I planned to make use of my momentum skills and just fly through them. Not so fast. First I felt my left quad give out and cramp. I tried to lighten up the pedaling and just finish up the hill. It was painful. This will pass, this will pass I kept saying to myself.
Then on the next hill my right quad gave out. Same thing. Violent spasm and cramp. It had jumped from my left quad to my right quad. Searing pain. Oh my God. What the heck is happening? I have never had such a thing happen. Keep pedaling. Easiest gear you can find even if it flat, it will work its way out. This will pass, I repeated.
I don’t remember exactly which hill it was but as I was approaching the top my entire right leg seized up. I was starting to fall over. I was panicking. By some miracle I managed to upright my bike and unclip my left leg. I looked down at my right quad, it was all bunched up like I was doing a leg press. I got scared. Oh my God. It’s seizing, what do I do? I couldn’t move the leg. I couldn’t get my leg over my bike seat to get out. All I could do was let the bike fall to the ground and I gingerly stepped out. I stood there stunned for a moment. Did I really almost just fall off my bike? My leg would not stop seizing. I was scared.
I picked up the bike and started walking. Almost immediately it started to calm down. Okay, okay, be calm, we’ll just walk. Don’t panic, it will be okay. I took some more electrolytes even though I had just taken 2 a few minutes earlier.
Soon everything seemed calm down enough and I was able to get back on my bike. It’s okay, you’re fine. Breathe. I started to pedal. It’s fine. As soon as I hit a hill – bam, now it was my inside thigh muscle seizing. I can’t even say cramping – it was beyond cramping. I would get to a down hill and spin easy, easy and as soon as I hit any hill it would cramp and seize. It bounced around between my two quads and my two inner thighs.
That’s when I started to understand that if the cramping didn’t stop I might not make the cutoff. Should I quit? What should I do? My mind was very clear. You will not quit. This will pass. You will get more salt. I had put salt into my drink I had been eating salted potatoes. I had been taking enduralytes. I was only at mile 75 for goodness sakes, why would I be cramping after only 75 miles? I flashed back to the previous night when I was cramping in bed. There is something else wrong, it is not salt. It is not electrolytes. It was something else, not sure what.
Somehow I made it through the seven sisters with nearly the last of everyone passing me. The road flattened out and I was able to do about 12 mph as long as I kept it in an easy gear. I made the turn for the out and back. Oh God, another little hill. I made it up the hill and both legs seized at the same time. I rode into the fence and held on to the fence and managed to unclip. I couldn’t even drop the bike. I just leaned over the aerobars and started to pray, just let them relax, just let them relax. A support person came over and asked me if I needed help. I need salt. I told her. (Not true in retrospect but what else could it be?) What time is the cutoff? Yellow Lake at 4:30. What time is it now? 2:30. How far is Yellow Lake? I’m not sure but I can go ask. Please. I hung over my bike and thought what do I do? What do I do? How far can you make it in 2 hours like this? If she comes back and says 20 miles you go for it. If she says 30 forget it, you won’t make it. She comes back and says 24. Argghhh. I have to try, I have to go for it. That’s 24 miles including the climb to Yellow Lake. If the cramping goes away I can do it. Have to try so I took off down the out and back. Ironically waiting that minute for her to come back may have sealed my fate.
It was going to hurt. I went down a hill I was sure I didn’t want to climb up. All of a sudden a SAG wagon was riding next to me. How are you doing? I’m cramping. You have 9 minutes to make it to the turnaround at mile 75. How far away is that? About 6k. I coulnd’t convert to miles and had to ask how far in miles. 3 or 4 miles. 3 or 4 miles in 9 minutes? Let’s see Central park in 18 minutes? I can do it if I give it absolutely everything I have. I must make this cutoff. I have to try or die trying. I took off giving it everything I had. When I got to the turn around the van was there crossed in front of the turn around and the SAG guy standing there with his hands out to stop. I’m sorry, you didn’t make it. I didn’t? How far am I off? 3 minutes he says? Really? It didn’t feel like 9 minutes had passed but I think he had been really saying that I had to beat him there and I didn’t.
I was strangely not upset. I laid down my sword. I think I knew it was not a matter of if I was going to miss the cutoff, it was just a matter of when. I had hoped that I could finish the ride even if I missed the run. I was really shocked more than anything. 3 minutes? Really? But there was no arguing, I knew the truth, my legs were unable to move never mind finish out the rest of the bike including more hills and the difficult climb to Yellow Lake. “I’ll need your timing chip please.” That was the hardest part for me. I felt like a failure as I handed over my chip. He wrote down my name and race number. I stopped my watch. 8 hours and 16 minutes into the race. 2.4 miles swim, 75 miles on the bike and my day was over. (I later joke with Peter that his Ironman took him 12 hours and my only took me 8).
The SAG wagon ride back seemed okay. There were five of us in the van and another van behind us. A couple of gals in tears, one gal who apparently does Ironman twice a year so it was not the end of the world, another guy for whom this was his first triathlon but was an experienced endurance racer and kind of shrugged it off as his first attempt. I was in strangely good spirits. How strange? Why was I not more upset?
My legs kept seizing up in the van and they had to stop to get ice to put on my legs. I was apologetic. I didn’t understand why my legs were behaving like this but I was sure it would go away. I kept muttering that it was only 75 miles, 75 miles was nothing. They asked me if I wanted to be taken to the medical tent. I knew the only way there was via ambulance and the only way into the park was on foot. I took on foot and walked the one block back to transition. Once I was walking it seemed okay.
One of the volunteers back at the special needs was super nice and got me some more ice and helped me get some food and water. She sat with me under the tree for a good half an hour while I kept ice on both of my legs. Turns out she has terminal cancer and given only 3 years to live (tops) and has already survived another kind of cancer. She can’t get medical coverage now and has a 17 year old daughter she cares for. Here she was volunteering at Ironman and helping me. If that was not a message I don’t know what is.
I know that doing something like Ironman is most certainly a choice and a problem of the privileged. Who am I to complain about some like this when there are bigger problems in the world? More important I had to recognize that even sitting under that tree, icing my muscles I was still lucky beyond belief. I was healthy enough to sit there. Granted I was confused as to why this was happening to me but I understood that in a way I was still fortunate, still lucky. When I asked the volunteer her name, she pulled back her jacket to show me her name tag “Supreme Goddess,” I had to laugh. Yes you are.
For some reason the line from Chrissy Evert kept popping in my head, something about the ability to accept defeat with the same grace as you accept victory. I was trying.
I finally got up and started to move around. I seemed good enough. I got my gear all packed up and shipped back and moved to the finish to watch my teammate come in. He looked great and happy and finished very strong. Everyone was cheering and screaming for the athletes. I thought I would be inspired as I was back in 2004 when I first witnessed Ironman, when I thought I just had to do this most amazing feat. Strangely, no, I did not feel that way. I did not feel I had to run to sign up again. I did not feel like I had to do anything but smile and applauded them all for their great effort. I would, however, consider volunteering.
The only thing that made me cry was feeling like I let everyone down. So many people rooting for me and cheering for me. I felt like people had invested time in coaching and standing by me and suffering through this year with me and I couldn’t give them the satisfaction of being happy for me. I wanted the big victory moment. Instead, now I knew they would all feel sad for me and I didn’t want that either. I wanted everyone to be as ready as I was to move on to a new chapter. To whatever that may be.
Today, the next day, my legs feel like someone has physically been beating them. I fully expect to look down and see them black and blue. They are tender to the touch. I feel lingering spasms.
I had read an email on a support group about someone finding out that her muscle cramps had been caused by calcium problems. It struck a chord with me and I thought I would do a little research. The reason I did not suspect sodium was because I had made sure to take extra salt the day before, it was not hot out (perfect low 70’s), I was cramping the night before (before I even started racing) and during the swim (less than an hour into the race). I had been hydrating with Nuun electrolyte water the day before and had been taking enduralytes during the race (6 tablets by 75 miles). I didn’t think it was salt or electrolytes. I also didn’t think it was potassium because I had eaten about six bananas already in the two days before the race and one right before the swim. But calcium, I had not been taking my calcium…
During my surgery to remove my thyroid one very important part of the surgery was to transplant my parathyroid glands back. Your parathyroid glands control how your calcium is distributed through your body (or something like that I can’t remember). I just know it was a very big deal that two of my four glands were successfully transplanted which meant very good things for my long-term health but I had to be very careful and look for signs of tingling in my extremities which would mean my calcium levels were too low. At each of my blood tests my calcium levels were just fine so I stopped worrying about my calcium as much as my iron and d. I would take them when I was at home but I had been traveling up to CT for two weeks before the race and I did not have them with me and I didn’t even think about them.
I did a little googling and sure enough calcium deficiency can most certainly cause this kind of cramping. I’m not saying this is the cause but something about it is certainly ringing true here. I think because I regularly take my calcium and my calcium levels had been fine I had not had this happen before, but maybe the stress and anxiety over the last couple of weeks while getting ready for Ironman coupled with not taking them may have left me in some kind of depleted state. I also found from Dr. Google that the most common source of nighttime leg cramping is calcium deficiency. All the pointers looked in the same direction. This was a new symptom for me and I hadn’t been trained to look for it.
I feel bad about this major error on my part. Every time I go to the doctor they look at my blood tests for calcium and ask if I’m taking my pills and I say yes and everything seems okay. Although I had planned for every possible problem to arise during Ironman, I missed something small yet huge. I can’t be 100% sure but I have a strong suspicious feeling that this is what may have happened.
Nothing else really makes sense to me. I ride 75 miles all the time. I cramp often when I swim but I rarely or never cramp at night just lying in bed. This may all be one just one more piece of the ever evolving puzzle of me.
I will be okay. I will move on. Right now I will rest.
I will be taking a couple of weeks off to meditate. I am going back to Kripalu. I need to reset. I will be back with new goals. Softer goals. More charity work. Think of helping others for awhile.
I went online to Ironman Canada and saw they were still accepting applications. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe I am supposed to come back and do it next year. I thought of Sister Madonna and how she goes back again and again, sometimes making it, sometimes not. I decided to wait another year. Maybe I will come back in 2012 but not 2011. Maybe I’ll come back in 2011 for the wine festival and do a training weekend. Or maybe just come for the wine festival….