Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sleep Disorder Disaster: Ironman 70.3 Clearwater

Saturday, November 14, 2009, began like most of my races this year -- with very little (this time, actually, no) sleep. It was 3:17 a.m., the morning of the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida, and my anxiety had gotten the best of me. Since I started racing in 2008 after four years off, I had not regained the ability to relax and sleep the night before a race. The damage was done, and I resorted to prayer: God, give me the strength to deal with the sleep fallout when (and if) it comes.

I had already arrived in Clearwater in classic "disaster magnet" style as Hurricane Ida blew over the gulf coast of Florida and left more than just high surf in her wake -- the strong winds were accompanied by temperatures in the low 50s on Thursday. By Friday morning, race officials had moved the swim to the harbor side of Clearwater Beach. Very little space in the harbor marina would also dictate age-group athletes switch to a time-trial start. Ok, good. In fact - great! Time trial starts take some of the pressure off and make it easier to swim, bike, and run my own race. Although my lack of sleep might indicate I felt differently.

Sometime around 7:10, I set out on my 70.3 mile journey -- for once without fear of being battered by other swimmers. In the confusion of not knowing how to start a swim race by jumping feet-first into the water, I forgot to start my watch and had to stop once to take care of that. I then proceeded to take an extra tour of the harbor because I couldn't spot the buoys looking directly into the sun. When I swam into a kayaker, he pointed me in the right direction (I still have no idea how I got that far away that fast). I sprinted for the turn buoy, after which the rest of the 1.2-mile swim went, well, swimmingly! I exited the water in just under 30 minutes, disappointed it wasn't closer to my goal time of 26-28 minutes.

The third swim-leg slowdown came when one of the wet-suit peelers mistook my wetsuit top for a lost item, picked it up and walked away with it. I can't help but laugh thinking about running him down maniacally screaming and waving "that's my top!!!" But despite all the mishaps, I still crossed the transition in 30:05.

The swim-to-bike transition consisted of long rows of transition bags on the way into the change tent. And because entropy rules in the transition zone, my husband Jim bought me two ribbon decorations to put on my bags so I could find them quickly. It was a genius idea -- I spotted my bag instantly. Aside: before the race, a UK athlete told me that our "genius idea" results in disqualification in many European triathlons. I was never so happy to be in the good ol' US of A!

The first transition went more smoothly for me than in the past for a large race. Coming out of the tent, I had no problem finding my bike and running with it to the mount point. Even getting into my bike shoes -- pre-clipped to the pedals -- went much quicker than ever before.

In Clearwater, the 56-mile bike course is blisteringly fast... at least I READ that it was, and I HEARD that it was, and during it, I also THOUGHT that it was. In effect, I turned in one of the slower bike times overall, and yet, it was my fastest bike time ever for the distance. Fueling on the bike did not go exactly as planned. Even though I followed my usual regime of 250 calories/hour, nausea set in after about an hour and I had to cut back a bit on food. This may have deprived me of the additional electrolytes mixed in my food bottle. I grabbed Gatorade to try and make up the difference and at least managed to drink as planned: 2.5 bottles in 2.5 hours.

The bike-to-run had the same layout as the swim-to-bike transition. My time was slow due to a sock disaster -- of course, as soon as I decided to wear socks, one of my socks went AWOL in the transition bag. I considered wearing only one sock, but my OCD kicked in -- I was not mentally prepared for an asymmetrically-dressed run.

My run start felt no different than in my last 70.3, a little wobbly but not completely spent. I think I made a huge mistake by not taking a my electrolyte capsules upon leaving the transition zone. It may have been because the water table was on the way INTO and not OUT of transition -- but still, it was an oversight on my part.

In Clearwater, the 13.1-mile run is very challenging. It's a double loop that goes over the harbor bridge four times -- twice out and twice back. My goal was to be under 1:30. (In retrospect, I would have settled for 1:30:01.) Thus, after a 7:03 first mile, I had to pick up my pace as I approached the bridge. By mile three (6:17), I felt unusually fatigued with slight nausea and now some intestinal cramping. So..., THIS was the point at which my lack of sleep would rear its ugly head. I should have known -- my digestive system always pays the price when I don't sleep, and nothing can shake up a gastrointestinal system quite like running.

I had 10 miles to figure out what to do -- walk? slow down? drop out? 1:30 now vanished from my thoughts as a new one took over: I needed a portajohn and I needed one NOW. But I also needed to combat the fatigue. I slowed my pace to calm the cramps and started downing Gu Chomps, two per water stop (every mile). Around mile six, I took the desperation bathroom break, which helped very little and slowed my mile time to nine minutes. I saw Jim at the turn-around and told him what was going on -- he told me not to worry and to stop again if I needed to.

Starting the second loop, I knew my race was now in the toilet (literally). But around mile eight, the Gu kicked in and now the most unfortunate thing was that when I wasn't doubled over with cramps and nausea, I was flying. I would pass many of the women who gave me the slip during my emergency relief stop, only to be re-passed when I got dry-heaves. This was the most frustrating thing. I was forced to settle into a comfortable shuffle, walking water stops only, grabbing Gatorade and water each time because the day had gotten quite hot (high 70s). In the last mile, I pushed as hard as I could -- probably more from desperation -- and my first words across the finish line were: "where's the portajohn?!?" barely stopping to collect my medal (which is very nice, btw) and the complimentary towel and finisher hat. I ran right through the guy at the medical tent on my way to that big blue plastic cylindrical answer to heaven. It was finally over -- although my intestinal issues would last well past the finish line. We didn't hang around the finish too long, as I spent most of the time looking at the inside of several toilet stalls along the beach and I wasn't able to eat much of anything until later that evening.

My time? 4:47:08. My place? 15th in my age group. Not bad. Not great. I still celebrated by going to Disney World the next day.

My 2009 triathlon season is, thankfully, over. By the time I got to Clearwater, my motivation was at a low for this year, and I was beginning to dread the starting line. So, including motivation, I have quite a bit to work on for next season. Learning to sleep the night before a race is now a big priority. Regaining my run speed is also on the list -- perhaps a spring marathon is in the cards. I'll also be working with different fueling regimes because none of what I did this year worked perfectly. 2010 will be a year of new techniques and refinement -- and a new age group. But for now, I'm taking a rest.

(Photos by Jim DeBonis)