Sunday, August 15, 2010

Disaster Recovery Part 2: Figuring Out the Dehydration

It's been three weeks since I crashed and burned at Ironman Lake Placid. The crash: with six miles to go in the best race of my life, I lost all my cookies (read: fluids) at an aid station, then stumbled one more mile to collapse from severe dehydration at the next aid station. The biggest questions in my mind are still there: Why was there no obvious warning? and why did I seemingly have no chance for recovery?

I've been analyzing what happened over and over in my head since the moment I arrived at the finish line in the ambulance. I asked the medical staff there -- the only answer they gave me for the vomiting and dehydration was that my stomach just "shut down." Why? "It just happens sometimes." Not good enough. I need a reason. This absolutely cannot happen again.

I came up with three causes of stomach shut-down: I ate (or drank) too much, I ate (or drank) too little. I ran too hard. Ok, that's really five causes. And there was a sixth: I didn't get any sleep the night before the race (as I've said many times, no sleep almost always translates to GI issues on race day). Then there were seven: too much water, not enough electrolytes. Eight: not enough water, too much electrolytes. Cause number nine? Anyone?

Basically, there are so many possibilities, it seems impossible to narrow it down. What if it were a combination of things? Now I want to tear my hair out. Am I the only one who has these problems? How could I have trained for it? All my long bike-run sessions went just fine with the nutrition I chose. No vomiting, no dehydration. I even ran a marathon in May to test myself. Will it now be necessary to do a full Ironman in training to test my nutrition and hydration plan?

I guess I have to start somewhere. The search for a nutrition reference has commenced. The first thing I did was Google "stomach shut down ironman" and the first reference that turned up was this: Competitive Ironman Nutrition Planning. There it was, in black and white:
If your stomach “shuts down” during the race you either 1) went out too fast - poor pacing strategy/control, 2) ate too much solid food, 3) did not take in enough water, or 4) are becoming hyponatremic (low blood sodium level).
In all honesty, I don't think I ran too hard. That's the one thing I'm relatively sure of. Well.. maybe 90% sure. So I'm going with it being a nutrition issue. Another reference online suggested, for another athlete's similar situation, that signs point to "dehydration or electrolyte imbalance." I guess I'll start there. In 2008, at age 43, I started experiencing regular vomiting during my long runs while training for the Philadelphia Marathon. I had never had that problem before. Research concluded it was caused by hyponatremia -- increasing my electrolyte intake during long runs took care of the problem. My electrolyte requirements had somehow changed with age, and I could no longer do a 20-miler with only water as I did in my 30s. Perhaps the electrolyte issues continue to increase with age -- I wonder, when I'm 50, will I need to add Marmite to my diet and put soy sauce on everything I eat?

My husband is pushing for me to find a sports nutritionist. I guess that wouldn't hurt either. And maybe I should find a sports psychiatrist while I'm at it.


  1. My vote is on the heat. Not that I am as physically fit as you are but, my experience with Pedal to the Point this weekend had me thinking of you A LOT !! :-) As long as the sun was behind the clouds, I was fine. When it came out, I fizzled. I drank. I wore as much water as I drank. I did GU, Cliff Shots, Roctane, bananas, nectarines, and oranges. I have not peed as much as I took in during the last 48hrs.

    I think the body tries to cool itself off and shuts down the heat-producing systems first. I know I felt better after dumping water on my head and back but did fight some nausea as well.

    The sports nutrionist is a great idea !! Keep me posted if you get any good info !!


  2. I’ll never figure out the whole nutrition thing. One day I can ride 80-miles with just water (and a coffee at mile 40) and feel like a million bucks. That same ride a week later and I feel like I need to stop at mile 20.

    I know it’s different for everyone BUT the one thing I always hear is how important fuel is during the bike. Something as simple as adding an extra scoop of product to the mix in your bottle can backfire big time (it did with me).

    You “think” you don’t push hard on the run but look at your splits. From what I can tell, you’re a COMPETITOR and will push yourself until you cross the finish line whereas I’m more of an “I hope they haven’t torn down the finish line by the time I get there” kind of guy.

    BTW – I’ve gone back and read your other Ironman reports and I have dubbed you the “PR or ER” girl.

    I would consult a sports nutritionist

    Keep kicking butt my friend.

    All the best,