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Ironman Louisville

Every race teaches me a lesson. Part of my ritual in the days following a race is to write out a race report for me and my coach to review, recording nutrition, strategy, execution and planning in order to continually grow and improve as an athlete. As I return to Boise I’m confronted with post-race processing that’s unknown to me: how to cope with a DNF (Did Not Finish).

Race morning greeted us with temps in the low-40s and steady rain; not unexpected but a significant 10 degrees cooler than forecasted. I’d constructed a brilliant plan to stay warm and dry pre-race, which included a cow onesie I’d scored the day before. Not only did my silly outfit inspire spontaneous smiles from many other athletes, but it kept me cozy and lighthearted on such a dreary morning.

Right before the scheduled pro warm up, the announcement came: due to strong river current, the course was shortened to a downstream swim of less than a mile. This also required a 45-minute delay to reset the buoys. I bounced around with several other pros, keeping the mood light and chatting in an attempt to stay warm on the soaked, chilly pavement.

Finally we were allowed in the water to start warming up. This was a welcome relief, as the 67-degree water certainly felt more inviting than the frigid drizzle on land.

The cannon fired. I picked my buoy for sighting diagonally from the start line and launched a hard effort toward it, knowing that the shortened swim would force a much higher intensity in the water. As I closed the distance to what I thought was the first buoy, following the splashes ahead, I saw kayakers pointing me to go to my right further out from shore. After several attempts to catch sight of what they were pointing at, I saw a buoy about 50 yards off to my right. I veered toward it, but as I kept sighting it seemed like it was moving away from me. Several strokes later I realized that the buoy wasn’t moving, I was moving downriver. The strong flow had carried me past the 2nd buoy, forcing me to turn upstream to try to round it. They weren’t kidding about the current!

As I neared the buoy I could see other female pros fighting the water to do the same. Finally, I reached the buoy and made my turn around it. Only I didn’t come up to the surface for my rhythmic breath once I got on the upstream side. For a moment, I was caught under the buoy and could feel the heavy material over my head. Not that unusual, really, as I’ve rounded several race buoys by dipping under them to make the tightest turn possible. What was unusual was feeling the invisible force pin my midsection to the cable underneath, requiring me to really fight my way around it in order to surface for air. I didn’t panic. It was a matter of a couple seconds. But that moment jolted me into realizing the dangerous water conditions. As soon as I surfaced I waved and yelled to one of the nearby kayakers, “Too dangerous! Not safe!” I hated to think what might happen to a less confident swimmer in a flailing crowd trying to round that buoy.

Transition was going to be slow, but necessary in order to stave off the inevitable chill on the bike. I swam only in my bra top so I’d have dry layers to pull on. I had a thin baselayer, arm warmers, gloves, socks, plastic bags in my shoes, my dry tri top and a plastic grocery bag to stuff down the front of my jersey. I’d also brought a towel to dry off as much as possible to hopefully ease the process of getting all that lycra onto my damp body.

It wasn’t long into the bike before I realized I was severely underdressed. I came out of transition near several other women and we pedaled down River Road on our way out of town. The rain and road spray soaked us in no time. I could feel the puddling in my shoes and the cold raindrops from the trees overhead pelting into my back. Within about 20 minutes I was soaked through and starting to get really cold.

As I approached the first aid station, I yelled out for a spare trash bag. My lips were having difficulty forming words. I stopped and spent several minutes tearing through a plastic bag with one of the volunteers to stuff it down my jersey, front and back and down into my shorts for protection. This move offered a small, but measurable relief from the cold.

My final decision to end the race was not out of frustration at the elements or even just being cold and miserable. It was born out of personal safety. Unable to feel my hands, legs or feet and shivering uncontrollably, my ability to safely ride my bike was hampered. I could feel my brain beginning to fog and my good judgment slipping. I bargained with myself for the final 30 minutes of my ride. “Just make it 10 more minutes. Push hard for 10 more minutes and see if you’re any warmer.” I even asked myself, “What would it take for me to keep going right now?” The answers were either dry clothes or more layers. I had neither.

Once I finally pulled over in the town of La Grange, the reality hit me that my day was over. Through chattering teeth I told a cop I needed to get warm and he directed me to a covered storefront nearby. Bless the spectators who descended upon me, two of them immediately stripping off their jackets, swaddling me in a warm “Erin sandwich” and offering words of comfort. By this point the tears were flowing and I just kept saying, “I don’t want to quit.” Soon another spectator offered for me to sit in his pickup to warm up. He was also prepared with an electric blanket and let me use his phone to call Matt. The paramedics checked in to ensure I didn’t need medical attention.

Within 20 minutes, I had two more women join me in the truck. Ironman support vans were navigating the course, picking up athletes and transporting them to a nearby school. From there, school buses were taking athletes back to transition. I must say, for all the chaos endured that day the volunteers and Ironman officials were incredibly organized, competent and genuinely caring. They took our bib numbers at every checkpoint and transported us and our bikes back to transition as quickly as they could.

I’ve never spontaneously pulled out of a race before. I planned a DNF at Boise 70.3 in 2014 due to injury- but that was on my terms. Quitting goes against everything I believe as an athlete and as a person. Adjusting mindset, improvising strategy and gutting it out are tools I’ve implemented with success in all of my racing. Never have I had to cope with the feeling of tangible failure in a race before. I’ve never won an Ironman, but on Sunday I truly felt like I’d lost one.

Though my first instinct was to go home and sob into my pillow, that’s not really my style. I had randomly landed on the same bus back to transition as my friend, Joe Lauricella. We lamented and empathized together, than dragged our asses down to the finish to cheer home the other competitors.

Being at the finish line was one of the hardest parts of the day for me. In my mind, all of these athletes were stronger and more dedicated on the day than I was. Why couldn’t I do what they did? How can I possibly inspire others when I couldn’t grit my way through this race?

As I sat across from Joe at the finish line, he said, “Thank you, Erin.” Um, what? He explained, “You helped me. Because you made it okay.” Joe is coached by my former coach, Bob Flanigan. He said that when he called Flanny he was told, "Did you see who else pulled out? The honeybadger. Erin Green doesn't quit races." Seeing me at the school made him realize how awful the conditions were and that there was no shame in making the choice that was best for him. He thanked me for being there to help him process the day and to share the experience, albeit a tough one.

I stayed at the finish line to cheer in fellow Idahoan and friend, Chris Raykovich. Chris’s wife, Jennifer, asked me to take a picture with them after he finished. Um, why? I was hesitant, and it almost started the waterworks again. I hadn’t completed the race so what’s so special about including me? After he’d collected himself, Chris sent me a very sincere text of encouragement.

Those moments mean a lot. They reassured me that I hadn’t let anyone down by pulling out of the race in such brutal conditions. But as I discussed the entire ordeal with Matt, I realized my biggest fear wasn’t letting others down, it was letting myself down. There was a twinge of regret for not representing my sponsors at the race, but it was fleeting. Upon waking Monday morning, I was greeted with immediate clarity and certainty that I’d done the right thing. No regrets. And no dwelling.

So here’s my quick “How to…” guide on coping with this difficult end to my season.

What I Will Do:

  1. Engage in all the post-race indulgences that I’d normally enjoy, including local food and drink, a pedicure, massage, sleeping late, unstructured physical activity of my choosing (or not) and lazy time with Matt, Rally and friends.

  2. Learn. I’ve already started brainstorming all of the McGuyver tricks I’ll implement shall I ever encounter such conditions in the future. These include but are not limited to: rubber dish gloves on the bike, extra layers in Special Needs, cheap, rubber-soled houseshoes for pre-race, disposable handwarmers in pockets and a full-on waterproof jacket in T1 (aerodynamics be damned).

  3. Show myself grace. I decided what was best for me at the time. There’s no sense in chastising myself or entertaining unhelpful thoughts based on this one experience.

  4. Take a break. I’d planned for this to be my season-closer, but my immediate reaction once I regained feeling in my extremities was, “When is the next opportunity for an Ironman?” Nope. My body and mind deserve a break and that’s exactly what lies ahead.

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