Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hurting Is Temporary, But Quitting Lasts Forever.

As my toes dug into the Spanish sand, part of my body anticipated the blasting air horn that would start the 2012 Long Distance Triathlon World Championships, and send me sprinting out into the water for a grueling 2.5 mile swim, 75 mile bike and 19 mile run.

The other part of my body was messed up. 

My eyes were bloodshot from severe lack of sleep, my gut had a deep gnawing pain, and my usually sprite pre-race muscles felt drained and empty.

No, this was not a result of a nasty Rioja wine drinking binge, too many CafĂ© Largo’s the night before, or some kind of stomach bug.

It was simply me experiencing the same sub-optimal state that has been described to me over and over again by other triathletes, whether during a training workout or before an important race.

That dead feeling of being completely exhausted and unable to dig when the race intensity begins.

It’s been so long since I’ve arrived at a starting line in that state, I had forgotten what it feels like to have a non-responsive body despite perfect training, a good taper, and no emotional and lifestyle stress.

And it was a loud and clear reminder to me: arriving on the starting line of a race with a 100% physically prepared body means that you have to take care of your gut during race week. Otherwise, by abusing or neglecting a section of your body that is even more exposed to external environments than your skin, you’re setting yourself up for subpar performance.

So what is it about the gut that can create this kind of dreaded pre-race condition in triathletes? In exactly one month, you’re going to find out the answer in Lava Magazine – or you can leave your guesses or comments below, because I’m not going to tell you until then, since it’s an article I’m commissioned to write and I can’t “leak it” on this blog post.

But until then, here is what ensued from my race week mistakes…


The swim was tricky, with twists and turns throughout – rather than the typical “loop” or “out and back” you see in most swims. Over and over again, I tried to “dig” and drop the group I was in, but kept having to fall back on hips and feet to draft.

At 1500 meters, I considered grabbing hold of a kayak and calling it quits. But eventually, my hands hit sand and I came charging out of the water in an hour even, in 10th place. After learning later that the swim was actually long by nearly 400 meters, I was pretty happy with this, as it means it would have given me an equivalent Ironman swim split of about 55 minutes – one minute faster than my personal record. But I drafted the entire time, so it didn’t really feel like it was swimming, as much as desperately trying to stay on feet.


All through the swim-to-bike transition, I was gasping for breath – more than usual. My heart felt like it was beating out my throat, my lungs felt tight and constricted and when I finally started pushing the pedals, I once again experienced that frustrating sensation of not being able to dig.

By this time, I knew what the problem was, because that gnawing ache in my stomach had now grown into a full-blown “issue” - and by the time I was 90 minutes into the bike, I was vomiting gels.

So with dead legs and an exhausted body, I wiped the vomit from my mouth and began repeating a mantra that I would repeat over 50 times before the day was over:

“Hurting is temporary, but quitting lasts forever”.


With this mantra, I strung myself along, splitting the painful bike into 5K portions, and trying to keep down something – anything. By the time I finally got off the bike and onto the run, it had been an hour since I’d last eaten or drunk.

I came off the bike still in 10th place, with a 3:08 bike split and an average speed of just under 25 miles per hour over the 75 miles. But I knew that even that placing wasn’t going to last long with the way I was feeling – and it was pure will at this point that was keeping me on my feet.

“Hurting is temporary, but quitting lasts forever”.

I said it one more time as I slouched in the bike-to-run transition tent, preparing myself mentally to charge out in front of thousands of screaming Spanish fans and at least try to look like a triathlete, not a walking zombie. All I wanted to do at this point was curl up into a ball and go to sleep.

As I came out of the tent, I wished I’d had earplugs. The roar was deafening. There were more spectators in the cobblestoned Vitoria plaza than I’d ever seen in any race, shouting, cheering and blowing horns.

I clutched my stomach and began running.


Within 1K, I passed my wife Jessa, and when I crumbled to her side and literally collapsed onto my back on the race course, she immediately knew I was having a rough day.

My breaths were coming in short spurts, and my heart rate was screaming in my throat. What was wrong with my body? I felt like I had no control.

Jessa and a police officer helped me to my feet, and I desperately turned to the officer in broken Spanish, “Donde es el bano? Donde es el bano?”

He pointed across the park at a lone bathroom, and I ran to it and stumbled inside. With my head in my hands, I grimaced through several minutes of extreme discomfort, then splashed my face with cold water, and finally emerged from the bathroom:

“Hurting is temporary, but quitting lasts forever”.


When I emerged from the bathroom, two spectators literally shoved me back out onto the run course and I started running. Within 1500 meters, I was back in another bathroom. This happened again, and again, and again over the first 15K of the run course. By this time, I had discovered that I could only keep down one source of energy: Coke.

After consuming two full cans of carbonated Coke during those first two loops of the run, I knew that I would finish, but it would be ugly. At this point, I only had three things keeping me going…

1) The fans; 

2) Imagining pushing my twin boys in the stroller, and not wanting them to see me be a quitter. 

3) “Hurting is temporary, but quitting lasts forever”.

I though the last loop of the run would never come. By the time it finally did, I had taken eight bathroom stops and completely emptied the contents of my gut out both my front and backside. I was now running with what felt like balloons full or air in my stomach.

With pride, I somehow passed the final bathroom on the run course without stopping – although it seemed like merely the site of a bathroom was now my gut’s cue to “empty”. I’m guessing by this point I just had nothing left to “go”.




Screaming spectators.

The finish line arch.

In this video below, you can barely see me clutching my head in my hands as I cross. That about sums up my thoughts at that point, “I have no clue how I just finished that race”.


My final run split a flat and fast course was 2:20 – 20 minutes slower than last year on what should have been a much speedier course. This got me 19th place in my division and 33rd overall out of 593 male athletes who competed – and nowhere near my 1st place finish from last year.

I broke down crying from a combination of extreme fatigue and exhausted disappointment. After limping to the hotel, I spent the next 5 hours in bed, doubled over with gut pain and unable to do anything but lie there and stare at the ceiling.

So what happened? What can cause an athlete to arrive in perfect preparation to a race, but suffer such a lack of ability to perform?

Over those 6 hours and 30 minutes, I had been reminded of an important lesson that I already knew, but took for granted. You’ll get to learn exactly what that lesson is in my next article in Lava Magazine. Stay tuned. It will be in the “Kona” issue.


Anonymous said...

Well I knew something was wrong after seeing the 19th place... now I saw I was wrong.
Everything was perfect.
You finished.
F** the time. You've learned the lesson and we all need reminders once in a while.

Anyways, looking forward to the article. I sure can use knowledge you took from the race.

spindizzy said...

What did you eat that was different?

Ben Greenfield said...

Gluten and dairy.

spindizzy said...

Ouch! Should have waited till after the race.....

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the distress, and I look forward to the Lava article since I liked the last one about sleep. I had a similar experience at the recent Leadville Qualifier in Tahoe. For the first time, my whole GI tract shut down about six hours into the race. I was dehydrated and bonking, but I could barely drink any water. Apparently, Noakes' "drink to thirst" is a skill I need to practice more. For an hour I stumbled along the course figuring that as long as I could keep moving forward, I would. Until some race official scraped my carcass off the course. Leadville race founder Ken Chlouber told me personally the day before to be ready to "dig deep." I think he jinxed me.

Ben Greenfield said...

I'VE FOUND that following Noakes "drink to thirst" rule still requires you to make sure you're drinking truly "ad libitum" and not "bare minimum"...

Michael Stevenson said...

I did that race too and will reiterate that the crowd support was amazing. Everyone in Vitoria came out to cheer us on.
I can also attest Spain is not a good place to find gluten-free food. You weren't alone in battling a queezy stomach on race day.