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Even the professionals have a “bad day in the office” from time to time. We talked to some of triathlon’s top professionals about race experiences they’d rather forget, and compiled their advice to help you salvage a race when things go south.
My worst race ever was when I was just getting started in triathlon, as an age grouper at the Long Course World Champs in Denmark, back in 2005.
First, I’m not the most cold tolerant athlete in the world, and that race was freezing, and the water was riddled with jellyfish. For a guy that was not mentally or physically super comfortable in the water, this put me into a pretty stressful state, right from the get go.
All said, I got through the swim. After riding hard for a bit, one of the screws that holds the lower rear derailleur in place popped out and wedged the pulley at an angle. Basically, the derailleur was on the verge of destruction but somehow still allowed me to pedal. I could not shift at all. I was stuck in one gear for about 90 kilometers, spinning out on the downhills and grinding a crazy gear up the short climbs. It was really frustrating and stressful.
I didn’t care too much about having a ride that I felt wasn’t as fast as I should have had — I just remember being so relieved I was even able to start the run. In the end I wound up having an amazing run, and feeling pretty darn relieved I was able to finish.
St. Croix is notorious for being extremely hot and humid. As an athlete coming from a cold weather spring environment in 2008, I grossly underestimated the amount of fluid I would need in my third ever 70.3 race. I also hadn’t scoped out the run course finish prior to the actual race, so I thought the finish line was closer than it actually was. These two factors, when combined, left me severely dehydrated and sprinting almost a mile away from the finish. Instead, I collapsed just 20 feet from the finish.
It was extremely scary, as I didn’t remember much after the fact. I do remember feeling really scared and just silly for making such big mistakes. Thank heavens for the medical team — I received 6 liters of IV fluid, which is a LOT of fluid.
I must admit, I’ve never really had anything bad happen in the races I have done so far. Ironman Lake Tahoe was for sure an epic day out there for everybody. I wouldn’t say it was my “worst” race, but it was the most epic one weather-wise.
The day before, I drove the bike course in my car and had to move snow from the windshield. In the morning before the start, the sand on the beach was frozen, the top of the mountains around the Lake had been covered in snow, and it was cold. Everybody knew it would be a race they would always remember!
I embraced these unpleasant conditions, however, as I really suffer badly in hot and humid races. I was really excited to test myself on the other side — and yep, it was cold. It took me over 13 miles into the marathon to “feel” my feet again.
Still, I have been so happy to be out there and be part of this special day. I have been so thankful for the race director to let the whole race happen, and not to shorten the race because of the cold conditions.
Several races stick out in my mind as ones where it would be absolutely ideal to never feel the way I felt during the event — ever again! However, one that I still so vividly remember to this day is Ironman Melbourne in 2013.
I was grateful to be coming off an Ironman New Zealand victory earlier in the month. But when race day arrived, the winds were howling and they had to significantly shorten the swim because of the waves. The wind was just as treacherous on the bike. I was riding a bike that had just been built for me right before New Zealand and I was not used to the specific nuances. This bike was built more for time trial racing, not Ironman racing! I rode the course with white knuckles on my handlebars.
I was upset at myself for not following my own rules that you should never do something new on race day. Although I somehow made it through New Zealand on this same bike (as a result of an amazing bike tech!), the wind threw a new wrench into the race and the bike showed its true colors. I was disappointed that I could not come through on the big stage of Melbourne but alas, I learned in this sport yet again.
I was having a great race at Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2012. I had a sizeable lead until around mile 100 on the bike, when my crank arm fell off! I had no 10 mm Allen key to put it back on, nor did neutral support, nor any of the very kind age groupers (on their first loop) who offered to help. I was at a loss, standing by the side of the road, trying to figure out what to do.
Christie Sym, who was having a bad day and was going to drop out, offered me her bike to get to transition. I was still in second at this point, so I swapped bikes with Christie, stuffed my feet into her ride shoes, and rode the last miles on her mini bike — either eating my knees, or having to stand for most of it. It was ridiculous, but I was so happy to be moving forward that I was actually laughing.
Halfway in the marathon, however, the head referee gave me a red card and said I was disqualified for outside assistance. I argued that it was a fellow racer that helped me, and refused to stop running. I was determined to finish no matter what. By mile 21, however, after lots of people were on their cell phones to clarify the rules, my coach told me to stop and I got pulled of the course because of USAT rule 5.2 — “abandoned equipment.”
I was absolutely gutted, and it was a pretty bad roller coaster of emotions. I was devastated by the mechanical, but then super happy at the sportsmanship shown by so many. I was stoked that I didn’t give up and made it to T2, annoyed to be in second, but happy to be on my way to finishing … then horrified to get a DQ. Physically, I did almost a full Ironman, so the fatigue that comes with that was there, but mostly I just remember feeling totally emotionally drained.
During Ironman New Zealand 2004, I cracked my femur all the way through during the marathon, and ended up crawling the last few kilometers. Ultimately, I was disqualified and pulled off the race course with only 2 kilometers to go.
At first I was angry as heck, as I have always had a “no DNF” rule. The head race doctor was forcing me off the course, telling me I had a broken femur and was a hazard to myself. I didn’t believe her as I didn’t know what a broken leg felt like; I just knew that I couldn’t bear weight on mine and all I could think about was getting to the line!
You must bear in mind that this was my first serious injury ever. I was an age grouper and thus did not have the opportunity to race an Ironman every few weeks; I had been training for this race and looking forward to it for months, which facilitated major denial about an injury I should not have been racing on. Now I know that if I can’t run for 20 straight minutes the day before the race, I probably should not be attempting an Ironman!
Pro Tips for Digging Out
“Every athlete has had to deal with non-ideal circumstances at one point or another,” says Schwabenbauer. “You can either stand there going ‘woe is me’ or you can get your act together to the best of your ability and deal.”
To make the most of a bad situation, take these tips:
Prior preparation prevents poor performance.
“All big mistakes which have happened on race day have been things I messed up on race day or in preparation going into it,” says Twelsiek.
Don’t try anything new on race day.
“I believe we got away with it during the New Zealand race; this may have been good ol’ luck,” says Kessler. “If I had time to train and practice with the bike, I would’ve realized it was not safe for me to complete an Ironman on in any capacity let alone an extra windy one. If I could re-do the experience, I would have stuck with my older bike!”
Stay positive when things go south.
“When I got DQ’d it was easy to be angry,” says Heather Wurtele, “but I really just tried to stay as positive as possible and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I kept telling myself stuff like ‘Way to fight, Heather!’ or ‘You could have given up but you didn’t — NICE!”
Don’t be a hero.
“I do believe in a healthy acceptance of extreme suffering as part of being our best in this sport,” says Biscay, “But clearly I ignored too much in this instance.”
“Blaming others gets you nowhere,” says Heather Wurtele, “The rules are there for a reason. I was ignorant and broke one. I didn’t have the adequate tools to fix my bike, so as much as it sucked, it was my fault.”
Learn from the experience.
“After St. Croix, I talked to other athletes and discussed what I could do differently,” says Schwabenbauer, “By learning about the process of acclimation prior to arriving, the importance of researching the course and what it actually takes to stay hydrated on such a hot race, I felt more prepared the next time I took on a race in extreme conditions.”
Kessler makes a habit of celebrating every finish — even the dismal ones: “Sometimes we are most humbled by these types of races — the ones where you never thought in a million years that you would cross the line. While not the best day at the races, it often feels like a victory just to get to the finish line. To this day — and after completing 51 Ironman distance races — I never take for granted an Ironman finish — ever!”
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