by: Stephanie Fontenot
Three letters I was afraid of and never thought I would actually hear in my triathlon career. I mean I always kind of had it in the back of my head that there might come a day when I would not finish a race, but I never thought it would actually happen. It just seemed like this far away possibility that would never catch up to me.
All that changed when I attempted to race Ironman Coeur D’Alene this summer. Prior to leaving for CDA, I had been eyeing the forecast so I knew what I should pack for race day. Imagine my surprise when the forecast predicted a record heat wave that would be sweeping through the area and would continue through race day. Perfect. Who doesn’t love racing in 100+ degree heat? Oh yeah, me.
The morning of race day started with a balmy hour and a half wait in my wetsuit as we slowly trudged toward the starting line of the swim. Pro tip, wait to put on your wetsuit until you get closer to the time you will be starting. I’m pretty sure my dehydration started while I stood in the heat dressed as an Orca whale. The swim was unremarkable despite being in a beautiful lake. I thought it would feel refreshingly cool when I got in, but the sun had already started to warm the water. You know how in the movie The Lion King, Mufasa tells Simba “everything the light touches is yours”, well in Coeur D’Alene, everything the light touched was hot.
I made it out of the water and into transition where I grabbed my grocery store’s worth of fuel for the bike and shoved it in my pockets before heading out to the course. The bike course is where it all fell apart for a number of athletes that day. Between the heat and the elevation, it was brutal. To put it simply, it was like biking through hell, if hell had mountains. At mile 30, I began to think that this really might not be my day. My body was not keeping calories down. I was incredibly thirsty no matter how much water I drank. It was heating up very quickly and I knew that I would be spending a lot of time in the sun. There was very minimal shade along the bike course, and in Idaho there is apparently 18 hours of daylight. Seriously, it didn’t get dark until after 9pm.
I made it through the first loop of the bike course, and I told myself to just try and make it to 70.3 miles before re-evaluating my next steps. I really didn’t want to give up despite the fact that I was gradually feeling worse and the heat was getting to me. Aid stations were running out of ice and water. I was running out of water and patience. I had irrational anger towards the sun. All of my fuel that I put in my special needs bag was hot, like it had just come out of the oven. On the second loop of the course, I got to mile 91 before making the decision that my race day had come to an end. When you find yourself at an aid station trying to crawl under a parked 18 wheeler because it looks shady, you know it’s time to throw in the towel.
I told the aid station staff that I was done. They helped me load up my bike and get onto the bus that would bring me back to the start of the race. As I sat there on the bus, it hit me that I wouldn’t be crossing the finish line of this race that I had trained so hard for. I thought about what I would tell my family and friends and all the messages of support that I would come back to when I turned on my phone. How would I tell them that I failed? Would they be disappointed? Would they think that I’m less of an athlete for not completing the race? Should I have just toughed it out and tried to continue despite being overheated and dehydrated? Was there anything I could have done differently that would have yielded a different result? A result that didn’t involve me being shuttled back to the starting line.
I second guessed myself for a solid hour before finally just saying screw it, there’s no shame in not finishing. There is no reason to sit there and berate myself over it. I did everything I could to make it as far as possible in that race. I knew at Mile 30 of the race that it wasn’t going to be a good day, yet I made it 93 miles. I think sometimes athletes don’t want to talk about DNFs because there is a feeling of embarrassment or shame associated with not getting to the finish line of a race.
As athletes we like to talk a lot about our successes but the failures are just as important. Failures are an opportunity to learn. I learned that I needed to rethink how I fuel for races and take in nutrition along the course. I learned not to stand in my wetsuit until I absolutely needed to put it on and get in the water. I learned that sometimes you are just handed a bad day no matter how hard you train for something, and I learned that it’s okay to fail. Every race day will not be perfect. I’m not any less of an athlete because I didn’t get to the finish line that day. No one was disappointed in me for not finishing. I did my best and it just wasn’t my day. The important thing is to keep going after you fail. Don’t let it stop you. Failure doesn’t mean the end of things, and that you should give up. Failure can be the beginning, the beginning of you learning what does and doesn’t work for you as an athlete. Failure can be the opportunity to work towards a new goal. Think of it as re-routing rather than the end of a road.