What happened last week in Chattanooga?
In the aftermath of an Ironman that saw over 1,000 out of the 2,700 participants quit and accept a DNF, I can't help but wonder what is going wrong with the perceived enervation of Ironman participants these days?
Maybe there lies some irony in this endurance race sharing a title sponsor of Little Debbie...
And I choose the word "participants" deliberately. I can't help but wonder if this outstandingly high drop out rate is a product of a lack of preparation, stubbornness of athletes to adjust a game-plan, or racers not in touch with how they are feeling/what to expect on race day? Or even worse, a growing population of people who hop on they "I'm training for an Ironman" train but are complacently satisfied with quitting prematurely in the face of adversity. And even worse so than that, they then are pleasantly plum with placing the blame on extrinsic elements, dodging the fact that they are the only ones responsible for dealing with their decisions.
I understand the temperatures reached 97 degrees. That's pretty hot. But it'd be delusional to think that every single person who toed the line didn't know that this was the forecast at least 10 days in advance. No matter what the forecast, or race day specifics, or course profiles you need be in tune and expect these things. It is boarder line insane to start a race of any distance without research and attention to detail. More so, every athlete wishing to optimize their race day performance needs to know how to adjust effort levels and expectations on race day in the face of whatever is thrown at them.
It is all too common to hear people duck and cover from all responsibility of their upcoming race with phrases like, "I haven't even swam in two weeks," "My longest run has only been XX miles," or my personal favorite "I just haven't had any time to train." It is even more depressing to me to seemingly see the people DNS (did not start) a race grow and grow over the years - for whatever reason (read: excuse) that may be. Now, I know I am going catch some flack and I know SOME injuries are unavoidable. But even "being injured" is a tough pill for me to swallow on the excuse front. Most injuries can be avoided in the first place by training properly and knowing what you are getting into before signing up. For most people new to the sport that problem is easily solved by a consulting with a coach or a seasoned vet about the physical demands an endurance race of any magnitude requires. From there, developing a personal plan to get you acclimated to the distance accordingly.
Now, to get to the main point of my rant. Is signing up for an Ironman becoming trendy? Is the slogan "Anything is Possible" in need of a gut check? Because to me it is more sounding like, "Anyone can sign up." I realize that I wasn't even alive for most of the bouts between Mark Allen and Dave Scott. And not yet into double digit years when Karen Smyers dug out Paula Newbie-Fraser with an epic finish of a run. Also to be mentioned is the 1997 Crawl Finish that contributed to the popularization of Ironman. "The legs are still there, you just can't feel them; the eyes still see but through a gauzy vale of delirium." I didn't even know about endurance sports back then but I now fantasize about pushing my body to these limits. Most recently, the Cozumel ITU finish between the Brownlee brothers (in a race a quarter the Ironman distance). What happened to the days when quitting just wasn't an option?
The examples above are all the top echelon of the sport at the time and may seem a little out of touch to most. But let's also take a trip back not much more than a year ago to the same state that obliterated so many aspiring Ironmen (and women) as they threw in the towel, accepted defeat, only to blame the heat. Could those 1,000 athletes that dropped out REALLLY not take one more step forward? Really?? I doubt it. And I am willing to bet that if they looked deep down into their hearts most of them would change the "But it was so hot" to a "But I was just unprepared mentally and physically." I say this because back on June 18, 2015, an RV made it's way to Tennessee. The red and black RV had made 17 prior stops in 17 different states in consecutive days; inside that RV was a beard and a mustache that had completed an Ironman distance triathlon in each one of those respective days/states.
The "Ironcowboy", James Lawrence was on 2-3hours sleep for the past 2+weeks. The temperature was 95 degrees. Yes, only two degrees "cooler" than the 2016 Ironman Chattanooga event where 40% of participants tapped out with a "no mas" as they hitched a ride back to the "Athlete Village" to mow down on pizza and coke. James was plowing his way through the US, 30miles into the bike on his 18th consecutive day of 140.6 in 95 degree heat when he literally fell asleep on his bike and crashed. Do you think he wanted to drop out then? I bet if it was an option to him, he would have wanted to quit. But the difference lies therein: It wasn't even an idea to him. He had no idea what he was getting into, but he prepared like an animal and the option of quitting was not only unfathomable; it was non-existent. He got up and finished the ride. Then finished a marathon right after that. Then he finished 32 consecutive days of covering the 140.6 distance in every other state.
So I ask again, "Could those DNFs at Chattanooga reee-eeee-aaalll-llyy not take one more step?"
I am not trying to sound cynical (or am I?). I just think the words "I quit" are on far too many tongues these days when a race isn't going as expected. And to put it into context this is coming from someone who has been brought to a walking pace during his past two Ironman attempts (furthermore, one of those races was a lack of mental preparedness and one was, to my best guess, a lack of run volume). But the connotation there is a bit different. I am proud of both those race results; and I own both of them (even though they both resulted in me missing my ultimate goal of a Kona spot by one place and two places respectively). There's a difference between "I quit because it was hot out," and "I quit because I gave it my all and was ultimately not prepared for the heat (or cold, or hills, or whatever)."
I am not saying that everyone needs to finish an Ironman at blazing speeds but the endurance sport world is only fascinating when you, personally, figure out what it means to "endure." The answer comes from within and requires you to be completely truthful with yourself. The goal upon signing up is, and this is an assumption, to push yourself mentally and physically. The goal is to want so desperately to stop, but then push through.
Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe the goal is to sign up, tell all your friends, post pictures of all your workouts on Instagram with a cunning hashtag, and then drop out with an excuse when the race gets hard.
To wrap this little declamation up, I think anyone embarking on any endurance journey, 140.6 or otherwise, would benefit greatly both mentally and physically by consulting with a coach or at least someone who has been there before with knowledge of the sport. In a previous piece, I wrote about "Training for the Low" of any race. and if you think your race won't be filled with "lows" I'd be willing to bet that you'd be one of those 1,000 people who called it quits "Because it was hot out," or "I had to drop out because I dropped my salt tabs."
The goal is to find out what you are capable of and challenge yourself. It is not to dive in head first only to realize you bit off more than you can chew on your own. If it's going to be hot, you need to prepare yourself, maybe you need to slow down, or eat more, or drink more water, or whatever. But you can't expect to be able to perform at your best if you don't know what exactly are getting into. Y need to prepare and train properly up until race day, and then you need a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C for whatever race day throws at you.
"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." - Muhammad Ali (EDIT: This is a Tyson Quote... not Ali)
Do you want to dig deep and push yourself? Or do you want to be a part of the DNF statistic wondering what would have happened if you kept going?