Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Ironman 70.3 broke my heart

Race week finally arrived. I was filled with so much excitement, I had butterflies high on ecstasy in my tummy from Wednesday. No nerves at all - I knew I had put in the work, 8 months of solid training 9 times a week. I had committed myself to my goal 100% and had faith that I would have a great day on Sunday. 

On Thursday morning I went down to the hotel to register, collect my race pack and officially feel like an Ironman athlete. It was super quick and easy and I had my orange wrist band on in no time. YAY! The tears started falling as I looked down at my wrist and saw that amazing lumo orange plastic. I had made it to race day! I had done everything right, I had gone the distance, I deserved to wear that band with pride - and I did! 

Friday morning we all went down for a last swim, on the most beautiful day! I just did one loop of 600m and felt so good, there really was no need for me to go out for another one. The atmosphere was awesome as all the out of town athletes had started arriving in East London and were excited to get out in the water. I had a great catch up with my team mates and I took a moment to be mindful of where I was and what was happening around me. I stopped at each boy and observed what was going on around me. Some people were panicking, some were floating on their backs, some were chatting and laughing, some were head down focused. I was calm, at peace, and happy. 

My mom arrived on Friday afternoon and we had a lovely family lunch at one of our favourite spots in EL - The Roxy. 

On Friday night I went down to the Orient Theater for a race briefing. The atmosphere was electric! Over 1000 athletes sitting in a confined space waiting to hear from Paul Kaye and Paul Wolfe about the rules, news, updates and other race info before we started on Sunday morning. They played a short video clip of Ironman events and boy I was overcome with emotion. I remembered the woman I had been in June when I started this journey. I couldn't run 1 km, I couldn't cycle 20km, I was afraid, insecure, doubtful, overwhelmed. But I was not that person anymore. I was strong, I was fit, I was brave, I was confident, I was an athlete, I was ready. (Well I would be as soon as I wiped the tears and snot off my face!) 
Photo stolen from Paul Kaye on Twitter

We had pizza at home on Friday night from East London's BEST pizza and burger joint Sanook - and just chilled, chatted, and spent some easy QT together. On Saturday morning I had an appointment to get my Ironman nails done, and just LOVE what Karin from Nail That Beauty  did for me, don't you just adore them?? After that we enjoyed a leasuirely brunch at Lavender Blue, surrounded by nature and happy people laughing together, and a few men and women with the same wrist band as me! 

Saturday lunch time I headed off to the media center for a TV interview which I loved! I always enjoy sharing my story and my journey with people and was so excited to know that I would have it broadcast on TV. Unfortunately because I did not finish, my interview won't be shown on TV. 

After that it was straight home to pack and get everything ready to check into transition on Saturday afternoon. I packed my bags and checked my bike over, only to discover that my back wheel had a massive tear in it and my tube was also torn. I obviously picked up a big shard of glass on Friday when I did my last short ride. Dammit!! I had to call my "bike guy" Callan to come over and help switch me back to my old training wheel because I didn't have another tyre for my race wheel - cue the stress! Luckily between Chris (who will from now onwards be known as Steve - you'll hear why later) and Cal they managed to sort it all out for me and get both wheels on and pumped and ready to go. 

Bike and bag check in was amazing!! Paul Kaye and Gordon Graham (the official event announcers) were on form, with music blasting, greeting us by name (did I feel like a celeb or what?) and just firing us all up and getting us even more excited for Sunday! I found my bike spot on the rack fairly easily, deflated my tyres as instructed - they sometimes pop overnight if too full of air - and hung my bike and run bags up. Piece of cake! 

I was then lucky enough to finally meet the ball of infectious energy that is Stan/Stumpy Stan/Stan the man/Stan Andrews. Stan is an amputee who runs the charity Stand with Stan and was doing his first 70.3 on Sunday too. I decided to raise funds for his charity when I started my Ironman journey, and will be handing over R8648 at the end of January. I am disappointed that I couldn't raise more, but people don't like parting with their money much these days! (You are still most welcome to make a donation to my fundraiser here.) What a privilege to meet a man who without ever having met me, supported and encouraged me on my journey. I am so excited to race along side (well, behind him if Sunday's results are anything to go by) on the 8th of Feb at my next triathlon. Stan you are an amazing man and are doing incredible things for other disabled athletes! 

Saturday night was an easy one, with a bowl of pasta, lots of water, and a good nights sleep. I woke up on Sunday EXCITED! With just a touch of nerves. Perfect - I have always said we need some nerves to give us adrenalin, which in turn gives us the energy kick we need to get going. Arriving to pump my tyres and do one last check of everything was surreal, I tried to be mindful of every step of the process, and take in the atmosphere along the way, and I was happy and calm and at peace. The sea however was NOT! Huge swells, cold water, choppy and windy meant that there would be no PB on Sunday. I am a strong and confident swimmer though so was not scared or uncomfortable heading into the sea. Seeing my team mates and friends, being recognised by people who follow Heart of Iron and being wished luck by strangers just made me feel like the most blessed and fortunate woman in the world. I went for a quick warm up swim as they played the national anthem, and thank goodness for the water cos I had a real hard cry while standing in the waves. What a privilege to be standing right there right then, in that moment soaking it all in. 

Before long it was time to head down to the starting pen, and slowly shift my focus onto racing. Being surrounded by thousands of athletes who have all walked a similar path to me over the last year, all feeling similar emotions to me, all about to embark on the biggest day of their lives, was incredible. I was ready!!!! 

I was in wave 7 with all the other women similar in age to me, and as we walked down onto the sand my heart was singing. I was jumping, dancing, smiling, giggling. We were here! We had arrived! As the gun fired I said my traditional pre race prayer and headed into the water. Unfortunately I always start my races at the back of the pack, simply because everyone else is able to run into the water and get a head start, while I hobble in afterwards. It is extremely tough dragging my floppy foot through the water, so I am slow to start. This meant that I had a lot of girls to overtake, in order to get some space to swim. It was quite frustrating as we got to each buoy, because for some reason unknown to me (I obviously missed the memo) everyone stopped swimming as soon as they got within 10m of it! They were bobbing in the water upright, talking, doggy paddling, being ridiculous. I kept shouting "Hurry up! Stop talking! Keep swimming!" to no avail. I reckon the stop at the first 2 buoys cost me at least 4 or 5 minutes. #frustration. 40 minutes after I started, I made my way onto the beach for the trek up to transition. I must confess, I felt like SUCH a rockstar! My husband and mom were waiting for me, my friends were there, Paul Kaye congratulated me, strangers shouted for me by name, people called out that they follow Heart of Iron, someone even shouted "Do it for Zara!" 

I made my way up heartbreak hill to transition and manged to get my shoes and socks and helmet and glasses and gloves and sunscreen on and walk all the way to the mount line in 9 minutes, not too shabby! I climbed onto my bike (no fancy running start for me) and headed off along the beach front. I saw so many people I know cheering for me on the side of the road, the tears of joy and gratitude started falling. People can be truly amazing and you will never know the value of a familiar face on the sideline until you've ridden or run past at a race. So to those who shouted for me - THANK YOU!  

I made my way up Hemmingways Hill way easier than I expected. I know that my legs take a while to warm up, and that I need about 10km to get the blood flowing the way I want it to and for me to start feeling good. Sunday was different, I felt amazing going up that dreaded hill! I remember thinking to myself "Gee Gae, you are smoking it! Don't push too hard now just because you feel great and burn out too soon, stick to your race plan and you will have a smashing race!" So that is exactly what I did. At the 20km mark I started to feel weird. I was getting cold shivers, I stopped sweating and I was dizzy and nauseous. I sipped slowly on my carb drink and took half a GU, focused on my breathing and cadence and kept going. I started slowing down, and more and more people started passing me. I knew that something was wrong. I was hot, really hot, and as I approached the first water point I used what was left of my water to pour over my head to cool myself down. I stopped and got an ice cold bottle of water, which I was going to pour down my back and down the front of my top, but they stopped me and said I was only allowed one bottle. This meant I needed to choose what to do with my 750ml: I could either cool myself down, or hydrate myself. I chose to drink it, thinking the cool water would cool me down from the inside as well as keep me hydrated. 

Turns out this was the wrong choice, because 20km later I was found unconscious on the side of the road. Luckily the paramedic knows me, because my husband works for Alderson Ambulance, and was able to phone him straight away to let him know what had happened. My blood pressure was very low and heart rate up, and my temperature was a whopping 39.4 degrees. I was put into the back of the ambulance with a drip, when I started having seizures. The advanced life support paramedic treating me, Pierre Crafford, gave me drugs to stop the seizures, but needed to give me a second dose as I still had another one en route to St Dominics.  Pierre had told Chris to meet us there - we were bypassing the medical tent at the finish as I was in quite a serious condition. I had a third one at hospital with my poor mom and hub watching, which I feel awful about. I have seen patients having seizures before and it's scary for the family to witness. 

Once safely at St Dominics hospital a full assessment was done, Chris put up a second drip to get more fluids in and I was given more drugs. Throughout all of this I was unconscious so don't remember anything, but apparently I did have one conversation in the ambulance which went something like this:

Gae: "Please phone Steve"
Medic: "Who is Steve?"
Gae: "Steve, Steven, please phone him!"
Medic: "I don't know Steve"
Gae: "Steve, my husband, STEVE!"

My husbands name is Chris....

Anyway, once my shoes and socks and clothes were taken off, cool fluids pumping in and meds taking effect, I started waking up. I had no idea where I was or what had happened, but soon realised I was in hospital. I looked up at Chris and asked if I had finished, holding on to the vague hope that perhaps I had made it to the finish line and collapsed into his arms like a good Hollywood movie, only for him to tell me that I didn't even make it half way on the bike. To say I was devastated is an understatement, I was convinced he had it wrong. I must have finished! Surely after all my hard work and commitment and dedication and sacrifice I had finished? Surely God wouldn't bring me this far and no further? I deserved to finish! I cried, hot scalding tears, dozing on and off between sobs as the pain killers took hold. My temp came down to normal and once the second bag of fluids was finished the doctors said I could go. (One of the perks of a paramedic husband to supervise me at home.) 

I still can't quite believe that I didn't finish. It seems like a bad memory from a few months ago, not something that happened just 3 days ago. But then a wave of pain hits me like a truck and my breath is knocked out of me and I'm left standing still, holding back the tears that threaten to roll down my face, as the reality sinks in yet again. I did not do it. I did not finish. My body let me down. My brain let me down! I had put in the hours, many of them. I had given up so much. I had worked HARD for 8 months solid. My nutrition on the day was spot on, I drank and ate what I was supposed to. The 35 degree air temp (excluding humidity) and a fierce head wind all the way out to the turn around was just more than my body could handle. 

Could I blame my floppy foot? Perhaps. Maybe the 55km/hour head wind meant I had to fight too hard up all those hills, and the exertion on just one leg carrying the heavy load was too much?
Could I blame my bike? No, it's a light, fast bike which has carried me over many many kilometers safely.
Could I blame the race organisers? No, we are responsible for our own nutrition, what they offer is an assistance. 
Could I blame my coaches? No, they gave me a brilliant program which I followed week in and week out. That same program got 70% of the rest of my team to the finish line.
Could I blame God? A lot of people might, but I know in my heart that He got me where I needed to be, and allowed what happened to happen for a reason. 
Could I blame the elements? No, we are trained to withstand heat, cold, rain, wind. I have trained in all types of weather over the past 8 months. If bad weather is what costs you a race, you clearly weren't prepared enough. 
Could I blame myself? Yes, I suppose I can. Because I am the only person responsible for my body, my fitness, my toughness, my ability to endure. I don't know why things went so horribly wrong on Sunday for me yet. I don't know what I could have done differently. All I know is that what I did do, let me down. My body couldn't cope, and so it threw me off my bike and said "ENOUGH!" 

I kind of feel like a bride who was left standing alone at the alter. Months of preparation and planning, inviting your guests, getting lovely messages and presents, and then having to send everyone home because the groom didn't show up. Everyone feels so sorry for you, because it wasn't really your fault. But it also kind of is, because he wouldn't have left you for no reason, right? I had SO many people supporting me, so many believing in me, so many invested in me, and I feel like I let them down. I feel like a fake and a fraud. I feel like a bit of a loser. (Yes, I know what you're all going to say to that, but it is how I feel, even though I know I shouldn't.) 

The statistics for this race are insane. 700 people did not finish on Sunday. A heap of others did not even start! It was the busiest year for the medical and support teams. Experienced athletes who have done many if not all 8 of the 70.3's here said it was the toughest yet. Times were slower, cramps lasted longer, tears fell harder, hearts broke more often. In a way it's reassuring knowing it wasn't just me being weak. But it still doesn't take away from the fact that I did not finish. I did not reach a goal I have been chasing for 2 years. 

Now I need to move forward, I need new goals. I am not going to try again next year, nor will I enter the Durban race in August. I will stick with shorter distances for the time being. I will return to CrossFit. I will sleep in on some weekends. I will spend more time with friends and support my husband "Steve" on his journey to Ironman success. I will support Zoe who would like to try a kiddies triathlon. I will encourage friends who want to try triathlons and see what all the fuss is about. I will still participate in the local events, because I enjoy them and I love the atmosphere and the vibe. I will swim more because it hurts the least. I will stick with short distances so that I am not in so much pain every day of my life. I will eat less, because I won't be training 4 hours a day 3 times a week. I will write, and blog, and read. But for now, there will be no Ironman, I need to give myself time to grieve and heal. 

I want to thank you all for being such amazing supporters, such amazing friends. You have believed in me, encouraged me, cheered for me, cried for me, celebrated with me. You have shown me that sometimes the best friends are the online ones, who read my ramblings and "get me". I don't know where this blog will head to now. Do I change my name? Do I change my content? Do I back off and slow down? Do I write about things other than sport and races? I don't know. I really and truly don't know. I think I'm just going to wing it, and hope some of you will tag along for the ride. 

Be blessed and be a blessing
Gae xxx 

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