Learning from Failure at Ironman Texas

At 6:40am on May 14, the starting gun went off at Ironman Texas, and initially the lack of movement was a little anticlimactic. Rolling starts lack the immediate chaos and exhilaration of mass starts, but I enjoy the few moments of calm between when the starting gun fires and I become one more body in a sea of flailing arms and legs. The athletes ahead were either in a mad dash to gain control of the lead swim pack or trying not to drown in the first ten seconds of an 8-10 hour day, but those of us seeded several rows deep wouldn’t even get our toes wet for another minute.

I took a deep breath and remembered to enjoy the moment. I adjusted my goggles on my face. And then it was time.

I dove into the water, and was immediately surrounded by turmoil as hundreds of athletes tried to get around the initial turn and into open water. It turns out the swim never really got better and was one of the worst open water swims I’ve done – it was foggy and difficult to sight, constantly crowded with athletes swimming in all directions, and on more than one occasion I was ready to kick the next person who grabbed my thigh or ankle. Fortunately I have enough experience and confidence racing open water to hold my own, and while the conditions were annoying and kept me from ever really getting into a rhythm, I was never afraid for my safety.

An hour and 19 minutes later, I almost stopped dead in my tracks when my feet hit the ground and I saw my time. Despite swimming the short lines and harder than I probably should have, I was already 15 minutes behind plan and had no idea how that had happened.

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Photo by Eric Dựng Quốc Lễ

I was disappointed in my swim, but once on the bike I was buzzing with the adrenalin that comes with the crowds around transition. I got down in aero position, brought my speed up to 35km/hr as planned, and prepared to start passing everyone who had beaten me out of the water.

It wasn’t long until I realized that my legs weren’t responding quite the way I expected them to. I was handling the turns well and holding my target speed, but my power should have felt easy and it didn’t…and I hadn’t caught a single person in my age group after riding for nearly 20 minutes. The final straw was when a 27 year old woman went by and it hit me that not only was I not passing anyone…I was actually losing my position. I hadn’t expected to feel out of contention so early, and I started counting down the four more hours I would have to spend on the bike before starting the run course. A few miles later I took a turn a little too fast, swerved to avoid a reflector and went flying into the ditch.

As I lay on my stomach, stunned to realize that I had just crashed, I heard two people asking if I was okay. I did a quick check: no sharp pain, I could move all my limbs and didn’t seem to have hit my head, so I sat up. Nothing broken. Was I going to continue, they asked? Yes, I suppose I was. There didn’t seem to be a good reason not to. But I knew that there was no way I would be able to make up the time I had lost, and that Kona had slipped out of reach.

If I’m being honest with myself, I was looking for an excuse to quit well before I landed in the ditch. I was really disappointed in my swim time, I wasn’t feeling as good as I expected to on the first part of the bike, and I was pretty sure I had lost any chance of going to Kona. I wanted the race to be over, and taking a turn a little too fast gave me the excuse I needed to back off and stop racing.

I keep reliving that part of the race, trying to figure out why I couldn’t find it in myself to keep fighting to do my best. I wasn’t hurt in the crash. My bike was (mostly) fine. I was shaken up but otherwise completely able to continue. After a lot of thought, the conclusion I’ve come to is that I was so focused on Kona that when that goal disappeared, I had nothing left to race for. I wasn’t prepared to be out of contention so early, and so I stopped caring and only committed to finishing because of my strong belief that quitting a race is unacceptable if it is possible to continue.

Over the remainder of the bike course I was plagued with mostly made-up reasons to stop: bandaging my hand, adjusting my brake, and having a good cry when I saw Hector added up to a lot time that I wasn’t riding. Overall I was physically fine, just feeling incredibly sorry for myself; I wanted to stop so badly that I almost wished I would crash again just so I could quit for good.

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I tried to rally for the marathon. I’m a runner at heart, and I knew that I should be able to put the bike behind me and throw down a really fast run if I could find it in myself to fight for it. I thought about how Jeff Symonds ran 2:50 in Kona after riding with one leg following a mechanical problem on the bike, and how he said afterwards that he was motivated to prove that he could get ugly and race hard even if he wasn’t chasing a personal best.

I saw Hector on my way out of T2 and he told me that Paolina had said to take the first two kilometers easy, just like we’d planned, then run the fastest marathon I could. Going into the race we had been targeting a 3:30, and after taking it easy on the bike I should have been able to run harder than that. My heart dropped at Hector’s words, but I committed to getting through the first 2k before making any decisions.

Two kilometers later, I looked deep inside myself and found this great big black hole staring back at me. I knew running a fast marathon would be unbelievably challenging, and I had stopped caring about this race hours ago. I wanted nothing more than to give up and go home, and I knew that by not doing my best I was failing exactly the kind of mental test that differentiates elite athletes from everyone else.

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The first lap of the marathon was the hardest, and I spent a lot of time choking back tears, but as I started the second lap my mood improved, and I even joked with a spectator who told us rain and thunderstorms were forecasted in the next hour. I was not prepared for the intensity of Texas thunderstorms.

As I ran through the halfway point, lightning started striking so close that we could see where it hit, and big cracks of thunder seemed to be right overhead; torrential downpours and gale-force winds were quick to follow. I welcomed this change in weather because it was something I could overcome. In a race where I hadn’t found the mental strength to truly race, this was something that made me feel like I was at least badass about something. And so I ran through the storm, through the crowds of spectators who had now gathered under the bridges downtown, through parts of the course that had flooded with several inches of water; and when the hail started, I ran through that too.

Posted by Kris Keele on Saturday, May 14, 2016

Forty minutes after the storm broke, I finally got pulled off the course by marshals who told us to head into a parking garage until the storm had passed. The temperature had dropped and I was soaking wet, so it didn’t take long to start shivering; fortunately, about 10 minutes later we were told it was safe to start again, and hundreds of athletes flooded out onto the course with cheers.

I don’t remember much of the last lap – after everything that had happened, I was almost done with this stupid race. I started crying as I made the last turn towards the finish line, and didn’t stop until Hector found me sitting on the curb at the end of the finishers chute. I was so frustrated with myself for not having the race I knew I was capable of, but was even more crushed to realize that although I have the fitness of an elite athlete, I had failed the mental test that differentiates elites from everyone else. Elite athletes are faster not only because they are fitter, but also because they are willing to overcome more to give their best effort; if I want to compete with the best then just getting up isn’t good enough; I have to keep fighting.

I have no doubts that I am a different person from the one who started Ironman Texas at 6:41am. A lot of people talk about how you have to fail to be great, and I am working to apply the lessons I learned here to make myself into a stronger person and a better athlete. I know I have to do better if I want to qualify for Kona, and now I have a fire in my heart that will not let me quit.

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  5 comments for “Learning from Failure at Ironman Texas

  1. Ben
    May 22, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Tough day! I think digging in to finish after a crash and massive thunderstorm is pretty darn close to a Kona qualifier performance.

  2. Brigitte Paulick
    May 25, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    Nice report – congrats on finishing it was one of the hardest days – be proud.
    Not sure if you are coached or not but if you want to get to kona look up qt2 systems trust me when I tell you if anyone can get you there they can.

  3. Deirdre
    June 16, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    Hey! Just found this link from your Strava. Sounds like you had an amazing day of self learning. You must have been absolutely heart broken, but so good to hear that you are still going after your dream.

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