Ironman 70.3 – DNF

Today was my Ironman 70.3 race in FL. The race I have spent the last 20 weeks preparing and training for. So, the most appropriate word I can find to describe my DNF (Did Not Finish) is devastating.

My race ended just 5 mins into the swim. Yes, you read that right. I didn’t DNF because I swam too slowly and missed the cut-off, nor did I have multiple flat tires on the bike, nor did I end up cramping on the run, nor did I get dehydrated, nor was the weather was too hot on the run. No, I DNF’ed 5 mins into the swim.

This was not my “A” race for the year. This was a practice race in preparation for my “A” race, Ironman Arizona in November. This was a race to get used to training 6 days a week, doing double workouts on many of those days. This was a race to prove to myself that I had a certain level of fitness to at least do half the distance and then I would ramp up even more towards the full Ironman. This was a race to help iron out any kinks before my “A” race.

So, while this race accomplished what I needed it to accomplish, it is still extremely disappointing. I did do training workouts 6 days a week. I did get up at 4:30am most days and did double workouts. I did ramp up my training load and handled it well. And yes, it did identify a major weakness as I iron out the kinks… swimming.

So, what went wrong today? The net result is that I basically panicked and could not get into a swimming rhythm. As to why I panicked, I don’t know the exact answer, but I have a few suspicions:

  • I think I may have started out too fast. While I can swim the distance with plenty of time to spare before the cutoff, I am used to swimming a constant, comfortably pace. I think with the race and then swimming with people around me and basically swimming to keep up with them, I may have gone out too fast. As a result I was out of breath, inhaling water, and swallowing water. I’m not accustomed to swimming different paces and thus I have no real feel for when I’m going to fast. This is very much like a runner going out too fast in a 5K or 10K race except that doing that on a swim has more dire consequences.
  • The water was dark and murky and so I couldn’t see anything while my face was in the water and so I think that made me “hurry up” to breathe so I could at least see to my sides. Oddly, I have no issue scuba diving in murky, low visibility water
  • I never practiced sighting and so when I tried to see in front, I ended up swallowing water
  • I did take a couple breathers while holding on to a kayak, but once I resumed swimming, I didn’t identify what was causing my issues and so I simply went back to my fast, hurried pace, inhaling and swallowing more water
  • Since I started in the last wave and with my stops, I realized I was dead last and that added to my urgency as I didn’t want to be last out the water

After doing this for 5 mins and finding that literally every breath resulted in my swallowing water, I realized that my day was done. I signaled to the volunteers and they towed me to the dock where my number was given and my timing chip removed. I collected my bike and gear, called my wife to let her know I had dropped out, texted a few people and then returned to my hotel.

I then spent the next few hours feeling sorry for myself and second guessing my trying to do triathlons, and especially a full Ironman. After all, if I can’t even do more than 5 mins of a Half-Ironman, what chance do I have in a full Ironman? I even went on the internet to lookup when the next Powerman (run-bike-run duathlon) was to see if perhaps I should stick to running and biking.

In the past, I have DNS (Did No Start) a half-marathon due to injury, but I have never had a DNF in any kind of race. I may have had slower times that I wanted, but I have always finished. This DNF is a new experience.

Luckily, a phone call with my wife helped get me out of this funk and I’m starting to analyze what went wrong and ensuring I have a strategy in place for the swim.

Prior to my race, I had visualized all the parts of the race from the swim exit onwards. I had a hydration and nutrition strategy for the bike and run. I had planned for what to do if I got a flat. I thought about how I would handle the hills. I had a strategy in place for the run and the forecasted hot weather. Basically, I had planned my race from the swim exit. I had taken for granted that I would get through the swim since I had been swimming 2000m multiple times a week for the last couple months and I was doing it in just under 50 mins…..well within the swim cut-off. I naively assumed I’ll just get in the water and do my normal 50min swim and then get on to the real meat of the race. The hard part of the race. 5-6 months ago, I had considered the swim the hard part of the race, but once I worked up to swimming 2000m consistently, it became the easy part in my mind and I just focused on the biking and running. I saw no need to try and swim faster or do swim drills.

I had taken the swim for granted and I had no plans nor any strategy for the swim other than to wear my wetsuit. I now realize that I could be in the best cycling or running shape, able to do the full distance, but it would all be for nothing if I can’t get through the swim.

Another sign that I had taken the swim for granted was that I had no nervousness before the swim and while waiting for my wave. I was calm and I had no butterflies in my stomach. I was feeling no different to how I would have felt before getting into the pool to swim 2000m

So, as I prepare for Ironman Arizona, I need to give the swim the attention it deserves. I need to prepare for it and have a strategy in place for when things start to go wrong. As a start, I plan to:

  • Look into a US Masters Swim program that swim at a pool that is only 5 mins from where I live. I had actually gotten the ball rolling on that before my race and I had arranged to observe a swim session this coming Friday and chat with the coach
  • There is a triathlon club in the DFW area that does weekly Saturday morning open water swims in a lake with a coach. They actually teach you, and you get to practice swimming with other people, turning at buoys, sighting etc. All the skills needed for a successful triathlon open-water swim. I had looked into them before and they had only recently resumed those sessions after winter, but there was only one I could have attended before my race and I figured why bother. They run these through September so I need to try and fit that into any IM training plan I follow.
  • I should have done some shorter triathlons before attempting a 70.3. That would have given me a chance to swim in a race locally and with less at stake. I found one local sprint triathlon in June and I will look for others before IM AZ to get as much practice as possible

I may have to end up swimming 3-4 days a week and adjusting workouts in order to open water swim on a Saturday and not treat the swim as just something I need to get through before I get on the bike and run.

Today’s race was devastating and I doubt it will ever fade from my memory, but in the end, I need to learn as much as possible from today’s failure so I can accomplish my main goal for 2019 which is to finish Ironman Arizona in November.