Friday, March 24, 2017

Road to Ironman: Fail Better!

August 21 2016 I attempted my first Ironman along with four great friends from Texas. A grueling challenge designed to test the mettle of even the very fittest athletes, Ironman involves a 2.4 mile open water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile run. A 50-year old English prof. who could barely run to the end of her road three years before, I had trained for months for this event and battled through injuries, fear, and self-doubt to get to the beach of Lake Coeur d’Alene where the course began that perfect August morning. I never made it to the finish line.

According to Ironman’s official race results, I finished the 2.4-mile swim in 1:41:37, well under the 2 hour 20 minute cut-off required to continue with the event. That was a victory in itself since I had spent much of the spring and summer battling panic in the open water. I had dropped out of two swim events within just hundreds of meters of the start and had to work hard to fight an anxiety that was, at times, almost overwhelming.


Many people who first try open water swimming events are familiar with that feeling of panic. It can be multiplied when you are surrounded by athletes battling through the water beside you, kicking indiscriminately--and even unceremoniously swimming over the top of you! In the weeks leading up to Ironman Coeur d’Alene, my greatest fear was that I would never make it as far as the bike start, that panic would defeat me when I had barely begun. Most people work on this common problem by swimming frequently in open water. I tried that, even stopping to swim in lakes up and down the country as I made the road trip from Texas to Minnesota and back for my daughter’s college graduation that summer. It seemed though, for me, that more was not going to mean better.

July 7, 2012, swimming across Lake Texoma.
No goggles, no swimhat, no discernible style.
Just a pair of sunglasses and a lot of enthusiasm.
That’s because the open water was never the real root of the problem. After all, I had swum from Texas to Oklahoma for a lark years before while a friend kayaked beside me. I drank a beer on the shores of the neighboring state before swimming back to Texas again. My stroke was slow and clumsy, but I neither knew nor cared. I was just enjoying the day. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows I’m the first to leap into rivers, lakes, and oceans simply because I love the water. I’ve been doing it for decades. What, then, had changed? I had never been a great swimmer, could not even do a proper basic crawl, but it didn’t matter because I had no goals and no time limits back then. Suddenly, though, with the pressure of this big event, the water stopped being my friend. Everything about it became work and worry.

Lots of people had well-meaning suggestions about what I should do to get the better of my problem, but for the most part, I fixed it by swimming hard enough to run out of breath in the safety of a pool, and then slowing down (instead of stopping) to get my heart rate and my breathing back under control. I was fighting the anxiety by showing it I could come back from panic and still go on, that out-of-control breathing didn’t mean the end. It was a strategy of sorts. Let’s be honest though; I didn’t know for sure it was going to work.


That’s why that Ironman swim was such a magical event. Lake Coeur d’Alene is nothing like the murky waters we swim in in Texas. It’s crisp and cool and so clear you can see all the way to the bottom. I didn’t just make it through the swim as I’d been hoping; I relished it, loved every moment, was actually sorry, rather than relieved, when it was all over. I was barely even thrown off my stroke when some passing dude kicked me in the Adam’s Apple—not the only injury I received from enthusiastic athletes that morning.

Of course, the bike was another story. With an elevation gain of more than 7,000 feet over 112 miles, it's an understatement to say that IM Coeur d'Alene does not have one of the easiest bike courses on the Ironman circuit. But I had trained with friends all through the heat of the Texas summer, and I don’t think it was my legs that ultimately let me down. Ironman is such a long endurance event that keeping up nutrition and fluids so your body can work hard is key. I probably didn’t eat enough, and I definitely didn’t drink enough, to make it through. According to my faithful Garmin, it was around mile 76 of the 112-mile ride that I became so hot and confused on a particularly grueling hill that lying down for a nap in the road seemed like an excellent idea. I tried to explain to the nice policeman who pulled me to safety on the side of the road that if he’d just let me sit in his air-conditioned car for five minutes to cool down, I’d be perfectly able to go on. He wasn’t having any of it, and the paramedics who eventually arrived were equally unreasonable. All I wanted was some ice. Instead, I got a free ride back to the start and a saline drip. My race, I was told, was over.

Fear of failing

Of the five friends who traveled from Texas to Coeur d’Alene for that event, only one of us was an experienced Ironman, and she was also the only one of us who made it to the finish that day. Some people might call that a failure. I like to think of it as a start. It’s not surprising that if you have big goals, you don’t always achieve them on your first try, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. So many people are afraid to have a go at things for fear of failing, but what if failing is just a step along the way? And what if you miss out on what could be some of the greatest experiences of your life because of that fear? If you never fail at anything, I’d like to gently suggest that maybe your dreams aren’t big enough. Just a thought…

Samuel Beckett had this to say about trying and failing: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

So this summer I'm going to try again to reach that elusive finish line at the end of a grueling 140.6-mile course. Ironman Santa Rosa 2017 here I come. I'm planning and training for success, but with goals this big there are no guarantees. I can, however, promise this: if I do fail, I’ll fail better.

As promised, I tried again--and I failed better. At Santa Rosa, I made it to the end of the bike course before being pulled out of the race. I had missed the time cut-off to start the run--but no paramedics were involved. Score! 

Guess what I'm doing now? Spoiler alert: it involves training for a big athletic event I've tried a couple of times already. Failure is just a rest stop along the way. See you at the finish line--eventually!

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