Coach Lee’s Journey to DNF, or Making a Smart Decision

Being an athlete takes patience. It’s a process that is limited by our abilities to train and recover. To do it correctly, one must juggle physically and mentally the ebb and flow of fitness while building towards an end goal. An athlete must make smart decisions about when to go hard and when to back off, when to attack and when to rest.

My first race of the season was this past weekend. A local half-iron distance race. I had planned the race as a milestone event after having thoroughly rehabbed a running related injury for the past year. With my injury now gone, and a few weeks of specific focus on triathlon training, I was eager to see where I stood. Fate would have it that four days before the race, I was trail running and after only a single mile into the run I clipped a rock with my foot and fell hard to ground, knocking the wind out of my lungs momentarily.

Embarrassed and angry, I picked myself up: bloody knee & elbow; some scrapes on my left shoulder and back. Nothing seemed broken, so I finished a few more miles easy, and called it night. The next morning, I was sore. My ribs in particular were very tender. Judging by the location of the pain, I must have jammed my elbow into my ribs as I hit the ground.

As the week progressed, I kept my fingers crossed that I would still be able to toe the line on Sunday. On Saturday, I knew it was very possible I would not race to my ability.  It still hurt, maybe even more. I couldn’t even run a four mile loop at an easy effort with wincing periodically. “Should I even try to start?”

I decided that I would simply be as objective as possible on race day, and decide moment by moment whether to continue. I told myself that if I saw that I was under-performing by a fair margin, I’d call things off. After all, if I didn’t race, I’d probably still get in a little bit of cycling (which didn’t really hurt much), and maybe a short jog or easy swim.

lee-swimRace morning came, and I got through my pre-race rituals without much discomfort.  I set up transition, and did a quick dry-land warm up. I was feeling good, but was reminded of my tender ribs while putting my wetsuit on. Once I was zipped in, I realized the compression actually felt good. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

The gun went off, and race mode turned on. I did my usual swim sprint to try and hang onto the faster swimmers for as long as possible, which on this day was not very long. I settled into my stroke, and immediately noticed that I was shortening my stroke on the left side, which is the side where I was bruised. I was swimming with half a flipper, so to speak. This kept the pain to a minimum so I kept going. I can only imagine what my gimpy swim stroke looked like. Out of the swim, and I was about 4 or 5 minutes off from my usual 1.2 mile open water swim. Not great, but not the end. I still wanted to test things out, and felt I could continue.

Onto the bike, I was feeling good! The first 15 miles were newly paved: Smooth like butter. My power output was a little low, but not too bad, and it felt good to be riding fast! Then at about mile 20, the course turned to a road that slowly wore me down. Big cracks across the road about every 10 meters caused me to continually brace myself while riding over them, “thud-thud…thud-thud…thud-thud…” By the time I got to the hills in the last 15 miles of the course, I was beaten down, and every shift of position on the saddle, every pedal stroke, every breath I could feel my ribs. I knew my day was over, even if I didn’t want it to be.

I cruised into to T2 determined to finish my day with everything I had left. I wanted at least to have a perfect bike dismount, so I played it through my head a few times as I neared the transition area. I got myself in position, feet out of shoes, hanging one leg off the side, eyeballing the dismount line. I leaped off the bike, and hitting the ground in motion. A nearly perfect running dismount. Ouch. Bracing for that ground impact nearly took my breath away. I was so focused on my dismount that I forgot about the fact that I was jumping off of a bike onto pavement, and that it might cause a little pain. It did. It was an immediate reminder.

I racked my bike; took a deep breath. I remember thinking, “Damn, my legs feel so fast right now!” It was so tempting to go run, to try and finish this race. I looked around for a race official while I pondered continuing. There weren’t many bikes parked in T2. What if I could run a fast 13.1 miles? I was still in good position. But what if I do run, and make things worse? I have my next race to think about. That race is my “A” race. I knew it was too risky after thinking about it more. I knew I had to stop. I would race another day. I turned in my timing chip, packed my gear, and left for home. DNF: My day was over.


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