Fit, fierce and ready to race! I rolled into Nationals at Omaha, Nebraska with a bright outlook. I’d done the work and felt I had all the tools I needed to deliver what I hoped and expected to be my big breakout race. I could lance through the water, soar on two wheels, and bound my way across the pavement. I had the triathlon trifecta down, but there was a fourth component I’d overlooked: hydration and nutrition.
We’ve all seen the footage of Julie Moss crawling to the finish line at Kona, and more recently the Brownlee brothers created a media frenzy at the World Triathlon Series Final when Alistair Brownlee helped his heat-exhausted brother Jonny cross the finish line. Before my own experience at Nationals, I had always thought that people who collapsed at the finish had accomplished an amazing feat of perseverance like these triathlon celebrities. I can now say from firsthand experience that this doesn’t just to the big kids racing for high stakes. This total body breakdown can happen to anyone on any performance. Chances are, if you are an endurance athlete, you have witnessed someone in this state. It’s all too common in our sport, and it’s about time we talk about it more.
Consider the environment you are training and racing in.
If you’re a desert dweller, what will happen to your body when you travel and race the following day in a hot, humid environment? Ideally, practice and experiment in the environment you will be racing in to acclimate yourself. If you can’t travel and spend a few days training in your race environment, consider simulating race environments with a humidifier next to your indoor trainer.
Begin hydration well in advance of your event, particularly emphasizing electrolyte consumption.
If like many athletes you neglect hydration, you may want to experiment with increasing your fluid intake several days before a race or big training day. However, be wary of flushing out all your good salts and becoming hyponatremic. Consider alternating water with an electrolyte beverage. My new hydration plan beings a week in advance, slowly shifting emphasis to electrolyte beverages over pure water three days in advance of race day.
Rehearse your race-day hydration and nutrition strategy. Know what supplements you will take and when. Consider carrying extra in case the conditions require a change or anticipated aid doesn’t meet your needs.
Second, know the symptoms!
Now that you know the signs and symptoms, test your knowledge by spotting the red flag factors and symptoms in this athlete’s woeful journey:
Finally the sound system began pounding out the nerve-wracking heartbeat countdown to our start. After fighting the building nerves as I waited for my division’s late wave start that would send us out into mid-day race conditions (condition warning!), I was thrilled to finally get moving. The water was HOT, and I had never before realized how much I depend on cold water to send me off on the bike with a cool core temperature (condition warning!). Overall, I was pleased with my swim. I took a gamble on the line I chose, a gamble I lost and paid for in extra yards. (Note to self: when you think you’re cleverer than everyone else, you’re probably not being clever after all!) But, on the bright side, my mid-pack exit didn’t faze me! I put the swim behind me confident I had a good cycling performance ahead.
I quickly got to work making my way through the fray, holding a steady effort and beaming with Western pride as I effortlessly flew past the competition on what must be the only hill in Nebraska. I ate my picnic of gels, downing as many calories and as much water (missed preventative opportunity!) as I could. As the heat began to pick up (condition warning!) I was so proud of myself. I was following my nutrition plan, I was riding well but conservatively to set myself up for a killer run, something I hadn’t had all season.
Run. The heartbreak. The Catastrophe.
Due to our late start, the exposed run route was starting to heat up (condition warning) by the time we hit the pavement, but I barely even noticed. For an un-acclimated (missed preventative opportunity) desert girl, this humidity (condition warning!!!) didn’t seem so bad. After a mile, I reflected on my carefully crafted race plan: start slow, then increase the pace by :05 every half mile. Huh. I’d increased my effort, but the pace just wasn’t improving. Rather than get frantic, I turned my attention to my technique. I kept my run clean, focusing on what I was doing well and reminding myself how I could be even better. Pace? Even WORSE! I willed myself to stay positive and turned to my fallback goal: Do not quit, do not mentally give up. So I ran. By the final two miles my heart was hammering at what I later found out was a 190bpm heart rate, but I was “running” a pace I could probably have walked (uh, RED FLAG!). I just couldn’t understand (confusion=warning symptom). Clearly, my watch was broken. I’d order a new one first thing. By the final mile, girls started flying by me and I kissed any chance at qualifying for World’s goodbye. Not quitting was the only goal left standing, and I clung to it as dizziness, fading vision and unstable legs set in (warning symptoms!). I have no memory of the final .5 mile.
Red, red flags all around, waving bright and in my face, but I just didn’t see them.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground in the medical tent. I assumed I’d finished, but I wasn’t certain. I couldn’t move, my heart was hammering, I was nauseated, barfing, cramping, sobbing. I didn’t understand what was going on. The nice lifeguards (they were medics, but in their red shirts I thought they were poor lifeguards who had lost their pool) kept asking me really hard questions: Can you stand up? Can you drink? What do you see? What’s your name?
Heat syndromes. NOT fun. There was nothing glamorous about my finish. I didn’t collapse setting a record, I collapsed running a pace that, on a normal day, I could probably walk. I’d completely disintegrated.
I tell the athletes I coach that I am systematically going through every mistake in the book to verify that they are, indeed, mistakes. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can definitely be the result of mistakes. Heat and humidity are scary! Prepare yourself adequately with proper for your race environment. Know the symptoms of heat illness, and do not ignore your body when it starts telling you that things are wrong. As athletes, we owe a lot to our bodies. Ask for a lot, but give it what it needs complete the task- foresight, acclimatization and hydration.