Ironman Louisville, KY 2007

I know this is very late in coming, but better late than never. Some of you may already know the results but I don’t think any of you have heard the full story, so here it is…
Race morning Jennifer (my girlfriend at the time who was running in her 8th ironman and 2nd for the summer) and I got up, had breakfast, got dressed and headed off to the start line. They had changed our swim course a couple days before the race due to heavy rains upriver from Louisville. The river had a fast and strong current and instead of a 1.2 mile out and back course they decided to have us start in a narrow waterway between a small island and shore. We were going to swim ¾ of a mile upriver and then around the island and then swim 1.7 downriver. Normally everyone would start at once, but since where we were starting was too small for this they had us start one at a time w/ someone jumping in every second in the order that we got there. I dove in right behind Jennifer and Brian C. (who was doing his 11th and 2nd for the summer) forgetting that the force of the dive and a head on current might be too much for my goggles. Sure enough, as soon as I hit the water the goggle over my right eye peeled back and filled w/ water. I tried to stop to empty it but within seconds I’d drifted yards past the start and I would have probably been several hundred yards beyond the start line before I could have gotten the goggle empty and repositioned, so I closed my eye to keep the water out, which I’d end up doing for the whole distance, and started to swim.
Even though we were only swimming a short distance against the current it was a long tough battle. The day before on a practice swim I’d swam for 15 minutes against the current and it only took about 1 minute to get back to where I started. On top of this, the water was 86 degrees. Brian and Jennifer were long gone by the time I gave up on my goggles and started swimming. I was continually running into people, being run over, elbowed, passing people, being passed and at one point deliberately shoved under water (I didn’t connect the resulting punch as soundly as I’d hoped, but I hope it was enough that he had some thigh cramping later in the race) and along the way accidentally drank about ½ the river. The river water and my stomach didn’t exactly get along and I ended up throwing up during the swim before we got to the end of the island and almost did it again several more times before the finish. After what seemed an eternity I finally reached the “end” of the island and turned toward the finish for the swim. Other than almost vomiting several more times the swim was pretty uneventful the rest of the way. 1:25 after starting the swim I finally climbed out of the water and started the long .3 mile run to my bike and gear.
I got my bike gear bag and started to change. I had some food packed but my stomach would have nothing to do w/ it so I settled for forcing down a carbohydrate drink and while clumsily trying to change clothes and pack my swim gear into the bike gear bag, took a brief rest to cool down (the water temperature was so great that I was actually over heated during the swim), hit the porto-potty and then ran the .2 miles out of transition, hopped on my bike and took off.
The air temp was already in the high 80’s by this point and of course even greater on the road. I drank a 24oz Gatorade during ~ every 12 miles of the ride and poured a bottle of cold water on me to try and cool off. About 17 miles into the ride I turned to ride down a short out and back on the course and passed Brian going the other way and figured out he was 6 miles ahead of me (he and Jennifer finished the swim 20 minutes ahead of me) and a few miles later I saw Jennifer who was 3 miles ahead of me. I tried eating some of my food after about 20 miles and gave up because my stomach was still sick and would have nothing to do w/ it. It was hard enough keeping fluids down. Around 37 miles I passed Jennifer and a few miles later got lapped by the first of the pro’s (there was a 40 mile loop that we did twice and the pro’s started about 25 minutes ahead of me). Around the 50 mile mark I tried eating again and gave up and pitched all of my food (or at least thought I did because 2 days later when doing laundry I found that most of it was still in my jersey pockets) because I saw no reason to carry it if I couldn’t eat it. About the ½ way point of the bike they had an area where we could pick up bags that we’d dropped off w/ food and other stuff we thought we might need and I grabbed another of my carb drinks from it and left the food behind. By this time it was getting very hot on the course I was fighting to keep from massively overheating. The air temp was in the 90’s and the heat radiating off of the road had to have taken the temp to the low 100’s. I just kept exchanging bottles (one in me and one on me), popping electrolyte tablets (I was taking them every 20 minutes during the ride) and tried to maintain a steady pace through the rest of the ride. At some point I found a couple gel packs (little pouches of carbohydrate gel) and forced them on my stomach as well as some shot blocks that I had in my bento box. About a mile from the end of the bike ride I caught Brian. Normally there is no way I could have closed a 6 mile gap on him (600 yards would be tough), but he’d decided to take it easy the last part of the ride to save a little more energy for the run which is his weakest part and where he often struggles. When I hit the end of the ride I got off my bike and ran it the .2 miles back into transition and grabbed the bag w/ my run gear.
I struggled out of my bike clothes and into my running gear and clumsily stuffed bike stuff into the transition bag. Brian joined me shortly after I got into the tent and we chatted for a while. I was still very hot (by this point the air temp had reached 98deg) and hoping a couple extra minutes would help cool me down. Finally ran out of tent, hit porta potty again, and took off on the run with my carb drink. The early part of the run was rather uneventful. I only got about ½ of my carb drink in me before tossing it. The upset stomach combined with bouncing from the run proved too much for it. Every mile I came to an aid station and drank some water or Gatorade and splashed some water on myself, every 3 miles I popped an electrolyte tablet and every 4 miles I forced in a gel pack. I ran the first half of the marathon at a fairly strong steady pace. The heat was tough, but I thought I was keeping the pace down enough to handle it. About 4 miles into the run I saw a pro on the way in who was walking which unfortunately bolstered my self confidence. On my way in from the 1st of 2 laps I saw both Brian and Jennifer and cheered them on and received cheers back. I ran through the turn around for the second lap and all of the cheering from the crowd must have given me a shot of adrenaline because I picked up the pace for a couple of miles. It was during this stretch that I started feeling a chill off and on and part of me thought that it seemed weird because I thought I should be sweating more than I was. I was puzzled by this but kept running and a few miles later I saw Brian and Jennifer again going the other way. The chills slowly got worse and I started feeling a little lightheaded which didn’t make sense to me because I’d been drinking plenty and getting my electrolytes as well as some gel packs. I don’t know why, but about a ¼ mile before the 18th aid station I started walking. When I got to the aid station I started drinking everything I could get my hands on and shoving any and all food into my mouth and soaking myself with cold sponges. The food was hard to keep down but I did it somehow. I kept walking the next mile to the next aid station where I did the same thing. About ¼ mile after that aid station I started jogging slowly and stopped about 200 yds short of the next aid station. I walked to and through that aid station, primarily getting a drink and another cold sponge, hit the porta potty and within 100ft started running again at a little faster pace. The next 2 I stopped only at the aid station and walked just long enough to get a drink, grab a sponge and took off, each time at a faster pace. The next aid station I ran through grabbing a drink and sponge on the way and I totally skipped the last one because I had recovered enough that I had a fast pace going and wanted to hold it through to the finish.
Looking back I know that I suffered greatly from the heat and my problems started during the swim. I didn’t realize it until well after the race (a day or two later) how bad I really was between the clumsiness, confusion, stomach problems (some was from river water, but I don’t think all of it was), chills, etc. I probably bordered on heat exhaustion all day and actually crossed into it during the run. Fortunately I stopped running in time, which was not done as a conscious effort on my part, and cooled off enough to avoid serious problems. The one good thing was that I maintained a high level of hydration and kept my electrolytes up, if I hadn’t, I might not only have not finished, but would probably have ended up in the ER. Unfortunately, that may have also been part of the problem for me recognizing what was going on. I was confused enough, but there were no cramping issues to help warn me.
But, I survived with no long lasting ill effects and finished in a strong time, 11:40:58, which I am still totally stoked about.

Thinking back, the important lesson to me is that no matter how knowledgeable you are about heat illness and careful you are, you can still be in danger of sucombing to them. I’m an athletic trainer and work with athletes in very hot, humid conditions, I teach first aid and CPR to my coaches and really emphasize being aware of the signs and symptoms. Despite this, I was almost overcome by the heat, myself. Upon further reflection I’m confident that I was suffering from heat exhaustion and bordering on heat stroke. Learn the signs and symptoms, prepare for the heat, and race smart.
(original post 10/07)

About Douglas Sawyer, MS, ATC

I am an athletic trainer who is also a very avid athlete. My first love is running, but I also love cycling and triathlons and many other activities. I'm not a swimmer though, I just don't drown for 2.4 miles... As a athletic trainer I work with sports injuries. I currently work at a school with athletes in 7th-12th grade in a wide variety of sports. I can be found on twitter at two different names: @IronmanLongRunr - where I tweet about run, bike, tri, & more @Longrunr - where I tweet about athletic training
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