The “I Can Quit Truck”, a shiny black Ford pickup, was only 30 feet from me, just across the street where I had stopped to rest after biking up a steep hill. Two fellow Ironman hopefuls were loading their bikes into the bed of the truck. They were done. I was pretty much done too, but not quite yet in the truck. All I had to say was, “Do you have room for me?” and my race would be over too. I would no longer be a hopeful, but a DNFer (Did Not Finish). No more tired legs. No more anguish. I was 94 miles into the 112 mile bike course. The morning started with a 2.4 mile swim and after the bike, assuming I could finish it, I still faced a 26.2 mile run. Something was wrong. I was struggling. My confidence and strength were gone. DNF was calling me.
This was supposed to be my eighth Ironman. My seventh was in August of 2014 at Mt. Tremblant in Quebec. That race went as expected, where I finished in 15 of the 17 hours allowed for the event. In fact, except for my second Ironman in 2003 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, all my races went as expected. I under trained for Coeur d’Alene, a rookie mistake, and vowed to never let that happen again. As I eyed the “I Can Quit Truck”, it was painfully obvious that I had made a serious mistake in preparing for the 2018 Boulder Ironman. My completion record for half and full Ironmans is 100%, 24 for 24, but leading into this race, I had more fear and doubt than ever before.
Fear and doubt grew slowly in the year approaching the race. My strength and speed have decreased about 10 to 15% over the past decade. Some of the decrease is an aging body, but most of the decrease is from pretty much eliminating anaerobic training. Anaerobic means without oxygen. That is when you are gasping for breath, your heart is racing and your muscles burn. I really don’t like the gasping for breath and the muscle burn. So starting in 2011, I gave up almost all anaerobic training. I also gave up doing t-runs. That is a run right after a bike. A t-run prepares your body for the rapid change from bike to run. Even though I don’t do anaerobic training and t-runs, I do the necessary swimming, biking, running and core work to finish my races. Or so I thought.
Like for Mt. Tremlant, I trained for a 15 hour finish in Boulder. I based my training on the difficulty of the race, mainly how hilly the bike and run courses are. I have done enough races with enough variations to be pretty good at knowing how to train for a specific course. Boulder has a moderate 3,936 feet of climbing in the bike and 898 feet of climbing in the run. Since all I care about is finishing in the allocated 17 hours, training for 15 hours gives me two hours of slop. The two hours are for problems that happen in a race like, leaky goggles or an elbow in the nose on the swim. On the bike, you can expect things like flat tires, cables breaking or even taking a wrong turn. On the run, you can expect things like major blisters, painful rashes, stomach issues and taking a wrong turn. Most of time you can solve these problems by keeping a clear head and having the time to recover.
Long before I saw the “I Can Quit Truck”, just 10 miles into the bike, my legs were tired. Could it be the heat? Could it be the lack of anaerobic training? Am I just too old? Should I quit? My mind filled with failure. As I ascended the first hill, my power faded as did my confidence. Ten months ago, I had completed the Boulder Half Ironman and was strong on the bike. Things were different today. As I continued to ride and as the temperature soared, my will to finish vanished. Self-pity took a firm grip. Instead of figuring out how to succeed, I rationalized quitting. I was confused and angry. My legs were failing me, but more dangerously, my mind was failing me.
For some unknown reason, I turned down the invitation from the “I Can Quit Truck” and continued pedaling. There was no “Aha Moment.” I did not dig down for something deeper. I just pedaled. In hindsight, I suspect I continued because that is what my mind and body had trained to do, keep moving. I was left with instinct, not some thoughtful response to adversity. Eventually, I finished the bike and after two miles of the run, my mind had cleared and the self-pity faded away. The bike took 90 minutes longer than predicted, but I made up 30 minutes on the run, finishing the race in 16 hours. The two hours of slop that I train for proved to be enough to get the finisher medal and t-shirt. The mental discipline that I count on, thoughtfulness, failed, but a previously unknown mental discipline, instinct, did not fail. I am uncomfortable counting on instinct. Nor do I know how to quantify it, but I am pleased it is there.
Going forward, I will focus on three new challenges. First, how do I work on preventing a mental breakdown during a race. Second, if I can’t prevent it, how do I work to repair the mental breakdown. Third and finally, if I fail in preventing and repairing, how do I ensure that instinct will keep me moving forward when the “I Can Quit Truck” is calling.
Without a doubt, I want to get a bit stronger, both physically and mentally. I hired Craig Zelent to coach me for the next year. Twice before, I have hired coaches and in both cases, the investment was well worth it. I hired a coach for my first Ironman to help me properly train for a finish. I hired a coach for my third Ironman to help achieve a personal best.
I am hiring Craig for more of a soft goal. His job is to help me, at 60 years old, find the proper balance between endurance, speed and strength training. He has already added a bit of anaerobic exercise into the mix and I am “enjoying” the change. Craig’s guidance will build my confidence, which will help with the mental game. To further help with the mental game, I will practice mental imagery, also known as visualization. I will be visualizing a mental breakdown during a race and how I will either overcome the breakdown or let instinct take over and keep me moving.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I will certainly enjoy the journey. I look forward to riding past the “I Can Quit Truck” the next time it calls for me.