The Rise and Fall of my Triathlon Demons

author : joeinco
comments : 6

As a triathlete, there is one acronym that you just can’t fathom ever having next to your name in a race report – DNF: DID NOT FINISH.

As a triathlete, there is one acronym that you just can’t fathom ever having next to your name in a race report – DNF: DID NOT FINISH. It’s a tough reality to take, especially when you’ve been training for a race for months and something not in your control — injury, equipment failure, the moon — prohibits you from reaching your dream. BTer Joe Renter had such a day on his first triathlon of the season. Here’s his DNF story:

By Joe Renter Contributing Writer

On June 19, 2005, I was prepared to race in the 5430 Sprint Triathlon in Boulder, CO. 750 meter swim, 17 mile bike, 3.1 mile run. No sweat, I’ve done all those distances in training. I had my friends there, everything was ready. Or so I thought.

I live in Colorado. It’s a beautiful place; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Unfortunately the nearest public swim beach is about 20 miles from me. It’s not always convenient to go swimming anywhere other than my local pool. While I can swim just fine in the pool, with limited numbers of people near me, I have trouble swimming in open water since I don’t do it often. This set the stage for problem #1.

Colorado has plenty of places to bike ride. Trails, roads with wide shoulders, paved bike-only routes – you name it, and we’ve got it. Boulder County, where I live, is known for having numerous pro/elite and weekend-warrior cyclists and triathletes who live and train here at least part of the year. The local road departments typically do a fairly good job keeping the roads swept. Consequently, I haven’t had to change a flat in several months. This led to problem #2

Each of us has a lot of gear for training and racing. Our bicycle pumps are essential to us. We have convenient, compact CO2 pumps. However, when we check our tires prior to going out for a ride, which pump do we typically grab? That’s right, the floor pump. Unfamiliarity with my equipment was problem #3.

The big day
7:34am - The horn sounded, and my wave took off. Alpine87 was in front of me on the swim, and there were about 200 people in our wave. I figure that 198 of these people bumped or kicked me. My swim demon reared his ugly head. I was completely unprepared for the throng of people I had to contend with, and my heart rate skyrocketed accordingly. My breathing was quick and shallow, and I could not get it under control. It took me just over 21 minutes to cover the 750 meters that I routinely do in about 15 minutes in the pool. I had planned a max of 17 minutes for the swim, but I wasn’t too concerned at this point. I know the swim is my worst segment.

Hubris humbled
7:56am – I’m leaving the transition area, and start hammering the bike route. I had ridden the route with several BTer’s and was determined to show off my bike strength. I started well, passing people on the first hill leaving the reservoir, made the turn and headed for the open road ahead.

As I approached the area where I knew I could make up my four-minute deficit, the second demon jumped out. I heard a distinct sound that could only mean something stuck in my tire. Back tire is flat with a piece of glass. I pulled the glass out of the rear tire (isn’t it ALWAYS the rear that goes flat in a race?), and yanked the tube.

I put my spare tube in, grabbed the CO2 cartridge and realized to my horror that it was the wrong size and would NOT inflate my tire. I’m lucky enough to have a pump that I can use manually to inflate a tire. But not today.

I knew I had dropped it, and apparently I broke it. This demon was getting bigger by the minute. I started walking back hoping to find a sag wagon.

Infosteward arrived with a regular frame pump, but that one would not work either. I was out. DNF. And I was mad.

Giving up tri life?
That four-mile walk back to the transition area was the worst walk I’ve ever taken. I decided that triathlons were not for me. I’d stick with duathlons so I wouldn’t fail on the swim ever again. And I certainly wasn’t ready for my first Olympic triathlon the next week, as this sprint was an essential part of my training for the Olympic.

And now I had to buy ANOTHER pump to replace the one I broke. You know, forget all of this. I just won’t do any more triathlons, and I won’t be disappointed. Worse, I found out at home that my spare tube had two holes in it. I hadn’t checked my tube before I packed it. And I hadn’t checked my CO2 cartridge, although the pump worked fine on a good tube. I was doubting myself, and this was the biggest demon of all.

I woke the next day with a terrible feeling – I can’t swim. I certainly can’t do the next race in one week! I rode my bike to work, and I may have hit 16 mph. I was jittery that I would have another flat. That Monday night, I dreamed that I couldn’t run. Not that I was slow, but that my legs just would not run. The next night, I dreamed that I wrecked my bike. The demon was going to devour me. All week long, my worst fears were laid in front of me, and I couldn’t overcome them. I trained, but the intensity wasn’t there; why bother when I’m just a fraud? I’ve fooled myself long enough, why hurt myself training when it isn’t doing any good on race day?

Five days later
I’m at the Longmont Lake-to-Lake pre-race meeting. Oh joy, I’m in the second wave. EVERYONE will be passing me on the swim, and it’s 1500 meters. It’s going to take me at least 45 minutes to finish it, and I’ll have to do it backstroke! And what happens when my bike dies? The demon was winning – I almost backed out of the race.

Race day

2:00 a.m. – The neighbor’s dog is barking. Now I can’t fall back to sleep. I finally crawl out of bed at 3:50am, and go to the bathroom. Uh oh, I’m so nervous that my stomach is twisted in knots. It hurts, and I don’t dare eat anything. I drive to Loveland, and manage to drink a PowerADE to help me fuel up. But I know that won’t be enough. I set up my transition area, don the wetsuit, and head to the lake that I don’t want to swim in for my warm up.

6:36a.m. – Another horn sounds, and my wave is off. I had told several others in my wave that I knew I’d be the last one out. The elite wave was rounding the first buoy, and I was just waiting for that swim demon to show up. This swim went well – almost TOO well. I wasn’t the last in my wave out! In fact, I passed a couple of the first wave swimmers. I was so excited that I came in under my 45 minute though, that I completely forgot to take my gels on the bike portion. But that course was great for me! I had been riding hills a lot recently, and it showed. I caught up with more of the elite level wave. And passed them. My average speed was 20 mph. This course is known for its hills, and how it makes the strong humble. But I was riding with a passion that I hadn’t felt since my last triathlon last year.

9:57a.m. – I’m heading through the TA, grabbing my running shoes and a gel (finally!) and I’m off. My legs hurt, my back hurts, and my stomach is growling from lack of fuel. It takes me two miles to get my running legs and find my pace, but I can feel it. I’ve lost my demon of self-doubt. I’m on a high, even as I’m praying for the end of the race.

I learned several important lessons from all of this:

  1. Train as you race – meaning if you race in open water, train in open water. I now have plans to have someone swim with me in open water at least once a week, and very close to me, so I can stay accustomed to the crowding.

  2. Check ALL of your equipment prior to race day. This includes the things that you hope you don’t have to use. Practice with each item to make sure you know how to use it quickly, too.

  3. There are things that you can control, and things that you can’t. If something happens that you can’t control, do not get down on yourself. Take a step back, analyze the problem(s), and prepare for the next time. It will happen eventually, but you’ll have the knowledge to beat it then.

It’s currently 9:25 p.m. – I’m still on that post-race high that we love. I’ve beaten my demons. Oh, I’m sure that flat-tire demon is still out there. But now that I’ve got my confidence back, he’ll have a hard time catching me. And I’m feeling better about my next race. This week has been a challenge for me. We will all face challenges like this from time to time. But as triathletes, we’re accustomed to digging deep, and finding out just what we’re made of, and what we can do.


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date: September 3, 2005


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