Triathlon has continued to change my life for the better. However, it has not come without it’s share of challenging times. And I guess we’ll start my Ironman World Championship blog here. I didn’t finish the race.
This was different from my only other Ironman DNF… Ironman Boulder in 2016. In Boulder, I was blissfully unaware of how little sodium I had taken or even how much I needed on such a hot day. I guess that is what they call learning the hard way – I tend to do a lot of it. But in Kona this year, I was so painfully aware or the calories, sodium, and carbohydrates I needed. I had grown so much as an athlete. And I was so conscious of the deficit I would be in the minute I dropped my bottle and was forced to use on course nutrition. It still hurts when I think about the way my heart sunk as I reached back for my last bottle to find it was no longer there.
But let me back up a bit here.
Albiet this story has a sad ending… as you, now, know. It isn’t all sad. And even sad stories bring lessons. And I’m all about living and learning so here we go. I think I have been holding off on sharing my story because I have been waiting for more to go right in my life. Don’t get me wrong, some things have… I’ll expand on this. Ironically, I would date the past 6 months of my life the best and worst months of my life.
Rewind to PreKona
I had come off of an incredible first half of the year. I took 7th overall at Ironman Santa Rosa. Graduated from college. I had a summer of training, job hunting, and the Zwift Academy camp to look forward to – I was flying high. And I mean, hi can we talk about that? I was fortunate enough to be a part of the first year of the best supported amateur triathlon team in the world. It was by far one of the greatest experiences of my life. Through the Academy, I knew I was going to be given an insane amount of product support. (I think I need to write a separate blog about the Academy 🤪) But what I did not anticipate was the amount of support I received from my friendships during my time in the Academy. It was something I will never forget and always hold close to my heart.
Things took a turn for the ‘complicated’ in the months and weeks leading into Kona. I was under a lot of stress from many angles. Some I will discuss, some I won’t. For starters, a few months out from Kona, I had this deep rooted gut feeling that this would be my last triathlon. I’m not sure why. Nothing was wrong. Quite the opposite… I was being given literally every opportunity to succeed by the Academy team. And I was incredibly excited and fit to race. But I just couldn’t shake this feeling of finality moving into this race. I wasn’t sad. Or mad. I just knew that this chapter had run it’s course. So I had gone into Kona deeply appreciating the opportunity. Putting my best foot forward. Giving it my best shot knowing it would be my last race.
It is weird. Gut feelings. And I may be guided by them more than most as a Pisces who are known for their instinctual natures. (horoscopes to me are interesting and scary accurate) I’ve always felt this. Sometimes I make decisions that I know in my soul are right. But I don’t know how it will pan out. I can’t see the pieces between the decision and the outcome, but I know I’m making the right choice nonetheless. And this was one of those times.
The next thing that was difficult to swallow was the tough breakup I went through leading into Kona. I think the hardest part of this split was that nothing was particularly wrong. We were best friends. Kind to one another. Supportive. And to this day I have nothing but love and admiration for him.. But at the same time, I knew there were things that were missing. It was difficult to come to this conclusion and I think oftentimes people in these circumstances choose to stay because things are maybe good enough. It took a lot of courage… a lot of acceptance of the unknown. A lot of re-sorting of my life as ours had become very intertwined. I knew that the timing of this decision was less than ideal, but big life decisions never really do come at the time we are ready for them.
So, we split. It sucked. I hurt a lot. And with it, I moved. Suddenly – I was not only out of that relationship, but also out of the environment that was home for me. I was away from the friends and routine that helped me thrive. Most of the time, I feel like I am pretty good at putting on a good face and rolling with the punches but for the first time I felt completely shattered. Training became difficult. Emotionally, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I was drained. And I was now 45 minutes away from my masters group I trained with and running trails I loved. I cut workouts. I slept a lot. (For some reason… never during the night) I isolated myself even further by retreating from my healthy supportive relationships as I do sometimes under immense stress. And writing this now, I am so thankful I have been able to move past that place.
I did my best in this time and things began to get better as things do with time. I started focusing on what I had control over. I made an intentional effort to make plans with friends. And started carving out little shelves in my brain to organize the chaos. (love you MBK!) I attempted to move forward the best I could and worked to accept help (very bad at this). Training was still kind of chaotic and poor Meredith had to ride this emotional rollercoaster with me. I felt like I was finally beginning to surface from all of the craziness.
And then Talbot walked into my life. We had recently faced similar trials and we found friendship in one another. In the time that my world seemed dimmed, he brought light. A few weeks later, work brought him to Lawrence and he asked me on a date. (PANIC) I wrestled with the thought of saying no. I was reluctant but excited and ultimately agreed. At dinner a few nights later I knew I was in trouble because suddenly I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be and that I wanted to eat dinner with him every night for the rest of my life. I hadn’t planned to have another relationship. like, ever. But alas, life is full of surprises and what a blessing he has been to me.
I was happy for the first time in a while. And in addition to this, the last block of training was shaking out. I felt strong (despite losing 11 lbs in my break up) and capable of performing well at Kona which made me hopeful. I had lost a lot of that hope through the summer, so I felt my head was finally on straight and I was ready. It was still a few weeks out from the race, but I was going stir crazy in KC so, I switched my flights and came out to Kona a little early to train and relax. It was phenomenal. In stark contrast to 2015 when I came to Kona two days before the race, I had almost two full weeks before the race to prep in this environment and train the course. I was PUMPED.
Talbot was on the island for work and made it easy for me to get training in by dropping me at the pool or somewhere random on the bike course a few times. I did hill repeats up Hawi per Meredith’s request and did run intervals in the energy lab. I even got to swim with Lionel while they shot a video one day. Outside of that, we made a personal mission to find the best acai bowls on the island which are obviously crucial in Kona prep. All of factors helped prepare me the best I could. I felt like I had course knowledge. I knew the elements. And I felt prepared. However, as the days went on I began feeling progressively tired.
It is so hot there. I think I was careful to stay out of the heat, but there isn’t really air conditioning anywhere. And the lack of escape can feel suffocating. I began to think that maybe coming out to Kona two weeks early was too much. For some people more time does wonders. For me… I learned.. It made me tired. And that sucked. BUT there was no way for me to know until I did it. So…. Again I learned.
The zwift team arrived and it was game on. I had been there for so long I almost started to feel as if I was losing the edge of having an upcoming race. But when we all were finally on the island together it felt more real. Oh and Brandon, one of my best friends. He was the real last piece of the puzzle. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and having someone who knows you… that you don’t have to BE anything around was amazing. No front. No face. Just myself and I love him
We had a few events the week leading into Kona. For starters, we all competed in the swim race the week prior. Unfortunately it was the one day that month all of the jelly fish came to the surface and a lot of people got stung – including my teammate Bex. All in all it was fun and gave us a nice little taste of what we would get the following weekend. I swam a 1:01 – I was pleased with this as it was my fastest recorded Ironman swim time. I didn’t feel like I pushed very hard. I was super relaxed and smooth so I was happy and assumed it meant I was on target to break my hour goal the following weekend.
We rode the course together one day from Waikaloa up Hawi. It was really nice to have the Zwift sag van behind us. I bailed almost to the top of Hawi and followed behind Golo and Bex who had a longer workouts.
We also held the launch party for the new Specialized bike at our house and hosted a few Zwift community workouts throughout the week.
I hardly slept the night before the race. I was up before my alarm, submitted to being awake and went to eat breakfast – oatmeal and a banana per usual. I made my way down to the swim start with the team. I was happy to have their company as we had been through a lot together over the course of the season. We went through body marking together then I split off as I was anxious to find Talbot before the start. Once I did, we sat together for a while and FaceTimed my mom to distract myself from the nerves that were starting to creep in. With a hug, I headed to the pier with 15 minutes until my start time.
I made my way onto the pier and nerves fully hit me for the first time. I had separated from the teammates with hopes to reconnect with my them before the start. I felt like seeing my them would give me a piece of comfort before the start, however, standing on the pier I couldn’t find any of them. I paced around anxiously waiting for the women to be released to the water. I found a few friends of mine which helped to pass the time. Finally, we started making our way to the steps and were released to the water. I wasn’t as intimidated by the ocean as much as I had been in the past. I had spent time in Kona and in the ocean and the familiarity seemed to help.
We trended water for what seemed like forever. As the start time grew closer, there was more and more pushing and moving around in the water as people tried to elbow their way to their position. Finally the cannon blew and we were on our way. I had the best start of my life. In contrast to 2015 Kona… I positioned myself to the far right in the very front. In the past I have seeded myself a bit behind the front but because I knew I could hang towards the “front pack” but I was certainly not one of the fastest, And I guess I decided there is no reason for that that. I had the ability to swim as fast as any of them (not to say I would.. as my open water skills are POOR but you know.. I had the fitness) so I put myself there. The gun went off and I was swimming in clear water towards the first bouy. Clear. As in I was not getting trampled. Which is a miracle there. I was like YESSS this is going to be the best swim of my life. And… then *plot twist* – this was legit the worst swim of my life. For reference. This was worse than my first ironman where I swam 1,000 yards once every 2 weeks in training because I didn’t have time and knew I could fall back on my swim back ground. So anyway. REALLY BAD considering I had been pulling 15-20k weeks and had swam a 1:01 a week prior. But… From the start to the turn around. Things were ok. I felt strong and I was swimming well.
Just before we hit the turn around, my calf threatened to cramp. No idea why…. I hydrated well leading into this. Like I said, I think I had been in Hawaii too long. I still felt strong, but on the way back from the turn around, I started feeling the skin in my arm pit just absolutely ripping. I had a sleeved kit on with a sleeved skinsuit on top of it. I had put Vaseline on… but it didn’t help. Or…. it stopped helping. The abrasive salt water and material was tearing my skin apart. I had to talk myself into every stroke. It was awful and I still try to block out this frame of time in my mind. I literally kicked on my back for a few minutes because the pain was awful. After the race, I had horrible scabs all over my arm pits and down the insides of my arm. I did not take pictures of the scarring because it was so hard to look at.. For a full week after the race they bled when I raised my arms. I think next time I would pull my race suit down underneath my swimskin so there is less material moving with each stoke. Anyway. I came out at 1:08. There is actually a clip of me coming out of the swim in the Zwift video and you can see me hard RBFing when I saw the clock. Worst swim of my life and for point two five seconds I was PISSED. But in a 10+ hour day.. you can’t dwell. You just have to move forward.
For your entertainment.. 6:23 – 6:30
I was happy to be out on the bike. It’s my jam. And for the first time, I had a bike that I felt strong on, was completely comfortable on, and it was specifically fitted to ME! I had spent a lot of grueling hours on the wahoo in preparation for Kona. Fighting my own weaknesses…. making space for strength. In addition to this, I had spent time on the race course this year. I knew the turns of the road and how isolated I would be. I was ready to race it. I was zipping through the out and back in town. Mindfully, I stayed within my numbers and soaked it in as I knew it would be a lonely stretch out to Hawi. After the initial excitement, I settled into pace and glanced at my power numbers every now and then to ensure I was on target. Meredith and I had decided 190-200ish were my ironman watts. While it scared me initially as we began to work to sustain this pace… I always trusted deeply in her.
As many of you know, I was self coached for years. I coached myself to two world championship races and I am proud of what I accomplished. However, there are limitations to coaching yourself. There were days I slept instead of getting up for a workout. And days I pushed too hard. Probably more of those than anything else. There is nothing really to prevent this. You need a third party to keep you in check. Because even if you’re following a cookie cutter plan… your life is not cookie cutter. And as different stressors come into play… your time is pulled.. maybe you’re not adapting to the cookie cutter plan the way you should.. You need someone to help adapt the plan for you and to help you make those decisions. That is the conclusion I have come to after my years doing this both self coached and with a coach.
The trust is crucial. You can’t question your coach. When you feel tired.. doubtful… you HAVE to trust. Which is why the correct fit is crucial. I placed my trust so deeply in MBK And I found myself performing throughout the year with ease from the hard work we had both put in.
There was not much that was notable for me between the start of the bike and the climb to Hawi. I’m not sure if this is actually the case or if the horrendous back half of this bike ride just took precedence in my mind. I began the climb to Hawi. I remember being hot. I had used a few aid station bottles on my head at this point and felt a little angry at myself for my helmet choice. The day before the race I chose to wear the aero Zwift helmet because I tested faster with an aero helmet in the win tunnel and they had given them to us as a gift. I generally always feel hot when others are comfortable or even cold. And in addition to this, I have a lot of muscle and it is just harder to cool myself down. And, Anyway… I wish I had worn my road helmet. The climb was going fairly well all things considered. I felt strong until this point and I had been smart in my effort. I kept my numbers consistent and had my head on straight.
When I finally made it up the climb I was reminded how full of energy Hawi is on race day. There are spectators for the first time in 50 some odd miles. Aid. And you can tell how far back or ahead you are because you can see others coming towards you as you approach the turn around. I smiled. Took it in and headed back to town. I think it was a little after I began descending Hawi that I reached back for my last calorie bottle. My heart sank as I realized it was no longer there. Must’ve fallen on a hard bump. I knew at this point that I needed roughly 600+ calories that I would have to get on course. I also knew the main electrolyte source on course doesn’t really sit well with me. So… my lesson here: I didn’t have a great plan B. In effort to avoid Gatorade, I began taking gels. I didn’t really count how many I had for the remainder of the ride, but I remember trying to get as many down as I could at each aid station. I grabbed as many as I could from the volunteers and shoved them down my bra as I passed aid.
About mile 64, I remember feeling a twinge in my inner right quad. Like it wanted to cramp. Something I haven’t yet talked about.. I crashed a moped 4 days before the race. Lectures welcomed. After we didn’t trust the answer from urgent care (legit thought I broke my knee cap) I had gone to see Lawrence – A well known PT many of the pros use. He told me I had bruised the muscle where my quad attracted to my knee and that I would have to be extremely careful with it. He also told me I may not finish the race. At the end of the day my DNF was indefinitely a result of lack of nutrition. But I remember being SO disappointed with myself thinking this cramp was result of the crash and pushing too hard.
I was worried. Crash or nutrition… I had felt this once before. Ironman boulder in 2016… This was the same sensation I had right before debilitating quad cramps began. Sure enough these came. I don’t know if this has ever happened to anyone else but it is the most debilitating pain. Eventually both were cramping. Quads and calves. I couldn’t push more than 150 watts and was cautious of this line as I didn’t want to experience any more pain. Each time it would happen, I would stop pedaling to let it subside before I began again. All I could do was take in nutrition and pray. I talked to God for the better part of the remaining 40 miles. At first I bartered with Him. Please don’t let this happen to me… And then I remembered it wasn’t up to me so I asked for strength to endure whatever was to come.
Talbot pulled up next to me on a moped in the last 12 mile into town. I had tears rolling down my face and luckily, he was too far away to tell, but I smiled when I saw him nonetheless. He asked if I was ok and I told him I was great. I think I hoped that if I said it, that would be my reality. But the true reality is that I knew this was going south. He left me and I rode into town.
I was so happy to be off of my bike, but equally worried about the marathon to come. In transition I knew I was messed up. Suddenly being upright, my vision wasn’t totally clear. I ran into the tent seeing floaters and sat in a chair to put on my running shoes. I tried to talk to the volunteer, but what I said came out a little slurred. I grabbed a water and I think a gatorade (barf) and ran out to the course.
My first thought as I took my first stride was “oh F*ck” I just kept thinking back to ironman Santa Rosa in May. I felt like you had to legit put a LEASH on me to slow down my pace starting that marathon. My legs felt fresh. And I had to consciously dial it back. And here… I took my first step and felt weak, sluggish, heavy, and knew this was going to be a long 26 miles.
From the first step, I felt twinges in my legs. I had to run slower than planned to keep the threatening cramps at bay but I was like.. whatever they’ll probably go away, I’ll loosen up, open up my stride in a bit and we’ll be fine. However the twinges turned into cramps and my run turned into a walk/run. I was still fighting. A few miles had gone by and I was like ok great. I can average a pretty good pace here if I just walk a little and then give a good run effort. So I kept doing that. But the cramps began coming sooner and stronger and eventually my run/walk turned into a walk.
The dialogue turned to: great! Walking a marathon. I feel really bad but hey… Never done this before. Cool – maybe I can help someone who needs it. More time on the course = more I get to experience this. Ya? I saw friends on the sidelines who were concerned seeing me walk. I tried to put on a good face. Kept moving.. And kept taking in as much as I could. It had been a few miles and things were not getting better. My thoughts went to my parents. I wished I could tell them I was ok because I knew they were at home feeling helpless and worried as they likely saw these splits come across. I had switched to pretzels as I kept up my walk. I remember putting them in my bra because my forearms began cramping when I held anything in my hand. Even a Dixie cup. It was like the action of moving my fingers was too much.
I also had to take off my watch at one point and loosen my timing chip as I realized my extremities were swelling. I knew I was holding on to fluid because I didn’t have enough salt but unfortunately I was pretty deep in this bonk and clawing my way out. It was pretty early still but I tried to keep a good attitude as I moved forward and managed. The back spasms started next. It was like I could manage the turmoil that was happening… manage.. manage… and then when my back went, quads/calves, and forearms were all cramping I lost it.
I remember coming up the hill to mile 11. My ice had run out that I had been carrying and I kept thinking how hot I was. I could feel the sun on my skin and it felt like fire. I had stopped sweating and I was burnt. I knew that much. Every step I took up this incline sent my back into spasms. I had been in a hole since half way through the bike. And while I knew there was no getting out of it – my hope here was that I could finish this even if I was in a hole.
I went to grab more pretzels from a volunteer and missed hands. I tried to grab it with my hand extended backwards as I kept moving forward and my back went haywire. I dropped to the ground as both my back and hamstring began spasming. They probably thought I was having a seizure. I remember looking up towards the blinding sun searching for a face. There are few times in my life I ask for help and in this moment, I was scared and knew I needed help. I was helped away from the aid station to talk to a medic. They were all so kind. A guy gave me a shirt to lay on as my cramps continued. They poured cold water on me and two people started massaging my back and legs trying to help the spasms. Eventually, I got cold and asked them to stop with the water.
I don’t really remember being given the option to continue or not. I think it was clear maybe to everyone that it wasn’t an option? I’m sure they asked me… but all I remember is the question of what my bib number was. You know… so they could submit my DNF. I had a horrible hour or so (I honestly have no idea how long I was in med tent). Cramps continued. I was told I was hyponatremic and that I needed salt. Which I knew – but let me tell you Gatorade was still the last thing I wanted and the first thing they were trying to get down my throat. I was like ya hi. Appreciate you!! Can we get something that wasn’t used on the race course? I never want to see that crap again. 😂
I was released after a while. I spoke to my team briefly but I almost couldn’t bear to be around them as I was so sad with myself. And while normally disappointments fall heavy on my shoulders, it fell heavier knowing so many people were behind this race for me this year. My team, all of the companies that supported us.. I was so full of shame. At the same time, I knew in the race, I couldn’t have done much different. And that the mistake really came in the planning. You should always be prepared to use on course nutrition and there should always be a plan B if you do drop a bottle.
Looking back, it seems so silly to have been so mortified and shameful in front of my team, but I was. And I just wanted to leave. Talbot took me on a moped back to Tim and Rinny’s house. I got into their pool in my race kit, showered, ate a steak, took a sleeping pill and slept. I did an interview with GTN the next day and packed my bike and clothes. Really that is all I remember about the rest of my time on the big island. The rest is a bit of a blur.
I planned to go home soon after the race but ended up going to Oahu with Talbot Tim and Rinny. The stay at Four Seasons certainly helped the disappointment sting less. We relaxed. Ate amazing food. Swam with dolphins.. Laid by the pool. It was a perfect ending to that trip with a lot of people I care about.
I have struggled a bit post-kona. I 15lbs heavier than I was on the Kona start line. I recognize some of that was inevitable as I was very lean leading into Race day. But I have also had a major swing in my thyroid levels.
I felt like my body was rejecting exercise after Kona. This is understandable as it takes time to recover from an Ironman (even just part of one 😉) but after this persisted well past a month… I knew something was up. I can’t get through a day without a nap and I hardly exercise at all because I’m just too tired for it. Weight is all over the place.. it’s awful.
If I had to guess it probably started at the end of the summer. Backstory: I started having an irregular thyroid at 13. My levels where haywire. Hypo one month and hyper the next. And just when they thought radiation and replacement hormone were in my cards… things stabilized. I didn’t have issues for years, but something flopped this summer and I have been miserable. I haven’t gotten into my specialist yet, but have appointments lined up I am eager to find a solution as this has been the most debilitating, frustrating, and disheartening few months for me.
Cross your fingers for me please
I hope to solve this soon. And I hope to get into some sort of a routine with exercise again once I feel more like myself, whatever that may look like.
I have also struggled because (and I say this in the least egotistical way possible) I have always been good at something. And after I stepped away from the sport that has shaped me and consumed so much of my life… and as I have looked and looked for a more permanent employment option… I felt like I was good at nothing. Of course I know this isn’t true. But as I felt I was just driving aimlessly towards a goal in space. I have continued to remind myself that it is a season and that seasons pass.
What is next
I am soon starting a job in medical device sales. I have waited and tried endlessly for this because I knew this was what I wanted to do. It has been a long road and I am endlessly grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given.I am so excited to pour my energy into this. I don’t think I will pick any type of athletic goal until I get my health sorted and until I find rhythm with my new job. But I would love to buy a gravel bike eventually. Gravel races have always intrigued me. As do road races… Really bikes in general will always tug at my heart. So… we’ll see.
What I do know… is that I will always continue to call upon my experiences in triathlon no matter what my goals are. I have such a deep capacity to work, to love, and a whole lot of persistency. And I know these attributes will continue to serve me as I pass through more chapters of my life.
I think when we feel discomfort or hurt we want to pull ourselves out of it. It is a natural human reaction. But I think I’ve really allowed myself to feel all of the feels the past few months. Hurt. Disappointment. Confusion. But also Change. And immense Joy. Happiness. Freedom to explore the unknown. Courage.
Life is sure a journey and I am here to ride the wave the best I can.
Thank you to everyone who supports me as Rachael Norfleet the person not just Trials Of Life Love And Fitness. 🙂
gratitude for it all.. from the bottom of my heart