Our bodies are pretty amazing. The way seemingly random neural connections form behaviors and memories, how our eyes sense and process electromagnetic radiation, how our immune system identifies and attacks intruders… it really is astounding how we function. It’s also kinda crazy how we temperature regulate. Our bodies like a very specific temperature range, around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit give or take a degree if taken orally, and work constantly to keep things in that range. There are the obvious things—when we get hot we sweat, when we get cold we shiver—but then there are the not so obvious, like how our bodies reduce or increase blood flow to certain areas to help radiate heat, or keep important areas warm. It’s all for good reason too, when our body temperatures begin to get out of the comfort range, things start going downhill fast, and can even be fatal. It goes without saying that it’s pretty important to be mindful of exposing ourselves to extreme temperatures.
I personally have experienced what I believe to be hyperthermia once before, during a training ride around the Great Western Loop on a particularly hot day. I was climbing the first hill and was directly exposed to the sun, so it was not only crazy hot—104 degrees—but there was no wind to help keep me cool, and the radiant heat from the sun was just cooking my skin. To make matters worse, the heat had turned the electrolyte mix in my water bottles into something that resembled hot tea, so I had nothing to help cool me down. Not only was I feeling hotter than the fires of Hades, I was starting to feel sick to my stomach, and a headache was quickly making its presence known, both signs of impending heat related doom. Luckily, mercifully, we were supported, so about halfway up the hill a support vehicle was stopped where I was able to take a break, cool down, and refill my water bottles with cold water. It was a scary situation, but I’m happy to say I was able to finish the ride in some extremely brutal conditions.
While I’ve overheated, I had never experienced hypothermia… well, until Saturday, April 2nd, 2016.
The lead up to Oceanside was quite a bit different than my preparations for Silverman. I guess primarily because Tam wasn’t racing with me, so while she would train with me from time to time, she wasn’t out there all the time. She was volunteering (which, amusingly, meant she had to be at the race site before I did), so even though she wouldn’t be on course with me I would get to see her throughout the day. There were also a ton of other Team Challenge peeps participating, as well as volunteering, so I was far from alone. But aside from that, I was much more relaxed about the race, no where near as nervous about the distance or the conditions as I was for Silverman, and I was fairly confident in my ability to finish the race. I don’t know if I’d say I was underestimating the race… I was very much aware of the challenge and difficulty, and I had some concerns—primarily over the swim—but I wasn’t particularly worried. My training had been going quite well, I had a lot of very good swim sessions, I was feeling pretty good on the run, and of course I was feeling quite strong on the bike, so I was feeling pretty good about my fitness levels. The other reason I was fairly relaxed was because Oceanside wasn’t really my A race… I wouldn’t call it a B race, more like an A- race, a major race, but not the only one I was concerned about… the biggie was the Belgian Waffle Ride which is near the end of April, but I’ll get it to that one another time.
Despite my relaxation and relative comfort level with my fitness, I was, as per usual, nervous about the swim. I was mostly worried about the water conditions, and also a little bit about the temperature. The general consensus was the water is pretty calm, but when you get clear of the docks it can get a little choppy, plus while the water is cool, it’s not really COLD. Still, overall, even though it would be colder, the swim was said to be quite a bit easier than what we dealt with at Silverman, where the high winds really made things tough. I tried to push any anxiety about the conditions out of my mind, especially considering what I went through at Silverman, and mentally just kept a “picture” of how cold water feels in my head. I had taken a dip in the ocean the week prior to the race, so I had a good idea what to expect, and I could almost feel the water on my face in the days before the race kicked off. I had some concerns, but I was in a good place mentally and felt well prepared.
Race day rolled around, which was a pretty standard affair. Get up way too early, head up to the race with John and Genna, show up to Transition and begin the process of setting up my area. We dropped our bikes the day before, so it was just a matter of laying everything out by my bike and making sure my spot was nice and neatly arranged. The most interesting thing about the morning was the fact I didn’t get the race day jitters. Like, at all. No butterflies, no anxiety, no nerves, nothing. I was in good spirits, seeing all the Team Challenge peeps volunteering and setting up made me feel kinda like a VIP, and I was feeling good about my preparations for the race. It was actually kind of strange, it really felt like just another day, only I was about to travel 70.3 miles. Oh, and unlike Silverman, I slept like a baby the night before so I was feeling very well rested.
It was a cool morning, but not bone chilling… maybe in the 50s. Official water temp was 62.2, so the water would actually feel warmer than the air, which I was actually kind of looking forward to. The relatively low water temps also meant that booties for your feet were legal, so there were a number of people wandering around wearing them. I also saw more than a few racers wearing insulated caps on their heads as well, including a few of my teammates. (It’s probably worth noting that the common belief that we lose most of our body heat through our heads is a myth, the simple truth is we lose heat equally from any exposed part of our bodies. It’s just that we tend to keep most of our bodies covered except for our heads, so where else is heat going to escape?) Anyway, I didn’t think about the cap, because, well… I just didn’t think it would be THAT cold, and since I have a bit of an afro I figured my hair would lend a hand. I also didn’t know booties would be legal, so I never thought to get any. I did see more than a few people in sleeveless wetsuits, and most of the athletes had no caps and no booties, so I just figured it was a personal preference, and didn’t think much of it.
Feets in the water
At around 6:30am it was time to get the show on the road, so they began corralling all the athletes into the, um… corral, so they could start sending off waves. I was in the 6th wave, with the pro men and women in waves 1 and 2, then the challenged athletes in wave 3, and then my age group, split up into 3 waves by last name. The start was a plush shag carpet compared to the rocky mess that was Silverman, you walked down a carpeted boat ramp into the water, and before you even begin to touch rocks you start swimming the maybe 100 or so yards out to the start line. The brief swim gave you a chance to get in a quick warm up, nothing crazy, but better than no warm up at all. Once you got to the start, you just found your spot and then bobbed around in the water until they sounded the horn.
Strangely, even as my wave began getting in the water I was calm and relaxed. It takes me longer to get going in the pool than it did for me to actually get in the water at the race. I just walked down the boat ramp, commented on how it actually felt nice compared to the air, peed—gotta do what you gotta do—then swam to the start line. I tried to find a comfortable spot for me, away from the impending washing machine, and out of the lane where the fast swimmers will be so I could swim my race. Regardless of how well my training sessions had been going, I’m a slow swimmer, so I was intent on staying out of people’s way. My plan was similar to Tri Rock, get out wide and just go at whatever pace felt comfortable, even if it meant I’d swim a bit further than the 1.2 miles. I knew I’d be faster in the salt waters of the harbor compared to the fresh waters of Silverman, so while I was concerned about the cut off, I was fairly comfortable that I’d make it regardless of the pace I chose.
I was bobbing around in the water, chatting with fellow TC’er and friend Kevin, when suddenly I heard the horn blast. Normally the announcer—who today was Mike Riley, the “Voice of Ironman”—makes a few comments and wishes the athletes good luck, but I didn’t hear him so I was caught a bit by surprise. There was the typical mass of splashing as people sprinted to burn themselves out, while I just made a bee line for my “safe zone” next to the boats docked in the harbor, and started swimming. My initial goal was to settle into a rhythm, not too fast, but not crazy slow. I wanted to give myself a chance to get into the flow of it all, and then I could pick up the pace if I felt I could. I breathe to my right, so I spent some time looking at the various boats, and watching the people watching us as I swam by. I tried to keep my mindset positive, I figured I had about 50 minutes to an hour of being in the water, and then I’d be on the bike passing many of the people who were passing me now, so it was just a matter of settling in, and basically killing time. So far, so good.
Not too long after we got going, my arms started feeling tired. I wasn’t sure exactly what the issue was, but then I started to feel some soreness in the muscles in my upper back, which made me realize I was arm swimming. Many people associate things like swimming and cycling with just the muscles in your arms and legs, but the truth is a significant chunk of the power for both is generated from your core. With swimming, you use your core to rotate your body against the arm pull, which generates strength by triggering some pretty massive muscles in your back and saving your arms. I wasn’t kicking like I normally do, so I wasn’t properly rotating my body and just using my arms to pull me along. The irony of it all is I was so focused on just relaxing and not focusing on my swim, I didn’t actually take any time to make sure my swimming form was OK. When I realized what was going on I made some adjustments, slowed my stroke, made sure to engage my core more, and things started to feel better. OK, minor hiccup, but everything was still going according to plan.
I started to clear the boat docks, and the next major landmark was a pier that jutted out into the water, followed closely by the first red buoy that marked a subtle left turn to stay on course. Things pinched a little bit by the pier, I had to get in closer to the swim lanes so I didn’t smack into a post, but I was able to sight off of the red turn buoy and continue on my way. By this point I was aware of the water temps, it stopped feeling warmer than the air and just felt cold, but it wasn’t particularly bothering me. I was still feeling a little muscle fatigue, but I thought about all the times in my workouts where my arms felt fatigued early on during a long set, only for the soreness to go away as things adjusted. My mind was in a decent place, I wasn’t freaking out about the water, and I was feeling relatively comfortable with my stroke and my pacing. Things were going MUCH better than they were in Silverman.
But then I began to have strange issues.
Not long after the gentle left hand turn at the red buoy, I realized I was struggling to breathe. It was like my timing was off, I couldn’t open my mouth without gulping water, I felt like I wasn’t able to rotate enough to get a clean breath, and when I would exhale I couldn’t coordinate blowing out of my nose and my mouth properly. Typically, when I exhale I first clear my nose so nothing goes up it when I put my face in the water, and then exhale evenly from both my mouth and nose. This all helps me relax, and keeps my mouth clear of water when I rotate to breathe. This simple rhythmic pattern had suddenly become impossible, and I had no idea why. For the first time my mindset started to turn, and I started to feel panicked. I quickly started thinking about things Linda told me about how to relax myself, and what Skip says about “Race[ing] with Joy and Gratitude”, so I began to think about my friends in the water with me and cheering me on, I thought about why we’re a part of Team Challenge and the people we race for, and I thought about Tam, and how she was so proud and excited for me. I felt my body calm a little bit, and I kept going.
I made it a bit further, maybe another hundred yards or so, before I noticed I was also struggling with my stroke. I felt like I was floundering, like someone who never really learned how to swim, so they were just swinging their arms in the water because that’s kinda how swimmers look. I couldn’t keep my elbow up, pull properly, or even recover cleanly, I was just moving my arms around, and I was burning way more energy than I should have been. I was still struggling to breathe, and now I was basically flailing my arms around, so I was quickly beginning to feel more fatigued and out of breath than what would be optimal at this point in the race. Something wasn’t right.
Then my mindset began to turn. Things were falling apart physically, I was struggling to swim and I couldn’t get into a rhythm with my breathing, and mentally things began to follow suit. I went from relaxed and calm, to “I don’t want to do this” in just a few minutes. I couldn’t think about anything else, my friends, my fiancé, nothing, all I could think about was not wanting to be in the water. My positive mindset from the morning had completely evaporated. I needed to stop, I had to stop, so I flipped over on my back… and that’s when I was sure something was really and truly wrong.
The world around me was spinning. I was bobbing up and down from the waves, sure, but I felt like I was in a giant ball and tossed down a hill. I looked around, trying to get my bearings, thinking it’s probably just because the water was tossing me around, or maybe I was feeling seasick. But I remember feeling vaguely lost, like I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be going. I floated there for a minute looking around, and then saw the line of swimmers, so I started swimming again. I don’t know how much further I got, but I was having the same struggles, I couldn’t properly control my arms, breathing was increasingly difficult, and compounding matters were the now rough waters. The calm seas of the boat docks were replaced by some serious swells, and I could feel them. I had to stop again, and this time I was feeling more off. I remember feeling like I wanted to cry, I don’t know why, not out of disappointment, or frustration, I just suddenly felt massively emotional. As was I there, bobbing around in the water, I heard a shout from the sea of swimmers.
“Are you ok?!?” It was someone in a blue swim cap.
I shook my head, “No.”
His words briefly resonated, so I did what he said, and began swimming in the direction of the swimmers. Again, I got maybe a handful of yards before I had to stop again. This time I was in the middle of the swim lane, I have no idea how I was suddenly in the way of a pack of swimmers after being so far wide, but people were bumping into me and swimming all around me. My head was spinning, I was confused, and I was starting to panic.
I spotted a lifeguard in the distance, just outside of the red buoy indicating the start of the turn around, it’s maybe 50 or so yards shy of half way. It looked like he was looking my way so I raised my hand to signal. Nothing. I raised my hand again, this time slipping under water and taking a massive gulp, coughing and hacking as I got my head above water. Nothing. I had to swim to him, so I did. I wanted out, but I managed to convince myself that I would rest for a minute on the board, gather my bearings, and continue on. I swam up to the board, grabbed the handle on the other side, and almost immediately passed out.
Feeling a little chilly
I remember being pulled into the boat, and I remember them talking to me, but I couldn’t respond. I also remember shivering, violently, to the point where it was like I was convulsing. The boat rushed me to the dock on the other side of the harbor from the swim entry point, got me up onto a gurney and into the back of the ambulance. They immediately stripped me of my wetsuit, pulled my soaked tri top down off of the top of my body, and started attaching sensors and stuff to my chest to make sure my vitals were OK. Once I was plugged in, they wrapped me in blankets and shoved heat packs under my arm pits and in various other places under the blankets. I was still shivering fairly violently, and I heard one of the EMTs tell me “that’s good, just keep shivering.”
At some point during all of this I was able to squeak out “my fiance”. They asked where she was, so I squeaked out “transition”, and told them Tam’s name. I don’t remember if I showed them my RoadID, or told them her number… if it was the latter, that would be amazing since I usually have to double check my RoadID EVERY SINGLE TIME! Anyway, I heard them call her and a few minutes later they briefed me on the situation: she was on the complete other side of the harbor, so they were working to figure out a way to get her a lift over to where I was. They also had asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital—I told them I didn’t—so I had to wait until she came to pick me up before they’d let me go. I was starting to feel more clear headed, I was still cold and shivering, but not as violently, although I was actually starting to feel sore from it.
I don’t know how long I was in the ambulance, but after a while I saw a red ATV looking thing heading toward us. It was Tam with one of the EMTs from the transition area, and when she saw me the first thing she did was smile and wave. I can’t begin to explain how much better this made me feel, it even made me crack a smile despite the condition I was in. It helped calm me down, and was infinitely better than if she were a mess of panic and worry. After a few instructions from the EMTs—keep the heat packs under my armpits, and try to get out of my wet shorts—I stumbled out of the ambulance and strapped myself into the back of the ATV for the ride to the heated medical tent. It was a relatively quick jaunt—even with the amusing exchange between the EMT driver and a volunteer who wouldn’t let him pass—and I was dropped off at the tent where they ushered me to a seat by the heater and handed me warmer heat packs to tuck under my arms. They ran some basic checks, blood pressure, pulse, and eventually took my temp—which was still a little low—and offered me some “hot” chicken broth… that actually turned out to be lukewarm chicken broth. Heater had turned off, so they fired it back up, and about 10 or so minutes later they handed me a piping hot cup.
I had been out of the water for probably close to two hours at this point… and finally I was not shivering, and I felt like I could rejoin Tam and my friends who were volunteering. They ran a few more checks, signed me out, and released me out into the wild. Tam had went and gotten my morning bag with my sweatshirt, sweatpants, and shoes in it, from the volunteers that collected them. She also went and got a volunteer shirt so I could have something dry to wear other than my sweatshirt, and gave me beanie she was wearing so I could make sure to keep warm. The sun was shining, but it was maybe mid 60s, tops, and the wind was cold, so I still needed to bundle up. I got myself changed in the porta potty, and even offered to help the volunteers out if they needed it. I was out of the race, but I figured I could at least help those who were still in it.
It was around this time that everything started to hit me. I had failed, the water had beaten me, I was done for the day, and I was angry. I had spent months training, putting in some hard workouts to get ready, I was in a great mental place before the race, I was feeling rested, strong, but I had to be pulled out of the water. I sat down on the curb next to where the Team Challenge volunteers were cheering and reminding the athletes to turn their bibs around. (When I emerged from the tent, the pros were making the transition from Bike to Run. Amusingly, almost all of the pros didn’t have their bibs turned around, while almost all of the age groupers did have them turned around. Just goes to show you how red lined the pros are when they’re racing.) All I could think about was why didn’t I just push through. Why didn’t I just keep swimming, I could’ve made it to the bike and be well on my way to completing the race. The more I thought about it, the more upset I got, the more I thought that I just quit, and the more angry I became. Tam sat down next to me to see how I was doing, and suggested something to help me feel better.
So I did. I sat on the curb with Tam, and I cried. I was furious, disappointed, annoyed, upset, everything, and it all came pouring out. I don’t know how long I cried for, but I did begin to feel better, and as I was composing myself, Tam, along with Coach Linda suggested I come and cheer with the team. I grabbed the cowbell they handed me, and stood with the crowd making a heck of a noise as the athletes ran by. I was in no mood to really scream or clap, so I just rang the cowbell, trying to time it with claps and just messing with the rhythm of it. Secretly, I didn’t want our teammates to see me, I was still grappling with what happened, but I wanted to see them all make it to the run. I was starting to feel better, I was still angry about everything, but I was beginning to feel a bit more like myself. Being surrounded by so many friends helped immensely, all of them offering lots of support and encouragement in what was a pretty tough time. I have to say, I love my TC TRIbe, and of course I wouldn’t be anywhere without Tam.
I spent the remainder of the race just coming to grips with everything while cheering on our teammates. I saw a few surprised, concerned faces from athletes who were racing when they saw me, with many coming up to ask how I was feeling after the race. Impressive considering they all just swam, biked, and ran 70.3 miles! The day was starting to turn in a good way, and although I was still pretty ticked about the events that played out, I was in a better mood. Most importantly, I was OK physically.
It’s been a few days, and while I feel better, I’m still a bit emotionally sore. I can’t look at pictures from the race yet so I’ve been avoiding some of the Facebook posts and race reports that have gone up, I can’t look at my race bib number, and I’m even tempted to throw out my swim cap. I haven’t fully gotten over what happened, and I guess I haven’t fully come to grips with the fact that I was smart to swim to that lifeguard when I did. I’m sure I will, it’ll just take some time. But until then, there are a some things I can take away from the events of the day. Primarily, that I don’t do well with cold. I’m a thin dude with low body fat, and it already doesn’t take much for me to get cold, so I should’ve taken the water temps more seriously. Especially when you factor in how water strips your body of heat 25 times faster than air. I knew the water would be cool, but I didn’t think 62.2 degree temps could have that much of an effect on me. Clearly I was wrong… so I’ve added a few things to my shopping list: a swim hoodie, and booties for my feet. I’m also planning on some more “cold” water time in La Jolla Cove with Tam while she trains for her race later this year. I’m a slow swimmer, but I’m starting to feel like it’s about time to do something about that. Either way, I’ll be back out there looking for redemption next year.
The other bit of good news, and something a few people mentioned, is I still have a major event coming up very soon, the aforementioned Belgian Waffle Ride. As a matter of fact, the day after the race I was on my bike, taking out my anger and frustrations on my legs and other cyclists on the road. It felt good.