For weeks, I eagerly awaited the Patriot Triathlon, a half ironman distance event that was my first A race for the season. I felt well prepared, healthy, and well rested. And given my propensity for household mishaps and other disasters, I wanted to race before all that changed.
In the weeks leading up to the race, my training including quite a few two hour runs, weekly interval workouts for running that were fairly long, a few long bike rides with my husband, Don, followed by a run, and my usual intense twice weekly spin classes that I teach. My swimming was limited, but after an open water swim workout with my best friend, Tonya, I knew that I could make the 1.2 miles for the swim. I tapered for 12 days (I love a good taper), and performed well at a tune up sprint triathlon six days before the race. I was ready.
The forecast for race day was hot and sunny, just the way I like it. So I hydrated well as I carboloaded in the final days before the race. I popped ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation on the sprained foot I had been nursing for about eight weeks and thought "all is good".
On race morning, the first sign that maybe all the stars actually were not aligned for me was when I looked at the swim course and knew that it was long. My initial assessment about the swim course was supported by Tracy Grilli, a national class master’s swimmer who does the swim segment in relays with Don. Tracy had a huge grin after seeing the swim course. Well, it just meant I would be plugging away even longer in the lake before I got to the fun stuff, not a big deal.
Tonya and I put on our wetsuits halfway and sat on deck chairs in the shade as we waited forty minutes for our swim wave. I sipped a bottle of water wanting to be well hydrated for the day ahead. (If only I had known what the day had in store for me I would have tossed that bottle or at least thrown some HEED in it).
The swim went well. I sighted frequently to compensate for my tendency to swim to the left and navigated the course well except for swimming into the final buoy. (By that time I was sick of sighting frequently). I exited the swim and attempted a quick transition onto my bike only to realize as I ran out of transition that I forgot my food. I ran back, waved to some friends that who were wondering what the heck I was doing back so soon, put my food in my tri shirt pocket, and exited T1 for the second time.
During the initial ten miles of the bike course, I repeatedly reined myself in. I felt strong and fast on my Kestrel, and the course was fairly flat with just some small hills—my favorite terrain for a bike course. I continued to steadily pass people. At the first bottle exchange, I grabbed a bottle of HEED and realized that it was dreadfully diluted when I took my first sip. Oh oh. Not good, but I figured I’d have an extra gel or two to get in the carbohydrates.
Then the next chip in my race plan hit. During a rough patch of road, I hit a pothole and heard the horrifying hiss of air coming out of a tire. I prayed that it was someone else’s tire, but knew that nobody was near me. So I pulled over and much to my dismay realized it was my rear tire. Ugh! Thanks to Don, I haven’t changed a tire in more than a decade but I knew I could change it. Getting the blasted disk off the bike proved to be tougher than I had anticipated. It seemed blocked in by the derailleur and I found myself wrestling with my bike like a steer. As a last ditch attempt to separate the wheel from the bike, I pulled really hard on the derailleur and yanked on the wheel. It came off. Hooray. I changed the tube and tried to put air in the tire. The little frame pump I had was virtually useless—very little air was going into the tire. After a few minutes with little progress, I knew that I was not going to get enough air in the tire. So I stopped, stood by the side of the road, drained my bottle of diluted HEED, and watched a sea of humanity ride past me on bikes as I waited for neutral support. When they finally arrived, the guys from Landry’s Bike were really nice, pumped up the tire, and put the wheel back on. I thanked them and took off like a bat out of hell. I was flying past people, many of them for the second time. After a few miles, a reality check made me come to my senses. I couldn’t maintain this pace for forty more miles and then run a half marathon. So I abandoned my quixotic effort to reclaim lost time and eased back to a more reasonable effort.
During the second lap of the bike course, I again ran into problems at the rough patch of road. This time I nearly crashed when my front wheel twisted in a pothole. It freaked me out enough to ride my cow horns to the end of that rough road.
Back on the smoother road, I dropped into my aerobars and kept plugging away at the miles. Eventually I came to a herd of cyclists stopped at an intersection. The police had stopped the riders to allow the cars through the intersection. It was the right decision for him to make, but it just seemed so strange to be stopped at an intersection during a race. I quickly rode away from the group when the policeman signaled us to go. At the next bottle exchange, I slowed to grab a bottle of diluted HEED and nearly rammed into a person who had stopped in front of me. Thankfully I was able to swerve around her, but I was surprised that I had almost crashed twice within a period of about 20 minutes. A little further into the ride, I decided to ease back because I just was feeling a bit off.
As I pulled into T2 about 30 minutes later than expected, poor Don rushed over to find out if I had experienced a mechanical. He kept apologizing for my flat. It was sweet of him given that I’m the one who nailed the pothole because of my lousy vision. So I forgave him and waved to a few friends as I headed out on the run. Feeling groggy, I figured that I was a bit dehydrated and decided to take it easy on the run and walk through the aid stations to get in enough fluids. Not part of my original race plan, but I knew my body wasn’t feeling the way it should and that I should switch gears from racing to finishing. I kept to this plan mile after mile and felt like everything was just going in slow motion. Plus for some strange reason my race hat was feeling tight even though I had loosened it so much that it was bouncing on my head. I willed myself to run up the final hill even though I wanted to walk so badly, meandered through the park and across the finish line. I met up with my husband and friends, and sat in the shade as we rehashed our race stories. I devoured lasagna and a chicken sandwich while waiting for the awards ceremony--Tonya had placed third in her age group (on a Kestrel, of course), and Don’s relay had placed first. No award for me today, but at least I had the finisher medal around my neck.
After the awards ceremony, Tonya, Don, and I got changed and started the drive home. We stopped at a Dunkin Donuts and then continued the drive. The first sign that something was terribly wrong was that I had no interest in the chocolate donut that sat in a bag on my lap. About ten minutes later, I was begging Don to pull over because I felt like I was going to have a seizure. My forearms were tingling, my head felt like it was being squeezed, and I just felt really strange. Eventually he was able to pull off the highway and I crawled under a tree and told him to call an ambulance. He hesitated at first and then when I insisted Tonya dialed 911. When the police and ambulance arrived, I tried to convince myself and everyone else that I was feeling better. After checking my vital signs, the EMT’s recommended that they transport me to the hospital. Eventually I agreed only to panic when they put me in the ambulance. They took me out and my husband drove me to the hospital located about ten minutes away. Despite my confused brain, I knew I was in a dangerous state, and fortunately the triage nurse knew it too. They took me into a room right away, a doctor examined me, and they started an IV with fluids. The blood work came back and confirmed what the doctor had suspected. I had hyponatremia (very low blood sodium), a potentially fatal condition that can lead to brain swelling, seizures, heart attack, coma, and death.
The doctor, a marathon runner, and few other endurance athletes on the staff had placed bets on what my sodium level would be. From the slight smile on his face, I knew my doctor had won the bet. My sodium was 126, dangerously low.
The doctor told Don and me that he and his wife were planning on doing their first triathlon in September. Don told him I was a triathlon coach and offered my services to help them get ready for their race. The doctor accepted the offer. I was incredulous. Here I was in a hospital gown, hooked up to an EKG and an IV, and this guy was going to trust me to train him and his wife for a triathlon.
As I relaxed and waited for the second bag of saline to be done, Don took a picture of me with my phone and said he was going to send it to Steve Harad with an email saying, “Elaine gives it her all for Kestrel”. Steve had wanted me to send a picture for Kestrel’s website.
As I reflected back on the day, I realized that the hyponatremia had hit early in the race with the first symptom being my having difficulty controlling my bike during the second lap on the bike course. Then the tight hat during the run was actually my swollen brain pushing against my skull. Ironically, the high sodium content of the lasagna and chicken sandwich may have saved my life.
In the days following the race, I thoroughly researched hyponatremia knowing that I needed to protect myself and my clients from getting it. My research revealed a convergence of factors that led to my falling ill at Patriot. Fortunately, most of the factors are controllable.
So the bad news is that my first A race for the season was a disaster. The good news is that I'm ok and I have learned a lot from the experience and will be a better athlete and coach from it. My next race may be Old Colony (olympic distance) on July 11 if I feel recovered enough.