I played it safe. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital. And in my defense, it was pretty damn hot. But this was a race and the only one for over a month on either side. It was what I train for and commit myself to for hours each day. It was money spent on travel. It was the emotional investment. It was my parents, friends, and coach’s support. And I had wasted it all by playing it safe.
The race was supposed to be a simple one. With less than two-hundred people, it seemed like all I needed to do was show up. But in the week before the race, one of my close competitors signed up to challenge me. But he would start minutes behind me in a separate wave. It was still looking to be a solo effort.
When I came out of the swim though, a guy from near Pittsburgh had different plans for the result of the race. He had nearly a minute gap on me at the start of the bike, one that I typically find pretty manageable. But after half an hour of pounding on the pedals, he still had the lead. I saw him at the turn around, still holding strong with a fifteen second gap on me. I hammed off the turn to close the gap within the next several miles. I caught him without him realizing it and jumped past him to take the lead. I wanted to discourage him from keeping up with me. I was playing the mental tactics, trying to make him think or know that I was stronger. But it was to no avail. Despite putting out a harder effort than I had the entire race, he had dropped back only a few seconds and reeled the gap in on me on the next climb. He sat behind me out of the draft zone, waiting for the run. Typically I am not one to willingly allow someone to stay with me till the start of the run. I like to run alone. I want to secure the race as early as possible. But it was evident from his strong cycling that I had no choice. I just had to wait and hope.
We raced into transition, me with the lead, and with a poor T2, he took it back. I ran out right on his heels, matching him stride for stride. The baking heat had not been apparent out on the roads at twenty-five miles per hour. But at less than half that speed, I felt the full force of the heat. The week before the race, the weather was predicted to be beautiful and cool, with a high in the low 80s. But in the days leading up the race, the weather report drastically changed and my heart sunk. Relatively, I always have performed worse in the heat but I have never let that fact overwhelm me in a race. My body will ache and burn but I’ll still push for the same splits that I would otherwise achieve on a cool day. But this ignorance of a real physiological limitation has often led to my demise. Many times I have made friends with the EMT’s, saline, and the misting tent. I have spent entire afternoons writhing in pain on my bathroom floor, seizing because of the destruction the heat did to my body.
So for this race, I wanted to be proactive about the heat. I recognized this issue I have had and was going to try some new things to prevent myself from ever reaching heat exhaustion. I had heard the benefits of an ice pack in the palm. But the ice pack in the palm essentially tricks the mind into thinking it is cool. It slightly cools the body but nowhere near as much as it makes the body think it is. That could work but I may accidentally kill myself as a result. I knew of the major arteries around the body but they all seemed in inconvenient locations. I couldn’t shove an ice pack between my legs or in my armpit and still run comfortably.
Instead, I shoved the ice pack down my trisuit and let it sit directly on my chest. I had put three bags of ice in transition. Two bags sandwiching a middle one kept it from completely melting in the morning sun. The ice was startling but great in those first moments of the run. Out on an open boardwalk with no shade to be found, the coolness was a major relief. But by the end of the first mile, the quart size Ziploc bag contained only a puddle of warm water. I ripped the bag to empty it to save me of the now useless weight. I was frustrated. I had five more miles to race in this heat and my idea had mostly failed. I was completely baffled how it had melted so fast but figured my body must have needed it. I felt my chest and the heat radiated like freshly paved black asphalt in late summer. I knew what the consequences could be from running myself into the ground. With similar conditions the weekend before, a sprint triathlon in Maryland was cancelled because of the heat. The international distance the day before had been the downfall of too many people. The one time leader had collapsed on the run and spent several days in ICU. I knew that could be my fate and that scared me.
With all these fears racing through my head, I felt I had a sort of maturity on my competitor. His attacking from the start seemed naive to me. I knew what we could do to each other if we kept battling. I watched a meter gap grow to a two meter gap and eventually to over a minute and a half by the end of the race. When I crossed the finish line for second place though, I knew what he was doing was not naive, but respectable. He took a risk that on that day I was not willing to take. I am embarrassed by my reserve. It truly was hot and the weather took its toll on everyone that day. But I am not a thirty eight minute 10k runner even on the worst of days. I ended up with the EMT anyways but more out of good recovery practice than survival. My pride was hurt more than my body and the weakness in my muscles more reflected that shot self-esteem.
I let him dictate the risk. When he exited transition first, I was content to run behind him. But when I did that, I let him control the race and in turn, control me. The heat was a distraction, sure. But the reason I lost that race was because of those crucial moments at the beginning of the run. I felt uncomfortable with the pace he was setting because of what may result. I did not feel uncomfortable with the pace because of the effort. In hindsight I recognize that I should have jumped in front and set the pace. It would obviously be even more of an absurdly risky pace but at least it would be my pace. This could have been my demise, but I honestly think instead this would have put me in contention for defending my title from winning the previous year. If he responded with an equally more absurd pace, I would just respond again until I could no more. I know this may sound silly but I think it could have brought out better performances in each of us. I’ve never raced my best from behind but when I am in the lead by whatever margin, I feed off that reality. If that gap grows, my body gets stronger. Who knows what could have happened if I had followed this strategy instead? No one can say for sure but I think it would have been courteous to at least give him a challenge.
I was worried about what could happen but that is a disgusting philosophy for racing. If I were to do that every discipline, I’d be worried about a flat tire on the bike or snapped goggle strap on the swim. Those things never even cross my mind in a race. But I let the thought of heat exhaustion distract me from the race and that opened up an opportunity for my competition. I let the race that was supposed to be a breeze become his race. I am not saying that I could have prevented that necessarily. He could have responded to my pace on the run with ease. I am not saying that the result would have necessarily been any different. I could have fallen apart because of the heat in the last couple miles and ended up running a thirty eight minute 10k anyways. The problem is that I simply did not even try. I did not challenge him nor did I challenge the heat. He is a stronger triathlete and on that day was definitely stronger so with this I have no intentions of taking away from his win. We race to be the best on that day and the results never lie. Really this is just a reflection. I learned a lot from that race and won’t be backing down from a strong challenge ever again, whether it be the heat or an impressive competitor. It will be a life long process to separate being competitive from being just plain stupid. I may have ended up dead had I raced with a purely competitive philosophy but giving up before the risk even truly presents itself is not something I can live with again.