Three weeks ago, I faced the devastation of DNFing my first full Ironman (Chattanooga.) I’d started training in May, along with my close friend Dolores Hall, and one of the athletes I coach, Luke Roesler. Training went picture-perfect. Having done about eight Half Ironman’s (including some division awards/ qualifying for Worlds) I felt fully confident in myself. An overall win at our local sprint tri two weeks out was the icing on the cake. I was as excited as I’d ever been.
Unfortunately, one small mistake set off a vicious chain of events. I guzzled 32 oz. of coconut water at the swim start, overhydrating and leading to heartburn/ nausea that would prevent me from taking in any calories or drink after mile 50. I attempted to walk the run course, but about halfway through I was struggling to remain upright and had to call it a day. Dolores went on to have a wonderful race, becoming an Ironman. However, Luke succumbed to back spasms on the bike and also withdrew.
The next few days I was living in limbo. I felt so out of sorts, depressed and didn’t know how to get over this. My whole year had been aimed toward doing this Ironman thing.
During that time, about three friends texted me (You know who you are) along the lines of “Ironman Louisville is still open. Just sayin.” I messaged Luke, and he was all for it. We were going to grab the bull by the horns, and take what we were owed.
As a coach, I’d always felt a little more pressure when it came to my racing. I coach Ironman athletes, and although I’m not big on long-course endurance, I wanted to experience this for them. I wanted to know what they would go through, and be able to help them. So finishing this was something that HAD to happen.
With Chattanooga, all my friends and family blew up Facebook and spent the day tracking me. I’m so, so lucky to have that kind of support in my life, but I wanted Louisville to be a secret mission. That way, it felt like there was less pressure to perform. So I ended up telling just a handful of friends beforehand.
Anyway, Louisville is only a little over an hour from where I live (Lexington, KY.) In hindsight, this should have been a no brainer for my first full Ironman, but there was one reason I didn’t pick it. The Ohio River was a deal breaker.
That river is one of the dirtiest, slimiest, stinkiest bodies of water out there. Fecal bacteria has been a problem over the years, and the fact that it is a main shipping channel means that there is a layer of diesel that you can smell. Then you have your dead bodies, garbage and gars. If you don’t know what a gar is, this picture is for you.
I told myself to suck it up Buttercup, and squeezed my eyes shut as I hit “register.”
The next three weeks I felt completely unsettled. I trained hard until ten days out, and then went right back into taper. My poor husband Damien (a multi-talented athlete plagued by a knee injury for 2+ years) had more than he bargained for during that time. Sorry Damo!
Athlete check-in opened on Thursday, and I drove to Louisville and back during an extended lunch break. It seemed so weird to be in and out, while everyone else was flying in, and checking in to their hotels. I met Luke at Ironman Village, and it seemed like a ghost town compared to Chattanooga. We were the only ones in the check-in tent, and the volunteers were amazing (as they would be throughout the weekend.) Luke asked if I wanted to walk down to the swim start. Well, it suddenly became real, and I was horrified. We walked half a mile or so up to it. There was plenty of garbage and floaters, but fortunately we didn’t see this guy, like someone in our Ironman Louisville Facebook group did.
Friday was very strange. I was back at work in Lexington, training fitness clients, while concealing my “Ironman” wristband with long sleeves the whole time. I still didn’t want to spill the beans.
Saturday after work, Damien and I packed our stuff and drove to bike check in. Luke’s super wonderful girlfriend Molly had generously offered up her home, and we were so lucky to be staying just a few miles from the heart of the race rather than spending an arm and a leg on a downtown hotel room. Plus, our dogs got to join us.
It worked out perfectly, because rather than fighting the restaurant crowds, we brought food from home and ate nothing out of the ordinary. Boca “chick’n” patties on a bun and sweet potatoes it would be.
Race morning I set the alarm for 4:45am and had a wonderful peanut butter and banana sandwich. We let the dogs out, and that was when our smaller dog Lulu found something absolutely repulsive to roll in. I’m not sure if it was poo or a dead animal, but it may have been the worst smell I’ve ever encountered.
She came in, and it was all I could do not to gag. Fortunately, Damien has a stronger stomach, so he got to deal with all that. I was so stressed because I couldn’t finish my breakfast now, he was stressed because he didn’t know what to do with her and of course that led to an argument, for which I take full blame! Finally, we locked her in the bathroom while he dropped me off, and he got to come back and clean her (with one of his own shirts, because we couldn’t do that to Molly’s towels!) What a start to the morning.
At transition I couldn’t find any friends. Luke is a stellar swimmer, and swimming is my crutch, so he had lined up fairly far ahead. I lined up with the 1:20 group, and made my way slowly to the start. Fortunately, the weather was warm at that point, so I was comfortable.
Louisville is a time trial start. There are two lines that end with several athletes jumping off one of two docks every few seconds. The closer one got to the water, the stronger the stench of urine permeated the air. That is because many athletes nonchalantly pee in their wetsuits, and it tricked out onto the sidewalk and docks. Thank you $3 Goodwill water shoes that someone suggested on Facebook! They got me all the way to jump off.
Before I knew it, it was my turn to jump. I grabbed my goggles and took a deep breath, before entering the putrid pool of filth. My original plan was to focus on form, and the mantra that a great swim coach taught me: “Long and strong, all day long.” Instead, I thought of catfish, gars, dead bodies, and my mantra became “Just don’t swallow.”
The beginning of the swim is in an isolated cove behind Toehead Island, so there was a little congestion. I took a few kicks and blows to the head, but nothing particularly violent, and nothing that drew blood.
Once we rounded the island, we were spewed out into the main shipping channel toward the middle of the river. We also attained the assistance of the current. However, the ominous skies brought along some wind, and the calm river water morphed into a chop that was more oceanic in nature.
Once the chop emerged, it became harder to avoid tasting the sewage/ diesel. I was also dealing with some anxiety, as swimming is not my forte and I do not have experience with anything but calm water. Thankfully, I only managed a few swallows. The bigger problem was that I had neglected to use anti-fog on my goggles, and it caused me to stop every few minutes and spit on them.
After what seemed like eternity, but was really more like three and a half Seinfeld episodes (without commercials,) we swam under the last bridge and headed in. I thanked God for not letting me encounter any corpses, and let the volunteers pull me up the stairs. What a relief! Total swim time= 1:17
I grabbed my bike gear and headed to the changing tent, not even fazed by all the sheer nakedness everywhere. I stayed in my tri suit, so it was a pretty easy transition. I hit the port-o-potty on the way out. That is one of many reasons I will never make an extremely adept long-course triathlete- I don’t pee on the bike, and I don’t pee in the water.
I jumped on the bike and was so much happier to be in my element. We headed away from town with a bit of a tailwind, cloud cover and temperatures just right. It was hard to keep the pace easy, because I felt so good.
Somewhere around mile 19 something bad happened. I was heading from a downhill to a sharp uphill, and went to switch gears. Nothing happened but the clicking of a shifter. I realized my rear cable had suddenly snapped. And of course I was stuck in my hardest gear behind and had no chance to make the uphill without momentum, so I had to rapidly unclip before toppling over.
I walked my bike up the hill before it leveled out enough to get back on. This knocked the wind out of my sails, but it was far from a deal breaker. At this point, I had two gears- little ring/ smallest cog, and big ring/ smallest cog. With enough momentum, the hills on this course would certainly be doable with the latter gear.
Things went fine for the next fifteen minutes or so. At that point, any time I would attempt to change between big and little ring, the chain would drop. That unappealing little ring/ small cog combo had probably caused some movement to prevent any more gear changes. After getting off to fix a dropped chain for about the eighth time, I chose to remain in the small/ small for the rest of the course, since that was the only one that would allow climbing. So for the remaining ninety miles I would basically be riding a fixie!
I had gotten a tune up earlier, and asked to replace cables if needed. In retrospect, I should have insisted that cables be changed. That’s on me, and from now on I will replace cables at the beginning of every season. Lesson learned.
My attitude about the setback slowly changed from aggravation to fascination. It was definitely entertaining riding the course on a single gear, and I had fun tucking in on all the downhills and getting as aero as possible, since there was zero resistance with which to pedal. On the uphills, I absolutely mashed those pedals at about a cadence of 10, and must’ve looked to anyone out there like an ignorant novice. However, I was absolutely flying past people on the uphills, which made it fun! Who cares that the legs would be screwed for the run; I’d just be happy to make it back.
Once I made it past the hills of Ballard Road the second time (without having to unclip) I knew I was in the clear. There were two moments where I almost capsized, but had just enough gas to out-muscle the crest of the hill.
During the last thirty miles, the weather changed from beating-down-sun to foreboding and gale force, cold winds. Turning for home, we were hit with a head and cross wind that turned knuckles white. I knew I could keep my bike upright, but it was crazy to feel the winds try to knock it out from under you, and see all the debris blowing everywhere. I definitely felt like the wicked witch at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz.
Around that time, myself and several other rides got stuck behind a slow-moving car for about fifteen minutes. All we could do was sit there and laugh and chat, because it was too dangerous to pass. That was the most frustrating time.
Once that car turned, we were into the homestretch. Those last dozen miles my legs felt fresh as daisies and I was passing people like they were standing still. I was shocked, as I had expected to have zero legs after all that mashing. Oddly, those were some of my fastest miles, and I was singing the whole way. When I saw transition my thoughts were, “Damn, I wish we had more of this bike course left.” Official bike time= 6:07. I feel it would’ve easily been sub 5:50 if things had gone smooth.
Nutrition had went well, with Generation UCAN, a few Stinger waffles and a bonk breaker. I did have to hit the Port-O-Potty one more time.
Beginning the run I felt like I was on top of the world. I tried to go out at 8:30 pace, but my first mile was closer to 7:30. Second mile I reeled it in. At mile 4, an intense side stitch occurred and that did slow me down significantly.
Around mile 5, I was suddenly hit with a wave of heartburn/ nausea. It was similar to Chattanooga, but to a lesser degree. This one was tolerable and I just hoped it would go away. It never did, and would slowly progress throughout the run. It was frustrating, because my legs wanted to knock it out of the park, but the rest of me could not.
So at mile 6 or so, I came to the Bluegrass Triathlon Aid Station. I knew it would be there, but had no idea to expect. It was absolutely hopping, and filled with all my tri friends from Lexington! They had loud music, and on the microphone I heard, “Here comes a Bluegrass Tri Member- Erin Rock coming to the aid station!” Wow, talk about feeling like a celebrity. Seeing all my friends was one of the best parts of the day!
Shortly after that was the turnaround, and we got to cruise by that aid station again. Around that point, I came upon another local triathlete, Phillip Cullen. It was awesome to see a familiar face going through the same kind of torture that I was, so we got to have a brief chat.
The best part of the run course was getting to see my husband Damien, and Dolores, who had driven all the way from Lexington just to see Luke and I. She was running back and forth in dress boots, and the cheers from those two put the biggest smile on my face! There were a lot of hugs between the three of us and I had fun stopping to talk to them.
About midway through the run I saw Luke coming from the other direction. I was so relieved to see him. Luke had come straight to the start line after working a 12 hour night shift, and I don’t know how he did it, but he was out there and he was having a pretty solid day. I also saw his girlfriend Molly, who is one of the best supporters in the world!
By now, the temps had dropped and a lot of people were going down with hypothermia. It had been 81 at one point on the bike, and now was in the low 50’s. Barricades were blowing over, and volunteers were tying down port-o-potties. I had a long sleeved shirt at special needs, and the thought of that is what got me to mile 14. It did not disappoint, and I felt like I was wrapping myself in hugs from Jesus.
I hadn’t been able to eat or drink much on the run, and that trend continued. A little water was manageable, and I had a potato chip and a gel. Once in a while I would try a sip of coke or gatorade, but that was a bad idea.
I was a little leery of this second loop. One of my pro triathlete friends had told me “You’re going to see all kinds of disgusting stuff on the run course.” I had terrible visions, and I knew it wouldn’t take much to worsen the queasiness. I had heard a pro male cyclist do something gross on the bike. But other than that, I am happy to report that I did not witness or hear ANY bodily fluids/ noises at any point whatsoever in that entire race. However, there were unpleasant smells a time or two.
I remember being very excited to see my aid station that last time, but by then I was a little out of it and the details are foggy. I knew I had only five miles or so to go, and there was light at the end of the tunnel.
At mile 24 I saw Damien and Dolores for the last time. We exchanged hugs, and they said “If you get to the finish first, wait for us.” Those words made me realize just how close I was to becoming an Ironman.
The last two miles were slow. I was too nauseous to move any faster, and took my time. Suddenly, I came around the corner and THERE IT ALL WAS!
One thing I’ve always heard is that you can not beat the Ironman Louisville finish line at Fourth Street Live. It was absolutely magical- the energy, the lights, the music, the announcer! I’ve never experienced that in my life and never will again. How could anyone top that?
At the top of the red carpet, I wrapped my long sleeved shirt around my waist for a better picture. Once I tied the knot, I took it all in and felt like my feet were floating all the way to the line. Over all that crowd, I could hear Damien and Dolores. I crossed the line with the biggest sense of relief and gratitude imaginable. And just past the finish line was a sea of tri friends, including the legendary Susan Bradley Cox herself.
Credit: Francis Buckley
The angel of a volunteer wrapped me in a blanket, put the medal around my neck, and then sent me off with Damien and Dolores. My legs were fine, but I was so queasy I could barely stand. We went to the curb and it felt like heaven to sit down. Standing back up would feel like hell. I just couldn’t believe it was all over. Run= 4:22, Total= 12:02
I wanted to stay and watch Luke come in, but I didn’t feel well enough. He would meet us at Molly’s house after finishing with a surge those last few miles. Here’s a pic of the two of them before the torture all began.
In retrospect, having a DNF at Chattanooga was a blessing in disguise. I’ve coached athletes through DNF’s, and now I can empathize with them and know what it feels like. I also know taste of redemption, and it makes it all that much sweeter.
Thank you a million to Dolores Hall. She has the heart of gold and is a tremendous athlete and even better friend who would give you the shirt off her back if you needed one. We were in this together from day one, and though we didn’t finish at the same time, we still shared that whole experience together. It is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, and every time I see a blue butterfly (our good luck charm) I will think of her.
Thanks to everyone who supported me on this journey. The athletes I coach, the Bluegrass Tri Club, my clients at the gym- they were all part of it and they all inspired me in their own ways. Luke Roesler is at the top of that list. What a dedicated athlete and true friend. My family and friends on Facebook showed such heartfelt support, and my in-laws were a huge part of it. Debbie Rock was encouraging from the get go and played a big part in my making the decision to pick up the pieces where I left off,
Speaking of Rocks, I couldn’t have done it without this guy. I know it kills him to not be able to participate due to his injury, but you’d never know. He was my Rock throughout this whole journey. That doesn’t mean he gets a medal though, haha.
So for now, so long Ironman. That distance sure made me realize how much I love HALF Ironman races. Never say never, but I’m going to say a very adamant “Probably not doing that again.”