Ironman: Only Real Failure is Giving Up
People will easily share with great excitement their successes. It is fun to share the fond memories of great adventures. What many do not share enough of are the failures that occur en route to those successes. I have been blessed to experience some amazing fitness adventures and successes … and they typically came on the other side of some difficult times, or what I perceived at the time as failures. I share with you my story in the hopes that it encourages the reader to explore viewing failures as a learning opportunity instead of a place to stop and let dreams go by the wayside.
In November 2020, I raced in Ironman Florida. It was what I believed would be my last attempt at completing a full Ironman (2.4 miles, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) and be able to knock that item off my bucket list as being complete.
I went into that race very confident. At the time, the only unknown part to me was the 2.4-mile swim. I had raced in Ironman Louisville in September 2019 where I completed the bike (more on this later) and the run, so I believed I could definitely do 140.2 miles. I recall standing in line waiting to start and making the statement, “once I complete the swim, I know I have this in the bag.” This is where the narrator adds the commentary … “little did she know, she did not have it in the bag.”
I completed 78.11 miles of the 112-mile bike course (after completing the swim) to discover that I did not meet a cutoff on the bike and was pulled from the course and not allowed to continue. I was devastated. All I could do at first was just cry. I begged to be able to continue. Due to safety reasons associated with road closures, they (the Ironman staff and volunteers) do not allow you to progress on your own. Your timing chip is removed from your ankle and your bike is loaded up and you are provided with a van ride back to the transition area.
I didn’t have to experience the ride back to transition alone. I shared the van with another woman who had missed it by just six minutes. We didn’t talk much … we mostly just cried. I believe I cried almost as hard as I did when my father passed away. In all of my visions for how my race would unfold, this experience was the furthest from my mind. In that moment, and for quite a few days afterward, I felt like an absolute failure. As I write this, I can’t help but cry again recalling those thoughts.
The realization behind my thoughts of feeling like a failure come completely from within me. My family didn’t view me as a failure. Whether I completed the Ironman or not, my husband still loved me as his wife and my daughter still loved me as her mother. I felt like I had let down my coaches, Mike and Bruce … but I also know their relationship with me is not contingent upon my accomplishments. I believe they were all sad for me and each supported me in their own way as I worked to process what had occurred.
Processing my feelings after that race was much like going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the moment when you are realizing that your race has come to an end, there is definitely denial. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I went into the race without any doubt that I would finish. As I alluded to previously, there was definitely bargaining in that I was pleading for them to please allow me to continue.
Depression definitely lasted for a period of time. I remember telling my husband and daughter to go enjoy some time around the town where we were staying and that I just wanted to be alone. Most of my time alone was just spent crying. One of the things I look forward to most after a race is a big, hearty breakfast with a nice helping of pancakes and other things that I may not partake in as I dial my nutrition in the time leading up to race day. We went to breakfast the next day and I found little enjoyment in it. I felt like I didn’t “deserve” to enjoy that breakfast. Another small token associated with Ironman events is being able to wear your armband for a few days to weeks after your event because you are so proud of your accomplishment (some people wear them for months!) … and I couldn’t cut mine off fast enough. Whereas I usually take a period of time to wind down and recover from an event before I jump back into training … I barely felt like I had put in a workout and expressed to Coach Mike how I don’t think I really need to put off resuming training at an intensity relatively close to where I left off. I can recall Coach Mike referring to the next training cycle being a “cycle of enjoyment” which was full of a lot of my favorite movements. Mentally … I needed to find my fun again.
I did experience anger periodically. I can remember doing some squats in my garage and having thoughts from the race and the outcome flowing through my mind. I can remember thinking that there is no way that race is going to get the best of me … thinking “does that race know who I am?!” I let it fuel my training and suddenly those heavier squats became lighter at that moment. In later months as I continued to train, I would think back to how it felt to not finish, and I would pedal or push that much harder.
I remember talking with Coach Bruce about how I was feeling. I recall telling him how I felt like I was moving through the stages of grief. We talked about a few things and then he said, “can we move on now?” I said “yes” … and decided to move through to acceptance. It was of no benefit to me to continue to ruminate about what had happened. It is not to say that I never revisited my feelings surrounding what happened … but I did let go of them consuming my thoughts.
Not the First Time…
In May 2019, I decided to run (OK, let’s be honest … mostly walk) in my first ultramarathon. Go big or go home and I like nice round numbers, I signed up for 100 miles. I had only ever done one marathon prior and figured that 100 miles seemed like a “fun” time. I had broken down the goal and the cutoff times and thought for sure I would be able to endure and complete the event within the allotted time frame.
The race proved to be more challenging than I thought. I was fortunate enough to make it 80 miles before I decided to drop from the race. I had attempted to head out for another lap (it was a 5-mile loop that you completed 20 times) and made it to the aid station and decided that I just had nothing left … physically and mentally. I think about what I have since learned and consider one of Chad Wright’s practices to “not die in the chair” … at least I didn’t decide to quit from my chair. The moment I decided to stop, I just cried. I had never quit anything like that before. I had always pushed through to the end. My soul was crushed.
Similar to my Ironman Florida experience, I continued to dwell on it for a little bit and always thought about what I could have done differently? For example, what if I had slept for an hour and then went back out … or, what if I had just rested till daylight and perhaps I would have been able to move faster and more confidently?
I remember being on my drive home and talking to my husband about the disappointment in myself for quitting the race. I resolved at that time that when registration opens up, I have to come back and finish this race. Registration opened up later that week for 2020, and I signed up.
Another experience I had with failure was in September 2019 where I had raced in Ironman Louisville. I thought it would be my opportunity to complete a full Ironman and knock the item off my bucket list. To my disappointment, the swim was canceled. I went on to complete the bike and the run. Coming across the finish line, the person calling the race pronounces you as an “Ironman.” However, I didn’t quite feel like a true “Ironman” because I hadn’t done the full distance. When I would share that with others, they said it was appropriate to consider myself as such because I raced the race I was dealt that day. For me, it just didn’t feel quite right.
It wasn’t till a couple weeks later when I was reviewing my times in the Ironman Tracker
App on my phone that I realized I was a DNF (did not finish). I didn’t quite understand how that could be since I had gone the distance. I went back and reviewed the athlete guide and then reviewed my times. Per the athlete guide, you are allotted 8 hours and 30 minutes to complete the bike portion. My time was 8:31:30. Certainly, 1 minute and 30 seconds that I won’t forget.
In Florida, I had made the opposite mistake. While I had in mind that I had a deadline of 8 hours and 30 minutes for duration, I failed to take note of the location cutoff times (whereas in Louisville I was aware of the cutoff times) and that is how I came to be a DNF for Ironman Florida.
It is easy to become overwhelmed when faced with challenges whether they be in your personal life, your professional life, or even in fitness or whatever passion you are pursuing. I remember coming across the transcript of a speech given by Jocko Willink, a retired Navy Seal, at a gym where I was previously a member. I highly recommend you go to YouTube and put in the keywords “Jocko Good” and it will be one of the top videos that come up. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/IdTMDpizis8
I have likely listened to it more times than I can count. The transcript is as follows:
Jocko Willink’s Speech: ‘Good’
“One of my direct subordinates, one of my guys who worked for me, he would call me up or he would pull me aside with some major problem, some issue that was going on, and he’d say, “Boss, we’ve got this and that and the other thing,” I would look at him and say, “Good.”
And finally, one day, he was telling me about some issue that he was having, some problem, and he said, “I already know what you’re going to say.” And I said, “What am I going to say?” And he said, “You’re going to say: “Good.”
He said, “That’s what you always say. When something is wrong and going bad, you always just look at me and say, “Good.”
And I said, “Well, yeah. When things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that’s gonna come from it.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good.
Didn’t get promoted? Good … More time to get better.
Oh, mission got canceled? Good … We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get funded? Didn’t get the job you wanted? Got injured … sprained my ankle? Got tapped out? Good. Got beat? Good … you learned.
Unexpected problems? Good … We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.
That’s it. When things are going bad: Don’t get all bummed out, don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated.
If you can say the word “good,” guess what?
It means you’re still alive.
It means you’re still breathing.
And if you’re still breathing, well then hell, you’ve still got some fight left in you.
So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, re-engage – and go out on the attack.”
Learn From Your Challenges
Over time, I have strived to make this my first response to the challenges I am faced with. Instead of being distraught over what isn’t going right, I try to ponder what I can learn from the challenge or perceived failure. Didn’t finish that 100-miler? Good. Through that experience I learned I need to manage my nutrition and feet better and I need to train differently. Didn’t finish that Ironman? Good. I have now learned to consider all logistical requirements when setting out for your race. I have also learned that I need to train differently and put forth a different effort in training.
The Comeback Is Better Than the Setback
A few weeks after Ironman Florida, I signed up for Ironman Maryland (IMMD). I enjoyed some fitness non-triathlon related for a few weeks and gradually worked in some triathlon work. I think it was around January that I started setting up my bike on the trainer in the basement and putting some time in on my nemesis. To achieve different results, I needed to train a bit differently and through Coach Mike’s guidance, I trained differently on the bike. While I was always focusing on achieving certain metrics within the workout(s), mentally I thought about that bike ride in Florida and how it felt to not complete in it and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen again.
One of my main check-ins with how I was doing with my training was racing in Ironman Ohio 70.3 (1.2 mile-swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run). Ohio was somewhat of a flat course (similar to what Florida was and what Maryland would be) and would be a decent early indicator that I was on track as well as test out other things I needed to refine to be ready for my big race. In the Ohio race, my average bike speed was 15.5 mph, whereas in Florida, my average speed was 12.2 mph. That data was promising and definitely helped give me a touch of confidence that I was setting myself up for a good race.
My next opportunity to get a glimpse into how I had improved with my training was attending a triathlon training camp being hosted by Sonic Endurance which involved training on the IMMD course. The weekend training camp included a ride on the actual IMMD bike course. I completed that bike ride in 7 hours and 22 minutes with an average speed of 15.2. Once again, faster than Florida and definitely within the time limits. Additionally, the Sunday of that training camp was utilized for a long run. I hadn’t spent much time running compared to the time I had spent working on my cycling; however, Coach Mike said there would be a carryover from cycling to running. That Sunday, what I thought would be a casual 2½ hour run, turned into an accidental personal best on my half marathon time! That definitely made me happy as months prior, I had some moments of worry that I wasn’t spending enough time on my running. These two key experiences were just what I needed to be confident going into IMMD.
In the week leading up to Ironman Ohio, I got the idea to do a “back to back” experience in Maryland where I did the full Ironman on Saturday, and did a Half Ironman on my own the following day. To help you understand how this idea came to be, I will share with you the story behind that.
In 2020, I was originally registered for Ironman Mont-Tremblant, a location I was told was fairly reliable to have a swim that wouldn’t be canceled. However, COVID came along and the race was canceled. Talking it over with Coach Mike, he acknowledged that I like crazy things and he asked me if I had heard about the crazy thing Texas was doing. I said I had not. Due to having to cancel their spring full Ironman, they postponed it to October to the same weekend they were hosting their Half Ironman. They were referring to it as the “Texas Two-Step Challenge.” At first, I said I don’t think I am ready for that. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the more I researched it, I realized it almost never happens. I kinda pestered Coach Mike about it and we moved forward with training for that. However, once again, COVID changed those plans and those races were canceled. Texas registrants were offered transfer at no cost into Florida and that is how I ended up racing there.
Knowing this would be the last time (that I am aware of) that I would be training for and
doing a full distance triathlon, I figured this was my last chance to make the back to back experience happen. In a training run about two weeks after Ironman Ohio, I had a moment where I had come to the belief that without question, I knew I could do not only the full Ironman, but I could do the Half Ironman the day after. It was an incredible moment and an awesome internal experience to have that sense of confidence wash over me. I remember shedding a few (happy) tears and trying to hold back on just bawling with happiness because I needed to finish my run.
It is important to acknowledge that while I definitely was experiencing a confidence in myself that I don’t know I have ever experienced, I also knew I couldn’t allow myself to become content and “slack off” in my training. I continued to push just as hard in my training sessions and focus on the goal ahead of me. I still continued to surprise myself in those training sessions and continued to experience gradual improvements in my fitness.
Leading up to race day, I think I was the calmest I have ever been before an event as big as this. Once again, it was a crazy and amazing feeling. I was proud of my preparation and I believed in the work I had done to train for this. I had no doubt that by focusing on the things I could control, I was going to finish this race. For the things I couldn’t control, I had contingency plans and ways to work through them.
The race day began with the 2.4-mile swim. Although the temperature of the water wouldn’t have typically allowed it to be wetsuit legal, the Race Director made it wetsuit legal due to the prevalence of jellyfish in the water. Whether it was wetsuit legal or not, I was prepared to race either way. However, I will definitely say I appreciated the opportunity to be stung just a little bit less by jellyfish. Thankfully, as I learned that day, I am not allergic to jellyfish stings. Definitely a great experience in pushing through despite adversity because every exposed skin area was caressed by a jellyfish multiple times. I always say … nothing so bad that you can’t laugh about it later! My swim at IMMD was a little bit faster than my one in Florida. I attribute that to wanting to get the heck out of that water!
I moved with intention through transition and headed out onto my bike ride. I was focused on pushing myself, but not burying or redlining myself. I knew what my main checkpoint was … it was about mile 63 and I had to be there by about 2 or 2:30 p.m. … and I went in with an aid station strategy and where I would stop and I stuck relatively close to that. It was a sense of relief to hit that checkpoint with a little over an hour to spare. Once again, it didn’t mean I could coast it in from there, but the effort would be slightly different as I couldn’t expel all of my energy as I still had a marathon to do.
I once again moved with intention through the transition area as I took the necessary time to set myself up for a good run experience by changing out of my biking outfit and getting some early fuel in. I then headed out onto my run. I had a small goal going into my full Ironman and that was to get a new personal best on my marathon time within the Ironman. I had some really good early miles that set myself up for that; however, I did gradually drop off just a little bit and was doing a bit more walking than I had planned. I tapped into strategies I had found successful in other racing and training experiences and was able to once again settle into a rhythm and felt a new sense of energy. I felt so strong and determined in those last approximately 8 miles. I knew that a new personal record (PR) was within reach.
Looking at my watch though, were I to strictly run the course as is, I would have come up short with the distance. Personally, I would have had trouble referring to it as a PR if I didn’t do the full 26.2 miles. So, I turned around just before the finish line chute and ran back up the street to get in the last little bit so I could stop my watch at the 26.2-mile mark and get my official marathon PR. There was no way I was going to come up short and redo this distance just to get the official PR … I would be cool if this was my last marathon! In addition, it is also a way to not have your finish line video/picture not be one of you looking down at your watch as you come across the finish line ; )
I ended up PR’ing my marathon, within my Ironman, by 15 minutes and 29 seconds. It definitely ranks up there as a top 10 life experience and something I am incredibly proud of. It enhanced the belief in myself that I am capable of anything I set my mind to. To me, it was the best redemption for an unfortunate race outcome the year prior.
Thankfully, I made the decision to do the back-to-back experience before race day because if I based the idea of whether or not I would on how I felt Sunday morning, I wouldn’t have gone back out there. The Half Ironman distance required some modifications. Due to safety purposes and having no one to swim with and the plethora of jellyfish, I made the decision to swim at the local pool at the YMCA instead. I got there when they opened for around 10:00 a.m. and was dressed to swim, only to find out that the pool doesn’t open till 12:00 pm. Thinking about the rest of the “race” and being safely out on the road, I decided I couldn’t wait that long and would just add the swim distance (1.2 miles) to my bike ride total.
One of my mantras going into this weekend was “my body will adapt,” a little nugget I got from Coach Bruce. As I started out on my 57-mile bike ride, my hips were a bit tight from the day before and my upper body was a bit fatigued as well. Reminding myself that my body will adapt as I continued to pedal along, the tightness loosened up and although I believe in the saying “let it be possible,” I was amazed that I was out doing what I was doing.
When it came to the run portion, the 13.1 miles, I was still fairly fatigued but continued to push on. My daughter rode along with me on her bike to keep me company. I once again had to adapt my running strategy a few times within that run. It was a crazy experience to be actually out there running and getting it done. My body adapted and I was amazed to still be running at the end of a weekend that included a total distance covered of 210.9 miles.
To me, my triathlon weekend was the result of physical preparation meeting mental preparation. I had put in the work physically and mentally. I embraced the idea of “letting it be possible” and I was able to make it happen.
100 Miles Revisited
I was registered to reattempt the 100-mile distance at the same race location I had entered the year prior. The race was scheduled for April 2020 and much like some of the other Ironman races, this too had been canceled. As the weeks approached and it looked likely this would happen, I mentioned to Coach Mike, “whether this race is officially held or not, I am doing 100 miles because I don’t want to train for this ever again.” In preparation, I scoped out some area trails that I would be able to potentially do my 100 miles on and have appropriate facilities (i.e., somewhere to go to the bathroom). Once it became official that the race was canceled, I put my contingency plan into play and rented a port-a-potty for my chosen location (I received permission from a business on the road at the end of the trail to put it in his parking lot. Let’s just say, it was the first time anyone ever put in such a request!). The Race Director then also allowed for a virtual option.
On my chosen weekend, I worked that Friday then stopped at the store on my way home to buy my snacks/fuel for the following day. Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m., I set about completing 100 miles. I had some friends drop in and join me throughout much of it. Some did just a little bit whereas some others did 25-50 miles over the course of two days with me. There is a saying that “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The people that joined me lifted me up in various ways and kept my spirits up.
During ultramarathons, it is fairly well known that you will experience a low (or even many lows) at some point. I had definitely hit that around mile 75. In my previous experience, I hit it around mile 60. This time, at about 75 miles, I was wanting to sleep at the end of every 6-mile lap. However, doing that, I would not likely finish by the cutoff time. Just when I was thinking about sleeping again, a friend from the gym, Stacey, showed up and her presence reinvigorated me. We talked about so much and she kept me moving along. Without a doubt, everyone that joined me was crucial to my success … but I credit her with helping me finish. I am forever grateful for Stacey.
I would say the last 10 miles were the hardest. My feet felt like they were walking on hot coals. I was beyond tired and felt as though I could easily fall asleep on the side of the trail if I sat there long enough. With about an hour left till the cutoff time based on my start time (you had 36 hours to complete the distance), I realized that I would have to hustle to make that time. I had the realization that I had not come this far to only come this far and I didn’t want to be this close to the goal and not complete it.
In one of the most amazing experiences, I found the will to do some running/jogging and was somehow clocking miles faster than I had in the past few hours. For those last approximately three miles that I had to complete where I was “running,” the pain I was experiencing just seemed to melt away. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Once I knew I had run enough and banked enough time to meet my goal, I decided to walk the last little bit at which time my husband and my daughter had joined me. At that time, the pain washed back over me.
After 35 hours and 44 minutes, one half-hour nap plus two other 15-minute naps, I had finished 100 miles. With this experience as well as my Ironmans … it doesn’t quite hit you at the time the gravity of what you have accomplished. It is in the days, to weeks, to months after when you think about it, that you realize how amazing it is what you just did. 100 miles is an incredible mental and physical experience and I encourage as many people as possible to give it a try. To be able to keep going when you think there is no way you should be able to, is an incredible experience that can potentially translate to many other areas of your life.
Takeaways From Failure:
It’s Only a Failure If You Don’t Learn From It
It has taken some time and practice to reframe my perceived “failures” as learning opportunities. Like many other new habits that you form, it is something that becomes easier the more that you do it.
Thinking back to my first 100-mile attempt in May of 2019, I learned that I need to manage my feet a little better throughout the race. As a result, I now trade out my shoes and socks just a little bit more often. Learning this has helped me in my Ironmans as well as I now trade out socks between the bike and the run (you wouldn’t believe how much a new pair of socks makes you feel a little bit more brand new when you are tired!).
Mentally, I also learned that you are capable of going further when you think you have nothing left. I remember wanting to drop at mile 60 in that first attempt at 100 miles and still kept on going. It was a crazy experience to realize that I could still go 20 more miles past the point where I felt like I couldn’t do anymore.
In that first ultramarathon experience, I also learned the importance of letting people help you. I had gone to the event on my own and although I connected and made some new friends at the event, I still was reluctant to accept help or share the struggles I was going through. I was striving to do it on my own. Fast-forward to my second 100-mile attempt where I had support through a great majority of the race, I was able to go farther in less time by allowing people to support me.
At Ironman Louisville, I learned the importance of being familiar with the duration you are allotted for different portions of the race. Whereas at Ironman Florida, I learned the importance of being familiar with cutoff times. At Ironman Louisville, I also learned that I was capable of a 112-mile bike ride. In training, I had never gone farther than 60 miles so anything beyond 60 was unknown to me. Although I know very well you don’t have to cover the distance in training that you are going to race, I have come to learn that once you accomplish that distance, it almost becomes “easy” to do that again. For example, to me, 13.1 miles (a half marathon) is “easy” because I have done it so many times.
Something I had learned from my Ironman Florida experience is that it wasn’t enough to spend time on the bike and that I had to learn to be able to push myself better. With my biking, I learned how to put forth a different effort in training and it helped me push better during my race. I credit the feedback I got from the workouts Coach Mike had me do via the Trainer Road app which measured my power output, which gave me an insight into how different things feel.
Although I focus a lot on the biking portion of the Florida race, I learned a lot about moving efficiently through transition and I took that knowledge with me into Ironman Ohio and Ironman Maryland. I also learned to take each portion of the race one element at a time. Instead of thinking ahead to the run, I focus on what I am doing presently and putting in my best effort on that.
At Ironman Ohio, I learned a lot about fueling and hydration in a hotter race setting. Even though I had a successful race outcome there in my preparation for Ironman Maryland, I was slightly disappointed in how my run turned out. I took the information I learned from the Ohio experience and approached my fueling and hydration differently in Maryland, where it was fairly warm and as I described previously, it worked out better than I could have imagined!
In closing, the only real failure is giving up or quitting. I have come to learn that it is not so much about the outcome, but the process is what’s most important. None of us have control over any outcome. The only thing we have control over is the effort we put into the process to achieve that goal. It is taking each day, both the good and the bad, and identifying what we have learned in the process and utilizing that information to make us more successful in the future.
Dawn Fletcher of Driven Mind has a wonderful quote: “Respond in a way you’d be proud of.” Particularly with my Ironman Florida experience, were I not to go for it again, I would have set the example that just because you have failed once, you should just stop there. On the other hand, giving it another worthy attempt demonstrates that just because you failed once, doesn’t mean you will always fail. You take a moment for yourself, think about what you learned, revise your plan, move forward, put in the work, and tackle your goal. Leading by example for my daughter is also important to me and I didn’t want quitting to be the example I set for her.
Author: Dr. Candice Dutko
This article was featured in a post by FitnessRX For Women