Monday, October 22, 2018

Kona Race Report 2018: Cassie Whittington

We're always super proud when a teammate qualifies for and races on triathlon's biggest stage, the Ironman World Championships. Here's Cassie Whittington's (Ohio) Kona 2018 race report, which is an awesome read. Some races throw curveball after curveball at you, but Cassie never gave up (and still threw down a very solid time!).

Congrats to our friends Julia Slyer (New York) and David Wild (Hawaii) for their Big Island performances as well!

Kona 2018 was an adventure for me. I’ve been feeling down that I wasn’t able to have the day I wanted, but always thankful to be able to race on this stage against the best in the world.

Preparation for the race wasn’t the easiest. Six weeks out from the race I injured my left achilles and had to take some time off of all three sports as I couldn’t push off the wall swimming, put pressure on a bike pedal, or run without pain. After some time off, I finally felt great again, only to roll my ankle on a run two weeks out from the race. Both injuries made me step away from training for a bit, at a time where my training volume and intensity needed to be the highest. When I would train, I felt completely exhausted, my legs felt heavy, and I just couldn’t motivate myself to push hard. Despite these set-backs, I was looking forward to racing and seeing what extra rest would feel like on race day.

I felt calm coming into race day, as last year's experience allowed me to understand the course more, particularly how rough and aggressive the swim is, how windy the bike is, and how hot the run course is! Last year I ended up with hyponatremia after the race, so I wanted to perform some sweat testing while in Kona to help determine my sweat rate and sodium loss in Kona conditions so that I could better fuel on race day this year and avoid the medical tent. I first did a bike sweat test with Gatorade and discovered I needed 1,000mg sodium and 38 ounces of water each hour…totally replaceable on the bike where I can carry multiple bottles.

The next day I worked with Levelen and performed a more detailed bike and run sweat test. The bike test came back similar, with a loss of 1.4 L an hour and so to replace 75% of that I needed 36 ounces of water an hour and 1,006 mg sodium an hour. The crazy numbers came with the run, which weren’t that shocking because I’m well aware of my super high sweat rate running. Running I lost 2.2 L water an hour, so to replace 75% of that I needed 55 ounces an hour, not easy running. I, however, lost 2,660 mg of sodium an hour, more than most people need in an entire day. This was going to be much harder to replace while running and my current nutrition plan included taking in 1,700mg an hour. Making some electrolyte changes the day before the race was not the best idea, as I would find out later.

The swim went great this year. I think it is one of the hardest aspects of the race because of how aggressive it is and swimming is not my background or strength. Swimming in the ocean also makes me motion sick. I didn’t start right at the front like last year, but chose to start further back to avoid some contact. Well this didn’t help at all, as the cannon mass start just makes it so chaotic and you feel like you are in the middle of a washing machine of people all fighting to get ahead. I remained calm, was ready for the hour of punching and kicking and large gulps of salt water I would ingest, and even looked around a bit at the beauty of the course. I came out around 1:08 and was happy, as I knew I could make up time later on the bike and run and didn’t need to kill myself in the swim, just use it as a warmup.

Transition was super fast and I jumped on my bike and was glad to feel strong, as my last few weeks my quads felt very tired and sore. Around mile 10 I hit a big bump and something broke loose in the front of my bike and I lost both my water bottles. I stopped to check my front wheel and straighten it out, left the water bottles behind without worry as the first aid station I would replace them, and went on. Except the problem was still there, something on the front of my bike was off alignment or broken and rattling. I didn’t have many options but to ride on. When I stood on my pedals on uphills, the front wheel shifted so much it rubbed on the frame. Lesson learned quickly, I couldn’t stand on my pedals.

My sprained ankle also hurt when I stood on the pedals, making me a bit nervous that it would limit my running later. All this worrying about what was wrong with my bike slowed me down as I was trying to ride cautiously over any bumps, but I was still averaging 20 mph and got up the largest climb without standing up and was happy to have the fast return to town. Well what happened when I hit the bump was that I forced my tube to bulge out of my wheel and when I started flying down Hawi, the tire rubbed too much and too fast against the frame and popped the tire. I pulled over, pretty sad that my shot of a really great day was over, but I could still change the tire fast and have a good day. I changed the tube, threw on the CO2 cartridge to inflate it, and NOTHING! It wouldn’t work. So I sat there for 10 minutes until the race support van found me, feeling very defeated watching hundreds of people fly by on what should have been the fastest part of the course for me.

The mechanics tried the CO2 as well and said it must have been empty (what’s the chances?!?), grabbed their own pump and pumped the tire. Except the tube kept popping out of the wheel when we tried to inflate it fully. They took it back apart and tried to put the tube in correctly multiple times, and then the fifth time said it was good and they put it on my bike, and I went off. About a minute later, the bike started rattling like crazy and making noises. Now I was just praying the bike would stay together until I got to transition, still 60 miles away! At mile 80 the front skewer rattled completely open and the front wheel almost flew off, luckily I saw it happening and stopped again, tightening everything on the bike yet again and hoping for the best. I am use to being surrounded by other cyclists in racing, but I had fallen so far behind that I was on the road all alone.

It was a very lonely time, with lots going through my head. It is very hard to push your limits and race without others around you encouraging you to push a harder pace and keep with the group. I was still thinking I could end this race on a high note with a great marathon, which kept me from going to a dark place. I kept riding very conservatively, trying to avoid any bumps in the road, as any jolt made the bike make even more noise. The rattling of the front bottle cage alone almost drove me crazy! My back began to hurt, something I haven’t experienced before but was most likely due to absorbing the shock of the rough ride. I was SUPER thankful to make it to T2 without any more flats and my bike in one piece! When returning the bike later that night, I found out the tube popped out again. The mechanics thought I may have bent my wheel when I hit the first bump and knocked my headset loose as well, so every revolution of the wheel made the whole bike rattle.

I was never so happy to start a marathon in my life, with the intent of passing as many people as I could. The first 6 miles I knew I had my running legs that day and this was going to be fun. I was being super careful to keep up with my exact nutrition plan, but with the sweat testing I decided to add 2-3 extra Gu electrolyte tabs with extra water to bump up my intake closer to the 2,600mg sodium mark and 50 ounces an hour. Maybe it was this, or maybe my body just wasn’t having it that day, but at mile 6 my stomach started cramping and I needed to go to the bathroom. This was the first time in my 5 Ironman history (and 5 half-Ironmans) that I had ever stopped to go the bathroom.

I went and was confident I wouldn’t have to go again. Well that just wasn’t the case for me that day. From mile 10 on I stopped at every single bathroom on the course…my goal just being to run to the next mile marker and praying there was a porta-potty there and hoping I’d get there in time. I tried curing my stomach problems with coke, bananas, oranges, Gatorade, pretzels, ANYTHING they had along with my typical nutrition I carried. But whatever I put in my body came right out. At mile 22 I started puking the second I put a gel in my mouth. I was on the pitch black Queen K with absolutely no one around me wondering what the heck was going on! The good thing is that quitting was never a thought, my only thought was HOW LONG IS THIS RACE GOING TO TAKE ME?!?

Well, I got to the finish line with a time of 11:42. I tried to take it in and smile, and walked right by the medical tent thinking I was just fine. I went to get my finishers picture and almost passed out. I laid down on the ground, my whole body cramped up, my hands curled into balls and everything was tingling from head to toe. Medical put me into a wheel chair and took me to the med tent, where they drew labs and found out my sodium was low and my potassium was 2.1 The doctors exact words were “HOLY SHIT! This can’t be right! How many times did you get sick??” I guessed I puked or shit my brains out (sorry people) 8-10 times. They gave me anti-nausea meds, an oral potassium, then hooked me up to an IV but didn’t want to start it until they could confirm the labs a second time. Well the second draw showed my potassium even lower, under 2. So with 6 blankets on top of me, an IV pumping, one doctor asking me questions to make sure I was coherent, another doctor feeding me bananas and chicken broth, and a third med just trying to get me to relax my body, I finally felt good enough four hours later to sit up! So I got up and went to the midnight finish so I could see the truly amazing and motivating athletes of the day!

I had bigger goals for myself on race day than what I was able to achieve, but that wasn’t the day I was dealt. I still tried the best I could and am in no way mad at my effort, just extremely disappointed in the result and the fact that I didn’t get to truly compete. Some races just don’t go your way. Some races are simply about perseverance and overcoming difficulties. But as I said before, I am still thankful to be able to race in Kona with the best athletes in the world. AND I am MOST thankful for all the people who support me no matter what my race outcomes are.

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