Dana Platin is a rock star. She’s one of my heroes. I asked her to do an interview with me, and she agreed. Here she tells about her recent and only DNF (Did Not Fail).
Q. Dana, tell us about the half ironman you’ve been training for. How did you choose this particular race? What drew you to it?
I chose two half- IronMan races as part of my training plan to work toward racing a full IronMan in early August 2014. An IronMan endurance race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run with a total distance of 140.6 miles. Not normal, I know. The half distance is 70.3 miles with a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run. I raced two of these 70.3 IronMan races between May and June 2014 as part of my preparation for the IronMan race coming up on August 3, 2014 in Boulder, Colorado, 38 days away!
Q. What was your training schedule like as you’ve prepared for the big race?
I train 6 days a week with a combination of speed swim trainings, strength swim trainings, long distance swims, speed work on the bike, climbs on the bike, speed work with my runs, hill training with the runs as well as long distance runs. Some days, I would combine the biking and running. I wake up at 5am and grab a cup of coffee before I head out the door; this has been my ritual for years. I train between 5:30 am and 7:30 am and then get home, shower, and go off to the office. I have a busy job and have had to learn to plan out all my trainings and work tasks every day, week and month in order to be able to fit this all in. It sounds like a lot, but the training actually is the most peaceful time of day for me. It’s quiet time where I can be alone with myself. I believe my best ideas come to me when swimming, cycling, or running, and I use this time to help me meditate, decompress, and recalibrate for the day to come.
Q. I know you recently had to make a difficult call with regard to one of your half Iron Man races. What was that race like? Highlights? Lowlights? Funny/scary/frustrating/victorious moments? Paint a picture for us of your experience. Take us there (this is where you tell the story of the event).
I have raced over 12 years with a mix of 5km runs, 10km runs, half marathons, marathons, and century rides, 8 half IronMan distance races, IronMan full distance, trail half marathons, mountain expeditions…you get my gist. I have a LOT of mileage under my belt, and I have always finished every race. Now, I haven’t always finished strong and have even finished injured, but this recent race was the first race that I DID NOT FINISH.
In racing, there are terms such as DNF (did not finish) and did not start (DNS), in which the individual signed up for the race did not show up to race or actually dropped out. The results are posted on the Internet and the entire world (if they are looking) knows you were a “no show” or didn’t finish. So I knew I would have a little bit of “ah shit, gotta explain this one.” I usually don’t care what others think, but the explaining I have to do for myself is the hard part. I have been close to not finishing before when I was injured. In those cases I would have to walk to the finish line, slow down the pace, but never have I fully dropped out.
Here’s a snapshot of the series of events leading up to my first DNF…
We showed up at 6am to get our wetsuits on for the open water swim. The temp was about 50 degrees in the morning and the water was a brisk 61 degrees. Everyone was nervous about the cold including me. I hadn’t swum in waters that chilled before but had so much training under my belt that I felt my strength would help me overcome. I put on my wetsuit, which was warm and toasty. I step into the water, my toes felt frozen but the water didn’t seep into my wetsuit. I stood in up to my knees and still didn’t feel anything. I figure, “I got this, it’s not that bad.”
The gun goes off and I dive in headfirst. I come up gasping for air and a shock went through my system as I felt the cold. WOW, this is freakin’ cold!!! I try to take a deep breath and swallow some water. I then get kicked and pummeled by the lovely men to my left and right as it’s a mass start with a couple of hundred people. I had the onset of a cold the day before, nothing major but a bit of congestion and an earache. Still, I start to find my place in the water, set the pace, find my stride and rhythm. After about 5 minutes, I felt my chest tighten up and had a hard time breathing, I slowed it down as I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t breathe, I wasn’t swimming that fast? My legs felt like dead weight and my arms even heavier. I was only 5 minutes into the swim; I had at least 35 more minutes to go! What was going on? I stayed calm and mentally put myself in check. You can do this and “will” be ok. Do not wave the kayak guy to come rescue you, I said to myself.
I turn around and see the shore right there, I can actually swim back and get out of this right now. I tread water, try to breathe and have a moment of “knock this negative talk off” with myself, and onward I go. I have never been scared in the water or panicked. I have seen my triathlon comrades hugging the buoys waiting to be rescued by the safety kayakers or small boats (if you raced in South America, we had fisherman as our safety water peeps J), but I’ve always been fine. This was a strange new experience for me and I didn’t realize the cold had such an impact on me, I just thought I was slow and the wetsuit was too tight causing me to feel cement arms and legs. 40 something minutes later, I make it through the 1.2 mile swim. I get out all water logged with frozen cheeks. My arms were still there and moving. Phew, I am done with the swim!
I try to run to the transition zone to get out of my wetsuit to grab my bike. There are 2 guys there who are serving as volunteers—called “strippers” (LOL)—who help you strip out of your wetsuit. They grab my suit and strip it down, and I fall backwards as it was so quick and I was still frozen. I think of the movie frozen and all the hype around that song “let it go” and just start singing to myself the same lyrics! Am I going insane? I am out of the wetsuit and find my bike. I put on my cycling helmet and shoes, and off I go. I have my race nutrition in a small pouch on my bike, so I drink some electrolyte mix and eat 2 fig newtons (my favorite on the bike) to get the proper fueling for the next hour. Pedal, chew, breathe, drink, pedal, chew, breathe, drink and breathe some more. Off I go. I am cycling like a bat out of hell.
I am cold and trying to warm up and still in a bit of shock that I made it through the swim. I am hitting it hard, flying past everyone on the bike. I am in my aero bars on my bike which has me arched forward in order to be as aerodynamic as possible to move at a faster pace. I am confident, pedaling harder and harder, making up time, breathing well and pushing on. I have a total of 56 miles to ride and it looks as though this will be my personal record for timing on the bike. I am 1 hour and 20 minutes into the ride and my bike clock shows 28 miles have been completed already. I am on track for a 2 hour and 40 minute 56-mile ride. WOOHOO!!!!! I am flying and feeling good.
In the aero bar position you shift your gears up and down from the aero bar shifters. Suddenly, I shift one of the gears and notice the shifter is coming off and flimsy. It comes lose and is hanging, meaning I can’t change the gears and need to ride the remaining 28 miles in the same gear! OMG, this isn’t happening. As I am processing the new mechanical situation of my bike, I fly over a bump and my water bottle sponge that is nestled in between the aero bars pops off and I am being splashed by my limeade electrolyte mix; I am sticky, thirsty and riding single speed in a half IronMan race being bathed in this sticky, sweet and salty electrolyte mix.
Instead of hitting the panic button, I make sure to put myself in check—laugh at how ridiculous this is and then stay calm. I put my mental skills training to work at this point; I carry on and stay focused on what needs to happen next and stay positive. I have learned that when I get negative in a race it just sends me on a downward spiral, and I refuse to let negative talk take over. Just keep pedaling, find that cadence with the one speed you got and make it work. No need to panic, just pedal, push, breathe and ignore the annoying splashing of limeade electrolyte mix in your face. I roll into the finish line in 2:59, completing the 56-miles happy that my gear didn’t completely fail and that I made it through the arctic swim and bike ride. I didn’t get my personal record (PR) on the bike that day but did get my PR on mental skills training and putting up a good fight when the going got tough!
Next, I get off the bike with my sticky face and fingers from the limeade bath I took and race to the transition zone to leave my bike, take off bike helmet and cycling shoes, and put on running shoes. Every minute counts, so I am trying not to fiddel faddel in the transition zone. If it were up to me, I would take a nap in the transition zone, but off I go… I start running an 8:30-minute mile. Whoa slow that down, I tell myself. Then I am at a 9-minute mile, which is the pace I usually race at.
I start to feel my chest tightening up. I have never felt this before during a run. I am not sure why since I just biked so strong and felt fine with no breathing issues. It was the same tightness I felt on the swim, so I slow it down and take some deep breaths. I can’t get air in my lungs. I am now at a 12-minute mile and still can’t breathe. I start to worry and think, Should I tell someone? But maybe it will go away. Just run it off… I continue to run and now at a 13-minute mile, it gets worse. I see an aid station and some very cool women volunteering. I stop and I wait for a minute, deciding if I should share my secret. “Hey guys, do you have any water, gels, bananas?”
“Yes, we do,” they give me the “looking strong” cheers, and I choose not to tell them how I am truly feeling as I am worried about the consequences of my sharing. I would be told STOP, DROP OUT, DO NOT FINISH. I keep going. It starts again; I can’t breathe. I am thinking now, Do I have asthma? It’s not going away and now it’s getting scary. I make it through the next mile and see another group of volunteers. This time I take the plunge and tell them about my symptoms.
They immediately help me, worried it was my heart. They got me all nervous, but I know I am in perfect health, I don’t have heart issues… but could I? SHIT!!! This is “it.” My first DNF…
They ask if I want them to call a medic and I say no, that I will walk back since I didn’t feel dizzy—just tightness in my chest and lack of breathing. The two women stared at me like my response wasn’t going to work for them and they didn’t want me left alone. I convince them that I will walk slow and be fine. They let me go, although one of them came to check on me on her bike (she was awesome.)
I had that long walk of shame; the walk I always wondered about with fellow DNFers. On the walk, I am processing how this feels; I am not finishing this race. I had these moments of asking myself if I should push a little harder and see? But I realize this was the right decision, a wise one, and the decision of a person who knows her body and is being smart about her health.
This wasn’t about getting a PR or the best time or always finishing. It was about making sure my health,
well-being, and security come first. I actually felt empowered and good about my decision knowing it was the right thing to do. I had enough racing under my belt to know that I would finish if I could. I had done it many times before, but today wasn’t that day. DNF it would be.
I walk back, and as I walk, my breathing gets better and my chest is doing better. The medics checked me out and said I had bronchial spasms from the cold water, and it got exacerbated on the run from the up and down motion. While on the bike, I was crunched over and protected, and that is why I didn’t have the spasms like I had in the swim and the run. They wanted me to watch for signs and symptoms of edema and pneumonia that night, and luckily I took care of my health and recovered the following day. I felt more like a badass that I was even able to persevere through the swim and the decision making of saying “enough” on the run and not beating myself up afterwards.
So there it is DNF, DID NOT FAIL. I turned the Did Not Finish into a Did Not Fail nor Fret. It is what it is, and as long as you can walk away from each experience knowing you gave it your best, then there is no failure. I went on to race another half Iron Man five weeks later in Boulder, Colorado and had no medical problems. There I finished strong. I enjoyed the race, stayed strong mentally, and obviously had my bike shifter fixed and bought a new aero bottle so my electrolyte mix wouldn’t bathe me again!
Lessons learned. There can always be another race. One race shouldn’t be the way we measure our overall performance. I have been 100% committed to this Iron Man plan. I know there will be good days and bad; the important piece is “how” we race and “how” we deal with the setbacks.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer many years ago and lived in the northern Andes of Ecuador. It was there that I learned to persevere and push on. Some very powerful women and girls taught me these lessons that I carry with me on race days.
A huge thanks to Dana for sharing her experience! We learn as much from the struggles as we do from the victories.