The world of long distance triathlon can be unforgiving.
Bike mechanical, weather, nutrition, fitness…a lot of things can go wrong in a long distance triathlon. As a “back of the pack” long distance athlete, I have always been worried about getting the dreaded “DNF” (“Did Not Finish”). I have seen many fall. Some front of the pack athletes fall due to bike crashes, nutritional errors, or weather. Others just ran out of time.
I followed a married couple last fall in Ironman Florida. The weather was brutally cold, windy and raining. They were both on the run course (he was several miles ahead of her) and doing OK. He crossed her path and could tell that she was slipping into hypothermia. He turned in both of their timing chips and brought her back to their hotel and put her in a hot shower until she warmed up. Both were multiple Ironman finishers.
Someone I raced with in Wisconsin turned his life around. He lost a lot of weight and trained harder then anybody. At 300 pounds, he still competed and got past the halfway point on the run (about 128 miles into the race) before officials pulled him off the course for missing a cutoff time. He is currently training to race it again this year.
Someone I biked with was diagnosed with a hairline hip fracture one week before Ironman Wisconsin. She was told that she should stay off of it and that running was completely off limits. She finally got the green light from her orthopedist that she could swim and bike. She crushed those two sections of the course. When she arrived in T2, the only thing in her transition bag was a pair of flip flops. She left her running shoes at the hotel so she would not be tempted to try to complete the marathon. She has more strength and courage then I can even imagine and she is planning a comeback in 2016.
The Ironman 70.3 (aka “Half-Ironman”) has historically been more forgiving and lenient then the full distance. At Ironman Kansas 70.3, they announced that they would not be enforcing the finish time cutoff on the run. The run portion of the event was held on walking trails. Since public roads were not closed for that portion of the race, they would stay until the final runner crossed the finish line, and they would celebrate the finish with them.
Also, 70.3’s typically have a wave start. The final cutoff has always been 8 hours and 30 minutes, but the clock used to start when the final starter crossed the starting line. So, if your wave started 10 minutes before the final wave, then you got an extra 10 minutes to finish. That rule changed this year. Everyone has the same amount of time. The clock starts when you cross the start line. You must finish in 8:30:00 or less.
Ironman 70.3 Hawaii took place yesterday. It is a tough event. Unprotected ocean swim, windy and hilly bike course, and the run takes place midday…with a high temp of 87F with high humidity. I followed a friend and his finish time was 8:31:14. After competing for eight and a half hours, he missed the final cutoff by 74 seconds. His wave started 16 minutes before the final wave, so he would have been an official finisher last year, or the year before that. The race was still going when he crossed the finish line, so he got his medal, finishers hat, finishers shirt, and finishers photographs. He was announced as a finisher as he crossed the finish line. He completed the full 70.3 mile course. But, when he looks up his time, he will see those three letters “DNF”. I can’t imagine the heartbreak. For three years I trained for Ironman Wisconsin. All I wanted to do was finish. I worried about the possibility of the DNF the entire time I trained. Fortunately, on race day, I never reached a point that the DNF was looming ahead of me. I finished with over an hour to spare, and walked the last 7 miles (when I physically could not run anymore) knowing that I had the extra time to spare. He knew by the halfway point of the bike that he may not be able to meet the cutoff. He was way behind on the run and battled back. He battled to within 74 seconds before running out of time. He had more inner strength then most on the course that most finishers. He never gave up. He embodied the spirit of Ironman.
This is why, at every Ironman event, participants wait at the finish line for the final finishers. That last hour is a celebration of the human spirit. One sign I saw at a race sums it up the best…
“The first finishers may impress us, but it is the final finishers that inspire us.”