It’s taken me a bit of time to recover from the XTERRA World Championships, both physically and mentally. The second half of my racing season had it’s challenges for sure. I wasn’t satisfied with my performances at the Mountain, European, and US Championships. But with five solid weeks of training available before the World Championships, I was looking for a good result. I know that I get fit training consistently at home, sans travel. And everything went well in that five weeks. Very well I’d say. I was down to a good race weight for Maui. My power was back up to Springtime values, all systems were go.
But while some people were having the race they dreamed of, I was living a bit of a nightmare. If you’re interested in learning about things like hypervolemic hypernatremia, feel free to read on or just give a quick listen!
I flew over to Maui on the Tuesday before the race. Racing on Sunday, I figured this was enough time to finish my heat acclimatization. I know that when I travel, I typically don’t have issues with heat and humidity. HOWEVER, I do have issues with water retention. And for some reason, it causes compartment syndrome in my legs when I run and ride after flying. It typically takes 2-3 days to completely disappear, it usually does, and it did by Thursday. My best guess from reading a ton of literature is that my body is used to a certain amount of sweating. I’m not a salty sweater to begin with, so I must accumulate salt and then hold water during periods of forced inactivity. I’ve confirmed this with weight measurements.
This is usually not a big issue. But the cramping suddenly came back on an easy spin on Friday morning. It persisted on Saturday. I tried to drink lots of water, but I know from experience that it takes 2-3 days for my body to come back to equilibrium.
So on race morning, I was hopeful that I could dilute my system and hope that some pressure would come out of my muscle fascia and allow me to put together the race I had worked so hard to prepare for. Warming up on the bike ride into the race site at Ritz Carlton Kapalua, I was feeling optimistic! No cramping in my glues or piriformis muscles. So far, so good. Well, the Ritz is not bike friendly (very odd place to have a triathlon world championships, don’t you think?) so I dismounted and walked to the transition.
On the downhill walk, my quads started to cramp painfully. Right up the middle (vastus lateralis/intermedius), top to bottom. I know it doesn’t do a damn thing, but I stopped to stretch it out. And it didn’t to anything. So now I was frustrated. But I stayed positive and focused on the race and doing what I could. I set up my transition. I drank a bottle of water. I decided to go sweat it out a bit longer on the bike. I cramped painfully during that ride too. Not good.
Needless to say I wasn’t a happy camper, but on the beach before the race I was all smiles and focused on the race. A switched flipped. There was a moment that I said to myself: control what you can, let everything else go. You trained hard for this, so just race. In that moment, I decided that I was going to race hard regardless of what happens.
Now, I’ve been to Kona a few times. I have to say, the start of the XTERRA Worlds is much more exciting. It’s an ITU style start with a mix of XTERRA, ITU and Ironman’s best all standing shoulder to shoulder and ready to rip into beach break. All this while a helicopter flies panning shot maneuvers at like 30 feet away. It’s freaking electric!
The horn went off and I sprinted into the water, missing the first drop off and sort of half-bellyflopped into the water. Despite my crappy hole-shot, the swim was uneventful for the most part, and I felt very fit running into transition. I got out fast, although I put my shoes on in T1, so my time doesn’t look special. and was ready to see what I could do on the bike. I pushed a bit out of transition and my legs were holding up. I sat down to start the long first ascent and calmed myself down. I was holding close to 500 watts, so I backed off knowing what I was able to sustain in the long term. I felt really, really powerful. And now optimistic!
But about a half mile in, the cramping started up. I tried to kind of ignore it and focus on the race. But the pain quickly grew and grew until I was wincing and losing power. I let a few riders pass, then a few more. The pain became so unbearable that I couldn’t ride. Have you ever had that nightmare where something is chasing you, and you can’t run? I certainly have, although I’m usually not being chased by anything… but that’s EXACTLY how I felt. I ride all the time, but right now I just physically can not do it.
I did what I could to relax my muscles, stretch them out, stretch the opposing muscle groups, breathe, pray, whatever! I drank my whole fresh water bottle in one go. I was ready to bag it right then, since I know it doesn’t usually loosen up. But what if it did? I’d never know if I didn’t try. And there’s like 18.5 more miles to go! So I got back on and rode.
But it hurt.
I could only ride standing up. So I did that. I rode standing up the whole time. Hips forward, knees splayed out to the side like I just learned to ride a bike today. Grunting in pain all the while. Periodically, to my surprise, the pain subsided. I rode like a man possessed and passed lots of people. Then it came back and I was standing on the side of the trail again. This happened three times over 11 miles of hard climbing and descending. The only explanation I can find is that the pain was so bad that my body decided to turn it off for a bit.
I can handle normal adversity. In fact, I crashed along the fence line exactly where Josiah (and many others) crashed. I just got back up and kept riding. Yeah, I was frustrated that in addition to my body not working, I had crashed. But crashing is part of racing. It’s the “body not working” part I can’t handle. And I really mean “not working”. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t lift my knees. I physically had no business being on a bicycle. That’s a frustrating place to be, and it takes a toll on an athlete mentally just watching what you trained for go down the trail, and ultimately down the drain on that particular day.
Eventually, on the long descent in the eleventh mile, I realized that I was doing significant damage to my muscles. I was in constant pain and now couldn’t use my legs to absorb the terrain at high speed. So I had to slow down. Now the top AG men were coming past me at high speed. It was just getting dangerous for both my muscles and my well being. After much hemming and hawing along the trail, I pulled the plug.
It’s not a short ride back from mile 11. It was a painful ride on the highway back to Kapalua. My mind wandered from wanting to mourn my race, to just letting it go. I honestly wanted to cry at some points. We each put so much work into what we do. No one may see that work, but it gets done come hell or high water. And normally, what you have to show for it is performances. I’m there to race and I want to race hard. So not being able to even finish was a real bummer.
But it’s not the end of the world. I know this. I had a bad day. Time to hold steady until I get the chance to do it again. And that time will come soon enough. And I’ll be stronger when I get there. So, I wanted to put this race behind me pretty quickly. (Probably too quickly, since I didn’t want to think about racing, or even write a race report.) It just took some time to digest and come to a good place before I could.
The thing I’m nervous about is putting measures in place so that the cramping issue does not return. There are a few tacks to take. One could say, well just watch your salt intake and weigh yourself to maintain correct hydration for the travel and week before the race. That’s the one I think will work. Watch what you eat, and weigh yourself to make hydration adjustments if needed. Or you could say, just go there earlier and give yourself more time. But I honestly think that wouldn’t do it. Mainly, because I’ve performed without cramping in hot humid weather before. I’ve done it this year in Alabama and Richmond. Not to forget that I used to run cross country in Hawaii. And also, I was there six days out. The issue went away, and then came roaring back with poor food choices.
The cause of my cramping is clear to me. Believe me, if it were a simple deficiency of electrolytes, as everyone is quick to offer up, I would be able to take care of it. I learned that 20 years ago. I know a lot about hyporvolemic hypernatremia (not drinking enough during exercise) and hypervolemic hyponatremia (drinking too much water without enough electrolytes.) I assure you, my issue is the one that falls though the cracks in medical literature, save for a few side-note mentions and papers on ICU patients during heart attack treatment.
How do I know? Data. The same cramping happened in the past, as recently as February when I was sick and drinking pedialyte to “stay hydrated”. I gained liquid weight and cramped. It took a lot of time for my body to get back. Dilution was the solution. And sweating. It’s very hard to believe (for me at least) but I weighed 11 pounds more in the days after this race than I did on race week. It’s nearly impossible to gain that much actual weight in a week. That’s like 40,000 calories of food in terms of body fat storage, or nearly 7,000 excess calories per day. I eat 3500, and my basal is over 1,750.
It was liquid. Here’s a picture of me a few days after the race:
I found that this is something called hypervolemic hypernatremia. (Too much extracellular fluid caused by too much electrolyte). High blood plasma volume for an endurance racer is usually desirable. But In my case, there is a tipping point where it causes/caused compartment syndrome. My cramping symptoms are exactly what someone with compartment syndrome experiences: painful cramping in their most trained muscles, when they call on them. Especially brought on by eccentric contractions. This is why it comes on when I run/walk down hill, and also why it affects my glues when I’m riding since I have very tight psoae. or psoas…es? j/k. Anyway, that makes sense. I just don’t know the exact mechanism for the cramping, but it’s probably not crucial.
Most likely cause of too much salt? Island food basically. Tuna poke (poh-kay) and Teriyaki chicken are some of my favorite foods of all time. Poke basically marinated raw fish. As it happens, Hawaii is the Poke mecca. So, basically my salt intake doubled (or perhaps tripled) by eating poke as a snack and on my salads for lunch. Combine that with the fact that there’s pretty much teriyaki everything on the island + hot weather + reduced training load + salt water ingestion during swimming… and you have a perfect storm for super high blood plasma volume.
The good news? These are mostly controllable variables. I’ll be sure to focus on my race week nutrition an hydration next year and all of next season.
The thing I’m really excited about was my physical preparation for this particular race. This year, I feel like my coach and I really nailed the physical prep. I still think that the course in maui is not quite technical enough to be fair to the Xterra pros. But, I’m now more optimistic about my prospects of racing well on that course. In those brief instances when my body did decide to let me race, I was climbing much better than I ever have on that course. I could really push and keep pushing. Same as in training. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to unleash. I really wanted to see what I could do on that course. But I’ll get more chances.
Failure isn’t part of the process, it is the process.
I loved the race report posted by the eventual winner Josiah Middaugh. “If first you don’t succeed, try 14 more times.” In his explanation of the journey to his world title, he points out that it’s a long road and a myriad of things go wrong along the way. This is poignant reminder that things don’t always go as planned. All we can do is keep working diligently, and be the best people we can be along the way. This is very much in line with Coach Paulo’s “philosophy” (hehe) of working hard every day to be better. After all, that line of thinking has me performing the best level of my career. This year was my best season of racing so far. Two podium finishes at XTERRA “majors” and the Professional Tour Standings? Hell yeah! That gets me pumped for 2016. I’m looking forward to continuing to do things better in the future.
On that very optimistic note… that’s a wrap on the 2015 season’s racing.
See y’all in 2016! Yeew!!!