Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tough Decisions

What is even harder than the actual training for an event? Did you guess that it is showing up to the start line healthy and uninjured? Before every Olympics headlines abound with tales of athletes unable to compete due an assortment of injuries. Who can forget Deena Kastor pulling out of the Beijing marathon at 5K unable to even walk (she must have known that something wasn’t right before she started)? The travails of Paula Radcliffe were chronicled for months prior to Beijing, her health in question and her valiant effort during competition showed her utter determination. Year after year, the sports websites run stories about injured and ailing athletes and the speculation about whether they will recover in time for the big day.

In my own career I have dealt with injuries and illness and have made decisions to race based on emotion rather than reason. I have raced with a torn hamstring, mono, back injury, sinusitis, bacterial infections, and Montezuma’s revenge all hinged on hope. Hope that the ailment will miraculously go away, hope that the fitness I had prior to the condition will carry me through, hope that just for a few hours I will feel excellent. History has shown, though, that training doesn’t lie. If in the days before the competition you cannot execute your workouts, then, inevitably, you will not perform on race day. Here is a perfect example. The week prior to the 2004 Olympic Triathlon trials I struggled with back pain; my times were off on the track and I felt terrible riding up the steep hill on the bike course. Race morning I was incredibly nervous, more so than normal. I knew, deep down, I was fighting a losing battle. It should have been no surprise that I could not finish the race, yet I was still terribly disappointed. I put myself in this no win situation by starting a race my training told me I would have trouble finishing.

On Sunday, I had an omen. I rode long and ran off the bike, my last hard workout before the California 70.3 six days later. While my ride went very well, the run was less than perfect. I struggled badly with asthma and was unable to run my intervals. Naturally, I was upset. Later that afternoon, I read an article about Haile Gebrselassie dropping out of the New York half marathon, while leading, due to an asthma attack. He had struggled that week due to a cold but decided to race anyway. That could be me on Saturday, I immediately thought. Yes, my sinuses were acting up and my lungs were affected, but I was still hopeful that I could pull it together on race day. The next day, when I tried to run, I could not last even 5 minutes. My lungs felt charred, my sinuses throbbing, my race vanishing in front of my eyes. I had an epiphany. I would change the course of my history of poor decision making. I would decide early to give my mind and body a chance to recover and prevent a prolonged illness. I would pull out of the California 70.3, a seemingly easy decision, but one that came with inner turmoil, consultations, and doubt.  My return to racing will wait a few more weeks.

Here is the root of the problem. Professional athletes are a competitive bunch and relish the prospect of testing ourselves on playing field, whether it is a local tune up event or a World Championship. But, beyond that, there is the matter of sponsor obligations, commitments to race organizers, media opportunities, and financial gains. Deciding not to compete generally requires a cataclysm! Yes, professional athletes are caught in a catch-22.: if we pull out of an event before it even starts, people question this decision and ask “why don’t you just wait and see how you feel?” If we race and drop out people proclaim “you knew you were not a hundred percent, so why did you even start?” The pressure to compete is multi-faceted and the decision to pull plug is never made unilateral and never comes lightly.

Have you competed when you shouldn’t have? What were your reasons?


  1. Sorry to hear it but a wise move. Get well

  2. Hope you feel better. Pulling out is always a hard call and I think you are smart to listen to your body. I bet the next race you enter you will crush it!

  3. This early in the season, undoubtedly the right decision. You certainly do not want any more races like some of those last year. You will know when you are 100% ... and, so will your competition on raceday!

  4. I have competed when I shouldn't have.. and paid the price of poor performance. My reasoning? Maybe it's not THAT bad (poor reasoning). Even if you start a race and can finish it, despite your ailment, the mental aspect of poor performance isn't worth the risk. Rest up!

  5. How about an Ironman with Plantar Fasc?......That turned into a nice 2 year long ordeal....

    It's too bad Ironman doesn't have some form of roll over plan for AG athletes. So many people come down with something and end up wasting a ton of money and then have to spend it all over again to race (if they can even get into one). That is probably the biggest perk to racing pro...not having to deal with all that!

  6. Well said Julia...It show that 30 years of training and competing bring wisdom. We always seem to disappoint ourselves more anybody else, but don´t fall for that. Rest well and get better soon.

  7. After months of training for IM Wisconsin a few years ago I had to pull out the morning of the race. So much had gone into the race both in time, money, a big article about me in the local paper and friends and relatives anxious to cheer me on. I learned from the experience. I will never do a warm up swim in questionable water conditions two days before any race. I woke up at 4am race morning with a fever and a sinus infection that took over a month to totally get rid of.

  8. Hi, Joanna,

    I'm sorry to hear about your not being able to race this weekend - but am sure you made a wise choice! I DNF'd at my marathon in February, though I was on my way to BQ, due to my asthma issues. Wanted to ask you about this...

    I've recently been diagnosed with asthma, and it has been a major setback for me in my IM training. The meds I was on before(first ProAir, then QVar) did little to nothing for me, though I will acknowledge that I didn't take them consistently. Now that I understand the importance of taking my meds consistently, I am taking my Symbicort as directed - but I still feel tired, short of breath during workouts and afterwards, sore/tight in the chest, and sometimes light-headed. My rescue inhaler and rest seem to be the only things that help somewhat. Training is not very fun right now.

    Are you familiar with IM athletes using Symbicort? Is it normal for someone like me (who has now had asthma symptoms for 4 months) to take up to two weeks to feel the efficacy of the drugs?

    I appreciate any thoughts you may have!

    Evanston, IL

  9. Hi Krysten-

    Please email me directly so we can chat. I also plan on posting a blog about exercise induced asthma shortly.