The mission was clear: complete 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 days to raise money for an orphanage in Haiti. But Friday, four days into her Woman of Iron challenge, Ashley Horner stopped.
She had already completed her 2.4-mile swim that morning and transitioned to her bike. Feeling nauseous 10 miles into the 112-mile ride, Horner unclipped and dismounted from her bike on the side of a Delaware road, where she proceeded to vomit. "I think I puked like five times. Uncontrollably. It was everything I had in me," she said.
Accompanied by her coach, Alex Viada, who had been riding with her for the first lap, Horner got back on her bike, hoping it was just nerves or something not settling right in her stomach. But when they made it back to the YMCA in Dover, Delaware, the staging area for the day, Viada recommended that Horner get medically evaluated to ensure she was fit to continue with the rest of the bike ride and the marathon. Paramedics on site at the YMCA performed an evaluation of Horner's vitals before recommending she head to the hospital.
"It is so frustrating because aside from the dehydration factors, I felt fine. I didn't have any soreness whatsoever in my muscles," she said. "There's a good chance that I started behind [on nutrition and hydration] and never got ahead of it."
When Horner arrived in the emergency room, she was treated for severe dehydration and given a blood screening. She received intravenous fluids for six hours, then left the ER, sent Viada the results of her blood test, ate a pizza, and got a full night of sleep.
"I woke up the next day [Saturday] and felt amazing. I got in the pool and swam my 2.4 miles, then met with Alex," Horner said. Her intention was to start the Delaware leg from scratch and push on.
Viada was in a different camp.
The blood screening revealed that Horner was suffering from both hyponatremia, a low concentration of sodium in her blood, and rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which a muscle releases a protein pigment called myoglobin into the bloodstream, which can lead to kidney damage. The conditions would not only jeopardize her body for this challenge, but they could be life-threatening if untreated.
"When Ashley sent me her test results, I talked to a team of several experienced physicians that I know," Viada said on Monday. "These doctors know the sport. They know what they're talking about. ... This early in the game, with numbers like that, we all thought she should probably take a few days off."
Horner recalled the moment Viada delivered the news. "'We unanimously agree that you need to rest for at least a few days,'" Horner said Viada told her. Instead, she got on her bike and set out on the day's 110-mile ride, coach or no coach.
"The crazier the challenge, the more careful you have to be," Viada said. "So we had the stipulation early on that if there was ever a medical reason to discontinue, she would have to stop. When she decided to continue, at that point ... I said 'I can no longer advise you as coach on this project.' And she understood where I was coming from, but she got on the bike anyway."
Horner said she was feeling great and wanted to tick off one more to see if she felt the same.
"I had maybe five miles left on the bike, and I just felt this heaviness in my heart, and I realized, 'This is your pride getting in the way, Ashley. You don't want to listen to Alex because you just don't want to quit.' "
Critics on social media take their toll
In the back of her mind were many of the comments she'd seen on social media. "I saw a few comments, and they were just so negative. So I just had this 'I'll show them' mentality, which meant I wasn't being fueled in a positive way -- it was all negative energy," Horner said.
With over 600,000 followers on Instagram, Horner has built a community of "Ashletes" and extended her reach through a formidable social media presence. But with a high-profile and high-stakes challenge like the Woman of Iron, social media has become a double-edged sword where critics have openly put Horner on blast.
"People say that I don't respect the sport. But that's just not accurate," she said. "I have so much respect for triathlete community, that's exactly why I picked this challenge. I wanted it to be this difficult."
Some critics have expressed doubt or disbelief in the validity of her completing the distances each day. Because the routes are not certified, those who want to know results have to wait for Horner's times to be posted on Strava, a social network for tracking running and cycling distances. And in the GPS data, every mile is scrutinized.
Others believe that Horner didn't understand the magnitude of the challenge. They say she came in overconfident and underprepared. "I think a lot of people don't really know my background, or that I've been training for endurance events for the past five years," she said. "Just because I don't have a long track record competing in triathlons doesn't mean I can't succeed."
In light of her trip to the ER, many have expressed deep concern about Horner's health. Sounding off on the comments in her Instagram posts, they have chastised her, calling it dangerous and irresponsible to continue. Some have asked her to consider the example she's setting for other athletes or even for her own children.
"As far as for my children, the only thing I want them to take away from this is that their mom has a love for humanity," Horner said, referencing her fundraising efforts (she has $13,000 in pledges so far) for the Maison Fortune Orphanage. "If that's the only message and example I get through to my boys, I've done my job as a mom."
But if she wanted to set a positive example, Horner had to start with an apology. So she called Viada. "I said I was sorry for not listening to him," she said.
Together, they agreed she'd take a few days off to let her body's internal systems recover and think about how best to move forward.
Yes, you read that right. Move forward.
To many, the decision to stop on Friday means one thing: Horner failed. She stopped. She didn't complete 50 consecutive full-distance triathlons. Game over.
But Horner, back home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, refuses to let other people define her success or failure. "At this point, I honestly couldn't care less what people are saying," she said. "I'm trying to do this for the children at Maison Fortune [Orphanage]. They've always been my 'why.' So, the people spouting off about 'Where are my times?' are really missing the point."
To Horner, failure is subjective. "Failure is all in the eye of whoever's opinion it is," she said. "I could complete all 50 [Ironman distance triathlons], but if I didn't raise all the money, then I failed. Or I could raise all the money but not complete all 50 triathlons."
"Because I didn't just set a crazy difficult physical goal. I also set a lofty fundraising goal of $100,000," she said. And while many have criticized her athletic pursuits, she noted, "No one has much to say about the fundraising side."
New goal, same distance, same cause
When it's safe, Horner plans to continue until she completes all 50 Ironman distances. "Whenever, wherever, however ugly," she said. "It's happening."
Viada added, "Most people don't complete their most ambitious endurance activities on the first go. So my advice would be to take what we've done already and come back with a plan of attack. Reanalyzing our lessons learned will significantly increase chances of success."
Clearly, Horner will not succeed in completing them in 50 consecutive days, but Horner is moving on from her A-goal to her B-goal, a pivot that endurance athletes often make as they compete. "How many athletes have ended up in a medical tent during a race?" she asked. "Just because you can't reach your original goal doesn't mean you just stop. If you can, you go on to finish the race. And you know what else? You learn from those mistakes."
Horner has already learned the hard way about fueling and hydrating appropriately in heat and humidity. Now, she and Viada recognize there's no margin for error. "A lot of the crew were diluting the hydration formula we put together to make it taste better," said Viada. But next time around, that won't happen.
"We're doing everything exactly as prescribed," Horner said. "I won't fail. I know I won't fail because I will get the numbers. I will get the miles," she said. "I do not stop."