Monday, December 19, 2011

Ironman Cozumel

Sunday, November 27th

Day 146 – Race Day!

After nine long months of training (five months of Ironman-specific training and four months prior to that of general triathlon training) race day has finally arrived. Ready or not, Cozumel Ironman, here we come!

Race day morning:

The tiny watch on my husband’s nightstand began its beeping at 3:30 AM. I woke up easily and, surprisingly, felt very relaxed and rested. Our hotel was host to 200 athletes and the first of three shuttles to the race was scheduled to leave at 5 AM. We wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to eat our usual breakfast (power oatmeal for me), drink coffee, pack any last minute items and make our way to the hotel lobby. (Note: Iberostar failed to provide us with our requested wake-up call. The phone never rang. Can you imagine?!? So glad my husband set his watch alarm as a backup or I might still be sleeping! )

It was still pitch black outside as we boarded our shuttle to Chankanaab Park, the race’s starting point and T1 location, and it was total gridlock as our bus inched its way slowly into the park among all the other buses, cars, taxis and throngs of people walking in the street.

5:30 AM in the transition area

We located the buses that were collecting the Green and Yellow special needs bags and then made our way into the huge transition area via “pro alley.” An ESPN television camera, one of many networks on site, caught my eye as it captured one of the pro’s every movements.

The race morning rituals began; loading bottles of Infinit onto our bikes, filling the Bento box with gels, Lara bars, dried pineapple and mini Snickers, using the port-o-pot, putting air in the tires, getting our numbers re-inked, applying sunscreen, using the port –o-pot again . . .

Armed guards patrol the venue

Armed guards roamed the area (not a typical sight in any triathlon I’ve ever done!). Caps and gloves in hand, we deposited our Gray bags at the drop-off location and made our way to the beach to watch the 6:40 AM Pro start, which was accompanied by the dolphins from the Dolphin Discovery program frolicking between the docks, their joyful leaping signaling the start of the race.

The swim:

The swim course

My husband and I wished each other well, said our goodbyes and “see you at the finish line” before parting ways—he toward the front of the pack and me to file in with the athletes making up the middle. Our walk to the dock was accompanied by loud, upbeat music and a raucous crowd of cheering, whistling, horn-blowing spectators. I’ve never experienced such a festive and inspiring race start!

Athletes enter the water before the race start

“I need everyone in the water! Everyone must get in the water so we can start on time!” the announcer entreated. Having worked out the kinks at the practice swim, I eagerly leapt off the dock--no reservations whatsoever—and carefully selected a starting position on the outer edge of the group about 2/3 of the way back. Then changed my mind and swam over to the near side. Nope; back to the far side. And then . . . we were off!

Mass swim start

First leg of the swim

Having thousands of people in the water at once, versus the several hundred I splashed around with at the practice swim, made no difference. The swim was still delightful! My stroke felt clean and efficient. I gazed at the fish swimming around the coral and the scuba divers sitting on the ocean floor looking up at us.

View from below

The turnaround points got a little crazy, when all the swimmers funneled into one area to navigate around the buoys, but then everyone spread out again. Minus one walloping kick to my finger, I rarely made contact with any other swimmers and often seemed to have a turquoise pocket of space all to myself.

Craziness as swimmers converge on the buoy

View from above as swimmers funnel toward the turnaround point

I could hardly believe it when the swim finish was in sight. It was by far the easiest and most enjoyable 2.4-mile swim ever! Absolutely glorious! I could have kept going . . . and felt both disappointed and excited that it was time to climb out of the water and move on to the bike. (The climb out area was a bit sketchy; you had to hoist your wobbling self onto the bottom step and get moving before the crush of swimmers coming from behind mowed you down. There was no mercy on those stairs!)

Swim exit


Overhead view of T1/Transition area; beach, changing tents, bike racking area and bike start

I retraced my steps along the dock in front of the still-cheering crowd and headed for the beach where I ran through the showers, grabbed my Blue “swim to bike” bag and dashed into the changing tent.

The “changing tent” was all new to me; something I’ve never before experienced in triathlon. I found the first available chair and upended my bag, letting the contents spill to the ground. Volunteers were on hand to help in any and every way possible, from applying sunscreen, to providing water and gels, to helping athletes pack and unpack their bags and even assist with putting on shoes and changing clothes. It was madness!

I grabbed my hand towel and did a quick pat down before applying sunscreen. (This was not optional for me; without sunscreen I would have turned into a bright red lobster under the tropical Mexican sun!) Next it was socks, bike shoes, sunglasses, helmet, bike gloves and I was out in a speedy (Ha!) 8-some minutes. Sigh. (As usual, lots of room for improvement in my transition time). Though, I will say, 8-ish minutes was about the average.

"Naked" Transition & Bike racking area

With all of the “transitioning” done, all I had to do was grab my bike and make my way across the blue carpets, out of T1 and into the bike-mounting area. (I always find this part challenging on wobbly legs! I’m certain I will crash my bike in the mounting area before I’ve so much as turned one pedal stroke!) But I made it out okay, albeit in an uncoordinated and gawky manner.

Bike start

The Bike:

First leg of the bike; feeling relaxed & happy

The weather was perfect; warm and sunny with a light breeze. For the first quarter of the ride I was holding a 21 pace and delighting in the ultra-flat terrain. As I rounded the southern end of the island, I was hit by the expected and dreaded headwind but, was pleased to discover, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared; I’d cycled in much worse wind during my training rides.

Perfect race day weather!

The direct headwind only lasted for about nine miles before shifting to a crosswind as the course headed north. My reward for battling the headwind was being treated to a breathtaking view of the Atlantic as it crashed into the pristine and undeveloped shoreline. The beauty took my breath away. For 15 miles, this was the backdrop to my ride. Sweet.

Gorgeous ocean views on the bike course

Having fun on the bike . . .

. . . and hamming it up for the camera

Eventually a turn to the east pointed us directly toward downtown Cozumel, where the streets were once again lined with cheering, enthusiastic and supportive spectators. (The mayor of Cozumel gives locals the day off on Monday to encourage them to come out and support the race.) As one of less than 500 female competitors in a field of almost 2000 athletes, I was sometimes able to pick out words like “chica!” and “damas!” and “bonita!” as I rode through town, which made me smile. An awesome crowd like that really does help to encourage and inspire you to keep digging in when fatigue hits--and hit it did!

Feeling the heat and the fatigue

The wind taking its toll on my speed, I finished the first loop with a pace of 18.6 and by the middle of the second loop, I’d dropped to 17.5. By then, I’d cycled almost 60 miles and had been racing for about 5.5 hours. And I really needed to pee! The word “bano” came in handy as I tried to locate a port-o-pot a bit removed from the aid stations to avoid any delays. After the bano stop, came the “special needs” stop where I picked up my Green bag with three more bottles of (hot) Infinit, a Lara bar, more dried pineapple and mini Snickers (which had turned to liquid, so I pitched them). While I was reloading and refueling, a volunteer slathered sunscreen on my arms. Bless those volunteers who worked tirelessly for us in the hot sun! And, indeed, it had gotten hot. Even the breeze coming off the ocean started to feel like the heat coming out of an oven.

Loop #3 was a bit of a slog and I dreaded having to cycle around the island one more time. I kept focusing on the fact that the third loop was slightly shorter than the first two. At the time, this small fact kept me going.

Getting too tired to maintain the aero position, but not too tired to mug for the camera

Two-thirds of the way through the last loop, the clouds rolled in and, with only two miles left to go, the skies opened and dumped buckets of rain on the tiny island in what is, on average, the second driest month of the year in Cozumel. The rain came crashing down in thick sheets, obscuring visibility and making the city streets slippery. I could feel my bike shoes filling with water.

With a final average pace of 16.5, I completed the last loop, handed my bike off to a volunteer, and dashed into the T2 changing tent.


Somehow, I came to be in possession of my Red “bike-to-run” bag. A volunteer must have handed it to me because I don’t remember having to find it myself. Looking back, this is when the race starts to get intermittently fuzzy. I’d been racing for more than eight hours.

I dropped my belongings on a chair, relieved to see a row of pots inside the tent, and made my way to the first available porty.

When I returned to my chair, a volunteer stood ready with my running shoes and socks in hand. I unabashedly peeled off my wet cycling shorts and stepped into dry running shorts; modesty has no place in the Ironman changing tents. I deposited all of my soaking wet cycling gear into the Red bag and decided against taking my Fuel Belt. The thought of any more sweet, sticky liquids at that point made my stomach turn, but I did grab a small hand-held bottle of Infinit to sip on. No way was I going to bonk.

As the rain pounded against the tent, I noted, with irony, the dry socks and shoes on my feet, and the sunglasses and visor on my head. It felt so good to be dry (and still) that for one irrational moment, I considered just staying in the tent-- hanging out with the volunteers and munching on some pretzels or a banana while waiting out the storm. It seemed like a good idea to me!

But I came to my senses, realizing that the storm could last for hours so I'd just have to suck it up and get back out there. I actually walked toward and away from the open tent flap a few times before finally ducking my head and making a “run” for it.

I felt like I had dashed through T1 at a good clip, but it had actually taken me almost nine minutes. In T2 I was in a fog; a bit dazed, moving in slow motion and feeling ridiculously conflicted about the rain. Would you believe that my T2 time was also over eight minutes? Go figure!

The Run:

Running in the rain

Within minutes of stepping out of the T2 tent, my clothes were soaked. Puddles were forming in the street and runners were hopping onto the sidewalk in a vain attempt to keep their shoes dry. I followed suit but, eventually, the streets began to flood and every cross street was covered in ankle-to-knee-deep water. Going into the race, my husband had been hoping for a “little” rain to cool things off. I told him I was fine with a “little” rain, as long as it wasn’t a “shoe-soaking” rain. So much for that!

Sometime before mile two, my knee issued a mild complaint, but that was it. To my absolute surprise and delight, the feet and knee trouble areas that had plagued me during training held up beautifully during the entire race.

Somewhere between miles two and three, my husband, who was starting his second loop, came running up behind me and we ran together for the next several miles. My slower pace was suiting him just fine at that moment since he was “cooking” from the heat. While I thought the Cozumel weather was ideal, my husband, who is 6’2”, struggled a bit more with the heat and humidity. He’d run for almost 9 miles before the rain came and his core temp was up. But it was fun to spend part of the run together; after parting ways on the beach I truly did not expect to see him again until the finish line, so it was a very welcome and pleasant surprise to bump into each other on the run course.

As we were completing the loop and getting close to the center of town, my husband, who was a bit ahead of me, waited for me to catch up and, right in front of the band and the largest crowd of spectators, he gave me a big smooch and raised our arms in the air. As they say, “the crowd went wild!” I enjoyed these fun and playful moments and the first loop passed quickly. I realized that I’d maintained a pace of 10:20 for the first nine miles (Woo hoo!) and thought to myself, “If I can keep this up, I will finish the marathon in under five hours and complete the whole race in under 13!” I was giddy at the thought. In my best case scenario, I predicted I would finish in 13-some hours and, worst case, in 15-some. Sub 13 had never crossed my mind.

In retrospect, I was very naïve. Prior to the Ironman, I had never run a marathon—in fact, I’d never run further than 14 miles. Ever! Even during my IM training my longest run, due to injuries, was only 13 miles. So, yes, it was completely naïve of me to think I could hold 10:21 for the remaining 17 miles.

Running in the dark

By the third lap, the rain had tapered off and the water covering the streets was gradually starting to recede. As my pace continued to slow, I kept recalculating my possible finish time until I eventually gave up and quit worrying about it.

At the special needs stop around mile 13, I grabbed a Lara bar, a gel, and another bottle of Infinit, though I could barely tolerate the taste. I’d started sipping on Pepsi at the aid stations and occasionally grabbed some pretzels or a banana. I walked every aid station so, essentially, I’d run a mile, and then walk for a minute or two. I kept this up for 20 miles at, which time, my knees started to turn to stone.

By mile 21, my strategy flipped and I started walking a mile and then running for a minute or two. I wanted to make sure I'd have enough energy left to run across the finish line, so I thought it would be a good idea to keep a little reserve in the tank. This worked out well as my aid station needs were ever-increasing. As had been the case throughout the whole race, the volunteers were phenomenal. As runners approached the tent, they’d simply call out what they needed-- “Water!” “Gatorade!” “Pepsi!” “Pretzels!” “Oranges!” “Banana!” “Gel!” “Vaseline!” “Bug spray!”—and it would magically appear. My legs were badly chafed from the wet shorts and I was immensely grateful for the tubs of Vaseline provided at the aid stations.

I thought I’d managed my nutrition pretty well and, at mile 25, I started running again. I indeed had enough left in the tank, and I was almost there! My first marathon and my first Ironman—all on the same day! A day in which I’d seen the sun rise and the sun set and I was still out there on the course. And I was feeling pretty darn good, too. Or so I thought . . . (Looking back, I realize that much of the run was a blur.)

The Finish Line!

With the finish line in sight, I picked up the pace. I figured the athletes were pretty spread out by that point because I thought I was all alone in the finish chute. I don’t remember seeing any other athletes crossing the finish line at the same time as me. (Though pictures later revealed that there were, in fact, other runners nearby. Apparently, I was a bit loopy.)

I crossed the finish line with my arms raised in the air and saw the clock: 13:26:14. Then I heard the words that were music to my ears: “You. Are. An. Ironman!” I did it, I did it, I did it!

Crossing the Finish Line!

Now what do I do?

At first, I didn’t see anyone. Then, a child who was volunteering handed me a medal. When I bent down to remove my timing chip, someone rushed over to help me. (I realized later that the finish line was somewhat deserted and unattended because the awards ceremony was taking place.) Someone must have handed me a “Finishers T-shirt” because I have one, but I don’t remember getting it.

Then I saw my husband. Hooray! We shared a big victory hug and a moment of celebration before heading toward the athlete recovery area where he handed me a bottle of purplish Gatorade. One small sip and I almost hurled. We had packed our camera, dry clothes and packets of Hammer Recoverite in our Gray bags but didn’t realize we would not have access to this bag while in the recovery area. So we remained in our soggy clothes and without our Recoverite.

The Recovery Area:

The athlete recovery area was a large collection of tents with a wide variety of food including gels, energy bars, oranges, bananas, pizza and Cup O Noodles. This part of my race experience is a bit hazy. Here’s what I remember: My husband led me to a section of tables and chairs in the grass and tried again to offer me the sickening purple Gatorade recovery drink. I could not tolerate even one sip. I knew I should try to eat something but nothing sounded appealing, except maybe some pretzels—something dry and salty—the one thing they did not have, so I decided to get in line for a massage and give my body some time to rest and recover before trying any food.

IM Massage Tent (Photo from Texas Ironman,

The massage area was expansive. There were probably at least 60 massage therapists tending to the athletes. (Again, amazing group of volunteers—and the sheer number of them! I’ve never seen anything like it.)

IM Cozumel Massage Area

I remember my massage therapist telling me the massage would be 20 minutes (20 minutes!) and asking me what area I wanted her to focus on. That was easy-- legs and feet, no question. And that’s pretty much all I remember about the massage, aside from a vague recollection that it was relaxing and felt great and that, when it was over, the therapist asked me if she should get the medic.

What? Medic? . . . Huh?

No. I was a bit wobbly and dizzy and out of it, but I was fine. I wasn’t sure why she’d asked me that—maybe it was standard post-massage procedure at the IM? (Or maybe I just looked like hell.) I declined a medic and made my way back to the table where my husband was waiting.

“Can I get you something to eat?” he asked. The thought of food was still made me feel sick. I dawned on me that over the past 13.5 hours I had become intoxicated on Infinit, adrenaline and exertion, and was now experiencing hangover-like symptoms. I really wished for some pretzels or saltines to gnaw on but, in the absence of either and knowing that I needed to get some food into my system, I decided to try the noodles.

I could barely tolerate the smell but, nonetheless, took a tentative sip of the dark broth. Not happening. As with the Gatorade, I pushed the cup away and then sat, bent over at the waist, with my head in my hands. I’m not sure how long I sat this way, with my husband rubbing my back, but I remember feeling dizzy, weak and cold. I didn’t want to move. I think I may have dozed off a few times in this position. Medical staffers were roaming the tents and a few stopped by to ask my husband (and me) if I was okay, but mostly they talked to him. I think his answers were more intelligible than mine. I remember hearing words like “dizzy” and “can’t eat.”

I'm Here To Win: A World Champion's Advice for Peak Performance

In Chris McCormack’s book, “I’m Here to Win,” there is a picture of him sitting in a similar position at the Ironman European Championships, with this caption:

“I am in agony post-race as my body starts to punish me for what I forced it to do. All Ironman races end this way, whether you win or lose. These are the photos that never make the magazine covers, but as an athlete you never forget this pain.”

That pretty much sums it up as I tried to, in Chris McCormack’s words, “Embrace the Suck.”

Eventually, while sitting in that position, I vomited, and then felt slightly better but extremely tired and cold. I wanted to lie down. There were cots on the ground all over the recovery area, presumably for this purpose, so I curled up on one, my head resting on my husband’s lap and my body covered in a white Ford towel that he’d received upon crossing the finish line. (They only gave the silver space blankets to people who went to medical. Everyone else got the towels, but they ended up running out of towels so, when I crossed the finish line, I received a shell necklace. It was a lovely necklace, but didn't offer much in the way of warmth.)

My body began to quake. I’m not talking “waiting at the bus stop in January” or “riding the ski lift” shivering. I mean full-on, muscle convulsing, body-racking shakes. This lasted for a while and another round of medical workers stopped by to inquire about the state of my well-being. Again, I heard words like “vomiting,” “cold,” and “can’t eat.” I think I may have answered for myself a few times, saying, “I’m fine.” And I really did think I was okay.

The quaking subsided a bit, so I raised myself to a sitting position and decided I’d try again to eat something. My husband brought me an orange and I could barely swallow one bite. I dropped my head into my hands again.

More time passed and I saw athletes all around me in a similar state—curled up on cots, bent over in chairs, shaking, vomiting, etc.—many had been whisked off to medical. My husband, who’d taken over an hour to recover after his finish but did eventually manage to eat and start feeling better, stood up and, I realized too late, began conspiring with three nearby medics. I gave him the evil eye. They were all talking and looking over at me and, when they approached, my husband said these words that I knew to be true: “It’s been over two hours. You should have been able to recover by now. Your electrolytes are out of balance.”

The medics took it from there. I was still skeptical but let them help me to a standing position. I could walk on my own, but had two medics beside me, each holding an elbow. I took less than 10 steps before the world lurched sideways and I announced “I’m going to be sick,” and then chucked into the nearest Gatorade bin. Nice. (Thankfully, it was not a full bin; there were only three Gatorades left in it.)

That was the defining moment of truth for me; when I finally admitted to myself that, yes, I guess I do need an IV if, two hours after the race, I’m still unable to keep food down.

The medics explained that my electrolytes were indeed out of balance and, since my stomach was rejecting food, they needed to bypass my digestive system to get some nutrition into me. They said it would only take 15 minutes and that I’d feel “like a million bucks” afterward. Sold!

Medic Tent

The medical tent reminded me of M*A*S*H* (though I never watched the show; couldn’t get past the depressing opening overture.) It was a huge tent with a long row of cots on either side, each with a bag of fluids hanging overhead. At least half of the cots were occupied. It was 10:30 PM.

The medics prepped the IV and took my temperature, which revealed that my core temp was low. I was asked to remove my wet clothing and, as promised, received my silver space blanket in which I was tightly wrapped and then covered with several towels. It was indeed toasty warm and, as the IV fluid dripped into my veins, I could feel my alertness and energy begin to return. Afterward, I dressed in my Finishers T-shirt (which my husband later told me he’d gotten for me), left the medical tent, ate a banana and, with my husband, finally went to pose for my Finisher’s Photo. As you can see, it is so lovely. I look completely loopy. Or drunk.

Loopy Finisher Photo--Lookin' Good!

Celebrating our Finish

When we finally ventured out of the Recovery area, there was still a lot to do. We had to collect our Blue and Red gear bags as well as our bikes, which had to be returned to the TriBike tent to be shipped home.

Then, with our heavy bags full of sopping wet race gear in tow, we walked a few blocks back to the Convention Center to catch a taxi back to our hotel. I couldn’t have imagined, in the state I was in, trying to deal with all that post-race stuff by myself and I felt bad for any of my fellow racers who, like me, were laid up on cots with an IV line stuck in their arm but, unlike me, might have been there alone. I hope they all fared well and made it home safely with all their gear accounted for.

The aftermath:

We arrived at Iberostar sometime after midnight and waited in the lobby for a golf cart to transport us back to our room, where the day had begun nearly 24 hours ago. I realized three things: I needed to eat (my stomach was finally growling!), I needed to shower (I was disgusting!) and I needed to sleep (I was exhausted.)

Our hotel had kindly left the main restaurant open and stocked the buffet with a variety of foods to feed the hungry masses as we returned, battered, exhausted and hungry from our IM ordeal.

“What do you want to eat?” my husband asked.

“Bread.” That’s the best I could come up with.

My husband quickly showered first and then he headed to the buffet to retrieve some food. In true Ironman fashion, he had shaved his lower legs prior to the race and had, apparently, clogged the drain. As I showered, I realized I was standing in ankle-deep water but did not realize the water was escaping over the lip of the shower door.

By the time I finished, the water had covered the bathroom floor and was spreading into the main room where it was pooling in the middle of the floor and under the bed.

My husband returned, a plate of assorted breads in his hand, and stood staring in disbelief at the flooded room. He put the bread plate on the table and we began to calmly, wordlessly, use every towel in the room to mop up the mess.

When the water was soaked up, I flopped on the bed and attacked the bread plate while my husband (who’d scarfed some pizza at the buffet) and I laughed, shared and compared our race stories and experiences.

We finally crashed, our bellies full, our mission accomplished. We’d both worked so hard for this moment and were elated to have lived our dream and achieved our goal. Better yet, it’s an experience we got to share, from start to finish, through the long, grueling training hours and through the injuries, sweat and frustration, to the final moment when we each crossed the finish line and heard the four sweet words we’d been waiting to hear: “You. Are. An. Ironman!”

Race Results: (Based on Division: Women 40-44; 94 competitors)

Overall: 13:26:14 48th/94

Swim: 1:16:55 38th/94

T1: 8:59

Bike: 6:29:07 35th/94

T2: 8:26

Run: 5:22:47 48th/94

Overall Result Based on All Women: 225th/458

Overall Result Based on All Competitors: 1092nd/1883

Looking ahead:

When we were training for the IM, we thought it would surely be a “one and done” thing; a once in a lifetime experience, a bucket list item to cross off.

While I was in the recovery area, doubled over and “embracing the suck,” I said, “If I ever mention wanting to do this again, please remind me of how I am feeling right now!”

But, we are competitors. And we love the sport of triathlon.

Unlike most other triathlons where I feel immediately elated and excited about my accomplishment and the experience, the Ironman is more of a delayed high. Sure—I felt great when I crossed the finish line, but I felt much worse shortly afterward. It wasn’t until I had recovered that I could fully appreciate the experience and re-live the excitement by looking at pictures and sharing stories with my husband, family and friends.

Ultimately we’ve decided to take a step back this year; to focus on shorter, more local races, and to kick back and relax a bit more. But I don’t believe this will be our last Ironman.

Indeed, we’re already allowing ourselves to imagine the “next one.”

Perhaps Ironman Arizona 2013 . . . ?

Ironman Arizona Logo


  1. Wow. What an amazing journey and this post was definately worth the wait!!! Sorry to hear about all the struggling post race but so glad to hear about the quick medical attention and rebound. Enjoy your success. Very impressive.

  2. WOW. That's all I can say. Well, not really. You are amazing for doing this! Well done! What an accomplishment! Way to go!

  3. Thanks so much! It was really an incredible experience--more than I could have imagined and everything I hoped for. So much so that I think we may go for another in 2013! I appreciate the kind words and thanks for reading Triathlon Mom!