Last week my wife, Leah, and I traveled to Cozumel to compete in my first full iron distance race. After completing a dress rehearsal at Leadman in September, the sole focus of the rest of the year turned to getting ready for my main goals for 2013—completing a full ironman and securing a Kona slot for 2014.
Leah and I arrived the Monday before the race and spent a couple of days exploring the town of Tulum before taking the ferry over to the beautiful island of Cozumel, which is just off the coast of Cancun, on Wednesday evening. We spent the next few days checking out the course, exploring the island, catching up with other competitors, and enjoying some great food. On Saturday, I was relieved to finally check in bikes and gear bags and get this thing underway. I was experimenting with a three-week taper and was very anxious to feel some sensation in the legs.
Fellow Austin triathletes, Tres Mikes (Minardi, Bruff, and Pearson), were gracious enough to open the basement of their palatial island home to Leah and me on race eve. After a gourmet in-house meal from their personal chef, we got to sleep at a reasonable hour, just a few hundred yards from the swim start. We slept well and awoke at 4 a.m. for a pre-race breakfast of coffee, tortillas, eggs, avocado, Nutella + banana, and a Clif Bar.
On the short bus ride to the new swim start, I had another Clif Bar and my new secret weapon, BeetElite. We unloaded from the buses and made our way to the beach for the swim start. We’d received word the night before that because of strong currents, the swim course would be slightly shortened from 3.8 kilometers to 3.1 kilometers and would not require us to swim against the current. I was not terribly disappointed by this news, and was really glad to have my ROKA Viper Pro swim skin since the swim would now be even faster!
We started in the water. After an anxious 15 minutes of treading water and trying to make sure I was as close to the front line as possible, the race was under way. Nothing can prepare you for the melee that is a mass start Ironman swim—2500 nervous, tapered, full of energy people thrashing about wildly as the swim begins.
After 400m, the herd had thinned significantly, and I got about the business of proper swimming. After my sub par performance at Leadman in September, I realized that I needed to finally come to terms with the fact that there are actually three sports in triathlon, not just two! For the first time since I began racing long-distance triathlon 18 months ago, I started swimming with a group and enlisted the help of local experts James Davison, Peter Mallet, and Andrea Fisher. The improvement was swift, and after a six-week, 100-kilometer block of swimming, my times dropped significantly and my confidence in swimming grew. At Cozumel, I came out of the water in around 40 minutes for the abbreviated swim, but, more importantly, I was exactly where I wanted to be. Leah yelled that I was only five minutes down on the first amateur and around 100th overall. Coming out of the water in the top 100 out of 2500+ was a huge accomplishment for me and started me out in a good spot.
From there I made my way through the showers, picked up my race bag from the rack, went into the changing tent, and then finally moved on into the maze of bike racks. I’m not sure how my T1 was, since I didn’t get a time coming out, but I estimate it to be around three to four minutes, as I was in the hinterlands of the bike racks and had to run more than 400 meters with my bike.
Relieved to be out of the water, I set about the business of the day. The bike course is three loops around the island of Cozumel. The course is very exposed in places, and the winds picked up significantly throughout the day. The opening stretch was very fast, with a cross tailwind as we headed south to the tip of the island.
I was passing people from the very beginning, and fifteen minutes into the bike, I got a split that there were now only 58 people in front of me. I settled into the long ride and tried to control my early efforts. By the time I got to the end of the first lap, things started to bunch up a bit at the pointy end of the race. Coming through town, I got a split from Leah that I was around 30th overall after the first lap. Good news.
As we exited town, I looked back and noticed that several riders had queued up behind and that I was catching a group of several riders. Within a few minutes, I found myself in the middle of a group of about 12 strong riders. I started looking at my numbers; back in the tailwind section, we were going 24 to 28mph, and guys were sitting up even freewheeling at times. Myself and a few others tried a few times to go to the front and pass, but with the tailwind, the entire group would surge at once, and anytime I moved to the left to pass, everyone behind followed! I felt like I was in a bike race. It was becoming clear that a rider would have to go 28+mph to get away from these guys. With 30 guys up the road and having passed a few penalty tents with riders in them, I knew that there was probably an even faster peloton farther up the road. I could either sit here with these jokers and save my legs, or put in an extra effort to lose them.
Once the headwind section started again at mile 56, I made my move, “attacking” the group from the back through an aid station and settling into ~300 watts for 15 to 20 minutes. This was a big risk to deviate from my pacing so much, but I knew it was time to roll the dice and use my strength to try to move up through the field before the run. After 10 minutes, I looked back and saw open road; the gamble had paid off, and I was free of the wheel suckers.
Coming through town the second time, I got another split that I was now in the top 20. I kept on the pace for the third lap and was feeling great on the bike, picking guys off one by one, complicated by the fact that I was lapping other athletes in droves. I kept the pressure on, and with 10 miles to go, I came in off the bike with two other guys, Dan Morwood of Canada (second overall amateur) and Tony from Brazil (Antonio Ferreira, third overall amateur and friend of ATC), very excited to be at the front of the race top five off the bike.
The entire amateur race was now within sight, and the legs felt fast and light coming off the bike. Caught up in the excitement of the race and fueled by adrenaline, I proceeded to deviate from my race plan on running a conservative 3:15 marathon (7:27/mile) and decided to roll the dice and stay in the top three to five as long as I could. This was a big gamble, and it was paying off through mile 11 to 12 of the run. First mile was 6:50, next 7, 7, etc. I was maintaining my position and moved into top four overall.
Around mile 13, the wheels started to fall off. With the afternoon sun blazing down, the pace began to slow, slightly at first, but then I started to see 8 minute miles. I can’t describe how bad the pain in my legs was. Each step was an effort, my brain telling my body to stop, but I still had a half marathon to go. This battle between brain and body played itself out over the next 13 miles as I held on for dear life and slowed. While I didn’t completely fall apart, my marathon splits ended up something like 1 hour 31 minutes/1 hour 53 minutes.
It’s a strange feeling when the only thing you can do to keep going is to decide how much physical pain you want to endure and at what cost to your body longer term. I discovered some new dark places in my soul during the second half of that run. The funny thing with the race is that it was pretty much effortless until that point. It really comes down to either a) how long you can delay that feeling or b) how much you can endure the pain. During the last two miles, I dug deep and found a couple of faster miles, doing mile 26 in sub 7:30.
Overall, I was very pleased with the effort. There’s so much more to learn and work to do, but I came away uninjured with a Kona slot, my first IM race experience, a marathon PR, and huge confidence in my ability to keep it together when the body starts to rebel. The Ironman experience truly is all that it’s cracked up to be, this coming from a lifelong skeptic!
Huge thanks to my amazing wife, Leah Skinner, for being the best supporter, fan, wife, cheerleader, and coach anyone could ask for! Thanks to ROKA Sports, BeetElite, Enlightened Performance Coaching, Satoshi, Scott and Sol at Austinbikes, Austin Tri Cyclist, Andrea Fisher and JCC Masters, Sam Krieg, James Davison, Jack Mott, Jack Cartwright, Peter Mallet, Ben Muniga, and Stephen Collins. Couldn’t have done it without all of you. My sincere thanks!