PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Isla de Cozumel
I’ve heard them say that Ironman is about the journey. I’ve heard them say that it is not the finish line that matters most, but how you arrive there. I’ve also heard them say that what you remember most is the complete process that it took to get to the start line, and later to the finish chute. And although these are all valid points, what does not get nearly enough airplay is the reality that for a few long moments, for a few drawn-out seconds, for a few deliberate steps – after a long day of swimming, biking, running – the mind goes blank and Ironman becomes all about crossing that line.
Making that moment the focal point and the culmination of my race report seems natural, after all, the story is about how I won Ironman Cozumel; what may not seem as natural is why chose to start at the end to tell my tale of the line I nearly didn’t cross.
In only its third year, the race that takes place on la Isla de Cozumel has quickly become one of my favorite events on the circuit. And one of the primary reasons for that are the people of this community who live and breathe, who dance and yell, who scream and support and carry us Ironman athletes to the finish line. The people of Cozumel are incredible! The finish line was getting pummeled by rain, the wind was howling, and by all accounts, the weather was really not all that special; however, this did not deter the hundreds of screaming Cozumeleños from making that chute one of the most electrifying scenes I’ve encountered. And for that reason, along with the fact that I was extremely pleased to be winning my third Ironman title, I got a bit caught up in the emotion of running down the finishing stretch.
In fact, I made the choice to stop and walk. Finally. My legs had been begging me to walk for what seemed like an eternity, and I finally relented. I strolled across the carpet – grateful for a softer surface for my ailing pups – and I high-fived as many folks as I could reach. I waved, I blew kisses, and I waved some more. I walked on, then jogged a bit more, and began hunting for a sight of Amanda. Atop the ramp that sits below the finish line tower, I stopped and I grabbed the tape. Here were those precious moments that each athlete shares with one another: the finish stare; the finish smile; the wobbly finish stance; and, the best part of all: the blank mind.
The only problem with the blank mind is that evidently it caused me to accidentally not cross the line. I had finished the Ironman in first place, or so it seemed. I was there, I had the tape, I had the cameras flashing in my face, but until Amanda strolled up – prompted by the timers – and told me to go ahead and “cross the mat”, I was not yet an Ironman finisher. Dang rookie mistakes…
Before I made my way down that raucous section of road that brought me to la meta - our finish – I had those pesky few 26.2 miles to contend with.
A three-loop run is pretty amazing, and Cozumel’s twist on this format was a good one: a triple out-and-back with what seemed like half the town of San Miguel standing on the side of the road encouraging us all to finish. Running in first place – and at times running in second as well as in third – I had the sensation that everyone was there with the sole purpose of giving me that extra push. However, one thing that was evident after talking to many other finishers was that each and every athlete who ran the cobblestones, the concrete and the asphalt through town were made to feel like the winner. And for this, I thank the people of this Island for loving the sport we love.
Regarding the details of the marathon, I can truly say this was one of the toughest runs in all my years of racing. Exiting transition in first place gave me a huge mental boost. I had four or five athletes in the change tent with me, so I knew the lead was not secure; however, I knew I wanted to protect it and maintain it for as long as I could, if only the keep the emotional charge that goes with the lead. Was that charge worth 15 or 20 seconds per mile? I don’t know, but it sure felt that way.
In those opening miles of the run, I was coherent and present. I was finding my rhythm and I was taking as much energy from the crowds as they would give me. Early on I was sure it was going to be a great run. Within 3km, I heard a couple of folks yell out “dále güero”, which, naturally, gave me an added spring in my step.
As I made my way through that first loop, I had a shadow of a runner on my shoulder. He sat back and let me do the pacing. I went, he went; I sped up, he sped up. I tried my best to manipulate the circumstances, and even forced him to the front to see if running on his shoulder would allow me to assess his energy and his strength – and to hear his breathing. He seemed strong, but he seemed to be tired of my gamesmanship. I came back to the front and noted that my pace was pretty hot. Those splits told me we both might be running PR’s that day.
But by the first of five turnarounds – not even 4.5 miles into the run – I made my first stop. Rounding the cones and crossing the timing mat, my hamstring cramped so severely that I had to stop dead in my tracks to stretch it out. Only 21.8 miles to go – not good! I bent over to open up the muscle and to give it some relief. How could the legs go from such fluidity to such immobility in as short a time as that?!
I lost the lead at that very moment, and immediately the doubts that we all face crept right into my mind. Can I make it? Can I finish? Will I have to walk? Will I be out here until tomorrow? Have I let everyone down?
At that point, I began an up-and-down mental battle that lasted the entire marathon. My legs felt worthless, and the cramps only seemed to vanish temporarily. For several miles – including at the 10km point when another man passed me – I dealt with the premature arrival of dead-block-Ironman-leg syndrome.
Seeing other experienced and accomplished pro athletes drop out gave me somewhat of a mental boost, but it only reinforced what I had already suspected, that the battle of attrition had begun. Another nice mental boost comes from knowing you are overcoming the very obstacles that have bested your competition. I never like to see them drop, but on the other hand, I don’t mind seeing them gone.
With only six miles of running under my belt, I spotted Amanda on the side of the road. She saw the pain in my face, but was still a bit surprised when I told her that my legs were in serious trouble. She had the exact answer I needed to hear: “drink water and focus!” I was very thankful that the day before the race Amanda chose not to compete, and that each lap I could count on seeing her on the side of the road dishing out some helpful tough love.
In my mind, I began to replay a conversation we recently had. The topic: how racing Ironman is about overcoming adversity. Sometimes we vomit, sometimes we poop our pants, sometimes we cramp, and sometimes we just don’t feel like running. In this case, I was just facing some worthless legs. All I had to do was keep my legs moving, and to wait and see if those two athletes ahead – and the several men behind me – were capable of dealing with adversities better than I could.
At mile 12, I spotted the leader of the race walking toward town. He still had a kilometer or so lead on me, but he was walking. And since I was still in the position to call my form of movement running, I kept the faith. Soon I’d be back in second. And soon enough I was.
As with any athlete, I had time goals before the start. I knew what I wanted to run, and I started out “on pace…” But part of racing at the front of an elite field is knowing when to put the ego on the shelf, and find yourself happy when the per-mile pace is 7: something, versus 6: something else. I faced the opportunity and I embraced my newly set pace goals. The new goal was basic: keep running.
Closing out the second loop of the run, the time splits had come back down to 45 seconds from the front. I could see my prey, and I could see him suffering as much as I was. The spring in our steps was long gone, and we still had 14km to run. Ouch. Only about 2k into that final loop, I closed in on the lead. I made the pass just after the former leader chose to walk. I felt his pain.
But I also felt my own pain, and I knew it was time to keep running. To let up even for 10 seconds could mean that one of the determined men behind me could easily hunt me down. And I had 10km of running in front of me.
Over the course of that next 3 miles, I received a good deal of encouragement from my fellow competitors. With barely enough strength to utter a gracias, I was unable to return any high-fives, and I could not do much to thank the age groupers for their support. But trust me when I say that it helped me.
With only the 5km to run, feeling more confident in my ability to win the race, the oppressive humidity decided to make a handoff to its meteorological counterpart: torrential rain. Thank goodness for my trusty visor, because it was suddenly in charge of keeping the driving rain out of my eyes. Whoa. From dripping with my own sweat to dripping with more rain than I’d seen in a long time, the new challenge became wading through eight or ten inches of running river water. As if our feet weren’t wet and tired and heavy and angry enough!
That final 5k in Cozumel is as satisfying a stretch as any I’ve run. A growing sense of accomplishment and a growing sense of victory pushed my legs to finally feel good again. I began the ever-so-gradual process of acknowledging the win would be mine.
Three miles of running in the rain have never felt so good, but primarily because it meant the end was near.
But prior to running, we all got the distinct pleasure of taking a three-loop tour of Cozumel Island. (A three-loop tour.) Wind is, and has always been, my friend. I know it suits my physical and mental strengths, so when it kicked up a notch or two (or ten) above what we saw in 2010, I was pleased – in that masochistic sort of way. The way the wind hits the Island, the race is very naturally split into four parts: headwind, crosswind, tailwind, no wind. I did my best to keep the bike upright on the far side of the Island. The crosswinds were strong and a bit unpredictable, due to the shrubs, gullies, and twists in the road.
Having felt absolutely miserable from about mile 17 to mile 25, I wondered what would happen to me during the remaining miles. It’s never a good feeling to feel off your game at such an early point in the bike ride. However, I held onto the belief that things would turn around. So I tended to the spotless execution of my First Endurance fueling plan, and I did my best to do the Kestrel 4000 proud. I rode hard and I rode with the primary goal of finding the front of the race.
At more than one juncture, a grasp of the Spanish language came in handy, not only for the crucial call for agua, but for a hefty and heartfelt request at Special Needs for “sesenta, sesenta, sesenta, por favor!” I was lucky to have the number 60, rather than a more cumbersome four-digit tongue twister (like, for example, mil ochocientos treinta y nueve - try yelling that at 25 miles per hour while reaching for a plastic bag containing extra bottles).
After chasing for nearly 110 miles, I finally caught the leading group of four (or five). Throughout those previous 100+ miles, I did enjoy brief bouts of company from my friends and competitors, including my teammate Chris McDonald (before he took a most unfortunate spill – get well BS!). But most of my cycle leg was spent alone, too focused on the task at hand to thank or encourage the pro or age group athletes I overtook.
I spent the final few miles of the bike in the lead of the race, weaving in and out of the age group athletes I was catching. Having the lead in an Ironman is exhilarating and fun, and the last time I did so was in 2010 at this very race. The goal for 2011 was to not surrender that lead, as I had done the year before.
I will say that I enjoyed the ride so much that I did not even mind the extra two miles that IMCoz requires us to pedal before landing up in T2.
Over four hours earlier, while sorting my way through T1, I did my best to shake the memory of a beautiful but labored swim. My transition legs were cooperating, most likely to make up for my swimming arms having protested from midway in the swim. Nothing excites me like a warm water, non-wetsuit ocean swim. Add some crystal clear blue waters and a salty beverage to sip on, and I’m a happy man. However, due to various obstacles within my swim preparation that are too ridiculous to share, suffice it to say that this was not my most enjoyable swim ever. I did, however, find great satisfaction in exiting the water under 50 minutes, and within shooting range of the race leaders. But before I arrive at my pre-race summary, allow me to say that next year, I’ll do as one of our swim coaches advised and “swim with reckless abandon.”
My morning could not have been any smoother. Amanda has seen me compete in probably 26 of my 29 Ironmans, and why that it is important is because she is a 100% accomplished and world-class triathlon spouse. Naturally, she has an advantage in being a pro triathlete herself: she knows what she would need, so she knows what I need. And deliver, she did.
I awoke at 4:00AM to begin my day as I always do: with a peaceful warm-up run in the dark. I find this time of slow and gradual movement helps prepare the mind for the long day ahead. It’s a final quiet moment before jumping into the fray that is Ironman.
Our only snafu in a near perfect race morning was that our little, but powerful, blue motocicleta did not have a functioning headlight. In the pre-dawn darkness, while driving the very short distance to the swim start from our comfortable abode, Amanda and I flirted dangerously with a life on the edge. I agree, very James Bond of us…
Coming full circle, and arrivng back in downtown Cozumel, after being prompted by my loving wife to cross the line, a day’s work was done; a process was complete; another journey had come to a close. I had become a three-time Ironman Champion, and I had done so eight years after winning my first title. I was very proud of my effort, as I truly felt that I got the very most out of my body on the day.
And because I was paying attention, I had proven to myself that with careful attention to detail, with a lot of hard work, and with a passion for the sport as strong as the support crew that carries me, the finish line at Ironman is all that matters – because if we are there, all the other aspects of what make Ironman special have clearly already happened.
And so I crossed the line.