Awesome Until It Wasn't: My Cozumel 2019 Race Report
So, it’s the end of 2019 and I can’t put off writing about my experience with Ironman Cozumel 2019. 2019 has been a year of hard work, growth and getting faster. It’s also been a year with a lot of personal and professional challenges. With challenges comes growth, right?
I’m nicknaming Ironman Cozumel 2019 “Awesome until it wasn’t” because that is exactly what it was. I prepared for this race like no other. After focusing on shorter distance and getting faster in 2019, I had some concerns that my build for this race wasn’t long or punishing enough - I certainly felt like I was able to handle the load, and while I worked hard and was tired, it did not feel as punishing as my first two Ironman race builds. I trust my coach, Cliff Scherb of Tristar Athletes, implicitly, and he assured me we were doing what we needed to do. That’s all I needed. Cliff’s confidence in the plan and me eased any concerns I had about getting to the starting line prepared. I started a new job in October, and had some travel. I traveled with my bike, Coach told me which workouts were priority #1, and to my surprise, I managed to get >90% of my workouts done and done well. I felt confident leaving for Mexico.
I traveled to Cozumel early, getting there the Monday before the race. I made a last minute decision to go to Tempe on the way for the OutSpoken Women in Triathlon Summit on the way, and while it might not have been optimal in terms of rest, I am glad I went. It was inspiring, uplifting and thought provoking, and reminded me that however small I think my contribution to this sport, I can make a difference, and I need to do so. I hit Mexico fired up.
I did this race in 2018, and knew of the challenges. I had had GI issues on the run thanks to the heat in 2018, and was determined to improve upon those results. I felt faster and stronger. I slept well - YES, during race week. I got my workouts in early. I didn’t use air conditioning, and didn’t need to (Coach doesn’t recommend AC during warm race weeks unless it interferes with your sleep). I got used to the heat without overdoing it. I got in some good on course race prep and ate well. My entire family came for the race, and I was glad I sprang for transfers from Cancun airport to the island with my friends at Riviera Mayan Kravans. Antonio from Kravans now feels like family and is part of my Coz experience - and he saved my race when my bike was lost last time! Knowing their logistics were taken care of were a BIG weight off my mind. Having family there to support you is HUGE and can give you a mental boost, but it can also be stressful and distract from the race. This, and the kindness of my friend and host Laura, who let my husband and I stay in her apartment while my family stayed close by but in their own house, really allowed me to spend time with them but ALSO focus on my rest, race prep, and my race.
I had my plan. I had prepped my nutrition. My gear was ready, and I felt properly acclimated to the heat - for that week. Temperatures that week were a warm but not unbearable mid 80s. I was more calm and confident than I had ever been going into an Ironman. Is this what went wrong? I don’t think so. When catching up about my plan with my coach, he said “You’ve got the fitness and strength, and now the experience. You’re as ready as you have ever been.” and I agreed.
Race day came with expected low winds, and everyone was excited by that. I made it to T1 for a final check and to drop special needs bags and load up my hydration on my bike early, kissed my Iron sherpa spouse, and made my way to race start. I saw a few people I know and gave hugs and good wishes. I stretched and went over my race plan in my head. I knew the next right thing to do. My biggest concern was getting in my own way and not being patient.
Swim: Swim plan was 1:10. I had grumbled and told my coach I wanted to do it in 1 hr. Why, he said? Because I did it in 1:04 the year before. Hmm, he said, can you do it in 1 hr and still have a good marathon? Grumble. I resolved to put my ego aside and do as I was told. I would come out in 1:10. That meant some EASY swimming, as I felt strong, knew I would be inclined to go out hard AND there can be current on this swim. The pros finished very fast. But as I hit the water and started to swim, I felt the current wasn’t as strong as 2018. But this swim is EASILY my favorite swim ever. Water temp was about 86 degrees fahrenheit. 100% visibility. TONS of fish and coral. Super buoyant salt water. I was toasty in my swim cap and swimskin. I wanted to go faster. I found feet, focused on more Enya and less Guns and Roses in my head (coach’s orders), and just watched the fish float by. It felt like forever.
The current definitely picked up the last third of the swim, and a lot of people were pushed waaaay to the left of the buoys. I later learned a lot of people were pulled there because the current was also pulling way off course, but I was “punching the buoys” for sport, so I was on course so didn’t have this problem.
My biggest problem was coming into Chankanaab, and knowing the swim was going to be over. Definitely the highlight of my day and I was sad to see it end. I came out of the water, pulled out my earplugs in time to hear them announce my name and raised my arms in victory. I came out in 1:10. Nailed it. Coach would be thrilled.
T1 to bike: After a quick towel off, got my bike shoes and helmet on and dropped my bag of swim gear and headed to my bike. Easy to find and ready to go, I headed out and heard my name and waved! Here we go. Cozumel is a gorgeous 3 loop course around the island, ideal for spectators. Everyone talks about the headwind on the east side of the island, but the crosswinds at both ends can be pretty tiring as well. First loop was warm, wind wasn’t too bad, but I knew from experience that it can build through the day so I wasn’t celebrating. I tried to eat and drink a lot and keep to plan. Hindsight and data says I went a little too hard first loop. This may be true, or I may just have faded much more throughout the day due to dehydration and heat. Second loop started ok - the landmark for a completed loop this year was a particularly ripe piece of roadkill. I was already excited for special needs and hopefully cold beverages. My Skratch had been great, but after about 35 miles, what was left was very warm, and I was only taking water bottles from aid stations to pour on me for heat management.
Second loop was even less windy but you could tell it was getting hotter. I had no idea how hot and I was NOT going to check my watch to see and freak myself out. But I should have. I was using my Omius headband under my helmet and it was really helping keep my head cool and my HR down. But I should have been using my run ice strategy with bags of ice in my jersey on the bike as well. I swear by this for hot runs in 70.3 but in a hot full, it’s all about heat management on the bike. I thought drinking enough would be enough, but lesson learned: take your bags out on the bike, because ice saves lives :).
I got to special needs and the volunteers were amazing. This poor young man watched me shove my hand down my kit to reapply chamois cream (I tried to warn him!), smiled as I devoured an Uncrustable PBJ, and laughed when I was cheering because my frozen bottles were STILL FROZEN!!! I did not know it then, but it was 99 degrees. I had frozen my bottles, put them in a soft lunch box with a freezer pack, and put them with some PBJs into my special needs. They still had a solid ice core. They didn’t stay frozen long when I started moving, but I will 100% do this again. Only more bottles and more PBJs. At this point, I drank up, but I ran out of my fluid early on loop 3. I knew I had to drink, and I was concerned about the refilled water bottles, so I drank on course regular Gatorade (Ironman Mexico only has regular Gatorade on course). I knew it didn’t have the nutrition I needed, but thought it was better than nothing. I didn’t feel awful, but the last 10 miles my stomach felt a bit queasy. I had some ginger in T1 and some snacks and I figured I would be fine. I finished a little slower than I had hoped, but relatively close to plan, and figured that if a little slower meant I had more for the run, I would be fine.
I peed 7 times on the bike. I drank 7 bottles of Skratch and 2 bottles of Gatorade. I had 3 PBJs. I could not stomach most of my gummies or bars.
Mistakes? The Skratch bottles were only 17 oz (I used sport water bottles I bought at the store locally and added Skratch so I could lose bottles/weight as I rode). For that heat, I should have had 7 x 24 oz at least. Lesson will be: take more kinds of nutrition I can tolerate in heat for earlier, more PBJs as I can stand them in heat, and MORE bottles - I should have had 4-5 frozen in special needs, not 3.
T2 and Run: Saw my family as I sat up for the dismount line and laughed as my mom screamed to “Stay Aero!” Sure mom, and take out the volunteers ;) Ran in, cracked some jokes and changed my shoes and socks. Dry socks. AH! I did not change, and didn’t need to - or so I thought. My onesie was comfy and I felt fine. I filled my handheld and prepped my snacks. I had decided not to wear my running vest as I didn’t want to carry it. This turned out to be a big mistake. I had my Swedish fish in my pockets, ate a little ginger and felt ready to GO. I drank a few sips from a tiny can of coke I had as I walked out of T2 and yelled to my family, and hugged my friend Gabrielle who had had her day end early with 3 flats on the bike. Damn.
As I turned the corner, I started to run and WHOA. I had legs. Tired legs for sure, but I felt like I could make them go for a while! My race plan had a 3:1 walk run strategy that then would go to a 2:1 and then a 1:1. My hope was that I would only have to do 1:1 for the last half of the last lap. As I made my way through the first lap, I felt like this was doable. I kept to my plan exactly with the exception of aid stations, and tried to eat and drink at them - I had some bags of water but they made me feel sloshy so I knew it was Gatorade only. I started doing small sips of Gatorade at each aid station and my only fear was: Damn, this is too soon for this. BUT the sun was going to start going down and I hoped that with the heat dissipating, I would be able to tolerate more. I just needed to make it. No soda yet - too soon. My stomach was rumbling and sloshy, but I was moving and almost finished my first lap. I was happy with my progress so far.
I felt good - until I didn’t. About mile 7.5 it got dark fast and I knew I would have to use a porta potty. In and out, fast. I rolled my kit down to my hips so it wouldn’t hit the floor. I knew there would be no paper and it would be yuck, I had a bottle of water to rinse myself. And I felt like I got through it and as I stepped out pulling my kit up, felt pretty relieved. AND THEN IT HIT ME. My kit had touched the wall of the porta potty under the seat. The smell coming from my back was AWFUL. I tried pouring water down my back and on my hands but it didn’t help. The smell didn’t help the nausea and I started vomiting. But I had vomited from mile 13 to the finish in 2018 and finished, so I was sad, disappointed, and knew it would slow me down. But I didn’t think I would not finish.
I saw my husband and son as I headed out on lap 2 and said “this sucks, I don’t want to do this.” My son said I could quit and he’d still be proud, but that wasn’t an option. I did vow I would review my next season race selections more critically after, but who doesn’t think that during their race?
I saw teammates, friends and all buoyed my spirits - we were doing this, and we were going to power through. This was hard and I had hit the sucky part, but I knew in a few hours it would be over. I still had no idea how soon that would be. The vomiting increased and I tried to keep to tiny sips of Gatorade. I was still doing the 3:1 walk run ratio and knew I would be able to do that until at least the half-way point. I was excited by the prospect of a tiny can of Coke at special needs, and thought the sugar, caffeine and bubbles might be just what I needed to get me through. As I saw the mile 11 sign, I knew I was almost there. I just needed to throw up one more time…
As I was leaning over dry heaving, a lady yelled “Do you need medical assistance?” and I muttered “Maybe.” It’s the last thing I remember. I passed out right on the mile 11 marker. The ambulance driver joked that it was helpful as it made me very easy to find. When I woke in the ambulance, I had a good cry and tried not to vomit on anything. But I didn’t need to worry - there was nothing left to vomit.
Medical tent, amazing staff and volunteers, and more people than I have ever seen, including many having seizures. After 3 IVs and a shot of anti-nausea medication, I felt ok and then the real disappointment set in - and a whopper of a headache. A cold Sprite and I felt fine - but really angry at myself. This is when I found out it had been 99 for over half of my ride that day, and that it had been 90 for the first lap of my run. I was released and walked back to our apartment and showered, waiting for my family to find me since I had no way to reach them.
When they arrived, I was able to track my athlete Leslie and find out she had finished. I was overjoyed - and so relieved. If one of us could not finish, I was glad it was me and that she made it. Having helped her get there made me feel just a little bit better.
My coach called a couple hours later to check on me and debrief. I promised I would write this up, and here I am, belatedly keeping my word.
My lessons are:
Pack more hydration than you need. And then more.
You can never heat acclimate enough. Especially when the race day temperature climbs another 10 degrees,
More salt. Always more salt.
You don’t need a Walgreens in your backpocket, but pack a variety of nutrition, because what tastes good in training might not taste good at 99 degrees.
It would be awesome if Ironman had IV bags at aid stations. Those things are awesome (I’m mostly kidding here.)
You can control everything you can, but there are always things you cannot control. You are ready when you are prepared to handle all the things you can.
Racing in foreign countries is hard. It is still worth it.
While my coach mentioned that maybe I’m better suited for cooler races, we agreed that I need to go back and finish Cozumel. Too close, too many lessons learned and to learn still. I’m already looking forward to going back.