Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ironman Cozumel Race Report; Part Two!

I've decided to split my race report for Ironman Cozumel into three parts: the pre-race, the race itself, and the lessons I learned from the experience. Part One can be found here.

Even though we had three alarms set, I woke up on Sunday morning just a few minutes before the first one went off. We got dressed, ate a fairly leisurely breakfast, and made our way down to the front of the hotel. There were to be shuttles from our hotel to the race start, beginning at 5:00 a.m. When we arrived around 5:15, the first one was leaving, and the line for the second one was pretty long. We got in line behind some other folks from Atlanta, and we waited for the next bus. And waited. And waited.

Kacie and I were immensely careful throughout the week about what we ate. Not only did we feel it necessary to make sure we were taking in high-quality calories during the taper period, but we both wanted to make sure that we avoided any food-borne illnesses in Mexico. It did not appear as if everyone was as concerned as us. We saw several people who ate and drank indiscriminately throughout the week. I'm not sure how they fared on race day. Anyway, neither of us had any hints of illness . . . until Saturday night.

On Saturday, I had an unsettling feeling in my stomach, and indeed, my fears were confirmed while we waited in line for the bus on Sunday morning. This knocked me off my game a bit, but I took some Pepto and hoped for the best. Happily, I can report that this never surfaced again. Whew! That would have SUCKED!

Swim: 1:20:35

YES! My goal for the swim was 1:30:00, so to do ten minutes faster than that was monumental. Leading up to the race, I figured that at best, I could hope for a 1:25 or so. I chided myself for considering anything faster than that. Even so, I never thought that I might swim 1:20 given that I couldn't cross the pool in June. I got out of the water and did two double-takes--one at the clock and the other at my watch.

Kacie and I got in the water fairly late, only about three or four minutes before the start. We ran into our new friend Lesley amongst the 2300 people in the water, and that was reassuring. We parked ourselves near the middle of the pack and waited for the gun, which initially caught us a little bit off guard. The swim began with a very physical 500 meters to the first turn. Our friend Sonja wrote that she started in the front and was hardly touched the entire swim. NOT ME! In fact, I don't see how I even made any progress in the first 500 meters, since it seemed that nearly every stroke was compromised either by having someone right in front of me or by landing on the back, leg, hand, or head of another competitor. The turn itself was nuts, as one person's stopping seemed to cause a chain reaction and a giant bottleneck. Nonetheless, I felt that I drew energy from the masses, and I was charged up by the excitement of it all. Dare I say: I like the chaotic pack swimming?

About halfway through the swim, some guy caught with a Vanessa Gaynor-style punch to the ear* that rang my bell enough to make me stop for a second. He apologized, though, and I quickly went back about my business. Some well-placed clouds kept the sun out of my eyes, and the jellyfish stings--I got about a dozen on my arms, torso, and lip--were not bad. Besides having to stop to drain one goggle of water a few times, the swim could hardly have gone better.

[*Vanessa Gaynor was the girl who dropped me with one punch to the ear in fourth grade. We were fighting over a kickball game. That's all I have to say about that.]

At two points, I found myself drifting a bit away from the pack, swimming in clean water away from the buoys and away from my flailing fellow Iron-wannabes. At those moments, I did something that actually made me very proud of myself: I swam back into the scrum. I knew that getting the overall drafting effect of swimming in the pack was worth the pain and risk of taking a kick to the head or a stroke to the crotch. I believe that these moments are ultimately what got me my fast split.

I dashed out of the water, did my double take, and took off sprinting down the pier. I grabbed my bag, went into the jammed tent, got ready for the bike, and headed out. My bike was right next to the tent, which meant that I had to run through nearly the entire transition area with it. T1 time--6:04.

Bike: 5:12:51

Out of the water, I was in 1348th place in the race and 246th in my age group. Given that I swam faster than I thought I would, I was on a high. Thus, I blasted onto the bike course and immediately started mowing people down.

In retrospect, I started a bit too aggressively, and that set a bad tone for the entire ride. Even though my HR wasn't off the charts, it was higher than it needed to be less than two hours into an Ironman. And even though my power numbers were in the range that I figured they should be, I knew that my cycling training had been off in the past six weeks and I would be better off being conservative. After that swim, though, conservatism be damned. I figured that if I could go ten minutes faster than my swim goal, why not go that much faster than my bike goal, too? Bad, bad, bad thinking. I established a baseline heartrate roughly ten beats higher than it should have been, and I kept it there. It was not smart, but I wouldn't know how not smart it was until I started running.

The bike consisted of an abbreviated first loop of 33 miles, followed by two full loops of 39.5 miles. On the first loop, I averaged right at 22.4 mph, which felt quick but not suicidal. On the second lap, I dropped to 21.9 mph, but I felt like I was still cruising along well. On the third lap, the wind picked up sharply, and it shifted in such a way that a crosswind became a headwind and a straight tailwind became less of a tailwind. That sucked. In addition, I reached my decoupling point, and I had to significantly reduce my power output in order to keep my heartrate at the same level (which as I said before, was already about ten beats over what it should have been). As a consequence, my speed dropped all the way to 20.6 mph, and I started HURTING. When I stood up to stretch, I could feel my quads seizing. In the last ten miles, phrases like "Get me off this infernal machine" kept rolling through my head. Even my ears ached.

Out of all of my assorted discomforts on the bike, by far the worst were my feet. They were on fire. Several times after the halfway point, I had to unclip each foot and wiggle my toes just to get rid of the hot spots. At one point, it was so severe that my left plantar fascia actually began to cramp. I'm not sure if this is a bike fit issue or something else. Regardless, that is one of the first things I am going to try to fix before my next Ironman.

When I finally passed off my bike, I was excited to start running, but I felt very spent by what I had endured in the last ten miles. Further, when I lifted my leg in the transition tent to change my shoes, my leg muscles kept seizing. I didn't think that that was a good sign, but I tried to forget about it and go on with the business of running. T2 time--3:01.

Run: 3:33:25

This was painful.

It started well enough. I rolled out of transition having passed 1021 people on the bike, nearly all of whom were in the first half. I was now in 327th place and 68th place in my age group. I told myself to relax in the first mile and that it was bound to feel slow after getting off the bike. I hit the mile mark in 6:41, and I felt great. I was poised for a 3:00:00 marathon, which would bring me home around 9:40:00 for the entire Ironman. Then, the second mile, which felt about the same as the first, was 7:24. [Uh, oh.] Then the third was 7:37. [I might be in trouble.] Then the bottom fell out, my stomach started to cramp, and I hit the four-mile mark in 8:43. I haven't run a mile that slow since I went running with Bill Clinton in 1994. I quit looking at my splits, but my next two miles (5 and 6) were in 18:39. Around that time, I saw Kacie, and told her that I was spent. In addition to being disappointed that my visions of having a great run would not be realized, I was actually a bit nervous. I didn't want to spend the next several hours struggling to finish.

Soon after, though, it began to rain, and my spirits began to lift. I turned mile seven in 8:22, and I passed through the next two miles (8 and 9) in 15:00. I saw Kacie coming in the other direction and yelled out, "I've come out of it! I'm back!" Mile 10 was 7:30, mile 11 was 7:39, and mile twelve was 7:26. I was still walking the aid stations, but I was feeling much better, both physically and mentally. Mile 13 was 7:31, and I hit halfway right at 8:25:00 in the overall race time. I figured that if I kept running about the same, I could do the last half-marathon in about 1:35:00, and that would put me right at 10:00:00 for the Ironman. That didn't happen.

While miles 14 and 15 were 15:28, miles 16 and 17 were 16:09. Mile 18 was 7:54, mile 19 was 8:10, and then I once again fell apart completely. Mile 20 was 8:52. Mile 21 was 8:38. Mile 22 was 9:01. Mile 23 was 9:06. Mile 24 was 9:38. Mile 25 was 9:00. I rallied a bit to run 7:19 for the Mile 26, but it was too little, too late. I crossed the finish line in 10:15:56.

In the last several miles, the bottoms of my feet felt terrible. After enduring severe hot spots on the bike, having to run in wet shoes was almost too much. The course was so thoroughly flooded that we actually had to cross a shin-deep puddle at one point on the course. And given that the course was an out-and-back loop, that meant four puddle fordings for me. In my blue tri suit, I felt quite sunk.

Nonetheless, I managed to pass 184 people on the run, mostly by summoning the will not to walk anywhere besides the aid stations. I moved up to 143rd in the race and 30th in my age group. It was not what I originally had in mind, but I am happy with it given that it's my first Ironman.

If I sound disappointed, I have to admit that when I crossed the finish line, I was. Even though my first goal (once starting the race) was to finish, I did not envision such a significant collapse on the run. My training and racing suggested that I would run brilliantly. I blew that chance, though, by riding beyond my limits on the bike. In other words, my falling short of my 10:00:00 goal was a failure of execution--something under my control. That's frustrating. As a result, I didn't get the rush of jubilation I was hoping for when I crossed the finish line. Rather than feeling the most pleasant exhaustion, I simply felt exhaustion.

My overall goal when I first signed up for Cozumel was to gain experience at the Iron level, and I certainly did that. As such, I count the race as a success. And certainly, I can't sneeze at a 10:15:56! I'm looking forward to lowering that PR soon, though.

In the ensuing four days, I've had plenty of time to reflect on the race, and I've drawn a great deal of lessons from it that I think will help me both in my preparation for and my racing of my next Ironman: Coeur d'Alene in 2012. I'll explain those lessons in Part Three!


  1. I can understand being disappointed when something is in your control and you let it spiral out of control. It's a tough thing and let me assure you Im the world's worst at betting myself up over stuff like that. But you finished and you learned and you earned your PhD during all that training. Nothing to sneeze at as you say. Congrats Dr. Darden. Coeur d'Alene won't know what hit it when you get there!!!

  2. Wow... what an amazing race George. Sure, you didn't hit the goals that you might have set forth for yourself, but like you said, nothing to sneeze about with a 10:15 finish. We're damn impressed and I think you learned a lot for the next one. Take a little time to enjoy the holidays and then start training to kick butt in CdA! :)