Ironman Cozumel 2009 Race Report

I’m back home in Austin after an overall wonderful trip to Mexico for my final race of the 2009 season, Ironman Cozumel. Although my performance in the race was no where near what I had expected nor wanted, the experience offers many learning opportunities for me as I continue my development. I must first say that this first-year race in Cozumel was just a great event. The course conditions were very challenging, but the race itself was amazing and I really think I may come back to this one in 2010. I also want to thank my parents for their support this last weekend. As my day fell apart, their encouragement kept me going. I was ready to quit, but it was important having them out on the course and encouraging me to finish the race out of respect for the sport, the race, the participants, and the race staff. When faced with dropping out of the race and quitting because my day wasn’t what I wanted it to be, or walking it in to the finish line, despite wanting nothing more than to quit and go back to the hotel, I walked 17 of the last 18 miles on the run!! I also met a lot of great people at the race and made new friends.

In my next several blog entries, I’ll talk about overall lessons learned in 2009, but I may touch on a couple of those here because my experience at this race really brought to light some of these areas for future focus.

First, I want to say that this race was really fun. I’m considering coming back to Ironman Cozumel next year because of the atmosphere. I’ll first provide a description of the race and course.

The swim - If I were to describe the ideal swim conditions and environment for a race, Ironman Cozumel’s swim would just about nail it. Other than a few considerations for currents, it was just a great swim. The water temperature is a perfect 80-81 degrees. This is the ideal temperature for me to swim. It’s warm enough that you don’t dread getting in the water, but cool enough that you don’t overheat when swimming hard. Incidentally, that’s the exact temperature the University of Texas swim center keeps it’s world-class pools for training. With that warm of water, it is a non-wetsuit swim, but again perfect temperature for non-wetsuit swimming. The water clarity is by far, bar none, the most amazing and best I have ever seen at a race. The water around Cozumel has a crystal clear clarity with 200ft visibility under water. You could see the ocean floor beneath you the entire swim, despite being in deep water. You could see every fish, every rock, every safety diver just like they were right in your face. On race day, the sea was really calm, with very little waves or swell action in the water. It made for a very enjoyable swimming environment.

The bike - The bike course ended up being much much much more challenging than I had anticipated going into the race. It was a pancake-flat course, looping 3 times completely around the island. I now know that entire island like the back of my hand. Flat courses can be faster, but they offer different challenges, because you spend much more time crouched down in the aero position on the bike. On hilly or rolling courses, you have more opportunities to stand up, sit up, and change positions, which gives your muscles and lower back opportunities to stretch out. Staying cooped up in the aero position for 4.5-5 hours can really take a toll on your body. On each ~37 mile loop, we biked about a 10 mile segment on the windward, undeveloped side of the island. This section we biked three times was one of the nastiest segments of riding I’ve ever experienced in a race. It was beautiful, but insanely windy. The road was right along the beach the entire way, but the crosswinds were brutal. The road surface for that segment was chip-seal, which absorbs a lot of energy from your bike and slows you down by anywhere from 1-2mph. So the combination of the rough road surface and crazy cross winds on that side of the island made that section of the course very challenging. To put in perspective the wind strength, on a day after the race, my parents and I drove to a little seaside cabana for a burger and beer. When my beer bottle was about ¾ empty, the bottles were sliding across the table from the crosswind!!! You couldn’t take your hand off your beer, a HORRIBLE problem J The remainder of the course was flat with varying sections of head, tail, and cross winds. Each of the three times we looped through town was amazing because of the crowd support. It seems that every person on the island came out for the race. They cheered non-stop from the first to last competitor. The last item about the bike that I want to thank the race production for is that the roads were COMPLETELY CLOSED TO TRAFFIC. More and more, races directors are not closing courses to auto traffic. Even at events where people are paying a $550 entry fee, the race directors are allowing cars on the bike course. Almost every race, I hear some story about an encounter between a racer and a car. The race completely closed the roads on the course and thus I felt very safe on those roads. It was GREAT, a big thumbs up and thank you for that!

The run - What made the run course so unique and special was the crowd support. I’ve been to 15 Ironmans and without any doubt, this race had the most amazing spectators I’ve ever seen. The run was a 3 loop out-n-back course. We ran 4.4 miles on the road out of town up the coast, turned around just at the end of the resorts, then 4.4 miles back into town. The mile and a half in town into town and then again back out of town was absolutely packed with screaming spectators. So for about 9 miles of the run, it was a solid wall of people yelling. Then, even as we got out of town, there were spectators by every resort and condo along the way. There were far more fans out there than any race I’ve seen. It wasn’t just that the fans were there, they cheered so loud and non-stop. The Mexicans really know how to cheer!! It made for the most exciting run I’ve experienced. The run was warm and humid, but if you’re going to race on a Caribbean island, you should expect a toasty run. It course was pretty much pancake flat, so if you were running, there was nothing terrain-wise to stop your momentum, only your energy and leg fatigue slowed you down.

If I were to sum up this race, I would say that the course was a Kona-like (hot, humid, windy) without the hills, but with much better crowd support. I give my thumbs up on this race, as long an you know it’s going to be a tougher race when you sign up.

On to my day. I was really ready for this race. My training, preparation, and taper was pretty much perfect. After my experience in Ironman Wisconsin, I was ready for some redemption. Everything was pointing to me having the race of my life, as long as my execution on race day was solid, and that’s where my problems occurred.

I had one of the best swim starts I’ve ever had in a race. They didn’t let us warm-up in the water before the start, which I wasn’t a fan of, but it affected us all the same. We had to jump in the water and the gun sounded about 2 minutes later. We went from resting state to all-out in no time. I did go for a 10-15 min jog in the morning to get my body warmed up at least somewhat. I started the swim strong but well within my ability level. We swam into a stiff current for the first 500 meters, so my goal was to be sitting behind a group rather than off on my own to ease the difficulty of the head current. I found myself on the back of a great group. I remember thinking that I could sit with that group the whole race. I was swimming next to a girl and after a bit, we started bumping a little for position. Then we hooked arms about 4 times in a row and it threw me off. I swam hard to try to catch back up, but I was off the back and out of breath and lost the group. I swam just off the back for a little while to calm down and catch my breath and then a group of three caught up and the four of us swim together the rest of the swim. I felt really good and strong on the swim. It was the best I’ve felt in the water probably ever in a race. I swam in an Xterra long-leggeed speedsuit and I think it was perfect for this race. I also think the specific things I was doing in preparation for the race really made a little difference come gametime. I came out of the water in 51 minutes, which is a 6 minute record for me. Now I know that the current was strong and favorable because everyone swam several minutes fast. So my time was good, but the better indicator was that I was only about 7 minutes behind the lead group, rather than the 10-12 minutes I had traditionally been behind. What’s better, I felt really fresh exiting the water.

When I got on the bike, my parents were standing about 200 yards down the road and yelled that I was in 24th place, which is better than where I was in Wisconsin. I immediately linked up with a pro from Switzerland and he and I biked the first 15 miles or so together. He started off really strong, so I thought he’d be good to sit with, but he faded after about 30 or 40 minutes, so I went on by myself. In retrospect, this is where my race started to go south. I felt really good and strong, so I decided to push the bike and try to bike myself into a good position. By the end of the first loop, I was in 14th place, by the end of the second loop, I was in about 8th place, and by the end I was in 7th. I biked really well and used the bad wind sections as the times to really put my head down and go. Again, this was probably not the best strategy. 

At about mile 60, I caught Tyler Butterfield and asked if he wanted to work together to catch some more guys. He said he didn’t want to go any faster than his current pace. In retrospect, that is the point where I made the biggest mistake of the day. I should have backed off and ridden with him the rest of the way. He’s a really strong biker and only came off the bike about 5 minutes behind me. He then ran himself into 4th place. So he raced much smarter and stuck to his strategy. I give him all the credit in the world for resisting going too hard on the bike, and his result on the day reflected good race execution.

This is my biggest lesson learned from the day. Instead of focusing on using the bike to try to make up for my frustrations with my swimming, I need to back off just a bit on the bike so that my body is there for the run. My training buddies know that running is really my strength, but because I’m always biking so hard to make up time, I never get on the run fresh enough to use my best weapon. I’m going to approach my next Ironman differently. It’s no longer about the bike, it’s the whole day. I know this sounds easy, but it’s an exercise in discipline. When you feel fresh and good, holding back on the bike is the hardest thing. Giving back 5 minutes on the bike could have saved me 2.5 HOURS on the run. It’s a hard way to learn a lesson, but sometimes it takes a big kick in the pants to make us realize the obvious. You can get advice from friends all day long, but until we reap the consequences for our actions, we tend to not change our behaviors.

By the third loop of the bike, I could tell that I potentially could be in trouble. I did back off a bit, but it was too late. I know I’ve run well tired before, so I my confidence was still pretty high. I came into transitions pretty pumped. Coming out of transition my legs were really dead. I started taking in fluids and calories to make sure I would be good through the whole run. My first mile was actually a little fast. I came through in 6:15, where my goal was about 6:30. My second and third miles were more on the pace I had intended. Then my legs felt like I was running in molasses. At the run turn around, I could see that at least two or three guys in front of me were really hurting. I thought I could still hold it together and run myself into a great finish. By mile 6 the wheels had completely come off. I was running 9 minute miles and didn’t think I could even finish. My stomach felt horrible. I was so nauseous. I need to go back this winter and rework my race nutrition. I thought I had it dialed in, but by the run, my gut had shut down and nothing was moving through my system. I should have stopped and made myself throw up right then and there to empty out my stomach. Between my leg fatigue, energy level, and horrible stomach, I felt like I couldn’t go any further.

I saw my parents at the turn-around to start loop two near mile 8.5 and I almost dropped out. I stopped and talked to them for a minute. I was really emotional. I really didn’t want to quit but I really didn’t think I could finish. My dad told me that I owed it to the race and sport to finish. He told me to walk as long as I needed, so that’s what I did. From mile 8.5-26.2, I walked all but about 2 miles. Yes, in the last 18 miles, I walked about 16 miles!!! It wasn’t a power walk, I didn’t have the energy for that, it was a stroll. Even walking I didn’t think I could finish in my body's state, but mile by mile, I made it through. It’s amazing how slow those miles felt walking about 18 minutes per mile instead of running 6:30 per mile! I made sure to keep getting fluids and calories in my system to try to bring my self back to be able to run. Nothing was getting through and I kept feeling worse and worse. From miles 18-24 I’d have to stop every five minutes or so and rest with my hands on my knees because the stabbing pains in my stomach were so bad. I started getting worried that I may be doing real damage to my GI system because of the intensity of the pain. What added insult to injury was that when the sun went down, the mosquitoes came out. If you were running, they really wouldn’t land on you, but walking….you were dinner. I got probably about 30 bites on the walk. It was insane. Some nice spectators and later some volunteers at an aid station gave me bug spray and that made life a lot more bearable.

At mile 24 I was still walking and my stomach hurt so bad I thought I may have to drop out with 2 miles to go. I walked off the road to a wall against the sidewalk. Then I proceeded to throw up for several mintues straight. I barfed out probably a gallon of sugar water. It was just Gatorade, gels, and water. It had just been building in my gut and not going through. My stomach was so full that it was no longer nausea, but horrible stabbing. I kid you not, after emptying my stomach, I was running again within 2 minutes and I ran the last mile into town. I stopped about a half mile from the finish and decided to walk it in to enjoy the moment. I had made it that far and wanted time to take time to take in the experience. I gave every person a high-5 who stuck out their hand and walked my way into the finish.

I was so so so glad I decided to finish the race. I don’t think I could have mentally taken dropping out of this one. What was so great on top of everything was how much support I got from my parents, the crowd, and the age groupers in the race. I had probably 15 different race participants stop and thank me for finishing the race while I was walking. It really helped to take the sting out of the day.

So now it’s time for a little break at the end of a long, but good 2009 season. I have some challenges to take on this winter, but I know what they are and with a little work, I really believe I can take myself up to that next level in the sport.  I really want to thank Little Caesars Pizza for their support of me and my racing this year. Their belief in me is so important for me be able to do what I'm doing in this sport. Jack and Adam's Bicycles in Austin are always there to help support me and my racing. Xterra Wetsuits are providing me with the best wetsuits and speedsuits in the sport and Advanced Rehabilitation in Ausin helps to keep me healthy for training and racing. Also I want to thank my family and friends for their unending support for me. Without these people and sponsors, I would not be able to pursue this dream.

Thank you,
Pa

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