Ironman Cozumel: Part 1

It has been almost 18 weeks since my first (attempted) ironman race. After that DNF I said I wanted to get fitter, faster and stronger. So how did that go?

Motivation
I remember feeling super motivated immediately after Switzerland. Then I deliberately took about 3 weeks off training, with a conference in Florida in the middle. In hindsight, this was too long a break without some kind of routine training. I'd love to say the motivation carried on to the next race plan, but it just didn't. I mean I wanted to, but my body took some persuasion. It felt slightly bizarre to start up again, to look at the training schedule that had seemed perfectly normal a month earlier but now... well, it's a lot! To get out of bed at 5:30 and fit in 3hrs of training most week days, and a full day's work, and well, the rest of life! Really, the last few months have felt like a struggle. With old and new difficult 'stuff' to deal with on a personal level, I've been feeling quite drained. Being physically tired is so much easier to work through, or recover from. Being emotionally tired is a whole other challenge.

But while it feels difficult to stick at the training, it's also incredibly satisfying to know I do. Ultimately, doing the work or not comes down to deciding, deliberately and consciously, how I want to spend and share my time, my energy, (my money!), and my life.

And so, for the most part, the early morning swims, the long turbo sessions (5hrs!) got done. A really welcome reward was when I made it to the 3hr run mark in the final build push for this race. Before Switzerland, I only made it to 2hr 30 and kept getting little injuries anything much beyond 2hrs. Anything like that I make sure to stop and celebrate, it helps keep the motivation up so much.

Physical skills
When getting back into the swing of things, one of the first things I did, was to reach out to the professionals who help me, behind the scenes, with my training, my physio and sports therapist: the people who fix me when I'm broken. I asked them simply, "How can I get better?". My physio was delighted, "Yes! Let's look at the big picture". We talked about how to work on my general bio-mechanics, how to develop my body not just for one type of race or distance, but so that I could become a more powerful athlete. We left the treatment room, went to a park and ran. We did all sorts of running drills. We hopped, skipped and jumped. And laughed (well mostly Jon giggled at my attempts to do the drills). It hurt, but it was a wake-up call. I need to practice these broken down movements if I hope to put elements of them together into a better running form. That, he advised, would take a long time. That's OK, I thought, even in one session I could actually see this will make a difference... even if that difference will take a year or two to really take shape and sustain.

My sports therapist, an Aussie, had a similarly helpful, if blunter response: "you need to work on your ass". Again we left the massage table, went to the gym, and he demonstrated a bunch of exercises to do. He wrote out a list, with diagrams, that I should repeat, 3 times a week.

Neither of them would accept payment for these sessions; they both were so keen to help me improve; to encourage me to work on the big picture.

Coaching
I had a good balanced, enthusiastic and wonderfully supportive introduction to triathlon by my coach John Dargie. He encouraged attention to detail and the processes involved, and to have respect and commitment for the sport, but not to take it too seriously at the same time. However, in September, I made the difficult decision to work with another coach. I'm now being coached by Toby Jameson of Driven To Tri.

That change has meant adjusting to a slightly different approach, with different training sessions, in a different routine and a big change of communication being online or via phone, not in person. So there's been a settling-in period of communicating and of understanding how best to make the sessions work for me.

We looked at what I've done so far and agreed that I have good base endurance: I could happily swim, bike and run all day long. What I lack is more in the way of strength, power and speed. So our first priority is to work on building up my raw strength, then we'll look at power, which will give the speed. We're looking at a long term picture to implement this, but obviously have to do what we can in the short term for the late season race I'd already entered: Ironman Cozumel.

Training
In swimming, I've stopped going to club sessions, focusing instead on my own ironman specific training sessions. The downside of this is that my training has been less social, but it has felt really beneficial to focus solely on what I need to do. I'm spending a lot more time in the pool, with most sessions taking me around 1h 30 - 1hr 40 to complete.

I've also been getting some help with my swim technique from Vicky Begg, who not only is an awesome swimmer herself, but has a brilliant knack for spotting exactly what's wrong with someone else's technique and is able to explain how to improve it. One of the most insightful sessions was when Vicky said "let me get in and imitate what it is you do". Turns out my left arm was barely contributing, and neither arm made the most of gripping the water, catching every ounce of power. Several hours practice have been spent on little details, like the angle my right wrist adopts just after it hits the water. This too will be a slow process to sustain the newly improved technique, but it's definitely getting there.

On the bike, we've been slightly ignoring data and focusing on getting a feel for the effort level and good pedalling technique, pushing some big gears to build up some strength.

In running, the focus has been on safely building up the volume and doing more hills and off road running, again, to build up my strength.

Some weeks training time has been hijacked by work or life in general, but overall, training has been going well. I've gone for physio visits recently just for check ups, rather than the usual "waaaa, please fix me, I broke myself!". He's delighted and said that this is my body adjusting to the training volume, which I should embrace!

Challenge: travel
One of the main challenges to training in these last few months has been maintaining consistency with training when there isn't much consistency with anything else.

In the 17.5 weeks since Switzerland, I've been away from home for 9.5 weeks.

Things that you take for granted at home, like a local swimming pool, can be difficult to find, or travel to, when you're at a conference or on site with a client. Opening hours don't always cater for those who need to fit training in first thing in the morning. Eating well is also difficult when you don't have a kitchen to prepare meals, or easy access to buy good food. Annoyingly I've managed to gain a few extra kilos that I'll have to drag round the run course on Sunday.

It's an exciting time with work at the minute, and I'm grateful to have the opportunities to travel. It can get unsettling though, and I'm looking forward to keeping my feet on terra firma for a while soon.

And so to Cozumel
I was in the U.S. prior to the race, so travelled to Cozumel quite early, arriving 13 days before race day. I'm in a lucky position that, armed with laptop and an internet connection, I can continue my work from anywhere.

The trip got off to a stressful start, when the apartment I had booked (and paid in full) turned out to not be as described. Things like not being able to lock any of the 4 doors to the outside, the owner's cats free to roam through the property (and jumping up to eat my lunch!) and a bed that I didn't want to spend a single night in... led me to hit the road, in the dark, and find an alternative. With the help of Trip Advisor and Google maps on my phone, I found the wonderful Coral Reef Inn. The Canadian owners, Leona and Jerry, showed me around their place and then drove round to collect all my luggage. Having to pay twice for accommodation was a highly annoying addition to an already expensive trip. Much as I would love to pursue my argument for getting a refund, I knew I couldn't dwell on the negative. I chose to focus on the fact that I was in a clean, safe and friendly environment and I had work to do.

And without further ado, or much sleep, the first full day on the island involved a 4hr bike, 40min run brick session. The bike course is not technical.

It's a flat, 3 lap course, on smooth roads. I see each lap as a square of: normal wind, headwind (ugh!), cross wind (yikes!), tailwind (yay!). One of my main practice points on the bike is really to ensure I drink enough, needing to up my intake of sports drink to around 1.5-2L per hour. Energy gels taste rank in the heat, but I'm trying to stick to my half a gel every half hour of that too, without being sick.

Cozumel
Cozumel is a wonderful place to do a race like this. The race must bring a welcome boost to the island economy, but more than that, the locals seem to hold a reverence for the athletes. Even from the immigration desk at the airport, every local has asked about the race: some shake your hand and wish you good luck. I was waiting outside a shop the other day, dressed in my race gear, about to go out on the bike when I caught sight of two men pointing cameras in my general direction. I ducked out of their way, so I wouldn't ruin the shot of whatever was behind me. Much to my embarrassment, it turned out they wanted to take a photo of ME! "Ironman? Yes?" They wanted to know how I liked the course and wished me the best of luck for Sunday.

Restaurants have banners out to welcome the athletes, many shops advertise discounts for the athletes, the national park (where the swim will take place) manager has waived the entrance fee for us. Given that during training, in many locations, we're often treated as a nuisance, it is especially lovely to be given such a warm welcome.

Fear

For my first swim practice, I stood at the water's edge here for some time. So much time, in fact, that I attracted the concern of an American builder, working nearby. "You know it's pretty hard to sink?", he stated. I assured him I was fine, just a little nervous. Obviously I couldn't leave then, so I got in the water, swam about 10m out, realised I was barely breathing, treaded water until I was, swam back. "Is that it?!", demands my spectator. Ugh. I go back out and practice a few deep water starts. I'm just not ready to swim out today. "What are you scared of?", he asks. I try to explain that it's not the fear of drowning that stops me in my tracks. It's more a fear of the the sheer vastness of the ocean; the landscape underwater; the cold spots you swim through; the dark areas you swim over; the fish, whose home I may be intruding into.

"You're doing the Ironman?", he asks. "Uh huh". "Well, you've got a week to get over that!". This is true.

I've been considering this obstacle. I know I can't simply ignore my fear, as that would create more negative energy. I am aware my fear is irrational. It's not like this fear is based on skills shortage, unlike say my fear of hurtling down hairpin bends on a bike. I'm not fast, but I am a competent swimmer. I spent most of my summers, as a teenager, playing on surf skis, surfboards, even just swimming in the big-ish surf in Cornwall. I love being on the surface of the water. Looking under, not so much.

I've experienced it on a much weaker level in previous lake swims, but it's much more pronounced here, in the vast and visible sea. I asked the advice of some triathlon friends, and experts, and they all advised the same: focus on your technique. My mum (once a hippie, always a hippie) also offered the advice to think that the universe, and this ocean, is there to support me; think of it as my ally.

So on my second swim out here, I set out briefly acknowledging my uneasy feelings, but then dismissing them, and focusing inwards on my technique, my processes: the things I can control (not least being the thoughts inside my head). I managed to do this, maybe just for 10m at a time, but I left satisfied with that as progress.

Before my third swim, I lucked out in meeting up with English athlete Emma English. We've enjoyed meeting up for dinner, having some hilarious chats and going over the minutiae of race day preparations.


On Tuesday we went for a swim practice together at the official swim location, Chakanaab Park. I'd had three days now of reflecting on my fears and felt totally mentally prepared. We did a running jump off the end of the pier, and swam about half of the course. Stopping briefly every now and then, with Emma checking, bless her, if I was OK. I was totally fine - I just completely focused on my technique and getting a feel for the water. I got a little fright when we swam past an enclosure of dolphins, where the ground below went very dark. Paused for few seconds, caught my breath, and away we went. Before finishing up, I shouted over to Emma, "Hey, could we do a bit where you try and beat up me?", "Sure! Love to!"... and so we mimicked the hussle and tussle of an open water race start; get bashed and keep on going.

On Wednesday I went to the local bike repair shop (Bicicross on 30th Ave), to avoid looking for help or waiting around too much at the official expo. When I say 'bike', it was more for scooters, so my Cervelo P2 was treated with some bemusement and a lot of care. I only knew enough Spanish to ask for the chain and cassette to be cleaned and greased. The facilities might have been basic, but the parts were put back on the bike gleaming and running smooth!

Goals
A few weeks ago I was concerned that I hadn't done enough preparation, particularly on the bike. Those thoughts aren't helpful to me now. Since the last attempt, I have another ~15 weeks averaging around 17 hours a week of training under my belt.

I wanted to write this update now, before the race, to empty these thoughts out as separate to whatever happens on race day. I do feel there's unfinished business to take care of; I deeply want to finish this race. I'm grateful to have a lot of wonderful support back home, and from friends dotted around the world, especially when I'm nearly five thousand miles away from home.

I have committed myself to the goal of becoming a better athlete, so I see this race as just one day, albeit an important one, on that journey. I am exited about it, because this is the time to put all that hard work into play, to race not just train, to have supporters cheer us on through the long hours and to enjoy totally immersing myself in that experience.

I'm not at a stage where I'm aiming for a specific time and I'm nowhere near hoping for a placement in my age-group. My aim is to have my race and to finish knowing that I gave it everything.

With three days to go now to the race, the physical work is done. I've also been doing my mental preparation homework. I've put pen to paper for:

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With the aim that not only is the hard work already done, but all the decisions have been made. I want to wake up and approach the race with a clear mind and focused heart.

I am number 2349. I have done the work. I am ready.

Photo by www.peggydyer.com, taken at mountain rb