Ironman Cozumel: Part 2

Race day morning
Up at 3:30, had porridge for breakfast and all felt well. The owner at my inn drove me to the swim start, at 5:15am, as they didn't want me to risk ordering a potentially unreliable cab.

Transition was really well organised, with colour coded volunteer t-shirts waiting in buses ready to take our green and yellow special needs bags for the bike and run. People typically store some extra nutrition in these bags, which can be collected around the half way point on the course.

I found my bike, and Emma and Nigel in transition. They helped me check the air in my tyres and we noticed a problem with my front tyre: it had gone a bit soft, and wasn't taking air in. With 40 minutes to go to the swim start, and being pretty slow to change a puncture at the best of times, I took the wheel off and ran round to the bike mechanic stand, with a spare tube. He tried to change it, but said the tube was faulty and wasn't taking air either. (When I say 'say', I mean with stress and my poor Spanish, this was more of a sign language conversation.) Clock ticking, I ran back to my bike and lifted my second, and last, spare tube. I was getting pretty nervous, as I ride a small bike with 650c wheels (as opposed to the vast majority of others with 700c). Many bike shops in major cities don't stock this size, so the thought of running out of spare tubes was pretty scary - would I be stopped before I even got started?! Thankfully this tube seemed to work OK, and I ran back and put the wheel on. Going through my two spare tubes before even leaving transition was pretty scary, if I punctured now on the course I would be in trouble. But there was nothing else could be done now, and it was time to make our way round to the swim start.

The beat of music got faster and the volume louder as the swim start approached. Waiting for the pros to start, they played something like a heartbeat sound, which was a little too similar to the Jaws tune for my liking! Bang! And the pros were off to huge cheers. Now it was time for the 2400 age groupers to get in the sea, for our deep water start. For those who haven't experienced a triathlon open water start, imagine something like this, but with elbows:
[caption id="attachment_277" align="alignleft" width="440" caption="Dryad & Sprite Photography"][/caption]

Emma and I managed to get a good position underneath the pier, to the right of the tightest course loop but only about six bodies from the front. We all treaded water, waiting for everyone to get in the water before the 7am start. As the crowd got bigger and denser, it still looked like we had a good spot - there were an awful lot of people behind us, but we were tucked away slightly from the main sprawl, so hopefully wouldn't get too badly battered. I focused on breathing calmly and generally using up as little energy as possible while we waited. The horn finally blew and we were off.

It was much denser than any race I've done before. Just before the start, Emma gave me a tip that it would probably be like a boxing match for the first hundred metres or so, but that it would then calm down. Also, if I felt someone start to grab my legs or swim over me, just to kick like mad to warn them off. It was and I did. In fact, this is probably a very good reason to work on those hard effort kick sessions in the pool!

Those first few hundred metres were pretty exhausting as I kicked, dodged arms, protected my own head, tried to breath in air, not water... all sometimes more successfully than others. My coach, Toby, had reminded me to keep internalising my thoughts, no matter what goes on around me, keep focused on what I am doing with my body and my mind. And of course then it did start to calm down, as people found their own rhythm, pace and a little bit of space.

A certain amount of tussle is perfectly manageable, but being submerged or swam over is not much fun. I went forward with the mentality that this is my race too, this is my space, enter my core body space and I will kick or elbow you. So with that forcefield in place, I got into my rhythm and focused on turning over my arms. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. The first stretch was against the current, but it didn't feel that noticeable. On the long stretch back, which would have been with some help from the current, the next buoy wasn't quite so noticeable and I managed to veer inwards too much. In that mass of people, if you find yourself swimming with a lot of space around you, and your name isn't Andy Potts, you're probably off course! I sighted the buoy and got back on course, managing to draft on a few feet along the way. Only ever managed to draft for about 10 metres or so; it seemed like no-one could really swim in a straight line! Arms Keavy, arms! Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. On we went and finally reached the last turn. Slight crash at the turn when the swimmer in front of me decided to stop dead and pose for the scuba diver cameraman beneath us. Seriously, stopped and struck a two thumbs up pose for the camera. "Relax, roll with it, race", I reminded myself of this good mantra I was given. It was a brilliant sight to sight against the transition tent beyond the finish point, and to know I'd almost just done the ironman swim!

Grabbed my bike gear bag and ran into the change tent. A lovely volunteer helped pull off my swim skin, and pull on my vest (I wore my tri shorts and sports bra under the swim skin, which saved a lot of time and hassle, top tip, thanks Emma.). Bike shoes, arm protectors and helmet on... ran round to find my bike, and away we went...

The first few hundred metres I was nervously waiting to see were the tyres OK. Nothing exploded, phew! First 15 minutes or so were just trying to settle after the swim, a few sips to get rid of the taste of the salt water, then started with the nutrition routine of half a gel every half hour, glug glug glug of my Go drink every ten minutes or so.

The bike course is flat, which might sound easy, but it means there's no real variation to your body position or movement on the bike, no real relief. I felt good and worked hard but steady on my first lap. Then I'd used up the three bottles of Go that I could carry, and had to start taking the Gatorade from the aid stations. I didn't feel unwell, but I had a sensation from about the two hour mark on the bike, where I always felt on the verge of vomiting. There was a strange mix of willing the gel and drink to go down, but also thinking maybe it would be good if I do just vomit, get this feeling over and done with.

I'd put two applications of P20 sun protection on in the morning, which is meant to have excellent water resistance and last for ten hours. On the second lap, I could feel my shoulders were getting burnt and was relieved to get to the 97km point and the special needs station. When I stopped moving, the heat suddenly felt immense and certainly stronger than any of the practice laps I'd done. A volunteer covered me in sunscreen and gave a welcome shoulder and leg rub as they did. I reloaded my bento box with gels from my special needs bag, although discarded my own risotto rice balls: despite loving them in training, somehow today they just didn't taste good.

There were a few unexpected pains. I started getting sharp pain on the edges of my feet. When that discomfort increased so much that it was distracting, I remember trying to comfort them by saying "don't worry, just one more lap of the bike, then you'll be out of these cycling shoes". In the altered universe of Ironman, the prospect of running a marathon can seem like an appealing release! From talking to other athletes after the race, I learned that this could have been just from the heat, but it didn't occur to me to simply pour cold water over them at the time.

Onto the third lap, and again without much variation on the course itself, the focus was on breaking down the time by my nutrition routine. I was surprised (given how well everything else was organised) and annoyed that the aid stations had now run out of Gatorade, so the only drink was water, in quite small bottles. A little water was refreshing, and I thought might help my still present "I'm going to vomit... actually no I'm not" feeling, but it's just not enough, we need those electrolytes!

At around 130km I knew the backs of my shoulders were burning up. None of the regular aid stations held sun screen, so I'd have to wait until reaching the special needs station again at 160km. I caught sight of a spectator putting sunscreen on her kids, stopped and asked if I could have some too. Kindly, she obliged.

Hitting the last straight stretch of the course was a good feeling, the one stretch where you couldn't feel the wind and even I could enjoy that wonderful feeling of me and the bike... just working! Passing 170km I had a smile on my face: now beyond the point I'd been stopped at in Zurich. The last few kilometres was into the town, and the main spectator area on the bike course, so it was great to enjoy the cheering, rattling and shouts of "Vamos chica!".

Off with the cycling shoes. Off with the arm UV protectors, as the sun was about to set and I wanted my skin to breath. On with running socks and shoes, visor and fuel belt. A volunteer applied more sun screen, vaseline all round my neck and shoulder straps where I had some cuts, and mosquito repellent. And off...

First few hundred metres felt really good! Woohoo! I'm running! In an Ironman!

I usually run at 6:15min/km pace. I'd been advised to run the first 25km around 6:30, and only then pick it up a notch, if I could. My strategy for the run... which I've noticed triathletes always refer to as 'the run', as opposed to non-athletes who will say 'the MARATHON!!'. Anyway, my strategy was to split the run into 5km laps: I would run for 5km, then walk 50m or so as I took some of my Go drink and some Fuel Shots and start a fresh lap. Always picking a point (a tree say) in advance where I must restart running. I had done this for my 3hr run in training and it worked well for me. So all I had to do was run eight, and a little bit, of those sets.

It didn't take long for the fatigue of almost eight hours on the bike to kick in. The backs of my shoulders had been really badly burnt on the bike, and the discomfort both in the movement of swinging my arms and the sensitivity to the now cooling air was pretty high. I passed an athlete with an artificial lower leg and reminded myself to focus on the positives.

I roughly managed to run for the first 20km, albeit at a slower pace. I was aware I was probably dehydrated from the last lap of the bike, but feeling unsettled I didn't take any more nutrition on at first on the run. What had been in my system conveniently decided to make a swift exit at a portaloo equipped aid station around the 6km mark. I couldn't stomach any more sports drink or gels. I was meant to stay off the coke until around half way, but it was the only thing that appealed. I then took two glugs of coke and some water at every other aid station or so (there were a lot of aid stations on the run). It might not have been the best nutrition, but this was really all I felt like taking on.

The support on the run provided such a welcome relief from the pain of doing it. The downtown area was pretty busy, with a mixture of friends and family of athletes and locals. Further along the course some families had obviously decided to make a party night out of the event and had loudspeakers out and were dancing away outside. You wanted to run better as you passed these people. A word of warning though, don't high five a child unless you're prepared to high five every single child in the stretch, or be prepared to hear some cry if you don't!

One of the pains that came on quite early on the run was on the balls of my feet. I learned later that this is partly from the heat, coming from the road that has been soaking up the sun all day. Again, it didn't occur to me to pour water on my feet to cool them down, or maybe I thought running in wet socks would cause additional problems, I can't remember. I do remember the mental state being intense, constantly. I have never, not on the most miserable or difficult of training days, or the half ironman races, experienced anything quite so bad. I'm aware that your mind can tell you stories, what it thinks is in your best interest to hear. So my mind was saying "this is INSANE!... You're in pain!... Why?!... Please just stop!" But I know too that your heart tells you the truth. So I had a fairly constant mind/heart/body battle going on, and would have to really try and go with the heart: do I want this? Do I want this enough?

I was getting so despondent about my pace, and what felt like my total inability to perform as I'd trained. I was crying for a few kilometres around the 23km mark. I ran past Emma, who had finished but was very kindly now spectating and waiting for me to finish. She ran along beside me for a few metres and reminded me to relax and take it easy, the important thing to remember was that I had enough time to finish, whether I ran or walked now. That was great advice, because really at least I was on the run and I would finish. There was simply no way I would voluntarily stop, not after Switzerland. It was all about breaking the remaining time into manageable chunks.

Beyond the 25km mark, I could no longer run for the 5km blocks. I'd start a block and be craving to stop before even 1km had passed. I'd negotiate with myself that I could stop and walk every other aid station, but soon I'd stop just when the aid station came into sight. Every stride was painful on the soles of my feet. It also didn't actually help to stop and walk; walking was more painful. That just seemed like some twisted evil logic. But that was the reality: walking seemed to emphasize how exhausted my legs were; they'd start to buckle occasionally under the change in posture, the different use of muscles. Around the 30-35km stretch in particular, I'm not sure whether the activity I was doing could be called running. It was slightly faster than the people who were walking, but I'm not sure I was lifting my feet much off the ground.

I noticed maybe five people getting taken off the run course by ambulance, or on the back of a marshall's scooter. I saw about the same lying by the side of the road, awaiting medical attention. I did feel grateful that no serious problems appeared on my run, particularly as I passed the 30km mark, which was unchartered territory for me.

The volunteers manning the aid stations were fantastic. Mostly teenagers, they had plentiful supplies and enthusiastically offered 'Agua? Coca? Gatorade?!'... you could almost hear a 'dammit take something!'. They also had banana halves, slices of oranges, peanuts, pretzels (occasionally grabbed a few of those). Vaseline, which I eventually stopped and lathered around my ankle where the timing chip was cutting the skin, and my wrist where the weight of my watch had become troublesome. Mosquito repellent, of which I tried all 3 brands, which at least built up a layer of gunk on my skin that was more difficult to penetrate.

The approach to turn for the third and final lap was difficult. Those turning and those finishing run down the same channel of supporters, and the supporter's have no idea what stage you're at so enthusiastically cheer and want to high five you. With another 14km to go, I wished I was invisible; it seemed so ungrateful to not respond but all my energy was being used to focus on turning and tackling that last lap.

The last lap was slower, the discomfort increased, but it felt easier: only seven 2km stretches to go! Once that final turn was made, with only 7km to go, I persuaded myself to really try not to walk: not only was it slow, but it just felt awful. At least shuffling forward, I was in a vaguely similar posture and could imagine I was still running; so I could then focus on the same processes I would if I was, well, properly running.

I managed that for around 3km, then walked (like a new born foal) for a few hundred metres to gather myself for the last stretch, now in sight. As the last 4km along the promenade had spectators present, I really wanted to be able to sustain a run past them. In our race briefing, the organiser had made a point of saying how excited the people on the island were about the race, to try to remember that, thank them (a simple thumbs up went down really well) and give them a performance to enjoy. And so I chugged into a last shuffle-run-thing down the promenade. A man shouted, "Thank you for coming to Cozumel" and I nearly choked up... "Thank you for having us!" I shouted back.

About 1km to go, Emma, Nigel and Allison were in the middle of the road cheering me on. Whoop! Whoop! Apparently I had a big smile on my face and was starting to move. Half a km to go and the crowd was maybe four people deep on either side of the barriers, the noise was immense.

It made me think of that scene in Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman gets the shot of adrenalin... I suddenly felt light as a feather and started to properly run to that finish line. I ran with my thumbs up to the crowd, and got a few high fives along the way. My best pace was recorded at this point, being 4:46 min/km. I could see myself on the big screens approaching the line, and the voice boomed out: "All the way from Ireland... Keavy McMinn... you are an Ironman!". Thank fuck for that!

Finish area
When I crossed the line, a medical support man offered me a bottle of water. I took it in my hand but couldn't lift it to my mouth. My legs felt like they were going to buckle. The man supported my weight while he asked me some questions (I can't even remember what). Someone put a medal around my neck. The man said he didn't think I needed medical help, but I should get some help in the recovery area. He supported me there, nice and slooowly, and placed me in a seat until a sports therapist was free.

I decided I wanted to just get back to my room, so started walking to find the exit. As I got stuck, trying to negotiate a three inch step, a woman from the Red Cross, grabbed me and supported me back round and straight to a massage table. The therapist was extremely patient and gentle, with my every movement taking an age. My feet felt the worst, so she gave those a gentle rub and tugged my legs out. Super light rub over my legs, a kiss on my sunburnt shoulder blades and a kind whisper in my ear that I would be OK.

When I got back to my room, there were two very noticeable things: my shoulder blades were very badly sunburnt and I stank. To remedy the second, I needed to slide two tight tops over the burn. This was plain awkward and felt like pulling broken glass over my skin. As I was stuck with the vest around the tops of my shoulders, I considered just cutting the top off. I wondered if I'd still be able to buy a replacement, as I'm rather fond of that top. Decision was made by the fact that there were no scissors in the room, so a few deep breathes and tugs on the out breath later and I was free.

I opened my laptop to contact my friends and family, let everyone know that I'd finished, and was welcomed by 98 tweets from friends, work mates and even relative strangers from my work field had been tracking my progress and wishing me well. I think Lar put this very nicely:

Thank you.

I had a set of text messages from friends who were concerned that something terrible had happened, again, as I'd apparently gone AWOL on the athlete tracker for some six hours after my first bike split. For those friends who knew my struggles with the first attempt, and the general journey, well, I was delighted that they were delighted! I got a lovely message from one friend who said, "I think we could have pushed you around by sheer will from here". At the risk of sounding totally cheesy, knowing that support exists seriously does help push you around. I was so grateful for the all the lovely support, it really, really helped.

Although I was very relieved to have finished, in my exhausted state, my initial emotion was a huge wave of disappointment. I can understand how this seems daft, as Kelly Jeanne said:

It's not that I'd had a target time to achieve for the race, although I did have estimates of how long each discipline should ideally have taken me, and that added up to around 14-14.5 hrs. I didn't really care about the number 15:13, but there was a huge gap in how I thought I could have performed and how I actually did. It was massively frustrating to simply not feel able to run, on the run. I knew for sure that I'd given my best on the day, but was frustrated and disappointed that my best, on the bike and run was... well, kinda crap.

I was in so much physical discomfort that I only managed three hours sleep that night, which obviously didn't help. The next day, some chats with experienced athletes helped me understand the situation better. I can see now that it was unrealistic to think I could do the run at my normal pace, on my first ironman, in a hot climate. Apparently a lot of the experienced, and even the professional, athletes found the conditions here made for a really tough race.

Some numbers
Swim (2.4 miles/3.8km): 1hr 25mins*
T1: 9mins
Bike(112 miles/180km): 7hrs 50mins
T2: 6mins
Run (26 miles/42km): 5hrs 41mins
Total (greater than the sum of its parts): 15hrs 13mins

* A 22 minute improvement on my swim in Switzerland in July, albeit we had some current here and my navigation was a mess and I felt sick there. I am really, really pleased with my swim performance.

72 women in my age group entered the race. 15 did not start. 6 did not finish. I placed 46th amongst the 51 who did.

(Some of the) Lessons learned
It's only been a couple of days since the finish, but my initial thoughts are:

If I'm out on the bike, in a hot sun, for close to eight hours, no amount of sunscreen, on those areas constantly facing the sun, seems to be enough for me. I will need to cover up with clothing.

The bike remains my biggest limiter, and I'm sure working on that will be a big focus for 2011. But as my coach reminded me the morning after the race, there's plenty of time for analysis, for now get some R&R.

I can get through a busy ocean swim. I can really be part of the race in the swim and enjoy it.

Mexico is an awesome place to do an Ironman. A seriously well organised event, with just wonderful, helpful volunteers and enthusiastic supporters.

At the awards ceremony, Andy Potts (first male finisher) talked about his approach to racing ironman - that you know there will be problems, you just don't know what they are before you start. I liked his point, when he said to all of us, "you maximised the good moments; that's why you got to become an Ironman".

Plans for 2011 are still to be made properly, but I will certainly try to maximise the good moments.