At long last… Ironman Cozumel

I first entered an Ironman in 2018, Mt Tremblant Quebec, but when I qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships that became the priority and withdrew. 2019 I raced 70.3 distance. 2020 I entered Ironman St George and Ironman Canada only for both to be cancelled by Covid. Finally I would be lining up for my first Ironman on the hot and windy island of Cozumel.

Initially I had entered the Los Cabos 70.3 (west coast of Mexico) but as the timing didn’t line up with Lauren’s holiday I switched to the full in Cozumel. Our plan was a week relaxing/studying by the pool in the sun for Lauren while I pottered around training and preparing. In reality the weather was atrocious, overcast mixed with thunderstorms. On top of this a change in her schedule meant she had to leave the day before the race. While this was disappointing there was a silver lining, she didn’t have to worry about me in person and I didn’t have to worry about her worrying about me!

Over the week I managed to dodge most of the storms to squeeze in my training and the rest of the time was spent with my feet up!

Pre-Race:

Training went well with the exception of a puncture on my first ride. I have had an awful year with races and flats and just hoped that was my one for this week out the way.

The only prerace drama involved the power meter on my bike which I had run flat on the indoor trainer. Finding small batteries proved impossible on Cozumel but luckily, I asked around and another athlete (Eric) offered to buy some in the US and bring them. Yet another example of how friendly/helpful the triathlon community is.

Registration and set up went smoothly allowing me to relax and do some training with Enrico (met in Daytona) and Derek (tri-club teammate from Vancouver). The hardest thing was time. It went so slowly. I was just sitting around waiting for this big event and it never seemed to arrive. After what felt like an eternity it was Saturday evening and tomorrow was the big day!

Expectations:

Having analysed previous years, I had set rough goals of: 1hour swim (down current so fast), 5-5:30 bike, sub 3:30 marathon. That would put me in the sub 10 club and probably in the top 10 in my age group. However, this year it would be harder as normally its 1500 people and there were 2800 starters.

The unknown of course was I have never done an Ironman before. So, I had no idea what would happen or how I would feel after about 150km on the bike and 25km on the run. That unknown combined with the fact about 1 in 10 don’t finish an Ironman (varies from 28% hard race to 2% easy) and nutrition being notoriously difficult to manage meant it could easily take hours longer than planned! It happens to the professionals, so it can happen to me!

Race Morning:

I woke at 3:30 to a gale and heavy rain. For once I slept ahead of a race but avoiding the puddles on the way to breakfast was not the morale booster I needed. However, post breakfast it had stopped raining but was still windy. It was becoming clear we were going to have rain, wind, sun and repeat all day.

The Shuttle to T1 was great, the chaos at T1 was not! There were so many people, not enough pumps and it was raining again. When they started calling swimmers for under and hour to board a shuttle to the start, I was still hunting a pump. Eventually I found a Canadian close by who had a pump, and I was set. In the rush to get ready and get away I forgot to fill up my hydration system. Not a good start to what would be a long and hot day!

I ran to the shuttles as 1hr 50 swimmers were being called. I was stressed but through the chaos I managed to get myself to the front of a queue and a seat on a bus. On disembarking we emerged into a full monsoon, I was soaked through in seconds. I dropped my prerace bag and walked the 5 minutes to the start.

One last toilet stop. Couple of points to mention here: Firstly, the prerace had been chaos but there were plenty of portaloos, normally it is the other way round. Secondly, in Mexico you don’t seem to get toilet roll in the portaloo, there is someone outside who gives you some. Pre start this wasn’t an issue and thankfully during the race I didn’t need to go but I heard a number of people had a pretty unpleasant experience on the run when tummy issues aren’t uncommon!

Anyway, in the end I made it to the 1hr swim time with too much time to spare which allowed the nerves to build. I met a nice Danish guy and amongst the 2800 other people I ended up standing next to Enrico. A small world.

We walked down the pier together and I had started my first Ironman.

Swim:

It was my first out of water start and I jumped in, I didn’t trust my goggles to stay on if I dived. Instantly I could tell current was under us. The water was crystal clear with the coral and fish providing a nice distraction. There were also scuba divers under the course buoys. Anything that helps break up the monotony.

I found a nice rhythm while always keeping something in the tank for the long day ahead. I don’t track my swim so had no idea how I was doing regarding distance or time as I made my way along the shoreline.

It was a point-to-point swim with a square pier at the far end we passed before exiting. As I approached the pier, I was happy the swim was nearly over when the water started to get busier, I thought because we were funnelling together. In reality we had hit a strong eddie, I assume caused by the pier, and suddenly I was making very little progress. Luckily, I had kept some reserves and used it for a 100m surge to break out and turn the final corner.

It was good to be finished and my gut feeling was positive for a first attempt but there was no time to dwell on that. I needed to go find my bike.

It wasn’t my best transition, mostly because despite the rain I had to sun cream up. If the sun came out for 6 hours things could get bad!! Finally, sun creamed up and bike ready I headed for the exit of T1.

There was one final obstacle. The speed bump at the exit had been painted which combined with the heavy rain meant it acted like an ice rink! Volunteers and supporters where shouting at everyone to slow down but this is a race. I took it as fast as I dared and survived but I could feel how slippery it was and people will have fallen!

Bike:

My mount was good, but it took a while to get my shoes done up. As soon as I was ready it was time for the first and one of the only corners on the course. I took it gingerly as there was paint and rain, a deadly combination. Some poor person had already punctured and was working on a repair.

I came out the corner and was finally on the power, into the aero position, quick sip of water and mentally preparing for the next 5-6hrs.

I quickly moved through the field and not many people were coming from behind which just emphasises what I already know – I need to work on my swim!!

At the first aid station I tried to fill my nutrition system but the toggle to pull the blocker broke which meant I couldn’t fill it. I run with the hydration system, an aero water bottle which can’t be replaced and one normal water bottle. The hydration system breaking meant I was down to two bottles on my bike, one of which I couldn’t replace. No need to panic but I would need to stay very focussed on nutrition strategy especially if it got hot as liquid and salt intake are vitally important!

The rest of the first lap went by without much to report. We were cycling through showers, but my speed didn’t drop on the back of the island so clearly no wind. Just had to make hay while the sun was shining (although importantly not actually shining at this point).

This seems a good time to talk punctures. I saw my first 100m into the bike and that theme continued for the rest of the day, they were everywhere! The rain no doubt made it worse, but I heard of people getting 3 or 4. Part of this would be people not changing them correctly but for whatever reason there were more than there should have been, and the support mechanics were overwhelmed. I was one of the lucky ones who escaped that issue, but the joy of an Ironman is there are so many you can’t escape them all. There is no such thing as the perfect race.

By the end of the first lap groups of riders were starting to form which made it really hard not to benefit from drafting. I tried my best to stay 12m back and overtake if got close but with 2800 riders on a 60km loop it is almost impossible.

The race plan had been to ease up with a tailwind, keeping an eye on 40kph, then pushing harder into a head wind. On the first lap I was averaging high 30’s and had been consistent throughout. No head wind to be found (plenty of rain though) and I was flying.

On the second lap the group had grown but it exploded at each aid station before regrouping. I don’t really know what anyone could do. The officials would have to penalise everyone. I did see quite a few people in the penalty tent, so they were handing out penalties. For athletes riding hard and dropping the group isn’t really possible but being at the back of a large group even at 12m gives a big benefit so people don’t get dropped.

I would say for the most part people made their best effort not to draft, but there were some exceptions who would just sit right on peoples wheels the whole time. I hope they got what they deserved! If I ever get someone do that to me, I will definitely pee on them!

At the start of my second lap my nutrition challenge got harder. As I took my aero bottle out the lid popped off and was gone. This meant I had to take in 1hr’s worth of salt and carbohydrate in one go. Two downsides to this. Firstly, it made me feel quite sick and secondly, I wouldn’t absorb it all. Not good as I was probably already behind on nutrition. One upside was I now had another bottle that was open I could pour my salt sachets in to and add water. Every cloud and all that!

In the second half of the 2nd lap, I started to feel my left glute hurting from fatigue. All I could do was keep taking on salt and carbs and hope it held up.

The weather had also deteriorated. Still no wind but torrential rain. This made the trip through town sketchy as large puddles had formed and weren’t draining. When I signed up for a race in Mexico I did not expecct to be riding through 4inch puddles of water!

I missed the worse of the rain but this was the part of the bike course!

My glute recovered slightly as I went in to the third lap, but my back was starting to get a bit sore from so much time hunched over. As I approached the last 20km I eased up slightly. My speed was still high, and I was on track for a super quick time and didn’t feel the need to take risks.

This was the right call as in the last 5km I started to cramp on the bike. My nutrition complications almost certainly catching up with me. Luckily, because it was so flat, I could still maintain a high speed to the end of the bike but was really having to manage my body.

Just before T2 I bumped into Eric (brought me the batteries from USA). He had a Di2 issue so had been stuck in the same gear for the whole race. Of all the courses for this to happen on this is probably the best but still would have been awful. He was soldiering on. Something always goes wrong in an Ironman, and you just have to roll with the punches.

I completed the bike in 4 42 which was so far ahead of expectations. Assuming a 1hr swim I didn’t even need to run that well to go sub 10 hrs.

However, it wasn’t going to be easy, highlighted by how gingerly I got off my bike and trotted in to T2. Here I encountered a problem. I couldn’t put my shoes on without a cramping fit and I wasn’t the only athlete I could see having this issue! I couldn’t see how I was going to run a marathon when I couldn’t even put my shoes on! Eventually I succeeded in getting my shoes on and hobbled off on what would be my first ever marathon.

Run:

As it turned out my running legs came to me quickly and the cramps disappeared. I took on a gel and some water and I was on to my favourite leg and feeling good.

Within a few km I was running in sync with an older guy. We were eating up the competition, working together at aid stations to make sure we both got what we needed. Having company helped distract me from the challenge ahead and how much it was in to the unknown.

My running companion and I continued to the 7km turn around where I had to let him go despite his encouragement to stick with him. My longest run to date was 25km so I was being cautious to make sure I was still going strong in the last 10km.

On the 7km back to town I slowed by about 15s a km but was still feeling pretty strong. During this loop the running conditions were perfect, but I could see and hear serious thunder and lightening over the bike course. Most importantly there was still no wind!

By 16km my quads, which had been the main cramp dissidents, were beginning to feel heavy and tight which lead to a further reduction in pace but I otherwise I was holding up pretty well.

At 18km though I was in trouble. My left knee started to hurt. I know the injury and running through it wouldn’t do damage, but it gets increasingly painful. I started to walk through aid stations to rest it before running again but the walks gradually got longer. At the turn, halfway, I was just walking. Morale was low as I still had 21km to go and my competitive race was over, but I hadn’t come all this way for a DNF. I was finishing! Walking was pain free so I just accepted this would be how my race would finish.

It was a long lonely 7km walk to the start of the final loop. The crowd would support and cheer me on. I tried a couple of times, but I just couldn’t run. It was pretty soul destroying. would have no idea why I would have dropped off the tracker.

Shortly after the start of the final loop an American guy caught me also walking. We got chatting, he was on his second lap but his plan had been walk running. This made me refocus and I realized I might be able to go under 11hrs (still very respectable) if I managed 8min/km and I was walking at 10. So, I started walking faster. I should have done this earlier rather than plodding but you can only learn from your mistakes. Then I ran for a bit until my knee said no. By this time lots of people were walking/running and everyone was encouraging each other.

Additionally, I passed Enrico and Derek a number of times so got and gave a good cheer which was great for morale. I also saw Anna (Derek’s girlfriend) which was great, and she was providing updates to Lauren who passed them on to the family, so that was a weight lifted.

Despite my form being awful when I was running my pace was still strong, I just couldn’t maintain it before I was in agony again. I almost collapsed a couple of times as weirdly the worst movement was switching from run to walk.

Feeling the pain!!

One issue I hadn’t foreseen for a number of reasons was sore feet. You would think this would be expected after 180km of biking and 21km of running but this wasn’t the cause. My feet had now been wet for 9hrs without a break. The unforeseen consequence of this was my skin had pruned and softened so every step hurt the bottom of my feet. The race is meant to be hot and windy but calm and wet provided plenty of its own challenges even it was surprisingly fast.

As I made the final turn for home morale was up. 7km to go which I had already walked. The ratio of running to walking increased but my form was completely shot. I did my best to keep my left leg straight while running to hold off the pain. With 2km to go a guy called Jesse ran past me while I was walking and told me to run so I did. He proceeded to drag me to the finish chute, passing me things from the aid station as I just wanted to finish with the best time possible. I wasn’t able to stay with him in the last 200m and had to walk again.

As you enter the finish chute, they have a table of national flags. After a bit of confusion, I was on my way across the line with a union jack to here those infamous words: “Richie, you are an Ironman!”

Post-Race:

While it hadn’t been the perfect race, I had completed my first Ironman and achieved one of my goals and finished in daylight!

I wanted to go to the medical tent to check I was ok, hydration and salt rather than knee related, but I wasn’t allowed in. In their defence I had seen a number of people collapsed on the course, being given IVs in ambulances and in wheelchairs at the finish. I could walk so took myself off through the finish where I was given a finishing bag. This contained some very disappointing food and my finisher medal.

Lauren had to leave the day before for work which meant I was alone at the finish. I collected my finishers shirt and found a spot to sit, recover and eat the food I was able to get down.

I was in a bit of a weird mood. I was completely drained but not fatigued in the way I had expected as when the race had started to get hard my efforts had been curtailed. I just sat on the grass mustering the energy to get up, collect my bike/kit and get a taxi back to the hotel. As dark was coming in, I finally made the move as I knew with the sun gone, I would struggle even more.

My body hurt which made the simple things hard but eventually I was collapsed back at my hotel. I showered, dinnered and took my bike apart as had a flight the next morning. With all the admin sorted I then lay back on my bed knowing I would sleep soon and reflected on the last 18 hours.

Result:

10:19:56 – 52nd 30-35, 357 male, 412 overall. Swim 52:36 (56th in 30-25) Bike 4:43:58 (16th) Run 4:36:51 52nd.

This result combined with my two half Ironman’s this year meant I was 5th in the UK 30-35 Ironman rankings. This doesn’t mean much given the broken race schedule but without the punctures and knee injury I would have been 2nd.

How had I done:

For the most part I was very happy. The swim has to be ignored as 52 is what professionals normally swim. The bike was awesome and to be 16th after my two weaker disciplines at the first attempt in a large field was great and for the most part my body held up well. I knew I was short on running going in and disappointed I didn’t get the chance to run well, but my fitness and pace felt good until the mechanics broke down. At least it wasn’t a fitness failure and once corrected I will come back stronger.

Had I enjoyed it:

I think so. I prefer the half distance and for the full going forward I want to have people there to support as it is a really hard/long day! The spare hands pre and post race are just as valuable as the cheers. The weather had been a blessing and a curse. No sunburn and no wind but just being wet for that long is not enjoyable.

Race review:

To be honest I was very disappointed and won’t be racing in Cozumel again. The actual course to race on was great but everything around the event can only be described as cheap and poorly run. Some of it can be put down to covid but the majority can’t. Some examples: too many racers, no loo roll in portaloos, finisher t shirt ruined after 1 wash, poor quality race bag, food disappointing.

I expect a lot better from Ironman given the cost of entry. However, one thing that didn’t disappoint was how friendly the locals were. They were always helpful and did everything with a smile which made the week a lot more enjoyable.

What’s next:

2022 is big year with Ironman World Championships in Utah in May, Ironman 70.3 Victoria in May, Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in June, Victoria half triathlon in July and Ironman Penticton in August. There are a lot of exciting goals but first I have to resolve a niggling foot injury or while 2022 will be a big year of races the goals may be more of maintenance.

The journey continues….

2 thoughts on “At long last… Ironman Cozumel

  1. Wonderful, colourful, impressive account. So courageous throughout, and especially at the end. Well done. I wish we could have been there to support you. I wonder when or whether you will know when you have achieved your goal! Your persistence is amazing. Respect!!!
    Best,
    John and Dee

    Like

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