Saturday, December 5, 2009

Memories of the Mosquito Coast: Cozumel 2009


This year was, by design, my last "Ironman push" for a little while. Heading into 2009, I'd been racing IM for three years already and training for IM for four years, since summer 2005. In fact, I'd done -- and have done -- more Ironman triathlons than sprints and Olympics combined. Over the last few years, I'd had fun, especially with the bike part of training, and my swim had come along nicely. But my overall times weren't coming down much; my iron-distance PR had come in my very first race, the 2006 ChesapeakeMan, and my half-distance PR had come in 2007.
The lack of progress had gotten a little frustrating. It's one thing to enjoy the lifestyle, which I do, and the people, whom I do very much. But I've always been competitive and goal-driven, so it was de-motivational to invest the sweat equity without seeing concrete results out there on the course. At IMWI in 2007, I'd gotten severely motion-sick in the swim, perhaps due in part to caffeine overdosing, and had thrown up five times in the swim, and again right in front of the wetsuit strippers. Not quite the start to the day I'd intended. At IMUSA 2008, the same thing had happened. In neither race did I put in a run to speak of, which was perplexing given that my "road race" results for running were pretty good, including a couple of 1:07 Cherry Blossoms. In fact, in 2008, even my cycling times were slower than they were in 2007, despite upgrading from my old aluminum Cervelo P2SL to a new Specialized S-Works. So this year I decided to do everything I could to change things around and have a successful year, with the idea that, come what may, I'd shift my focus for 2010 and leave Ironman alone for a little while. I sold the Specialized, on which I'd always felt sluggish, and instead got my now-familiar green Elite Razor Carbon. And I started working individually with Ken Meirke, figuring that, if anyone could exorcise my running demons, he could.
Heading into Ironman Cozumel, the results had been mixed. I knew my running form had improved, but I blew up badly in the Austin Marathon's heat and hills, finishing around 3:50. The Cherry Blossom had gone better, with a 1:06 (PR). My May of Insanity (in five weekends, 3 half-ironman races, the Mountains of Misery Double Metric ride with 14,000 feet of climbing, and a century ride/20-mile run weekend) had pushed me to new levels of exhaustion. I'd even taken a week off of work in June to put in a 400-mile bike week, an adventure that culminated in being caught riding a disc wheel, in the middle of nowhere, in the most violent electrical storm I'd ever witnessed. (FYI: It turns out that lightning makes a distinct fizzing sound and shoots off showers of sparks). After all that, I thought I'd done what I needed to to PR at IMUSA, but the opposite happened: another sick swim, a massive bonk on the bike, and my slowest IM finish to date. Argh! (Down, pirates, down!)

But I still had Cozumel at which to bounce back, and I did the best I could this fall to stay amped up for it, and to bang out the training after the setback at Placid. It was tough at times, but I stayed reasonably diligent, including throwing in a 3-week race block of Savageman Half bike relay/ChesapeakeMan Aquavelo/Bassman Half, all of which went decently. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon as a workout, not a race, and still PR'd by a solid 15 minutes with a 3:33. Most important, I went to IMFL to cheer, and found the atmosphere electric and contagious. You guys were so inspirational that I couldn't wait to launch myself into the fight at Cozumel.
In short, heading into Cozumel, I was healthy, well-rested, and had every reason for optimism. I was aiming for 10:30, and thought a 10-hour performance wasn't out of the question if only I could run in a race the way anything like I did in training. My main concern was that, with it being the FIRST Ironman Cozumel, logistical snafus were possible, perhaps even likely; I had visions of the American competitors scurrying from bush to bush on the run course, hands clutching their butts, trying to outrun Montezuma. Or maybe all of the gels would be tequila flavored and include a little worm. Who knew?

I flew to Cozumel on Wednesday, and the flight was quick and low-stress. The the boarding area in Dallas, though was quite ascene: the passenger list comprised primarily deeply tan guys with wicking visors and less body hair than the women they were with. I figured that, in case of an emergency water landing, we'd do better than the average crowd, but that a good number would likely get eaten by staying strictly within Zone 2 while swimming away from the sharks.

Although the flight to Cozumel wasn't long, stepping off the plane revealed how far I'd come in climate terms. I know it's probably hard to believe for my legions of adoring groupies, but in real life I'm a big nerd and wear glasses, and those glasses fogged over within about five seconds of leaving the plane. The humidity was like a suffocating pillow, and looking around at the Cozumel airport, it resembled something out of Indiana Jones -- not much by way of airplanes, but plenty of guys with machine guns wandering around. (They did not, at least, appear to be Nazis.) And, most oddly for a tropical island renowned for its gentle ocean breezes and moderate temperatures, it looked like The Nothing had just rolled through. Everything and everyone was soaked to the gills and debris was strewn about. In fact, even *inside* the airport, there were squads of crack flood-control specialists desperately trying to push huge puddles of standing water into open grates in the floor. How that much water got inside the terminal was a bit of a mystery -- the ceilings weren't wet -- until a couple of us realized that the runways had cunningly been crowned so that the water ran off directly into... oops. We had plenty of time to fathom the potential implications for race organization while the one customs guy on duty grew increasingly skeptical that, oh sure, everyone just so happened to be traveling with a bicycle whose case we preferred he not open.
Eventually I located a van-style taxi big enough for my bike box, and we made our way to my hotel, which was located up the coast about four miles -- the precise four miles that comprised the run course, it turns out. On the drive, the water on the road was standing so deep that at places it crested the center of the hubcaps on the van. Apparently, that very morning, an epically violent storm really *had* rolled through, bringing winds near 70 mph and pretty much shutting down the whole city. By then it had moved on, but the winds had remained: they were blowing at 25-30 mph constantly, with gusts up to 50 mph. The postcard-perfect beaches were most emphatically closed and had the red warning flags to prove it, not that it was tempting to swim in the muddied and rip-current-infested waters in any case. "Tomorrow will be better," I thought, as I fell asleep to the sound of wind howling loudly at the window.

Tomorrow wasn't better. Tomorrow was not better at all. Tomorrow was a malicious, taunting thing. I awoke to the sound of wind howling, but I'd agreed to ride a 40-mile loop of the bike course with a friend of mine, so I set about putting the bike together. Everything was there... except a skewer for my front wheel. The expo wasn't until the next day and I was four miles from town, so I briefly thought of trying to ride the bike very gently down the road sans skewer, in search of a bike shop. Thankfully I wasn't quite that dumb. I next seized on the idea of trying to zip-tying the tines of my fork together against the hub of the wheel, and was right proud of my MacGyver-ness until it occurred to me that the zip-tie would have to go through the hub and then... back up and over and then... through the spokes... which would mean... Oof. Yeah, I knew that. :-) Thankfully, my friend just happened to have an extra front skewer I could use. Who carries around an extra front skewer, anyway? But thank God. We headed out.


The bike course passed through downtown Cozumel, which struck us as very tourist-friendly, I guess you could say. And during the 2-3 mile stretch through the town, the coastal road was paved with a sort of concrete with an ornate pattern carved into it: The carvings looked like birds. But to bike tires, they felt a little like rumble strips. We noted that it could make parts of the race course tricky, but thought we could deal with it. What we couldn't deal with was a series of 6" deep, 12"-wide trenches that spanned the entire road, and which we encountered going a little faster than we should have. The first one seemed like an unfortunate road repair that we desperately hoped would be fixed, but by the fourth and fifth, it felt like a damned conspiracy to maim the gringos. Finally we realized what was going on: They were frantically removing speedbumps by hand in advance of the race. That struck us as a pretty reasonable thing to do -- if, perhaps, with the assistance of some road signs or something -- so we picked our way through the wreckage and continued on.

We encountered a squad of guys quickly painting the curbs along the course. "That looks pretty good!" we thought. Then we encountered another squad of guys, painting the trees.

The bike course is almost 3 complete loops (40, 40, and 31 miles respectively), that start on the east side of Cozumel island, run south along the coast, then up along the east coast of the island, and finally cutting across the center back to the start. Normally the wind comes cutting across from the northeast, meaning you get blasted when you're on the back stretch of each loop, which is uninhabited. But due to the unusual weather system, the winds were coming from the west, so the loop didn't seem bad at all. There are really cool "blowhole" geologic formations along the east coast of the island, which causes giant jets of water to shoot straight up 20-30 feet whenever a wave crashes against the shore. It was pretty neat.

Overall, we thought the course was pretty reasonable if a little windy in places, and could lend itself to some fast times. If only we'd heard God snickering.


Expo Day! I'd decided to get a new cassette for my rear wheel -- maybe an 11/23 or 12/23 instead of my existing 12/27, because I found on the practice ride that I often wanted to be between my existing gears. So I headed to the expo to get registered, get a cassette, and stock up on race-day essentials. I'd been to several Ironman expos, and they always have everything on earth you could need, most stuff you could want, and lots of stuff I wouldn't think anyone could ever want.

But those were North American expos. The Cozumel race expo reminded me a little of how Canadians are portrayed in South Park Everything was just a little... off. For one thing, the race mechanical support was a guy on the sidewalk outside with a toolbox. For another, the biggest share of floorspace in the expo was consumed not with triathlon needs, but with Mexican triathlon art. Some of it was pretty cool. All of it was pretty expensive. And none of it was the cassette I wanted, so I went to the guys selling tubes and tires and asked where I could get one. They looked at me in confusion, so I assumed the word for "cassette" was different in Spanish. Turns out that wasn't it at all: They understood me just fine, but were confused as to why I thought they'd be selling such a thing. No one else knew of anyone who had any for sale. To this day, I'm not sure how anyone buys a bike in Cozumel, because apparently cassettes simply don't exist there.

I decided I'd just ride the cassette I had and suck up the bad gear ratios, and instead decided to ensure I had enough electrolytes. Except... yeah. None of those either. Sigh. Not like this is an
Ironman in the tropics or anything. I was able to buy a pretty nice bike jersey, after overcoming the salesman who tried to convince me that they simply hadn't ordered any sizes other than small and extra small.

Discerning that things weren't going my way, I picked up my race materials and neon orange "ATLHETE" [sic] wristband, and headed back to my hotel. The race gave out pretty cool fleece jackets as swag, which was pretty neat, even if they were cut a little paunchy. Moving on from admiring that, though, I noticed that they hadn't included in my materials any special needs or gear bags. Ruh roh.

Back at the hotel, I tried to relax out on the beach, but the driving winds made it simply painful to be outside with the blowing sands. For the second night in a row, I fell asleep to the sound of it
whipping through the gaps between the doors.

I awoke to the sound of howling winds. "Oh, come the heck on," I thought. This was the third day in a row it had been like that, and again, the beaches were closed. The pre-race swim was canceled due to winds and raging currents. Red flags on the shores, and no one was outdoors. The only difference is that, this day, there were whitecaps on the waves as far as the eye could see. It was extremely difficult to believe that it I was in any sort of paradise, and I asked the guys at the front desk whether that is just how the winds were there. "It's funny," they answered, "but whenever Cozumel hosts a big event, this always seems to happen!" I continued to hope things would get a little less funny by race day, which was looming ever larger, like a big looming thing. Whenever I checked the weather online (, accuweather, and everything else), they assured me that Cozumel was presently experiencing clement breezes of of 8-10 mph,

with gusts up to 12. Then I'd wander outside and literally have to lean forward and push with my quads while holding my hat on in order to make any progress. It felt like a mild form of insanity.

That night was the pre-race meeting, which was well done in that it was short and to the point. Bassman could take something from their book. And afterward, they had special gifts for the competitors: Gear bags! Things were looking up!

And the winds howled.


I awoke to a strange sound. Subtle, but definitely there. Rising and falling... WAVES. I could hear waves! And, more to the point, I couldn't hear wind! Apparently the system had blown itself on out, and the result was the much-rumored tropical paradise where I'd planned to spend a week. The main task of the day was bike check-in, which was at Chankanaab, a national park some ten miles from the host hotels. In a nice touch, the race chartered commercial buses to pick people and their bikes up at the race hotels, drive them to Chankanaab, and bring them back.

Check-in was a breeze, and I hung out in the sunshine for thirty minutes or so, watching people swim with the dolphins in an enclosure right next to where the swim would start and end. Just that moment, I couldn't understand why anyone would do an Ironman not in Cozumel.

The rest of the day, I re-read Once a Runner (perhaps trying to motivate myself on that front!), ate a lot, drank infinitely less than I wanted to, and generally kept off my feet. Got to sleep early,about 9:30, looking forward to a terrific day. I felt perfect!


I often get serious cases of raceday nerves; in fact, the problem's gotten worse in the last couple of years. It's not fear of finishing but rather, I think, the anticipation of a hard and painful effort, and the expectations I have going into it. In any case, I've lately had a lot of trouble eating the morning of races without winding up very sick just before the race and during the swim.

My solution to this in Cozumel was to eat less than I had in the past, to spread out my calories over time, and to keep things very simple. For breakfast, some v8 juice with saltines, peanut butter, and honey. No coffee. On the bus to the starting area, I slowly munched my way through a small can of Pringles, and drank water with a little bit of Carbo Pro in it. And it worked!!! Not a shred of nausea. Part of it may have been that, perversely, I was *looking forward* to the swim, which is rare for me, and rarer still for an Ironman event. I wasn't anticipating the rubber-suit, can't-see-anything rugby-scrum experience that most IM swim starts entail. Whatever the reason, it was the first time in a long time that I'd felt really good heading into the swim.

The transition area was sprawling, and very nice. Instead of one big square area, it was a parking lot with lots of little paths and sections, and the race organizers had put great grass-like mats everywhere so that it was the best of all possible worlds. The only real snafu was the porta-jon situation. For 2,000 athletes, they had six jons in the transition area. And each of those had two rolls of paper in it. Doing the math, it wasn't pretty, and I mean that literally. I managed to score the last four squares of paper available, but by then, the line was still about 200 people long. I bet the bushes got well fertilized that morning.

One low-level stressor at Cozumel that was different from most IM's is that we had no access to our gear bags the morning of the race. In addition, we couldn't have anything loose on our bikes or on the ground next to them. It made planning more of a challenge, and I forgot one thing: my fuel-belt vial full of SaltStick electrolyte capsules. I stuffed that in my bento box, then wandered down to the swim start as the Mexican National Anthem blared away.

On my way to the water, I had a moment of dejection, because I'd forgotten the earplugs I brought to try out (along with Bonine, it was my latest attempt to help the nausea issues). But as I got toward the water, the guy right next to me finished putting his own earplugs in and had one left, which he spontaneously offered me. Score! This really was to be my day, I thought. The last of the toilet paper *and* an offer of earplugs!

THE SWIM (PR: 1:01, Goal: 1:05-1:07)

The daybreak was just perfect: sunny skies and 70 degrees. And the water in Cozumel was even more perfect -- crystal blue and clearer than a swimming pool, with Nemo and his brightly colored friends flitting about. The swim was a one-loop rectangle that was essentially smashed against the western shore of the island. We'd start just off a dock, swim north into the current for about 1/4 mile, out into the ocean for 100 yards or so, then straight south with the current for 1.25 miles, then head in toward shore, and back north against the current for another 3/4 mile.

The "dock" that was the beginning and ending point was really more like a very large square pier, and in the center of the pier was the famous Cozumel "swim with dolphins" attraction. So, as we walked along the dock to the far end along the boardwalk, we could literally look left and right and see dolphins cavorting around and chirping at us. Once we jumped off the pier and got situated, we could duck under the water, look to our right, and see the dolphins looking back at us through the mesh net that contained them. They sounded as excited as we were about the whole thing.

This was the first ocean swim I'd ever done, and also the first non-wetsuit IM swim I'd done. I got a Zoot Speedsuit, which seemed comfortable and non-restricting, and the water was a balmy 81 degrees. It's really difficult to describe how happy people were to be there: While we waited for the gun, people were ducking underwater and swimming around, watching the fish in the coral below us. It couldn't have been further from the typical murky lake experience.

My goal was about 1:05 for the swim. I'd gone 1:02 and 1:01, respectively, at IMUSA the last two years, but that swim is notoriously fast; the waters are calm, it's wetsuit-legal, and that white underwater cable makes swimming off-course a non-issue. I figured that the salt water buoyancy would help offset the loss of the wetsuit somewhat, but it wasn't realistic to predict I'd be quite as fast in an ocean swim as I had been at Placid. A 1:05, I thought, would be just dandy.

I seeded myself about three rows back and, when the gun went off, charged north into the current. I concentrated on keeping my elbows high and trying to catch as much water as I could with each pull, and sought the feeling of launching myself forward with each stroke while keeping my head low. And I felt just terrific. The speedsuit, which had no arms, was comfortable as all hell, and I *loved* the unrestricted sensation in my shoulders and torso. It was like swimming in a pool but just much, much nicer. Instead of looking down into the murk and entertaining oneself with whatever thoughts, I could pretend I was snorkeling, and just remembered to sight every now and then to keep going in the right direction. Not a single person touched me in the first 200 yards of the swim, which I think must be unheard of in an IM mass start. But things were so clear that everyone could just keep their heads down and maneuver.

I rounded the top of the course and headed south with the current. That "hot corner" was the only congested place on the course, but even then, it was a snap to avoid pummeling. We could see where the buoys were from 50+ yards off because we could clearly see the ropes that were anchoring them to the bottom of the ocean, and each one had a diver right next to it, camped out on the bottom watching us. Because we weren't hyper-floaty from wetsuits, it was easy to dive down a bit to flailing arms and legs.

The long backstretch of the swim, which was current-assisted, was just remarkable. At one point we passed right over a field of starfish on the bottom, maybe 30 feet down, in the middle of which were a couple of stingrays peacefully resting. Every now and then we would pass through bands of colder water (maybe 5-8 degrees cooler), which instantly turned everything blurry in a fascinating way: the blurriness appeared to be caused by the different water temperatures swirling around each other below us, so things appeared not foggy so much as fractured and tumultuous. Then, we'd hit a wall of warm water and things would be perfectly clear again.

I felt like I was moving along pretty well, and did everything I could to take advantage of the conditions. The remarkable clarity of the water made drafting as easy as it would be in a pool, so I'd hold on to a pair of feet for 100 yards or so, then see another group up ahead and bridge up to them, and sit in some more as I watched the fish. I only needed to sight once every 200 yards or so, because it was simple to see the packs of swimmers' feet up ahead.

Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my usual queasiness to set in. It just didn't happen. Maybe it was the Bonine; the clear water; the non-buoyant speedsuit; or something else. But I felt just great, and powered ahead.
Rounding the third and fourth turns to head back north, we looped around The Atlantis, a submarine on which tourists can take rides around the coral reefs. It's not often spectators get an underwater view of the swimmers in a race!

Finally, we headed back north into the current. I still felt amazingly good; my suit was chafing around my neck a bit because I'd stupidly thought I didn't need Body Glide, but otherwise I would have been very happy to go around for another loop. I had no sense of what my time was, but regardless I felt like I executed the swim perfectly. As we neared the dock again, we were greeted with schools of bright blue fish swirling around below us. One big old fish that must have weighed five pounds swam lazily right next to me for twenty yards or so, watching the proceedings. All told, Cozumel must be the most spectacular swim in the triathlon world. I don't know what else could possibly be in the conversation.

I climbed back onto the dock slowly, making sure that I didn't send my head spinning as I'd done at Placid, but again -- I felt great. I walked/jogged lazily the 100+ yards along the dock to the timing mats, looking around for a race clock (I wasn't wearing I watch), but I didn't see one. Finally, as I crossed the mats and was grabbing my bike gear bag, I heard the announcer say, "We're still under 55 minutes! Great swims so far!"

Uh... under 55 minutes? I'd never even done a half in sub-30. I wasn't sure what to think -- sure, we'd had some current in our favor, but also against us going the other direction. Was the course short? I didn't know. It didn't feel short.

FINAL TIME: 54:49 (PR, obviously, and probably forever) (AG rank 37/~200). Given the run to the timing mat, I probably left the water in 53:XX. The fact that 36 people in my age group beat my ridiculous time suggests something was up with the course, but I was hardly complaining -- I'd swam exactly the way I wanted to, and intelligently; my time was what it was. Regardless what the explanation is, I will say this: from now on, the Lane 1 swim jocks at practice had damn well better say "Get out of my way, SIR!" when lapping me. :-) Oh yes, there will be trash talking.

THE BIKE (PR 5:26; Goal 5:20)

I expected a lot of myself on this bike course. It was supposed to be flat and windy, but in the notoriously windy conditions at the ChesapeakeMan AquaVelo in September, I'd been on a sub-5:15 pace until I had a mechanical late on. And that was with no pre-race taper at all. I saw no reason why, properly rested, I couldn't get in around 5:20 with plenty of snap in my legs for the run.

My nutrition plan was a new one, but was straightforward. I loaded up my bento box with 11 gels. On the half-hours, I'd take a plain one. On the hours, I'd take one with flavor and caffeine. The goal was to keep things simple and not too sweet. I used one of the new Profile Design aerolite drink systems between the bars for water. The gels would only get me 200 calories an hour, and had little by way electrolytes; to solve those problems, I used an aerodynamic seat tube bottle full of V8 juice with a couple of scoops of Carbo Pro.

It turns out that V8 juice is just about the perfect thing for hot weather. It tastes great warm, like vegetable soup, and each 8-ounce serving has more sodium and potassium than two Salt Stick tablets (and about as much as ten Endurolyte tablets). The taste of it also cuts right through the sugary build-up you get when you're eating gels all day. I had one bottle of V8 on my bike and another in special needs. I also had a backup plan, which was a fuel belt flip-top pill bottle full of Salt Stick tablets, which I shoved into the pocket on my bike shorts.


The first loop was 39.5 miles, and it started heading south along the west side of the island. We had the wind at our backs, although it was partially blocked by trees. The pavement was terrific, and I was feeling on top of the world. I passed about 20 people in the first five miles, holding stead at 190-200 watts, which is high Z2. Speed up near 24 mph.

Mile 6: The first aid station. They had aid stations every 6 miles, which was great. But they were a little bit of bedlam, because they were staffed largely by kids, and these kids had never seen a triathlon, much less been in one. I rode through the station just behind two other guys, but stayed left because I didn't need anything. The ground was already soaked, with bottles and tops strewn everywhere -- not a good sign for the very beginning of the race. The guy in front of me tried to grab a bottle of water (bike bottle style) from a girl who looked about ten. He was going about 10 mph, but missed the bottle entirely because she moved at the last second. He then went for the next bottle in front of him, but the girl volunteering was so determined to help him that she sprinted after him for a few feet and then tried to fling the bottle full of water forward into his outstretched hand. Needless to say, she missed, and it clattered to the ground in front of his bike, causing him to swerve and miss the next bottle as well. As I rode by him, he was shaking his head with a baffled "What the hell just happened?" expression on his face.

Mile 10: We rounded the south side of the island and headed north, into the wind. It was blowing to the southwest, at about 20 mph. My speed dropped from 23+ to about 18 as I kept my wattage constant and my head down. The road also turned from nice smooth tarmac to much rougher, undulating chip-seal -- this part is of the course is definitely not flat -- which sapped our speed even further. The east side of Cozumel island is basically uninhabited wilderness, and the wind really whips in off the ocean, causing massive waves big enough to surf in to come crashing ashore. The blowholes were shooting water skyward like geysers, so much that we were getting peppered with spray. The road was about 50 yards from the ocean, up on a raised
embankment probably 10 feet above sea level. To our east was the ocean; to our west was nothing but scrub brush for miles. In other words, we were the highest thing around, fully exposed to the sun and wind for a full 15 miles as we plowed northward. Still, the waves were pretty to watch, and I was reeling people in steadily.

Mile 20: My nutrition plan is going great, with the alternating gels and carb-spiked V8 juice sitting very well with my stomach. I decided to add a couple of Salt Stick capsules from the bottle in my pocket... but it's fallen out somewhere. Sigh. I hoped the V8 juice would be enough for electrolytes (the course was serving only *regular* Gatorade, not Gatorade Endurance, and Gatorade makes me ill in races). As it turns out this would become a real issue.

Mile 30: We speed through the city of Cozumel for the first of three times. There are great crowds, all of whom are shouting "Gravel! Gravel!" In alarm, I slow down and look for the gravel, but see nothing, so I accelerate. Still, more cries of "Gravel!" An odd way to encourage someone, I pondered. I figured out only much later that they were yelling "Vamos!" Ah. *Ahem* Yeah, I knew that.

Mile 39: We whip back south, over a couple of speed humps that they somehow missed, and with a slight wind benefit charged into lap 2. (The "wind aided" sections of the course, unfortunately, were largely between trees, while the into-the-wind sections were out in the great wide open). Average speed of 20.4 for the first loop. About 0.6 miles slower than I wanted to be, but my wattage was right where I wanted it, so I resolved to take what the course would give me.


Mile 50: Now things were heating up, into the high 70s, and the sun was in full force. It was also very muggy; even at 20+ mph, in Zone 2, I was dripping sweat from my nose. Imagine being on a trainer next to the pool at swim practice. The nutrition was still going really well -- the V8 juice was the best tasting stuff I'd ever had during a race -- and my legs felt strong. I'd nudged my average speed back up over 21 mph, then we hit the winds, and my progress dropped to 17 mph. The winds had picked up yet more, and I had to consciously lean hard to the right -- toward the shore -- in order to stay upright. It was a fight to stay in control. "Only 15 miles of this stuff," I thought, trying to be optimistic. But it's harder, because I know full well the desolate pain that lies in store.

Mile 61: I'm out of V8 juice, and need my special needs bag, which was supposed to be exactly halfway through the course. But there are no special needs bags at mile 61. Hmm. Head down, pedals churning, plowing into the wind. 16 mph.

Mile 65: I find the special needs bags, which are stacked up on tables near the side of the road. I pull up and call out my number, but no one is listening. The volunteers all seem to be looking for something. After 30 seconds, one of them turns to me, and I yell "292!" He wanders to one of the long tables, which is covered with about 200 bags, and he starts looking through them, one by one. After a couple of minutes he returns to me and says, "Does your bag have anything on it so we can tell what it is?" I said, "Well, it has my race number." He started poking through bags again. Sensing this was going nowhere, I climb off my bike, lean it against a table, and start frantically digging through bags, which are in no particular order. Finally I find mine buried under a couple of others, grab my V8 and 5-hour energy, and charge off into the increasingly gusting winds. Fully 3:30 spent not moving. Damn frustrating. Average speed has dropped almost 0.5 mph while I was stopped. Apparently, later on, reports were that the ground was completely covered with discarded bags, and people were basically taking rest stops looking for their

Mile 67: I pass a local woman riding a beach cruiser along the side of the bike course, with traffic. She's sitting upright on her bike, which has the traditional wide handlebars, fenders, and huge knobby tires. She's clearly having a hard time with the wind, and isn't going much more than 5 mph. As I pull up, I see a race number on her back. Oh dear.

Mile 69: I pass five members Panamanian national triathlon team, as far as I can tell from their identical jerseys. They're fighting the diagonal winds by invoking a Tour-de-France worthy eschelon formation in their pelaton. Classy.

Mile 70: A song leaps into my head unbidden: It's Rush's "The Analog Kid," a song I haven't listened to in years. There's precedent for this. In the 2006 ChesapakeMan, I was happily buzzing along when -- for chrissakes -- "Step by Step" by New Kids on the Block started blaring in my brain, and wouldn't stop for a solid thirty miles. I hadn't heard that since middle school. I learned then that the mind does strange things in these events, and it's best to just go with it. In any case, "The Analog Kid" is a pretty great song for such an occasion, with a soaring chorus beginning "You move me, you move me...," which is about perfect for bombing down the road in the aerobars. I played every note of that song in my head for about twenty minutes, and felt like I was flying. Things were just perfect.

Mile 75: Toward the end of the second loop, as we were approaching town again, my average speed had increased to 20.7 mph despite the rest stop fiasco. Then, Rush left my head and my brother Jaron popped into it suddenly. Within thirty seconds I was smiling through the tears as I blew through town, to cries of "Gravel!" With a nod to Shakespeare, I resolved to indeed cry gravel, and let slip the dogs of war.


Mile 80: Okay, the ride was officially getting very old. The sun was in full blaze, the winds were 25-30 mph, and I was getting tired of gel. My feet were also on fire, having had no chance to coast at all in the entire ride. I was increasingly forced to stand in the pedals just to stretch my back.

Mile 90: We rounded the south part of the island, and plowed into the wind for the final time. Once more into the breach! By this time, the roads were pretty empty, and it took all the energy we had to navigate the aid stations safely. I went to pass a guy, and a gust of wind hit, nearly throwing him right into me. People are swerving trying to control their bikes while getting nutrition. We're all plowing into the gale at about 15 mph, leaning over to stay upright.

Mile 95: The beach is no longer beautiful. I no longer want to see waves with whitecaps crashing into the shore. The first loop was pretty. The second was background. But the third starts to feel distinctly like Groundhog Day, the movie, only each time we're doing things much worse. The landscape is desolate and stretches to infinity.

Mile 105: I pass two more people, with each pedal stroke setting the balls of my feet ablaze with pain. "I can't imagine how these guys are feeling," I thought. Not to mention the people on their second loops, who were looking distinctly despondent.

Mile 111.5: Whipping through town. Almost there! Another half mile, and I should be in just over 20 mph. (My GPS was consistently reading 1/2 mile shorter than the course markings).

Mile 112: Where is the dismount line?


Mile 113.5: Simply a diabolical ride. The volunteer waves me to the left, so I follow the cones and realize that he's sending me around again. No chance in hell. I cut through the cones to the dismount line.

FINAL TIME: 5:38:09 (19.87 mph) (AG Rank 21/~200). Ugh. Fully 18 minutes slower than my goal. I'd held a higher wattage than the notoriously windy ChesapeakeMan, and yet my time was 23 minutes slower. There was nothing remotely fast about the Cozumel bike course; in fact, mentally, it made Lake Placid look like a recovery ride. The tent in T2 contained a lot of bewildered-looking dudes who appeared to be asking what on earth just happened to them, and wondering what else this race would have in store. If only they knew.

THE RUN (PR: 4:36, Goal 4:00)

The run course was a 3-loop out-and-back along the coast. At the end of each loop, I knew, was my all-inclusive hotel, with bed and buffet. The possibilities seemed endless. :-) I'd been running very well lately, with a pretty effortless marathon PR in October, and coming off a flat bike ride, I thought I ought to be able to charge down the road successfully. But the air was so thick it felt like I was running through my V8 juice, and there was no shade in sight. I tried to keep it moving.


Mile 1: There are aid stations every 1k (0.6 miles) or so, which seems great, and generous. They're fully stocked with water, Gatorade (regular), Coke, powerbars, and gels. Finally, each one had several small cans of mosquito repellent. Hmmm...

Mile 2: My legs are burning and I'm dripping with sweat. I put chunks of ice under my hat, which feels alternately good, and like I'm getting an ice cream headache.

Mile 3: I'm run/walking. Dammit. I was just concentrating on getting my core temperature down, but this part of the course was completely shielded from the wind, and it felt like DC in August. Hot, sticky, and unrelenting. I wished I had the electrolyte pills that I'd dropped, but knew I had more V8 in my special needs bag, at least. In the meantime, I looked for salt at the next aid station  and discovered to my horror that they had... none at all. No electrolyte pills. No chicken broth. No pretzels. No crackers. Each station had two small tins of salted peanuts, which by then were strewn all over the ground. Oh dear crap.

The rest of loop 1, I ran from aid station to aid station as best I could, but my legs were in agony and tightening up rapidly. My 4-hour marathon goal seemed like a pipe dream. I was sucking down Coke and water, but what I really wanted was salt.


Mile 9: Only another half-loop to special needs, I thought. I saw Ed and Talia taking pictures and cheering, which was great! It's impossible to walk when those guys are around.

Mile 10: The aid stations were rapidly descending into what appeared to be war zones; the short loops meant that they were being bombarded constantly with two-way traffic. They quickly ran out of Coke. Then they ran out of Gatorade. The peanuts were long gone. Even the mosquito repellent had been snatched up. This race was starting to give off a distinctly Survivor-like vibe.

Mile 13: Calves cramping like rocks, my running stints were getting shorter and slower. Reaching the turn-around, I looked for the special needs bags, but saw nothing. I just wanted my freaking V8 juice, because it was the only source of electrolytes on the entire course, and I was caked with salt. It felt like we were hiking in the Everglades.

Mile 14: The swarms descended. I heard a buzzing in my ear, then saw one on my arm. The mosquitoes' race had begun, and their aid stations were fully stocked. There was not the slightest breeze to keep them off, and everywhere, people were swatting and clawing.  Here's a picture of my back taken the morning after the race:

Mile 16: Nearing the end of the second loop. There was still no sign of the special needs bags, yet we were almost 2/3 of the way through the run. None of the volunteers understood what I was even talking about. Honestly, I began to get very frustrated and discouraged. My race was falling apart in front of my eyes, and I just couldn't move forward. The swatting grew more vigorous.

Mile 17: A young-looking racer from Mexico, walking beside me, asks me in a despairing voice how far a marathon is. Suddenly, I feel better.


I'd finished two complete loops of the run course, and there were still no signs of the special needs bags. The aid stations were basically out of everything except water, gels, and powerbars, and I wasn't drinking the water because I was getting lightheaded and didn't want to risk hyponatremia. And, in truth, I was getting pretty darn angry. I'd trained my ass off for a year, and had executed a perfect race. I hadn't gotten sick, I'd stayed disciplined on my pacing and nutrition, but here I was, cramping up so badly that I had to stretch against a tree after every time I tried to run.

There's nothing more fundamental in a race than delivering what you promise, and providing the necessary nutrition to keep people moving forward safely. What we'd been promised in terms of run support was special needs bags halfway through each segment, and aid stations fully stocked with electrolytes. Yet here I was, 10 hours into the race, in incredibly hot, swamp-like conditions, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes while I searched desperately for my special-needs bag (the second special-needs fiasco of the race), and the volunteers at aid stations were running around, picking up water bottles off the ground, and dunking them in coolers to refill them. What the hell was going on? I guessed that a lot of people would require medical attention in very short order.

Mile 18: Finally, I found a volunteer who understood the term "special needs," and pointed down the road, toward the turnaround. Had I missed them there on the second loop? Was I that spaced out? I tried to pick up the pace to get there as quickly as I could, and found myself hopping to the curb as my calf locked up. Agony.

Mile 21: The turnaround, for the last time! Only 4.5 miles to go! Nope, no special needs here. The sun had gone down, and concerned citizens were standing outside my hotel with mosquito repellant they'd purchased themselves, dousing whomever wanted it. I said "yes, thank God!" and thanked them profusely. They said that some people were literally in tears because they were coated with mosquitoes and couldn't escape. Some paradise. I'm attaching a picture I took of my back the day after the race. Keep in mind that those bites occurred in the space of just over an hour.

Mile 22.5: I find the special needs drop, which is in a parking lot off the course. There are no signs, and no one else seems to have noticed it, or to have gotten their bags. No one is manning the area. The bags are tossed loosely into piles of 100. I briefly debate whether it's even worth it to stop, what with the finish line being in only 3.5 more miles. But, I realized, my goal time was a distant memory, and I might not reach the line at all if I didn't get some salt in me. So, I spent a few minutes sifting through them, and got my V8, which I was coming to think of as lifeblood. Then, I shuffled it on home, trying not to trip on the mounds of empty water bottles drifting across the road.

Mile 26: What a complex feeling. Joy, relief, and disappointment all rolled into one. And pride, too, for having executed the race as well as I knew how. It was my 5th Ironman finish line, and the last I planned to see for a little while. As I charged down the finish chute, I threw my head back and cruised across the line. It was over.

As I wandered through the finishing area, I wasn't feeling good. The medical tent was huge and looked a little inviting, to be honest, so I looked in. There were about 20 cots, all with guys looking dazed, and hooked up to IV drips. And the race still had 5.5 hours to run.

RUN TIME: 4:56:47, AG Rank ?/~400.
TOTAL TIME: 11:39:35, AG Rank 52/~400.


Well, I didn't get anywhere near Kona, or even within an hour of my goal time, despite a scandalous swim result. Once again, I didn't get it done on the run. I realized on the run course that, although I'm blessed with some amount of natural ability, the truth is that mentally I'm not very strong these days. Out there on the run course, knowing that I was in agony and my goal time was nowhere in sight, I searched desperately for a reason to keep running, when walking seemed both safer, given the conditions, and more enjoyable. I found that I couldn't come up with a good reason why I should. I have an incredible amount of respect for the guys on our team who regularly pull that off, including Chris, Sebastian, and Courtney (sub-4 at Arizona!). It's just impressive.

Part of it, to be sure, is due to the sweltering conditions, for which living in the north does nothing to prepare us. Despite the flat Cozumel course, the Kona qualifying times at Cozumel were slower than they were at Lake Placid. The race organization fell short at some very critical moments, and there appears to be a DNF rate for this race (or at least my age grou) of 15-20%, which is simply huge. I have to think that some number of those people probably wound up in a lot of trouble. But I'm not ready to use the conditions as an excuse; the winners also faced them, and part of me thinks I was too eager to use my frustration with the race support as an excuse not to push through the pain when I had the chance.

In any case, I think it's clear that I need to shift my priorities for a little while. I've discovered that I like motivating and encouraging others perhaps even more than I like racing myself, so I'm trying to do as much as I can to help the team do fun and useful things, and I'm moving into a little bit more of a leadership role. In terms of my own racing, for next year at least, I'm dropping down to the shorter distances and making a run at Age Group Nationals in Tuscaloosa. I'm looking forward to really putting in short, hard efforts that will shock my system in ways Ironman training just doesn't. Along the way, I'm determined to build up the mental toughness that you need to be successful at this game. I'm excited about that new challenge!

On the way back from Florida, I was talking to an effervescent BOPer who said she was surprised that the "A"-type racers on our team experience the frustration and pain that the newer athletes do. Well, I'm hear to tell you: As REM put it, Everybody Hurts. We all have our own reasons for, and methods of, overcoming the significant challenges we face in these events. But as Greg Lemond put it when asked whether the top professionals suffer less than average riders, "You never hurt less. You just go faster."

Somehow, despite my disappointment at the result in Cozumel and resolve to refocus for a little while, I continue to think there's some magic in the Ironman. You pass through almost the whole canon of human emotion in the course of a day: ecstasy, grief, perseverance, agony, sympathy, accomplishment, resolution. Hell, Ironman bike rides have evoked in me both New Kids on the Block songs and memories of my brother, who passed away a few years ago. There must be some magic in the mist, as Hollywood might put it. Everyone who's racing your first IM, you have a lot to look forward to.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pain in Placid

Last year at Lake Placid, I had a pretty disappointing race. It's not that my time (11:43) was terrible, but that it was a lot slower than I thought it should have been. That was due primarily to the run – I'd gotten bloated on the bike and hadn't been able to take in the calories I needed to, and by the time I got through T2, I had nothing left.

Since then, I've done a lot of different types of training: running with a weight vest, increased core work, riding PowerCranks at least once a week, and overhauling my running form. I've also kept up a pretty intense training schedule, including 3 HIM's and Mountains of Misery in the month of May. I wanted to get my time down around 10:30 this year, and I felt ready to do it.

My nutrition plan was geared around one ongoing problem I've had: in races, I tend to have a very upset stomach on the bike due to sea sickness during the swim. If you imagine severe motion sickness – that is, dizziness and nausea – you'll know how unappetizing gels can be. This year I decided to drink only water, take in salt, and eat Clif Shot Bloks, which I can tolerate forever in training rides.


The morning of the race, I felt good. Breakfast was saltines with peanut butter and honey, along with coffee, orange juice, and various supplements. I was relaxed and ready to go, and that sensation continued right through the swim start. I headed into the water with Iwan, who was in good cheer as usual, and I
dispensed some friendly advice before heading up to the starting line. I positioned myself about 3-4 rows behind the flags, and about 20 feet from the dock – in other words, in Washing Machine Ground Zero. Last year I swam 1:03, and this year I've been swimming both more quickly and more easily, so I thought I could keep up with the Joneses and fight my way to the cable, even if it meant dealing with some rough-and-tumble.


It went about how I expected, which is to say, it was very rough. I swam Tarzan for about 150 yards in order to keep my face away from people's feet and ensure that I didn't swallow half the lake. That's not a very efficient way to swim, but I didn't kick at all and I counted on the massive drafting to pull me along
a little bit also. One advantage of being around faster swimmers is that they're less likely to do stupid stuff like start flailing and breast kicking in the middle of a group of people, so I decided I had as much right to the cable as anyone else, and planted myself on it, even though it meant swimming under the large buoys half the time.

I didn't stop getting beaten up until I rounded the first corner, and suddenly, it was smooth sailing. I concentrated on driving and gliding with each stroke, although I also made an effort to increase my arm turnover rate slightly above what I do in the pool. Again, I reminded myself regularly not to kick much, and I alternated between 2-beat and no kick at all.

Finishing the first lap, I knew I was doing well, and the clock started with "29," so I was pretty happy. I jumped to my feet and charged across the timing mat, and was immediately hit with a surge of vertigo and stomach disquiet. I got it to calm down by diving back to horizontal in the water as quickly as I
could and just concentrated on keeping moving. The second loop was smooth sailing the whole way, except for a point where I got stuck behind three slightly slower swimmers who were spread across the water in front of me. I hung out and drafted for a bit before veering out wide to cruise around them.

I came out of the water in 1:01 (PR), which I was very happy with, and which was almost exactly what I'd predicted from my HIM swim times this year, which were usually 30 minutes and some seconds. Climbing out of the water and looking around for a spare stripper (ahem), I looked to my right and saw I was in the
company of greatness – Chris Wren and I had finished shoulder-to-shoulder! I didn't know if he was having a bad day or I was having a good one, but I chose to be optimistic and think the latter.

Once the wetsuit stripper helped me to my feet and I turned to run down the chute to T1, I lost it a bit. My inner ear was doing backflips, my stomach felt like it was trying to escape, and I was having trouble staying upright, much less running. I staggered into T1 and crashed into a chair, not sure how I was going to get up again, but after a couple of minutes I managed. Once again, I ran right next to Chris into the bike racks, then charged out the other side, hoping that sitting still on the bike would help my system settle down.


My system didn't settle down. I was riding comfortably in Zone 2 wattage going up the first climb out of town, but my legs were burning like I was doing a VO2 max test. That's not unusual for me, given my tendencies toward motion sickness coming out of the swim, but here it was particularly bad. I had planned to
start taking in calories every 20 minutes, but it was nearly an hour before I could even imagine starting on my Shot Bloks. Not ideal, I know, but gagging seemed even less appealing.

Just like last year, I rode comfortably within my capacity, which meant that people were passing me left and right – except on the descent, where I pushed 52 mph. At one point there were two race official motorcycles on the left side of the lane, and two cyclists on the right side of the lane, and they were all going about 15 mph slower than me, so I just yelled as loudly as I could and blew through the center of them all, hoping for the best. (Note to uncertain descenders – you don't have to go fast, but you *do* have to ride in a straight line if you're not going to hammer it.) Fortunately, everyone held their positions and I skimmed through unhindered.

The rest of the first lap went pretty uneventfully – I got passed a lot by people who were either stronger cyclists than me or who were going too hard, but my time (2:50) was exactly what I hoped it would be, to the minute. I saw Chris, Fabrice, and Iwan on the out-and-back, but no other Z's that I know of.

Finally, in the second loop, I started getting into a groove and feeling settled. I blew down the descent and cruised confidently along the road to Upper Jay, and now I was reeling in people right and left, and congratulating myself on my pacing. Unfortunately, I congratulated myself a little too soon, because just as I got to the end of the turnaround, I hit a wall the likes of which I've never experienced. Apparently my sea sickness on the first lap had sufficiently screwed up my system that I was out of calories, and the water and
salt I'd been drinking in hadn't been absorbing.

When I turned right in Wilmington and then left to start the climb back to Lake Placid, I knew I was in trouble – very serious trouble. My Z2 wattage normally peaks around 200, and I was able to go as high as 410 watts for a minute at the end of my most recent test. But on the last climb, I literally could not generate more than 150 watts, no matter how hard I pushed. To make matters worse, I was disoriented and woozy. I found myself weaving back and forth, and at times I couldn't even remember which direction to pull the gear shifter to make it easier to pedal. At one point I nearly ran into a guy because it didn't occur to me to brake. I tried to do the best I could by standing in the pedals to get up the minor grades, but as soon as I did, both quads locked up hard as rocks, and I nearly fell of the bike. Ultimately I thought I might have to sit
on the side of the road for a minute and then walk my bike the last ten miles, but I hoped my system would work itself out eventually.

I did manage to complete the ride, in 5:56 (nearly ten minutes slower than last year). As I passed the Z tent at the end of the second lap, I slowed down and tried to let people know not to expect me back on the run any time soon. As I got off the bike, I contemplated doing the "flying dismount" that I do at all races (leaving shoes on the bike and running barefoot), but I didn't trust myself not to fall over. So, I clopped around to T2 in my cycling shoes and plopped down in a chair, wondering if I'd ever get up.


I'd hoped to run 3:40-3:45, and I'd trained to do it. My slowest, worst HIM run this year would have gotten me in under a 3:35 pace, and I hadn't tapered at all for those. But when I got up and tried to run out of the tent, I knew I'd be lucky to finish the race. I couldn't run three steps without my quads locking up solid, and I wasn't walking straight, much less running. I moped my way down the first hill, at the bottom of which Chris came running past me. In fact, he apparently enjoyed doing that so much that he immediately ducked into a Porto-John just so he could run past me again two minutes later. :-) He tried to be encouraging but I told him I barely knew where I was, which was true – at every aid station I ate and drank everything I could get my hands on, just resolving to keep moving forward.

Eventually, I started getting a headache that got more severe with each passing mile, and I was trying to decide whether to check myself into the medical tent or just resolve to be out there until I finished the race, one way or another. I decided to finish, and not give them the chance to pull me out of the race against my will unless I couldn't stand up anymore. After six miles of trudging, I was able to start jogging lightly for brief stretches – pick a tree, run to it, then walk unsteadily for another 50 yards before trying it again. I kept up that charade of competence for the most painful 5:15 of my life.


A very disappointing race. I had my fitness nailed and was ready to go 10:30, or so I thought. But that plan ended in the time it took me to get from the water's edge to T1 – vertigo and nausea had set in, and didn't leave until I crossed the finish line.

It's hard to take anything very constructive from the race, except that the thing holding me back isn't fitness as much as my inner ear. I'm tired of getting out of the water at every race and either wobbling my way onto the bike or literally heaving in T1 on my hands and knees. I'm going to hit this problem with everything I can find, from earplugs to medication to exercises I found ( in which you give yourself light motion sickness every day for a couple of weeks until your body builds up a resistance.

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the next few months are a make-or-break for my tri career. My times in races haven't been bad, but I've spent 80% of the time in each one feeling like I could go into heaves at any moment, and I haven't had a HIM run yet this year in which I didn't wind up on my hands and knees at the side of the road at least three times. The bottom line is that puking is not fun, and IM races are hard enough without feeling woozy and disoriented the whole time. It's not enough to be fit and determined
if you can't take in calories without gagging.

I'm glad that a few people, at least, had a good race. I'm going to do as many open-water swim/bike combinations as I can for the next few months as I work through my problems – the solution might even require swimming without a wetsuit from now on. I'd hate to do that, but if it's a choice between giving up 3-5 minutes on the swim versus walking an entire marathon, it's an easy decision.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Remembering Jaron

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of TriDC Magazine.

When I remember my younger brother Jaron, I remember the fearless novice on the ski slope, always looking for the steepest cliff from which to fling himself. Then, careening wildly down the mountain as he tried to keep upright, before joyously tumbling into an explosion of loose powder and ski poles.

I remember the collegiate football kicker who made an ESPN-worthy one-on-one flying tackle to prevent a return for a touchdown; and the kid against whom I used to play soccer in the yard in six inches of snow. I wear a jersey dedicated to him to remind me, and anyone who asks, of how precious and precarious life can be, and of the importance of living each moment to its utmost.

I returned from the gym in January, 2007, to find four missed calls to my cell phone and a message saying only, “Damon, it’s mom. Call me right away.” With an immediate feeling of dread, I hit speed dial, and she answered, saying “Jaron collapsed and stopped breathing. He is in a coma, and is being airlifted from the local hospital to Temple University, where they have a neurosurgeon waiting. You should drive to Philadelphia right away. He might not make it.” At the time, Jaron, my only sibling, was 28 years old. For someone so young, he had the world at his feet—he had been student council president of our high school and attended Lehigh University on a football scholarship, where he had been a twotime all-conference place kicker, set the school record for most consecutive extra points made, and broken nearly every strength record in the books. More recently, he’d earned an MBA in management, set sales records for his marketing company, and regularly volunteered time to mentor underprivileged children through the Little Brothers program. Most remarkably, just a week before the fateful phone call, he had gotten engaged to his girlfriend on a Philadelphia morning television show, terrific footage of which is still available on YouTube.

I talked to him briefly right after his engagement to congratulate him—it would be the last time we spoke. Later that afternoon, he developed a splitting headache that continued to worsen each day. After days of severe suffering, he went to his doctor, who diagnosed a migraine, prescribed painkillers, and sent him home. The next day, an emergency room doctor did the same. No doctor thought to do a CT scan, and he never made it back a third time; a ventricle in his brain was blocked, and the intracranial pressure had become fatal. We were told by the neurosurgeon that had the problem been diagnosed days or even hours earlier, it would have been treatable.

Jaron was more full of life than anyone I’ve ever known. In nightclubs, he’d have a huge circle of people cheering him as he danced; on ski lifts, he’d become great friends with the person next to him in the space of five minutes. And, although the two of us fought tooth and nail growing up—often literally—we had grown very close in the last few years, developing the sort of happy rivalry that can only be born of mutual respect and admiration. After I completed my first iron-distance triathlon, the ChesapeakeMan, in 2006, Jaron thought, “So, you think you’re in good shape? We’ll see about that!” and registered for the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon with my father and me. He pretended to be training just for fun, but he was sandbagging for sure—I’d heard numerous reports that he was up before dawn every morning running ten miles or more, with the clear purpose of reminding his bookish older brother who the family athlete was when race time came. “Bring it on, kid!” I thought.

It is impossible to describe how difficult it is to lose such an incredible person—and my only sibling—so unexpectedly. But however hard it was for me, it was no doubt even more painful for his fiancĂ©e, who was with him throughout that awful week. In the months thereafter, the unqualified support I got from friends, family, and coworkers was invaluable. But I also consider myself deeply in debt to triathlon for helping me through that time by lending structure to my life, and offering a constructive outlet for the emotional maelstrom I was experiencing. I found that 20-mile runs and 100-mile bike rides allowed me to reach a zen-like state of reflection on my troubles, and no matter how exhausted I became, life always seemed brighter after a few hours in the sunshine. In one of life’s sad ironies, Jaron never got to witness a triathlon, but I have come to think that the sport captures his life philosophy more than anything else I have experienced; the mentality of adventure, self-exploration, living in the moment, and pushing oneself rapturously to the breaking point was his essence.

I ordered a set of custom triathlon jerseys, and I, my family, and several of Jaron’s friends have worn them at every race since.

In September 2007, I competed in Ironman Wisconsin, my second race of that distance and the first since Jaron passed away. The day was simply spectacular, and as I donned my wetsuit and made the slow march across the timing mat with the 2,500 other anxious competitors, I looked across the water and realized that tears were streaming down my face. One friendly guy next to me noticed and, trying to be reassuring, asked if it was my first time.

But it was the opposite of fear or nerves—it was the realization that our sport is such a metaphor for life, and the sudden certainty that Jaron was there with me, grinning and waiting for the moment when the gun would go off and we would charge off together into the sunrise.

People often ask me why anyone would choose to train for 20 hours a week on top of commitments to job, family, friends, and significant others. I think we all have different reasons, whether it is running from something, running toward something, or just loving to run. Personally, Jaron taught me that we can all do amazing things if we recognize the moral obligation to use the talents we are given, and to chase big dreams with fearless abandon. I miss him deeply every day, but once or twice a year, when the alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. and I head out of my door toward the transition area, I get a quiet smile and think: Come on, buddy. We’re going racing.