Tuesday, December 6, 2011

To Mexico in a Handbasket: Ironman Cozumel 2011 Race Report

"That's not what I meant by 'flying dismount,' bonehead."  -Yoda

Ah, Ironman.  I remember when, in 2006, prior to my first one, I had every intention of returning to real life following the big adventure.  Somehow, though, I ended up taking second in my age group on the back of the fastest bike split in the age group, and became convinced that, with a little more application, I might make something of myself in the triathlon world.

How time flies.  That was five years ago, and last weekend, I completed Ironman number seven in Cozumel, Mexico.  And, as fate would have it, I still have not beaten the time I got back in 2006.  That's true despite the fact that I'm a faster swimmer, cyclist, and runner, and I have a lot more experience under my belt.  At least I can say that I'm coming up with increasingly creative life lessons to impart to others as I wage my amusingly Quixotic campaign to fulfill my apocryphal "potential."

Background to the Race

I had every reason to think that this would be a breakthrough race.  I'd PR'd distances from 10k to marathon to half-Ironman throughout the year, and I was stronger in all three sports was than I'd ever been.  I'd run sub-4 hours at Ironman Wales in September on a nightmarishly hilly course following one of the hardest bike rides of my life, so I figured that the flat, fast run at Cozumel coming on the back of an easier bike course would make for a "gimme" personal-best time.  The only concern in my mind was the heat, which in 2009 had been considerable.   To heat-proof myself, in the month before the race, I'd embarked upon an acclimatization campaign the likes of which I'd never before attempted: Bikram yoga 3x/week, combined with 2 sessions a week in a sauna, working up to 45 minutes straight at 170 degrees.  I learned a couple of things from this.  

First, I learned that Bikram is almost completely intolerable.  It's not the heat, which is great, but the routine, which I find to be tedious, boring, unhelpful with respect to my own limitations, and profoundly affected.  If I hear the phrase "You should look like like a Japanese ham sandwich" one more time, I'm going to go mental.  I have no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich is; I wasn't even aware that the Japanese traditionally ate pigs.  A Google search isn't of much help, either, because all of the top hits seem to be from new Bikram practitioners trying to figure out what the heck their instructors are talking about.  In my mind, when I hear this phrase, I think, "You should look like some invented thing you've certainly never seen, and which sounds faintly amusing the first time you hear it, but which grows more annoying by the session, and which allows me, Bikram Choudhury, to sound deep and Eastern and enlightened without actually having any point at all.  Speaking of the point, have you renewed your membership yet?  If you do, one day you'll touch your elbows together, and then... um... here, have a minty towel!  Namaste."   

Bikram.  The face of wisdom.
The second thing I learned is that, if you stay in a sauna long enough at a high enough temperature, you start to relate to the The Scarecrow's psychotropic-spray victims in Batman Begins.  Your heart rate elevates, you sweat like nuts, and you start to panic.  Probably this is why the warning signs say to limit exposure to 15 minutes, not 45, but those signs obviously were not written by people trained in the ways of HTFU and Slowtwitch.com.  

Now THIS is the warning sign that they should put on the sauna door at the health club.
To be fair, I built up to this duration over a period of weeks, but I will say: it is seriously difficult mentally to keep from bolting from the room at certain points.

At any rate, I endured this nonsense with a modicum of good cheer, because I knew that I'd be about as well acclimated as anyone to the Cozumel climate.  In fact, I laughed a little bit to myself when teammates warned me about the heat.  I was simply ready for it, and with the main obstacle addressed, I felt ready to go.  My bike fit and nutrition were dialed-in, I was 10 pounds lighter than in 2009, and according to my most trusted adviser, "all signs point[ed] to yes."

In 2009, I'd finished in 11:39.  That time reflected a 54-minute current-assisted swim, a 5:35 bike, and a 4:56 collapse of a run.  This year, I thought sub-10:30 was a realistic goal: perhaps a 1-hour swim depending on the current, a 5:20 bike, and 3:50 run, plus ten minutes or so of transition.  I thought that, if everything went perfectly, a sub-10 finish could be in the cards.  


The initial signs were auspicious.  When I arrived in Cozumel in 2009, a tropical storm had just rolled through, and I spent the days before the race bunkering down against 50+ mph winds, wondering where one might find the tropical paradise about which I'd heard so much. This year, it looked so picture-perfect that the only thing missing was a Disney mermaid caroling earworms with her crustacean friends.

Un-dah dah sea!
Part of your worrrld!  To the right, the balcony where our coach would later find himself crying, naked, at 3 a.m.  Not that anything would go wrong.
I quickly made myself at home.  The first step was to arrange my race nutrition in the most Rainman-Asperger manner possible.

You should have seen the salad that I had along with it.  
I then set up my Recovery Pump system, where I intended to park myself with a book as much as possible until race day rolled around.

It turns out that, if you want TSA to search your luggage, a promising approach is hide inside your bag a nondescript electronic box connected to multiple sets of coiled wires.  
Thursday.  I arrived on Thursday, that is, on Thanksgiving Day, and had dinner with my parents and Noelle's folks at a local (Mexican) Italian place, "Prima," that was serving a traditional American dinner.  Somehow it worked out all right, as long as you like your food "tomorrow," which is quite literally when the restaurant anticipated that our waiter would show up for work.

The only worry was that our bikes hadn't yet arrived on the island.  I, along with about 100 others, had shipped our bikes to Cozumel using Trisport Express, a service that picked the bikes up locally and drove them, assembled, to Cozumel for pickup. The bikes had been expected to arrive on Wednesday, so it was mildly concerning that they hadn't shown up by Thursday night.  The transport driver said that he had been delayed, and that the bikes wouldn't be ready until Friday afternoon.  We were all a bit nervous, but we didn't need to check the bikes in until Saturday, and they couldn't possibly be delayed that long.  Right?

Friday. Friday began pretty peacefully.  Noelle and I went to the expo to get registered and stimulate the Ironman economy with our credit cards, which, as it turned out, were not accepted anywhere.  Remembering back to 2009, when I wanted to buy a simple cassette at the expo but all I could find for sale was Mexican triathlon art, this time I cunningly set out to buy Mexican triathlon art, and I kicked some ass.  It's all about setting realistic goals.

My oil painting.  Swimming, cycling, and that other thing I always seem to forget about until it's too late.
We also paused and posed under parental picture pressure.

I'm not sure what I'm looking at.  Maybe fate.
Having had enough of the Cozumel mid-day scene, we traipsed back to the hotel to check on the bikes, which... weren't yet on the island.  No one had heard from TriSport Express.  Friday is typically the day reserved for ensuring that bikes were in working order, a task considerably complicated by the absence of said bikes.  The bikes had to be checked into the transition area on Saturday, a sincere concern in that they'd been due to arrive on Wednesday, and each successive promised delivery window had come and gone without a trace.  I began to contemplate the possibility that, through no wrongdoing of our own, many of us could find ourselves without bikes come race time.  That would be incredibly disappointing for me, but I couldn't imagine how stressful it was for the many first-timers there who had set their lives aside for a year, and for whom there was no "we'll get 'em next year."  It was a bad situation.

On Friday night, the coaches held a meeting to let us know that, at long last, they'd heard from TriSport Express.  It seems that, due to a mix-up involving passport stamping, the guys driving our bikes to Cozumel had quite literally been arrested and jailed for two days somewhere in northern Mexico.  Awesome.  But we were assured that, as of Friday afternoon, they were no longer imprisoned, and were making progress toward Cozumel.  We were promised that the bikes would be on an early ferry from the mainland, and that we'd be able to pick them up in time to get them to race checkin-in.

Saturday.  We awoke Saturday to rather unbelievable news: our bikes were... there.  Or, at least, sort of near there, wherever there is.  They would be available in late morning.  Apparently.  So, I finished the last of my Ten Last-Minute Ironman Tips to the Z'ers, sent it around, and headed with Noelle on a rented motorbike to find our long-lost bicycles.

Although the bikes had finally arrived, it was very far from an ideal situation.  The day before Ironman is typically reserved for a very quick swim, ride, and run, then staying far away from sunshine and stress and doing as little as possible.  Instead, we'd have to get our bikes, test ride them, fix any problems that had arisen in the two weeks since we'd last seen them, check them in, and then find ride back across the island, all the while getting baked in the tropical sun.

As luck would have it, my bike was not in working order.  My power meter was entirely dead.  Or, rather, it would periodically pick up a signal, and I'd be relieved, only to find out that the signal I'd acquired belonged to some Panamanian dude riding by with a power meter on his bike.  After spending about 20 minutes futzing around with it, I determined that the battery in the power meter itself was dead, so I resolved to try to find a particular size of watch battery in downtown Cozumel.  At least my bike itself was in working order, except that the rear tire felt a little squishy the longer I rode the bike.  Yep, a slow leak.  I took the tube out, put a new one in, inflated it, and the new tube blew out like a gunshot.  Fine then.  Sweating in the heat, I removed the tire completely, checked it, used my second (and only remaining spare) tube, and it held.  It held, that is, until I'd ridden it about halfway to the bike check-in, at which point it, too, exploded spontaneously.  I finally gave up, walked it the remaining mile to the race site, and paid a local mechanic to install a tube correctly, which apparently I was incapable of doing on the day.

The race site, at long last, made us remember why we'd registered for this event.  It was simply beautiful.

Chankanaab Park, Cozumel. i.e., the swim start.  This is not the swim start.
It being Mexico, guns were allowed in the body-marking area.
Smile while ya can.
Reo the Speedwagon, ready for battle.
Not many transition areas are in tropical resorts.
Noelle, meanwhile, had patiently waited for me to sort out my tire (and sundry other) issues, and was ready to stop getting sunburned on the day before Ironman.  Somehow, however, she put up with me as we rode the motorbike around downtown Cozumel for another hour as I searched for the particular type of watch battery I needed for my power meter, which apparently existed in only one place.  That place, moreover, was a Mexican Brigadoon, appearing and disappearing in various neighborhoods around the island depending on whom one asked.  Eventually, after five hours in the tropical sun, we drooped back to the resort and attempted to get settled for the night.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully, apart from a moving speech from our coach, who described in vivid detail his emotional turmoil regarding the fact that 2/3 of his team was missing bikes until the very last minute.  Apparently, he'd gotten a cell phone call at 3:00 a.m. from TriSport Express, telling him that the bikes were set to be on the ferry on Saturday morning.  It was then, Ed admitted, that he'd wandered onto the balcony in the middle of the night, buck naked, and wept tears of joy as he tried to spy the apocryphal truck from across six miles of moonlit ocean.  Only in Ironman, folks.

Race Day

Up and at 'em at 4:00 a.m., a time that seemed inhuman when I first raced Ironman in 2006.  I can still remember waking up in the middle of the night and sitting on the floor of my hotel room as I tried to choke down a massive, untoasted bagel slathered in organic peanut butter even though I wasn't remotely hungry.  Frankly, that was in some ways the hardest part of the day.  Now that I've become more experienced, the early breakfast isn't quite so odious -- it's more an excuse to get a last taste of real food before weathering a 12-hour gastric assault spearheaded by gels and cola, and supported by a flanking infantry division of electrolyte capsules.  My normal pre-race meal these days is oatmeal with raisins, walnuts, banana slices, and honey, plus a couple of Honey Stinger waffles.  This time, though, due to having no obvious access to hot water in the middle of the night in Mexico, I went with two Dr. Will Bars and two Honey Stinger waffles, and chased it with some green tea. Then it was outside to board the race buses for the 10-mile ride to Chankanaab Park.

When I got to my bike in the transition area, I quickly swapped out the battery in my power meter.  (Incidentally, the ability to do this without tools, and without sending the whole unit back to the manufacturer, is one of clear benefit of a Quarq system.)  After braving the loo lines, I downed my pre-race cocktail of supplements (4 Extreme Endurance, 5 Sportlegs, 2 caffeine pills/400 mg total, 2 Imodium tablets, and 2 Bonine motion sickness tabs), grabbed my swim gear, and headed to the water.

The swim

The swim in 2009 had been a beautiful thing in every way, including a strong assist from the current that had slung me to a truly ridiculous 54:49 finishing time, whereas my previous best had been over an hour.  What with currents being fickle things, I didn't trust that we'd get the same boost this year, so I set my sights on something around an hour.  (I'd swam 1:00 in the much tougher conditions in Wales in September.)

Getting into the water was a bit of a process -- 2500 athletes had to migrate to the far end of the dock, jump down into the water, and then migrate to the starting line.  I didn't want to get trapped behind the hordes, so I snuck around to the front of the mass and planted myself 2 rows back from the front line, reasoning that the swimmers who take themselves serious would do their usual 100-yard sprint to get clear, leaving me with room to mosey. 

Although the camera distorts things, the dock was at least 50 feet above the water. 
As gun-time drew nearer, there were still hordes of athletes jumping into the water, but we'd been told that there would be a jumping dolphin display before the start.  For whatever reason, it didn't happen -- we suddenly found ourselves underway!

The water was great, 83 degrees and perfectly clear, and early on I concentrated on a sprightly arm turnover rate and good catch.  The only issue was that, confoundingly, my goggles seemed determined to trap the entire ocean inside of them.  Normally, leaking goggles wouldn't be much of a problem, but with the duration of the event, salt water, and stinging sea lice, I really didn't want any more marine life than necessary interacting with my eyeballs.  As a result, I was forced to stop some 8-10 times over the course of the swim to empty out my goggles, and much of the rest of the time, I was fighting to see clearly.  I suspect this cost me a couple of minutes, because otherwise I swam smoothly and comfortably.  I didn't feel nearly as much of a current-assist this year; instead, what current there was seemed to be pushing us sideways, i.e., off-course.  So I wasn't surprised when my time was a little bit behind my 2009 split, but no problems, no drama, no whammies!

2009 time: 54:49 (current-assisted)
2011 goal: 1:00-1:02
2011 actual time: 1:01:49
Assessment: Mission accomplished.  Might have gone 59:xx without goggle issues, but not a big deal.  My swimming has progressed a lot this year, even though the times above don't reflect it due to the current in 2009.  I've ordered several new kinds of goggles to try; the old model hasn't been getting it done lately.

The bike

The Cozumel bike course is essentially three loops, and there are no surprises to be found.  It's windy, warm, and humid, with no shade anywhere.  It has the potential to be a fast course insofar as it's flat, but flatness alone is no guarantee of anything: it's very easy to barrel enthusiastically into the strong winds on the first loop, only to find oneself running on fumes five hours later.  What's more, the fact that there are no climbs or descents means that there is precious little ability to shift one's weight or stretch without suddenly turning oneself into a parachute, and sacrificing a lot of time.  I remembered from 2009 just how mentally draining this course could be, and had very defined wattage targets to hold for each loop: 195-200 watts for the first loop, and 200-205 for the second and third loops.  This would put me in mid Z2 for the first loop, and high Z2 for the remainder of the ride, thus leaving me plenty of gas for the run.

I haven't said anything about time goals; that's because I didn't really have one.  I rode 5:35 in 2009, and thought I could do somewhat better this year, but I'd made a conscious decision not to have speed showing anywhere on my bike computer during the ride.  Instead, I just wanted to know how hard I was going (wattage, in 3- and 30-second moving averages), how long I'd been moving (for fueling purposes), and how far I'd gone (for sanity).  On a course like this, where the winds are strong, I think that speed is at most unhelpful, and at worst actively harmful, to an even effort, which was my goal.  I hypothesized that, if I hit my wattage targets, I might go somewhere around 5:20.  Meanwhile, several people I train with were confidently declaring they'd ride 5-flat or a little under.  I wasn't quite buying it, but their plans didn't affect me one way or the other.

My nutrition plan was simple: a bottle of CarboPro 1200 on the seat tube, 6 gels in a bento box, and 2 Dr. Will Bars taped to the top tube, which came out to around 2200 calories, or 400/hour.  I had some Salt Stick capsules in the aerobars, and the hydration plan was simply to get a bottle of water from every aid station, drink most of it, and spray the remainder of it onto my arm coolers.  This would result in 30 ounces+ per hour.

Sure enough, when I came out of the park to start on loop 1, I was feeling good and blew past at least 200 people in the first 20 miles or so.  It was a struggle to keep my wattage down where I wanted it; it hovered around 215 for the first 30 minutes even though I felt like I was almost soft-pedaling.

Riding past the legendary Sherwood Forest of Cozumel.   Just kidding.  I don't remember this forest at all, honestly.

Turning back to the north to plow into the 10-mile headwind, I was feeling loose and easy, and was still reeling people in.  My wattage had calmed down to where I wanted it to be, so I was very happy with how things were going.  Each aid station I'd toss an empty bottle and grab a fresh one, like clockwork.

Confronting Aeolus.  In the distant background, Spain.
As I neared the end of the first loop, at about mile 30, I'd stopped passing people quite so quickly; the riders seemed to be segregating themselves by speed, so it was a question of reeling off the miles without working too hard at it.

The end of the first loop, in town, was a sea of Mexicana, with a cacophony of rattles and shouts as we blitzed through the twists and turns of San Miguel.  At times it was a bit like Frogger, with slow-motion pedestrians pushing baby strollers across the road as triathletes came shooting toward them much more quickly than they'd anticipated.  I just kept my head down, literally, and hoped for the best.

Keep your head down and ask no questions, Gringo.
I came through the first loop with an average wattage of 197, dead-on target for my goal of 195-200.  It felt like a steady effort but nothing too taxing, so, as planned, I allowed myself to hit the gas a little bit more for loop 2.

As I rounded the south side of the island for the second time, I was still passing people, but not one by one.  Instead, I wouldn't see anyone in front of me for a minute or two, and then I'd encounter a clump of three.  Or five.  Or ten.  In many cases, they were riding in a professional-caliber pelotons down the road, in flagrant violation of the no-drafting rules.  At one point, as I passed a group of these guys, I asked them if they took turns pulling.  They pretended not to understand what I was talking about, but clearly they grasped the concept only too well, as they were taking turns at the front, and the guys at the back were constantly looking behind them to ensure that no course officials were approaching by motorcycles.  I tried as best I could to steer clear of these yahoos, but it was tough: apart from the inherent aerodynamic advantage that a group has over an individual, these guys were only to happy to hop on my wheel as I came past.

If any doubt remained as to the philosophy that some people had toward the drafting rules, at one point I was riding 50 yards or so behind a cluster of 15-20 athletes, and Michel, from France, sidled up next to me and exclaimed, "Come on, let's work together to catch the group!"  Maybe he thought they had baguettes.

The remaining 2,499 athletes were clustered in a peloton that stretched around the island.
The second time through the gusting headwinds was less fun than the first, but my wattage was holding steady in the low 200's, just as planned.  It was getting warm, but I felt okay, and reasoned that I only had another lap to go.

On the second trip through town, I stretched a little bit to try to break up the trainer-like stress of being frozen in place for five hours.

They gave me an ugly water bottle cap color.  I overcame.  You learn a lot about your inner strength in these events.
On the third lap of the bike, things started to go a little bit wrong.  First, with about 20 miles to go, I realized that I couldn't stand up or shift my weight without my legs seizing up in cramps.  Then, I found myself drifting a little bit on the road, and was having a hard time thinking clearly.  My wattage was dropping a little bit as well.  I kept with the plan, drinking everything from each water bottle I picked up, but the problem was that I was in a deep hole: even though I'd been downing 30 ounces or so each hour, I think, in the heat, I'd probably lost closer to 45 or 50 ounces, plus what I'd lost during the hour-long swim in warm water.  I was simply dehydrated, and nothing was working correctly.  I just tried to keep it together until I could get to T2.

With 10 miles to go, despite the cramping and ditziness, I was still making good time.  Shockingly good, in fact: I was on pace to finish in 5:08-5:09, more than 25 minutes faster than I'd ridden in 2009.  There was only one aid station left, and I wanted to give myself the best chance of running well, so I grabbed a water bottle as usual, and held it between the thumb and forefinger on my right hand, and put the palm of my right hand on the brake hood.  With my left, I reached across my body for a bottle of Gatorade as well, and got close.  But then the volunteer, misunderstanding what I wanted, pulled it back a bit, and, in my slight mental haze, I reached further across myself with my left hand to try to grab it, without thinking clearly about what I was doing.  Suddenly, my entire upper body was twisting hard to the right, and with it, the one hand that I had on the handlebars swung to the right as well, as did the front wheel.  Before I knew what was happening, I'd flown forward over the handlebars and slammed into the pavement, HARD.

I flew a little further than this, but it's along the right lines.
I'd had cramping trouble before I'd trotted out my mentally deficient aid station technique.  But when I landed on the ground folded up like a pretzel, every muscle in my legs and lower backs seized up completely, and I was completely dazed.  It was one of those moments that hurt so badly that I almost wished they'd pull me out of the race, because I couldn't imagine even getting up, much less riding to the finish line, much less completing a marathon afterward.  Imagine getting crushed by a linebacker at mile 24 of a marathon, and you might have some sense of it.

The volunteers rushed over to me.  One guided bike traffic around my lifeless corpse, a second pulled my bike off to the side of the road, and a third asked if I wanted them to call an ambulance.  But I could tell that I wasn't actually broken, just stunned in a huge amount of generalized pain.  I didn't want the medical personnel; if I were going to DNF, it would only be because they dragged me off the damned course. 

So I repeatedly declined the volunteers' very strong suggestions of medical intervention, and after lying on the ground for a couple of minutes, I got up and staggered to the side of the road, next to the porta-jonhns.  Unfortunately, in addition to scraping my shoulder and knee, I'd banged my left hip and knee very hard and wrenched my right hip, which in turn twisted my right lower-back and aggravated an injury for which I'd already been receiving physical therapy in the month before the race.  To put it simply, I could barely walk, and couldn't bend over at all.  I leaned against the johns for about 10 minutes as I gathered my senses and resolved to finish the bike ride and go from there.

Picking up my bike, I was happy to see that the only thing that was scraped up was... the top of my saddle.  That must have been one pretty special fall.  Unfortunately, my bike computer was nowhere to be found, so I scanned the area and spotted it on the far side of the road.  In my current slow-motion state, however, I had no chance of fording the stream of cyclists blowing past, and even if I made it there, I couldn't bend down far enough to pick it up.  Thankfully, a volunteer came to my rescue and grabbed it, and off I went, pedaling at about 10 mph toward T2.

As cyclists came cruising past, one woman on my left looked at me and said, "Nice bike!"  I thanked her, but I was confused.  I mean, my left armcooler was stained red from the blood running down from my shoulder, and it was dripping off my ankle from where I'd slammed my knee into the ground and taken most of the skin off.  "Nice bike!" seemed like an exceedingly irrelevant comment under the circumstances, but I took what I could get.  People are nice.

Eventually I did schlep my way to the end of the course.  Amusingly, despite the wreck, my time of 5:30 was still 5 minutes faster than my bike time from 2009.

Bike Split 1 (33.5 miles). 1:31:38 (22.0 mph)
Bike Split 2 (39.1 miles). 1:47:25 (21.9 mph)
Bike Split 3 (39.1 miles). 2:11:14 (17.9 mph)
Assessment: I was on a 5:08-5:09 pace, hitting my wattage targets exactly, until I let myself get dehydrated and made a mental error.  I was drinking a lot, but it should have been even more.  Disappointing, but I'm not second-guessing my preparation or fitness.

The Run

I spent about 5 minutes gimping around aimlessly in T2, shrugging off volunteers who kept looking at me and asking, "Doctor?", until one of them finally convinced me to let him wash off the blood that had been running down my arm and leg.  After that, I got myself together to have a go at the marathon.  My only real hope was that my back and knee would loosen up after a couple of miles and allow me to run; otherwise, I was looking at a very long walk, at best.  So I put on my running cap with a flap around the ears and neck to keep the sun off, and headed out for my second encounter with the Mosquito Coast.

I kept up a sub-8:00/mi pace for about 50 yards.  I'd hoped for 26.2 miles more than that.
I emerged from the transition area to cheering crowds that included many Z'ers.  I was surprised that no one seemed appalled at my bloody appendages, but I guess the volunteer in the tent had cleaned me up reasonably well.  But what I couldn't tell them was that I was in anything but good condition -- I was just trying to stay upright, and to keep my back pain from becoming overpowering.

Remember when I said I was determined to keep going unless the medical personnel hauled me off of the damned course?  Well, about a mile in, they did exactly that.  I quickly realized that I couldn't run.  More disturbingly, however, I couldn't really walk, either; every time I moved my right leg, there was a bolt of sharp pain through my lower right back.  It felt like a torn muscle, both deep and sharp. The only thing I could think to do was an upward-dog yoga pose; perhaps the arch would stretch me out enough to continue.  But I quickly encountered a problem: I literally could not get down on the ground.  I couldn't bend over more than a couple of inches, nor could I lower myself down with my legs without them seizing.  So I shuffled over to the grass, leaned over as far as I could, held my arm out to break my fall, and flopped onto the ground.

Apparently Ironman volunteers are well-drilled to recognize that an athlete collapsing onto the ground is not a good sign, and they rushed over to me immediately.  "Doctor?"  "Ambulance?"  I kept saying, no, no, muchas gracias, I just needed to stretch.  But when I got up to go, they noticed that blood was once more running down my arm and leg, and overruled me.  Moments later an ambulance pulled up along side me and I was essentially pulled inside.  There, I spent about 10 minutes while the doctors cleaned and dressed my arm and leg, and ran through various system-checks like asking me what my name is.  I suppose I must have looked pretty bad.  Once they got done cleaning me up, I thought I could go, but they told me that my race was done, and that I needed to get checked out in the hospital.  I repeatedly said that I appreciated the help, but that I had 10 hours left to get through a marathon, and insisted that I would be okay.  They didn't like this answer, and made me promise to check myself into the medical tent at the finish line, but they did eventually let me go.

The kid did not want to play with The Amazing Bloody Triathlete.
Meanwhile, being off of my feet for 10 minutes had given my legs and hips the false impression that the day was done, and they'd tightened up immensely.  The most I could do was alternate a shuffling run with a walk, so I resigned myself to doing what I could while cheering those who hadn't taken flying lessons on the bike.  It was disappointing on one level, but on another, I was okay with it.  I'd simply made a mistake, and it was no one's fault but my own.  One thing that was clear was that running was just not in the cards; every time I'd make it 50 yards, my knee would start throbbing worse with each step, and my back would begin to cramp.  In that sense, things were easy: my choice was just to cover the ground, or to drop out, and I'd already decided not to do the latter.

Halfway through the first of three run loops, my Cozumel experience came full-circle.  Until then, it had been a lovely day.  That's not a problem in of itself, but those who have followed my Ironman career know that it simply couldn't last.  I was there for the floods in Lake Placid in 2008, the mosquito swarms in Cozumel in 2009, and the hurricane fallout in Wales in 2011.  I'm not sure I'd know what to do in an Ironman without Biblical weather events, and as it turned out, Cozumel 2011 wouldn't cause me to think through that issue, because the heavens opened up halfway through the first run loop, and it rained hard enough to drown the barracudas that apparently had bitten two swimmers.  "Rain is rain," I know you're saying, and generally I agree.  Except that, in this case, the roads were so flooded that they were overrunning the curbs on both sides.  Thousands of athletes were navigating a single narrow sidewalk because we literally couldn't see the pavement under the rushing waters on the road, but even so, we couldn't avoid the problem.  There was a street crossing where the water was halfway up our shins, and we had to cross it both ways.  It was more adventure race than run in that section of the course.

Downtown wasn't quite as deep in water, but the water that was there was... well, it wasn't water.  It was sewage.  The sudden storm had flooded the pipes and water was literally gushing upward through the manhole covers, and with it came a cloudy, noxious-smelling stew that made some people sick when they got near it.  And we got to run straight through it, both ways.  It occurred to me that, following dehydration and a painful bike accident that had left me with bloody wounds all over my legs, running through ankle-deep sewage water probably was not a recipe for good health.  But I did it anyway.  Why?  Because that's what I do, I run through sewage, and I've just gotta be me.

At the end of the first run loop, I spied my parents up on the balcony, and tried to explain through gestures that all was not well at the Circle-K, and that they probably should not expect me to finish anytime soon.

After the turnaround, starting the second loop, they'd come down, and I stopped for a minute to explain what had happened.

Heading out on the second lap.  Good thing I had the hat to protect me from the sun.
Explaining to my parents that they should audition other, less klutzy heroes.
Gratuitous bandage shot.
Clearly I'm in a hurry to start running again.
Off I go.
The remainder of the run was nothing to write home about.  It was a classic Ironman shuffle, and I finished in 5:27:52 minutes, setting a new record for Ironman run futility.  I did, however, get to see a lot of Z's out on the course having a much better day than I was, many on their first go-round.  Noelle, in particular, had a great day, and always had a smile on her face when we passed each other.  In all, it was great to see so many friendly faces out there on my march.

Run time: 5:27:52
Goal time: 3:45:00
Assessment: Hard to say too much, except "ouch."  Can't really draw any conclusions from it; I never had a chance to run.  But I'm glad I gutted it out.


This is the face that greeted my parents just past the finishing line:

Cozumel: Start of the Ironman Zombie Apocalypse.
I had no idea I looked this bad.  I had no idea that I could look this bad.  But sometimes a picture says it all, and this pretty much captures my race experience.  True to my word, I immediately checked myself into the medical tent, where they cleaned me up, yet again, and then pushed me down the road toward the pizza tent, which was just fine with me.  I hung out there with the Zers who were finishing up, eating and drinking everything in sight, and explaining to people who asked how it was that I hadn't finished hours ago.  "Boneheadedness," in a word.  When Noelle finished, we got a couple of pictures, then searched for the TriSport Express truck to drop our bikes off.

I think I was holding something in my right hand.  That, or it's a gang sign I don't recall.
An hour later, after wandering around downtown and bribing cabbies, we found the truck, and the Great Cozumel Bike Adventure concluded.  We spent the next few hours counting down until midnight, cheering in the last finishers, and then went back to the hotel, were I slept incredibly soundly once I stopped shivering uncontrollably from chill and exhaustion.


It was a tough end to a long, but largely successful, year, where I've set huge numbers of PRs and made large strides in many respects.  It wasn't the race I wanted, but I was cruising along in complete comfort until the hydration issue got away from me a little bit, and I made a single bad decision that cost me.  Until then, I was looking at starting the run at a race time of about 6:20.  A 3:40 run would have put me under 10 hours, and a 4:10 run would have put me under 10:30.  Due to the dehydration, I'm not sure how it would have gone absent the wreck, but I think I could have made a very legitimate shot at those times.  I have a lot of confidence to take with me into next year, which holds two marathons, an Ironman, and perhaps a 500-mile RAAM Qualifier on the bike.

For now, though, I'm going to take my own advice and take some time off.  It's been 13 months of training 6 or 7 days a week, and I need a physical and mental break for a few weeks.  But don't worry, I'll stay active by Elliptigo commuting, rock climbing, doing yoga, and perhaps even taking the Zumba world by storm.  Until next time!


  1. I was behind you on your last lap (my 2nd) of the run. I wondered what happened to you and where you went off to - you finished! Good for you!

  2. Please don't take this the wrong way but your race report was damn entertaining. You have a healthy way of putting things in perspective.
    Congrats Damon. Well done.

  3. You have such a talent for expressing what you've experienced - please keep sharing! I'm especially thinking of your brother today and sending lots of good wishes your way.

  4. I love the way you write. Congrats on toughing it out- I think you gave me so many good vibes for race day that you didn't have any left for yourself! Hope your wounds are healed, you are feeling better, and Zumba is great!

  5. First off, Bikram is an ass. There are other heated room yoga classes that don't subject practitioners to heinous bullshit. I'd suggest trying one.

    Second, you deserve some sort of HTFU medal for continuing after starting to bleed profusely. My interwebs hat goes off to you.

    Lastly, nice write-up. I'm ashamed to admit that I find your pain immensely entertaining, but there you go.

    Hope you feel better and live to race another day.

  6. Thanks for this. I'm doing Cozumel 2012 in 6 weeks and this is by far the most light hearted, best perspective, tough-it-out report I've read so far.

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