I’ve wanted to race Cozumel for the past few years because I felt it would be a great destination race and a venue the whole family could enjoy. I had always been a bit hesitant to pull the trigger because of the wind and heat associated with the race. However, for 2019, the timing worked out well because I was looking for a late-season race and also a way to take the kids out of the country since we hadn’t yet traveled abroad with the kids for the year.
Four weeks before the race I had sprained my ankle racing in SwimRun NC, so I stopped all running for over 2 weeks. I then eased back into a 5 and 10 minute run the 2 weeks before IM Cozumel, and then finally worked up to a 45-minute run before leaving on the trip. So, for 4 weeks, I basically did little to no running compared to where I should have been going in to the race. The last week before the race, I was mostly walking and running pain free, but I could still feel tightness and pain if I twisted my ankle in a more extreme or abnormal angle. So needless to say, I was somewhat worried about what could happen going into the marathon portion of the race. It was either going to be fine, or a major issue.
Our flight from SFO to Cozumel, via Houston, left at 5am on Wednesday morning. Even with a hotel near the airport on Tuesday night, it was still a very early-morning start for everyone. We planned on traveling light, with only carry-on luggage for the whole family. My bike was shipped out 2 weeks prior to the race, and was hopefully waiting for me, once I got to the island.
After a long day and a car, bus, plane, plane and a rental car-ride, we finally made it to our all-inclusive resort in Cozumel. We didn’t make it to our room till after 4pm, and the rest of the day was spent at the beach and a casual dinner at one of the resort restaurants.
Thursday, was another low-key day without much on the agenda. Before the kids woke, I went out on a quick 30-minute run from the hotel, just to open up my legs. Even in the morning, I could feel the humidity and was drenched in sweat by the time I finished. After breakfast, I was able to go to athlete check-in and we all walked the expo. I also got my bike, and after fixing a flat, was able to ride it back to the hotel for safe-keeping until the race. The rest of the day was spent at the hotel pool and beach with the kids. Dinner was a short drive away at Buccanos, which ended up being a great meal with an outdoor patio and excellent wine (if you don’t count the numerous mosquito bites I endured during the course of the meal).
Friday morning, I again woke up before the kids, and after my routine Americano from the hotel coffee & ice cream shop, I got on my bike for an hour ride along the main road, headed south on the Ironman bike course. As expected, it was another humid workout with more mosquitos than I have ever seen on me at one time. I must have received a good 30+ bites on that ride alone. I was getting used to the large welts all over my body and having an annoying tingly feeling all over my arms and legs from all the bites.
After my ride, the family had a food tour scheduled where we were driven around to different local restaurants for some amazing food (and desserts) to better experience Cozumel through the local cuisine. In the late afternoon, I went to the athlete briefing and then out to dinner at El Palomar for a chef-tasting menu, which lasted into the late night (for me). With all this food and my ability to stuff my face every meal, I was glad the race course had no hills to climb.
Saturday morning, after coffee, I drove to Chankanaab Park, where there was a practice swim at the race swim-finish. Getting in, the water was exactly the same as my over-heated local pool, a steamy, 82 degrees.
Visibility was 100%, so it was amazing being able to swim and see the bottom, the coral and all the fish below. I did a short, 20-ish minute swim. 15 minutes was swimming north and against a decent current, and then just 6 minutes to turn around and make it back, going with the current. If the current stayed like that, it would make for a fast time, the next morning, during the race. After swimming and breakfast, I tried to spend some time in the hotel room relaxing and enjoying the air conditioning in our room. Later in the afternoon, I had to do the typical administrative tasks of taking a bus with my bike to T1 and checking it in to transition. Then I had to take another bus all the way back to T2 and the finish area to check in my run gear.
Running around in the heat was exhausting. We decided to just eat a simple dinner at the Italian restaurant at our hotel that evening to keep things low-key the night before my race.
My mom was nice enough to take the kids in her room for the night, so I could get a bit more rest and not have to worry about waking them in the morning before my race. Unfortunately, Camille got hit with Mexican food poisoning that night. So she was up all night dealing with that. I too, was up most the night, trying to be compassionate for her discomfort, and also stressed, not only that I wasn’t going to get any sleep before my race, but that I too might start feeling the effects of the food poisoning, considering we all ate exactly the same thing the last couple days. So no alarm was needed for me to get up race morning, as I was already waiting and staring at the clock just before 5am when the alarms where supposed to be going off.
Right away, as I got ready in the morning, my stomach felt a bit off. I wasn’t sure if it was stress from the night before and knowing I could get the bug any moment, or if it was nothing of consequence. After getting on my race kit, I ate breakfast in our room of granola and bananas and almond butter with coffee. I ended up not eating as much as I wanted. Again, I could have just been still full from dinner, or something was off in my stomach.
I said goodbye to Camille and told her not to stress about making it to the race at any time if she still was feeling awful. I walked to the front of the hotel, where they had buses lined up to take athletes to the swim finish and T1. Even at 5:30 am, I only had to wear shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops since it was about 76 degrees out. I was starting to get worried about the day ahead and the heat, which I knew I would have issues with. The last thing I wanted was a second DNF for the season.
When I got to T1, I spent only a few minutes making sure my bike tires were still full and adding my water bottles to my bike. I synced up my Garmin bike computer and then walked back to the buses to take us the 2.4 miles north to the swim start. I ended up getting to swim start around 6:15, so I had over an hour to kill before it was go time. The mosquitos were out in full force under the lights, so I sprayed myself with repellent and found a place to sit and relax for a while. At 7am, I got the rest of my tri-kit on with my swim skin on top and handed off my morning clothes bag in order to make it to the swim start to see the professional men’s race start.
Again, I was still feeling very nervous about my long day ahead. I normally get a little pre-race jitters, but this time, it was a bit more. This was my 10th Ironman, so it was important to me to finish and complete #10 as I considered that to be a substantial achievement. I was also nervous about the heat and humidity. With my high sweat rate, I would really have to be on the ball and just nail my hydration strategy in order to not come to a grinding halt during the race. I had hoped I was properly pre-hydrated as well. I had really dropped the ball on my hydration during the race prior, which partially led to my DNF. Leading up to IM Cozumel, I had added extra salt and extra fluid to my diet. I carried around a vial of salt everywhere and salted every water cup as I drank throughout the day. My goal was to hyper-hydrate by up to 1 Liter of water prior to the race. Meaning I was carrying around an extra couple pounds of water, held in from the additional sodium in my blood.
I corralled myself with the sub-1-hour swimmers, which was the first group. The swim was a rolling start, so it technically didn’t matter too much when I started. I just like to get on my bike before too many people are on the road. After the race start, it took another 2 minutes of baby-stepping my way forward before I reached the dock. I did a quick jog down the dock and to the timing mat. I somewhat confused myself as to whether I wanted to dive in or jump in, so I ended up with an awkward belly flop into the water before resurfacing and starting my swim.
It was great not getting shocked with cold water, which probably slowed me down a little since I didn’t need to push in order to warm up. I took it very easy for the first part of the swim, to warm up my muscles and otherwise enjoy the blue clear water.
The swim course is as simple as it can be. Just a straight line down the coast for 2.4 miles. Only 1 turn in the entire course, and that was to finish and get out of the water. Because of this, the swimmers spread out fairly wide and there was almost no contact between swimmers the entire swim. I decided to keep the pace very mild the entire swim, which made for a relaxing and somewhat enjoyable experience. The only concern I had about a third in to the swim was whether I was supposed to be to the right or left of the buoys, which were placed every 100 meters. In the athlete guide and in the pre-race briefing, we were told to keep the buoys on our left the entire time. So I lined up my swim with the buoys and keeping them on my left. But I was the only swimmer I could see swimming so far right. I could see the rest of the swim packs swimming left of the buoys. I spent most of the swim wondering if they were wrong or if I was wrong. Either everyone was cutting the course and I was the only person doing the correct course or I misunderstood the course and was making it longer and harder on myself. Even as a write this, I still don’t know the answer.
About 30 minutes into the swim there was a bit of chop which bounced me around a bit. After that I felt a sting on my forearm. It felt like a needle prick or a paper-cut. I looked at my arm and didn’t see anything. Then I looked around in the water and could see these little 2- or 3-inch clear jellyfish swimming by. I knew there were jellyfish in the water but I was hoping to avoid them all swim. The stings didn’t seem to last long and didn’t otherwise affect my swim. I tried to keep my face pointed more downward than usual, just to not get a sting on my face. In all, I only got a handful of stings during the swim, which seemed better than other years of this race, which I had previously heard about.
After about 45 minutes of swimming, I could finally see Chankanaab Park and the red turn buoy in the distance. After rounding the one and only turn and swimming another 100 yards, I was finally to the exit stairs and out of the water.
I’m not sure why everyone sprints from the water to the changing tent. I did a casual jog. I can’t seem to sprint barefoot and I see no point in sprinting during a 10-hour race. But I did get passed by at least 3 people between exiting the water and getting into the changing tent. After getting on my helmet and socks and grabbing my shoes, I had another casual jog to my bike and then to the mount line.
Swim Time: 53:50
The bike course is 3-loops around Cozumel island. Very flat and normally windy, hot and humid. I started the bike by settling into a nice cadence and reminded myself to start drinking fluid. I had a bottle of Skratch Hyper Hydration mix in my first bottle which gives me a nice dose of sodium, as a good start to the race. My goal was to drink a full bike-bottle of water every 30 minutes. This is about all my stomach can take without sloshing. So I began to sip and tried to get comfortable in aero as I made my way south on the highway.
There weren’t too many riders on the course yet, which was nice, and we had the entire lane, which made for easy riding. After about 30 minutes of riding, I could tell my power was a bit lower for the perceived effort compared to where I wanted to be. I could feel the humidity and my face was just dripping sweat. Not a good sign so early in the race. I decided to not care about hitting my power number, but to ride based on feel alone. I knew this was the only sustainable strategy for me in this type of weather. My sweat rate increases exponentially with effort, so even trying to push a little more would really make me sweat and could be disastrous for the run.
My nutrition plan was for 300 calories an hour. Most of this was from a thick sludge of Hammer Perpetuem I had in 1 bottle on my down tube. I also carried a number of gels just to mix things up when I got tired of hot, chalky sludge. For sodium, I aimed to do 2 salt pills every 30 minutes in addition to the Hyper Hydration I took in the first 30 minutes for a total of about 6.2 grams for the 5-hour bike (this is over 15 grams of salt… enough to make any salt-naysayer have extreme hypertension just thinking about it).
During the first lap on the bike, I was doing good with my lower power and feeling like I was at a sustainable pace given the heat. I enjoyed the scenery as we were riding along the coast with plenty of views of sandy beaches and blue water. Headed back into town, the police support was great, as they had someone directing traffic at every intersection. It was an interesting perspective riding through the outskirts of town, which is very humble-living. I definitely felt like a fish out of water in my tri-kit and funny-looking bike.
As I made the turns through the city and T2, I waved to the family as I passed and headed out for my second lap. I started to get a bit sore in the lower back and tired of being in aero. Every 30 minutes I had to coast a bit and stretch out my legs and back, before getting back into aero. Lap 2 was more about business and just focusing on consistency in movement. The sun was starting to get intense and there virtually no shade on the course. It was starting to get warm in my non-vented aero helmet and all-black kit. Luckily, there were aid stations every 10k, so I was able to refill on water often and also dump water on my neck, back and chest. Usually, just as I was getting uncomfortably hot, I was able to grab a cold bottle of water and dump it on me to cool down and reduce my sweat rate.
Lap 3 was starting to get very uncomfortable and monotonous. I was anxious to get off the bike and try a new movement. My feet were beginning to hurt a lot, swelling in the heat and with all the sodium. I began having to stretch often and looked for any excuse to get out of the aero position. After mile 100, I just counted down the final miles to get back in to the city and to the bike finish. Luckily, with the flat course and high speed, it came relatively quickly. At mile 112, I still had a couple more city blocks to go…. great the course was long. The extra mile seemed to take forever and I did it riding out of aero, trying to stretch out my back for the run.
At the dismount line, I couldn’t even get my feet out of my shoes on time. So I just unclipped and kept my shoes on. After a volunteer grabbed my bike, I took off my shoes and held them as I jogged into the changing tent.
Bike Time: 5:04:48
After putting on my running shoes, neck cooler, hat, glasses and race-belt, I was jogging out of the changing tent and on to the run course. I stopped briefly to say hi to the family. While I was happy to be done with the bike and on to the last leg of the race, I was worried about the 26 miles ahead and running in the heat of the day. I took the same perspective as the bike, where I gave up on a goal pace and just ran based on feel. This ended up being a slower pace than I really wanted, but in the heat, there is nothing I can really do but to slow down.
Similar to the bike course, the run is 3 loops of out-and-back. I actually enjoyed this layout as it breaks the course into just over 4-mile segments. Thinking in 4-mile chunks is very doable. Outside of being hot and bloated, I actually felt like I had good energy as I was running the first segment. Oftentimes, in an Ironman, I feel destroyed right away on the run. But this time I felt good and strong, even though I was running a bit slow. I was also very conscience about where I was stepping as I didn’t want to put any odd torque on my ankle. I was afraid to injure it again, but it was feeling good for the time being and I didn’t feel any effects of the previous injury.
Luckily for me, there was an aid station every 1 kilometer! That’s very often. I started the run with a bottle of Skratch in my hands. When that was too warm to stomach anymore, I switched to on-course Pepsi. I also planned for another 2 salt pills every 30 minutes. This would give me another 4.5 grams of sodium over the run. Every aid station, I would take in some water, some Pepsi and then pour as much water as I could on my body. If I had time, I’d also take ice and shove it down my jersey. Water was in plastic pouches instead of cups, which I needed to open by tearing a corner with my teeth.
The first lap went by fairly fast, as I was focused on just staying cool at each aid station. I was even able to run through all aid stations without walking. I said hi to the family again at the end of the lap and started on lap 2. At about mile 11, my stomach finally had enough, and revolted. I immediately was worried I finally caught the same bug that affected my whole family the night before. I had to make a quick emergency stop at the next aid station, which set me back a handful of minutes. After that, I went back to actually feeling good again, which shocked me.
At the end of lap 2, I was beginning to get tired and run-down. I know the wheels usually start coming off around mile 16, but I wasn’t quite that bad yet. I was happy that I had only a single lap left (even though this is still over an hour of running). The afternoon sun was just zapping me and I was starting to zone-out as I ran. I knew if I made it to the final turn-around point, I’d only have about 4 miles left, which I could easily wrap my head around.
On the third lap, the course was getting very busy with athletes and the aid stations started getting backed up handing out water and Pepsi. I had to walk a number of aid stations in order to find water and Pepsi. I was lucky I was able to get back to running between aid stations.
The last miles really went by slow. By then, I knew I was close to finishing, which put my mind at ease. After so much worrying about the day and about finishing, I knew I was close. I finally made it back into town, where the crowds of spectators had grown and their support helped fuel my energy to keep going. Nothing is more enjoyable than taking the “finish” path instead of the “lap 2 & 3” path at the final corner. I ran down the finish shoot and across the line to hear, for the 10th time, those words…. “Mark, you are an Ironman”.
Run Time: 3:41:46
Race Time: 9:50:26
After crossing the finish line, I quickly deteriorated. It was tough to walk straight and my mind was foggy and not clear. Luckily, every athlete that crosses the line gets a dedicated volunteer to help them and walk them to each post-race station: fluid, timing table, medal area, pictures, food, etc. I was very thankful to have someone with me making sure I was okay and walking with me for all the admin tasks.
I skipped the food and walked over to the VIP area, where I knew my family was. All I could do was sit with my head in my hands. I didn’t even really want to talk. It’s amazing that I was able to do all this swimming, biking and running, but once my body knows I’m done, it just shuts down. It took a good 30 minutes of just sitting down before I was able to collect my body and mind enough to get up to go collect my equipment. All I wanted to do was clean off and lay in bed. After getting all my equipment and collecting my bike from transition and then dropping it off to ship it home, we all walked to the car and back to the hotel. I began feeling a bit better at the hotel and was even able to go down for dinner with the family.
Overall, I was very happy with my performance and the race overall. I went from being very worried about my ankle and the heat, to being very relieved about finishing. I felt that I did amazing considering the conditions. I still was able to get a sub-10-hour Ironman and 10th place in my age group, both of which, I consider achievements. Even after 10 Ironman races, this event still intrigues and scares me. I really enjoy the challenge and the effort needed to prepare for this type of race as well as all the other amazing athletes and stories I hear along the way and on race day.
We still had 3 more days in Cozumel after the race. Aside from walking a bit slow and stiff, I got to enjoy more vacation time with the family. Monday was swimming with the Dolphins where we got to get in the water with the dolphins for some great fun and photos. We also spent some time on the beach and even crocodile viewing.
One of my favorite dinners was actually at an Italian restaurant on Monday night, where I got to over-indulge, as usual, and great food and wine.
Tuesday, we took a cooking class from a lady in her home, where she showed us how to make tortillas by hand, and slow-cooked pork. She took us to the market to pick out ingredients and showed us each step of how she prepares the food before we got to partake in a great and authentic meal.
Wednesday, was travel day. Our flight didn’t leave till 4pm, so we had the day to relax at the hotel with the kids before packing our bags and heading out for one last lunch in Cozumel. After an exceptionally long day of travel, we finally made it home at 1:30am on Thanksgiving. In time for some sleep before more food, wine, family, and turkey!