I don’t really know why I ever wanted to do an Ironman in the first place. I suppose it’s sort of the natural evolution for an average runner who takes up biking: a local tri, a half iron, and then an attempt to swing a full. Sheer curiosity at whether or not I could actually finish one was definitely a motivator. No matter the reason, this past November I made the flight down to Mexico to attempt a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles on a bike, and a 26.2 mile run.
Why I Chose Ironman Cozumel
I chose Ironman Cozumel for one reason and one reason only: the swim.
I’ll dive into training and a full course recap next, but for now just know that I am not the best swimmer. Awful actually, if you were ranking me against fellow triathletes.
For the non-tri folks reading this: Ironman has pretty stiff time cut-offs. You get 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the 2.4 mile swim. If you don’t make it, your bike is pulled from the rack at the first transition zone and your race day gets cut roughly 138 miles short.
Swimming is my worst leg, so my logic was to choose the race that gave me the best odds at simply getting to the bike. Once I got there, I could wing the rest.
Every year Ironman Cozumel gets voted best swim because of the crystal clear water and the current. (Athletes swim with the current, not against it.)
How I Trained for My First Ironman
In full transparency, I didn’t train nearly as much as I should have. I’ve never been the type of runner to follow a training schedule. Try as I might, I’m just not organized enough to do so.
So toss the idea of a training schedule out the window. That totally didn’t happen.
Typically, training for an Ironman takes about 9 months. I started in February and just sort of operated under a training mentality for the bulk of 2019. I tried to get in a workout at least 4 times a week when I was home. When I was traveling, I usually just packed the running shoes and did the best I could.
Training actually went well for the first couple months. I swam every day while I was waiting for shin splints to heal. A lot of miles were being clocked on the bike. It was decent… and then summer hit. Traveling and hanging out with friends nudged training to the back burner pretty quickly.
My only saving grace was a half Ironman in Malibu in September, 2 months before race day. Even though it was my worst race ever (please don’t look up my time), it was a huge mental boost to complete it. That also ended up being my longest training swim, bike, and run. A terrible idea, if you were ever planning on doing an Ironman. I definitely recommend doing more than half the distance during your training.
As you might have guessed based on my training, I didn’t really go into the race actually believing that I could finish it. But I had already paid for my registration and flights were booked, so I had to at least give it a shot.
Prep the day before was minimal. I spent a good bit of time freaking out and thinking, “what on earth am I doing?”. We checked in my bike, went to the practice swim, and got some pasta for dinner. I set my alarm for 5:30am and was asleep by 9:30.
Race Day: Mazda Ironman Cozumel 2019
I wish I could say the nerves turned into pure excitement on the morning of the race, but that would be a total lie. When I got to the start, I made my way towards the back of the line along with the other athletes who predicted a 2+ hour swim. We all chatted for about an hour, waiting to get to the starting line.
The swim was a point-to-point ocean swim, bordering the coral reef, with a rolling start off of a little dock. Two athletes started about every three seconds or so.
As soon as you jumped into the water, there was a sign bolted to the ocean floor that said, “You’ve officially started Ironman Cozumel!” I share that for 2 reasons; first, it was cool and second, it tells you how clear the water is.
Throughout the swim I had to remind myself that I was racing and not leisurely snorkeling. You swim right over scuba divers, the reef, schools of fish… previous racers even claim to have seen sea turtles!
One not-so-great aspect of the ocean swim were the jellyfish. They were super tiny, so they didn’t actually hurt. It was just alarming to feel the occasional sting on your face or arm. One even stung me all the way down my leg.
Racers were abuzz about the current. Some were ticked and believed it to be overhyped and non-existent. Others claimed it was there, they just weren’t able to catch it. Others set PRs, including Tim O’Donnell, who got out of water first. Fastest swim in an Ironman ever – 39:18. Unbelievable.
Personally, I have to believe it was there and that I caught it. There is no way I could’ve swam 2.4 miles in an hour and a half if there wasn’t one. For reference, my fastest half swim time was 55 minutes.
I never race with a watch, so guessing where I am along the swim is a total crapshoot. I was able to maintain a freestyle stroke the entire time and overall, I felt great. When it came time to turn left into shore, I was shocked that I was already done with the swim.
Transition Zone 1
I would skip right over the transitions, but everyone always seems to wonder what you wear during an Ironman. That and what you eat, but I’ll cover that later. The water in Cozumel is never cold enough to be wetsuit legal, so I just wore my tri-kit for the swim. I changed completely at T1 and wore bike shorts and a cycling tank top for the bike.
After I registered for the race, I found out Cozumel has a reputation for having a difficult bike. It’s pretty much completely flat, but the wind is bad. It’s a 3 loop course with one tiny hill and some crosswinds and headwinds on the eastern and southern sides.
As I started the bike, I was still just shocked and excited that the swim had gone so well. The adrenaline of, “holy crap, I made it here” carried me through my first lap with relative ease.
Lap two was when things started to get difficult. I yanked my brakes too hard going into the first aid station and had a minor crash. Honestly, if I had to crash, this one was pretty ideal. Nothing but a scraped elbow and bruised knee injury wise. My chain popped off, but the bike tech at the aid station fixed it in about 10 seconds. It was only about a 2 minute delay, but it rattled me a little bit.
Towards the middle of the second lap was when I hit my first wall. (First of many, I was soon to find out.) I stopped at an aid-station, ate a granola bar, and gave myself a little pep talk to get past it.
The third lap was hard, but doable because I knew it was the last one.
My favorite part of the bike course was the portion that went through town. Towards the beginning of this section, the locals camped out and cheered on the athletes. The little kiddos yelling “sí se puede, sí se puede” as bikers went past was uplifting. After that, each lap Joey would find me on the course and update me on my time. I could bank on seeing a familiar face each lap and that was really motivating.
A quick note about nutrition…
Like I said, people always want to know what you eat during an Ironman. In my experience, food settles best on the bike because you’re sitting. I never have a definitive plan for when I am going to eat. I kind of just follow my gut. Literally.
On the bike I ate a granola bar, a couple gels, half of a banana, and some blocks. I drank plenty of Gatorade and water.
Transition Zone 2
The second transition was pretty low key. A volunteer takes your bike for you as you enter T2, so you don’t have to rack it or anything. All you have to do is grab your bag and go.
I remember this being the first point during the race where I actually believed I was going to finish. After I changed, I talked with Joey for about a minute or so, where he told me how much time I had for the run. At that point, I could’ve walked the entire run and still have finished within the time cutoff.
The run course was 3 out and back loops, starting in the town and going to Punta Norte and back. It was totally flat and had spectators for the vast majority.
Just like the first lap of the bike, the adrenaline of making it this far into the race pushed me through the first lap of the run. My legs felt pretty good, other than a little tightness in my calves.
The only thing I could stomach throughout the entire run was pretzels, water, and Coke. I had never drank Coke during a race before. Shockingly good and effective at settling the stomach. I recommend it.
I’ve discovered that the second lap of any three lap race is sucky. It just doesn’t have the excitement that the first or last lap has. The run was no exception. I hit a wall around mile 12-14, which was probably the hardest section of the entire race.
By the time I started the third lap of the run, I was just ready to be done. It was dark outside by this point (it had been for a while) and the course was starting to thin out. I remember thinking less than 2 hours of running and you never have to do this again.
The only thing left to do at that point was finish. I met up with Joey about a mile and half out. He ran with me for as long as he was allowed (on a broken foot, I should add), then I went into the finisher’s shoot.
After 15 hours and 40 minutes, I crossed the finish line of Ironman Cozumel. It was a wild experience, from beginning to end – one I am confident that I will never, ever have again.
I have another post in the works on some more thoughts on the whole experience. Until then, I want to know what y’all are training for! Anything exciting?! Let me know in the comments!