My First Ironman - Ironman Cozumel 2009!

At 2:00am I woke up and used the bathroom, worried now that I wouldn’t get back to sleep before the 4:00am alarm went off. I lay there for a while thinking about what lay in store for me in a few hours and began to pray, and as usual that did the trick (I seem to even bore myself with my prayers, guess I’ll never be a preacher) and I fell asleep. The 4:00am alarm was not welcome, since I’d started a great new book (The Middle Place) at 10:30 pm and had to force myself to put it down an hour later. After all, I kind of needed my sleep.

My pre-race meal: a cup of my Body Balance supplement; my wonder woman shake (2 bananas + some strawberry yoghurt + some water + protein powder + 3 energy gels + 2 endurolyte capsules); a cup of coffee; a croissant lodged itself atop the delicious meal from the previous night, prepared by a cook hired by some fellow triathletes: spaghetti and chicken fajitas. I sealed in any empty spaces in my digestive system with mango Gatorade (it’s delicious – wish we had that flavor back home!). I woke up Bill at 5:15 and off we went, carrying 4 bottles of fluids, my gear back with my swim stuff, as well as my bag with “Special Needs” for the bike (food etc to be picked up at an aid station about halfway through the bike loop); Bill had the camera and I bore a few extra pounds thanks to the 4 days of carb loading.
The bikes had been racked the previous day, when we also handed in our bike gear bag and our run gear bag. So all I had to do was check my bike tires (seemed good), put my fluids on the bike, chug another Gatorade, eat another gel, take another leak (or whatever). I made my way over to the latrines. The usual line (we were, after all, 2,000 crazy people I mean competitors), and only 5 latrines. After a while I turned to the extremely tall, Nordic-looking guy behind me, figuring he was from some Scandinavian country. Turns out he was from Sweden. The south of Sweden. Malmo, I asked? He was surprised by my familiarity with that town and he said, no, a bit further north, a little town called Karlskrona. I broke into a HUGE grin. That little town was the town where my mom was born and grew up! I said, I don’t believe in coincidences. The fact that the only 2 Swedes in this competition are standing behind me in the potty line, and they happen to be from my family’s hometown, tells me that once again, my mom is letting me know she’s with me during this race. Matts and Frederick showed no sign of skepticism when I told them I was sure we were going to have a great race now. In fact, they stuck with me until the swim start, especially since when it was my turn to use the potty I realized I didn’t just have to pee – and by then all 5 latrines had run out of toilet paper. I kid you not. It’s 6:30am, half an hour before race start, 2,000 athletes – and no toilet paper. Luckily I had a pack of Kleenex on my bike (I’m not a true cyclist, since I refuse to blow my snot into the air) so the 2 Vikings gratefully held my spot in line while I ran to get the Kleenex. I gave them each a tissue, went about my business, and then, not knowing Toilet Paper Shortage (TPS) would become the theme of my first Ironman, I graciously distributed the rest of my kleenex supply to those in line.

The Vikings and I made our way to the swim start, dropping off our Pre Swim bag (which had any clothing etc we’d arrived in, and would need at the finish line); we wouldn’t see this bag until the end of the race. I figured I’d see Bill by the swim start so decided to leave my flip flops on and hand them to him, so as not to have to struggle over the gravel. The swim start was off the dock of the dolphin pen. There were probably about a dozen dolphins as Chankanaab, where we were, is a national park where you can have dolphin encounters. I had done the practice swim the previous morning so I was really excited about this part of the race. I watched the dolphins swimming around as we listened to the playing of the Mexican national anthem and envisioned channeling their easy, serene swim technique.

At 6:45 the pro’s were off, then we all filed along the docks and jumped into the water for a water start. My race strategy for the whole race, as prescribed by my fantastic coach (Janda Ricci-Munn), was the following: the swim is easy, relaxed, a warm-up. The bike is an easy, relaxed Sunday stroll by the beach; if you’re pushing it, you’re going too hard; if you feel like you can go faster, DON’T. The run is a matter of getting from aid station to aid station, until mile 20, then it becomes a race (I chuckled at this; Janda, it won’t be a race for me until mile 25; or 26). As nonaggressive as my race strategy would be that day, I had no interest in being anywhere near the starting line. This would be my first mass water start and I was quite content to hang about on the back fringes. After a few minutes I realized how strong the current was, since I had completely drifted away without realizing it. The horn sounded, I actually remembered to start my timer, and we were off!

The first bit of the 2.4 mile swim was against the current. I focused on avoiding other swimmers while admiring the amazing ocean life I was passing. Colorful fish abounded, but then my goggle started to leak. Typical. Three times I paused to adjust them, finally the seal occurred (it’s always the right eye for some reason, regardless of the brand or model) and I was golden. Got to the turn around point and headed back for the long, down current stretch. I passed a buoy and out of the corner of my eye saw a big marine animal below me – shark???! – but realized it was a scuba diver. The water temperature was perfect (no wetsuits allowed) and the scene going on below me so amazing – huge starfish, conch shells, fish of all sorts – I was actually disappointed when I reached the turn point. It had looked much further from the shore! A submarine was parked there, which was also really cool. Back upstream to the swim finish, and was surprised to see that in spite of no real effort I’d made it within a couple of minutes of my low estimate. Jogged past the cheering crowd, smiling the whole way, saw Bill and gave him the thumbs-up, paused in the shower, grabbed my bike gear bag. Toweled off, sprayed on sunscreen, threw on my bike jersey, socks, shoes, helmet, sunglasses, grabbed my bike computer, put my cap and goggles in the bag, dropped it off in the women’s tent, made my way to my bike.

As my bike and I made our way to the Bike Out, I heard over a megaphone “GO SUSANNE! ANIMO SUSANNE!!” Bill was standing next to some chicks who had a megaphone and had asked them to cheer me on ☺ So now for my least favorite part: the 112 mile bike ride. It was 3 loops of the island. I wasn’t nervous about my fitness level, especially since it’s a completely flat course, but I sheepishly admit that I have no clue about bicycle maintenance. Before dropping off my bike, Bill made me practice putting the chain back on should it fall off (this, I knew, was unlikely since I’d probably be in one gear the whole time!). But in my 4.5 years with my bike, I have NEVER had a flat. Which is great – except it also means I have no clue how to change a tire. The day before, I had sweet-talked a couple of the course bike mechanics, telling them my worries and asking them to please look out for me since should I get a flat, I would be relying on my little instruction manual that was tucked in with the spare tube.

I focused on Janda’s detailed instructions for calorie ingestion, because everyone always stresses that nutrition is usually what makes or breaks the Ironman. It also gave me something on which to focus. I knew that mentally, what would get me through this was chunking it down. Instead of thinking about the fact that I’ve never in my life ridden more than 60 miles outdoors (my few 5-6 hour rides had occurred on my dungeon trainer), and the fact I’d never ridden the equivalent of 112 miles, nor followed it with a marathon – in fact, I’d never run a marathon – in fact, what the f---- was wrong with me for signing up for this insanity, and paying $520 to do so – instead, I focused on taking a big gulp of my energy drink every 15 mins, a Gatorade every hour, and a gel every hour. This was much more mentally manageable. I suddenly realized I had no bananas on me and I was supposed to eat one every 20 miles. Which then made me roll my eyes because for some reason the bike computer wasn’t working, in fact I’m so not into watching numbers that after I had mistakenly, a few months ago, switched the computer over to the metric system, I never bothered with it again except to look at my cadence, since that was how Janda had trained me. He had instructed me to keep at about 85 revolutions the whole 112 miles. But I wasn’t sure what that was, since the computer wasn’t working properly. The few times it showed a reading, I was either at 65 (on the very windy back of the island) or 85. So I decided screw the cadence, I’m going by perceived effort.

Every so often there was an aid station, with plenty of volunteers eager to hand you a water bottle or Gatorade bottle as you sped by. I didn’t bother the first few times, since I still had plenty of my own and had also realized that the endurolyte (sodium/electrolyte) capsules I had gone to such an extent to find on the night before the trip down (and ultimately had relied on a new friend, Tania, for) were unfortunately still in my Pre Swim bag (which, if you’ll recall, I wouldn’t see until the end of the race). And I was very pointedly instructed by Janda that I would need to add one of these capsules to each Gatorade I picked up. Oops. Also, the thought of riding by some kid and not crashing while reaching for that bottle, then somehow getting rid of another bottle or squeezing the new contents into the bottle that’s on my aerobars – well, that was a bit intimidating; I haven’t done the no handlebar thing since I was a kid. I am indeed not one with my bike.

Did I mention the back side of the island was windy? Head winds, cross winds, you name it. But the funny thing is, I was mesmerized by the scenery. Pristine beaches, no development, turquoise waters, white sands, the occasional bar-in-a-hut, I mean it was perfect. I definitely had a smile the whole time, full of gratitude that after several weeks of training in my dungeon, staring at cement, with a heater blasting in my face, now I was in this paradise. A little more than halfway through my first of the 3 bike loops, the elite/pro’s passed me, on their second loop, charging through the wind, head down, completely focused. I yelled “woooooo!” each time one of them passed me, a bit envious of their superhuman ability but also grateful that I was not subjected to the pressure they were under to make a living of this, so I could look around and take it all in, going along at a speed I’m quite sure Pee Wee Herman could have handled on his big ole bike.

At this point (still on loop one) my right hamstring for some reason decided to make itself known, and my feet began their usual “I don’t like to bike, I rather run” painful reminder. I contemplated pulling over and going for a quick dip in the ocean but didn’t know if that would earn me a penalty (at the mandatory pre-race meeting 2 days beforehand, they had strongly emphasized penalties and while a 4 minute penalty was a drop in the bucket compared to the 8 hours I would end up spending on my lovely bike, I could not imagine being disqualified after all my half-assed work). So instead, when I reached an aid station on the back side, I pulled over and tried to relieve some of the pain in my feet/hamstring and unload some of the carbs that were at this point lodged somewhere in my digestive system that proves to be rather uncomfortable. Had I known that this would be my second-to-last opportunity to be graced by the Toilet Paper gods, I would have hoarded some.

After a few minutes, got back on my chariot and plodded forward, bravely passing the big pit stop where my Special Needs bag and its bananas were waiting for me. (I’d forgotten the banana part, oops). About 15 km later we start approaching civilization and now the fun really starts. Families of humble means are all gathered at the roadside, yelling, clapping, “Animo, guerita! Tú sí puedes, guerita!” (Keep it up, blondie, you can do it, blondie!) I grinned at everyone, yelling “gracias!” over and over. Now we’re rolling through town. Fortunately they had removed the speed bumps and the roads were actually pretty good. The throngs of people were AWESOME. They were going wild! Passed transition, on for loop 2. At this point I realized I’d gone waaaaaay past the estimated time Bill had plugged into the brilliant spreadsheet he had created, in order to try to time catching me at different points between his 3 meals and massage appointment. Sure enough, I pass by our condo and he’s not there. I was disappointed but I also knew he’d be all worried now, wondering where the hell I was.

So I guess about 45 miles into this pilgrimage I realize my hands and arms are looking a tad red, and I should reapply sunscreen. Except it’s in my Special Needs bag. I also find the foot throbbing has gotten a bit worse, the hamstring hasn’t worsened but it’s still there, and I am about 2 bananas behind. Pass the Tequila History Tour and wonder if it’s worthwhile, now back to the Windy Side. Leap frogging with a couple of people but for much of it it’s a solitary ride. Official rules are, keep 4 bike lengths between you and the person ahead of you, or you risk a penalty card. So most people are riding along in their own little world. I’m still enthralled with the beauty of the island and belting out “I GOTTA FEELING! THAT TODAY’S GONNA BE A GREAT DAY!...” and thinking of all my friends and family back home and all over the world, how some of them are listening to this song, tracking my progress online (“gosh, 5 – 6 – 7 hours have gone by and she’s still on the bike, did she get a flat?”), how my mom is watching over me and ensuring my tires stay intact, how Tracy would love this place and how amazing she is, enduring all her health issues etc and always so full of joy and gratitude, how Kate Conklin smilepaced her whole Ironman a couple of weeks ago and the pain in my feet is nothing compared to what she endures all over her body, every single day, and she is always so happy and grateful…

Get to the Special Needs pitstop, which by now is a complete jumbled mess of bags and by some miracle I easily find mine. I use the latrine, my last encounter with Toilet Paper (unbeknownst to me, unfortunately) for several hours, and then my friend Tania shows up. She is happy to share her endurolytes, in fact she tries to give me half her PB&J sandwich, a bag of Doritos, energy bars & gels, such a generous soul – but I’ve still got the issue of all this fuel I’ve consumed hanging out somewhere in my esophagus that is not a place where beverages/food are supposed to set up camp. So I graciously decline. Back on the bike, through town, where everyone is still just as enthusiastically cheering us on, past transition. I hear the announcement that the first woman has just arrived into transition and for a bizarre moment I think “do they mean me? Gosh they must be confused!” and then I start cracking up. When I pass our condo Bill is out there this time, much to my joy. He waves, yells “you look great!” but no photos, so I realize he probably ran out of batteries at just that moment (he later confirms this fact).

On to loop 3. I am feeling great (Bill wasn’t lying). My snail pace and attention to nutrition seem to be working. I figure my foot pain will go away once I start the marathon. Then I start giggling again, having an entertaining inner dialogue: ‘You know, I just swam a bit, went for a bike ride; haven’t worked out enough today, think I’ll run a marathon. My first marathon, in fact. Yes, what a brilliant idea.’ And so on.

I pass a few people and now I know I’m ahead of them (on previous loops I didn’t know what loop they were on), including one guy with lots of body hair and tattoos everywhere. He has some fancy wheels, not the Darth Vader kind as I call them (disc) because when they come up from behind the swooshing reminds me of Darth Vader’s breathing, but these were not allowed on this windy course, but some other kind that’s cool looking and expensive but completely counter productive in cross winds. I pass him and make some joke about the fact he’s steering a sailboat. The bad part of my Pee Wee Herman pace is that although I know my legs will feel good for the run, it’s now mid-afternoon and the winds have picked up big time. Still, my fellow competitors are bitching and I am truly thankful for the view and the cloud cover that has meant less heat. Back through town (at this point the families camped out along the road are on their 2nd meal – and still cheering strongly). A biker outside a bar holds out a beer and for a moment I think, hmmmmmmm, tempting. But I just yell “ojalá!” (I wish) and roll on. Dismount and a guy grabs my handlebars. I’m suddenly dazed – I have just biked 112 miles for the first time in my life! – and pause a moment to steady myself – and head over to the transition tent. (Note: both transition areas are miles away from each other, so trucks have brought our gear bags to this area). I’m given my bag and a bottle of water, I spot Tania and head over to her, and as usual, she’s joking. It’s Tania’s first Ironman too, in fact she just entered the sport of triathlon last year! She lives in DC, trains with the DC tri club, and I met her via email the week before thanks to my friend TJ, who trains with the same club. She’s in her 20s, and has done marathons before but this will be her first after swimming and biking – and her first with a broken toe. We say, OK, we’re all warmed up, how about a marathon? And leave the tent strong and happy. I’m just so happy to now only have my body and mind to rely on – not some piece of equipment I know very little about.
I follow Janda’s instructions again and proceed at a jog. I figure I’m probably doing a 10-10:30 mile (I later find out that the first 13 miles I averaged about 10:20) and I feel amazing. Yes, my legs are a bit sore but I have plenty of energy, and the hamstring and foot pain are work-through-able. The streets downtown are lined with people who are yelling, screaming out our names (they’re on our bibs), playing drums, and restaurants are blasting salsa music. A lot of people are walking at this point but I’m jogging along, huge grin, feel amazing. Do start to feel like I’ve got to hit the potty (#2) but decide to head onward, wait till I really need to go. Chat with a few guys I catch up with, then pass. My strategy now is to run aid station to aid station – they are spaced 1 km apart. A marathon is 42 km. Come to the turn around point, by now it’s dark out (the sun started setting at 4:30pm), I’ve done just over 4 miles, time to head back into town. At this point, the mosquitos decide to come out for the party and everyone is bitching about being eaten alive, but I decide that if I’m focusing on annoying bugs and the itching, I won’t be focusing on the throbbing feet, the slightly angry hamstring, and the brewing in my intestines. I have a fuel belt with 4 bottles I’d prepared with my carbo pro and endurolyte mix, so I take swigs of that every so often, plus I have some water at each aid station. Janda had instructed me to have a gel every hour of the run but at this point my digestive system is telling me NO WAY. Decide to stop at a latrine but there’s no paper so I just keep going.

Now I’m back in town, throngs of people going nuts, I’ve still got a huge grin on my face and really do feel great. I’m 8 miles into my first marathon and still running! Bill, who’s now looking particularly dapper in his 3rd outfit of the day, takes a couple of pictures, asks me how I feel, I say GREAT! How do you feel? He laughs and says super proud, you’re going to do this!!!! So now back up for loop 2 of 3. By now I’ve had a volunteer spray me with bug spray, so the bugs aren’t bothering me any more. But my insides are. I contemplate stopping at a restaurant but at this point my brain must not be working because I wonder if this would disqualify me? So I keep going. I’m drinking coke at each aid station, filling my fuel belt with water, grabbing ice and putting it on my sore shoulders and my hot face, stopping for just a few seconds at a time to do all this. I’m surprised when I finally glance at my watch to see how well I’m doing. At this rate, I can finish in about 13.5 hours in spite of my Pee Wee Herman bike stroll! I’m passing all these walkers, thinking, you should have hired my coach, look where he got me, on a 10 week training plan! And I just turned 40! And my kids had H1N1! And my puppy had emergency surgery because she swallowed some toys, my iPhone headset and a wind chime! And I ran for and lost an election! And I feeeeeel good! And I GOTTA FEELIN!!! And then boy did a get a feeling. A not-so-good feeling. Now I’m finishing up loop 2. I see Bill, he yells “Susanne, you’re not smilepacing!” I say “This is f-ing HARD” and Bill encourages me by jogging at my side, my big ole camera in hand, in his sandals, for a few minutes. Alone again, for the first time, I consider walking a bit in spite of Hermes’ contention the night before that if you walk at any point in an Ironman, in his opinion you’re not an Ironman (same goes for a marathon). Of course, Hermes is not racing, he’s here to cheer on his friends, but his words do egg me on. Until about mile 18. That’s when I realize that what had been a “gosh, I need to poop but I’ll just hold it in till the end because there’s no TP anywhere and the latrines are disgusting at this point and it’s pitch black on the run where the latrines are located and there might be a tarantula in there and I would hate to get carted off in an ambulance because of a spider bite on the ass” thought now becomes the horrible realization that I am about to have diarrhea. I recall the image of the triathlete a few years ago, who is finishing Ironman with shit running down her leg and say eeeeeewwwwww no way, I ain’t doin that! So I force myself out of my trot and down to a walk. I find the walk more painful than the jog, certainly mentally as it now means my time will suffer, Bill will worry, anyone who’s tracking me online will think I’ve given up, Janda will be disappointed, it means I’ll be out here longer – but at least I can hold it in until I find some damn toilet paper. Turns out I didn’t find toilet paper until mile 24. I had to walk 6 miles. It was a very dark 6 miles. Literally, but also mentally – I completely withdrew within myself, the faces I peered into seemed as overtaken with effort as I’m sure mine was, and I thought several times how similar this was, psychologically, to giving birth to Jackie. I curled up within myself, wanted nothing to do with anyone. And then I found it – not nirvana, not a source of deep, inner strength, not a Jesus apparition – but a latrine with a roll of toilet paper!! I thanked the volunteer at that aid station, said “you’re the only latrine with TP!” and he told me they had just put it there, I was lucky. For the 20th time that day, I’m thinking, the race directors will hear from me about this! I paid $520 and got a great (albeit not totally flattering, it could be a bit more tapered) Ironman jacket and lots of Gatorade, but why’d they skimp on the TP???! I calculate the TP fiasco has cost me about 45 mins or more today. Once I’m empty I head on out, ready to attack! I try to get a guy from Boston, who’s walking, to pick it up and jog with me the last 2 miles, but he gives up after about 50 feet. So back to being alone. But now I’m in town, the crowds are a little thinner but still enthusiastic, it’s almost 10pm, and I am certain that I am going to be an Ironman or Ironwoman or as Bill affectionately said the day before, an Ironbitch! I hit mile 26 and I start sprinting. I feel no pain, I have a huge smile on my face! The crowds are roaring, yelling GO SUSANNE! Over the loudspeaker I hear “And from the USA, Susanne Navas, you are now an Ironman!!!” I see the huge screen up above with me on it, I’m a rock star, I see Bill cheering, taking my picture, huge smile on his face, the clock reads 14:59:53, I sprint even faster, my arms are in the air as I make my way down the finish chute, I’m over the finish line, a medal is round my neck, and I start bawling. Fellow competitors are congratulating me, I’m doing likewise, wiping the tears from my face, Bill’s at my side, I figure I should drink some water, I grab an orange piece, have no interest in the pizza, pass the massage tables as I’m afraid I won’t be able to get back up, all I want is an ice bath for my battered feet and legs. Bill emails back home, he takes a picture with my phone, I upload it to Facebook, we go to gather my gear, my new DC Tri friends Travis and Mark come over and hug me (Travis posted an amazing 12 hours and has already enjoyed a dinner of nachos with his family), Mark did great too, 13:40, we sit on a curb as I collect myself and we chat about the race. We head over to the car (Bill as usual scored an amazing spot) and head back to our condo, where Bill draws me a cold bath in our outdoor Jacuzzi, then I have a bowl of cereal and 2 Alleve, then to bed (I do read for a good half hour to unwind).

I could write a whole other report on The Day After My First Ironman because yesterday was truly another awesome day, between the emotions I felt while reading all of my friends’ and family members’ messages of support, how touched I was by their concern and excitement while tracking me online, several people refusing to go to bed until they’d seen I’d finished – and the FUN I had between an amazing massage appointment where Sally massaged my body for a full hour, using pretty much only her feet and body weight! Followed by an unexpected glass of champagne and beer with Mexico’s number 1 Ironman (Alan Villanueva) and his 3 teammates (all 20-somethings), all of whom were hilarious and very appreciative of a blond Ironwoman who speaks Spanish, which was then followed by an unexpected really fun game of beach volleyball with a bunch of Texans and beer (at this point Bill returned from golf, and joined us), then followed by a great evening with Nissim, a guy I met on the Ironman Cozumel Facebook page back in September – we met him and his girlfriend and several members of their triathlon team for dinner (and they told me there’s rarely TP at Mexican races, so they bring their own!). Alas, this brief report has turned into a book so I’ll spare you all those details. Photos soon to follow…

Will I do it again? If it were up to me, yes. I loved the training; I loved the whole experience of not only pushing my body and spirit but also meeting so many like-minded people and sharing all this positive, motivated energy. I’d also like to see what my time could be if I pushed myself more, and was less intimidated by my bike (ie I plan to become one with my bike for 2010). Cozumel was a great venue for this, with the enthusiastic hosts, the incredible, unrivaled Mexican hospitality, the Mexican sense of humor that is even prevalent among triathletes. Alas, it’s not just up to me. My family, especially Bill, has been incredibly supportive, patient and proud of me the past two months. Don’t want to take advantage of them unless they are completely on board again. So we’ll see… But if I do, I will be sure to attach a roll of TP to my fuel belt and one to my bike. Maybe Charmin’ (the TP company) will sponsor me?