A year ago, Jess, Steph, and I decided we would race our first and ‘only’ Ironman on November 30th, 2014. We officially signed up for the challenge after margaritas on Steph’s birthday at the end of January knowing we would be in for a grueling journey. I didn’t anticipate that this would be the toughest year of my life. Close friends and family know that I often fill my plate until it overflows but this year was different. On top of training for an Ironman, I decided to finally apply to medical school (fast forward….I got in! I’m gonna be a doctor!!!!!). My time was so scheduled out that even within hours of visiting the ER for separating my right AC joint on a bike ride, I sat down to study for the MCAT.
So many obstacles throughout that past eleven months ran through my mind as I prepared for the start line in Cozumel, Mexico. Jess and Steph kept me sane (mostly). They were there for me when I became frustrated and overwhelmed with training and life. I’m beyond grateful for the guidance and advice Felipe provided by coaching our group. And for that I owe him copious amounts of brigadieros.
Seriously after that year, just getting to the start line felt like an accomplishment. I had no true goals for the day except to finish. There were loose paces in my mind but nothing I held myself accountable to because this distance has been extremely intimidating from day one. My body hasn’t handled marathons well in the past and so the nervousness about running a marathon off a 112 mile bike manifested throughout the season.
I’m an athlete. A competitor. I thrive off that stuff. This race had nothing to do with competing with others. This race was completely about competing against the fact our bodies are just not scientifically built to handle this kind of distance. This fact gets the best of most everybody at some point, even the pros who train day in and day out. So I will openly admit that I was simply scared.
My emotions oscillated between being excited and nervous as I ate breakfast, chatted with Jess, Steph, and our amazing support crew, and got ready for the most challenging day of my life. The closer we got to the venue and after setting up the final nutrition on our bikes, the further my mind went into competitor mode. It’s only natural, right? I caught myself glancing at a woman’s back right calve for her age group category and had to remind myself that I came to finish. Flirting with competition will mean I walk the marathon.
It meant so much to go through the morning with Jess and Steph. The few days leading up to the race I was on repeat saying, “You guys, we are racing an Ironman…in Mexico.” Even two months later, reality hasn’t fully set in and the race is DONE.
Swim (50:20, 2nd in Age Group)
(I’m to the far left!)
Swimming is my first love. The swim in triathlon is my time to have fun. I told myself easy. But there was this 30-34 age grouper female in my wave though who was swimming my pace. Normally, I’ll edge up alongside to invite that person to play. This was not the time to play. While I don’t kick a lot in longer open water swims and mostly use my arms, this was still around an hour of depleting energy stores that I most definitely needed for the bike and run. So instead, I drafted. This actually might be the first time I’ve ever drafted in an open water swim. Thoughts ran through my head. This isn’t cheating because we are allowed to draft. I’m conserving energy. She’s not even in my age group. Oh my goodness, I’m swimming off the coast of Cozumel!!! Look at all those fish. Would it be wrong for me to free dive to get a closer look? Focus. This is a long friggin swim. To be honest, I had no clue how fast we were going. It felt smooth and my muscles weren’t getting fatigued.
With no watch on the swim, I didn’t know my time or place. Nor did I care. Turns out I did better than planned. I’ll take it. I popped out of the water and bolted to my transition bag.
T1 (3:52 min)
Normally, I don’t write about transitions because they are quick and nothing special but Ironman transitions are very different. We had to go to a changing tent to get ready for the bike. I used my USA kit from a few years back over my incredible new tri kit. Stripped that the USA kit off, threw on my helmet and sunglasses, and went to apply more sunscreen. There were volunteers to help but I wanted to get my face myself and proceeded to spray my sunglasses. Good one Courtney. Classic. I sped out of the tent and went to grab my bike. Looking back I should have forced myself to take time to gather myself for the 112 mile bike but I was in race mode at that point. I was so frazzled that while hopping on my bike I ended up knocking off one of my water bottles. ‘Smooth Wagner, like butter.’ All of this was, of course, captured on film by my friends.
Bike (06:34:40, 14th in AG)
If you’ve read any of my previous race reports, you know the bike is my weak point. The only time I like riding is in a large group of cyclists. When I can draft. And talk. This season has sucked for me on the bike. Jess is a beast and Steph just kept getting stronger. The competitor in me went into ‘time out’ this season as I sat in their draft for the majority of our rides and would usually get dropped. This killed but I had to admit part of it was just having too much catching up to do and then the other part was working every other Friday night shift at the hospital and heading to our long rides after a few hour nap. Miserable doesn’t begin to describe it. (#ironcranky) Even then, I knew I’d finish in a respectable time if I was smart about nutrition and pacing.
I’ll break the island into three stretches. So the first stretch heading to the south part of the island was about 12 miles and was pleasant. Maybe a small tail wind but nothing to write home about. Then you turn left and head into a wicked strong head wind for 9 excruciating miles. Heading back around the island was mildly pleasant as well. Just enough of a break before the south side stretch.
My goal was to finish without hurting my marathon too much. Despite training on flat roads with high wind, those winds just plain suck. Rumor has it that this year was one of the strongest winds to date for this race. I estimated between 6 to 6.5 hours on the bike depending on wind and other factors. So I wasn’t disappointed when I realized what my time would end up being because I battled on that horrific stretch. It would have been nice to even split the loops but the winds actually picked up and believe it or not the body gets tired after such a long time on the bike. I was in high spirits at the halfway point and then wanted nothing to do with the bike when my stomach started acting up.
This season has been a huge learning curve for proper nutrition. Part of my issue on the bike has been not getting enough calories (100-200 less calories an hour from what is recommended) and too late in the season did I finally realize that’s why I’ve been bonking on so many rides. There was still time to experiment but not enough time to fine tune everything. And instead of taking in too few calories in the first hour or two, I ended up going overboard. My stomach cramped and bothered me for the last three hours. I made bargains to take in the rest of my nutrition. Ok Courtney, at the next 15 minute mark you have to take a gel. And then you can have a sip of water.
Jess told me a really inspirational pep talk that a Navy SEAL gave the Alabama football team (insert Roll Tide! And here’s a link to the talk). The take away was drawing a line that you could cross in the sand and then crossing it. And then draw another line and cross it. So moved by the story, I drew a line on my right thumb nail and made ‘lines’ for myself the entire day. My ‘line’ for the bike was the 15 minute mark. Every 15 minutes, I sat up and stretched my back, took in some water and nutrition if I could handle it. Do you realize there are 26 intervals of 15 minutes in a 6 hour and 30 minute bike? Yeah I did that math.
The crowd support was phenomenal towards the north part of the island. So many people playing music and yelling “Sí, se puede!! Vamos!!”, which means “Yes, you can or Yes, it’s possible! Let’s go!” I must have been carb depleted at this point because whenever this was yelled at me, I got all teary-eyed. All sorts of emotional.
Coming in from the bike, I wanted nothing to do with my saddle and couldn’t wait to get off. My computer or mind was playing tricks because I swear we crossed the 180 km mark well before I saw signs for transition. I also couldn’t believe I had a marathon to run. What did I get myself into?
T2 (03:47 min)
I forgot how to walk. This apparently happens on the regular in an Ironman. Getting to the T2 tent was difficult. Having a volunteer empty the contents of your run bag and trying to remember what exactly you needed to do was also difficult. Especially because I decided this was a good time to talk in Spanish to the volunteer and seeing that I probably couldn’t have told her if I wanted my nutrition or Vaseline or shoes in English, made the experience even more fun saying it in another language.
Run (04:32 min, 15th in AG)
Something was wrong. My legs felt tired for obvious reasons but my stomach hadn’t stopped cramping. I tried going to the bathroom and couldn’t. Water didn’t help. I took one Powerbar chew and immediately spit it out. I was in trouble. Hoping things would settle a few miles in, I focused on what I could control which was my pace. Despite hurting, I had to hold my body back and not go faster than the pace I’d been training for over the past season. Around the 3 km mark, I started heaving. Headed for a corner and relieved my stomach of all its contents. Oh shit. While my stomach immediately felt better, I just lost my nutrition, electrolytes, and hydration . And wanted nothing to do with the nutrition I had planned for the run. Game changer. Shake it off. Keep moving. I was really worried at this point about not finishing. My stomach gets upset a lot but throwing up hasn’t happened during a workout or race in probably 15 years.
Originally, my ‘line’ was going to be each kilometer over the course of 42 kilometers. I needed a more doable ‘line’ to cross. Running a kilometer and walking for 30 seconds seemed doable but my body didn’t like that. So I ended up doing what Meghann did for her Ironman last year. I ran for 1 min 30 seconds and walked for 30 seconds with the hopes of gathering myself and getting back to the original plan. This meant I was going about 45 seconds per kilometer slower than my training pace but it meant I had a shot of finishing in a gagillion two minute intervals.
I finally saw Jess and Steph and while happy to see them together, I couldn’t even muster up fake enthusiasm to cheer them on because my body was reminding me I basically had nothing in my system and felt kind of dizzy. They were kicking butt. The nurse in me was cringing as I kept moving and only drank water or Pepsi.
Still feeling shoddy, I saw our support crew. This meant the world. I plastered a smile on my face. Heard Felipe tell me I was almost there with 75% of the marathon left to go and so I flipped him off and it was caught in a picture. Great. Bill chatted with me for a minute and I was simply in a bad place still worried about finishing but holding dearly onto my ‘lines’ and Felipe’s recent pep talk that during the race, I wasn’t allowed to make a decision about quitting. It simply wasn’t an option because my mind would play games. And oh did my mind play games.
Around the 15 km mark, I bargained that I could drink water if I took a gel. Cue heaving but it went down and actually helped with cramps. New rule: take part of a gel every 5 km for the rest of the race no matter which shape my stomach was in. This helped me get to the halfway point and things finally clicked. I found a groove. My body and mind perked up. I was going to finish. I had been waiting for that moment. My little run-walk was working. It wasn’t fast but I was passing a good amount of people.
The second half marathon took forever but I kept marching on in two minute intervals and repeating that it was almost over. Without timing systems up , no watch on the swim, a bike Garmin, and switching over to my wrist Garmin for the run, I was not paying attention to overall time.
I recognized a male racer with capsules in little Ziplocs stapled to his hat. Genius. Naturally, I start chatting. ‘Is this your first Ironman?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How’s the day going?’ ‘Oh that’s so smart of you to carry electrolytes that way…hmmm cough…I threw up an hour or two ago…care to share?’ Yeah, so I took somebody’s electrolytes, with caffeine. And don’t regret it a single bit.
As the day drew to a close, and my body kept holding the same pace I realized that finishing an Ironman was going to happen. I relaxed. Teared up occasionally. Joked that this was the stupidest friggin’ thing I’d ever done to people around me. Pretty proud that I made people from several countries laugh with that line. I kept pushing forward. I found spectators handing out Coca-Cola and drank that can like it was my life source. Pepsi was wearing on me. Gross. When people cheered, I smiled and hollered back.
With 5 km left, emotions started to run high and I just wanted to finish. Finish an IRONMAN. When the 25 mile marker popped up, I wanted nothing more than the 26 mile marker. That thing took FOREVER. At this point, the crowd was going wild. I was crying. Full on ugly crying with pictures to prove it. This season grated on my soul. Crossing the finish line meant more than anything at that moment. To be honest, I don’t know what went through my mind besides gratitude. I was so thankful for this journey to be over.
FINISH: 12:05:38, 15th in AG, 72nd in Gender
I cried as one of the volunteers put on my medal. He asked if I needed the medic tent but I just blubbered that I was so ‘f-ing’ grateful for this race to be over. By the way, Ironman turns you into a sailor. I saw my friend, Chris, near the finish line offering me congratulations and water. I saw he had a Coke bottle and I immediately reached for it across the chain link fence. He mentioned the Coke was mixed with Rum and I thought, “All the better.”
What an incredible day. Jess, Steph, and I all had great days with ups and downs but we all finished. We all finished and with great times. I don’t know what I would have done without these ladies over the past year.
The rest of our time in Cozumel consisted of relaxing, enjoying, and talking about just how glad we were that it was all over.