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The Best Laid Plans

Posted Dec 02 2009 4:32pm
You might recall how I asked Coach Kris for advice in formulating a plan for Ironman Cozumel. He gave me great advice: Plan A for the ideal day, Plan B for if something goes wrong, and Plan C for just getting to the finish. As it turns out, I needed all three plans just to get through the hardest Ironman course I have ever experienced in two hours slower than my unstated goal.

See, going in, I kinda had some numbers in mind. I thought it reasonable that I could swim--MAYBE--about 1:30 if the seas were kind. I had no idea what to expect of the current in Cozumel. I had trained to bike about 18mph if conditions were reasonable. Then, if I were strong and my nutrition was good, I might be able to hold 10 minute miles or so on the run. If it all worked out, I thought, based upon the results of my training, that I might finish in the mid to high 12 hour neighborhood.

Based upon my half-iron results on a hilly course and the higher level of fitness Coach Kris had given me this year, I think this was reasonable. But see, Ironman and Mother Nature have an unholy alliance. Here's how it went down.

The Swim: Plan A

I was nervous about the swim. Before the race I had the opportunity to take one practice swim on the course. The wind had decreased from the gales the day before, but it was still quite a challenge--two to three foot swells and strong current. I needn't have worried. Like everyone in the race, I had the swim of my life.

On the morning of the race, it was calm and still on the western side of the island. I jumped off the dock with 2000 of my closest friends and treaded water against the current until the horn sounded and we all pummeled each other on the way to the first turn buoy 500 meters up current. Because of the current, it seemed like it took forever to make that first turn. I choked down some sea water a couple times but did not wear myself out.

Squished and crowded around the turn buoys and we were heading back down current. This was like walking the moving sidewalk at the airport. I had some difficulty seeing the intermediate bouys as wakes and swells arose, but before I knew it I was at the far end of the course heading for home.

I was afraid how much effort would be required to get back to the finish, but the course must have been laid out close enough to shore that the channel current was not a factor. Each buoy passed in course and before I knew it, I was getting out of the water, fresh and ready to ride in only 1:20.

That's abysmal for some people, but pretty good for me and 10 minutes faster than Plan A.
"Sweet!" I think to myself. "10 minutes in the bank for later!"

Yeah. Not so much.

The Bike: Plan B

In and out of transition and I was on to my favorite part of the race--or so I thought. I love the bike, and the first few miles were going just as planned. I got my heart rate calmed down and settled into 20-22 miles per hour at a heart rate way under my thresh hold. I swam and rode so fast that Mrs. Greyhound and Superpounce barely made it out to the bike course to see me fly by on the first lap.

"Sweet," I'm thinking to myself. "I can put some more time in the bank for the eastern side of the island where they told us to expect cross-winds. I mean, how hard can it be? It's only 10 to 12 miles next to the open ocean. I've ridden 5 hours at Galveston before."

And then reality hit. We turned left onto the bumpy, rough, chip-sealed coastal road and were nearly blown off our bikes by a 30 mile per hour head wind with gusts even faster. My speed dropped from 20 to 15 to 14 and sometimes down to 12. It was less than 30 minutes into the bike, but I knew immediately that the numbers in my head were now just fantasy.

Time for Plan B. If I pushed over the edge here, the finish line might not happen at all. So, I dropped to the small ring and tried to maintain a cadence and heart rate while watching the mileage tick slowly by. Mezcalitos, the left turn back to Cozumel, seemed like it would never come. And all the while, I knew that I had to do that same stretch two more times.

By the time I reached the turn at Mezcalitos, my average speed had dropped from 18.5 mph to 15.8 mph. So Plan B was to see how much lost speed I could get back without digging myself into a hole. I road as fast as I thought I reasonably could without exceeding my target heart rates, and I got back some of my speed, but not nearly all of it by the time I made it back to the coastal road.

The second time through, I lost less speed off my average (the average being lower to begin with now) but several aid stations were now out of the water I had been using to cool myself, and my stomach was starting to rebel against Gatorade and calories. I was feeling bloated and stopped up, and yet I was bonking. I needed water to drink and dillute my stomach, not just pour on my head and torso. But second time around, there was none to be had.

The whole time on the coast road, I was counting pedal strokes--100 revolutions down in the aero bars at a time then start again. Don't look at the speedometer or the mileage markers because it is too depressing.

It was all I could do to go out for another serving from that course, but the two professionals in the lead of the male race lapped me as I got to town, and you can't stop and quit when the whole city is out cheering--even if they're cheering for someone else. I was able to get some water, but I was already overheating and was still 40 miles from home.

I don't remember much about the third lap. I was woozy and suffering and my body was in rebellion. Unlike a course with elevation changes, this one has you down in the bars the whole time and tears up the same muscles. By the time of the final turn into town, I could barely maintain 16 mph, even with no wind to contend with. I weaved a couple of times and thought, "Wow, I might crash. That wouldn't be so bad." There were also dark clouds over part of the island, and I half hoped for lightening in the hopes the run would be called off.

Yeah. That's not the place you want to be when you're starting the marathon. Plan C was firmly in play by this point.

The Run: Plan C

I have never come so very close to quitting a race as I did at T2 in this race. The fact that I continued cannot be attributed to toughness or character on my part. Character is what you do when nobody is watching. If nobody had been watching, I would have stopped. But my daughter was there, and she was watching. I don't want to raise a quitter. And I had written that damn fool thing about imagination, and I knew you had read it. So you were watching, and I couldn't stop with you watching me.

So, I put on my shoes, picked myself up off the deck of the stifling hot transition tent, and went out on the road. Still, it wasn't like I was prepared to flog myself anymore. I was done going to the well for the day. I was in the race in name only.

I walked for about two minutes and then started jogging with the goal of going very easy to the first aid station at 1km. With that accomplished, I decided to jog to the next aid station only 1km away. At each aid station I tried to catch up with water to get the calories to absorb again.

I made it all the way out to the far end of the three loop run course and managed to take on some calories without yakking. Turning around to come back, however, the slight breeze that had been cooling us running one way disappeared. Running in the same direction as the breeze, I started to overheat again in the muggy, tropical air. The dull headache I had been carrying became more pronounced. At the second aid station on the way back into town, the ground lurched and I almost lost my balance.

OK, this might be more serious, I thought. Suffering out of T2 makes no sense if you don't finish at all. So, I decided to be more careful. My aid station jogs became four minutes jogging, 1 minute walking, jogging to the next station, then one minute more of walking. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The second lap was the hardest. My body had still not come correct nutritionally, and mentally, you're still so far from the finish, it's hard to focus on the goal. I maintained the four minute jogs out to the far end and most of the way back, but those too deteriorated to three minute jogs and two minute walks by the beginning of the third lap, and thence to two minute jogs with three minute walks.

And I was not the only one suffering. Many were not jogging at all. It was fair carnage on the course by that hour, and they were not all pudgy one-timers who lacked training or experience. There were some very sharp and fit athletes who had been destroyed on the bike course and were barely surviving a 26.2 mile forced march.

One athlete, who was both young and fast, was curled in the fetal position on a cot at the medical tent furthest from the finish line several times that I went by. He was faster and fitter than me on any given day. And yet, slow and shame-faced as I was, I was faster that day. I finished. He did not.

He took the ambulance to a Mexican hospital.

But I finished.

And I went back to a nice hotel with a family who had only one Ironman they cared about in the whole race. They don't know that Yvonne Van Vlerken biked like a Norse Goddess and Rutger Beke won the men's race. They could not pick those people out of a lineup.

But they know I am an Ironman. And that is enough.
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