Where do I even start? Because I know that many of my thousands of readers would never even think about doing a triathlon, and read me for other reasons, I’m going to try and incorporate some of the lessons I learned in this Ironman Cozumel triathlon in this post, and see if they can’t be sewn into life, as well.
Shiny Ball ADHD Version: I finished my first ever Ironman in 15:45:41. I’ve never been more sore, I’ve never hated headwinds more, and I never, ever thought I could be as happy as I was when I crossed that finish line.
People talk about maybe doing an Ironman the same way they talk about running their own company, or being rich, or sailing around the world; in long, maybe, “sometime in the future” statements. “Wow, it’ be great to be my own boss,” or “Yeah, one of these days, I’m gonna say screw it and do my own thing. I think the problem is, if you always say those things in abstract terms, it’s really easy to keep them just as that – abstract. And abstract is easy, because abstract is safe. The second you assign a date to something, or pay your non-refundable entry fee, or incorporate your business, or attach any real physical value to something, you take away a bit of that safety net. And when that happens, it gets very real, and very scary, and very unsafe, very, very fast. But that’s the only time greatness can happen.
So as you saw from previous posts, I’d made that leap from abstract to concrete back in April, when I started my training for this race. For me, it came down to having to make some hard choices. Could I (mostly) stop drinking? Could I listen to my nutritionist and coach over at TriSmarter? It’s one thing to see the plan in front of you on your calendar each day. It’s another thing to actually do it. Accountability is key.
Tip: Keep a journal. If you’re forced to write down what you’re doing/eating/spending/whatever each day, you have accountability to it. And accountability is one of the biggest aids to turning abstract into concrete.
So by this point in our story, I’d checked in, been body-marked, put my bike together and dropped it off at transition, and been sufficiently nervous. All that was left was to get some sleep, and then wake up and race. I figured I’d never, ever get any sleep, so I got to bed around 8:30pm, expecting to be up all night. When I opened my eyes again, it was 3:10am, about five minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. I was shocked – I guess nerves will tire you out.
Woke up, took a shower, attempted to make coffee in the horrible coffee pot at the hotel (coffee came out with little things floating in it, I declined to drink it,) and instead took my packets of oatmeal I was to eat for breakfast. Of course, with the coffee maker producing thing-filled water, I couldn’t use it to heat up my water for my oatmeal as I’d planned, so I simply poured room temperature water into a cup full of my instant oatmeal, shook the cup around, and ate it. It was still oatmeal, it was still fuel that I needed, even if it wasn’t hot.
Tip: Nothing ever works 100% the way you plan it. Adaptability will always be key.
Because I got up a few minutes early, I wasn’t stressed or rushed – I always say this, and it continues to be true – Get up a half an hour earlier than you need to, every day – It’ll change your life. When your day starts off not stressed or rushed, the rest of the day just seems a bit easier. Had time to reflect for a few minutes, offer a prayer or two, and just take a few deep breaths – I had a feeling they’d be the last ones I took for quite some time. I also watched a motivational speech that Simon Salt found for me – It helped a ton and a half.
Tip: Find your own motivation from outside your circle – Whatever it may be – Political, faith, movies, TV, whatever – Keep an Evernote file so that every time you find a new one, you can add the link right to the file. When you need a pep talk, there you go! Walked out of the hotel having remembered everything I needed, including my water bottles for the bike, my bright orange swim cap, ear plugs, timing chip, etc. This was the first race where you got your timing chip with your packet, not at the swim start, so I had to remember to take that, too. No chip, no time.
At the front of the hotel, I wondered if I could get a cab at 4:30am. Sure enough, three other people were there. We shared a ride, wound up costing like, $3.00 a person, and we were at Chankanaab Park within minutes. Wasn’t even 5am yet.
My bike was right where I’d left it, in space 448. I walked past all the elite racer bikes (they all had their own individual racks. Must be nice when all you do in your life is train and race…) and started mentally prepping, while sucking on a bottle of Gatorade. I borrowed someone’s bike pump and topped off my tires, ate a Gatorade Prime bar at 6am, so I’d have an hour to digest, got re-body marked, and found a space near the water where I could watch the sky start to get light by myself, away from the craziness and the nerves. The elite athletes went off at 6:40am, and as soon as they did, dolphins started flying above our heads. The park where the race starts is actually a nature preserve, so they have dolphins and they do shows. So sure enough, as we’re making our way into the water, there are the flying dolphins.
Ever try to get 2,200 athletes into a body of water in under ten minutes? Not so easy. Mass chaos ensues, as we all push towards the slippery docks to get into the water.
THE SWIM: WANTED: SUB 2:00. GOT: 1:27:11. Totally thrilled with my swim!
As we make it into the water, we swim out towards the start, each of us all trying to find our individual sweet spot, just a few minutes before the starting horn. Triathlon specific tip: Because the water was warm, this wasn’t a wetsuit legal race, which meant that I was racing in my tri-shorts and nothing else – And guess what? It’s a LOT easier to pee in the water when you’re not wearing a wetsuit then when you are! Who knew? 🙂 As we’re all hanging there treading water, a racer next to me says to me “go under the water and look at the legs.” I had no idea what he meant until I did it – Thousands of pairs of legs, everywhere you look – All there, all just floating in space, all treading water, all waiting. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen, and I’d imagine, a shark’s wet dream.
With two minutes to go (I’d set my watch to the official Ironman clock) they start playing the Star Wars theme. 15 seconds into that, as I’m grooving and psyching myself up, the music abruptly cuts off, and the horn sounds! D’OH! Yup. They were about a minute forty-five early, and 2,100 pairs of legs and arms were now madly turning this beautiful calm nature preserve into the world’s largest washing machine. I shouted to no one in particular “They’re early!” hit the start button on my watch, and boom, I was now a competitor in my first Ironman. It was real.
Tip: No matter how “on pace” things seem, know that there are never any guarantees. I thought I had an extra 105 seconds – I was wrong! Be ready! The water was truly beautiful – You could see clear to the bottom the entire time, and I quickly settled into a three-stroke-breathe rhythm. I found myself surprisingly calm at the swim progressed, and my heart-rate wasn’t skyrocketing. In fact, it was actually a little below how I normally felt in the pool! I was really kind of surprised! As we kept swimming in this beautiful ocean, I’d kind of zone out. I’d start looking at the sandy bottom rushing past me, and I’d just go.
It made it almost soothing – A swim where you can see the bottom of the water is awesome – as opposed to say, the Hudson river, where you can’t see your hand when it enters the water, just two inches from your face. One thing I didn’t count on was salt water chafe – By a mile and a half into the swim, my armpits were chafed like a UDT student on day four of Hell Week. I was hurting – But that pain was quickly forgotten and replaced by about 15-20 little stings from the local jellyfish who lived there. They weren’t too happy about 2,200 swimmers waking them up early on a Sunday, and they let us know it. I got stung on my wrist, above my eye, on my feet, you name it. Just a quick second of pain though, then it was gone. Probably made me swim a little faster. On the last three hundred meters of the swim, I saw a scuba diver about 100 feet below me, looking up and watching the swimmers. So cool! I waved to him, he waved back. Totally made me smile, and the next thing I knew, I was coming out of the water! I let out a “WOOHOO!” when I exited, and this became my rallying cry after the end of every part of the race. I exited the swim with a guy I saw at the start – Someone who had the same body-type as me. We noticed each other, and high-fived – It was awesome.
I couldn’t believe my time! I was so stoked to see how fast I’d run the swim – I actually thought they might have gotten the mileage wrong on the course, but no! It was accurate. Cool! Having never done an Ironman before, I’d never seen a mass changing tent before. When you come out of the swim, you actually have the ability to go into a tent where your bike clothes are waiting for you – You can change out of your tri-swim shorts and put on your tri-bike shorts. That was really nice – I’m used to having to ride and run in the same wet swim shorts. You get used to it of course, and the sweat and water usually renders the whole point moot, but it was a nice touch to be able to start the bike ride dry.
I didn’t have a towel in my bike bag, and I said as I sat down “Guess I should have brought a towel, damn.” To which the guy next to me who was just getting up to head out on the bike course, said “here’s mine.”
Tip: Do nice things for others, as much as you can. As I got onto my bike, I saw my support team for the first time, and it totally made me smile. I don’t think I realized how much having my family there would help until the actual day of the race. I saw them a total of seven times in all over the course of almost 16 hours, and each time, they gave me strength to continue. Plus, they acted as photographers, videographers, and english-speaking cheerleaders.
I made one critical mistake on the bike – I was so happy about my swim, and so pumped full of energy, I went out waaay too fast on the bike, and didn’t make good use of my energy reserves. Instead of taking it slow on the bike for the first lap, I took it a little bit faster. The end result is that as the day wore on, the headwinds picked up, and my time increased on each lap.
THE BIKE: WANTED: TO FINISH BEFORE DARK AND BEFORE GETTING DISQUALIFIED FOR BEING TOO SLOW. GOT: 7:50:26.(Before dark, and well before the cut-off time) BIKE SPLIT 1: 32.5 mi 32.5 mi. (2:07:01) 15.35 mph BIKE SPLIT 2: 72 mi 39.5 mi. (2:42:41) 14.57 mph BIKE SPLIT 3: 111.5 mi 39.5 mi. (2:59:09) 13.23 mph
The bike course is totally beautiful. It runs through 2/3rds of the outside of the island of Cozumel. You start at the park, ride south to the back of the island, go across the back, north up the island, then cut across the main split to the main side of the island, (where the run starts.) That’s 39 miles. Do that again, then do it for a third time but a few miles less, and you’ve got yourself a 112 mile bike ride. At the end of the first lap, I felt good.
A few problems with that easy logic above, though. See, the entire back-side of the island (65% of the ride easy,) is open ocean. This means you’re riding into a headwind almost the entire time. And yes, that is beyond brutal. Also, the backside of the island is pretty desolate. Not many people watching or cheering at all. You’re pretty much on your own most of the time, sans a few other riders you might be with. You can see in the times above, I lost one mile per hour on each lap. The winds increased, the people got less and less, and self-doubt was creeping into my head almost as fast as lactic acid was creeping into my muscles.
By the middle of lap two, I actually started writing, in my mind, the blog post I was going to have to write, explaining how today wasn’t my day, how I didn’t make it, and would have to try again. It was a terrible way to think, and I hated myself for thinking it. Every time I tried to get it out of my head, though, my muscles started hurting just that much more, and I went back to thinking about it. I’d put myself in a horrible cycle of pain and self-doubt, and I didn’t think I could get out of it. Fortunately, I’d made a promise to myself and posted it publicly on my blog the day before the race, that I would not quit. I knew I couldn’t. All I could think of was seeing my family at the bike-to-run transition, and telling them that I would run until midnight, then just meet them back at the bike collection area. Around mile 65 or so, I was so frustrated, I started crying on the bike. The winds were picking up something fierce, I hadn’t seen anyone in about 10 minutes, and I was totally alone. I screamed an obscenity that rhymes with ‘duck” at the top of my lungs, cursing the wind, cursing my legs, cursing the island, cursing my stupid decision to do this in the first place. And out of nowhere comes, “Yup, I know what you mean.” Scared the living hell out of me. Turns out, there was someone about my speed, maybe 20 feet behind me, for who knows how long? He was from Austin, TX, and we rode together for the next ten or so miles, laughing about the hell we’d brought down upon ourselves.
Tip: You never know where help is going to come from. When you think you’re as alone as you could ever, ever possibly be, know that you’re not, and someone is always there, even if you don’t know it. I’m not overly religious or anything, but there was a person in the right place at the right time, someone I didn’t know, who I needed, right when I needed him most? Makes you think.
Making it back to the transition, I felt conflicting feelings. One half was happy to see my family, as evidenced by the photo, the other half was sooo jealous of the woman I saw coming off of transition, handing her bike to the official to start her run. She was done with this hellish bike ride, and I still had another 33 miles to go. That. Was. Brutal. The third loop was worse than the first two. The winds had picked up significantly, and I my quads were simply killing me. I knew I could finish the ride, but I was more concerned about my quads – Would they even be able to hold me in a standing position, let alone take the abuse that was to come? Let’s not forget, I had to run a freaking MARATHON after this!
By positioning my feet in my clips completely pointed to the ground like a ballet dancer, I was able to relieve a little bit of the quad pressure, but only for a while. So that’s what I did. Straight down for 30 seconds, straight ahead for 30 seconds. Over, and over, and over. And I also sang the entire score from the London cast recording of Chess. That helped. And sure enough, the end of the bike ride slowly came into sight. I don’t remember unclipping. I don’t remember getting off the bike. I do remember handing my bike to a wonderful volunteer, and making my way into the changing tent, where more wonderful volunteers helped me get my bike shoes off and get my New Balance sneakers on.
I’ve gotta tell you, I was afraid to sit down – I thought if I sat down to put my sneakers on, I’d never want to get up again – But sure enough, I got up, and made it out – And I looked at the race clock, and realized that I had over seven hours to finish the run! I could WALK a marathon in seven hours if I needed to! That’s when I realized my entire sob story to myself between laps two and three were a pointless waste of time. I should have put that energy into pedaling!
THE RUN: WANTED: TO FINISH BEFORE MIDNIGHT. GOT: 06:11:01 (One hour fifteen minutes before midnight!)
Making my way out of the transition tent, I started the run, and again saw my support team. I think that was the first time it actually hit me that I could maybe, possibly, make it through this thing! I also realized that carrying a ton of Sportsbeans and Powerbars on the bike is fine, but on the run, they tend to bounce. So I got rid of them.
Could my face have possibly been any more sunburned? As I made my way onto the run, I heard someone being proclaimed an Ironman by the announcer. That meant they finished, while I still had 26.2 miles of running in front of me. Ouch. But I ran. I was shocked to find that I actually could run! My legs were strong! Remember, you need your quads to run, and I’d been ruining them all day like a meth addict ruins his veins. I thought for sure I’d have nothing – But my legs were strong! Big props to nutrition. You eat and keep your body fueled with good stuff, and it’ll do what you need when you need it.
Tip: Don’t eat crap. Eat healthy food, even if crap options are much easier to get.
I ran the first loop of the run course (3 loops, 8.4 miles a piece) and felt really good. Met a bunch of people, ran with them, talked to them, anything to take my mind off the pain. I also did a lot of math – As in, “the race closes at midnight – I can run a 4mph pace and make it with x to spare. If I run an x pace, I can make it with y to spare. Never thought what Mr. Crossfield taught me in high school math would ever become helpful. Who knew.
By the second lap, I met a nice guy named Paulie from Peru. Paulie and I ran together for the entire second lap, but that was his third lap, so I wished him well as he made the turn to finish his race, and I embarked on my final 8.4 miles of my 140.6 mile odyssey. Hitting mile 20, I came across a fine gentleman named Tye Eckert. We passed the time on our super-fast-walk (down from really-slow-run) and I asked what he did – He worked for a sports marketing firm. He asked what I did. “Well, my social media company just got acquired, it’s called HARO, it lets…” “Wait – Are you Peter Shankman?”
And it happened, just like I thought it would. I am an Ironman. I will always be an Ironman. Whether I do this again, or stick to 5k races, I’ll always be an Ironman. A few final thoughts: Mexican fans need to come to the United States and teach American spectators how to cheer. These people cheered for me like I was Michael Phelps in the water, Lance Armstrong on the bike, and Paula Radcliffe on the run. No matter how far behind I was, it was like I was the leader and the first person they saw. Thank you to every single resident of Cozumel who came out and cheered me on.
Support teams are so important, both in racing and in life. Have people you can count on, and use them when you can, but know that at the end of the day, while a support team can support, you actually have to do the work. Thank you, Lara, Mom, Dad, and Jasmine, for being there for me, both on race day, and every day of my life. I hope I can continue to do the same for many, many years to come.
Seeing my team there throughout the day was awesome, but they were there to cheer me on. They couldn’t do the work for me. I had to. So I did. Fear tastes good. Try new things. Fear keeps you nimble. It keeps you hungry. It makes you do amazing things. Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. Totally cheesy, but totally true. When I was on the bike, I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish, and I believed it. By the time I got to the run, I realized I could, so I did. And finally: Wear sunscreen. Thanks for being here, for reading, for the encouraging words and the wonderful comments. Thanks for listening. Thanks for caring. What can we do in 2011 to top this? Tell me below. Oh – And in case I didn’t make it clear: I AM AN IRONMAN!!!