Ironman Cozumel 2021: Reclaiming my favorite Ironman
It’s well known that I love the island of Cozumel, and Ironman Cozumel.
I discovered the island through Ironman several years ago, and have been back many times to race and also train. It’s the site of MUCH joy and love for me, but also, the site of my first DNF. After completing several Ironman races, including Ironman Cozumel, I did not finish, in rather spectacular and colorful fashion in 2019. After having a GREAT swim and solid bike, I became sick on the run and, without getting into the gorey and messy details (and boy are they gorey), I passed out on the mile 11 mile marker and was taken off course in an ambulance and came to crying. After 4 IVs, I felt better, but would find out days later that my son and husband both ended up with the same illness, and both ended up needing medical care.
But in my mind, somehow, I considered that maybe I had quit. Apparently I think I’m so strong willed I can force my body to just shut down, but because of the dark places of wanting to quit my mind had gone to a couple miles earlier, I thought I had somehow quit. And COVID delays and not being able to race there in 2020 only delayed my return to that race, and gave my brain more time to build up my self doubt. Could I even complete an Ironman distance race again? And how could this race, in the place I love so much, be the one that broke me?
Turns out, I can, and it cannot. I have always believed that Ironman is something anyone can accomplish if they want it badly enough and are willing to work for it, and the same is STILL, yes STILL true, and it is true for me. A big part of my success on the day was working on my mindset and mental training - that’s another blog post, but this is really my race report.
Working with a new coach in 2021 was key to my mindset and training shifts. I can’t say enough how working with Julie Dunkle of NYX Endurance has raised my game, both as an athlete, a person and a coach. Julie is no nonsense, tough as nails, thinks climbing 10K on a Saturday is fun. I wanna be like Julie. She doesn’t let you make excuses, or suffer fools, but when she pays you a compliment, you can really accept it, knowing it is really well deserved. And when she says she believes in you? Well, you can believe it too even if you don’t yet quite believe in yourself, because you get the feeling she wouldn’t just throw that around lightly either.
After some adjustments to my training and racing in the lead up to Ironman Cozumel, and some of the hardest work I have ever done, part of me felt more ready for the 140.6 distance than ever. But as fatigue in the final push of my training cycle set in, so did my self doubt. As a coach, I KNOW not to judge my fitness on any one workout. And I know that workouts when you are highly fatigued aren’t a good indicator of how you’ll perform rested on race day. And yet, there I was, fretting the small stuff. Two weeks out, Julie proclaimed that I was indeed fit enough, and in a good place, and that I had to work on my mental prep. So, since my workouts were shorter, I took that on as my job. I’ll detail that out in a follow up blog.
As I worked on my mind, I also prepped for the race. I like to get to Cozumel early. It gives me time to acclimate a bit, but also ensure I have everything and everything is working. Going into an Iron distance race stressed out and rushing around means you can be exhausted. Hitting the starting line tired is not good. So, I got to Cozumel 10 days out. I got to ride, run and swim in my favorite place and ensure I had everything I needed. I did not - so I had my husband bring some things when he came later, and I also got what I needed there. My di2 seems to always be persnickety after flying, so I had my favorite bike shop take good care of my bike Azul and she was race ready as well!
Because I have been to the island many times, I know the course, the best places to train in the lead up, and where to get food items I need. I organized a few practice swims and beach clean ups while there, and week 2 was excited to meet with other athletes who were starting to arrive on the island. I felt ready, rested and feeling at home and seeing others with nerves actually helped calm my nerves - I know what to expect, and I know what I am doing. I know how to do this. I know it will hurt. And I know that the hurt will be over.
In the week leading up to the race, Coz had some pretty epic rainstorms. Usually, there are rainstorms this time of year, but they are short, intense and then over. These were a bit longer lasting, but luckily, mostly at night. Still, athletes arriving were freaking out - made even more intense by the fact that many athletes coming to race had either had their Ironman dreams postponed by the cancellation of Ironman California, or by not finishing the swim in time at Ironman Florida. So anxiety was high. However, this was one thing that actually did not worry me at all. I knew that if there was rain, there would likely be less wind AND less heat. On Coz, if it’s not windy, it can be a big problem because then you feel ALL THE HEAT, and it can really affect your race. Having raced at IM 70.3 Worlds in St George in September, I was not worried about rain or storms. That experience gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to race in challenging conditions - and I would lean into that ALL DAY at Coz.
As race day approached, the rain didn’t leave up. In fact, the day before the race was lovely for my last shake outs, but as soon as I dropped my bike off early Saturday morning, it started DUMPING. As it is a point to point, two transition race, I had to head off in a downpour to drop my run bag.
Here I go:
As you can see, I just leaned right into that rain. I leaned right into it being hard. If I had one super power I was confident in, it was the fact that I can suffer. I can race in hard conditions. And I can ENDURE. I don’t want an easy Ironman - there’s honestly no such thing. The ludicrous conditions only made me calmer: "BRING IT," I thought.
And bring it it did! We had total downpours from the moment we left in a taxi race morning. It slowed a bit for the swim and part of the first loop on the bike, but then it was on and off all day (until the run). This made it more than a little comical - and took some of the pressure off. No longer was it :I will complete this in X and this in Y, but I will race to the utmost of my ability, I will race hard, but I will also race as safely as I can so I can keep going based on the conditions. Luckily, that was also pretty fast!
The swim, which is my favorite and definitely my favorite here in Cozumel, was awesome. The current was jamming and we were well spaced out. I seeded myself at the front of the 1-1:10 swimmers, though my goal was sub 1 hr. I should have seeded myself in sub 1 hr, because I swam through several groups of men, but that front group looked like a mixed bag of aggressive swimmers and overly confident swimmers, and I just wanted a great swim. Next time, I’ll seed myself more aggressively. Some handle the current better than others, some aren’t great at sighting. I had a solid and fast swim. My goal was to swim hard and not look at my time, even when I got out. I didn’t - I did not know my swim time until after I finished the entire race. Judging by the number of swimmers I passed, I felt great about it. There weren’t the usual gorgeous groups of fish due to the storms, but we had good visibility, and the swim was fast - until that last turn and the final push to the finish and the exit stairs - this was a mess of people who were just done, and taking their time to get out. So, post race, I surmised: this was like 50 minutes of swimming and the rest trying to get up the stairs. I had no idea how right I was!
Post race, while waiting for my athlete Leslie to finish, I asked my husband my swim time, and he said 58 minutes. I was both happy to have made my goal but a little disappointed as I thought it was faster. Well, my sherpa was wrong - I swam 55 min. I could not be happier. Goal: swim yer guts out, don’t worry about the time, don’t look at it so you don’t start to get disappointed and bring the house down on top of you - Achievement unlocked!
I had a quick transition and spent a second doing a mental check and then out onto the road - I felt good, felt ready, and the rain and cooled things down. It was humid as hell but not hot, and I was grateful for that. I had been managing my hydration all week, and felt prepared for heat and humidity - not my strong suit, but I want to race in hot places, so this has been a mission for me. And Julie prepared me well. I knew if I just kept moving, and stayed on top of my nutrition and hydration, I was in for a good day.
I knew my plan, both for power pacing and hydration. I felt great and kept checking. After about 5 min, my power looked a bit high. But effort felt steady, like RPE 6.5. HR was low. I looked again. 1500 watts! I just laughed. Today was a day were there would be a LOT of making lemonade out of lemons. My power meters were obviously not working with my bike computer, or not working due to the extreme downpours, I thought about stopping for a minute and trying to get them working, and then thought “nope. You feel good, you’re flying along, and your RPE and HR are low. We’re pacing by RPE now.” As a coach, I spend a lot of time telling athletes they can use technology but they also need to get in tune with their bodies and know what their RPEs feel like. Well, this was a chance for me to walk the walk - or ride the ride in this case. I felt great in amongst the intermittent rain showers, the rainbows. I was in great spirits, ready to work, ready to embrace the suck and actually celebrate it, because, hell, I get to do this. And that’s where I was ALL DAY. Every nutty thing felt like “Is that all you got?”
I was excited for special needs, and a sprite I had waiting as well as fresh bottles. About a mile before special needs, I got a flat. There were a lot of flats out there on that day - to be expected with all that rain washing so much onto the roads. I had considered converting my bike to tubeless but had not done so as I had ordered a new bike, so kept it as is. I swapped my tube, checked the tire quickly, and as I started to fill it, a tech stopped to help. He blew my first CO2, but filled it on CO2 #2. I was now out of CO2 but knew special needs was coming. I thanked him and rode on, pulling in to refill my bottles but now wanting to be quick about it. I drank my sprite, ate half a banana, and was ready to go when I realized I was flat again. I had no more tubes, or CO2, but because I was standing in special needs, a lot of people who had not flatted had extra gear and threw it at my feet. I was restocked! I refilled my tire, checked it again and saw nothing, and then hit the road. Flat #2 done. I laughed a little as if to say” well there goes that” and rode on. BUT about a mile later, flat again. This time, I stressed out.
But a tech pulled over and we managed with my poor Spanish and his poor English, to discuss that this was #3, and he was able to work efficiently and I just turned it over to him. I had raced all day with all my heart. If this is where it ended, so be it. I wasn’t quitting, and I was just doing my best with each next thing to move forward and race with all my heart. He flipped the tire inside out and SLOWLY went over the tire. He found two teeny tiny pieces of glass, replaced my tube, and used his pump to get me on my way. I hugged him and off I went. I had spent 45 minutes changing tires and refilling. But I was still feeling good and strong. I still had loads of time. I had no more tubes and only one CO2 and thought, if I flat again, I’m begging or I’m done. But we’d figure that out if it happened. I saw my husband, he asked if I was ok. I yelled 3 flats and smiled. It was in the rear view. I asked if all my athletes were still moving, everyone was ok and he shouted YES! I smiled and plowed on!
I remember looking out at the sea, and thinking “This is my island. This is my race. Dammit, I’m going to finish this.” I may have spent 45 minutes stopped, but I was not going to let that derail me. Onward. And make sure I was caught up on my nutrition. Being stopped, you STILL have to make sure you take in enough nutrition and hydration for that time too - and I did. Then came more pouring rain. So hard you could not see. It eased up a bit, but that was only so the lightening could come through. Having ridden in it in St George, I just thought “Well, if it is dangerous, they will stop us. And if so, i will have raced up until that moment with all my heart and I will be proud.” I rode through town. No stopping us, so onward! I rode out of town and there were HUGE puddles. Like up past my derailleur and over my ankles puddles, and blocks long. Just pedal steady, get through. You gotta laugh!
Big rainbow the last lap on the wild side and a little more wind. I could definitely feel it getting hotter, and knew that meant it would be hot on the run. But I had stayed on top of my nutrition/hydration plan for the day as well as my salt, and knew I was prepared. I pulled into T1 happy that crazy bike ride was done, and proud I had just kept pushing. I had a moment of dread thinking about the run, but then peed, changed, had a Spring gel, and got ready. Not my fastest T2, but I really adjusted my mind here. I knew the run was where I had a lot of anxiety - and I felt ready heading out.
T2 is under the Mega grocery store so it was covered. It was damp and wet even under cover from the rain - so running out in dry clothes, I think I was prepared for the wet. But I came out to the Malecon, packed with screaming and cheering people, and the sun and heat slapped me. This was the race I knew. This was the heat I had prepped for. Crazy rain? Sure. But this race wasn’t going to let me go home thinking it was easy. I saw friends and other athletes I knew, and felt excited. I got time- I can do this. I feel good. Well, my legs and breathing didn’t feel great, but I KNOW that your legs can lie and the first miles do not dictate how all of them feel. So, I just thought “push it a little, shut up legs, I am stronger than this pain.” I had everything I needed hydration and nutrition wise on board, and had promised to ONLY walk the aid stations and run the rest of the marathon. This is not something I had done in an IM before, but I was determined to not let Julie, and myself, down. As a result, my watch beeped at the first mile and I looked down “oops running a little hot there Meg, chill the F out” and I did. I pulled back a little, drank a little and ran but slowed my pace a little. I had gone out way too fast, but it didn’t feel fast because it hurt. But the hurt subsided a little as I pulled back. I mean, it hurt, but more of a dull ache and I pushed on. I realized at the fourth aid station that I FORGOT I was supposed to walk the aid stations. So, I did. I then walked every aid station and kept on top of my Spring gels, my hydration, and water. I ate some pepto tablets and learned: they taste awful. And they work. Lessons for this race: Pepto tablets and Ginger gum. RACE SAVERS, especially the last lap where my tummy started to tell me it was going to rebel. NOPE.
The course was hot but I was so happy that more than one lap was in the sunshine. Running in daylight? WOOT! When the sun set, some spirits dropped but I was still running. I saw familiar faces from the swim practices, cheered some friends, had some friends cheer, got chased by my pup Otter, and when my husband passed on a message from Julie meant to keep me from being down about the 3 flats I looked at him and said “WTF? I FEEL AMAZING.” And I did. I meant, everything hurt and I was dying and I could have just sat down by the side of the road and quit. I had angry blisters on my feet from the BIKE which I had never had before (I mean, it was pretty wet) but then they burst and it hurt like hell but then it didn’t. The sewers had overflowed in a couple areas on the run course and it smelled vile. One giant puddle had red gatorade in it and looked like a bloodbath. They ran out of water (but quickly got it back). People were walking and complaining and well, dropping like flies. AND I FELT AMAZING. Not like this doesn’t suck amazing, but like “this sucks and I am so much stronger than this.”
I got a hot flash early on in lap 3 and I just laughed - like, “is that all you got?” I mean, I had been through so much, was this going to stop me? NOPE. Tummy rumbles. More pepto, more ginger gum. Magic. I made sure to keep up with my hydration and salt. Someone said “you’re the only one still running.” And I said “I made a promise” By lap 3, I wasn’t feeling my gels so much but slurped one more down. I felt fine and strong until the last two miles when everything REALLY hurt and I wanted to walk. But I did NOT want to walk. Who would know? Well Julie eventually but I WOULD KNOW. And I was so close to my goal of running the whole.damn.thing. So I dug in, put my arms around the darkness and pushed even harder. I was coming back into town - I knew how long I had realistically until it stopped hurting. So I pushed and made it hurt harder. I came into town and every building I passed and knew I was closer and I pushed a little harder.
I hit that red carpet and nothing hurt any more and I ran up that little asshole ramp at the end and just felt all the feels. My husband and pup were there, AND so were the two women who took care of me in the med tent two years ago. They had been tracking me all day and were so glad to see me - and I cried. So much gratitude to them, to Julie, to myself. I found my athlete Chris who had finished before me - his first- and we had a gross sweaty hug and chatted and I plopped myself down to wait for my athlete Leslie, who was about an hour out. And I really wanted a sprite. And to do it all over again.
Even with 45 minutes changing flats and begging gear, I had a 45 min Ironman PR. And I hit my goal - reclaiming my favorite race, and my stretch goal. And my super stretch goal is in reach with no flats! But we get the race we get, and I am so grateful for my crazy, challenging race day. I would not want it any other way.