October 02, 2019 - “I’m mellllllting” — Wicked Witch of the East played by yours truly on race day
Cozumel 70.3 is a two-transition course that starts about five miles south of the main town of San Miguel and finishes in the town’s main square. Non-wetsuit legal, held in a relatively protected area of the Caribbean known for strong currents but not for surf. The bike is pancake flat and circumnavigates the island but can be very windy, especially on the windward (east) side. The run is also pancake flat and goes north through downtown, but it’s not unusual for a torrential downpour to turn the run course into a lake. The weather forecast this time of year is hot (high of 89 on race day) and humid (85% humidity). Competitors come from all over, but mostly from Mexico, other Latin American and South American countries, and the US. Spanish is definitely the language of the race. Those who don’t speak it will be fine, but a working knowledge of the language helps a LOT.
Race day started smoothly. I was on the first shuttle from my downtown hotel to the swim (no chance of a shuttle bus driver getting lost here), got off the bus at the venue for the swim start, and was immediately dropped into a sea of people walking every which way. It was extremely chaotic, with not a single word of English being spoken.
The Cozumel transition area is laid out like an old European city — virtually no straight lines, and definitely no grid pattern; it’s a series of meandering, slightly curving rows that are arranged in whatever configuration the RD decided made the most sense (possibly after drinking a lot of tequila). Some rows have a lot of space between them, and some have very little. The numbering system is illogical; it’s not small numbers on one side and larger ones on the other side. There are letters that denote different parts of transition, but they, too, seem random. I’d walked the transition area several times on Saturday (when it was light out) to try and get a sense for where my spot was and was very glad I’d done so when I had to find my bike in the dark on race morning. Bike located (only took two tries!), it was time to make sure everything that had worked just fine 15 hours earlier was still fine. Tires holding air? Check. Everything I left on the bike the night before still there? Check. Di2 battery still charged? Check. Both wheels still spinning freely? Ruh roh. What the hell? My rear wheel was rubbing, which it definitely had not been when I dropped my bike off the day before. I repeatedly tried to troubleshoot it with no luck and was about to concede that I’d be riding the race with a slightly rubbing rear wheel, when I finally got it working. Phew. Back on track.
The transition was supposedly a clean one, with nothing allowed to be left on the ground, but on race morning, athletes were setting up their gear beside their bikes, so I joined the crowd and was glad I’d planned for the possibility that the “clean transition” info we got during the race briefing was more theory than reality. There didn’t seem to be any referees in transition, so people basically did what they wanted, including hanging their bikes by the handlebars (a no- no in the US, but maybe okay in Mexico?) No idea.
The “swim start” plan was for there to be nine different corrals arranged on the docks at the Chankanaab Dolphin Discovery Center, fastest to slowest. Turns out there weren’t corrals but rather an announcer speaking only in Spanish, announcing when the swimmers with a particular estimated swim time should begin moving forward onto the docks that led to the swim start. No one was holding time placards up, so it was total guesswork, but I generally tried to put myself toward the back end of the 36-40’ crowd. Eventually I think I ended up in the 40-44’ crowd, but it was impossible to tell. While we waited for the pros to go off and for the faster swimmers to enter the water, the dolphin trainers had the dolphins doing tricks for us, which was very cool and is one of the things that makes this race special.
The swim entry was a bit of a cluster. The plan was for athletes to cross the timing mat, go down a short flight of stairs, run down the dock to spread everyone out, then jump down about 8 to 10 feet or so into the water, and start swimming. Understandably, very few people wanted to waste time spreading themselves out along the dock before jumping in, because the clock started ticking when we crossed the timing mat, so most of us jumped in very close to each other and very close to the timing mat. They had us jump into one of the dolphin pens that they’d opened to the ocean, which was an improvement over earlier years, when people would jump off the docks into a bunch of coral. Enough people cut their feet on coral heads in prior years that we got unobstructed, deep water for our entry. Sorry for the trailblazers but glad I didn’t have to worry about a collision with a coral head. I was also very pleasantly surprised when no one jumped on top of me after I hit the water, and I got myself out of the jump zone as fast as I could to keep my luck going.
Onto the swim, and it seemed like there was a current coming at us, but it wasn’t too strong. On the first, northerly leg, I focused on trying to find people swimming straight and roughly my speed. Several people had seeded themselves poorly, so there was a fair amount of navigating around slower swimmers, and other people had trouble swimming straight, so there was some jostling and boundary-setting, but once things got sorted out, it was pretty uneventful. The current wasn’t preventing us from making forward progress, and there were pretty fish and a few safety divers to look at. I rounded the first turn buoy without any contact, started swimming toward the next turn buoy, and suddenly got a kick to the face. We were well past the turn buoy, time to be swimming and not stopping, when a guy in front of me decided to stop, look up, and do a frog kick. &$/!. Thankfully no major harm done other than a dislodged goggle, which of course proceeded to flood. I decided to wait until I’d finished the short leg at the top of the rectangular swim course before fixing it, because the next long leg was supposedly downcurrent, and I figured if I was going to stop briefly, I’d rather do so while floating downcurrent rather than when I’d be pushed backwards. Made the turn, swam a bit to the outside so I could stop without getting run over, fixed the goggle, and realized that the current was diagonal to, rather than parallel to, the swim course. That wasn’t expected, but once I figured it out, I moved back over to hug the buoy line and swam with the knowledge that the current was trying to push me wide. It looked like several people took longer to read the currents, because it got very spread out in a downcurrent direction on the longest leg of the swim. Before too long, we were turning the corner to head back to the docks at Chankanaab, and we had the typical scrum caused by too many triathletes trying to squeeze onto a narrow swim exit platform.
My legs never work right when I first get out of the water, so hauling myself up onto a platform and up a short flight of stairs didn’t earn me any style points, but once I crossed the timing mat, I looked at my watch and was overjoyed to see it said 36:xx. Finally a good race swim! (My swim times at Gulf Coast and Ohio were frustratingly slow, so I was thrilled to see the hard work I put in swimming this summer pay off). Ran very carefully on the docks, managed to avoid wiping out on the incredibly slick, painted plywood board they had put down as a ramp, and went to grab my flip flops from where I’d left them, only to realize the volunteers had officiously put all of the footwear left by triathletes into the trash. Little Miss Princess Feet was just going to have to suck it up on the long run to my rack. Official swim time: 36:36.
The rehearsals I’d done the day before helped a ton, as I found my rack right away. I also found a completely empty rack, except for my bike, and a wet towel on the ground that one of the other athletes racked near me had used when he put his bike gear on. Having no one’s bike left next to me in T1 when I came out of the water was GREAT. (And it didn’t matter because none of them were in my AG). I stood on the wet towel to keep my feet free of gravel, and I could I ease my bike out from under the very short rack by turning it sideways. T1: 3:40
Onto the bike, miraculously managed to avoid a guy who had mounted his bike in front of me, started moving, then suddenly stopped short with no warning, made it safely around him, and got onto the highway headed south. The pavement was smooth, it felt like we had a tailwind (which made no sense give the typical wind directions on the island, but I wasn’t complaining), and I felt good. Soon enough, we were at Punta Sur and heading north along the eastern (windy) side of the island. That leg turned out to be anticlimactic. Yes, there was wind, and yes, it did occasionally gust, but I didn’t feel like I was having to fight it and didn’t slow down very much on that leg. That section is gorgeous and was nice and cool because of the breeze. Then we turned inland, got a tailwind, and eventually rode through the main town. The bike had been so lovely up til that point, but the closer we got to town, the lousier the pavement got, to the point that I finally had to get out of the aero position, because I couldn’t control the front end of my bike from the aerobars. The pavement wasn’t bad everywhere, so it was possible to get aero for a bit before sitting back up again, but I know I gave away some free speed in town because I simply couldn’t stay aero. After several turns, we headed south on the highway toward Chankanaab, and the pavement got better. Unfortunately, by that point (give or take mile 40), fatigue was starting to set in. I didn’t feel like I’d overcooked the bike, and 40 miles is hardly the limit of my bike endurance (a standard weekend is a 65-70 mile ride), but I started fading. Somehow it seemed a lot hotter all of a sudden, my crotch was complaining about wanting a return of blood flow, and my arms and shoulders were screaming from having been aero nearly nonstop for 2+ hours. On that leg, during which we had a tailwind, I watched my average speed decline from 18.4 to 18.2 mph, and I finally changed my computer over to a different screen, so I didn’t have to look at the bad news.
Once we’d ridden south for about 8 miles or so, we turned around and rode back north toward town, into a headwind. Lovely. I’m tired, it’s hot, and the bike is finishing into a headwind, followed by another ride through the bone-jarring streets of San Miguel. Then, right on cue, with a few miles left to ride, my left adductor cramped, which at least was proof I hadn’t soft- pedaled the bike. I was on track with my nutrition, and my Infinit blend has a ton of electrolytes, so there was no question in my mind that the cramp was effort-based and not a lack of salt. Bike time: 3:05:03 Not great, not terrible.
Finally dismounted the bike (relief for my crotch and arms!), went to rack my bike, and discovered the downside of racking next to fast guys. There was no room for my bike on the rack. I literally looked at the volunteers and pointed at my spot, where there was about 8 inches of room for me to fit my much-wider-than-8-inches bike. After watching me struggle for a while, a volunteer finally came over and moved another bike over, which gave me just enough room to cram my bike in. And when I say cram, I mean cram. When I went to pick up my bike after the race, I found my rear derailleur jammed into and tangled with the rear cassette of another bike; it wasn’t pretty, but there was simply no room.
Through the parking structure to my run bag, and I was all ready to sit on the filthy garage floor and put my gear on, when a guy who’d come into transition just before me was incredibly chivalrous and offered me the single folding chair they had set up in transition to help folks with changing. Muchas gracias!!! Of course, in theory one should never sit down in T2, but I was so hot, and the chair felt so good. T2: 3:31
Surprisingly refreshed after what was probably only about 45” sitting in the chair putting shoes and socks on, I trotted off to start the run. I honestly felt fine at that point. Sure, a little fatigued, but who doesn’t feel at least a little fatigued at the start of a 1/2 IM run? My plan was to run the first (of two) laps very conservatively, and to pick up the pace if I felt good on the second loop. My long runs are almost always negative splits, so I felt good about that strategy, especially as the day was heating up.
My first loop went to plan. Not fast, but very steady, and very comfortable. Unfortunately, it was clear to me as I rounded the turn to start the second loop that the wheels were about to fall off. Within a mile, my legs turned into lead, and the temperature and humidity seemed to be a lot worse than just a few minutes earlier. My pace slowed by 2-3 minutes per mile, and I was in Ironman shuffle mode. The good news was that nothing hurt; the excruciating foot pain I had on the Ohio run earlier in the year wasn’t there, my knees felt fine (likely because I was going too slowly to aggravate them), and my circulatory issues were nonexistent. I just had nothing left in the tank and 6.5 miles to go.
So, I did what any stubborn triathlete would do in that situation; I shuffled. I may have slowed to a crawl, but I never walked, and I tried to clear my mind of any thoughts to avoid thinking about how badly I was messing up my race. It was SO. INCREDIBLY. HOT. AND. HUMID. I drank more water and Gatorade than I have ever consumed in any race, ever. I held so much ice that my fingers got frost-nip. For the first time ever in 20 years of racing triathlons, I wanted to find a tree, lie down in the shade, and take a nap. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I’d left on the run with my watch showing 3:49, and I did the quick calculation and realized that I might be looking at a 6:45 total time. Ugh. Thankfully, I was able to speed up just enough that I came in at 6:33. Still an absolute disaster of a run (2:44:51; it hurts to even type that out), but at least I wasn’t flirting with 6:45 or 7 hours total finish time. When I finally crossed the line, visions of lying down under a tree returned, so I did, then eventually got up and found a glorious kiddie pool filled with cold water and got a great massage, all while chatting with other athletes from all over Mexico.
In looking back on my race and the training leading up to it, I have tentatively concluded that I came into Cozumel carrying too much residual fatigue. I’ve been racing since mid-March and have done so many races and so many partial and full tapers, followed by builds, that I got it wrong coming into this race; a taper that worked for me two months ago didn’t work for me with two months more fatigue in my body. My rebuild following Ohio and an Olympic distance I did two weeks later was very solid — so solid that I wanted to keep building. I think I started my taper too late, which led to the early fatigue on the bike and the meltdown on the run. That’s what I think, anyway. I’m not sure I’ll ever be sure.
But, it did all work out. I had no idea how many women were in my age group or what place I had come in until I walked all my crap back to my hotel room and pointed the phone just right so I could get a Wi-Fi signal. I was pretty sure my run had kept me off the podium, so when I saw I’d taken third, I was overjoyed! My run did cost me one place (a woman I saw run by me on my second loop), but I didn’t lose out on the podium. :-D)
In answer to the obvious question, yes, I would recommend this race to others, and I may do it again at some point. Just be prepared for anything — it can be wickedly fast, or you can get strong current, strong wind, torrential rain, or oppressive heat and humidity. You’ll be racing in a beautiful place, but don’t expect a PR course.