Friday, December 3, 2010

IM Cozumel: "We Are Your Fans"

I know that traveling outside the safe and warm little bubble of your region or country for a race - for which you have trained and prepared for months; before which you want to eat and drink as accustomed; and during which you want to experience a little excitement, but a lot of familiar - can be nerve-wracking.  Even out of the question.  I know that before and as I planned my trip and for my race, I asked questions of any who would answer.

So instead of blathering on about how I first had a gel, then applied vaseline, and subsequently had another gel followed by donning my speedsuit..., I am going to write the triathlete experiential travel guide I wish someone had written for me.  Hopefully this will help you - a potential future racer of IM Cozumel - or someone you know who will be racing, better prepare for all the unexpected latin excitement.  Trust me, there's tons!

Like did you know that in Mexico, triathlons start with the bike?


Or so you will think until you come race IM Cozumel...


Flying straight to Cozumel from points abroad can be more expensive, but pays its dividends in time (estimate 4 hours each way from Cancun to Cozumel) and taxi/ferry costs (roughly $100 round-trip per person) saved.  However, each airline has one (1) flight a day from each major depart-to-Cozumel point and race week the number of people - and sheer pounds of cargo (aka your carbon steed as well as everyone else's) - attempting to reach the island increases dramatically.  The airlines can cut ticket-buying people or bummin'-a-ride cargo, so not so surprisingly many pieces of luggage and many carbon steeds are left behind.  And with only one flight per day, you are waiting 24 hours for the next potential flight carrying your swimsuit, goggles, bike shoes, bike shorts....  Pack anything absolutely essential to the race or the 24 hours of training immediately upon arrival in your carry-on.  For example, carry your orthotics, run and bike shoes, kit, goggles, and a toothbrush, maybe a helmet.  Anything else can be found or faked.  I was short the bike pump and the helmet....

I have never slept better before an IM, which I attribute to the time-zone.  For people arriving from the Lower 48 (i.e. me), the time change is two hours at most.   At Kona last year it became painfully clear that no matter how early you arrive on site, time-zone acclimation is far from guaranteed and it may still require two Ambian to get five hours of sleep the night before the race.

Absolutely do not expect any usually available triathlon gear - gels, tubes, CO2!!!!!!!!!!, BodyGlide, etc - to be available at all, let alone in substantial quantities.  Someone could have a made a killing with a couple extra hundred CO2 cartridges.  I mean somewhere on the order of the profit from a Colombian drug cartel shipment or what is needed to put your great-grandkids through college.  People, if you respect the TSA enough to not travel with CO2, then you deserve your crotch to be grabbed and your flat-kit to be incomplete. 

Expect a considerable amount of lost-in-translation-ness when it comes to vital race information.  This includes the time and place of race meetings, the information provided during those meetings, and the implementation of what is described in those meetings.  I was seriously impressed with the race director's ability to handle difficult situations on the fly - inefficient body-marking set-up? changed painlessly in 30 seconds and instantly double the number of people who were being marked - but the participants must be able roll with the translation-of-the-moment and try to remain ahead of the curve.  For example, once you turn in a race bag, expect to never see it again until your are tearing it apart with sugar-coated teeth and water-logged nails and a red-lined heart rate.   Expect this no matter what the English speaking representative of the race tells you and a room full of hundreds of others.

Under the sea, under the sea, darling it's better, down where it's wetter, take it from me

The Cozumel swim is pretty much one of the nicest anywhere, easily on par with Kona.  The water is clear and warm.  The course is one lap so no one is going to come swimming up all over you halfway through (the beginning, well I can't make any promises...).

Don't be afraid of a few sea lice and baby jelly-fish.  Yes, I have a welt and the sea lice sting like the dickens, but death is not imminent.  Keep swimming.  Or else my promise about no one coming to swim up all over you halfway through is rescinded.

Practice swims prior to Friday have to be conducted outside of Chankanaab Park, at least if you don't want to pay the US$20 entry fee.  Preferably on the West side of the island; if you try the East side, don't say I didn't warn you.  Don't let all the fancy hotels and "swim clubs" with one-day-all-inclusive packages scare you.  By law, all beaches in Cozumel are public and even the fanciest hotel can not prevent you from walking to the water and partaking of their unblemished sand and salt water without paying.  They can however prevent you from partaking of their margarita menu and beach chairs without paying. 

Get in the water early.  My parents report that despite dire warnings and mere minutes before the cannon, people were chillaxing in transition and lounging all over the dock.  Literally hundreds of people.  You registered for this race a year ago, don't be late to the party.   

Funny Story: All the pros file into the water and swim maybe 100 yards out from the dock.  We all look down the first leg of the swim, toward the orange pyramid buoy at the turn, and notice a yellow pyramid buoy off to the right and not in line with the orange buoy.  "What are we supposed to do with that yellow buoy?" goes through the group.  English speakers asking Spanish speakers asking Danish speakers...and finally asking a paddle-boarder.  Oh, we are supposed to go around to the yellow buoy to the right as we head for the orange buoy.  Suddenly, as if choreographed, it dawns on all of us what has happened and what must happen: all 50-some of us turn right and start hauling ass straight back to the dock in order to line up the yellow buoy with the orange buoy.  I'm pretty sure Andy was the first one back to the dock too.

Not Funny Story: During the practice swims, you will learn the swim exit is a permanent set of nicely constructed steps.  Picture here.  You might miss that about 20 feet after those steps is another set of 3 wooden steps.  Do not be the person who doesn't notice these steps until approximately 5 seconds after emerging from the water on race day and who when told "watch out for these steps" by a volunteer standing at the steps, promptly falls absolutely flat on their face up the steps, gashing their shin and the under side of their big toe, and bruising their quads to the point that they continue to swell two days post-race.  In other words, do not be me.

Otherwise, I had another PR-setting swim.  I am officially on the books with a sub-1 hr-starting-with-a-"5" IM swim time - 59:08 - and I felt comfortable and like I could have gone faster (which is the sign of a well-executed IM swim).  In fact, I think I would have if I had not drug half the 1 hr pack around for a good while after our fearless leader at the time had some sighting issues on the long back side leg.

A HUGE thank you to Blue70 for equipment that helps non-swimmers like me fake it pretty good once in a while.

Ending Spoiler: I wasn't the winner

'Round and 'round she goes...although I did know where I would stop

The Cozumel bike course is nearly three complete laps of the island's coastal highway, and generally acknowledged to be pancake flat.  There are a few...what I will generously call rises to break up the aero-bar monotony on the back (East) side of the island.  DO NOT plan to race this course unless you are prepared to spend more than 5 hours in your aero-bars with no relief from the front end of your saddle.

The loop is something of a rectangle, and due to the island's orientation and the normal wind direction, that means one leg with, one leg against, one leg kinda down-wind but a little from the side, one leg kinda up-wind but a lot from the side.  The wind - despite urban myth and local legend and one guy telling me during my last training ride "you do not want to go there" - gets stronger each lap, but never reached epic proportions.  During a category 5 hurricane is another matter, which explains why nearly nothing exists on the back side except good kite-surfing.

The coastal highway of Cozumel is paved and pot-hole-free.  This does not mean it is flat or more apt, smooth.  All of the back side, and well, good portions of the rest, bring to mind trying to ride mini-moguls on a bike instead of skis.  The undulations in the pavement throw your front wheel from right to left and back again and in the side-winds, the oscillations become bigger and more violent as every mini take-off is followed by the wind pushing your front wheel a little bit further left than the undulation alone would have.  Good riders who can steer their bikes with their elbows will hardly notice this; others will hold onto their extensions for dear life until their shoulders explode from the tension.  What I experienced was lots of bicep soreness as the muscle and surrounding tissues essentially jiggled for more than 5 straight hours.  And no, the infomercials are incorrect: my biceps did not lose pounds or inches from all that hard work.

The wind makes the course more fair than the terrain alone would, but roving packs of elite age-group men still formed and had their fun.  Unlike other notoriously flat and pack-filled courses (Clearwater 70.3, IM Florida), Cozumel has completely closed roads and thus provides lanes of pavement to escape and truly ride your own race.

Aid stations every 10 km are stocked and ready to serve you a mov[ing] feast...and permanent highway markers every kilometer make some sections interminable.

The end of the first bike lap is when you start to grasp just how much the island gets into this race.  The streets are lined with picnicking families, kids yelling for you to throw them a bike bottle, homemade noise-makers of a plastic bottle and some pebbles, curious on-lookers, and more "vamos" than you can handle.  The absolute cutest was a family of three waving a Mexican flag and holding a sign "we are your fans."  And you truly believe it.

As for me, my T1 put me behind a group I would have liked to have ridden with.  Instead I picked a few off as others picked me off and I rode 112 miles totally alone.  My heart rate monitor never synced with my watch so I rode entirely on feel and trying to maintain the same split for every 10k.  The result: a PR bike split (by a minute, ha!) and another ridiculously consistent average mph.

Yeah, still not the winner
Three laps is one too many, or Si se pueda

IM Cozumel is essentially point-to-point and T1 and T2 are not in the same place.  The swim takes place, and the bike starts, south of town; the run takes place in town.  Three laps of in town and while three laps on the bike was no problem, three laps on the run was one too many.  At least for me.

The first run aid station is kind of like an on-the-fly athletic cultural exchange.  "What is this popsicle looking plastic sleeve thingie you are handing me?" Water.  "Ok.  AND HOW DO I OPEN IT?" [I did actually yell that.] You bite it. [An English speaker did yell that back.] "And why are you handing me plastic bags of ice?" Because that is how we hand out ice at this event. "Tomato, Tomahto."

Excellent crowd support continues on the run, but the excellent scenery does not.  I can remember how every little bit of pavement looked, but I can't remember a single building I passed.

The course is again flat with a rise or two and lots of twists and turns.  The pavement at the finish-line end gets really slippery due to all the, shall we assume, water.

The run course has an aid station every kilometer.  You ever feel like when the aid stations are closer together, the race seems to take that much longer to finish?  I think I experienced several 1000m-long Bataan Death Marches out there.

And for me?  Let's just say my race, or whatever poor imitation I was doing, officially ended at mile 18.  Everything between my navel and my knees went [pffzzzt].  Before that I was running, albeit slowly, and the entire time; after that I was shuffling, even slower, and walking the aid stations.  


The official IM tattoo for IM Cozumel is severe sunburn.  On the run, when I discovered the relief of dousing my fried thighs with cold water, I could not get enough.  My shoulders, yeow!!  I went to the med tent looking for my IV and found out that no, instead I was hot on the outside, icicle in the middle [1:41].  I had hypothermia despite feeling deep-fried!

The solution?  Take all my clothes off.  I quickly found myself wearing only my disgusting socks and Newtons and a mylar space blanket.  And people laugh when I tell them I have very little dignity left after doing triathlons. 

Needless to say, after they let me get dressed I didn't stick around.  I had shreds of dignity to maintain and a stomach to feed.

I found the yummiest, most culturally accurate Mexican food I could and inhaled it.  El Pique serves traditional Yucatan el pastor: basically chopped up pieces of the spinning hunk of pork you see below.

My Mexican Yoshi!
Hey look!  Citrus that doesn't come out of a gel pack!
The place was packed with locals watching soccer and eating hearty frijoles soup with el pastor and cheese.  And thus my IM Cozumel came to a very painful, but ultimately delicious end.

But also an unsatisfying end.  I should not gloss over a good race gone wrong - or wasted - after I got off the bike.  A marathon gives you nothing if not time to think about things and I ran a very long marathon.  A lot of changes need to - and will - be made.

2011 started Monday.  Although forgive me if I don't start training for it until the end of the week.

1 comment:

IMinTraining said...

Thank you for sharing your story and the very useful tips! I'm hoping to race Cozumel this year :)

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