I stagger ever so slightly, and my head feels just like it did at mile 24 on the Outlaw run. This is way too early. I’m gonna sit down. I need to sit down. I feel the curb against me and my legs feel light as I raise them off the ground, if only for a second. This is hell. My head sits gently on my arms, which in turn cradle my knees. I close my eyes; I’ll just sit here for a second….the day had started so well, but wait…I’ve seen this scene before…I’ve visualised this exact moment in my dreams. I have a choice to make.
I take a long lingering look to my left and stare deeply back down the road that I’ve just trotted along. It’s dark now, and I can only see one or two souls coming my way. I then turn to my right and steal a look towards the town. I try to see my intended destination, but it’s just too far away. I’m really not sure how far I have to go, or if I can make this. I knew I would get to this point in the race; to my left is the path that I’ve been down before – the one where I quit races (it was just too much) and to my right is my new path; the person that finished Outlaw, somehow got round an ultra and then finished a marathon with a pulled calf muscle. I’m not perfect, and I carry a heavy soul for the mistakes I have made in my life and the people I have wronged, but I’ve got to keep trying…the choice is an easy one to make. I just need to get back on my feet…
Three things shaped my race in Cozumel and they all happened on the Friday – 48hrs before raceday. I woke about 5am as was standard for the week, woken by the torrid winds that were ravaging the island and slowly sapping any confidence I had for the impending swim. I’d decided that I was gonna go for a little run as the sun rose to test my calf muscles, then go for a massage before breakfast. By 6am it was already hot, and a 6km run had done very little to build any confidence as to what lay ahead for Sunday. I stretched off at the end of the pier and watched the breakers crash into ferry dock and batter the coast road. They were getting worse. I decided that I simply couldn’t swim in those conditions; it was dangerous and it may even result in a shortened race or even a duathlon. I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world to do a duathlon, I mean, I wouldn’t even go to Stockton to do a duathlon. I shed a little tear.
I went for a massage, which seemed to make my legs tighter, and it was safe to say I was in a bit of hole at this point. And then I got a message from someone who I’ve yet to meet, telling me they’d written a blog post about me and how I’d helped her believe in her running ability. For the second time today I was welling up, and it wasn’t even 11am. She told me to smile during the race, and of course she was right; I had to smile. I was here to race and to feel alive, and these things should make me smile. The third thing that would shape my race on Friday was at the race briefing. I was gutted to miss meeting the gorgeous Rachel Joyce at the expo by just a few minutes, and then trekked quite a way on tired legs to the host hotel for the race brief, hosted by pro triathlete Michael Lovato and British tri coach Steve Trew. They were quite a double act! The Americans clearly didn’t understand Steve’s sense of humour!
About halfway through a pretty standard race brief, that tried to alleviate people’s fears about the swim and assured people to trust the weather forecast (which turned out to be pretty accurate in the way that the current and winds would return to normal for raceday) Steve asked the question as to who was doing their first IM. I would say 75% of those in attendance raised their hands. He then made a brief speech that will stay with me forever. He invited us to look around the room at each other, and recognise that we were special people for even getting this far. No one who toed the line on Sunday would ever be the same person again, regardless of the outcome, AND it was ok to feel like this. Embrace the fact that everyone in that room was different from the people we see everyday of our lives, but then use this to make sure we ENJOY the race. For the third time today my eyes were filling up. Steve was right; I am different. But use this, don’t just pass it off. What he said will stay with me for a long long time, it was like a switch flicked on inside of me. So now I had to smile and enjoy the race; jeez this was gonna be tough!
Saturday afternoon was bike check in and taking place at Chankanaab Park it was always going to be a special atmosphere. I had ridden out there to test my bike on the Thursday and figured it was going to a difficult layout, so I wanted as much time as possible to figure out the route from the swim. Upon arrival, you could almost touch the atmosphere, although by this point I was getting a little tired of the Americans and their overbearing attitudes. I would turn this into a positive when I was tearing passed some of them on the bike come Sunday morning! Body marking and bike racking always feels like it should be more difficult than it actually is; just visualise the swim exit and the route to your bike and everything else is fine. I walked back through the pro bikes, where Marino Vanhoenacker and Eneko Llanos’ steeds were already racked and ready to go. This was the big time – and that meant it was time for some big time eating.
I had the most immense meal of pasta and pizza at a lovely little restaurant just off the main square, and meandered on back to my hotel, where in reception a lovely Brazilian girl was looking at a swim map of a race. I didn’t think too much about it until I got to my room, checked twitter, and found that the map the girl was looking at was indeed the REVISED swim route for our race in the morning. A 3.1km point to point swim. I was devastated. Don’t get me wrong, I was petrified about what could happen in the swim, but at the same time I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world on my own to race a shortened distance. I got straight on the text to my operations manager (@funjonone) with specific instructions to find an IM in Europe, with entries still available. 2014 plans were changing. Just then the heavens opened and the sixth thunderstorm of the week hit the island.
I woke after a pretty decent sleep and jumped up to the window, it had stopped raining and it seemed pretty calm. First bit of breakfast was downed and then I returned to bed to start listening to my zone out music and video clips that really help me find that special place (It has a name now, more of that later). Because I’m such a fusser/worrier there really isn’t a lot to do on race morning, its rehearsed and prepped well in advance, yet I still find things to do; its all just killing time until that zero hour. I don’t remember what time I left the hotel, but people were silently making their way around and the staff were all around to wish you well. It was gameday.
I stopped as soon as I got outside the hotel; I couldn’t believe how calm it was or how still the ocean was! The storm had blown through and the current did look like it was going in the normal direction again ( I was unaware when I entered that the previous year 400 people had missed the swim cutoff). I shared a taxi with a Boston living German who quietened down when I told him the swim was shorter, and no, I wasn’t new to this, at which point he started talking to the taxi driver and I felt comfortable enough to stick my headphones back on. I would smile and enjoy it but the build up is all about me remaining as relaxed as possible. Arriving at T1 was very special, it was like stepping out of a limo to a film premiere at Leicester Square! Phew, get me away from this and to my bike!
Safe to say that everything in T1 was soaked from the storms, and my chain looked decidedly rusty, but I clicked through a few gears and it seemed fine. I stretched out under a tree until it was time to drop my bag off and get a bus back to the new swim start. I ended up standing on the coach, but I love that feeling of being able to see out of both sides of the bus when you’re moving – a panoramic feeling that you’re really on the road to somewhere, and in this case it was true. Entering a top class hotel, filtering through onto a private little beach just in time to see the pro’s set off was amazing. The guests of the hotel had all made an effort to get up and see this spectacle; I’m sure they weren’t disappointed. All of these were pleasant little distractions, remember I still hadn’t got my feet wet at this point.
I waded into the water 5mins before gun time and thought if Michael Lovato thinks this is like bath water then he needs to get a plumber in, because it wasn’t that hot! But actually, once you got used to it, it was lovely. Clear enough to see the coral reefs and fish below you. Damn I could actually enjoy this. I didn’t want to start on the beach because I wanted to get the swim over as fast as possible and also because I wanted to look back at the scene on the beach. I was already setting myself up for how the day would pan out, desperately searching for my special zone whilst at the same time cherishing these literal ‘once in a lifetime’ moments. I was beginning to understand.
The klaxon went off to signal the start of our 3.1km swim and I had a quick glance back at the scene on shore then put my head down and powered on. I’m sure everyone who describes these mass swim starts as horrific are simply looking for trouble and starting in the wrong place, or maybe I’m just lucky! If I felt people closing in, I just sat up and adjusted my line, I passed a few and a few passed me. I mainly concentrated on looking at the fish, looking at the divers, counting in sets of 12 and sighting every 36. The current was definitely helping, but given this is my weakest discipline, I’ll take all the help I can get. Given I hadn’t swam for at least 7 weeks prior to today, I was happy to just survive the swim!
I did a double take when I realised I could see the change tents, after what didn’t seem very long at all and figured I probably only had 500m to go. Smile and enjoy, the keys to the day. I was actually waving at some of the diver photographers as we swam around the jetty and the dolphin enclosure, and kicked a bit harder to get my legs ready for an incredibly long run through T1. I pulled myself ashore to three astonishing things. The first one seeing a long line of competitors queing for showers to get the salt water off them! Really? The second one was the clock, does that say 1hr 1m???? Jeez, wait until I do some swim training for my next race! But then almost immediately I was tinged with sadness that it wasn’t a full distance, I could’ve been out in 1hr 15m, but hey-ho it is what it is, just smile and enjoy. The next astonishing thing is the thought of the idiot/genius who walked into the Dragons’ Den and said “I’ve got this amazing idea for sports events, whereby we give the competitors a pouch of water, that is IMPOSSIBLE to open on the move, and they’re gonna love it” This stupid bastard should’ve been kicked down the stairs, but instead someone decided to give him the money for the idea, and why now he was sipping cocktails somewhere, and I was dodging thousands of unopened pouches on the jetty, still with the awful taste of the Carribean Sea in my mouth, but I guess them’s the breaks eh?
Feet dried, food in jersey, long white sleeve top on, helmet on and grateful for the mouthful of coke that was passing around transition. It felt like I took an age in T1, and in fairness I did, but it was an extremely long run to my bike and then to the bike out. And given I knew the clock was on 1.01 when I left the water I could’ve had a cigar in T1 because there was a swagger about me now! Just wait until I get the wetsuit back on I thought. Anyway the swim was over, and my arrogance would spoil the first 30km of the bike leg, where I was about to get my first real experience of how hard it is not to draft. The bike loop was basically three left turns around 60km of the island, and those first 20km all of the wind was coming over my right shoulder. I was flying. Everyone seemed to be sticking to their plan. Me, on the otherhand, had thrown mine out of the window and was doing my best Tony Martin TT impression. I think I passed about 100 riders in that first run down to the south point of the island. I didn’t care. Full gas until the wind, that was my new plan.
The 18km stretch directly into the wind on the first lap was in a storm too. I shouted to a big group that were drafting as I passed them ‘UK weather baby!’ They weren’t impressed. I rode much of that section out of the saddle and I knew this would be difficult to do on laps two and three, so adopted one of the football commentator Ray Wilkins’ favourite sayings and decided I needed to ‘stay on my seat’. In true Sean Kelly style, I made some calculations as to which points of the course the windy section would be, and decided this was were I would burn all my matches. The last time round would be 144-162km. What would I have left by then?
Going through the town I worked out where I would loosen my shoe straps and glanced towards T2. The support around the whole bike course was amazing, kids out all day long shouting and yelling as every rider went passed, even the parts in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure they understood why so many people would come to race their island, but to be thanked by so many for doing so was quite a humbling experience. For their endeavour, I would leave my heart and soul out there on the course for the Mayan Gods to do with as they pleased.
The rest of the bike passed by without incident; the winds got stronger, I became more tired, I ate a lot, and nearly swerved into the lead men when I realised they were streaming through. I went through 90km in 2hr 56m. I knew this was too quick, so decided to just dig in and save everything for the third 18km windy stretch. I had developed quite an annoying technique of hitting the cats eyes on the inside of the rode and it was really beginning to piss me off. I noticed too that I hadn’t put sunscreen on my legs; they’d be a lovely red glow tomorrow. My overall feeling was still pretty good though as I approached that final section. I hadn’t ridden over 60km on the TT bike since July. Dig in.
That last section was hell. It felt like a hurricane. Somehow I still managed to keep the revs at about 70-75rpm and slowly ticked off the kms until the final turn. I didn’t meet anyone like @jackywhites to see me through that last section like I did at Outlaw, the only comforting factor was a lot of other people were suffering too. I had nothing left that last 20km and chewed some more flapjack, thanked the crowds all the way back into town and prayed for the final corner. I didn’t want to run, but I didn’t want to be on the bike anymore. The fact the course measured nearly 185km pissed me off beyond words.
Leaving my shoes on my pedals was a strange idea, considering this wasn’t an Olympic final and I had never practiced it, but the truth was I didn’t have the energy or power to clip my feet out of my pedals (I’d tried to stretch them with 10km to go). I managed it, just, and didn’t hesitate as I passed my bike to the smiling volunteer. I never wanted to see her again (the bike, not the volunteer). I’d remembered to switch the Garmin on, and felt like I got through transition steadily, restocking my energy gels on my belt and trying not to reflect on how badly I’d gone on the bike in the second half. I’d finished with a split of 6hr 38m. It didn’t take that long to forgot about the bike; the run had already become a worry. By the first mile split had beeped I was already overheating and struggling to keep my core temperature down. Ticking these miles off was going to be a long and painstaking process. Bizarrely, I remember asking spectators the time, just to check I’d started the run before 3pm. I must’ve had an overwhelming need to run smack bang in the middle of the heat of the Mexican day.
It was a fairly straight run for 4.3 miles and back again, for three laps. The first six miles passed in much the same way: run to aid station, gatorade down, cover in water, ice in as many places as humanly possible, fill ice in the cap, walk for a bit and then repeat. Survive, survive, just survive. Even though it felt slow and I was walking much more than I wanted to, I was doing about 10min miles upto the six mile point. Brett Sutton himself was out on course at an independent aid station. Naturally being British, I refused a gel, but I savoured the high-five. And then, all of a sudden, everything changed. The thunderstorm rolled into town.
I’ve mentioned the Shawshank Redemption in race reports before. This was akin to the scene where he’s finally escaped and Andy is on his knees savouring the thunderstorm raging around him. I stopped short of re-enacting the scene, but its certainly how I felt. Out of the cap went the ice, and my core temperature came down in a matter of minutes. I was smiling now. My pace seemed to pick up and I was on my way to my special place. The place I was about to name ‘Naked Existence’ as told by the great Aldous Huxley in The Doors Of Perception. I was soaked to my bones, the roads were underwater, I was on my own on the otherside of the world in an IM with about 20miles of the run still to go. Did I want to be anywhere else? No sir, I did not.
The opening paragraph is the next part to this story, but in the fortnight since the race, I’ve become deciedly unclear as to which part of the course it was on. Well in truth, I know which part it was on, but I’m unsure of the lap. My initial thoughts were it was at about 16miles, but that would be back towards town, so it can’t have been there. It was dark, definitely dark, so I think it was on the last lap, which places this point about 21miles, much further on that I first remembered. It raises two valid points this mental turmoil I’ve put myself through trying to remember. The first one being I was in my special place for at least 17miles of the run. This excites me for training and racing in 2014, because I perform better when I’m in that state and I’m finding it easier to get into this zone. The other, rather alarming point in all honesty, was how close I came to a DNF. I’m pretty sure in and around those moments I decided to sit down, that I blacked out, albeit just for a second. What got me up off that curb and heading back towards town I really don’t know. It needs an explanation, and as yet, I haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer.
The thing that got my head together was at 22miles (that is definite!) when an American guy gave me a salt tablet. This brought my head back into planet earth, and then at about 23miles I caught up with another American (John from Boston) who was struggling a bit too. Turned out he had another lap to go after a 40min swim, and cursed himself for concentrating on swim training and not doing enough running. We really lifted eachother’s spirits. I was just thankful I didn’t have another lap to go! We walked together for about 2miles and chatted about anything other than what we were doing. Laughing and joking, we trotted down the road towards the plaza. It was still raining. This was surreal. I couldn’t stop laughing. I thanked John for raising my spirits, he gave me a bear hug and promised he would finish. I would never know. I wanted to run in the last mile, and couldn’t believe how fresh I felt. These bodies we abuse really are truly magical specimens. It’s a mind/body detachment.
Heading to the right and hitting the red carpet (I think it was red) was a goosebump moment. I steadied myself as I went across the timing matt, which inevitably gave Mike Lovato and Steve Trew the information they required, and the words I’d waited a lifetime to hear…
“Number 1170, Andy Sloan, from the United Kingdom…You Are An Ironman”
More bloody tears, but I was smiling and I’d enjoyed. I was alive…and I will live again.