Ironman Cozumel. 2.4 mile ocean swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run in less than 17 hours.
I remember watching Ironman Hawaii on TV when I was in high school and thinking “Wow, that’s insane. I would never be able to do that. Why would anyone choose to swim 2.4 miles (in the OCEAN!), bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles? You’d have to be super-human or something.”
Fast forward to February 2014 and I’m Ouray, Colorado and seriously considering such an endeavor. My experience up to that point consisted of 3 sprint triathlons, only one being an open water swim (which I would consider a fairly disastrous experience). As soon as I submerged my head in the lake, I hyperventilated and swam backstroke and breaststroke for 400 meters.
Nevertheless, the thought of accomplishing such an endeavor, the process, the dedication, the challenge, and yes, the glory, was quite an intoxicating thought. It was also extremely scary.
I paid for my very costly entrance fee ($650. Really?!?!) on my iPhone in the Montrose, Colorado airport in February of 2014. Ok, I’m doing this!
When I got back home to Nashville, TN, the realization and panic began to set in – I needed a coach and a training plan and I needed them fast. So I asked my good friend, Michelle, to set me up with her coach, Richard Baker, of Triswami.
Fast forward to November 2014, and I’m in Cozumel, Mexico about to race an Ironman. 140.6 miles of swim, bike, run in less than 17 hours. My goal was 13-14 hours.
I had been training since March of 2014, competed in two 70.3 Half-Ironmans and 2 olympic distance races. I completed a 120 mile bike ride (mostly in the rain), and ran the farthest I had ever run before – 18 miles. I battled plantar fasciitis and discovered Hoka One Ones, which are goofy-looking moon shoes with a lot of cushion. But they saved me. I wouldn’t have been able to continue training or run the race otherwise. I learned how to change a flat tire on my bike and the importance of staying hydrated and maintaining appropriate salt intake. I learned how to ride a triathlon bike…it’s kind of difficult at first, very unsteadying.
At 7:30 am on November 30th, 2014, my purple swim cap age group (30-34 years) entered the ocean (Thank goodness! I was about to pee on myself.). The energy was intoxicating: the music, the people, the triathletes. I was a little nervous, but not terribly. I had been training for the past 9 months and was ready to execute my game plan.
The horn went off and so did the purple swim cap group. We had 100% visibility in the ocean and the salt water made us more buoyant. The current can be pretty strong in Cozumel; thankfully we were swimming a point to point WITH the current. I’m not an extremely fast or extremely slow swimmer. I settled into my stroke count and just enjoyed the view. The ocean was about 25-30 feet deep and the view was absolutely stunning. There were so many people that I never saw a single fish during the race, but I loved being able to see everything…much more entertaining than the murky lake water where I did my training. At some point during the swim, the current changed directions, and suddenly I was swimming upstream. A local forewarned me about this possibility, so I was prepared for it; I just kept moving my arms, even though it felt like I wasn’t making forward progress. Eventually, the current switched directions again and I was swimming with the current once more. After 1 hour and 17 minutes, I exited the ocean.
2.4 miles down. 138.2 more miles to go.
As I prepared for the bike ride, I made sure to take time to rinse off as much salt as I could in the showers. Salt plus bike shorts does not a happy Haley make. (A friendly fellow competitor, Georgetta, gave me this advice the night before. She raced Cozumel the previous year and Cozumel 2014 was her 10th Ironman race in 2014 alone. She planned to compete in the Australia Ironman 2 weeks later to wrap up the year. Yeah. Y’all think I’m crazy…) Well, I tried to rinse off the salt, but the water pressure was low, so… yes, a bit uncomfortable.
Transition 1 down. Off to the bike ride. I saw Michelle in transition 1. I cannot tell you how encouraging it is to see a smiling, familiar face in this event. It does wonders for the psyche. Michelle was my Ironman support crew. I personally would not recommend competing in an Ironman without one. It also helps if they too compete in triathlons; they understand the race and can give advice. Your support crew helps with logistics before and during the race and, most importantly, creates motivating signs to cheer you on. Signs like: “Smile if you just peed yourself.”
Cycling is by far my strongest discipline of the three (swim, bike, run). I had a strong swim and I was confident heading into the bike. I had my nutrition plan down and was ready to hammer out a solid bike ride. My main goals were to fuel appropriately, cycle steady, but conserve energy for the upcoming 26.2 mile run.
Well…Cozumel had other plans for me that day.
I should mention that I had never swam in salt water until this race. I was so dehydrated out of the swim that I drank all 3 of my nutrition bottles, containing Gatorade and Infinit, in 1 hour instead of over 3 hours. I also continued with my food plan (pop-tarts and fig newtons). Essentially, I was consuming more calories than I should have been, which would later come back to haunt me.
The course was fairly flat with a slight uphill on the 10 mile stretch of backside of the island, where the wind was wicked strong. I mean wicked. Cyclists were leaning into the wind so as not to tip over. Fortunately, all of the athletes were able to experience the extreme wind not once, not twice, but three times during the day. It was a 3 loop course. While the wind was not appealing (I’ll take steep hills over wind any day), the ocean waves crashing down on the rocks were an amazing sight to see.
Around mile 55, I started to feel nauseous. Crap. I was almost to the special needs station on the bike (The “special needs” station is where I can access my bag full of goodies like a snickers bar, frozen coke, sunscreen, etc.). The waves of nausea intensified. I found a spot in the shade and sat down and tried to eat some more. I didn’t realize until after the race where I went wrong. (My body could not absorb the calories I was consuming quickly enough). I just knew I needed to eat well on the bike so I didn’t bonk on the run. I felt pretty bad at this point.
I urinated on myself. Again. (Urinating on oneself is a common occurrence in Ironman events, especially during the bike ride. I never would have finished the bike if I had to stop every time I had to pee. However, it was still an uncomfortable experience and hard to do the first time on the bike.). I was starting to doubt myself. I had a long way to go and felt pretty miserable.
After about 30 minutes at the aid station (way too long…), I got back on the bike and slowly pedaled away. My pace slowed significantly. I saw Michelle in town cheering me on…she could tell something was off. You could read it on my face. I pedaled through town and stopped at another aid station. I was feeling worse. I thought about asking for help. We were in Mexico and little kids were working the aid stations and knew little English. I decided to keep moving. Cyclists were passing me by and the crowds were thinning out. I still had most of the 3rd lap to go, and the sun was setting lower in the sky. I felt so bad I wanted to stop on the side of the road and let someone pick me up. I questioned whether I could keep going.
Suddenly, I came to a screeching halt on the side of the road at mile 88 of the bike course. And vomited. Projectile style. Seriously impressive velocity, I have to say.
1. I felt immensely better.
2. I vomited just before heading into the wickedly windy section of the course.
I still had about 20 miles to go, but at least I wasn’t nauseous anymore. I asked myself “Why am I doing this? This is pretty painful.” At this point, I had lost a lot of time on the bike and wasn’t sure if I would even have the strength to complete the run, or even make it out of Transition 2. I just kept telling myself to keep pedaling, get to the run tent, and then I would decide if I could go on or not. I was also at risk of not making the cutoff time to continue onto the run. In addition to coaxing my mind and body to keep moving, I was racing the clock.
After 8.5 hours on the bike (My slowest time ever!!), I finally rolled in to Transition 2. I handed my bike off to the volunteers (yeah…careful where you touch the bike…) and made my way into the run tent. I slowly changed clothes and gathered my thoughts. This Ironman thing is tough. Let’s see if I can still run.
I exited the run tent and I hear all of the fast folks finishing their race. The run tent was strategically located right next to the finish line.
I began jogging and felt pretty strong. All of that training really does seem to work. My run plan was simply to jog to each aid station and then walk for a short bit. Each aid station was a mile apart. There were still a lot of athletes on the course in addition to the large, cheering crowd. Again, this does wonders for the psyche. Michelle cheered me on the whole way. I kept a steady pace for about 20 miles.
And then I hit the proverbial wall. I knew it was coming at some point, I was just hoping it was closer to the 26 mile marker. I vomited again, then urinated on myself. I didn’t think anything of it, except it stung around my ankle. Great. The velcro on my timing chip rubbed a sore spot on my ankle. I was too tired to care.
Hitting the wall feels like a mack truck just ran you over. It’s a bizarre feeling. Here I was, just jogging along, feeling decent, and then…wham! It was incredibly difficult to keep moving. Every step, shuffle, or slight jog required a significant amount of effort. Instead of every aid station, my goal was to reach that fire hydrant, or that cone, or that bench.
The run was a 3 loop course and the turn around was also strategically located by the finish line. Talk about emotional. Each loop I was one step closer to those words. Those words that would induct me into Ironman status. Michelle took my picture at mile 25 of the run so I could remember that moment. The sun had long gone to bed and we were well into the night. The course was thinning. Suck it up Peel, you are almost there.
As I rounded the last loop into the finish line corridor, the crowd gave me the final spark of energy I needed to propel me through to the finish line. As I crossed that line, I heard those most famous words: “From Nashville, TN… Haley Peel… You. Are. An. Ironman!!!!!!!”
Hallelujah. Holy Shit. Where’s the Tylenol?
Lights were flashing, someone draped my finisher medal around my neck, and I was feeling nauseous again. I made my way slowly into the finisher tent and sat down. I couldn’t move. Someone handed me a slice of pizza and a coke. I slowly sipped on the coke. I couldn’t believe it. It was surreal. I sat there, unmoving, trying to process the day. Only the competitors and volunteers could be in the tent, so Michelle had to wait outside the gate. I thought about standing up, but wasn’t sure if I could. Someone looked over at me and said “You did it. You’re an Ironman.” I almost broke down in tears. I did not expect to be so emotional.
My legs felt like concrete, but I decided to attempt to stand up. I’d either stand up and keep walking or collapse. Fortunately, I kept walking, collected my Cozumel Finisher technical shirt and exited the gate. Seeing Michelle, I gave her a hug and started crying. Dang Haley, get it together. It still felt so surreal.
My final time was 15 hours and 28 minutes.
Ironman is such an incredible journey and a huge endeavor. From the months of training, the sacrifices, the camaraderie, the race day, and the finish line, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I didn’t meet my goal time, but that’s okay, I still crossed the finish line. Even though I had many moments of doubt throughout the journey, I conquered my fears, went way past my comfort zone and completed my first Ironman.
As the saying goes, GRAB THE BULL BY THE HORNS!
A huge shout out to my coach, Richard Baker, my race day support crew, Michelle Resch, and my parents (who took turns accompanying me on various parts of my long, long bike rides). I couldn’t have done it without them.