A race with no time goal, only focusing on good execution, the enjoyment of racing, and asking myself “what If” along the way.
Last year, I had planned to participate in this race as my A-race. However, I got sidetracked in my adventures throughout the year and didn’t train enough to approach it as an A-race with personal record goals. I raced Escape from Alcatraz, Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, Ironman 70.3 Waco, and rode my bicycle from San Franciso to Los Angeles. In the past, I have made mistakes during races while chasing finish-time goals, and I didn’t want to feel that pressure this time. Instead, I focused on executing each stage of the race correctly while enjoying the process. I was looking forward to
We arrived on Wednesday evening and checked into a very nice villa just a few blocks from the finish line. Full Ironman competitions require athletes to check in two to three days before race day, and arriving close to race day creates a feeling of stress when trying to accomplish all of the pre-race tasks. Normally, I don’t participate in group training sessions prior to a race. But the energy was great, and I decided to participate in Coach Megan Tobin’s pre-race swim sessions and shake-out bike ride.
I joined Umayer and Ed Hernandez at Stingray Beach for a swim practice on Thursday morning. Meg briefed about 20 athletes, and then we began testing our gear and familiarizing ourselves with the water. Unfortunately, the current did not flow parallel to the shore, and the water was rough. However, the visibility was exceptional, and the temperature was very comfortable. Now I understand why wetsuits are not allowed on this course.
After a refreshing swim, I strolled over to the convention center to complete my check-in process and purchase a shirt. I look forward to buying shirts with the names of all the athletes printed on the back, as it makes me feel proud. Unfortunately, the selection of merchandise was limited, so I bought a race-specific trucker cap and a zip-up jacket instead. The race bags were spacious and of high quality. The rest of the day was spent relaxing with my wife and son.
My Team Varlo buddy arrived Thursday evening and wanted to do the Friday morning practice swim. I wasn’t planning to swim again but decided to go and join him. The water was much rougher. It was more like a washing machine than a wavy ocean. We swam anyway. While there, I ran into a few more friends and Instagram connections: Andrell Hardy, Steve Spicer, Ed Hernandez (his first IM), Umayer Kaleem (His first IM), and Rebecca Lau; I also met some new tri-friends because we kept seeing each other around the island.
As we watched the waves crashing, we felt a mix of fear and excitement. However, since this was Ironman, we had to race under whatever conditions we were given. So, practicing in such conditions would only benefit us. Due to the difficulty of sighting in big swells, we had to use bilateral breathing. The best way to see where we were going and avoid inhaling seawater was to time our sight on the crest of the waves. Although the water felt good, it was harder to swim in. As the video shows, Ariel was unhappy with the rough conditions which greatly slowed him down.
After the swim, we made our way to Ironman Village for the 1-hr group ride along the western side of the bike course.
On Saturday, we dropped off our gear bags at the transition areas which were located in two different spots. T1, which is the swim-to-bike transition, was several miles away from my hotel. To get to the transition area, I rented a converted VW car to explore the island. I used it to transport my bike to the transition area and then drove back. For the swim, we would start 2.4 miles upstream and finish at Parque Chankanab. After the swim, I drove back to my hotel to pick up my wife and son so that we could have a beachside lunch. Later, we drove the entire bike route and explored the other side of the island.
I had a low-stress weekend as I prepared for a course I was excited to tackle. I was also eager to try out my new carbohydrate-loading regimen, which I had developed with the help of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy. Thanks to them, I had a better understanding of race nutrition and developed a systematic approach to carb loading. However, I found it challenging to consume enough food to meet my daily goal of 500-720g/day on both Friday and Saturday. I barely met the low end of the target on Saturday and could tell that I was a little bloated. However, this was expected since glycogen storage requires plenty of water.
After an early dinner, when I was visualizing going through the race, my coach Brandy called unexpectedly to check on me. We chatted briefly, and I returned to the visualization process. Before the race, I like to mentally walk through the entire event in detail, from breakfast through setting up transition, moving through the swim, and making decisions as I progress through the course. I found that generating detailed images before the race makes everything feel more familiar during the event, reducing my stress and decision fatigue.
The swim debacle and the beginning of the end.
I woke up naturally at 3:45 am after having 6.5 hours of restful sleep. Surprisingly, I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm. I had enough time to prepare mentally while eating a big bowl of oatmeal and drinking coffee. As I left the resort to look for a taxi, I met another athlete and his wife. They had already called for a cab and offered to share it with me. While waiting for the taxi, a resident drove past us and stopped to ask if we needed a ride. He was also racing and from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, and participates annually in the event. We happily accepted his offer and arrived at the transition before it even opened.
Since we arrived so early, I set up my bike with plenty of time to spare. I even had the opportunity to assist Umayer as he was preparing to conquer his first Ironman. There are a lot of little decisions and crazy emotions on the morning of an Ironman. I let him know that I still feel nervous and shared what I think about while in transition and that the nerves disappear once he begins the race. I reminded him that he was already in rare air by simply showing up for an Ironman. He should be proud of that. Today is the celebration of all the work.
While waiting at the swim start, it was announced that the pros would start 5 minutes earlier than planned, following an initial 30-minute delay. Shortly after the professionals were told to get in the water for their mass start, the announcer said that the Port Authority would not permit the swim to happen. Boom! Just like that, the swim was canceled. 2,000 of us had to return to the transition area by bus and prepare for a time-trial bike start. Once again, no additional information was provided. We moved from one location to another like a herd of sheep.
This news was really disappointing for many reasons. Firstly, I was here specifically to swim this course. It is known for being fast and beautiful, with 100% visibility. I couldn’t help but think, “Without the swim, this isn’t an Ironman.” Secondly, both Umayer and Ed were participating in their first Ironman races and wouldn’t be able to complete the full Ironman. They had been deprived of that opportunity.
We rode the buses back to Chankanab, but unfortunately, we were not allowed to enter the bike area. Instead, we were directed to the dock that encircled the dolphin area. Someone took our water bottles away as we entered the dock since plastic is not allowed in that area.
We didn’t receive much information while standing in line on the dock. The athletes in my section cheered and chatted with the dolphins who popped up to take a look at us. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and ready to start the race. We had been waiting since 6:30 am, and even at 10 am, we were still waiting. Hunger pangs began to set in, as we had eaten between 4-4:30 am, and now all we could do was wait. At some point, we were informed that we would be released to our bikes in groups of three every five seconds. The organizers also mentioned that running was not necessary as the race time would not begin until we crossed the mount line. Despite the announcement, some people still ran. Finally, it was time to get moving!
The race is now a duathlon (bike-run).
Once I got on the bike, I noticed a lack of energy. I wasn’t tired, but I didn’t feel my usual sense of excitement and vigor. I think maybe it was because we hadn’t warmed up with the swim, or perhaps it was because the absence of the swim had disrupted the rhythm of the race. In any case, standing around for four hours had a negative impact on me. The adrenaline rush I usually get before the swim had already peaked and subsided without any activity, and now it needed to peak again. But how?
My goals for the day were to execute the plan and enjoy the ride without getting distracted by chasing speed. To ensure that, I configured my bike computer to display only my cadence and power while heart rate and speed were on a separate screen. Once I settled in and found my rhythm, I focused on maintaining an aerodynamic position, holding a cadence of 85-90, and keeping my power output between 160-175 watts.
The course started on the western side of the island. As I left the transition area, a group of cyclists passed me. I could hear their consistent rhythm and knew they were professionals even without looking back. I recognized only Cody Beals, so I shouted, “Go, Cody.” They were closely drafting each other with their heads tucked in, which annoyed me. I had already seen two officials scolding an age grouper for passing too slowly and another for being too close to the center line. So I knew they saw how the professionals were riding, but they were selectively enforcing the rules. It felt wrong and unfair. Why don’t the rules apply to them? What can we do when the rules are not applied equally?
After pushing aside those negative thoughts, I was able to appreciate the breathtaking scenery around me fully. The southwestern part of the island was primarily filled with tall trees and had very few people around. With the wind at our backs and the sun’s rays partially blocked. As we headed east and then north, the environment around us transformed completely. The tall trees gave way to shorter shrubs and beautiful blooming plants, with stunning coastline views and the sweet scent of fresh plumeria 🌺🌸. The ocean was calm and serene, with stretches of sandy beaches where the water was a mesmerizing blend of three shades of blue. I even spotted some three to five-foot waves that would be perfect for surfing. As I admired the view, I felt the headwind hit me. At the same time, I realized the sun was scorching the back of my neck. However, instead of feeling frustrated, I smiled and felt an immense sense of gratitude for being able to experience such an incredible activity.
After reaching the summit of the east side, we took a left turn and rode through residential areas. The streets were filled with enthusiastic crowds, especially for the international teams with many supporters wearing matching shirts and shorts to their rider’s kit. It was a recharge zone for me as their energy was infectious. I spotted Jamie near T2 and later saw Robin and Kai a few blocks away. Seeing familiar faces was energizing, and I smiled and waved as I zoomed past them, feeling great as I completed the first of three loops.
The area immediately past Robin and Kai was highly populated, and the streets could be a little treacherous, so I sat up. I took the opportunity to take stock of how I was feeling and what nutrition I’d consumed. I was on target but was feeling a little bloated, so I decided to drink more plain water and slow down on the Infinit mix. Once I got through the busy area, I returned to the aero position while waving at the spectators hanging along the route. After some quiet riding, I realized I was turning left to cross the island and ride the eastern side. Once again, I enjoyed filling my nose with the sweet smell of plumeria.
Somewhere between 60-65 miles, I started feeling very dizzy and nauseous. I also noticed that my eyelids were getting heavy. I kept pedaling but had to stop at every aid station to grab a bottle of cold water. Nothing seemed to quench my thirst. Suddenly, I swerved to the left but caught myself before anything bad happened. I was feeling extremely drowsy, and I believe I either dozed off briefly or had a blackout for a few seconds. This sudden loss of consciousness startled me, and my heart rate surged, making me alert again. In an attempt to boost my energy levels, I consumed another carbohydrate gel. However, as I approached the top of the course to enter the town, I felt weak again, and my concern shifted to overheating.
As I was feeling exhausted, I decided to slow down and take a break, hoping to recover. Luckily, an aid station within a couple of miles was well-stocked with supplies. Initially, I took two bottles of ice water, but as I made my way through the aid station, I spotted a palm tree and decided to sit under it, seeking refuge from the sun’s harsh rays. While under the tree, I poured ice water on my head and chest and closed my eyes, hoping that my nausea and drowsiness would subside. All I wanted to do was lie down and nap, so I knew I wasn’t in a good place. I debated whether to continue or stop the race. I only had one more lap on the bike, and then I could walk on the run. I knew the sun would set and I would feel much better afterward. The problem was that I didn’t really believe that I could do another lap in the exposed sun. I knew my ego was leading my thought process, but I had a tough time stomaching a voluntary DNF.
After resting for 10 minutes under the tree, I took another cold water bottle and continued with my last lap. However, I quickly realized that I would not be able to complete the race. I felt extremely weak and didn’t have enough energy to push even a moderate amount of power. I was still drowsy, and my belly was very bloated; when I burped, it felt like I was vomiting into my mouth 🤢. However, the final straw came when I caught myself swerving again. Was it another micro-nap? That was it. No medal was worth jeopardizing my health.
As I rode through town, the large and cheering crowds filled me with energy. All the smiling faces and chants made me feel like giving up would disappointing them. I thought about completing another lap around the island and then deciding if I should quit or not.
Quitting is fucking hard!
As I approached the bike-to-run transition area, I debated and debated… What do I do???
I stopped racing and pulled over into T2, where I gave the volunteers my bike and timing chip. Three other men were doing the same thing. While waiting for them to take my photo and record my number, a few more people approached the volunteers to let them know they had decided to stop racing. The race had several issues, including a delayed start, a canceled swim, and the hot weather, which caused many of us to drop out.
I initially felt uneasy about my decision, but when I phoned Robin, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. It made me realize that the most important thing was to return to my loved ones at the end of the day, and that’s exactly what I was doing.
PS- The world’s Best Sherpa
Robin is officially the world’s best Sherpa/Supporter. While waiting for me to make the second lap, she noticed that the Ironman tracker was inaccurate. It showed me being 20 minutes away, but I could have been only one or 40 minutes from their location. Despite needing to use the bathroom urgently, she chose to wait for me instead of taking the risk of missing me pass by. She stayed in place and even urinated on herself to ensure she didn’t miss me. That’s true love in action. I have decided to always purchase the Ironman VIP package for them going forward because no one should have to go through that.
After gathering my bags and cleaning up, I headed to the running course and shouted words of encouragement to everyone, urging them to keep pushing. Watching people fight for their big goals is always inspiring to me. If I can provide someone with a little motivation and energy that helps them move a little closer to the finish line, then I’ll be there to do just that.