Vicente Cortina from Monterery, Mexico participated in Cozumel's first Ironman competition. Here is a narrative of his training process and the experience on the day of the race.
Ironman Review 2009
"There is pain that is perceived and pain that is endured and they are two different worlds, inhabited by creatures of two different races. We cannot choose which one we belong to”
John Le Carre
No, it is not the first Ironman that I have participated in, it is my 2nd. But, there is something that I regret from the first one, it is that I had not done a review of this tough competition, but at the same time a competition that reveals so much of who you really are and what you are really made of. This time I will not let time pass and I will not stay in the same stupor after such a great undertaking that it inhibits my drive to write and therefore transmit to you what I felt during these 12 hours of competition. Therefore, I am going to dedicate a few hours to share with you what it means to train, compete and live having a hobby such as this sport that, for me, is without a doubt, the most beautiful individual sport in the world. With this I will cover various needs but most importantly I will try to explain why, in the last few years, I have consciously decided to invest time in this sport instead of spending time with each of you who will be reading this story. Another reason for writing this is that you will experience what I have lived in this adventure and in some form try to leave you something positive to make up for the time we haven't shared in person...even though there is no substitute for time...
“I feel my vision slipping in and out of focus I'm pushing on for that horizon, I'm pushing on, Now I got the blowing wind against my face” Bling (confessions of a king) – The Killers
No, Ironman isn't simply a triathlon. It is a triathlon of long distances. In 1978 in Hawaii, a group of friends that were between them cyclists, runners and swimmers, sat around with a few beers (you know...blame it on the beer) and they decided to create a competition that would reveal which athletes were the strongest...if it was the cyclist, the runner or the swimmer. Therefore they decided to integrate the 3 disciplines into one competition. The distances were defined by the natural limits, they had to cross the bay, go around the island and finish by running a marathon (a distance that was already a recognized competition). So, the distances for swimming are 2.4 miles (3.9 km), 112 miles of cycling (180 km) and running the marathon 26.2 miles (42.2 km).
There are 24 locations for Ironman competitions in the world. All the continents except Antarctica are represented. From New Zealand to Niza passing by Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to Cozumel, the latest addition to the Ironman calendar.
Every year at the end of October 2000 athletes compete in that year's 25th Ironman, the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. Athletes can only go to the Ironman in Kona, HI, if they have qualified in one of the previous 24 Ironman competitions. At each Ironman there are between 50-100 slots that are authorized to go to Hawaii. These are filled by the top finishers in various categories (age, gender, etc.). To go to Hawaii is truly a privilege. It is to be among the elite of the long distance triathletes.
The rules of this competition are very clear. You have 17 hours to do the whole race. No one can give you assistance even if you need it. To receive assistance is an automatic disqualification. Assistance includes all of the following: technical assistance in the case of a bicycle breakdown; feeding yourself away from the official stations on the course...I'm saying that weather, or any number of numerous things that can happen can disqualify you. There 3 big enemies on the clock and a tragic phrase that everyone wants to avoid the day of the competition. The first enemy is 9:20 am, the hour that the swimming competition ends (it always begins at 7:00 a.m.). After this time you cannot continue in the competition and receive a DNF (did not finish) on your competition results page. Your 2nd enemy is at 1730, the hour that the bicycle race closes. After this hour you cannot continue. DNF. The 3rd enemy is midnight or the 17 hours of competition rule. The finish line closed. If you come in at 00.00.005 am on Monday (it is always starts on a Sunday), it is a DNF. DNF is the worst that can happen to you. The phrase that no one wants to hear and that preceded disqualification for not arriving on time "or for a technical knock out" given to you by Ironman (like in boxing when the medico sees you with the flashlight, looking you in the eye, and with authority says, "you cannot go on".) This phrase is "let me remove your chip". Those of you that have run 10 K races know what I am talking about, it is the chip that they put on your ankle to measure the times when you cross each competition and pass over the meter mats...DNF if you want to take off your chip it has to be by a volunteer in the area.
“Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 miles and Brag for the rest of your life”
“You can learn a lot about life in the Ironman, […] what sustains it and how it can be rejuvenated revealing what's inside ... how today means everything until it's over... and how boundaries are made to be broken”
I am not going to review the training that you need to participate in Ironman. But, the average training should be about 14 hours a week, minimum. Some weeks your schedule will be much tougher, these should be around 150 km biking a day (or 5 hours). Others can be up to 180 km or 6 hours on the bike and this is without counting the process of getting to the training race courses and back. We are always looking for safe sites because Mexico is a country where no one respects the cyclist. Not one training is exempt from a fright by a truck driver or a car that invades on your lane at the same time getting as close as possible to you to teach you a lesson...sad but true. In spite of that, these are my favorite trainings. I believe there is nothing like the freedom you feel in these long distance trips on a bicycle. Over the distances we tell jokes, antecdotes, exchange tips, and then in weeks just before the event, we exchange our strategies to continue, which are really no more than an exchange of natural nervousness before the upcoming test.
Almost all of us have run, but to run in the Ironman requires that you train your legs to race after a few hours of biking. Basically to use your gluts and your quadraceps, to use the muscles behind your thighs and your calves. These lengthy trainings turn out to be 35 km but the great majority vary from between 12 and 18 km 3 times a week. To get ready for Ironman you generally have to stage a half Ironman to get ready for the competition. For Cozumel we did a really cool one that was organized by our trainer here in Monterrey. The swimming is in the night or the afternoon with an average of 3.5 or 4 km a session 3 times a week. Sometimes it is really early before we go to work. The latest that I have arrived to begin was 9:30 at night. We were finishing practically as late as 11 pm when they were turning off the lights at Sports City! Training is not only difficult for the competitor.
It is hard on the families. There is a lot of literature written around this theme. The titles of these articles explain why for some, the price of the training is your family relations: "How to do an Ironman without getting divorced", "My life in the Ironman", "Raising kids and racing in Ironman". Even though I don't have kids as you know, my training friends in Monterrey all have children and I can perceive by their chats how Ironman could interfere a little with the free time they spend with their children and their spouses. Ironman isn't only training for the competitor, it is also training for the family.
There is an important social cost in Ironman training. You sacrifice going to evening social events and parties. Gone is drinking, Gone are late dinners, gone are the dates, gone are the weddings. Believe me you sacrifice. If you go you are not enjoying yourself because deep inside you know you are losing training time and it is a minute more you will gain during the actual competition. You will sacrifice the most delicious and fat-filled dinners. Then there are the trips.. the airplanes that kill you, the heights, the dehydration, the waiting rooms, the junk food that they give you and the jack and coke that keeps telling you, you are in business class, why not. Nope. Nope. Nope. And like it is said, who will ever know, you know, all of this takes away your speed.
So, you don't know how much time in training you must invest to improve your time. So you must find balance between your training and your social life.
Time in Ironman = (training and nutrition) - time worked - time in social life.
In my case the part of the equation of my job is non-negotiable. The temptation to improve the time has to balance the equation with other elements of the equation (social life and training). It is a hard decision because you need to be very strict with nutrition and I like to eat.
Altogether the training is about six months and the last months the anxiety gets intense because you have spent so much time getting ready that you don't want anything to go wrong. I got sick the last two weeks with the flu and I have never been sick with the flu before. A friend of mine, Roberto, told me that this is because you stressed and anxious. I believe he was right.
Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things I am tempted to think there are no little things.
You cannot forget anything when you get ready to travel to Ironman. You almost have to have double of everything in case something gets broken during the race. Sometimes the races are in places where there are no bicycle stores and the list is huge and never ending...nutrition, bicycle parts, things for swimming, things for the run, things for previous training, medications. Just in case I brought sandwiches with Nutrella and I brought it from Monterrey. It was good thing because 2 days before the race there was none in the supermarket in Cozumel. Tools for the bicycle are crucial, one failure with the bicycle during the race and you don't have the tool or leave it at your house...DNF. Thank you, ciao, arrivederci, bye. I paid extra charges to the airline for being overweight. The bicycle travels in a hard box that is light, but quite large. I have seen friends that traveled with scissors and traveled with stuffed animals for good luck. These little things that may seem insignificant can ruin your day.
At the airport in Monterrey, Wednesday, November 25 at 12 the security guards took away my CO2 tanks. We use these to put air in the bike tires in an emergency. This is so you don't have to carry the big pump and get tired just inflating the tires. THEY TOOK THEM AWAY. I was bringing 3, they are less dangerous than spray deodorant with alcohol, it is just compressed air. THEY TOOK THEM AWAY. When they were doing that I told myself now is when Ironman starts. Paulina will arrive in Cozumel later (Friday). She brought the 3 tanks with her, hidden in her suitcase. I could buy them from the only mechanic that was in the race. I knew later that they were finished, so I sold the tanks. Imagine if you are going to race and you don't bring a pump and there are no more tanks on the island, what you go through your mind during the bicycle race. Can you imagine. There are a lot of little details. Nothing can be forgotten, you have to have a plan, a list and chronology by day of what you have do the three days before the race -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There is no vacation. The days leading up to the race are with mixed feelings, you are anxious and there are a lot of people or your family, the competitors and friends are there too. In my case I saw a lot of friends that I trained with in Mexico City before I went to Monterrey and also the people in Monterrey. It is like going to a wedding (especially since this was the first Ironman in Mexico) but with no cake or going to the church. Just power bars Gatorade.
There is another factor, people sometimes release the anxiety by gossiping and the only thing that this does is makes you feel more anxious. So you have to listen and understand what 50% of that is the information important for the race.
The important thing of the previous days are hydration and get a lot of glucose (carbs) into your blood. Assemble the bicycle, try it out, go swim where the race will be held so you know the current, get your competitors bag you are provided and sleep well.
So what is the competitors bag? During the Ironman there are 2 transitions. From the swimming to the bicycle and from the bicycle to the run. The clock doesn't stop so you must do the transitions as fast as possible. There are racks where your bicycle is waiting and there is another which holds your bags for the next leg of the competition. When you finish the swimming or when you get to the bicycle the first thing you do is go look for your bags which are numbered on the racks and you need to change in the big tents. So if you have to get nude, there is no problem. There is no nude Ironman. Just a few people change completely, generally the clothing is specially made so that you can swim, ride and run. It is a "tri" suit. These bags are given to you the day before the competition -- you cannot forget anything. You have no access to those bags before the race and you cannot make any modification on the bicycle. You can't do any tourism before the race, these are not holidays. No diving, no motorcycle, nothing where you can get hurt. There will be time after the race to do that.
"Triathletes have the capacity to propel their body at high speeds, through wind and weather over long distances. I call that flying."
No, not everybody gets to arrive from 100 that get registered it is just 90 that get there. From 90, 89 finish. The most important part of Ironman is to be there the day of competition, the icing on the cake. Enrique told me one day when we were starting a triathlon Cancun, "you have done it, you are here."
The morning of Ironman is special, I was awake at 4 AM. The race starts at 7 AM. The transition area opens from 5:30 to 6:50 and this is where you put the details on your bicycle (like air, tools you are going to carry, food, water, Gatorade for the first km). You get out of the ocean and of course, you have swallowed some salty water...you have to have a mental list of what you are going to do from the moment you wake up until you get in the water at 6:50 AM. Have breakfast, go to the bathroom, get dressed, put your chip on your leg, the pump, the suitcase to prepare the bicycle before they close the transition. Ipod to get motivated -- it is prohibited during the competition. The transportation to the transition, "bike setup" and find the time for a little mental relaxation and all of this in one hour.
The moments before you get into the water are special, you feel anxious and a mixture of fear and joy, it is very difficult to describe. In my case it is when I feel the most lonesome, even amongst 2,000 people. A lot of things go through my head..my family..my life.. my friends. But you need to focus and review the race and visualize yourself swimming, riding and realize you are going to be the whole day doing this and you need to give yourself the boost. The starting is at the same time 2,000 people swimming. From the outside it is a spectacular show that I recommend to see. From inside it is something totally different. It is battle in the water, it is water polo without a ball. My priority is to avoid any hits and collisions in the first 700 meters. There are stories about people that get their goggles knocked away and having to swim without them. Or people who get hit in the temple of the nose by an elbow. During the first 700 meters I was very conservative, the advantage of the Cozumel ocean is that there is 90% visibility so the navigation is easier, you see perfectly who is around you. For the first time in an open water competition I could navigate perfectly and try to get close to the competitors I could see were swimming well and try to match their rhythm. They were cutting the water, this is allowed. The closer you can get to someone, the less you have to work. Navigation is hard when you are swimming. The marker buoys get lost with the waves and the splashing and the sun which is rising. You need some experience and good orientation. After 700 meters we arrive at the first buoy. It is like getting into the 2nd floor of the Periferico in Mexico City, there are 7 rows and they all want to go to the right at the same time. A critical place for extreme caution to avoid getting hit. The current helped us on the longest part of the water race. It was fast swimming for all. I got out of the water after 1 hour and 5 minutes without a scratch. Swimming is the most dangerous part, they can hit you and you can drown. It is very difficult to get rescued with so many competitors. There are a lot of things that can go wrong during swimming. When I get out of the water I thank all the saints, gods and energies and whatever else there is to be grateful to for protection. This is the most dangerous part, the first, that is logical, no?
"This is about limits. Reaching them, exploring them, exceeding what you thought yours were. Coming to the conclusion that there aren't any limits."
SWIM TO BIKE: 6:51
It took me 6 minutes 51 seconds to put on the helmet, the bicycle shoes, the belt with the number, the eyeglasses, some sun block and mosquito repellent, and take some fresh water to rinse the salt off. In the tent I saw Roberto and Pablo. It is difficult to find friends during the transition, so I was happy to see them and to know that they were healthy and safely completed the swim. If I have to describe what was going on in the tent, it was total chaos. Water bottles flying, it smelled like sun block and mosquito repellent. People yelling to get some vaseline. People worried because they can't find things. Oh surprise, they forgot one day before to put everything in the bag. It is really a show. I don't know if I am more impressed by the faces of the competitors or the faces of the people volunteering.
It is incredible to see the crowd cheering and supporting us as we left the tent. There is a lot of euphoria from the people watching because they are happy everyone got out of the water safely. There I saw Pau giving her strong support. When you go out of the tent and run towards your bicycle you always check how many bicycles are still in the area so you have an idea of how many people are ahead and behind you. This is a race.
And the circuit is 3 rounds of 60 km, one part, the south part of the island of Cozumel. They supply stands where every 10 km they have bottles of water, Gatorade, gels and protein sticks. There are also first aide and bathrooms. My strategy was to always have full bottles on the bicycle and in my jersey and every 10 km take more. In addition to this, every 45 minutes I ate a quarter of a power sandwich (peanut butter and jelly). Every hour a salt pill. At 90 minutes a red bull and peanuts with dry fruit and 2 Advils.
I think nobody was prepared for the winds that came from the North on the East side of the island. It wore us out mentally and physically. In my case, the experience of peddling and not advancing when the street was completely flat was very mentally deceiving. The first round when I thought I was at 30 km an hour, I actually was doing 27 km per hour because of the winds and because I was being conservative. I felt good. By the way, I have never seen such beautiful beaches as these on the island of Cozumel. It is incredible. The circuit makes you go from East to West to get back to town where the support was incredible. It was like in the Tour de France, all the people in Cozumel were there to support the athletes. We were wearing a uniform that said Mexico. We felt like the Mexican Selection (what the participants are called in great sporting events such as the Olympics) because of the incredible support. The rule of the bicycle is as follows: there is no drafting allowed; when somebody is in front of you the effort can be reduced as much as 30% -- this is very important in the Tour de France, but is prohibited here. You have to have at least 7 meters in front and 3 meters on the side and you have just 20 seconds to pass somebody. The bicycle was very hard for me so that when I started to run I was nearly destroyed. At the beginning of the 2nd round I felt very tired. After the euphoria of the town and the area of arriving where I didn't see Pau or the groups of supporters (children, wives, friends). I found out later that she took more time to go around the island because of the traffic. Then I rode 30 km very tired against the wind. The people from the Ironman committee were very creative, "only an Ironman can conquer the winds". I repeated that in my head probably 40 times. At some point between 70 and 107 km, after I ate 2 portions of the sandwich and a pill of salt, I started to feel better again. I concentrated on the peddling and didn't stop until the end of the 2nd round. On kilometer 107 I found that I had forgotten to stop at 90 km for the things I had left in the morning for the bag of special needs. It was the red bull, peanuts and dried fruit. I knew that I hadn't done that during the training, but on the other hand I congratulated myself because of the power of concentration I had accomplished. I had enough emergency food, everything is okay. ¡Vamos con huevos! A saying in Mexico which means if you still have the eggs, you still have the power. In the town the people were yelling like in the Tour de France. This time I could see Pau who was my lucky charm... wearing the cycling jersey from the champion of the Tour de France. Two rounds and no flats I told myself. The day before the race I took my bicycle to the transition I found a small groove in the back tire, it was small but not to ignore. To tell the truth it would have been much better to change it, I was worried that it could blow the tire. I asked Memo what he thought, he said it was okay. I didn't believe him, but will have I time worrying about it when nothing could be done? I followed his advice of taking an additional tire just in case. But where can I buy a tire? The registered area was closed so we left the bicycles kind of resigned. At the exit of the transition area was Probert an old guy known in the triathalon that has a store in Mexico City. He had an improvised a small store for emergencies. I bought a tire and carried it 180 km without needing it. The turnaround was uneventful. We had to be careful in preparation for the running. I had to follow my plan of hydration and nutrition. I was glad to see Martin on his bicycle on that round. On the first run I saw Roberto and on the 2nd I saw Pablo. It is a very strange moment because of the rules you cannot talk because you will get DQed. You saw them and you have 2 options, you stay 7 meters behind them or you pass them and you have 20 seconds to talk after having spent many many hours training together. And there you are, like him, racing in the Ironman. I remember that Martin put on handles a picture of his neice. He took it on the corners. Roberto tied a small fabric horse on the front of his bicycle. The horse belonged to one of his children when they were babies.
T2 BIKE TO RUN: 5:52
It took me 6 hours and 15 minutes bicycling, 15 more than I expected. That breaks you a little mentally to know you are 15 minutes behind. It is almost 6 minutes to take off the helmet, bicycle shoes, apply more mosquito repellent and vaseline and put the cap and tennis shoes on. I started running at 5 minutes 20 sec per km. I was lightening fast. I was very motivated by the people that were clapping a lot and because I saw Pau when she was in the transition. The circuit was 3 rounds of 14 km, 7 out and 7 back with stands every 2 km with water, gator aid, protein sticks, gels, coke, peanuts, Ritz crackers and pretzels. My plan was to run 2 km and walk during the stands and then start to run again. Evidently I didn't because I got excited to hold these 5 min and 20 per km and I ran the first 14 (WRONG). I got the bill on km 21 where everything disconnects. I think at the 18 km I just broke apart. One of the factors that played against me was that I put water in my tennis shoes while I was trying to cool off by pouring a bottle of water over my head. I got blisters and I needed to do the rest of the 21 km with blisters. That is when I saw Enrique who had 14 km more than me running, and Mau who had 10 km more than me. Wow, I have a lot of respect for them. You see everybody running and you are greeting everybody even though some of them forget that you are greeting, like Memo who had a 8 km advantage and who was running like the devil. He doesn't remember that I greeting him. I think the head is disconnected from the body and from any distraction. And that can be dangerous because you stop listening to your body. I ran for awhile (the first 7 km) with Yolanda, a very good athlete from Monterrey who qualified like Mau at Kona. Then I ran for awhile with Fer and with Claudio. So you have 42 km to be able to find some of your friends. On my 28 km I had to walk 1 km. On the 32 I walked 2 km. In one of the stands I asked for vaseline, took off my socks and put a lot of vaseline on my toes and the sole of my foot. Then I went off again. That is when I found out that there was no vaseline in all the stands, just on the km 7 which is on the way back. At the Red Cross it was vaseline that a volunteer brought from her apartment. A pregnant woman that has a place in heaven gave it to me. I don't know if that was illegal or not, but nobody saw it. Later I found out that when you are running they are not as strict with rules. The volunteers bring everything from their houses. At km 35 one of them wanted to give me beer. I smiled and told him no, when I finish I will drink it. He told me no, it is filled with sodium and potassium. I laughed a lot. BTW it was a Dos XX lager.
The guardian angel, Louis, best known as El Fish, is an old friend of the university and an ex-coworker for Danon. He was waiting for me on km 39, 3 km before the finish line. There I was walking and kind of trotting and this spurred me to run the last part. To tell you the truth at that moment I felt like when the big heavy cruise ships are pulled small pilot boats. I felt like the pilot boat. My blisters were hurting, but the feeling of almost being there was incredible and undescribable. I could hear the music of the finish area but I didn't have enough gas, I just wanted to get there. When I got to the area of all the support groups, their wives and friends, Pau wasn't there, but Roberto's wife told me that Pau was at the finish line. In her hands she was holding banner that said "Vicente you are an Ironman". She gave it to me and I thanked her for all the group's support and I ran the last 30 meters holding this banner in front of me just to hold it over my head in the last meter to the blue carpet that is on the finish area.
On the race I saw a lot of people throwing up. We got attacked by mosquitoes, I have never been bitten by mosquitoes on the palms of my hands before. I saw one of the girls trying to hide behind a tree (that wasn't hiding anything). She couldn't get to the bathroom so she was using the bushes. Out of respect the competitors just ignored her and kept running.
“Never, never never, never quit”
TOTAL TIME 12:19:38
I don't know how to describe the feeling when you cross the finish line. Actually, it is very similar to the moment before you get into the water. There were a lot of people and I couldn't run with Pau the last meters. We didn't plan it and it would have been very incredible.
With some days passing between the Ironman and today that I am writing this I realize that I am extremely fortunate to have been able to do something like this. To be able to have the support of Paulina, my family, my boss, my coworkers and overall to have the health to be able to do it.
This is a very physical challenge but it is a mental challenge also. It is certainly a day that will change your life. It will make you stronger and show yourself respect and admiration and you will understand humility.
From my heart I wish that whichever is your passion you feel and find what I found in the Ironman. But overall, understand if you really want it, everything is possible.
My thanks to Vicente for taking the time to write this fascinating narrative of his experience and for allowing me to share this with the readers of my blog. And my profound thanks to Juen Hutchinson and Nora Hernandez for the hours they spent helping me with the translation.