A liesurely dip in the Carribean Sea – Ironman Cozumel, Part I – The Swim

In the mid to late 1970’s, a debate raged among the cycling, running and swimming communities in California and Hawaii regarding which group possessed the greatest levels of fitness and endurance. Using the emerging concept of triathlon, the preeminent distance events from the three sports in Hawaii – the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles) – were combined into one grueling event to test the mettle of all three groups. The bike course was shortened by three miles to 112 so that it could start precisely at the finish of the Waikiki swim and transition to the run at the Aloha Tower, the traditional starting point of the Honolulu Marathon. It was agreed that the winner of the event would be the true “Iron Man”. On February 18th, 1978, 15 athletes started the very first Iron Man event. First among the 12 finishers with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds was Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist. And thus was born the phenomenon of Ironman. In the years to follow, the sport saw exceptional growth. The anchor event in Hawaii moved from February to October in 1982 and as various qualifying races of the same distance sprang up around the world, the Hawaii race became Ironman’s World Championship.

On Sunday November 28, some 32 years after that first event, Melissa, Lori, Brian, Andre and I – all members of the Cary, N.C.-based FreeHouba Tri Club – found ourselves waterside at 6:30 am in Chankanaab Park, Quintana Roo, Mexico. It had been a long journey through literally thousands of hours of swim training, cycling and running to get us to that starting point. None of us had ever completed a 2.4 mile swim – much less in open water and without wetsuits – but we had all faithfully completed the training as outlined by our coach, Martin, and clung with a great (buoyant) optimism that his plan would get us through a very long day in Cozumel.

Earlier that morning, following the boorish taunts of alarm clocks set for 4:30 am – a time of day typically seen only by military trainees and problem drinkers – we convened in the breakfast area of the Sol Melia Resort, where we coaxed still slumbering stomachs into accepting oatmeal and toast and eggs.

Cozumel crazies convene for a very early breakfast

At 5:30 we boarded a bus which transported us from the hotel to Chakanaab for the swim start. Riding the bus in the pre-dawn darkness there was a palpable sense of nervous anticipation and it reminded me of my time at Fort Jackson and the bus ride from the Army receiving center to the basic training barracks – the dark and contemplative quiet providing one last moment of uneasy rest before anticipation and fear of the unknown gave way to gritty reality. The quiet of the bus was funereal and did nothing to ease the nerves. It made me realize the importance of the class clown and I wished for a moment that I could be that guy – the one who breaks an uneasy silence with a wise crack or a loud fart. The bus craved laughter. Unfortunately we were a tiny, rolling nation of hand-wringers.

At Chakanaab we (gratefully) exited the bus and made final preparations at the swim to bike transition (T1), pumping tires, placing water bottles on bikes and applying liberal coatings of sun block. After final visits to grubby porto-lets, already devoid of toilet paper (my God, what kind of condition will they be in 12 hours from now?!), we gathered on the dock to watch the pros start off at 6:40 am.

Me, Melissa, Lori, Andre and Brian before the start of Ironman Cozumel

Watching professional triathletes compete is always a thrill – especially considering that the only other time I would see any of them they would be in a blur of gears and Lycra as they passed me expeditiously and with hypersonic speed on the bike course later that day – them on the third bike loop, me on the first. (I would never see a pro on the run as they had all finished by the time I made it to T2).

By 6:50 am we had made our way onto the starting dock (all 2,000+ of us) and, prodded like wide-eyed, mewing cattle toward the dreaded bolt gun, we shuffled slowly until we found a clearing to make the six foot leap into the Caribbean Sea. Once in the drink the five of us made a concerted effort to stay close together, if for no other reason than to be able to gaze upon friendly, goggled faces during the last few minutes before the 7am start. As we floated under the dock where we had just been standing, we acclimated ourselves to the water which was a comfortable 83 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was crystal clear – you could see the white sand on the sea floor and though it looked to be only a few feet away it must have been much deeper than that. We floated there within arm’s length of one another for what seemed like an eternity, checking goggles for a good seal, glancing appraisingly at the other swimmers and absorbing comforting and empathetic glances from each other. By 6:59 a warm sense of calm came over me and I was ready for the start. And suddenly it was 7:00.

Typically triathlon events begin in waves. Athletes are broken down by age group and sex so that smaller groups – maybe a few dozen at a time – start together rather than the entire field. Ironman Cozumel, as with most Ironman events features the singularly sadistic impediment to good health and happiness known as the mass start, in which everyone (with the exception of the pros) starts at the same time. And while even staggered starts can produce an impressive display of flailing elbows, thrashing legs and the resultant roiling white water, there is nothing quite so chaotic and vexing as to find yourself in the midst of over 2,000 agitated bodies trying madly to find a bit of open water in which to swim. As you absorb kicks from the swimmer in front and elbow jabs from the faceless swimmers on either side, swimmers in back blindly push down on your legs in their own desperate effort to gain momentum in the water. Your well-reasoned swimmer’s brain has to work overtime to maintain composure and quell that pre-historic animal panic that tells you in a shrill whisper that nobody can swim 2.4 miles, much less in these conditions!

By the time I reach the first turn on the course – approximately half a mile out, things had calmed down considerably and I was actually enjoying the swim. After a year of open water swims in Raleigh’s Jordan Lake, where you can see maybe to your elbow – on a good day – it was a delightful novelty to be able to see everything. It made the swim go by seemingly much faster. From time to time I would feel a sharp sting – an electric pin prick – on my chin or my foot or my thigh. Jelly fish. Spineless bastards of the sea. I never actually saw one, but we knew they were in the water and everyone got stung at one point or another.

I miscalculated my trajectory when rounding the 2nd turn and got too close to the buoy – something Martin had warned us about because of everyone’s tendency to bunch up near the buoy in an attempt to make the course as short as possible. And he was right. It was a blender of churning arms and legs and I took a couple of shots to the face before I emerged on the other side. It made me wonder how those who had never experienced contact sports – who had never taken a helmet to the chin or taken a charge or absorbed a disabling blow by a truck-sized pulling guard – managed to deal with such things – and it made me thankful that I had. By this time I was only a half mile away from the finish and all I cared about was getting there!

The last half mile went by quickly. As I approached the swim exit I swam over a life-sized statue of a lady on the sea floor whose arms seemed to reach up, as if for help or possibly to encourage those of us who saw her to keep going so as not to end up like her. I took the message to heart and happily climbed out of the water and made my way to T1 with a swim time of 1 hour 13 minutes.

A challenging 112 miles on the bike awaited…

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