Throughout our training, coach and friend Martin Dvorak talked about a condition experienced by all endurance athletes at one point or another – a place he likes to call “Zombie Land”. Dictionary.com defines “zombie” as:
1.a. – the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less ~and~ 2.a. – a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton, 2.b. – an eccentric or peculiar person.
The run portion of an Ironman event is, literally, a land of zombies. It’s a place where the twin demonic siblings of pain and nausea gather to wreak havoc on your mind and your stomach – where self-doubt takes root like some insidious weed, strangling out your soul’s native grasses of hope and optimism. It’s a place where reactions to one too many sugary gels range from mild retching to projectile vomiting and where people’s calves, quads and hamstrings, as if newly galvanized by shared hardship and union representation, stage impromptu work stoppages. In a word, it’s ugly.
After 114.4 miles of swimming and cycling, a few dangerous and briny ounces of ingested salt water, gallons of drinking water and Gatorade, gels, bars – even a sandwich, an impressively fire-engine-red, jersey-shaped sunburn which leaves the skin of your back and shoulders taut and brooding, not to mention a healthy dose of denial regarding what has now become all to real – the marathon – you leave T2 somewhat overwhelmed, though undeniably excited to be starting the third and final portion of this long sporting day.
The run course consisted of three laps between City Hall Plaza in downtown Cozumel and the turnaround near the Cozumel Golf Course – which also happened to be close to our home base for the event, Sol Melia Resort. Each loop was approximately 8.7 miles in length – a distance that, prior to the race, sounds reassuringly brief and doable. “The run course should be relatively easy” you find yourself telling other participants in the days before the event, in more of an effort to convince yourself than anything else. And to the considerable credit of the race officials and volunteers, the run course was wonderfully well done. Every two kilometers there were well-organized aid stations stocked with water, Gatorade and Coca-Cola (the Coke, strange as it sounds, actually serves to settle the stomach), orange slices, pretzels, peanuts and other similar, wonderfully salty, non-gel-like substances on which to snack. The volunteers manning the aid stations were unfailingly friendly and encouraging and would usually address, you by name (it was printed on the race bib), which provided an instant warmth and connectedness. After three loops you felt as if you knew these people and you looked forward to certain aid stations based on the exuberance and support of the volunteers.
Those of us from the FreeHouba Tri Team were additionally fortunate to have individually-assigned “Sherpas” for the event. These were friends and significant others who labored all day to make sure that the five of us participating in the Ironman were encouraged, cared for and looked after – especially following the race, when they would carry bikes and equipment, hail cabs and generally spoil us. More about our Sherpas in the next column – suffice it to say, however, that they made our day incalculably better, easier and more rewarding by their efforts, encouragement and mere presence on the race course.
After exiting T2 at 4:15 pm I ran at a very easy pace – probably 10:00 to 10:30 per mile – for the entire first loop. The Cozumel waterfront to the left of the race course was beautiful as sunset neared. Within a mile of starting I felt good, strong and confident that I would avoid the type of catastrophic G.I. system break-down that might keep me from the finish line. The marathon is a time for reflection and on that first loop, as the sun began to set, I thought about my Grandmother, who passed away this summer, and who used to talk about her days as a young girl, growing up on her family’s farm in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. I remembered her talking about the long days picking cotton (she hated it) or field peas or other backbreaking work that children did as a matter of daily life in those days, and how at the end of a long day the sun was “on the sliding board” as it began its descent below the horizon. And I took comfort in that thought as I made my way out of town and toward the first turnaround while the sun cast its light on the white seaside hotels – a light which advanced from pale yellow to burnt orange to hazy purple as the sun made its way down the sliding board toward a cool, welcome darkness.
My intent was to run the entire first loop and then re-evaluate things as I started loop #2, which is what I did. Toward the end of the first loop, as the course made its way back into town, I was taken aback by the number of people lining the street and just as on the bike, my spirits rose in direct correlation to the energy of the crowd. As I made the turn downtown to begin the second loop I knew this would be the toughest part of the run. Just over eight miles down and still a heck of a lot left to go. My stomach was a little queasy – not bad, but it had my attention – and I decided to walk just a bit. I saw Martin (my coach and personal Sherpa) and, not wanting to disappoint, I instinctively began to run again. He ran with me for a quarter mile or more, asking questions, evaluating my condition and offering kind, much-needed encouragement. After we parted ways and I had disappeared into the shadows I began to walk again. I began a mental inventory and diagnostic check of my moving parts and everything seemed to be in working order – its just that, well everything hurt. I cursed myself for my lack of mental toughness and began the arithmetic of the weak-minded, sub-par athlete – calculating how slowly I could move while still finishing before midnight (the race cutoff after which lingering participants would be pulled from the course sans Ironman finisher status). Frustrated with the slow pace, I ran half-heartedly for a hundred yards at a time, then walked again, after which I would run the length of a few light poles and then walk again. As if just receiving word that they had another 16 miles to go, my knees and feet accepted their fate and lashed out in bitter, wrathful spasms of pain. Around me people walked one second and collapsed, retching uncontrollably the next. Others lumbered along as if in the grips of rigamortis with lower extremities in full revolt and wondering if they had come to the end of their road. Nausea, pain, boredom, guilt, disappointment, fear, darkness, loathing… Zombie Land.
After laboriously making my way into town for the second time, Martin ran (walked) with me for a bit once again. He gave me a piece of cinnamon gum which helped tremendously with the nausea and offered up still more words of encouragement. After making the turnaround down town, soaking up the energy of the crowd and listening enviously to the loudspeaker announce still more finishers, I started the third and final loop of the run. Within a mile Martin was back with me for another machine gun burst of encouragement and coaching. He told me simply this was my time – that this was my lap. It was my time to think about all the training and sweat and toil which had brought me here, and to focus on the finish line. He told me enjoy this last lap and to soak it all in – to savor it. And I began to think about those words.
As I made my way back out of town and into the darkness for the last time I thought about the first day of training for this Ironman the previous December when Melissa and I went for a six mile run at Blue Jay Point in Raleigh, and of all the days and weeks and months of work from then until now. I thought about the miserable, muggy morning runs in June and Friday night swims at Jordan Lake and the miles upon miles of hilly group rides and time trials back home. And then I thought about the friendships that had been forged during all of that training – about how each of them were suffering and persevering at that very moment. And while I still walked some on that third loop, the walk breaks became shorter as my legs seemed to find new life. By the final turn at around mile 22 I knew I was almost home and my pace quickened, legs sensing salvation. By mile 24 I could hear the crowd and see the lights of down town and I began to run again in earnest. Pure adrenaline carried me through those last two miles and did so at a faster pace than I would have thought possible just an hour before. Brian and Andre had already finished and I knew Melissa was probably about to finish as well, (she had passed me during the second loop – a fact which I am not only comfortable with but extremely proud of – she is a tremendous athlete) so I ran faster and harder as the finish grew closer. I reveled in the inextinguishable energy of the crowd and slapped high fives with Mexican children, thanking as many people as I could along the way, knowing how deeply indebted to them I was for their simply being there. And then I saw the large LCD screen marking the left turn towards the finishers chute. 200 yards away, 100, 50, 25…
As I made the left turn toward the finish I cannot adequately describe how I felt. Grandstands were set up on either side of the finish line and were filled with probably 500 screaming fans. The realization that I had made it in just under 15 hours began to settle in. I crossed the finish line and received my finishers metal and don’t even remember hearing my name “Alan Piercy, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” across the loudspeaker. It was a total blur. I found Melissa right away, and our friends and Sherpas, Martin and Debbie. Lori came across the finish line within a couple of minutes to join us and the three of us posed for happy pictures while shifting our weight from one leg to the other in alternating attempts at diplomatic damage control with the resting appendage.
And like that, it was over. We were Ironmen. We made our way, slowly, deliberately, to the finisher’s area where we received our commemorative t-shirts and took a much needed seat. Fearing that we might never get up if we stayed any longer, we rose gingerly, retrieved our bikes – handing them off to our Sherpas as quickly as we could – and before long were in the taxi headed toward the hotel and a much anticipated month off from training. And unlike some other races I have done before, there was no feeling of anti-climax – only satisfaction and relief and deep happiness. As the taxi made its way back along the race course and toward he hotel it was close to 11:15 pm and we could see racers – zombies – still out on the race course, still plugging away, and some of those likely did not finish within the allotted time. But they came and they suffered, they battled courageously and they persevered and that is the essence of this crazy race, finisher’s medal or not.