Since dad passed away in 1999, Thanksgiving hasn’t really been the same.
Growing up in Germany, my dad was the center of our community. Imagine Frank Sinatra as an entrepreneur. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. If you happened to accidentally drive your car down a staircase and get it stuck on a landing at 3 a.m., you called my dad. If you were a young American feeling a little homesick, dad took you under his wing. If you didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, dad made sure you came to our house.
By the time I was a teenager, our extended family had grown so numerous that Thanksgiving dinner moved from the dining room table in the kitchen to a ping pong table in the basement.
But without dad around, Thanksgiving has been more of a standard-issue holiday of late.
Sure, we’ve had a couple memorable times at Laura’s parent’s farm in Kansas. A couple years ago, Laura’s dad and I dropped a 20 pound turkey into a vat of boiling peanut oil and more or less incinerated it. So that was fun.
But in terms of Thanksgiving being an occasion to expand the family -- that hasn’t happened since Sergio, dad’s tile guy, showed up for dinner in the late 90’s.
So Laura and I thought we’d try something new this year. Hello Ironman Cozumel.
I’m always a little leery of flying into new airports. As my body hurtles through space in an oversized cigar tube on a collision course with a slab of cement, I like knowing what the world should look if all were going perfectly.
I had never flown into Cozumel.
At 5,000 feet we broke through the clouds, revealing a beautiful white shoreline.
“Routine landing” I said to myself. It seemed like we were over the island of Cozumel and the airport was just ahead.
Only it wasn’t. The pilot banked the plane hard to the left, veering away from the safety of the land below. In a minute, we were directly over open ocean and descending.
As if a water landing wasn’t bad enough, the pilot steered us on a collision course with the darkest storm cloud in the sky.
I was against this decision.
The pilot was playing a dangerous game, descending to a narrow space just under the black cloud and just above the roiling ocean. Rain beat down from above while white caps reached for the belly of the plane from below.
In terrifying situations like this, I’m not opposed to asking a higher power for a favor. But since all-powerful beings can be busy, I like to ensure that my request will be given a high priority. And since God probably had more important things on his mind than worrying about whether I would be scything a plane through the Mexican jungle in a few minutes, I did the best I could on short notice.
I asked God to please make sure that Yvonne Van Vlerken landed safely so she would have an opportunity to defend her 2009 Ironman Cozumel title.
As Yvonne happened to be sitting in the seat two feet in front of me, I felt confident a safe landing for her would benefit me as well.
Suddenly the ocean turned into land -- and tall buildings.
“Whoa! Watch out for the Hotel, Maverick!” I screamed in my head.
The Cozumel landing path from the west literally kicks a field goal between a couple tall hotels that guard the coastline. Miss the shot fifty yards right or left and you take out half the town’s hotel rooms and make a hell of a mess on the Ironman run course.
A minute later the rubber hit the runway.
Saved by Yvonne Van Vlerken.
We disembarked the plane in Cozumel and were welcomed by a platoon of Policia carrying mean, but pre-owned looking rifles.
Schlepping two bike boxes, three suitcases and assorted carry-ons, we drew a lot of scrutiny among the security forces. I was a little worried when the x-rays of my bike box revealed bags of Ultragen, Carbo-Pro and Colostrum -- powders with no simple English-to-Mexican translation.
Struggling to concoct an explanation that would translate easily, the phrase “not cocaine” popped into my head. Fortunately I realized that things could get ugly if I the word “not” were somehow lost in translation.
“You have many vitamins?“ the security guy asked?
“Yes!“ I said, annoyed I hadn‘t thought of that explanation.
The security guy waved us through.
One eye on the guys with guns, the other on the door, Laura and I pushed and shoved our gear to the curb as fast as we could. There, we and our vast baggage were welcomed exuberantly by the local taxi monopoly.
Mexicans are nothing if not pragmatic and inventive -- our taxi ride being a good example. If there’s room for more passengers in the van, it doesn’t matter that there’s no room for your luggage.
And, that’s how our bikes came to be tied to the roof of a taxi van with an old length of twine.
To be sure, I was firmly opposed this and said so.
But my persuasive powers were no match for Jorge, the godfather of the airport taxi service.
As a team of men hoisted the bike boxes to the roof, I frowned at Jorge and said, “This doesn’t seem like a good idea, is there another van available?”
“Is ok. Miguel, ties good.”
“But he just has one piece of rope. I don’t even think it’s long enough to tie both boxes.” I reasoned.
Jorge yelled something at Miguel, who dove head first into the back of the van, scrounging a second piece of even thinner, more ancient rope from under the seats.
Jorge beamed at me. “You see. Is ok!”
“Those bikes are ‘muy importante‘” I said flaunting my Mexican. “I need at least one of those bikes to not fall off the roof so I can race Ironman. I will wait for the next van.” I said firmly, feeling like I had dealt a fatal blow to Jorge’s hair-brained idea.
“Oh no Senior, this is not possible. Taxis come only for the planes. Maybe 3 hours, I think,” Jorge said.
Game, Set and Match, Jorge.
There was no way Laura and I would be hanging out with a bunch of bored guys with rifles for the next 3 hours.
“Ok, then. Let’s strap those bikes to the roof,” I agreed quickly.
Fortunately, Mexican pragmatism was also responsible for flattening the speed bumps on the island to accommodate the Ironman bike course, ensuring a smooth, safe ride for the bikes.
We stayed at the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, a couple miles north of the swim start. Our room came complete with an outdoor shower and a neighbor with three hyperactive kids.
Every morning started with some ill-timed screeching and crying. Every morning, Laura and I would be on the verge of changing rooms.
And then we would calculate the effort required to put our luggage explosion back into the suitcases and skulk off to breakfast, defeated.
Other than the early wake up calls, though, we adapted to the beach resort lifestyle like fish to water.
Which is where I was, in the water oggling the fish, when Laura spotted our soon-to-be new buddy, Teemu.
Teemu is a blonde, fair-skinned, budding professional triathlete from Finland. He has an easy-going likeability and buff quads. Standing near him on the beach, I felt the urge to lock myself in the hotel gym with a squat bar for a week. Not surprisingly, Laura had struck up a conversation with him while he was strolling along in a Speedo.
Teemu was traveling with his friend, Richard, a charismatic, dry-witted, English guy, originally from a town near Wimbledon. With the charm of James Bond, Richard had convinced his female dive instructor that watching a DVD was a more civilized way to study for the dive test than reading a book. And despite snoozing through the DVD, Richard still managed to pass his certification.
Laura couldn’t fathom why Richard would want to spend his days breathing compressed air under water, surrounded by things that might want to eat him. Richard was, in turn, convinced that doing an Ironman was not entirely sane. This lead to hours of great conversation.
From that point forward, Teemu and Richard became our standing breakfast, lunch and dinner companions.
Then on Thursday night, Thanksgiving snuck up on us. I didn‘t realize it until I saw the huge Thanksgiving buffet as I walked into the outdoor restaurant at the hotel.
As was now our custom, the guys joined us for dinner and Richard said “It’s American Thanksgiving today, now isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but since you guys don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, we’re fine ordering from the menu,” I said.
“Actually, since I’ve been living in New York, I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving. I would quite like to see the buffet.”
You didn’t have to tell Laura twice.
So that night, a Fin, a Brit, a military brat and a French/German from Western Kansas had Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Mexicans, outdoors, under a thatched roof on a beach in Cozumel. And so, in a rekindling of the old tradition, Thanksgiving dinner once more became a time to expand the Kukta family. Dad would have been proud.
On Friday morning, I awoke hours later than at any time since we’d arrived, disturbed by the utter absence of screaming emanating from the neighbor’s room. Laura said she noticed the neighbor’s door was open, so we quietly moved into hallway to investigate. As we peered around the corner, kids were nowhere to be seen.
But what I saw was almost as surprising as if I had been confronted by the little monsters’ ax-wielding nanny.
Tyler Stewart and Kristin Iavarone, a couple pro triathletes from the Bay Area were standing in the room looking out at us -- probably wondering why Laura and I were sneaking around, poking our heads in their room. Seconds later, we recognized each other, and I almost shed a tear knowing that I would be allowed to sleep past 7:00 a.m. from now on.
Clearly someone was smiling down on me. Fate only grants the “screaming-kids-for-hot-female-triathletes-trade-up” once every two years -- kind of like a cell phone upgrade plan.
So there we were, on a beautiful tropical island, making new friends, rooming next to old friends, showering outdoors in the nude -- heck, showering outdoors in the nude, in the rain… . Yay us!
Friday afternoon, the Intercontinental hotel turned into a Bay Area reunion with my Pac Bike teammates Grant and Fernando and their wives Karen and Laura joining the party. The gang was all here and now it was time to get to get busy with pre-race preparations.
With Teemu volunteering to chauffeur me around the island in his tiny rental car, we made quick work of the registration, the expo and the pre-race swims. To be specific, we made quick work of the trips to and from these events -- not the events themselves.
The Fins pride themselves on their expert driving skills and their racing heritage. Unfortunately, Teemu combines the attitude of a race car driver with the attention deficit of a 16 year-old valley girl.
The citizens of Cozumel haven’t experienced such jeopardy since the last Hurricane hit town.
As Teemu selected tracks from the Glee soundtrack, he simultaneously tore through red lights and launched the rented mini-Chevy over the island’s few surviving speed bumps, pushing the little car to speeds for which it was simply not engineered. To put the structural limitations of this car into context, toddlers have received battery powered vehicles for Christmas that were more substantial than the one Teemu was driving like a Formula 1 race car. In the corners, you could almost sense the car’s chassis hanging onto the frame for dear life.
Outside the cockpit of the speeding Teemu-mobile, locals on scooters maneuvered like they were in a dog fight, executing frantic evasive tactics to avoid being hood-ornamented by the tiny Chevy blaring “Bust Your Windows” from its 5 watt sound system.
After riding with Teemu for a few days, flying through a storm cloud seemed like the good old days.
On Friday, Teemu and I checked out the swim course. We squeezed into our speed suits, put on the goggles and leaped off the platform, 8 feet down into the water. The force of the impact with the water ripped the goggles from my head.
The goggles set off for South America, riding a strong current. And treading water, I got strung by something I couldn’t see.
Apparently, the first leg of this swim was going to be “Mas Difficult.”
On the bright side, the water in Cozumel is warmer and clearer than anyplace I’ve raced, including Kona.
The gracious hotel kitchen staff had a full breakfast waiting for us at 4:00 a.m. All the waiters were in uniform. It was touching, knowing that the same hard working waiters and cooks who shut down and cleaned up the restaurant late last night had dragged themselves back to work just a couple hours later.
Slowly, our group traipsed into the open air restaurant. The pros, Tyler and Kristin were there first, then me, Teemu and Grant. Fernando may have showed up later, but he was working on a whole new concept in Ironman racing: The “racing Ironman without training” racing plan. Given his absence from breakfast, he may have been planning to race without fueling too.
The air was warm and calm as I quietly stuffed myself with French toast, oatmeal, toast and 400 calories of a Carbo Pro/Ultragen mixture. I slammed 400 mgs of caffeine pills and declared myself ready.
Arriving into transition, Laura handed me her pink bike pump, gave me a good luck kiss and I set off down the row where the professionals‘ bikes were racked. I stopped to loan the pump to Kristin and Tyler, crossing my fingers that the pump would continue to work it’s “no flat” magic.
I then hiked to my own station. My bike rack was located in the hinterlands of the Chankanab Park parking lot, surrounded by jungle. So rural was my location that there was no need for a formal trip to the porta potty so long as I could avoid being dragged into the underbrush by one of the giant iguanas.
The Policia guarding transition kept an eye on me as I waded into the foliage for my morning pee, but they didn’t seem inclined to stop me. Despite packing some heavy weaponry, the guys seemed like they were enjoying the Ironman scene, smiling and checking out the bikes.
After clipping the bike shoes to the pedals, attaching my sunglasses to the stem and filling the bottles, I was among the last to join the mass of age groupers watching the pro swim start.
One of the interesting things about this race is the dolphin enclosure that is essentially the start line for Ironman Cozumel. It’s a football-field sized open water aquarium comprised of numerous cement walkways that form a grid pattern.
As we were marched along these cement walkways, it occurred to me that with the swim course circling the dolphin enclosure, we humans would be flaunting our swim prowess to an audience of dolphins.
This being the second year the dolphins were getting to watch this human tortoise race, and being such smart animals, I wondered whether they had set odds and were taking bets on which of us horrible swimmers would make it back alive.
Somewhere Gary Larson wondered whether he retired too soon.
The walkway wasn’t big enough to hold all the athletes, so competitors who walked to the end of the walkway were essentially marched off a gangplank by the mass of athletes following behind. I found a little-used, lower entry point into the water and swam around the front of the start line to a less crowded spot closer to the shore, up against the dolphin enclosure.
As I hung gripping the chain link fence separating racers from dolphins, I distinctly heard the announcer bellow “two minutes to start!” I began to adjust my goggles and figured I would move a couple rows closer to the front in about a minute.
Three seconds later, the announcer said, “Andy Potts is currently in first, with … .”
“BLLLAAAAATTTT!!!” The airhorn sounded a full minute and 50 seconds before the two minutes was up.
I snapped the goggles in place and used the chain link fence as a push off wall, panicked that the fast swimmers would form a pack and I wouldn’t be able to catch on to the back.
Everyone else was as surprised by the horn as I was, causing a traffic jam. Taking advantage of the confusion, I slithered through a couple rows to near the front pack while people decided whether to believe the announcer or the air horn.
Eventually the mob voted for the air horn and it was decided that anyone who disagreed would be drowned.
Looking back, air-horn-guy had it wrong. The race horn blew two minutes early, at 6:58 instead of 7:00 a.m. But there is no such thing as a re-start in an Ironman. Once the athletes go, that’s it. Race on.
Ironically, for 6 days on this island, everything had started late or took longer than it should have. Against all odds, the race started early.
The water was so clear that you could see packs developing. Like driving on a freeway, it was possible to merge into a faster lane of travel without plowing into people. This is a huge benefit for someone like me who is fast enough to follow a fast pack, but not fast enough to catch one that has more than a 10 yard lead.
For the first half of the swim, I was swimming so easily behind a large draft group it seemed we were going too slowly. I would get a little too close to the guy in front of me and have to do the equivalent of a cycling soft-pedal to avoid getting kicked in the face. On several occasions, I decided to swim alone to speed things up, only to find my bus leaving the station without me.
Momma didn’t raise any dummies. I got back on and stayed.
Around the last buoy, I waved hi to the underwater photographer and relaxed for the rest of the swim. I was almost snoozing when I unexpectedly beached myself on the bottom step of the swim exit.
I stood upright and was facing the dolphins again. One of them was looking right at me.
I could tell from the smirk, that he was not impressed.
Swim time: 1:02:52. I may not be a dolphin, but I was proud of that time. I’d like to see that wise-ass dolphin ride a bike.
I quickly snatched my transition bag from the hook, wrestled my helmet out of the bag and strapped it on as I ran into the tent. Sitting briefly to strip my speed suit and to put on my new neon green compression calf sleeves, I smiled knowing that these hideous compression sleeves would amuse my buddy Dret, and probably the whole island.
Everything ready, I ran to my bike while three volunteers stuffed my wet speed suit into a bag.
My bike was right where I left it, the deep dish wheels and the aero frame looking menacing and fast. What was missing were my sunglasses.
Running to the bike-out line, it occurred to me that Cozumel Mexico might be an awfully sunny place to race without shades. But hey, you never know until you try.
Later I learned that I was running through transition at precisely the same time as Teemu and another friend and training partner from the Bay Area, Anne Thilgas. Teemu had beaten me out of the water, but I passed him while he made the first of many potty stops that day.
Beating Anne onto the bike took an absurd intervention:
As a group of us were running down the chute toward the bike mount zone, I heard a spectator scream at a large group of us: “You have your helmet on backwards!!!”
Already stressed about the missing sunglasses, I immediately resigned myself to the embarrassment that I had put my aero helmet on bird-style, with the pointy end forwards.
Reaching up and feeling for the helmet, a wave of relieve passed over me when I realized I had managed to put mine on correctly. I even allowed myself a chuckle at the expense of the poor sucker who had been running through the cheering crowd looking like a parrot.
That sucker, unfortunately, was Anne. It seems that the volunteers had put her helmet on for her while she was changing into her cycling shoes. Not having much experience with aero helmets, they had installed it beak first. While I kept running, Anne rectified her aerodynamic inefficiency.
On the bike, I felt good almost instantly. My power meter was reading 190 to 210 watts for the first few miles -- too high. I willed myself to back it down to 170 to 180, which is closer to the effort level I need to maintain in order to preserve enough energy to run a fast marathon.
I tore through the first 10 miles into a slight headwind at 24 mph, passing the usual fast swim, slow bike crowd.
My hydration strategy was equally on track. I had to pee by mile 10 -- and 20. The neon green socks were superb at absorbing and disguising the pee running down my legs.
Gradually, as I settled into race-pace I found myself rolling through the field of cyclists looking for a group that was going about the same speed as me -- someone to keep me company for the long ride.
Almost two-thirds of the first lap around Cozumel, at mile 28, I found my group -- a guy named Pierre, two 25-29 year olds, a big guy and a studly 50-54 year old on a very nice Orbea.
It took very little additional power to drop into a legal pace line and benefit from the 7 meter draft zone. With the island being so flat and the roads on this cross-island section being in good repair, it was a simple matter for us to line up as a 6 person pack and ride more or less together through the next 30 miles.
Though I didn’t know it, by now I was in 5th place in my age group, just one spot out of an invitation to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
I sat right on 170 to 180 watts at about 23.2 mph until we hit the halfway point at mile 56. Every time we slowed, I would pass to the front and push the pace in an effort to catch whoever in my age group might still be ahead of me.
At mile 56, we were setting such a blistering pace that we caught my new neighbor, Kristin Iavorone, just as we made the turn up the windier coastal section on the second lap. She smiled and waved, looking in good shape to finish her first Ironman.
On the second circuit around the island, we began lapping quite a few folks, causing a bit of a traffic jam through the numerous (though very much welcomed) aid stations. To avoid the chaos, I went to the front of my group and settled into a slightly harder but still comfortable 180 watt pace from mile 60 to 70 on the long, beautiful, oceanfront leg.
I was still at the head of the train when we made the left turn onto the cross-island road at mile 72. But as I sat up for a stretch, I realized that “we” was now “me”. I had just accidentally, stupidly, dropped my entire group.
I tucked back into the aero bars and looked for new buddies.
At mile 75, I spotted a guy named Andrew from the Bay Area team, Pac West, and tried to ride with him for a while. He was a nice guy but he started riding a little harder than I wanted to go, so I let him ride away.
I continued my solo quest, heading down the long southerly stretch along the west coast of the island. This is not a particularly scenic section of the ride with dense foliage on both sides of the straight road, and without the stimulation of company the ride was getting a bit lonely and boring.
That changed at mile 85, just before the 3rd and final lap up the ocean front section. As I sat up I sat up for a quick stretch I was shocked to see a string of guys lined up behind me.
“Hey guys, I missed you!”
And looking ahead, I had just reeled Andrew in as well.
“Reunited and it feels so good…” I sang in my head. (A good song choice for Cozumel. YMCA is still huge here.)
I dropped back and checked the gang off my list: Pierre, the two young guys, the really big dude and a 50 year old stud. Check.
“How long have you guys been back there?” I asked.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I said sarcastically.
Sucked back into the group, time passed quickly as we busied ourselves with staying out of draft zones, missing potholes, watching the shorebreak and doing some last minute fueling and hydrating.
All but Pierre were riding comfortably. He seemed to be coming unglued as the heat of the day began to take its toll. For the last a couple aid stations he was agitatedly bellowing, “WATER!!!!”, with little success, at the Mexican volunteers.
To his consternation, they kept handing him Gatorade or would miss him entirely. This would lead him to scream “WATER!!!!” even louder and more angrily, as if more volume would persuade the volunteers to understand French accented English. Ironically, his screaming caused volunteers to back away, leaving him with nothing.
At mile 100, this situation repeated itself a third time. Riding behind him, I made eye contact with a volunteer and said “Agua.” She handed me the bottle Pierre had asked for but had failed to reach.
I rode up to Pierre drinking the water and spraying it on my head as the guy went bug-eyed, emptying most of the bottle. With great chutzpa, he asked for the rest of my bottle. I handed him the last bit, while taking the opportunity to tell him what I thought of his insufferable act.
This was a guy I now wanted to beat badly.
I arrived at T2 just a few seconds over 5 hours, my fastest Ironman bike split by almost 20 minutes.
I got off the bike in 5th place in my age group. Not that I knew it.
The transition to the run happened with Germanic efficieny. A volunteer snagged my bike, another helped me put my helmet in the bag. I slipped on my neon orange shoes, which in no way matched my neon yellow calf sleeves (I‘m still seeing spots from looking at them without sunglasses), and I was running out of the changing tent in a little over a minute.
As usual, the run started with me getting passed by some of the speedier runners, but it was early in the first of three laps and I was confident that today would be about surviving the run, not blazing speed. I was also picking off a few folks myself so I wasn’t panicking yet.
I was planning to run about a 3:45, which would allow me to break 10 hours. I had been targeting 10 hours since I learned that last year’s 45-49 age group winner had finished in 10:04. I figured if I could beat the time posted by last year’s winner, a Kona invitation was in the bag.
The aid station volunteers were handing out water in Otter Pop-shaped plastic tubes, which were perfect for showering yourself with one hand while drinking with the other. Why we don’t have water like this in North American races is beyond me. Now if only we could get the Coke into those tubes.
As I reached mile 2, I got a major adrenaline burst when I spotted Tyler running in the opposite direction at, what for her was mile 7, holding on to first place, leading last year’s champion, Yvonne, by a few minutes. She had ridden a blistering 4:47 bike leg and was now running like a champion. Almost unconsciously, I pushed a bit harder.
At mile 3, I saw Laura. She yelled that I looked great You know your wife loves you when she can ignore your horribly mismatched race gear.
Laura didn’t say where I stood in the field and truthfully, I didn’t want to know. I had been expecting to catch a bunch of guys in my age group on the bike and I was disappointed that I hadn’t. I could be in 30th or first, I just didn’t know.
As I rounded the out and back for the first time at mile 4.5, it was getting a little hot -- in the same way as the surface of the sun can get a little toasty. And notwithstanding the weather report predicting rain, it sure didn’t look like rain any time soon. In fact, it was now shortly before 2 p.m. and things only seemed to be getting steamier.
I ran the first 5 miles in under 40 minutes at about a 7:50 pace.
At mile 5.5, I spotted Teemu coming in the opposite direction, about two miles behind me on his way to the first turnaround. Laura told me he hadn’t stopped visiting the porta potties since T1 and was having a brutal day.
Ignoring his own distress, Teemu shouted across the median, asking how I was feeling.
I tried to give the universal sign for “the sun is melting my internal organs”, but only managed a thumbs up sign.
Unfortunately, the heat was also working against my tall buddy, Grant. Grant looked like a giant solar panel running down the street. But he was still gutting out a nice run, unlike the numerous folks who were loitering near the ice buckets at the aid stations.
Laura was there for me again at mile 7. She was still mum about where I stood in the race.
That didn’t keep my mind from inventing scenarios. Like a ping-pong match, my brain would vacillate between “I’m completely out of it” and “I’m in first and she doesn’t want me to feel the pressure!”
Neither possibility mattered. I was incapable of running any faster. The only thing I could control was to keep going at whatever pace allowed me to stay hydrated, fueled and mentally positive.
At mile 8, our friend Richard stood on the median working his camera. He offered encouragement and had the smile of someone who was fully supportive, but with a gleam of “you guys are nuts“ in his eyes. Thinking about surviving another 18 miles of this madness, I couldn‘t have agreed more.
By now my pace had dropped to 8:15’s per mile and I couldn’t soak up enough liquid to generate pee any longer. But I made a show of running as fast as I could for Richard’s camera. Film doesn’t lie, though. When I saw the video later, it was clear that I was hanging on by a thread even at this early stage in the marathon.
Arriving into downtown for the turn through the first lap at mile 8.7, Michael Jackson was singing Thriller while the entire population of Cozumel clapped, danced and screamed for the competitors to “RRAAAHHN Ion-man!!!”
The energy at this Ironman was beyond any race I’ve ever done, including Kona.
For about a mile, I forgot how hard I was working. Electricity ripped the air. People screamed: “Vamonos, Ion-mahn!”, “Arriba Estephen!!” and “Si se puede!” (Which I think means: “Yes, you can,” although I thought it also might mean “Yes, you walk”. (I‘ll look it up later.)
I couldn’t get enough of the crowd and it seemed they couldn’t get enough of my socks. I know this because pointing and laughing is a universal language.
For days afterwards I had conversations with kitchen staff, concierges and silver salesmen. Everyone was downtown on race day and everyone in town wanted to talk about the race.
I slapped about a hundred waist-high (for me) high-fives with the under 3 foot tall crowd as I ran through the ear splitting mayhem of the run-turnaround. There was so much heart-felt support coming from the locals, I would have teared-up if my eyes weren’t dried out from battling the sun all day.
I pulled my hat down and headed out for lap two.
The second lap was a slower version of the first. The sun got hotter, I got slower. I owned the hydration and fueling competition, though, pounding gallons of liquids and slamming Coke and sodium at every opportunity. I was now only running 8:45’s and proud of it.
But what made me happiest was that I still held a small lead over Pierre. I was determined that he would not catch me.
At mile 10, I caught a young pro woman named Brooke from North Carolina and began a yo-yo relationship. In other words, when she ran, she ran faster than me. But she walked most aid stations while I ran through them. So I would pass her at the aid station and she would pass me on the way to the next one. During the passing phases, we would shout encouragement to each other.
This went on for over an hour and became a meaningful relationship, as these things go, during an Ironman. In my head, it was my job to keep running so Brooke would have an incentive to stop walking and pass me. Conversely, I would worry that Brooke wasn’t coming past quickly enough to give me a reason to run through the aid station. And on the one occasion when she didn’t catch me before the next aid station, I actually walked for a few seconds.
I was still running at mile 15, which is where things went backwards in a hurry at Ironman Canada a few months ago. And even at mile 17 I was still on pace for a 3:45 marathon, though not for long if I didn’t pick up the pace.
One last lap, I thought as I entered the downtown party corridor again.
Hi five! Hi five! Hi five! “You arr Ion-man, Estephan!!!” they shouted “Vamonos!!!”
I made the turn at mile 17 to the contemporary sounds of the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited!”
Not half as much as me, sisters.
With just one lap to go, energy conservation was the name of the game. I was sorry to see Tyler had been passed by Yvonne, but there was no shame in that. Yvonne is probably among the top 5 female Ironman athletes in the world. And Tyler was proving that she belonged there as well.
Seeing Teemu was a paradox. He was running really fast -- faster than me, certainly -- but every time I saw him, he was further behind. He was running the porta potty gauntlet and it was just killing his race time.
I was still holding off Pierre, who could probably see me at the turns and was probably holding a grudge about the lecture I gave him on the bike. I hoped I had gotten through to him about his treatment of the volunteers, but if not -- well we were doing three laps. And that’s a lot of time for a volunteer to plot retribution the next time they hand you water.
Grant had hit conservation mode but was still smiling and waving to me as I approached mile 20. The sun wasn‘t cutting anyone a break today, certainly not guys Grant‘s size. I hoped the big guys in my age group were feeling it too.
Around mile 21, Brooke left me for a date with the finish line. I was jealous of her speed and sad to lose a running buddy, but the fact that she took off awoke me from my complacent pace and made me wonder whether I could push harder.
I looked at my watch and muddled through some math that made me believe a sub 10 hour race was still possible. At my best, this would be barely within my ability level.
I called Scotty in the engine room, demanding more power. The starship Steve no longer had warp drive capability, but I was happy when mile 22 rolled by at a 8:50 pace.
In Cozumel at this time of year, the sun sets at 5:00 p.m. Coincidentally, with a 7:00 a.m. start time, this is precisely 10 hours after the start of the race. And the final leg of the race happens to offer a beautiful sunset view, particularly as we hadn’t seen a cloud in an hour.
So I raced the sunset starting at mile 23. Pierre was still back there somewhere and perhaps there were guys in my age group still ahead for me to run down, but the sunset now became my stop watch and nothing else mattered.
With two miles to go, the sun was about its own diameter from the horizon. I pumped my arms and tried to pick up my cadence, straining to hear the music from downtown.
At mile 25, I caught a guy in my age group who had been forced to walk. He was actually carrying his shoes, so I was pretty confident I could make the pass stick.
Adrenaline kicked in -- if I can catch one, maybe I can catch another, I thought.
I was hitting peak intensity and fighting my own body with every stride. The pain was constant. And yet, I had to laugh when I saw Fernando starting his run, jogging casually, drinking a coke, smiling and waving at mile 2 of his race. You had to admire his laid back attitude and love of the sport. The man has style.
Minutes later I was a mile from the finish, slapping hands with 5 year olds again. I was going to beat the sunset -- no doubt about it. But I was still worried about Pierre and holding out hope that I could catch just one more person in my age group.
400 yards from the finish I spotted him -- a guy in Age Group G. (That’s how they mark the 45-49 year olds in Mexico). I gave one last spastic effort and ran by him with everything I could muster, hoping he wouldn’t be able to accelerate and catch me in the finishing straight.
As I turned the last corner 100 yards from the finish, I looked back just to make sure he wasn‘t running with me.
Not only wasn’t he running with me, he was smiling at me as he turned before the finishing chute and headed out for his third lap.
I celebrated anyway, throwing my hands in the air 30 yards from the finish.
A shocking roar went up from the crowd. Startled, I realized that the finishing line stands were packed. It was like a surprise party with a couple thousand of your closest Mexican friends jumping out from behind a curtain.
The feeling of achievement was overwhelming. I had beaten the sunset. I was certain I had broken the 10 hour mark.
And yet… the clock said 10:01:35 and counting as I jogged to the line.
I couldn’t figure it out at first. The sun is never wrong. How could it have set late? In theory, the solar system should be on time, even in Mexico, right?
I remembered that the air horn had gone off early. For Pete’s sake! -- I really need to stop ignoring my watch when I race.
But then it dawned on me. I didn’t have two more minutes in me. No way. No how. Two minutes may as well have been an hour. This had been as fast as I could go on this day. And that’s all I could ask. There were no regrets as I stumbled over the raised finish line.
Crossing the finish line, I fell apart. I was only able to stand with the help of a kindly lady volunteer, and with every muscle in my body either cramping or threatening to cramp, she shuffled me to a massage table. There a cherubic, determined masseuse named Veronica went into action.
Like a game of massage whack a mole, she would stretch my left knee to my chest to relieve a left glute cramp only to have my right quad seize up. Then, as she worked on the right quad, the left calf would cramp. She stretched, massaged and beat my muscles into submission for an excruciating 30 minutes, at the end of which time I understood how those dominance and submission relationships work.
I finished 8th in my age group out of 251 athletes; 4 spots too slow for an invitation to Ironman Hawaii. On the up side, I had a PR in every phase of the race and managed to finally run an Ironman Marathon in under 4 hours, with a 3:52. There’s still a lot of work to do on the run, though.
Tyler held on to 2nd place among the pro women with a gutty performance that was slowed by stomach problems -- essentially the same problems Teemu battled.
Despite his difficulties, Teemu held on for a 10:26 finish. Not a time close to his capabilities, but with his ability and heart, I expect big things from him in the future.
There was no stopping Kristin, Grant and Fernando, all of whom made it to the finishing line.
Anne had a great race, finishing 5th, a heartbreaking single spot out of Kona qualifying.
A couple days later, the night before our memorable vacation ended, Teemu, Richard, Laura and I had one last dinner together in a deserted restaurant overlooking the downtown square. Despite our better judgment, we let Teemu drive.
I’m planning on Thanksgiving in Cozumel again next year. New family is welcome.