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Ironman Cabo: More than I bargained for
by Tzatzil LeMair on March 25th, 2013

An offer I couldn't refuse

Last summer I was training for the ITU Sprint World Championships when my friend Lorena called me and begged me to register for Ironman Los Cabos with her. She made it sound like a great idea! The race was over spring break, it had a beautiful bike course, and more importantly I’d get to see my family in nearby La Paz. What a better way to celebrate my 15 years competing in triathlons than doing an Ironman, again. My last Ironman was in Florida in 2004. I had a great race from beginning to end, I never felt bad and finished in 12 hours and 40 minutes beating my best estimate of 13 hours. I quickly started trying to recruit training buddies. Misery loves company.

My training started the week after coming back from the World Championships in New Zealand. I enjoyed all my long rides even in the freezing rain thanks to my training buddies. I incorporated my Tough Cookie marathon training program into my training and did all my long runs with my team. The only thing I had to do on my own was swim.

I was not concerned about the race at all until about two weeks before the race when I started checking the weather and noticed it was very windy in Los Cabos. Our Tough Cookie Ironman team which consisted of Susan, Dawn, Donna and Carolina (Lorena had decided not to do it after all) had a meeting the week before our trip and Donna shared a course profile she had found on “Map my Ride”. There were several very long category 4 and 5 hills. The website described the bike course as challenging with rolling hills, "how bad could that be?"

The Trip

After spending three fabulous nights at Costa Baja Resort in La Paz visiting my relatives, eating amazing food and swimming with sea lions, it was time to face Los Cabos.

Race Morning

Race morning started like any other race morning, going through my ritual of waking up at an ungodly hour and layering my body first with sunscreen, then body glide and chamois cream to avoid chafing and lastly with my tri-shorts and tri-top.  I had already stuck my temporary tattoos with the number 400 on my arms and legs the night before, so I strapped on my timing chip to my ankle and was ready to go.
Marc had decided to wake up with me and join me for breakfast before sending me off on the shuttle to the swim start. I didn’t have my usual pre-race meal – a bagel with peanut butter and honey, a banana and coffee. I was at the Holiday Inn in Los Cabos, and bagels were nowhere to be found. Instead, I had pancakes, sausage and a few bites of papaya with yogurt. That was my last real meal for what would be a long time. I rushed to meet my fellow Tough Cookies Susan, Dawn and Donna (unfortunately, Carolina didn’t get her travel papers in time for the race.) Before leaving, Marc gave me his last words of wisdom “Be Safe, Smart, and Strong!” He repeated it a couple of times stressing the “SAFE” part.

The Swim 2.4mi. (3,862km)

The sunrise was gorgeous at the beach that morning. I was excited to be there! I put on my wetsuit, and with my swim cap and goggles in hand I went to turn in my bag. I took my phone out for one last picture of the four of us when I saw my dad had called. I decided to give him a quick call back and let him give me one last pep talk. He told me how proud everyone was of me and also stressed the “be safe and don't be a hero" part. I turned in my bag and was ready to roll. 

The Human Washing Machine

 The swim start was exactly how I remembered an Ironman “mass-start” being.  It is best known as the “Human Washing Machine” for its mélange of arms, legs, fists and feet thrashing all around you, hands slapping you, feet kicking your face, you turn your head to take a breath and instead you get a mouthful of salt water! I’ve been doing triathlons for 15 years and the start doesn’t get easier, you just get better at remaining calm through it all. However on Sunday, the unexpected happened, my throat suddenly felt constricted and I couldn’t breathe.  “Asthma attack? Please, not now!”  I panicked for a few seconds and moved to the side so I wouldn’t get swum over. I checked out the situation. I was maybe 200 meters from the shore, and I could see volunteers 50 meters from me who could come save me if I waved my arms. “Do I need saving?” I thought of my cousin Alvaro and how concerned he had been about the swim start… “I need to calm down!”  I took long breaths through my nose while treading water and got my heart rate to drop slowly. I tried taking deep breaths again through my mouth. It still felt tight, but there was enough air coming in now. ”I can do this!” I started swimming away from the crowd to give myself more space.  At that point I heard Marc’s voice in my head “Be Safe, Smart and Strong!”  “BE SAFE!” I decided to just take it easy and complete the distance like any other training day and settled into an easy comfortable stroke.
Just when the swim was feeling comfortable and relaxed, I started feeling little stings on my hands, face and feet! “Ah, yes! That must be the jelly fish everyone talked about the day before.” It felt like I swimming through a fire-ant hill and nothing I could do about it but keep swimming. Finally an hour and half later I made it back to the shore. I was safe back on firm ground.

Transition 1

Coming out of the water we had to run on the beach about half a mile uphill to the transition area. I started stripping my wetsuit as I ran and quickly put on my helmet and cycling shoes in the transition tent. I then ran for my bike. There was a 500 meter climb from the transition area to the main road, but if felt easy and I was happy to be out of the water and on my bike.

The Bike 112mi. (180km)

Immediately coming out of the Palmilla Hotel we made a left and faced our first hill climb. “Safe, Smart and Strong!” “Be SMART! Don’t get carried away by the excitement” I knew there were many more hills to come so I dropped to my lowest my gear and took it easy all the way up “Not bad! I can handle hills like this any day!” was my first thought. The first segment consisted of a 35 mile hilly but scenic loop from San Jose to Cabo San Lucas. The ocean sparkled and the view of El Arco de Cabo San Lucas was stunning. I was loving life at that moment! Literally yelling “I’m having so much fun!” and “I LOVE this sport!” I often do that during the bike portion of the race. But things were about to change. After completing the first segment and arriving back in San Jose we made a left turn into the only section of the course that I had not previewed or even thought about. On the map it looked like a harmless 20 mile loop on the toll road to the airport, but in reality it was the “Stairway to Hell”, at least that’s what I ended up calling it. 

The Stairway to Hell

 The Stairway to Hell was a ten mile climb into the mountainous desert. Gone were the beautiful scenic ocean view and tropical flowers, replaced now by giant peaks covered in jagged edges of red rocks and cacti that made me feel miniscule and weak. I looked down at my Garmin, it said I was going at a speed of 6 mph! “Really? When is this hill going to end?” I thought of my brother Ricardo’s last words to me comparing Ironman to mountaineering, “It is putting one foot in front of the other for endless hours feeling like shit!!” OK then, right, left, right left, right, left…When I got to the top I noticed the turnaround was not there! There were three steep down hills before the turn around. I freaked. That meant I had to climb back up those three steep hills, it was disheartening. I pushed through those three hill climbs, and when I got to the top I was amazed by the sight, the entire town of San Jose stretched out in below me and the gorgeous azure waters of the Sea of Cortes all around! Absolutely mesmerizing! By now my average speed had dropped from 18mph to just under 15mph, but energized by the view and the long downhill ahead I was still optimistic that I could recover my speed over the distance of my second loop.

The Corridor (Part Deux)

 I was really looking forward to riding the stretch from San Jose to Cabo San Lucas since it had been so much fun the first time, and I was looking forward to picking up some speed I had lost on the Stairway to Hell. However, something was not right. It felt a lot harder now, something had changed and it wasn’t just my tired muscles. Then I noticed the hotel flags flapping vigorously in all directions. The wind had picked up considerably over the last three hours and now it seemed like a different course! I pedaled hard and steady but the hills seemed steeper and longer. There was no cruising even on the downhill segments, if I stopped pedaling for two seconds I would immediately slow way down. I kept telling myself that as soon as I turned around the wind would be on my back and I would fly. Well, that didn’t happen. I had to work even harder on the way back. The angle of the cross-wind simply made everything harder. That’s when things got tough.

The Breaking Point

Around mile 80 my body started to really complain. My neck, shoulders and back started cramping first, then my inner thighs and calves, and lastly my toes, all of them at once. Each pedal stroke was excruciating because it involved applying a lot of pressure on my cramping feet and utilizing those same cramping muscles over and over again. At that point I was so uncomfortable and in so much pain and tired of fighting the wind that the mere thought of having to climb the Stairway to Hell a second time made me let out a cry “I don’t want to do this anymore! Waaahhh!”
I felt defeated and I thought of my family and friends.  I thought of my cousin Alvaro and his family in La Paz waiting to hear how it went.  I thought of my cousin Gloria who had been so impressed by the whole idea of the race.  I thought of my Tough Cookies at home cheering and tracking my progress. I thought of my boys, what would they learn from me if I quit? Then I thought of Marc, “Be Safe, Smart… STRONG! Be STRONG! I’ve got to pull myself together!” I popped two salt capsules and two Advil, downed it with some Gatorade and said “Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever!” and pushed again.

The Stairway to Hell (Part Deux)

At this point my average speed was a not important at all! Finishing the bike before the cut off time was my only goal. With my new goal in mind and knowing exactly what to expect of the Stairway to Hell, I made myself a deal. I would climb strong and steady up the most grueling part of the race but I would treat myself to a packet of chocolate hazelnut butter which tastes exactly like a Ferrero Rocher, my favorite chocolate. Gingerly, I made my way up the mountain enjoying the delicious taste in my mouth and the stunning desert views. Amazing what effect a little chocolate can have on a woman’s frame of mind! Before long I, was at the turn around. I knew I had three more steep climbs but that I would be rewarded by a final down-hill joy ride with sights of San Jose and the ocean behind it. And with that in mind I charged on. My muscles were twitching and cramping all over but I ignored them and focused on conquering each hill. Then finally there it was! The town of San Jose and the beautiful ocean below me. I had a huge smile on my face! “I did it!”

Transition 2

 Arriving downtown San Jose I saw Marc. I was so happy to see him! I was in great spirits! Getting off my bike was such a relief. All my aches and pains immediately disappeared! I ran through transition and changed into my running skirt. It felt great to be out of my triathlon shorts! I was in and out in 3 minutes. Marc was on the other side of the tent and started running with me. It was great having him running next to me. It had been many hours since I’d seen him and I had so much to tell him and wanted to hear how the boys were doing. We ran a few minutes together and then he let me go.

The Marathon 26.2mi. (42km)

I was so happy to be running! I felt great! The cramping was gone, my neck and back pain were gone, and the course was lined by smiling happy faces cheering me on! I heard someone say it was four thirty and thought “Hey! No pressure, I have 7 and a half hours to run a marathon! No problem!”  Within minutes I caught up with Susan. She had a phenomenal swim as usual and came out of the water first in her age group and 25 minutes ahead of me. I had seen her on the bike several times and noticed she didn’t look so good. At one point she had yelled at me either “I have a rash!” or “I crashed!” I wasn’t sure and it bugged me the entire bike ride. Now I finally could speak to her. It turns out she did crash and had some scrapes on her knees and face. She was also not feeling good and her stomach was hurting. I told her to take it easy and just walk as needed and to just keep moving forward.
 I didn’t see Marc or the kids on my first 9 mile loop and just kept looking everywhere for them.  It got very hot at one point and they were spraying us with water hoses. The volunteer support was great! They were constantly offering me something to eat or drink and at first I was being polite saying “No, thank you!” or “Yes, please!” But soon that turned into a nod or a shake of the head. Later even that was hard and I’d just grab it from them if I wanted it or ignore them completely. I didn’t want to be rude, but I needed every bit of energy to just keep moving forward. Near the end of the first loop I saw Susan again this time she said “I don’t think I’ll make the cut off time!” I yelled back “You have more than 6 hours still!!” I started getting very concerned about her…
The second 9 mile loop ended. I hadn’t seen my family yet, it had gotten dark. I entered the main road that passed in front of my hotel and started feeling sad that this was my last loop and I had not seen them, when suddenly “Mammaaaaaa!!” I turn to my right and there they were, the whole gang! And they were all running next to me. “Mamma, what took you soooo looong??” Diego asked. I just laughed. What a proud moment! Marc asked me what mile it was and I looked at my Garmin and it said 18.1 miles. I couldn’t believe it! I was so close to the end! “See you in a bit!” I said knowing I would see them again at mile 21 since this was an out and back section. I was uplifted by seeing my 4 boys and cranked it up. I saw Susan again, I asked about Dawn and Donna since I had not seen them on the run. She just said “They didn’t make it!” I felt terrible. I had seen them on the bike several times and the last time I saw them I was leaving the Stairway to Hell and they were on their way up. When I got back to the spot where I’d seen the boys they were sitting at a table outside having dinner. Here I was at mile 21 and they were eating! I yelled “Order me a pizza!” and “See you at the finish line!”
As I began my third and final loop, I saw Dawn cheering from the sidelines and she jumped in started running with me. “Hey coach! You are doing great!” She seemed fresh as a daisy. She was running too fast for me to keep up with and was talking easily. She was in such good spirits despite the fact that they had not allowed her to start the run because she had finished minutes past the bike cut off time. I told her to look for Susan and run her in because she didn’t look good.

The last loop through the estuary was pitch dark and gloomy. It had gotten very quiet. Everybody was walking very slowly or limping along. I felt great! I kept trying to cheer everyone on saying “We are almost done! Only four more miles!” But no one seemed happy to hear that, then it dawned on me that maybe not everyone was on their last loop like I was! 
The final countdown began. Three miles to go. Two miles to go. One mile to go!

The Finish Line

 Then I see the boys again. They all begin running next to me, there are so many of them! In all sizes! And I love them and missed them so much! “Where’s Papa?” “He’s at the finish line!” “OK, see you in a minute!” and I enter the finish line chute! I hear several comments from the Mexican announcer including something about me being good looking AND an Ironman! Then finally the "official" Ironman voice says “Tzatzil you are an Ironman!” I cross the finish line and I hear “Tzatziiiiiil!” it’s Marc! But he’s on the other side of the fence, I wave at him and signal that I’ll see him on the other side.

I was elated. I was almost two hours slower than my last Ironman, but it didn’t really matter at that moment, I had finished the hardest thing I’d ever done. Susan finished with Dawn and Donna by her side about 45 minutes later but was in bad shape and ended up in the medical tent with several bags of I.V. Later we found out that this race had the highest dropout rate of any Ironman race with less than 800 finishers out of 1500 participants. People always ask me why I would want to put myself through this kind of pain to finish an Ironman, and the only answer I can come up with is “Because I CAN!”

Posted in Triathlon Training    Tagged with Ironman, Ironman Cabo, Triathlon, Tzatzil, tough cookies


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