Ironman Cozumel: The Swim
The swim is probably the most spectacular part of the race. You start in a beautiful protected harbor in the ocean at Chankanaab National Park. There are 2 official practice swims before the race since normally no one is allowed to swim in this area. There’s no surf entry or exit to deal with, but there is a group of dolphins that greet you with leaps and twirls as you walk across the dock and make your way to the swim start. The course is one 2.4 mile rectangular lap, and it’s always a non wetsuit swim because the water can get up to 84 degrees. Luckily, the salt water helps you float!
First, you swim north against the current with the buoys on your left for approximately 800m. Then you u-turn and swim south with the current for well over one mile before you make your final turn and head back to the dock against the current again. There is a submarine at the final turnaround and plenty of divers, kayakers, boats, and paddle boarders on the course to keep athletes safe. In 2011, the conditions were so perfect that no one DNF’d the swim. This is traditionally a fast swim course! This year was a different story.
Transition officially opened at 5:30am, but they let people in whenever the buses dropped them off. We got there arounf 5:15am which gave us plenty of time to prep. Everyone got body marked the day before the race, or paid for the temporary tattooes, so that was a timesaver.
The pros started at 6:40 (men) and 6:43 (women), and the rest of us started at 7:00am which is typical of any Ironman. During the 15 minutes in between the pros and the masses, everyone walked across the dock to make the jump into the water for the mass start. I’m not exactly sure where the official start line in the water was, but it was somewhere north of the dock and behind the paddle boarders. We moved like a herd of cattle trying to get close to the start line before jumping off the high dock. On the way, we saw my parents on the sidelines, and I got teary eyed as they cheered for me. Jeremy asked if I wanted to jump off the dock early and swim to the start like a few others were doing, but I wanted to save my energy and figured it would be slow going. When we got close enough, Jeremy jumped off the high dock, and I walked down the stairs by the dolphin pens when I saw that was an option and then swam over to him. (I don’t know why my fear of heights suddenly got to me because I was already expecting to jump.) As we swam towards the front of the pack, the horn went off. It was GO TIME! We kissed, and wished each other a great swim and a great race. Then I put my head down, and started swimming hard.
Cozumel was the most aggressive swim start I’ve ever experienced, much worse than Coeur d’Alene. There were approximately 2,000 men and 500 women in this race which is a 4:1 ratio so maybe that had something to do with it. I couldn’t find clear water the first 800 meters. I just followed feet and tried not to let people push me under. My mood was good and surprisingly calm, though. Looking down, I saw the divers filming us and taking pictures. I saw beautiful fish and corral. It was spectacular! The best part? The water was a pleasant 78-80 degrees. (The heat didn’t start to affect me until later in the swim.)
I didn’t notice the current during the first part of the swim. Maybe it was because there were so many of us swimming so closely together, and I just focused on sighting and following bubbles. I had to stop once, unfortunately, because 2 men started swimming into me from opposite sides, and I wasn’t strong enough or big enough to swim over them. When they wouldn’t stop hitting me, I stopped, and threw each one an elbow. That put an end to that.
Once I made the u-turn, I immediately felt the current helping me along. I relaxed my stroke a little bit since I was breathing kind of hard after the first part of the swim. Every once in a while, I would pick up my cadence like my coach and I had planned, and then I would cruise again. I always tried to find feet to draft off of, and I did a pretty good job of it during this race. At one point, I noticed I was swimming really far right of the buoys, so I came closer in where it got crowded again.
I saw the final buoy marking the turnaround point and got really excited. I didn’t look at my watch, but I felt like I made amazing time. Maybe I could get 1:30 on this swim after all! Those thoughts changed once I made my final u-turn and felt the conditions change. Hello, current!! Hello swells! It took me a while to realize what was happening. I wondered why it seemed like I wasn’t getting any closer to the dock. Then I realized the strong undercurrent was to blame. I focused on drafting the most during this part to conserve my energy. Unfortunately I kept picking the wrong people to draft off of because they would suddenly stop dead in their tracks, do the breast stroke or tread water, and look around, trying to find the buoys again. I always ended up getting kicked when that happened, and swam around them, looking for new feet. This was probably the most frustrating part of the swim because it felt like it took FOREVER, and everyone was swimming back and forth. I definitely did not keep a straight line. The top of my head started getting really hot, and I wondered if I was overheating. I tried to stay calm, not let it get to me, and focus on my technique (left hand and kick)!
I thought I was approaching the finish line of the swim much earlier than I actually was because the stand up paddle boarders had on the same neon green shirts as the volunteers on the dock. That was a disappointment to say the least! I kept tricking myself into thinking I was almost done. When I was finally approaching the end, I saw a banner at the bottom of the ocean that said “Fatigue fades.” I liked that message because I felt a little worn out from battling the current for so long. I didn’t see the Jesus statue underwater, but I did recently find images of both underwater items to share with you.
I half walked/half crawled up the wooden stairs to make sure I wasn’t dizzy and saw my time was around 1:50. I was OK with it since the goal my coach and I had set was 2 hours considering it was a non-wetsuit swim (meaning slower), and because the current was tough that day. Like Coeur d’Alene, I was 30 minutes ahead of the swim cutoff time of 2:20. This time, however, I felt much better coming out of the swim!
I jogged down the dock back towards transition and saw my parents again. That was the best and gave me a boost! Apparently my parents were starting to worry because they talked to someone else’s parents who were expecting their son to come out around 1:16 and still hadn’t exited the swim. They knew the conditions were tough and worried about me making the cutoff. (Going into the swim, I was slightly nervous about that too because the conditions were very rough on Saturday, and we were only allowed to swim to the second buoy during the official practice swim.)
The run to T1 was on the dock and boardwalk directly next to the crowds, so that was fun. I ran straight to the showers which are just before you pick up your bike bag. Feeling less salty and with my bike bag in hand, I continued to jog to the women’s changing tent where I applied sunscreen, used the bathroom, and did a quick change. DO NOT SKIMP ON THE SUNSCREEN! I lucked out and didn’t get burned on the bike course, but I saw some gnarly burns post race.
I kept an eye on my watch during transition because I knew how quickly the time passes in there, and I was on the bike in less than 9 minutes! (It took me 18 in CDA.) I was very pleased to see that there were still a good amount of bikes racked in T1 when I picked mine up. I wasn’t the last one out of the water! 🙂 I don’t know how many DNF’d the swim this year, but I heard rumors of 35-300. Unfortunately, the current was a little much for some people this year.
My time: 1:51:00
Age group rank in Females 25-29: 28/47
33/47 in my division completed the swim. (I don’t know how many officially started.)
Gender rank: 347
Overall rank: 1,665/2,664 (Again, I don’t know how many officially started.)
Transition time from swim to bike: 8:37
Next up, the most challenging segment for me…THE 112 MILE BIKE!