No matter how hard I try to avoid it, the last few days before a race always have some anxiety. Stress, tears, fret, worry. Cozumel was no different. There was a lot to do and it was busy and disorganized and swims were getting canceled and drop-offs were changing and I tried, I really did try to be zen about everything, to just go with the flow. But I was carrying a little lump of stress, a serious and stern little black storm cloud was following me. When I got back to the hotel after bike drop-off Saturday afternoon, Allison had arrived. We changed into our swim suits and tried to get into the ocean (one last attempt to swim with the jellyfishes before race morning), but we couldn't, so instead we hopped in the pool and splashed around and took goofy pictures with the underwater camera. And when I laughed out loud, finally, honestly laughed, it felt like the first time in days. Like my chest opened up and let lightness back inside, like all of the worried weight just wiggled up out of me and blew away.
And somehow, suddenly, my mindset about the race changed, just like that. I'm not even sure if I can explain it but I finally realized that the hard work was over. The hard work isn't race day - sure, race day is challenging, but the harder work, the bike rides where you want to spin home instead of launch into one more interval, the long runs when you are already exhausted, the T runs where you beg your husband to come run circles in the neighborhood with you in the dark and freezing cold - I had done it. All of it. All year. It was over. And now it was time to play.
Two of my close friends sent me cards in the days leading up to the race. One of the cards said on the front, Everything you want is on the other side of fear and the other said This is your LIFE...Do what you love, and do it often. Those two thoughts were somehow exactly right. It clicked. I was getting ready to spend a whole day doing the thing that I love the most, and I wasn't going to have another chance to do it again for a while. I read a book recently that gave a little assignment, and it asked about some of the best race moments of your life. For me, that was the New Orleans 70.3 I did in the spring, and I thought about Sonja's voice on the phone the day before, telling me, run at a pace that makes you happy. So the night before the race, we ate dinner, I painted all of my nails pink and sparkly, read my cards and then drifted off to sleep, the last thoughts in my head about how joyful I could feel on race day.
I woke up before the alarm. Race morning wasn't perfect, it never is, I realized on the shuttle that I had forgotten to put on my wedding ring and I'm not sure I've ever spent a day without it. And after a half marathon almost two years ago, I stopped listening to music on race morning. It was mostly about wanting to conserve energy for the race itself instead of splooging it all over the place before the day even started. I threw that out the window for Cozumel, and it was the right thing to do. I plugged into my iPhone on the bus and rotated through all of my favorite songs. The song that is perfect tempo for hard intervals on the bike. The song that I listened to on repeat for an hour when I did one of the happier runs of my life at the reservoir, the songs that have picked me up and carried me along. And when we pulled up to Chankanaab, I was calm and smiling (and liberally coated with sunscreen and TriSlide).
I dropped everything off, hosed myself down with lube one more time, and said goodbye to the poet and Allison. I bumped into Michelle on the way to the bus and she was the perfect person to yap with on the way into the race. The swim had been changed late the night before due to extreme wind and currents, and for some reason, this mentally took a lot of pressure off of the swim (and by extension, the entire race). The official word was that it had been shortened to 1.94 miles, all down current. So we made some cracks about 140.14 stickers and swimming sub-30 and then Michelle headed down to get on the front line. I finally spotted Mikki and Mo in the throng and I was so happy to see them in their matching red swim skins and chat a bit before the race. The only thing I've been afraid of about the race, the biggest thing, has been the damned jellyfish. Every time someone tells me they've done this race, it's the first question I ask. And I know it's a dumb thing to be completely terrified of, but tell me this, are the things we are afraid of ever not dumb?
So the pro men, then women went off and athletes started getting in the water. I stayed back a bit, more than I normally would, still scared of the stupid jellyfish. I finally realized I was going to have to get in at some point and splashed my way into the fray. I swam out to where there was a large group being held back by race kayakers or SUPers - ducking underwater to search for jellies every eight seconds or so - and then hung out treading water and chatting until we heard the five minute call. I knew that was my cue to swim up near the frontish of the pack but I heard Sonja's voice again in my head (sorry, Son, this is probably kinda creepy) saying back in April, run a pace that makes you happy. And for some reason, swimming off the front and stress and jellyfish and fear were all tangled together in my head. So instead, I stayed near the middle back of the pack and just waited. When the cannon went off, boom, just like that, I put my head down and started to stroke.
I realized almost immediately that I had started way too far back (duh), but I didn't worry about it, not one time did I feel frustrated or unhappy about the swim. And I know, someone out there is saying but it's a race! but it just didn't matter to me. I swam easy, the easiest easy I can ever recall swimming in a race, and time didn't matter because no one really knew how long the swim was except that it was definitely not 2.4 miles and the current was gently carrying me along and I was watching the sun come up on one side and little stripy fishes underneath me and hundreds of ironman athletes on the other. I thought about my masters coach telling me two hundred times to swim easy, easy, don't blow up your race, easy, if he could have written EASY on the inside of my goggles and then tied a parachute to my ankles I think he would have, but that's exactly what I did. I didn't feel like my arm or back muscles were even working and all along, the current and the people and ocean, everything, just carrying me down. When someone would come aggressively by, thrashing and kicking and punching, I would sit back and let him go.
About halfway through the swim the current changed a bit, instead of dragging us down towards the dock, it felt like it was dragging across, and the chop picked up and I couldn't just float along anymore. I swallowed a little bit of salt water here, nothing bad, and looked for a pack to latch onto for a ride. But I understand now, why so many people love this swim, how could you not love it? Warm water, cool air, neon fishies swimming away in panic at 2500 athletes stinky with sunblock invading their home, and everywhere you look, clear perfect water.
And it was over so fast, so quick, suddenly we were making the left turn towards the swim exit and I realized with a jolt that not one single jellyfish had picked a fight with me, not even one time, not even a baby one that I could cuss at. I hauled myself up onto the steps like a beached whale and when I climbed out and ran up the dock, my eyes picked the poet out of the crowd and I yelled to him (sorry Mom) no fucking jellyfishes!!!! and nothing makes me happier than the fact that you can see that in this picture.
I didn't see a clock, I never saw one all day (but there it is right behind me, huh) so I had no idea what I swam, and it didn't even occur to me to care. The run to transition was short, volunteers were handing out water, I drank some and dumped some on my head to try and wash off some of the salt water, and then a few steps later there were quick showers to run through.
I planned to change bottoms and put on sunscreen and take my time in transition. At Lake Placid, I suffered from a pretty bad crotchular chafing situation, mostly in part due to all the rain, and this time around I wanted to take extra steps to avoid it. I stripped off my swim skin, changed into dry tri shorts, lathered everything I could reach with chamois cream and sunscreen, grabbed my bike shoes and headed out. It was a long jog to my bike and when I got there, I stopped, brushed off my feet and got them in my shoes. I joined the huge crowd of folks running with bikes towards the exit, clomp clomp clomp, a parade of damp triathletes high on happy swim endorphins. I saw the poet one more time, yelled I love you! and headed out to ride. I was ready, I was happy, I was on my way.