My journey to Ironman has been an arduous, five-year adventure riddled with injury and discouragement. After my first triathlon in 2008, I was hooked. Sprints and Olympic races followed, as did a severe knee injury that knocked me out for a year — and later, a second year. Three tries at a half-Ironman distance resulted in disappointment — a stress fracture, shoulder impingement syndrome, knee issues — and multiple doctor visits and PT appointments. And numerous desperate attempts to find solutions, from PRP injections to acupuncture.
Not to mention a doctor telling me I should never run long distance, and a beloved coach who thought it best to discourage me from endurance racing because of these injuries.
Finally, in 2014, I’d gotten my recipe right. I needed an overly abundant amount of rest, a fruit- and veggie-filled diet, compression sleeves, and the ability to tell my body that it ISN’T injured when it is (which I don’t normally recommend). And, my new coach, Lorie Tucker.
After dealing with a serious bought of elbow tendonitis that came out of nowhere and hampered my swimming, I dealt with shin splints and posterior tibial tendonitis through ALL of my Ironman training.
But with Lorie’s help, my husband Adam’s encouragement, and my persistence, I made it all the way to Ironman Florida. That morning, my family gathered on the beach amidst freak weather — 38 mile-per-hour winds, 30-degree temps — only to hear the announcer say that the swim was cancelled due to riptides.
Tears and debate ensued. Given my injuries, I decided to back out of the race and shoot for Ironman Cozumel. Four weeks of tough interval workouts, rapidly planning an international trip, and loading up on advice from athletes on the amazing Ironman Cozumel Facebook forum —including a scheduled ride from the very cool Alison Fowler (a 10-time Ironman) — I was off.
Skipping ahead to the night before IM Coz
While my husband and I had rented a beautiful condo, I probably slept four hours the night before the race. A faux pirate ship party boat (yes, really) that floats alongside the northern end of the island at night woke me up multiple times with the thump-thump of club music and a ridiculously loud Spanish-speaking deejay. Each time I woke up, my stomach was in knots, and from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. I begged myself to sleep — to no avail.
At 4 a.m., I made breakfast. I managed to eat a banana, a hard-boiled egg and some oatmeal — barely. I was so nervous I could hardly eat! My husband, Adam, and I then hopped a taxi to Chakanaab Park, or T1 (IM Cozumel is a point-to-point race).
I gleefully ran into my amazing new friend from the Facebook forum, Gina, and after putting Infinit fuel in my Speedfill, getting my tires filled at the pump station, and thankfully discovering my brake was rubbing my rear wheel, I joined the mass of other athletes in the long shuttle bus line.
Swim — beautiful, pristine and magical
After piling in, we headed to Marina Fonatur, the start of the swim. I’d heard amazing things about this swim — turquoise waters, unscathed coral, abundant wildlife — and during a short practice swim the day prior, I tested the delightfully warm waters. I was nervous, though, about the age group wave start — only because the male waves were slated to start after the female waves, and I was paranoid about getting run over.
The pros took off, and my group, purple swim caps, shuffled down the boat doc and waded in. I moved far to the right of the buoys, hoping the impending faster guys could just breeze by me on the left.
The fog-horn blew (no cannon), and right away, I was having a blast. It was a little crowded, but nothing like the washing machine I’d mentally prepped for.
The water was the perfect temperature — not too hot, but not wetsuit legal — and I immediately focused on counting my strokes (“one, two, breathe … one, two, breathe”). The clear water and seeing straight to the ocean floor was incredible and I loved seeing the mass of athletes in tri suits swimming around me. I remember thinking, “This is badass.”
Apparently, I was so focused on my bad-assness and breathing that I missed seeing the amazing coral and wildlife I’d heard about!! I noticed brown coral and a mass of small silvery fish at one point, but otherwise, nada. I just swam. Judging by the amazing pictures from the scuba-diving photographer team set throughout the course, I might as well have been swimming with my eyes closed!
I also felt the jab of jellyfish stings — seven times. I’d been warned about these, and had even invested in some anti-sting sunscreen lotion, and while I was told they didn’t hurt — um, they do. Like a rubber-band smacking your skin. Caught one on my cheek … ouch! I swam faster.
About 40 minutes in, I had painful chafing around my neck, and because I’d been swimming at my “forever” pace — quick without heavy breathing — I decided to kick it up a notch. (Though apparently, this is also when the current against us shifted in our favor.) I started forcing myself to count to 20 stroke sets before lifting my head, to hopefully avoid neck pain on the bike plus chafing, AND to keep me moving quick.
Swim: 1:14:36 or 1:55/100 -- my fastest swim to-date!
After running through the showers and drinking the full cup of water provided (this would come back to haunt me), I grabbed my bike bag and ran into the tent. It was hot, humid and I felt like I was moving like a turtle. I’m as naturally ghostly white as it gets, so I wore sun-sleeves, a jersey, bike shorts, calf sleeves, and full gloves. That is a LOT to put on while wet. I’d gone with this setup at a full aquabike in September (sans sun sleeves) but here, it felt like it was taking me FOREVER. Slow motion.
With all of this clothing on and stuffed pockets, I looked pretty funny. And I’m cool with that.
I drank water, slathered sunscreen on my face, and took a few pumps of my inhaler for exercise-induced asthma (which I have also never done mid-race, but wanted to proactively). Heart rate monitor on, fuel in pockets — go, let’s goooo. I ran to my bike, took a few sips of water in the bottle provided (why?! I think I felt like I couldn’t leave a bottle untouched, so figured I’d waste it with one sip?), and ran out.
T1: 13:59, and I didn’t mind.
Bike — crisis management while pedaling through a tornado
As I crossed the bike exit, Adam yelled, “Goooo Jess! You’re beautiful!” in the sweetest, proudest voice. I choked back a few tears and hopped on.
I felt great right when I got on the bike. I like starting with a high, easy cadence, then pushing into a tougher spin. The bike is my thing. Running is great, but I absolutely LOVE to hammer on the bike. I had completed a full aquabike in September in Oklahoma, which was hot, hilly, and windy, and I’d managed a 6.5-hour ride, or roughly 17 mph. I aimed to duplicate this.
About four miles in, I got a big side stitch on my right side. Was it horrible? No. Was it enough to freak me out? Yes. I’ve had side stitches once on the bike, and they lasted the whole ride — and juiced my legs.
After a few more miles, I started panicking. What if I deal with these for 112 miles? What if my stomach gets even worse for the run? Oh, geez. The run!! What am I going to do?! Was this caused by too much water after the swim? My inhaler? What does my body want right now?
Then I took a few deep breaths. I usually eat a Cliff Shot after the swim, and I hadn’t. I thought maybe a little shot of sodium from it would help. It didn’t. So then I tried backing off fuel for 30 minutes (drinking water instead of Infinit). Bad idea. Fuel is necessary!
I came up with a plan — stop at the first aid station to grab Gas-Ex from my bike bag — even though stopping was the last thing I wanted to do. Once the plan was in place, I felt better.
The Gas-Ex worked for about 15 minutes, which is about when I hit the backside of the island. We were all warned about this grueling 12-mile portion — it’s windy but manageable, people said. And having biked in higher winds during my practice ride, I had agreed. That was a mistake. On this particular day, the island gave us 35 mile-per-hour headwinds.
I allowed myself to topple into heart rate zone three for a bit in this stage, but, given my stomach, tried to stay in zone two. I knew it would be a long day, and I didn’t want to burn out.
On the first loop, the wind didn’t feel so bad, and I enjoyed this unscathed portion of the island, with palm fronds blowing in the wind, waves crashing and the smell of the salty ocean air.
Once I hit the left turn to non-windy freedom, it felt like I was flying. I came into town and saw Adam, and throngs of amazing spectators jamming to music and cheering me on, yelling “Yeah go, Texas!” in a nod to my jersey — huge boost — and went back out.
The remaining two loops were all about survival. My stomach went back and forth from stitches to bloating. I could feel the energy being drawn from my legs to my stomach. I kept telling myself, “one pedal at a time, one step at a time. Get out of your head.” I reminded myself that I wasn’t vomiting, I didn’t have a flat tire — things were actually really good! I did a little bit of fuel miscalculating and got behind, so I worked to keep up.
When I didn’t see the special needs bags at mile 56, I remembered that volunteers said it would be at a designated KILOMETER spot … so in reality, around mile 62. Given that I normally re-stock on Infinit at this time, I resorted to eating the Cliff Shot in my jersey, which I never eat mid-ride. I ran out of water at mile 58 — which was actually a good thing because there was an aid station at mile 60 (where I kept asking “verde bolsas?? Green bags??”), but NO water at special needs. This meant I stopped at mile 60 AND special needs.
At special needs, I ate some honey stinger blocks and got more fuel. So many people were just sitting — it surprised me!
In all, I sadly can’t remember how many times I stopped. It might have been four or five. I gave a 70-plus-year-old some pepto as he was pulling out of the race. I actually even reapplied chamois cream at a stop. I was clearly loopy because I normally would never do that!
The winds picked up — I mean, really?! — and on the third loop, the windy stretch was 18 miles. 18! So, I consciously forced myself to slow down and refused to look at my Garmin to evade disappointment. I was bummed! I even started wondering, while fighting through the wind, if I’d missed a turn (there are no turns on that stretch).
As I came into transition at MILE 113 (I mean, really!?), I thought I felt OK — better than I had on other longer rides, with no neck pain, but I was already bummed with my time.
Bike: 7:17:31 or 15.36 mph … turtle power!
Right when I got off the bike, I knew the rest of the day would be rough. I felt good ON the bike — but when I hopped off, I was dizzy, loopy, and just plain out of it. I ambled toward my bag and into the tent. I ate a banana, used my inhaler again, swapped my shorts and jersey, and spent the time necessary to wrap my big toes with blister tape before getting them into my Injinji socks (I had blister issues throughout training, and this was the solution). I wrapped the tape too tightly around my right toe and it hurt, but oh well, I thought.
Since all of the volunteers speak Spanish, I talked to some other athletes to get their take on what I was dealing with. They said it was dehydration.
I walked out of the tent and to Adam, and chatted with him for a few minutes. This was factored into my T2 time, but I didn’t care. I felt so awful! I told him I was bummed and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through 26 miles like this. I had expected to feel good!
He encouraged me to toughen up and put one foot in front of the other. So I did.
T2 time: 18:52 (maybe record for slowest transition ever??)
Run — an agonizing and gratifying blur
Wow. I’m a week out from the race, and with time, I think I will forget how terrible I felt that first 13 miles. That’s a good thing — I’m already looking forward to toeing the line at an Ironman again — but it was a bad, bad scene, fraught with worry. I was in Mexico — how would I tell the medics what was wrong with me if I drove myself into the ground?
I started to walk, and while I knew I had time to walk the entire marathon if I wanted to, I didn’t want to. So I started my trot-jog.
Aid stations were situated by kilometer, so every .65-mile, and I took water in, took down a honey stinger gel, took some Pepto at the first stop. About 45 minutes in, I took a salt tab. I felt absolutely downright AWFUL for a bit after that — so nauseous. So I backed off the salt until a guy warned me about cramps. I think I averaged one salt tab/hour.
I chatted with some people while walking through aid stations, and ate some pretzels and Pepsi and Gatorade. At one point, I stopped fueling and just ate those because they tasted good. From miles six to 12, I ran a consistently slower (10 or 11-min) pace, walking at aid stations.
Adam THANKFULLY texted my coach, Lorie, despite cell costs and told her about my dizziness and nausea. She told him that I had to eat, no matter how badly I felt — and to aim for bananas and honey stingers. Once I started forcing down the food, I started feeling much better. I was sweating profusely — Cozumel had lived up to its rep for humidity — but I was OK.
At mile 20, I told my husband to head to the finish so I would have to get there. That’s about when met a girl named Lorena, and we would walk/run — mostly walk, because she was waiting for a friend. We chatted and walked. I only hit the port-a-potty ONCE, at mile 23, and only because she did, and I realized I should.
Looking back, I feel as though I might have run more if I hadn’t had someone to walk with. But in the moment, I was blissfully thankful to have her there, and I call her my run angel. When we got to mile 23 or so, I resigned myself to walking until mile 25.5. Could I run? Yes. But my legs were shaky and after five years of attempting this goal, I started to get paranoid that I would collapse and it wouldn’t happen.
So we walked. About a half-mile before the finish, Lorena said, “Girl, you need to run this in.” So I did.
As I came to the finish chute, I heard Adam yelling. I trotted — the blue-carpeted stage was all mine, with incoming athletes off in the distance — and I tried to soak it all in. I thought I would cry, but I really just let out tearful laughs. I raised my arms and pointed toward God in grateful thanks. I hardly remember my name being called — or even hearing, “Jessica Elliott, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” but I do remember thinking the medal was huge. They also handed me a sweet, handmade shell necklace that I love.
Total time: 14:43:13 — I finished, and now there’s room to improve.
The next morning, I woke up crying happy tears. I DID IT. It is done!! A five-year dream realized. Proof that persistence, determination and a little stubbornness goes a long way. Proof that I could do what others said I couldn’t.
Not only that, but all of this in a race that several high-number Ironman finishers told me was the hardest they had ever done. That the winds were even harder than the winds had been in Florida. I showed myself what I’m made of, and my true inner-mettle. And I’ll be back for more.