I arrived on the island of Cozumel Wednesday night, the day before Thanksgiving, four days before the race. The days leading up to the race were spent working out - short workouts to acclimate to the climate and keep the legs engaged – attending pre-race meetings, obsessively taking an inventory of my gear, and waiting.
There was concern up to the day before the race that the swim portion would be canceled due to dangerous ocean currents. The swim course started from the Chankanaab pier and headed north making a rectangular path before returning to the pier from the south. The concern was for athlete safety, but also the possibility that many athletes, having to swim against the current for a significant portion of the course, would not make it out of the water by the swim cut-off time thus ending their day before they touched their bike. The race officials announced the evening before the race that the swim course would be moved and become a point-to-point course, starting 2 miles north of the pier and heading south along the coast. I was relieved to hear that the swim would commence. I didn’t come to bike and run. I came to swim, bike, and run.
The night before the race I felt like there was a Tesla coil of nervous energy in the pit of my stomach firing an anxious bolts at irregular intervals. Though I knew it was important to get some sleep, there was not much sleep to be had. My mind flickered with a kaleidoscope of questions. Something will go wrong, what will it be? Was I prepared? Did I train enough? Would my day end in agony with me crawling across the finish line? I closed my eyes and drifted off to some quasi-slumber, waking every hour to check the time. The alarm went off at 4 am. I didn’t need it. I was up and ready to go.
I arrived at the race start, dropped off my gear, and pumped the tires on my bike. Music played through transition area, but it wasn’t the typical “get pumped up” pop songs that you hear at most races. Those beats were saved for the finish line. At the starting line, dramatic movie scores filled the air while the orange sun rose above the blue horizon. The voice of Ironman greeted the athletes over the loudspeaker, giving instructions and countdown to the start. The tone, intentionally set from the beginning, was that this day was going to be epic.
With my swim cap and goggles in hand and wearing only my tri-shorts I climbed into the bus that would take me to the swim start. I’ve never been packed so tightly on a bus with so many strangers wearing so little clothing.
The cannon went off at 7:00 am for the pro athletes. Then the rest of the field, approximately 2,000 “age-groupers,” took our place in the water. The announcement came: one minute. The anticipation hit a fever pitch, and a roar erupted from the athletes in the water. I think it was one part exuberance, one part nervousness, and one part holy s***. At 7:10 am the cannon went boom.
The swim is the first of the three disciplines. In some ways it’s the easiest; it is the start of the race, and if your training went well you’re at peak fitness and the most rested you’ll be the entire day. But the swim brings its unique set of challenges. Cozumel was an open water ocean swim. Unlike swimming in a pool you have the variables of currents and waves, ocean life swimming next to you, and the task of sighting to stay on course. Most difficult though is the mass start, 2,000 other swimmers with their 4,000 arms and 4,000 feet flailing and kicking next to you in the water. It’s a swarm of humanity, and it’s chaos.
I knew I would get kicked and pushed and swam over if I wasn’t careful. For the most part, it's not malicious, but when you take a foot to the face it tends to put a person in an off mood. The key was to protect myself, guard my head, and stay calm. Eventually, the field spread out and though I was never without company, space opened and I was able to settle into a steady stroke.
The water in Cozumel is pristine and warm. It’s quite beautiful. During the entire swim I could see to the ocean floor. Watching schools of fish weave through the coral made for a good distraction while I glided through the water as best I could.
I can thank the shortened swim course for my arrival at the first transition about 15 minutes sooner than planned. I pulled myself out of the water and except for a couple of minor jellyfish stings I was in one piece. I ran like a drunken man to the transition tent (when you suddenly go vertical after swimming horizontally in choppy water for an hour, your sense of balance is a little off). I entered the transition tent, put on my cycling gear, and lathered up on sunblock. Nine minutes later I was exiting the transition area on my bike.
The bike course consisted of three loops around the island. It was flat as a pancake and the 12 mile stretch along the east side of the island was right along the coast which offered dramatic views of crashing waves and the expansive blue sea. It all sounds good on paper, but in reality, the course exposed every weakness I had on the bike. I don’t have big powerful legs that can push and pull a high wattage over long periods of time. My lean frame is better suited for climbing not grinding. It would be a long day on the bike.
I’d been warned about the crosswinds on the east side of the island, but on this day the winds had shifted and became a brutal headwind. The wall of moving air hit when the road turned north, its invisible force pushing against me for a stretch of about 10 miles. On the first loop, the sustained winds were about 20 mph, by the third loop, after the air had warmed, the sustained winds were touching 30 mph. There was nothing I could do about the wind except put my head down and pedal through it. I did math in my head to keep my mind distracted.
The wind was only one of the challenges faced on the bike. An early rain gave way to a hot and humid sun. The sunblock I applied in transition was washed away, I realized about halfway through the bike that my skin was burning. I stopped at an aid station and asked for sunscreen. The teen volunteer applied the pasty lotion to my shoulders and neck and face. I looked like a character from the movie Apocalypto, but least I was protected.
Around mile 70 I reached the special needs station where I stopped for my bag. In an Ironman race every athlete has the option to leave a “special needs” bag on the course, which is available to them on the bike and the run. Stopping at the special needs station was part of my race plan. In my special needs bag, I had a spare tube for my bike, a second bottle of nutrition, and a Snickers and Payday. The candy bars were more for my mental health than my physical wellbeing. The Snickers was completely melted and inedible. The Payday, however… let’s just say I’ve never tasted salty caramel goodness so glorious in all my life.
I was back on my bike with my spirits boosted when I took a sip from my bottle and I knew immediately that something was wrong. My bottle, which I had measured out the exact number of calories I would need, was spoiled. It was later that I would realize the nutrition I used had a small amount of dairy (protein) in the mix and the heat and humidity turned the mixed sour. I still had 40 miles on the bike and marathon to run; I had to figure something out. There was nutrition on the course, but I had never trained with the brands of food and energy drinks they provided. I didn’t know what was in it or what how much I would need. I was mid-day the sun was high, and it was getting hot. I had no choice but to take what was available to me. I kept thinking, as your stomach goes, so goes your race. I was praying that my body would accept the food. Fortunately, it did.
With each loop around the island we passed through the heart of Cozumel. Locals were alongside the road for hours cheering us on. The children built makeshift noisemakers using plastic bottles and rocks. I couldn’t help but think the bicycles many of us athletes were riding probably cost more than their families make in several months time.
I was so grateful for the local support. I needed it. On the first loop, I was all smiles and thumbs-up. The second time around a nod of the head and a slight wave was all I could muster. The third time around my legs were screaming. My skin was burnt. My hands were numb. My shoulders ached. My butt, well… I think you can image how that felt. I had been on my bike for nearly 7 hours. It was 30-45 minutes longer than I anticipated. I was at the mercy of the wind and the wind won the day.
But as I have learned, if you keep going, you will eventually arrive. And arrive I did. The bike finish was a beautiful site to behold. I handed my bike to a volunteer and entered the transition tent. I was never so thrilled to running a marathon in my life because it meant I was done with the bike.
The run start and finish were at the center of town where the mass of spectators was gathered. The roar of the crowd, the steady clank of cowbells, and the fact that two of the three events were now behind me led to a burst of inspiration and renewed strength. It was hard not to get caught up in the moment. It was thrilling.
But the moment would not last. The first downpour came around mile three and with it the crowds of supporters retreated from the streets for the dry cover of restaurants and shops.
The rain turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that it brought relief from the heat of the day. The curse was that I would run the next 23 miles soaking wet from my head to my feet.
It was just after the first rain that my angel came along side me. I call him my angel because I have no idea who he was. He was older than me, maybe in his 50s. We didn’t talk to each other, and the only words I heard from him were in Spanish. We paced each other running shoulder to shoulder for miles.
Early, when the heat was still an issue, he grabbed a wet sponge and handed it to me. A kind gesture that saved me the hustle of finding relief for myself. As the miles passed I felt gratitude and loyalty to this man. His presence encouraged me. I was determined not let him down. I would do my part hold the pace.
The run course consisted of 3 out-and-back loops, which on the one hand was repetitive and somewhat boring, but on the other hand it allowed me to see the other athletes on the course. It gave me a chance to check-in with my friends and get a quick update on how their race was going.
It was on the second loop heading away from the city that I passed through an aid station. When I looked back, my angel was gone. I slowed a bit and looked around, but he was nowhere to be found. Our unspoken but understood agreement was that we would pace each other and help each other, but we would not wait for the other. I kept going.
The run was my strongest of the three disciplines. For the first 13 miles I maintained a steady pace. But as the miles wore on, as the sun set and the darkness rose, my body grew weak and my mental strength began to crack.
Around mile 15, I had a most delightful surprise. My angel returned. I looked to my left and there he was. I smiled and nodded. He nodded back to me and we forged ahead together once again. His timing was good. I needed his help. My legs were crumbling beneath me. His steady pace pulled me along.
We trotted back to the city and I made my turn to begin my third and final lap. My angel did not follow me. He continued into the finishing chute. It turns out my angel was pretty fast. He was a full lap ahead of me. His race was nearly complete. We bid each other good luck and went our separate ways.
Turning my back on the finish and heading out of town for my final lap was the hardest thing I would do that day. I wanted to be done. Mentally, physically, emotionally I was finished. But the race was not 131 miles it is 140 miles and I still had nine miles to go. Storytellers have a phrase for the moment in a narrative when all hope is lost, when the hero enters the darkest cave and experiences the lowest of lows. The moment is called “the dark night of the soul” and I had just entered it.
Pain is not the word to describe what I was experiencing. Yes, I was in pain, but it was more than that. Broken is a better word. An iron blanket of weariness wrapped my being and grew heavier and heavier. My feet were swollen and hips were screaming. Every stride sent an ache-filled throb through my legs. Every step was accompanied with a mental plea to stop.
I had to make a deal with myself; when I reached an aid station, which was about every mile, I would allow myself to walk from the first table to the last table then I must start running again. I kept my deal. I walked through the aid station sipping on some Gatorade or Pepsi. At the last table I tossed the cup and started running again. One foot in front of the other, that is how I covered miles 17-23.
There was a bend in the road at mile 24. The lights of the city came into view and a wave of pulsing music echoed from the finish line. There was literally a light at the end of my dark night of the soul. I pressed forward without stopping. With each step I came closer and closer to my destination. A final burst of energy rose from some reserve hidden deep in my bones. Spectators, awaiting their loved one’s arrival, lined the streets. They promised me the finish was just a bit further and that “I could do it.”
Soon I could hear the voice of Ironman calling the names of finishers. I entered the final chute. A blue carpet laid the path. There was a sharp 90-degree turn to the left and then I saw it: the finish line a hundred yards ahead of me. I rushed forward. The lights were bright. Heaven opened and I heard the voice of God say, “Nathan Davis, you are an Ironman.”
For the record, this will be the only time I post a picture of me with my shirt off on this website. :)
The invitation came in early January of 2013: “Ironman Cozumel. December 1. You in?” Maybe it was the flurry of motivation that comes with every New Year, the “let’s make this year count” spirit that spurred the conversation. Or maybe it was just crazy talk. A Facebook invite gathered a group of members from the Disney Triathlon team for a destination race, but not just any race, an Ironman. Several on the invite had done Ironman races before. For a few of us, it would be our first time.
As my friends accepted the invitation, the tiny voice inside my head insisted, “If you’re ever going to do the race, now is the time to do it. You won’t be alone.” So one chilly January evening, with my credit card in hand, I stared at the filled-out registration page. The computer cursor hovered over the REGISTER NOW button. I hesitated. In a Jekyll and Hyde moment, part of me started pleading for sanity, “You don’t want to do this!” The other half said, “Just F****** do it!” I clicked the button.
Eleven months to Ironman. The race felt distant. An entire season of Major League Baseball will have started and completed by race day. Yet, there was still an underlying knot of urgency in my gut. This HUGE thing is coming. Am I ready? The answer was no, not at all.
I called my coach and told him what I’d done. He asked me what my goal was. I said 1) to finish the race and 2) do it with my dignity intact - YouTube search for Ironman finishes and you’ll see some pretty harrowing videos. I didn’t want to collapse or crawl across the finish line. I wanted to finish strong. He promised me if I took my training seriously and did what he told me, I would accomplish my goal. We had a deal.
There are two aspects to Ironman that make it so difficult. The first is the race itself, a grueling 140.6-mile test of endurance. The second is getting to the starting line healthy while enduring the training required to complete the race. Many arrive at the starting line injured, which makes the likelihood of a finish that much harder.
My structured training program started the first week of March. I had nine months to prepare. The first five months weren’t so bad. It was familiar territory focused on building my fitness base, staying healthy, and orienting my life to the rhythms of training. And it is a life adjustment. Work. Train. Eat. Sleep. That is your life when you’re training for Ironman.
At the beginning of August, four months to race day, I entered uncharted waters. The distances and durations of my workouts intensified. Most Saturdays involved an 80-100 mile bike ride. Sundays started with a one-hour swim and then a “short” two-hour ride. On Wednesdays, after a full day at work, I would put on my running shoes and go for a 10-15 mile run.
Here is how a typical training week looked. The duration and intensity varied based on where I was in my training cycle.
Monday: Rest Day
Workout 1 – Bike Intervals
Workout 2 – Swim
Workout 1 – Long Run
Workout 1 – Bike
Workout 1 – Strength Training
Workout 2 - Swim
Workout 1 – Long Bike
Workout 1 – Swim
Workout 2 - Bike
During this time, I was always in a state of hunger. I would eat continuously. Everything within an arm’s length was fair game.
I was always tired. My social life took a beating. “No, I cannot go out tonight. I need to sleep” became a mantra.
Regular deep tissue massages were a necessity. The therapist would ask me, “What hurts? Is anything bothering you?” I would say, “Everything” before pulling my clothes off and climbing onto the table.
One hot Saturday we did a 5-hour, 63-mile ride up into mountains. 6000+ feet of elevation gain. The temperature reading on my bike’s computer hit 114 degrees. You learn quickly on days like that how to take care of yourself, how to make decisions under stress. You learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
By October, I had turned into a machine. Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat. I had no emotional connection to what I was doing. I didn’t dread the workouts. I didn’t find satisfaction when they were complete. I felt nothing. Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat.
By November 1, one month to the race, I turned from robot to burnout. I hated my bike. I hated the stiffness in my right hip flexor that wouldn’t heal. I hated having to get up early in the morning when it was dark and cold and jumping into a swimming pool. I hated feeling like my body was broken all the time.
Every workout at this point was an intense negotiation with myself. Part me pleading the case for training. The other part of me saying, “Screw it. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
On one Saturday, a few weeks before the race, I was supposed to ride 100-miles. I was by myself that day. It was cold and drizzly. I was lonely and miserable. I rode 75-miles then went home. I told my coach I didn’t have it in my anymore. My coach assured me that what I was experiencing is what every person training for an Ironman experiences. Then he implored, “You’re almost there.”
He was right and soon my training began to taper. Nine months of strength training, swimming, biking, and running now behind me. It was time to let my body recover and rebuild. Race day was here.
July 2013. A couple pictures from the Vineman Ironman 70.3 race I did as a part of my Ironman training.
Three years ago, on December 1, 2013, in Cozumel, Mexico, I finished an Ironman triathlon. An Ironman is an endurance contest that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run. I’ve told people about the experience, usually in short anecdotes, but I’ve never told the entire story from the beginning. The experience had a profound effect on me that is becoming clearer the more distance I get from the race.
My first encounter with Ironman came nearly twenty years ago when I was in High School. A motivational speaker gave a talk at a leadership conference. He told his Ironman story. Everyone in the room sat enraptured by his dramatic retelling: His troubled childhood and the salvation the sport of swimming gave him. His decision to attempt an Ironman. The epic early morning training sessions. The shin splits he developed that his doctor warned might cause his bones to snap when transitioning from the bike to the run. The agony of the elements: the heat, the wind, the rain. The blisters on his feet that fused his socks to his skin. And finally, being carried away on a stretcher at the finish line. Oh, the pain. Oh, the suffering. I heard the story and walked away with absolute certainty that Ironman was something out of the realm of my possibility. It was a lofty accomplishment for real athletes.
Ten years later I found myself living in California and working at Disney when a co-worker mentioned over lunch that the company had a triathlon team and they were in need of swimmers for a relay. Early in my youth, I was a member of the YMCA swim team, so I said, “Sure I’ll do it. I think I remember how to swim.”
At the time I was in the worst shape of my life. I hadn’t exercised in years and in the transition to life in California I put on twenty pounds, which was a lot for someone with a small frame like me.
At the first swim practice, they split the groups into advanced, intermediate, and beginners. I was in the lane next to the beginners, in the beginner-beginners lane. I could barely swim two lengths of the pool. I forgot how exhausting swimming could be. But I showed up every week. I swam a little further each time. And eventually, the form came back to me. I also started running. That summer of 2008 my longest run was four miles, but the combination of swimming and running introduced fitness back into my life and I dropped over twenty pounds.
I went to the Nautica Malibu Triathlon and I did the swim portion of the race, which was a 0.5-mile ocean swim. I handed the timing chip off to the biker and then took my place as a spectator. I watched thousands of triathletes finish the race. The energy was contagious. And the look on their faces when they finished the race… I wanted that. I decided that the following year I would do the entire race.
So I did. During the off-season I bought a secondhand bike and the next summer I added cycling to my routine. Throughout the week I would swim or bike or run. On Saturdays, I’d drive to Malibu and put it all together. In September of 2009, I finished my first triathlon: 0.5-swim, 18-mile bike, and a 4-mile run.
After that race, I thought, what’s next? A relationship I was in at the time was ending. It was heartbreaking and I desperately needed a healthy outlet to focus my energy. I found it in triathlon. I signed up for the Vineman Ironman 70.3 race. This was a big leap from the sprint triathlon I had completed - an Ironman 70.3 race consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run - so I hired a triathlon coach to help me prepare and dedicated six months to training. I was nervous the day of the race. All of these distances were intimidating and to do them back-to-back-to-back seemed ridiculous, but my coach told me to trust my training. I had no other choice but to. He was right. All of my training came together that day. It was hard, to be sure, but I felt strong and I finished the race in a respectable 6 hours.
Something else happened on that hot July day in 2010, the impenetrable wall of impossibility that surrounded the 140.6 mile Ironman race began to crack. I thought a sprint triathlon would be difficult, then I did it. I thought an Ironman 70.3 race was almost impossible, but I just finished one. I started to see that maybe, just maybe, that which feels so impossible may not be all that impossible after all.
Three years later, I would prove it.
My first triathlon, 2009.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES