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The Road to Redemption

I took a year out of Para-Cycling to train for the Ironman World Championships. I spent many hours doing solitary swimming, biking and running and then failed to deliver the result I was more than capable of in Kona. To say it preyed on my mind is an understatement. I went over and over the race in my head, asking myself how I could miss the combined Swim/T1/Bike Cut-off by the smallest of margins, by less than two minutes. I couldn’t face the prospect of failing again, or waiting another year to prove that I could do it. So I booked Ironman Cozumel six days after Kona, and retreated from Social Media, not telling anyone except my Coach and children.

Unfortunately, I was sick for three weeks after racing in Kona with an infection. It’s fairly typical for an athlete pushing their limits to become ill once the pressure of competing is off, but it wasn’t the best timing. I fitted in training as best I could, and wondered if I’d actually just wasted a lot of money.

I had to travel to Mexico on my own, with a layover in Miami. I’d contacted British Airways to ask about an excess luggage waiver and the staff at Heathrow were fantastic at arranging for all my bags to go straight though to Cozumel, avoiding me having to cart them around Miami. I arrived at the Airport the next day, after an hour delay in getting a wheelchair accessible taxi from my Hotel and queued up for ‘Special Assistance’ where the lady in charge ignored me. I decided to get through Security on my own, towing a suitcase and a small laptop bag with my electric Tri-Ride through the Airport. I wasn’t allowed through the fast channel and of course, I had to wait for a female security staff member to give me the extra special pat-down, wheelchair swab, search, shoe swab that I have to endure every single time I travel. I got to my Gate and had missed my flight…

There was a Public Holiday the next day in Cozumel of course, so all flights were fully booked for the next few days. My only option was a flight to Cancun which proved a struggle to eventually get, and a Ferry across to Cozumel. I was relieved to not have all my adaptive equipment with me! The Ferry Terminal was 45 minutes from the Airport by Taxi and I was carried up a steep ramp in my wheelchair, whilst Wendy and her lovely family helped me with my luggage.

I’d booked my Hotel online and emailed to ask about an ADA room, having seen that they had facilities for Disabled Guests. I should have known better. I arrived to be told that access to my room was via a narrow path, a steep grassy bank, a step and through the patio doors. I couldn’t manage it unassisted and literally wept with frustration. I was really down about having to manage yet another trip as a Para-Triathlete solo, compounded by not knowing where my adaptive equipment was. I was in Cozumel, but where was my kit?

I’d arranged an Airport Transfer through the Ironman website and the Employees of Olympus Tours were marvelous, despite me having missed my pick-up. A more accessible hotel was arranged for me the next day, and they phoned the Airport in Cozumel and I took a Taxi to meet them to collect my luggage. Once I was back with it all, it was a race against the clock to get at least my bike put back together in order to test it out before dark.

It was dusk, not a very sensible time to be out on unknown roads on the wrong side of the road, but it was already Tuesday and my race was only four days away. I put four sets of lights on my bike and helmet, a six foot flag pole up with fluorescent flags, and set off, having been told about a bike path to find. I hadn’t gone far before I saw flashing blue lights in my mirror and the Police pulled alongside me. Apparently I had missed the bike lane, so they escorted me onto it and asked how long I would be. I decided not to push my luck and turned round shortly after, only to get stuck on a speed bump getting back. Luckily, a very nice Moped rider stopped to lift me over.

No matter where in the world I have travelled to race, I have always found incredibly kind people who have helped me out. I call them my Guardian Angels, as they appear at just the right moments. Barry and Cindy Faust, a lovely American couple, were staying at my new Hotel and we got chatting about all things Ironman. Barry had hoped to compete, but bone cancer treatment called a halt to that, so they travelled to Cozumel for a holiday in between Chemo treatments. We had a laugh taking part in the Underwear Run for charity and winning some raffle prizes, then they volunteered to help me rack both my hand bike and racing wheelchair. The race chair was easy, it was just a short walk from out Hotel to T2, but asking Volunteers exactly where to leave it, when everyone else was hanging up plastic bags, took some time to sort.

Coaches had been laid on to get to T2 from all the official Hotels, but my hand bike was too high for the luggage compartment underneath. I doubted it would go onto the bus, but with some extra hands, it sat across the tops of several rows of seats. Then there was the additional manhandling of both myself and my wheelchair to get onboard…but all went well.

Race morning I had a rather grim 3am wake-up call, as did my fantastic volunteer helpers, who had come forward after a Facebook plea by Caroline Gaynor and the Cozumel Ironman community, aided by Dailene Erikson. All four of them met me at my Hotel at 5:15am ready for the coach down to T2. Because of the split Transitions and Swim start/finish, I had Salim and Chris stay in T2 at the water exit after helping prepare my bike, whilst Rhonda and Pascal accompanied me back on the bus to the swim start.

Ironman Cozumel Officials had arranged for all AWD (or PC) athletes to start after the Pro women at 7:20am, giving us a 10 minute lead on the mass of Age Groupers and their rolling start. With the bus delayed, Officials cleared the way through the gathering crowds to the start Pontoon, where I barely had time to finish putting on my wetsuit, hat and goggles, before the horn went off. It was odd swimming on my own, as a female duo were ahead, and the two male athletes were behind me. I tried not to be distracted by the marine life below me and concentrated on holding my form for the straight line 2.4 mile swim. I was passed by only the fastest Age Groupers, and surprised my Handlers who were helping the female duo out the water, one minute ahead of me.

As I was carried out of the water by Chris and Salim, I could see Rhonda and Chris on the other side of the barrier out of the corner of my eye, hoisting my wheelchair aloft! I didn’t get to use it and was carried round the changing tents into T2, where I used two chairs which had appeared overnight (thank you organizers-I thought I’d be groveling around on the sand getting changed) to strip my wetsuit and put on my cycling top. Then it was onto the bike, getting my nutrition under my waist strap, and being escorted out of T2 by my helpers, to start the 112 mile cycle.

Ironman Cozumel is a three loop course round the Island, with little in the way of elevation, but plenty of wind to make up for it. Aid stations were plentiful and I switched bottles of water for ice cold ones with only a few mishaps, including one where I was smacked in the face with a bottle by an over zealous youngster, and losing two as they bounced out of my bottle cage on the rough surfaces. Halfway on the bike is the toughest point, where my arms ached and I knew I had the same distance to go, but at least I was not on my own out on the course. The rolling swim start meant there were plenty of other athletes still out, despite my long ride.

Into T2 and so overwhelmingly glad just to make it there, after my disappointment in Kona only six weeks previously that I took my time, got into my day chair, rolled into the changing tent, applied sunscreen and put on compression sleeves to help my arms in the final 26.2 mile Marathon, then got into my race chair and rolled onto the run course, wondering how I would feel, having never had the chance to do a full Marathon after 114.4 miles using just my arms!

All the training, all those brick sessions of hard hand bike rides and run intervals immediately paid off, as I picked up the pace on my first loop of three, accompanied by a cyclist with a whistle clearing the way for me. The course is relatively flat and I benefited from the tailwind on the return section of each loop. Until I got a puncture, that is. A sickening hiss and I looked down at my right wheel, flat as a pancake. Not an ideal situation with a little over 5km to go to the finish line. My cyclist radioed for a mechanic to no avail and we tried to inflate the tyre with a Vittorio Pit stop I had in a bag attached to my race chair. I was running on full disks with tubular tyres and the valve needed a 90 degree adaptor, which I had, but we failed to fix it. I decided to carry on and roll on the flat tyre, hoping the carbon disk wheel would not be damaged in the process. I simply had to finish, there was no other option.

I was so frustrated, it was so difficult to push the racing wheelchair with a flat tyre, other athletes were now passing me and time was slipping by. I’d had the aim of trying to beat the current Ironman world record for a female wheelchair athlete in a recumbent hand bike and had been aiming for a three hour Marathon.

I couldn’t believe it when I finally hit that iconic red carpet, arms burning, to hear the announcer proclaim: ‘Elizabeth McTernan, you are an Ironman’. Incredibly, I also managed to set a new world record completing my first full Ironman. I owe a great deal of gratitude to all the people that help me achieve my goals; all my sponsors, my race volunteers and helpers, my family and all the lovely people I get to meet meet doing this fantastic sport.

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