The 2009 Ironman Lake Placid triathlon was quite an event. Despite the meticulous preparation, you still don’t know what to expect when you line up for an Ironman. This was my first iron-distance triathlon, so there was a lot to be anxious about. Fortunately, I have done a handful of other epic races in recent years, though none were triathlons involving swimming. I had two goals. The first goal was to finish the event strongly, which I defined as maintaining a competitive pace (not walking) for the entire distance and being coherent at the finish. I’ve perfected the “superfade” in the past and have limped across finish lines before; but with all the preparation (mental and physical) that I put into Ironman Lake Placid, I wanted to hold it together. The secondary goal was to finish in the low-10 hour range. I simply wanted to be competitive in my age group and see if qualifying for the Ironman World Championships (Hawaii) was a feasible future option. Breaking 10 hours actually seemed mathematically feasible, but not in a first try, and probably not on this course (hills). My 4:40 at Ironman 70.3 Rhode Island (half distance) two weeks ago signaled the possibility, but also could have been a premature peak. I had backed off the throttle at that race, but I may have still expended too much energy without enough recovery time.
Ironman Lake Placid was epic in every sense of the word. That means that my race was epic, and that it was also evidently epic for pretty much everyone else. The distance (140.6 miles) alone is enough to qualify the race as a special one. 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run are hallowed distances in the sport of triathlon. The race organization was also epic. It simply ought to be for the level of investment (entry fees, gear, travel, training time, etc.) required. I got a preview of an Ironman brand event in Rhode Island, but this was the real deal. There are a limited number of official Ironman events around the world and Lake Placid is one of the special ones. It is a huge event. 2251 athletes went into Mirror Lake at the start on Sunday morning at 7:00 A.M. There were 208 DNF’s, but still, more than 91% finished. There were thousands of volunteers and spectators. Those are huge numbers for such a logistically challenging race. It seemed like Lake Placid, the adjacent communities of Wilmington, Jay, Upper Jay, Keene, Keene Valley, and the entire Adirondack Region of New York, came out in support of the event.
The volunteer presence was unlike anything I have ever seen before and I’ve done a lot of races. I am still shaking my head. It was mind boggling how many people came out to help and support the athletes. I appreciate everyone who pitched in. I have committed myself to learning more about World Triathlon Corporation, the parent of the Ironman brand, and North America Sports, the promoter of Ironman Lake Placid, and several other official races. The business side of this sport intrigues me. Our family business has been involved with team sponsorship and race direction for years, but this is race/event production at a big time level. It felt more like a rock concert than an triathlon. To learn more will be fascinating. Regardless, business was set aside on race day, and I was one of the 2251 triathletes who was hoping to become an Ironman or Ironwoman.
We arrived in Lake Placid on Friday and promptly registered for the event. The race itself had been sold out since last year, but I had obtained a coveted spot through the Ironman Community Foundation, a separate entity that allocates slots in exchange for an additional financial contribution that benefits Ironman venue communities. We were fortunate that our original plan to camp, didn’t need to be executed. We grabbed a last minute cancellation at a hotel right on Main Street, less than a quarter mile from the Olympic speed skating oval and Lake Placid High School, the hub of the weekend’s activities. On Friday night, I attended the pre-race meeting at the Lake Placid Horse Grounds. To avoid re-parking the van, I ran the 2.25 miles to the grounds (in a downpour) stayed for the meeting, and then ran back. On Saturday, I went for a short ride in the morning to loosen my legs. Then, I checked all of my gear into the transition area, including my bike and bags. I had inspected and re-inspected everything repeatedly, but for good measure, inspected it again when I dropped off the stuff. I scouted the transition area and swim start, before spending the rest of the day with the family.
Race day came on Sunday and it was a damp start. I wasn’t concerned about racing in the rain as much as I was concerned about chaffing and blisters. I love foul weather events and often perform well in adverse conditions, but with all the preparation, I was secretly hoping for sunshine and blue skies. We ended up getting a bit of everything. After I got my body marked, I returned to the transition area to inspect my gear again. Fortunately it was all there. I didn’t forget anything. I added some air to my tires and then got suited up. The first of three huge downpours hit about 45 minutes before the start. The second came just prior to the start, and the third was during the swim. That was the last of the rain, which was good. The roads remained wet for the first few hours of the bike ride, but by the end of the day, it was baking hot.
It is hard to describe what 2251 people swimming in Mirror Lake looks like. The photographs don’t do it justice. You just had to be one of the swimmers to fully experience it. My swim leg was as eventful as expected. I stopped twice to adjust my goggles, once after taking a nasty elbow to the head. I was concerned about one of my contacts (I had a spare set in transition), but I was able to reposition it, and get moving again. My time was even worse than expected, but I finished and that was the primary objective. Since I am a “bell curve” swimmer, meaning that half the athletes are faster and half are slower, I end up in lots of swim traffic. Being on the small side, I got pummeled. It was nerve wracking at times, but I never lost my breath or my cool. My shoulders are sore. I exited the water after the second lap, got help stripping off my wetsuit, and ran to the transition area at the oval.
I was in transition a bit longer than planned, but it was really congested. I didn’t even go in the tent. I changed outside on the lawn, before sprinting to my bike, which I had to fetch because the volunteers were overwhelmed with the swarm. That wasn’t a problem. I settled in quickly, but it took a while to find a rhythm. There was way too much bike traffic to work through. The slow swim put me behind more than 1000 bicyclists. That is a lot of folks to pass, and passing takes energy, especially on wet downhill roads. The first 15 miles wasn’t fun, as I tried to get by people and not waste too much energy. Everyone pretty much yielded so that I could get by on the left, but it was frustrating at times. Nevertheless, I worked my way continuously up the field. I started to hurt a bit around mile 45 as you begin climbing back towards Lake Placid from Wilmington. I definitely wasn’t rolling the bike like I did in Rhode Island. I was never on top of my gear and there was no snap in my legs. It felt more like a grind. At least in terms of the bike leg, it is likely that I peaked two weeks ago.
The start of the second lap was a little better, especially as the traffic got lighter. Eventually, I was able to ride on my own with less people around me, but it was painful when people passed because no one caught me in Rhode Island. I came back a bit at the end of the second loop and avoided bonking, which was a concern. I was warned about the 70-90 mile section of an Ironman bike leg. That is when people usually lose their focus and with it, lots of time. I picked up the pace a bit and got to 112 without a major problem. I did have a very sore right toe, which was jammed into my cycling shoe. That was annoying, but I can’t blame the slow riding on it. I saw a few crashes on the course, including a bad one in a feed zone. The rider just approached the volunteer with two much speed, tried to grab a bottle, and lost control. I think he was OK. Other than that, folks were in good spirits and handled their bikes pretty well.
I took time in transition two to make sure I was comfortable. I changed my socks and lubed my feet with a lot of Bag Balm. There are all kinds of special triathlete anti-chafe concoctions out there, but good old Bag Balm does the trick for me. I brought a little more lube on the run, just to make sure, but after the initial application, all body parts were fine. I didn’t waste time establishing the pace that I was aiming for. I didn’t even use my watch because I had forgotten to start it before the swim. I glanced at the time of day a few times, but mostly went on feel. I had been fueling well throughout the bike leg, but had grown tired of ingesting so much sugar in the form of energy bars, gels, and electrolyte drink. I used Clif products exclusively and took additional water at the aid stations. I had also brought a baggie full of little cooked potatoes, which was fabulous. I need to do that again if there is a next time. It was savory rather than sweet, and made a huge difference.
Anyway, during the run, I resumed my consumption of Clif Shots and Clif Bloks, but also worked in some grapes and bananas from the aid station. I needed a lot of water during the run. The sun was out in full force and the fresh blacktop was baking hot. I also liked the sponges that were handed out at the aid stations. They were very refreshing. I continued to pick off people during the run. My first half split was a respectable 1:44:33, but I ended up giving up 10 minutes in the second half. I closed the Ironman with a 3:39:11 marathon. You have to love chip timing. In the business world, I love data. In the sports world, I love it even more.
|SWIM SPLIT 1: 1.2 mi||1.2 mi (35:20)||1:51/100m|
|SWIM SPLIT 2: 2.4 mi||1.2 mi (38:15)||2:00/100m|
|TOTAL SWIM: 2.4 mi||2.4 mi (1:13:35)||1:56/100m||1023||180|
|BIKE SPLIT 1: 36 mi.||36 mi. (1:32:11)||23.43 mph|
|BIKE SPLIT 2: 56 mi.||20 mi. (1:09:26)||17.28 mph|
|BIKE SPLIT 3: 92 mi.||36 mi. (1:45:39)||20.44 mph|
|BIKE SPLIT 4: 112 mi.||20 mi. (1:14:54)||16.02 mph|
|TOTAL BIKE||112 mi. (5:42:10)||19.64 mph||328||66|
|RUN SPLIT 1: 13.1||13.1 mi. (1:44:33)||7:58/mile|
|RUN SPLIT 2: 26.2 mi||13.1 mi. (1:54:38)||8:45/mile|
|TOTAL RUN||26.2 mi. (3:39:11)||8:21/mile||163||28|
With all of the emphasis on time, I have to pause and reflect on the accomplishment. I had a great experience, and so did Debbie and Shep. Everyone at home and at Horst Engineering has been a huge support during my training and build up phase. I’ve raced a lot in a 20+ year athletic career. After last year’s suffering (illness and fatigue), I actually cut back and reassessed. That is what led me to do this Ironman. I learned that rest is very important. I always knew it, but didn’t admit it. Age does slow you down. I’m blessed to still have a lot of great athletic years ahead of me, and I don’t want to waste them.
I had put Ironman on my “to do” list years ago, only to strike it from the list after running my first road marathon at Disneyworld in 2004. Running that race on pavement destroyed my legs and I promptly dropped Ironman from my future plans. Things change. Though I never ran another road marathon, I increasingly did more long distance trail running, working up to nearly 40 miles. In my family, that is considered a short run. As long as I was running trails, I recovered from the efforts with only modest muscle damage. Coming into 2009, I needed a change of pace. I have bounced from cross country running to road cycling to mountain biking to adventure racing to trail running and back. In recent years, I have frequently altered my regimen in order to remain interested in the training and lifestyle required to maintain top athletic performance. Last winter, I decided to to start swimming seriously, not realizing how beneficial it would be. Naturally, my shoulders and back have experienced a new type of soreness, but the positive cardiovascular effects of swimming have been a huge benefit to both my cycling and running fitness. I loved my early 20’s when I could pile on a bunch of miles, show up at a bike race, get results, and have fun. However, given the demands of family and work, I think I’m in better shape now than ever.
If I never do another Ironman, then there are no regrets, because I’ve discovered swimming. However, I think I’ve got the bug. The Ironman World Championships in Kona do seem like a long shot, but setting goals is something I’m used to. I’ve got to recover from the most recent thrashing before I decide to up the ante. After the race, I was all smiles, but by the time we got back to the hotel room, I couldn’t hold my head up. I was shot. I managed to wash up and we went for dinner down the street. I was only able to get three bites of my dinner in before I got nauseous. Deb and Shep took care of the bill and I headed to bed. I was out for nearly five hours before waking up around 11:40 P.M. I was famished. Deb was quite helpful, in that she had brought my entire dinner back and put it on ice. I ate every morsel while listening to the Ironman finish line party at the oval. You could hear the announcer whipping the crowd into a frenzy as the last finishers straggled onto the oval. I was soaking it all up, from my fourth floor hotel room. It was a cool feeling. The same race I had finished, more than six hours earlier, was close to ending and people were still out there struggling to finish. What a battle it must have been. I can’t imagine being on that course for 17 hours.
So, overall, I am very pleased with the outcome. Whether you are one of the professionals, a top amateur, or one of the thousands of folks just looking to finish; you can’t wing an event like this. You have to prepare and focus. That is part of the allure. The other part of the allure is being there with all of the other athletes and their families. As overproduced and melodramatic as Ironman seems, I think it is pretty cool.