2011 Ironman Lake Placid Race Report. My first Ironman: Done.
I went into Ironman Lake Placid not really knowing what to expect, but expecting to finish. I’ve done 13 marathons and ultra marathons now, including Boston last April and the USAT 50K Championships in March and 4 half-iron distance races and countless other triathlons. My training to start the year was very run-heavy since I had the two marathons in early Spring and after those I switched to a bike focus, added some swimming, some weight lifting and several shorter races.
I had a “trial race” in June (Rev3 Quassy, a Half Iron distance race in Connecticut) which I used to gauge how my training was going. I had a huge personal record at Quassy, knocking off nearly 30 minutes from my previous best at that distance, so I was feeling good. It was also Gwen’s first Half-Iron race, so it was a special day indeed.
My training continued as July rolled by and I was feeling fairly well tuned-up going into Lake Placid. I was hitting about 12-15 hours a week in the gym, on the bike, or running in Central Park. I also made it out to Coney Island for several open water practice swims with the team. I did not see any floating dead bodies, but I did see a good amount of jellyfish and un-identifiable junk. I also got a nice tan.
For Ironman Lake Placid, Gwen and I rented a condo for the week with some friends who were also doing the race. We were on a quiet golf course (I now understand the appeal of living on one) and a short downhill walk to Mirror Lake, where the race starts. It was a perfect location and a great group of people to hang out, all of whom had done the race distance or this specific course before, including one Pro (Hirsh, took 10th place this year with a phenomenal race) –they all had some great race strategy/tips for me being a first timer.
We had a few days to relax, cook big dinners and enjoy Lake Placid before the Ironman, which was much nicer and more of a calm vacation than I’d expected. Placid is exactly what you’d imagine a ski town to be like –nestled in the mountains, lots of quaint little shops and restaurants and, being the host of two Winter Olympics, the stadium is in the heart of downtown and there is Olympic paraphernalia everywhere, which is really cool. The Olympics doesn’t have a race as long as the Ironman… just sayin’.
We lounged around for a few days and Gwen and I even took a day trip on Friday to nearby Montreal (her first time in Canada) with some other friends/teammates, one of whom (Bobby) would also be racing.
The vibe in Lake Placid is so great and we were having so much fun that I even registered for next year’s Ironman the day before the race. I think they offer early registration the day before the race because they know you would not register if it was after the race!
Saturday night Gwen and I went to bed nice and early (around 8:30pm). I always bring a few Harry Potter movies to watch before big races since they calm me to sleep early. And, as we have often (and oddly) found, Harry Potter was actually on TV! This keeps happening to me before my marathons and other long course races and now it was on before my Ironman… a sign! Off to sleep. We were having a great vacation!
Then came race morning…
I woke up at 3:20am, and lay in bed trying to get a bit more rest. Then, as usual, I sat up seconds before the alarm sounded; reached over to hit it just as it started to go off at 4am. I always do this before a race, I have an uncanny internal cronomitron (a made up but accurate word). I hit the shower, got dressed and joined everyone else having coffee and breakfast. We were a surprisingly lively bunch for so early. We had ample time to get ready, headed out the door around 5:30 to drop off our last minute race stuff; I kissed Gwen goodbye and lined up for the start as she went to the shore of Mirror Lake to take pictures and cheer.
Swim: 2.4 miles. 1:13:49
I’ve never started in a mass start race before. Typically triathlons have a wave start, which staggers racers out in blocks from the shore based on their age group so there are gaps of several minutes between groups and more room to swim the course without congestion. Ironman is not like this. It has a mass, in-water start. Everyone heads out to tread water about 10 minutes before the cannon goes off and then it’s a washing machine nightmare of 2,800 excited, nervous and overly competitive bodies swimming on top of one another, kicking and punching to get the best position possible. I took several blows to the body and head but it was oddly calming. Several people grabbed me around the waist and I was dunked a lot. I expected all of this and to be beaten up American Gladiator style and decided to keep my cool and not punch back, but to just find a good pair of feet to draft off of, which worked well until I saw the guy I was drafting off had only one leg and I was a bit creeped out by the pale nub sticking out from his short-legged wetsuit. Regardless, the drafting was working and I was swimming faster than ever and in a nice straight line (Mirror Lake has a cord several feet down that runs the whole course so you can follow that and never have to look up to see where you are going). I felt great!
This swim is two loops –you exit the water and run around a dock on the beach and re-enter again for the second lap. As I exited, someone called out “36 minutes and change” which was great since 36 is the same time I had at Quassy…my fastest time ever. Now I just had to do it again and hold that pace. I re-entered the water with hundreds of others and we did it again, coming out in 1:13, seven minutes faster than I was hoping for and a pretty respectable time in 880th place overall (ahead of roughly two thousand others!). And no black eyes!
I ran down the chute, found a wetsuit stripper (they line up en-masse to help you get your suit off) and within seconds I was back on my feet running down to the Olympic Speed Skating Oval to the transition area to get my bike and start the 112 miles (a 56 mile course you get to do twice, up and down the mountains).
T1: Swim to Bike. 7:20
Transition 1 was un-eventful but a mad house. I found my bike bag with my gear, went into the big changing tent, sat down and put on socks, cycling shoes, helmet etc and drank a 5 Hour Energy. I took my time and tried to make sense of the chaos as hundreds of others came in, changed and went. I stopped to pee at the trough and I was on my way to my bike before I really knew what was happening. Grabbed it, exited the transition area and hopped on to start the ride.
Bike: 112 miles. 6:17:54
There is some immediate hill climbing to leave Lake Placid before a long and fast decent into the meat of the bike course. I really don’t recall the first up-hills. They felt really easy that early on. For the big initial decent (I think it’s 10 miles or so) I rode my brakes a lot and tried to keep my wheels under me. I was pushing 40mph and many people were still cruising past. I’m not comfortable going that fast so I slowed a bit and settled in around 33-35mph. My plan was to keep it loose and go much easier than I felt I could. On the flats I’d push around 22-25 but coast as much as I could to keep my legs fresh. I had to do this loop twice and even though it felt easy now, I knew the second loop would hurt and 20+mph would be a pipe dream.
I came back into town, around the stadium and saw some teammates and Gwen cheering. I yelled out that this was REALLY easy and at that point, I honestly believed it. I had done my first 56 miles in 3 hours and could have gone a LOT faster. But then I hit the next bit of hills leaving town again and this time around I noticed them. Plus my butt was starting to hurt.
I continued to press on and felt good but was having a harder time staying in a hunched over aero position –my shoulders were getting very stiff but my legs were fine and I was eating and drinking on schedule so I had plenty of energy. I was shifting around a lot to find that spot on my seat bone that was not yet bruised.
Toward the end of the second loop I wondered how I was going to make it up the 7 mile climb back into town. The first time around, I hit the notorious 3 hills (Baby Bear, Momma Bear and Pappa Bear) and I laughed at the first two, and the massive tunnel of spectators drove me up Pappa Bear with no problems, but this second time around I was thinking that no amount of cowbells and drunken screaming spectators could get me up Pappa Bear again without a lot of pain –somehow I managed. In retrospect it was not really as bad as I expected. IMLP is a notoriously hard and hilly course and it’s no lie. The course would be a piece of cake if you only had to do one loop but man those hills the second time chew you up! My training was good and I rode conservatively so I survived in good spirits.
T2: Bike to Run. 4:40
Transition 2 was quick as it usually is for me. I got off the bike, a volunteer grabbed it and I ran back to the changing tent. I yanked off my cycling shoes and helmet, slipped on my running shoes (glad I bought those speed laces, no tying required!) and visor, had a second 5 Hour Energy and hit the pee trough again. This time there was a bit of a line, and despite the prospect of losing valuable minutes waiting, I did so gladly. I had just ridden for more than 6 hours without stopping to pee (and I don’t pee on the bike like many do) –drinking a bottle of water / Powerade every 10 miles for 112 miles really adds up. I think I left the tent 4 lbs lighter than I entered!
This started off great. I was out of the chute and hitting the marathon course in great form, as usual. The running part is always my strength and where I get to catch everyone who was faster in the swim or on the bike. I hit mile one at around 7 minutes but all of a sudden 1.2 miles came along and I stopped nearly dead in my tracks (well, I managed to keep walking but it felt like I stopped, and definitely like I was dead).
Instantly my energy was gone and my stomach did not feel good at all. I had the sudden realization that I would NOT be running this marathon. I looked at my watch and started to crunch the numbers. I had a great swim and a great bike, so I had plenty of time. I could walk the marathon and still finish within the required 17 hours.
But then the reality of this struck. I had more than 24 more miles to WALK. That sucked. That thought was mind-numbingly painful. Sure, I felt I could probably keep walking, but DAMN that would be a long day! Luckily, I felt a trickle of energy creep back. I started to run again and was back to a good pace, but it lasted just a minute before the walking was back. I decided I was going to walk/run and do what I could to finish before I went insane. Here I was, just a few months ago running the Boston Marathon, and now I couldn’t run a mile if I was being chased!
I was running a few minutes, walking for a few more, strategically hitting the up hills for the walking bit, the flats and (rare) downhills for the running bit. Luckily, I have only one speed for running so when I was able to, I’d catch most of the people who passed me when walking. One guy joking asked if I was going to keep doing that to him the whole race and said it was demoralizing, I joked back asking him how he thought I felt. Everyone seemed to be in pain.
It wasn’t long before I caught my friend and former teammate Gustavo. I pulled up next to him and he said how awful of a time he was having and how he could only run for 3 minutes and then had to walk for two. He’s usually a faster runner too. I told him I felt the same and then I started to realize that EVERYONE around us was walking. I felt much better knowing I was not alone. Maybe this was normal. I’ve never walked during a marathon but I’d never ridden for 6 hours before running one either. It was very humbling.
Gustavo and I played cat and mouse for a while before he eventually pulled away. I started to wonder what time I’d finish. My goal entering was just to finish but I thought, if I had to put a number on it, I’d shoot for 13 hours. But, according to my slow pace (and inability to do simple math when my brain has turned to mush), I was now anticipating a time well into 15 or 16 hours. Still under the 17 hour cut off, but not a time I’d be absolutely thrilled with considering I did so well on the swim and bike. Also, I had not been able to eat anything other than ice and water at the aid stations, which are every mile, and an occasional quarter cup of Powerade. I was wondering when I’d completely run out of calories and maybe not even be able to walk at all. Could I crawl for 20 miles? That might be embarrassing. Maybe I could roll.
But then I found myself nearing town, which meant I would soon be ending the first 13.1 mile loop, and more importantly I was nearing Gwen who I knew would be cheering for me when I came through and started my second loop. I knew that when I saw her I’d get enough of a boost to make it through another 5 or 6 miles – I’d just have to figure out how to do the rest when I got to it but I had plenty of time at the pace I was going to figure out how that would happen.
When you’re on a long walk in the scenic countryside, surround in every direction by mountains, you might imagine you’d have some quality time to do some thinking, write a memoir, solve your problems, maybe balance your checkbook or figure out what to cook for dinner for the next week, but I don’t really recall thinking much of anything. I did take in the scenery, and it was great, but my mind just had a kind of constant buzz sound going on and no real thoughts. Kind of like what I imagine the inside of a cat’s brain might sound like. A dog would be thinking “chase this, eat that” but I wasn’t hungry and chasing anything was out of the question.
Time went on, as did the buzzing in my brain, and all of a sudden I saw my buddy Gustavo again coming toward me on the out-and-back section. I cheered him on knowing he was getting closer to finishing his second loop and it gave me hope to keep going. I picked it up and was now running from aid station to aid station, only walking through them. I knew I’d get there eventually.
Then I saw my teammate Bobby a mile or two into starting his second loop, and I had just the 4 or so miles to walk/run back into town and finish. He shouted “You’d better beat my time of 12:50 last year!” I laughed, saying it was not in the cards, thinking it must already be well after 8pm which meant I’d passed the 13 hour mark. But then I heard someone ask a volunteer for the time. She said it was 7:15. That meant I had 45 minutes still to run a bit more than 4 miles, to finish under 13 hours! I could potentially do this, or at least be respectably close! Maybe I wasn’t going as slowly as I felt! That was the final spark I needed and I started running again, head down (still walking the uphills!) making progress one foot at a time.
I kept looking down at my watch and seeing the time tick by, but so was the mileage. I passed the 23 mile marker and the final big up-hill back into downtown Lake Placid, then mile 24 then I was at the final turn around and onto mile 25 heading toward the Olympic Stadium. I had just 1.2 miles to go and plenty of time. I approached the Olympic Speed Skating Oval for the last time. My stomach was threatening strongly, but I kept my chin down. I was running hard and gritting my teeth. I entered the skate track to thousands of screaming spectators, I rounded the final turn and saw Gwen and heard her cheering for me. I kicked it up and passed 3 people and looked up to see the finish chute showing Ford Ironman Lake Placid and a time of 12:49:24. I crossed, threw my arms up high and let out what was meant to be a cheer but came out as such a deep, guttural and primal scream that if it wasn’t for the throngs of screaming spectators drowning me out, I think I’d have been locked up as completely mad person and a danger to society. But I was an Ironman.