An Ironman Day in the Adirondack Mountains by William Biehl
An Ironman Day in the Adirondack Mountains
by William Biehl
I wanted to share some thoughts on the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon race I recently completed July 24th, 2011. For those of you who can’t read more than a tweet or text here you go.
“Finished Long Tri. Didn’t Die! What R U Doing?”
For those with a slightly longer attention span, here is a version that includes insight, history, and other triathlon trivia. The Lake Placid Ironman triathlon is the oldest mainland iron distance event in the United States. A quick search of the Internet also lists Lake Placid, New York as the venue for two Winter Olympics. The more recent 1980 Olympics were memorialized by Eric Heiden winning 5 gold medals in speed skating and an improbable US Hockey Team gold medal performance remembered as the “Miracle on Ice”. For those of you who are not familiar with Ironman Triathlon a quick introduction is warranted. The Ironman Lake Placid triathlon is a full distance ironman event which must be completed in less than 17 hours. A triathlon by definition includes swimming, biking, and running. Ironman distance triathlon events require participants to complete a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bicycle ride and finish with a 26.2 mile marathon distance run. To be officially listed as an Ironman finisher, participants must complete the race under their own power and within the 17 hour time limit.
So why would anyone do this to their body? The answer starts with a quick history lesson provided compliments of Wikipedia. “The idea for the original Ironman Triathlon arose during the awards ceremony in Hawaii for the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay (a running race for 5-person teams). Among the participants were numerous representatives of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, whose members had long been debating which athletes were more fit, runners or swimmers. On this occasion, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins pointed out that a recent article in Sports Illustrated magazine had declared that Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian cyclist, had the highest recorded “oxygen uptake” of any athlete ever measured, so perhaps cyclists were more fit than anyone. CDR Collins and his wife Judy Collins had taken part in the triathlons staged in 1974 and 1975 by the San Diego Track Club in and around Mission Bay, California, as well as the 1975 Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, California. A number of the other military athletes in attendance were also familiar with the San Diego races, so they understood the concept when Collins suggested that the debate should be settled through a race combining the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 mi./3.86 km), the Around-Oahu
Bike Race (115 mi./185.07 km; originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon
(26.219 mi./42.195 km).”
“Until that point, no one present had ever done the bike race. Collins calculated that by shaving 3 miles (4.8 km) off the course and riding counter-clockwise around the island, the bike leg could start at the finish of the Waikiki Rough Water and end at the Aloha Tower, the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon. Prior to racing, each athlete received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Handwritten on the last page was this exhortation: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life”.”
Not everyone is motivated by bragging, and maybe reviewing the race statics for Ironman Lake Placid 2011 will add some additional insight into why people want to complete in Ironman races:
- Over 2880 participants entered
- 1013 are first time Ironman racers
- 696 Female are racers, 2184 are Males.
- The men 40-44 age group is the largest at 544 athletes, for the women it is the same age group but at 161 athletes.
The answer could be a need to remain youthful, or satisfy some midlife crisis. From experience, I can tell you it would be cheaper and take less time to buy a convertible than train and compete in Ironman races. Ironman is probably a bucket list item for some of the athletes. Looking at the race statics with more than 1000 newbie racers, I was impressed to see the sport is continues to grow. This also means more than 1800 of the participants were repeat ironman athletes who already checked the box next to “Do an Ironman – and live”.
For those of you that have the Ironman box on your bucket list, beware. It typically takes a minimum of 3 years to build up the endurance and skills necessary to complete and enjoy this race. Many an athlete has been inspired by reading a race report such as this and in that moment of inspiration, they jump on the Internet to sign-up for a race. Of course, they will be disappointed to find they can’t just sign-up for an Ironman race because the events are sold out a year in advance. Yes, these races are so popular they sell-out 2500 race slots via Internet registration in less than 15 minutes. Being inspired, and with a ray of light shining down from the clouds on their enthusiasm, the Ironman candidate realizes, “Inspiration needs commitment”.
“Yes” they tell themselves, “If Ironman races are so popular, then signing up must be the right thing to do.” So, with inspiration and commitment, they research how to get into an Ironman event and find all Ironman candidates have inspiration, commitment, and … fast fingers! Ooooh yes brother, fast fingers on a computer keyboard is a must for Ironman candidates. This trait allows them to fill-out the required race information forms and submit the six-hundred plus dollar ($600+) on-line payment before Internet spots are gone in just 8-15 minutes. One mistaken entry of the credit card number and kiss entry to the race good-bye as a computer message taunts, “Entry to this race has reached the maximum number of entrants and is now closed”.
So, armed with inspiration, commitment, fast computer fingers, and $625…Don’t put that credit card away too soon, $650 is just the beginning of your expenses. You still need to buy:
- a swim club membership
- pay for the four pair of running shoes you will wear out through training
- buy the bicycle that will be somewhere between $1,800 and $15,000,
- Biehl Lake Placid Race Report 2011 Page 3
- pay for the training food, cycling garb, running clothes, bike gear,
- travel to and pay for a place to stay at the race
- … Heck, let’s just say you will give up the dream European vacation in trade for this Ironman race that you still haven’t signed up for.
So…armed with inspiration, commitment, fast computer fingers, and $650, the Ironman candidate hits the enter key on the race application and gets the message “Thank You for signing up for Ironman your confirmation number is …” “Amen. Amen”, screams the Ironman candidate. Angels sing in the background and just as a smile of a job well done creeps onto the face of our would-be Ironman triathelete, a thought peculates to the top of their consciousness, “Sh*t, what did I just do?”
So why do an Ironman? The answer is as unique as each individual signing up, but one thing we all get in return is “the journey.”
For me the Ironman journey began in Nov. 2005, it was signed in computer blood and success was forged on friendship. The process was similar to what I described above, but with far less drama and none of the religious innuendos. It was after a casual one hour November training run with my training partner that we signed up for our first Ironman race. We sat down at his home computer armed with inspiration, commitment, fast fingers, a credit card, and a cup of coffee. It was my fourth year in the sport and his third. What I didn’t know was how much I would learn about myself over the course of my Ironman Journey. That journey to date encompasses six years and four Ironman races.
Over the course of my Ironman Journey I have learned:
- Ironman is an eating contest. Who can swim, bike, and run while still taking on
- fluids and calories.
- You can buy speed – race wheels, aero equipment, light running shoes, and
- compression apparel make a difference.
- Don’t believe all the research study results. The easy to find results are funded by
- and support the use of products that manufacturers want you to buy.
- A calm mind and strong will is better than strong muscles
- Support of family and friends make it all possible.
- When you have nothing more to give, take the next step – you really have more.
- Something will go wrong. Understand it is going to happen and move forward
- Life is too short to spend with negative people
- Success is being appreciated and helping others. It is not being first at any cost.
- Memories of the journey last longer than results
So how was the journey for Ironman Lake Placid? In a word expensive, and had I known the Lake Placid village lies in wait for Ironman competitors to support the summer economy, I may have chosen another venue. But having finished, I can honestly say, it was by far, the most beautiful race venue I have yet seen.
We swam 2.4 miles in a snow melt fed lake. Visibility was at least 10 feet and probably better than your local neighborhood swimming pool.
The 112 mile bike leg was a two loop course through the Adirondack Mountains complete with a seven mile downhill section and speeds approaching 50 mph. With Ying there is Yang, and the downhill bike section is counter balanced by three separate one mile climbs each with an approximate average incline of 6% grade; 6 foot rise for every 100 feet ridden. Scenery from the bike included the Olympic ski jumps, mountain lakes, rivers, White Mountain ski slopes, and waterfalls; really they were rapids, but who am I to correct what was named by Mountain Men.
The 26.2 mile run included views of mountain lakes, rivers, and one heck of a hill. Including a two-thirds mile uphill run at 5% to 7% grade on the marathon course may have been a necessity, but when 1/3 of the professionals in the race walk up the hill, you know something is seriously out of whack, but if it were easy they would call it Candyman instead of Ironman.
As for my race day thoughts, I give you the following account:
Pre- race Transition:
- Race bike and plastic transition bags containing “Swim-to-Bike” and “Bike-to-Run” gear were dropped off at the race site the day before the race. We tied the plastic transition bags closed and found this to be one of our best racing decisions. It rained the night before the race and if we hadn’t tied the bags closed our bike shoes, running shoes, socks, and other gear would have been sitting in the bottom of plastic bags full of water.
- Water temperature was 77 degrees. It was too warm to wear a wetsuit and qualify for Ironman Hawaii World Championships, but cool enough that it was optional to wear one without disqualification. Those who chose not to wear a wetsuit were seen shivering in the water before the race.
Swim 2.4 miles (two loops)
- I start with 2880 of my best friends. By far, the most spectacular sight of an Ironman triathlon is the mass swim start. The calm waters suddenly boil with 10,000 arms and legs churning at the water. I recommend you go to Youtube.com and search, “Ironman Lake Placid Swim Start 2011”, and watch a video. It is an incredible sight.
- I started wide right at the start knowing I had over a ½ mile before the first turn. The idea was to pinch over a bit at a time until I settled into the pace of my people. I was drafting (following) a straight arrow swimmer with a strong kick requiring very little effort on my part. I remember looking left and seeing I was still at the front of the swimming arrow 500 meters into the race.
- At 1000 meters, I had two left turns before another straight 1000 meters back to begin the second loop. This is where swimming becomes a full contact sport. I easily made the first turn with my goggles still firmly on my head. The second turn was totally different. We were like salmon swimming over and under each other. This is not for the shy. You try your best to hold your line without getting a stray hand to the back of the head. “Whop”, too late, I was left with my head throbbing for a minute or two.
- At 1900 meters, 1.2 miles, we come out of the water for a 50 foot turn on the beach and right back into the water to do it all over again. I chuckle as I’m passed by people running… and I mean running faster than they will during the marathon. Did they know the swim is a one hour warm-up for a six hour bike ride?
- Swim the second 1.2 miles with exciting thoughts like; “reach”, “pull”, “breath”, “hey, your not moving in on the person I’m following!” , “Why does that person keep running into me”, “Wow this wetsuit is getting hot”, “Finally, the end, I am so done with this swim”.
Bike 112 miles (two loops)
- Two days before the race we drove the bike course in the car. Definitely not the same as riding it, but it at least gives you an idea of where the technical areas are on the course. What it doesn’t do is give you a feel for how steep the uphill and downhill sections are on the course. My training partner and I came away from the preview session with distinctly different thoughts. He was concerned with the steep downhill section and I was concerned with the three steep uphill sections.
- The steepest and longest continuous hill on the course was around mile 4 and repeated at mile 60 of the two loop course. I was prepared for the hill, and prepared to let every hyped up cyclist go flying right past me; I figured I would catch and pass the majority of them before we finished the 112 mile course. What I wasn’t prepared for was a stiff headwind as we climbed. I was going so slow I started looking to see if the brakes were rubbing or if my wheels were rubbing the frame. After looking around, I noticed how hard everyone around me was pushing down on their pedals and decided to relax and save my strength for the remainder of the ride.
- The hard uphill was rewarded with a long 7 or 8 mile downhill decent. At first, I was being very cautious riding up out of the aero-bars. But soon it became evident, at least evident to me, that going faster equals more fun. I didn’t get to look at the speedometer during the decent, but later found a maximum speed of 49.6 MPH recorded on the cycling computer. What I did get to do was laugh like a kid riding their first roller coaster. When I got to the bottom, I shouted, “That was great, and we get to do it again!”
- I was very conservative with my bike pacing for the first lap; I was told the last 10 miles of the ride included three different climbs called, mama-bear, baby-bear, and papa-bear. I figured if you were going to name a hill it must be hard. But before the Goldilocks’ fable would be told, I knew mile 35 included a one mile 7% climb. It didn’t have a name, so I gave it one that I really can’t repeat in this PG rated account, but I will give you a clue.
- You could name a restaurant, “restaurant”,
- You could name a bar, “bar”
- And I named this hill, “That *!^ing Hill”
This un-named hill scared me. I went into an anaerobic heart rate zone getting to the top of this monstrosity and still hadn’t eaten any porridge or met mama, baby, and papa bear hills.
- Before the final climb, the race organizer’s needed to add a couple miles to the course. They accomplished this by having participants ride out and back on a one mile stretch of road. This requires execution of a U-turn on a two lane road and it never ceases to amaze me how difficult it is for grown-ups to make a U-turn given the entire road. Didn’t we all do it a thousand times as children on our neighborhood streets? As you may have guessed, it hasn’t been uncommon to see an ironman bike rider crash making a U-turn and I got the front and center view as a guy, one person in front of me, crashed in the road. I didn’t think much of it until I was approaching the same U-turn on the second lap. 56 miles after the initial crash, I look over and see a guy with road rash on his shoulder. I put two and two together and figure out this guy with blood stained clothes and a race bib with the name “David” was the same guy who crashed in front of me three hours previously. I couldn’t resist and said, “Hey, we’re almost to David corner again”. The guy laughed, said “Yea”, and sped away from me. I guess my joke is funnier if your name isn’t David.
- When I hit the bottom of the 10 mile mountain climb for the first time, I popped right up out of aero position on my bike, and firmly planted my hands on the hoods in preparation for “the climb”. I kept riding and wondering when I was going to run into mama-bear, but none of the climbing was even close to the two climbs I already described. With only four miles remaining in the first loop I began to suspect I had already climbed mama-bear and I was currently climbing baby bear. I looked over, saw a female spectator cheering the athletes, and yelled, “What bear are we on?” In response she gave me a funny smile and said, “No… Sorry”
- Next thing I know, there is a very small decent followed by the beginning of the last hill on the bike loop. I now know, I’ve already climbed mama bear and baby bear with only papa-bear remaining. The final climb was enjoyable and being so close to town, it was highlighted by people so close on each side screaming encouragement that we could only ride single file through the mass of humanity.
- The final climb wasn’t as hard as everyone said it would be. In the end, I had ridden a very conservative first loop which certainly would lead to a good run on the marathon.
- But what did that lady mean when she said, “No.. Sorry” upon being asked what bear I was on?
- “Oh Geez”, did she think I asked her to “Bare” something?
- Lap two was highlighted once again by an exhilarating 7 mile downhill plummet and my joke at David’s expense.
- Other Lap two thoughts include, “Don’t push the pace”, “Drink”, “Eat”, “Keep the cadence high”, and “Wow, look at the view”
Run 26.2 miles (two loops)
- Coming into the race, I wanted to finish the bike leg with my training partner. Historically, we have run the same marathon times in Ironman events, so I figured if we started together we would finish together. Unfortunately, due to a training accident three weeks before the Ironman race, he aggravated an old injury which didn’t allow him to perform at the level we trained for. I thought having a picture of us finishing together would have been a great race memory. But as stated earlier, I have been lucky to have such a great Ironman training buddy for so many years.
- Instead or running with my training partner, Ironman reminds me to be humble.
- I kept finding myself next to a fantastic athlete in the 50-54 year-old female age group. Her name was Sue, and I first remember seeing her at mile 30 of the bike and asking her if the people passing us on the bike knew they had to run 26.2 miles after they finished the bike.
- I saw here again at around mile 90 of the bike and asked if she was trying to qualify for Kona. She said she was trying but there were some really good athletes in her age group.
- I saw her run by me at mile 2 of the marathon like I was walking. I remember thinking I’m sure she will qualify if she can run like that.
- Unfortunately for her, I again saw her at mile 19 of the run. As I passed at a consistent pace, I offered words of encouragement. I later looked her up in the finisher statistics. She missed finishing second in her age group by three minutes which would have secured her an entry slot into the Ironman Hawaii race.
- As for me, I also didn’t qualify for Ironman Hawaii. I finished 105th out of 544 participants in my age group; only 91 minutes behind the 10th place finisher which would have secured a place in Ironman Hawaii.
- If I’m having a good Ironman marathon, I will check-out. For me this refers to the ability to ignore the uncomfortable nagging sensations of my body and access these feelings only to determine how much water, food, ice, and cold sponges I need to take at each aid station along the run.
- I really can’t give you too many thoughts from the run since I was very effective in just churning out the miles without thought. I was trying to negative split the marathon by running the second half of the marathon faster than the first half, but, my wristband Garmin GPS unit indicates I ran 2 hours 6 minutes for the first half marathon and 2 hours 9 Minutes for the second half; close but no cigar.
- I finished the race in 11 hours: 39 Minutes: 29 seconds.
- I could have raced harder, but walking funny the next day to go 20 minutes faster wouldn’t add to my fond memories.
- My training partner finished and we safely found each other at the food tent.
We went back to the finishing line after getting a hot shower and some warmer clothes to watch the late finishers. We stood in the bleachers and cheered for people who are blessed for no other reason than they are healthy enough and physically capable of completing an Ironman race. Finishing didn’t make them exceptional people or Olympic caliber athletes. All the same, I smiled watching the elation on their faces as they finished their Ironman race. We all finished on the same outdoor ice skating oval where Eric Heiden won his five gold medals and we finished adjacent to the ice hockey arena that celebrated the men’s gold medal hockey team during the 1980 Olympics. I stood there smiling and watching; comforted by a deep tiredness and feelings of reward. Lost in the sounds of Mike Riley, the Voice of Ironman, saying to each finisher by name, “You are an Ironman”, I reflected on the last 30 weeks of training that lead to this moment. Over and over in the background I hear Mike Riley saying to each finisher, “You are an Ironman”. In this there is accomplishment. Gold medals and labels like winner and loser have little meaning here. Every finisher is a winner and receives a finisher medal. They hear Mike Riley say, “You are an Ironman”, and from that moment on, they have their memories of the journey and a lifelong right to the title,
Ironman Lake Placid Finisher 2011