Ironman Lake Placid — for many years, I had wanted to do this race. Last July (2008), I made my way to Lake Placid, planning to camp out in line for a 2009 slot. It poured bullets that day and night, but to make a long story short, I survived the night, signed up successfully and had a year to look forward to the event.
I did Ironman Louisville in last August 2008. Louisville doesn’t have the history and ambience of Lake Placid, but it was an Ironman experience: Sunny, 90s, humid — killer weather and I had some learning to do about what not to eat during an Ironman. Through the Fall and Winter and Spring, I commuted by bike daily and pretty consistently took longer rides on the weekend. In the winter, I lost my rythm on swimming. Was it my posture on the new old commuting bike, the fast intervals I was starting to try, too much lateral extension on the roll in my stroke, or the days of heavy lifting and cleaning as we prepared our house for sale? I’ll never know, but I got a sore shoulder and had to lighten up on swimming.
The run training rythm was just hard to maintain with the work schedule. I rarely got more than two runs in in a week. In May, visiting Colorado briefly, I tested the idea that perhaps my consistent bike training had really prepared me for some longer runs. One beautiful morning up and down the foothills of the Rockies, I just kept going as the sun rose and three hours of ecstatic running later, I decided I was in pretty good run shape. Reality crashed in on an easy grade in Arlington a couple of weeks later — a calf muscle tightened up and just wouldn’t stop hurting for about four weeks. In the weeks before the race that should have included some sharpening, I just started an early mega taper. That suited my work schedule, but it wasn’t a healthy restful taper: I was burning the candle at both ends with work projects and just wasn’t sleeping enough.
So, I arrived at Lake Placid last Sunday with a lot of biking at base pace, but spotty running and swimming and no speed work in any of the three disciplines. I was finally catching up on sleep, but I knew my performance would not take me to the Kona world championships. Between the certainty that I would do nothing stellar, the fact that I had already met the beast once, and the support I was getting from family and friends I was able to relax into the race.
In the 48 hours before the 7AM start, I carbed up, but learning from my stomach trouble in Louisville, I kept it moderate, eating mostly carbs, but not eating more than normal. I went to bed early and slept well the night before the race at the home of the parents of Belmont friends. The hostess gave me two alarms and I could tell she meant business about getting up herself, so I knew I wouldn’t oversleep. I slept soundly until 4:15AM when she pounded on my door. I refused all but a glass of orange juice and a couple of glasses of water for breakfast.
The main venue for IMLP is the Olympic compound at the center of Lake Placid. The bike racks and changing tents are in the field in the center of the Olympic speed-skating oval. The bike and run courses each come through the center of town several times. I wasn’t the first to the starting area, but by 5AM, I was getting my body marked in the dark. I had plenty of time to check my equipment again to full satisfaction and to get my stomach comfortable. I walked the short block up from the transition area to the swim start with time to further comfort my stomach. I ambled onto the beach among the last swimmers, a chipper volunteer squeezed me into my crumbling wetsuit, and I joined the crowd in the water.
I had just paddled through the crowd to the far end of the starting line — my intention was to swing wide around the buoys out of the crowd — when we all started to move. There is really no place out of the crowd in that start: 2200 men and women (aged 18-73), arrayed across about 100 yards all moving in slightly different directions. I mauled and got mauled too many times to count, but was relaxed enough to think about swimming efficiently. I didn’t find a rythm I really liked and rolled into a backstroke for breath comfort and to use different muscles from time to time. Rain was falling as we started in the gray dawn, but light came through as the race continued and the crowd spread out. On my back with some space around me, I looked up at blue and promised to remember the moment. As I approached the first of the two 1.2 mile loops, I could see the timer showing 37 minutes, a pace I could have lived with even if I hadn’t had shoulder trouble, so I tucked into the second loop with a lift and a resolve to maintain pace. On the back stretch, I found a nice roll and picked up my cadence and, with some push, came out of the water on pace. The strippers made short work of my wet suit and I ran tip-toed down the hill to the transition area. I was out of transition on to my bike at 1:28.
It’s a mountainous bike course — the first few miles roll downwards and then the course drops fast for several miles into the town of Keene. I had had some mysterious air loss and had changed my tires a few times in the days before the race, so I was worried about hitting a fast turn on a soft tire. But I had mounted some heavy Armadillos that weren’t going to puncture and they had held their air fine for 24 hours when I got on the bike and gave them a squeeze. There’s a quick drop out of Lake Placid to a sharp turn that I took gingerly, but my equipment confidence started to build. I ate a bagle and settled into the rollers. By the time we got to the real descent I was confident enough to tuck and go as fast as I could — everyone was going fast, but it wasn’t too crowded.
After the turn in Keene, I eased out a Cliff Bar and started to eat it. I had taken off my glasses in the light rain and apparently they dropped out of my pocket when I pulled out the bar. I got a shout from another rider, but I had an old pair waiting for me in my run transition bag and I wasn’t going back. They were nowhere to be seen when I came around three hours later on the second loop. The course rolls along a river, rising away from it and falling back down to it for the next thirty miles and I stayed easy through most of this, losing a few positions on net, but not worrying about it. I had in mind to maintain an average heart rate in the 120s and save energy for the run, but I surged up the last ten miles of real hills with my granny gear — somebody gave me a hard time about it, but I know I was so much more comfortable than the people I was passing most of whom were mashing. One british fellow was riding with a power meter and claimed an output of 200 watts as I moved passed him (my HR was in the 140s at that point). As one returns to Lake Placid, the hills are lined with cheering crowds — the last three hills are known as Mama Bear, Baby Bear and Papa Bear and the crowds swell at the crest of Papa Bear.
From there, it’s down hill through town where I caught a glimpse of Carolyn and back out on to the second loop. I was on a good pace, right on the 16mph/seven-hours pace that I was thinking of as the fastest I wanted to go. I had learned in Louisville that the bike really does deplete many of the same muscles (quads!) that one needs for the run so I really didn’t want to go faster than the pace I knew was a more or less “forever” pace for me. I didn’t once during the 112 miles of biking “burn a match” and feel acute quad fatigue. More than once I had time to look around and see the country and just had to shout — the sky cleared and it was a spectacular day in the Adirondacks.
My hydration strategy was to drink Nuun — water enriched with alka-seltzer like sodium/potassium tabs — I started with three liters in a hydration pack and didn’t stop at all until about mile 70, when I had sucked the bag dry. I pulled into an aide station and called for water and the volunteers got the idea immediately. By the time I had the pack off, they were ready to squeeze six water bottles into it. After a quick pee I was on the road again — great pit crew. My fuel strategy was to have limited solid food (just the bagle and the bar) and to rely on Hammer Gel — basically malto-dextrin, flavoring and some amino acids. I guzzled it straight from the bottle, but was consuming roughly the recommend hourly volume, perhaps a little more. I listend to my gut and ate only with its express permission.
The day was into the 80’s in the afternoon and I really hadn’t peed much despite sucking six liters of Nuun down in seven hours. As I changed into running shoes, I felt quite dizzy when I brought my head back up. I shuffled out of the tent onto run course and got a great cheer from my Belmont friends in Lake Placid — just what I needed to keep from starting in a walk. I settled into a flat footed jog that I felt I could maintain.
The run course descends briefly along the bike course, but then diverts to follow a relatively flat route along a river. I kept trucking along, grabbing a water and a pretzle or other nourishment at each aid station. I didn’t walk the aid stations as some advise — that was a point of pride for me in this race. I had walked the aid stations in Louisville and those walk intervals had gotten longer and longer.
The run is unquestionably the hard part of an Ironman event. It’s the part where the fatigue comes home to roost for everyone. I felt pretty good, although a bit undernourished, through the first half-marathon loop. Then the real race started and my quads just started to burn even though I was moving slowly on a flat road (roughly 11 minute pace). The last 10 miles really did test my ability to take pain and maintain. I had just read a great book, “Born to Run” arguing that man had evolved many of his featuers to allow him to run long slow distances and talking about experiences with ultramarathons. There was something in there about not fighting the fatigue and I really tried not to fight that quad pain. I tried to think of myself getting a deep painful massage, but the image that kept coming to mind was of the little old masseuse at the hotel in Tokyo who seemed determined to break every bone in my body.
Finally around mile 22, I got back tothe last series of rises and allowed myself a brisk walk on the upgrades. I had been watching the miles and minutes and knew I was on pace to come in under 13:30 even with a couple of walk breaks. I returned to running on the flat, but found myself starting to stumble. I was walking the last hill into Lake Placid when Louise started running along side me urging me to get moving. She allowed to walk the last rise only on the promise that I would kick in. Actually, a little walking refreshed me and I was able to pick up the pace nicely and even sprint to the finish on the Olympic Oval at 13:28.
Carolyn and Louise were there to meet me and help me with my gear. After a short massage, I was out to dinner with them, exchanging narratives of the day. I was moving mighty slowly, but feeling basically good. I was hungry and thirsty and drank water heavily until the middle of the next day. It wasn’t until the next day that I began to pee normally in response to drinking.
Actually, the whole day was a peak experience. Lake Placid is a spectacular place and with family and friends in support, the event is hard to beat. So, I’m grateful to family and friends for being there and supporting me and for those who supported online from afar. And I’m grateful to all of my riding and running buddies who have shared the past months with me. I’m signed up for next year and if I can squeeze in enough training to expect to finish, I’ll look forward to being there.
My overall place was 1196 out of about 2200 who started. I was 74th of 181 in the M50-54 division. My run overall place was 1070, 65th in divison (pace 11:22 mpm).
Lessons from the experience — things I want to repeat:
- Race in places like Lake Placid that are truly beautiful.
- Plan to enjoy the experience.
- Do races that family and friends can share.
- Eat moderately — it’s better to eat too little than too much (here I greatly bettered my Louisville experience; guts were stable).
- Use non-sweetened hydration (like Nuun); one can keep drinking without throwing off one’s gut.
- Do plenty of long slow distance in training — I felt I had a solid base and could go forever but for muscular exhaustion — I didn’t feel a lot of mind fatigue and was cheerful the whole way.
- Set a moderate pace on the bike — I passed hundreds of people who were walking on the run.
Lessons from the experience — to do differently:
- Do more strength and speed training — to state the obvious, if I am going to improve my performance, I am going to have get comfortable at a higher pace.
- Drink even more during a hot event. Replacement rate for me is well over the roughly .75 liter per hour that I averaged in this event.
The bike: I will probably ride my inexpensive road bike again on this course — I was riding a second-hand mid-level steel-framed road bike. At Wheelworks, the bike fitter had sniffed at it and called it a commuting bike. I probably won the race on pace a per dollar basis. Perhaps I could do better on nice aero-dynamic tri-bike, but given the variation in terrain, I didn’t get bad position fatigue even without aero bars. My tuck was good on down hills and the aero doesn’t matter much on the uphills. I think the expensive bikes were a little better on the easy rolling middle of the course, but not enough better to make me desperately want to upgrade. The race is mostly about the legs.