Sunday, August 12, 2012

My First Ironman - Race Summary of IMLP

On July 22, 2012 I completed my first Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid, NY.  Completing an Ironman has been on my list since about 2004 when I got focused on fitness and completed my second sprint triathlon (see the story here) and my friend Scott was talking about longer races and introduced me to the idea of an Ironman.  Scott went on to compete in the Hawaii Ironman and also raced in Ironman Australia and he was my early inspiration for what was possible.  Thank you for the spark, Scott.

If you've read my last few posts, you'll know that I've been training for Ironman Lake Placid since December and have been following the IronFit plan to get myself ready.  It was a steady progression of swimming, biking and running over the last 30 weeks and I felt very prepared by the time race morning arrived.  But during those 30 weeks, I found myself thinking about the previous 8 years of training and racing in triathlons, half-marathons, marathons, the Birthday Run and just staying off the couch, and realized that I've been training for this Ironman for 8 years and 30 weeks!

I summarized the race day below.  I promise it will take you less time to read than it did for me to finish, so keep reading...

Race Morning
The alarm went off at 4am and I was up in an instant.  Eating breakfast was the first order of business and I started with a chocolate Boost and continued with steel-cut oatmeal with walnuts and cranberries,  a banana, Cytomax, a Cliff Bar and water.  Whew!  It sounds like a lot, but I have practiced with this combination before my long bike rides and it works for me.  After rousting the rest of the family, I continued with my morning prep with my usual pre-race nervousness, but I was getting excited for the race to start.

The Iron Bird Legs support crew donned their bright yellow shirts and sleepily ate breakfast as I reviewed my checklists and gathered my special needs bags and my backpack.  We left Grammie's House and walked uphill (everything is uphill in Lake Placid) to the Speed Skating Oval to drop my bike bottles and get body marked
(including a smiley knee).

After body marking, it was time to make our way to the swim start and to wriggle into my superhero wetsuit and prepare for battle.

Michelle spent a some time customizing the graphics on my swim cap in an effort to distinguish me from the ~1,800 other green caps.  It turned out really cool with the flames and stars, but looked a little like a wrestler mask!

The Swim
The beach at Mirror Lake was crowded with triathletes of all shapes and sizes; most of them in black wetsuits.  This would prove to be Michelle's frustration when she tried to find me coming out of the water on the first lap.  It was time to zip up the wetsuit and get in the water.  I wasn't able to find my training partner and friend Jill at the start, but I figured I'd see her on the course at some point during the day.
The swim start was an impressive jumble of green and pink caps bobbing in the cool 75 degree lake water.  At that temperature, the race is wet suit legal for everyone, even those shooting to qualify for Kona...certainly not a factor for me.  I said goodbye to my wife and kids, dropped off my glasses at the swim finish (in a ziplock bag with my race number) and entered the race course and registered my timing chip by crossing the timing mat under the white inflatable entrance.  It's official, I'm in the race.

This race has an in-water start and everyone, except the Pros who started at 6:50am, treads water or stands on the mushy bottom until the cannon goes off at 7am.  This is a mass-start with ~2,500 triathletes fighting for clear water and good position around the course.  I hung out behind the official start line near the shore and figured I'd have an easier time if I let the fast swimmers go ahead and fight it out ahead of me.  After the national anthem and a countdown to the start by Mike Riley, the voice of Ironman, the cannon fired and I was off and swimming.  I was instantly bumping into the swimmers feet ahead of me, getting pushed from both sides and having my feet and legs crashed into by swimmers behind me.  It was combat swimming!  It was pretty bad for the first 5-10 minutes, and I really had to pay attention to kicking legs and other wetsuited athletes around me, but I managed to keep my goggles on and not get kicked hard.  I did take a kick to the stomach that surprised me, but I just put my head down and kept swimming.  

I was planning to swim a bit wide of the buoys as I knew many people would be trying to "swim the cable".  The Lake Placid swim course buoys are held in place by a silver cable that is strung about 5 feet below the surface and you can see if clearly if you are close enough.  This makes it really easy to swim straight and keeps you from having to lift your head up and "sight" every few strokes to stay on course.  I can't swim a straight line to save my life, but I was resigned to sighting often to stay swimming straight.  With all of the bumping and shifting early in the swim, I was really surprised to see the shimmering cable underwater and to my left after about 10 minutes.  Cool!  One less thing to think about.  I found a good rhythm and completed the first lap in 35 minutes...right where I hoped I'd be.  I ran under the swim start inflatable and started my second lap.  It only took a few minutes to settle into a good pace and I was feeling good.  

As I was approaching the swim finish, I could hear the crowd and Mike Reilly commentating each time my ear came out of the water for a breath.  Everything still felt good as the water got shallower and I exited Mirror Lake.  I struggled a bit to get my wetsuit unzipped (as you can see above), but I finally did get it and headed to the wetsuit strippers.  I totally forgot to grab my glasses as I ran right past the table.  Woops!  I spotted an available stripper, flopped myself down and she grabbed the arms of my wetsuit and yanked a few times to get my tight, neoprene body armor off of my skinny bird legs.  She succeeded and I jumped up and she tossed my wetsuit over my shoulder for the 800 yard jog down and across the street to the transition area.

I looked for Michelle, but didn't see her as I made my way to the changing tent.  I took my time changing into my cycling cloths to ensure I didn't miss something since I was more interested in getting it right than doing it fast.  I ran out of the tent and headed towards the bike racks and I heard a volunteer with a bullhorn call my number.  I was only about 6 rows away when I saw a volunteer retrieve my bike from the end of the row and bring it to me.  Such service! I grabbed my bike and kept running my bike out of transition and jumped on for the next leg of the adventure. Swim finished in 1:13...good enough for me!

The Bike
The village of Lake Placid and the transition area are on top of a hill and the first quarter mile out of transition is down a very steep residential street with a sharp left turn at the bottom.  

Note the hay bales.  The race director told us at the athlete banquet on Friday that somebody always takes this turn too fast and crashes into the hay bales.  I took it nice an easy and made the turn with no problems.  After negotiating the tight turns and steep hills to get out of the village, I rode past the ski jumps and started a slow 1 mile climb that is rewarded by a nice, 7 mile long decent to the town of Keene.  Looking back at my Garmin data, I can see that my each of the 1 mile snapshot average speeds were over 25 miles per hour and one was 35 mph and another 37 mph.  It was very fun, but a little unnerving as riders were going by me at closer to 50 mph.  

The course is hilly throughout, but this mid-section of each 56 mile loop is relatively flat with only rolling hills to keep it interesting.  I kept pedaling, drinking my Perpetuem race drink and chowing down on Honey Stingers as I made my way around the course.  Every 12-15 miles, there is an aid station where they have water, Perform (like Gatorade), bananas, GU Chomps and gels.  It made me laugh as I entered the first aid station and they had a street hockey goal setup with a big cardboard target in the middle.  The objective was to toss your empty bottles and score a goal before you snagged another. I scored a few goals (and missed a few) and got pretty good at grabbing new water bottles from the aid station volunteers as I quickly rode by.  I bobbled a banana on one run, but was able to get another before the end of the aid station.  Whew!  Eating, drinking and pedaling was the priority and I was enjoying the bike.

The final 11 miles back to Lake Placid are all uphill.  It's a slow, steady grind past Whiteface mountain.  This was the part of the bike course that was difficult to train for in Florida.  Not many 11 mile stretches of alpine road with varying degrees of steep hills to climb.  I was heartened to see that it wasn't just me who had slowed down to a crawl, but whole groups of riders were having the same experience as me.  I would occasionally catch a glimpse of my speedometer and see it 5 mph or 7mph.  Quite a far cry from 40+mph downhill, but what goes down, must come back up (at least in Ironman Lake Placid, this is true).

The final 3 climbs before you get a brief downhill into Lake Placid are named Baby Bear, Momma Bear and Papa Bear.  I don't really remember Baby or Momma, but Papa Bear was lined with people playing music and generally going crazy with cowbells and cheering.  It reminded me of watching the Tour de France when the fans line the steep sections of the mountaintop climbs and cheer on the riders.  It was a wall of sound and I was buoyed by the enthusiasm of the crowd and muscled my way to the top of Papa Bear.  I expected the road to flatten out and then go downhill, but after a quick right turn, there was about another 200 feet of climbing...not as steep, but enough to negate the cheers of the fans that said "this is the last hill". Papa Bear was the last hill until you reached this other climb!  Baaah!

Finally a downhill and a quick left turn and you're on Mirror Lake Drive, headed back to the transition area with the lake on your right.  I sat up to make sure my cheering section could see me and I scanned the crowds lining the streets on both sides for bright, yellow Iron Bird Legs shirts.  I never did spot them on this loop, but Michelle snapped these pictures as I rode by right on schedule at ~3.5 hours. 
On the second loop of the bike, I noticed a few things.  Gumby and Pokey were riding bikes and cheering on riders near the ski jumps. You don't see people dressed up as a little green slab of clay and his pony pal Pokey every day!  I rode more aggressively down the 7 mile decent and noticed how bumpy the road really was.  I noticed myself thinking about how bad it would hurt if my front tire came loose at 45 mph.  I also noticed myself hanging on a little tighter until I could get that vision out of my head and slow down a little.  

I noticed a slightly hollow feeling in my stomach about halfway through the loop and I recognized I needed a few more calories, so I stopped to refill my Cytomax and reached into my back pocket and ate about half of an energy bar to fill in the hole. I also successfully nabbed a banana at an aid station and kept eating and felt better.  I noticed another rider that I kept passing and being passed by who had a smiley face on her calf to match the one on my knee. I noticed that the ice cream shop where we stopped when we drove the bike course was closed.  Too bad, because I actually had money and was prepared to stop for a quick cone, but I was foiled.  Jill knows that I'm not shy about mid-ride ice cream stops and I'd practiced this in training a number of times. ;-)

I noticed the expansion cracks in the road on the 11 mile climb as my bike went "thunk-thunk" about every 20 feet.  I noticed that I was a little more tired the second time up Papa Bear, but was not surprised by the 2nd little climb.  I actually noticed my cheering family as I came down Mirror Lake Drive as I finished the bike leg in just over 7 hours.  Two down, one more to go!  Back to the transition area to hand off my bike and get ready to run. I still had not seen Jill, but I figured I'd see her at some point during the run. 

The Run
Just a marathon to go!  I was feeling really good coming off the bike.  I was actually relieved to start running and it felt nice to stop doing circles with my legs.  About the first mile of the run is downhill as you run out of town and head towards the ski jumps.  Two of the streets were very steep and I didn't have much practice running downhill, so I found it a bit hard to control, but soon things flattened out a bit.  I knew I'd be up and down those steep hills again since the run course is also 2 loops.

At first I didn't realize that this was my cheering section yelling my name, but I quickly acknowledged them with a wave.   

The middle section of the run is a series of rolling hills as you run away from the ski jumps, turn around and run back.  As I was running out, Jill called out to me on her way back and encouraged me to catch her.  I laughed inside since this was the same thing she said on the run in another race where she won 2nd place.  Jill is a fast runner and I was quite a ways behind her, so I just kept running.  I was feeling really good, and I looked around at all the people who were walking and complaining about how hot it was.  This is the advantage of training in Florida in the summer; everything else seems cooler and less humid.  I did a quick check of my heart rate monitor and though I felt good, I was running a bit high.  It's like checking the instruments in your car and seeing that your tachometer is revving over the red-line, and the temperature gauge is flashing.  Time to take corrective action since I knew that wasn't sustainable.  Solution...slow down a bit, drink more and dump a cup of ice down my back.  Drink, ice, Hammer Gel, drink, run, repeat!

That seemed to help and my heart rate came back down.  I kept up this strategy, hit the turnaround and  ran back towards town.  On my way back up the first big hill I started to walk, but I quickly realized that it was much harder to walk up the hill, so I ran instead.  On this hill, there were 2 guys in lawn chairs with a sign near a pile of empty beer cans that read "We're Drunk!".  They were cheering and commenting on the runners as they went by.  I had to smile as they gave me props for running up the hill.  For more on how to cheer at a triathlon, listen to this podcast episode by Brett of Zen and the Art of Triathlon.  As he says, "...don't hate the hill, hate the race director".

I ran up the two really steep hills into town and saw Michelle and the kids at the side of the road, so I ran over for a quick picture.
This is about 11.5 miles into the run and after a quick hello, a kiss and another drink, I was off to the turnaround.
On my way out, I saw Jill who was on her way back.  I was much closer than the last time I saw her and I wondered how I was catching her.  She teased again that I should catch her.

Half a marathon is complete and I'm running back out of town, ready for the steep downhills.

As I passed Michelle and she snapped this picture, she said I was only 6 minutes behind Jill.  Wow, I might actually catch up to her.  Systems check...legs, tired but OK, getting plenty of fluid and taking in regular doses of Hammer Gel, heart rate OK, so things are good.  Keep running.

It wasn't too long after the steep downhills and the rolling hills near the ski jumps that I saw Jill walking up ahead.  I caught up to her and we walked and ran together for a bit.  She was taking it easy and enjoying the day and after a bit of chatting, she encouraged me to take off and keep running.  The last thing she said was "...if you keep it up, you could finish in under 13 hours, so go!"  I did a little mental math and thought she could be right.

On the night before the race, while hanging out with Jill, Sara and some experienced local triathletes, I heard some interesting advice about how to complete this race.

  • First...just get through the swim.  
    •     I'd done that.  Check.
  • Second...the only reason for the bike is to get to the run, so ride within your limits and go easy on the first loop.  
    •    So far, so good.  Check.
  • the first 20 miles and when you have 10k to go, start racing.

It was almost time to start racing!

My support crew made signs to help cheer me on during the race and I saw a few funny signs along the run route too.  My favorite was, "Run Faster, I want to go to Hawaii, signed, your wife".  If you finish in the top 3-5 spots in your age group, you can qualify to go to the Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii.  This sign was not from my wife...she knows I'm not that fast.

I was running consistently when I hit mile 20 and felt good, so it was time to see if I could get in under 13 hours.  I ran back up the hill past the "We're Drunk" guys and they declared their 20 feet or so cheering section a "no walking zone".  They loudly declared "this is a no walking zone, not Ironman rules, but ours!  Get running!"  I was already running and motivated to finish.  In the picture above, I'm about 2 miles from the finish and I was picking up the pace.  One quick mile out and back on Mirror Lake Drive and then into the Speed Skating Oval for the big finish.  I was getting lots of cheers from the crowd because I was running hard.  There is one last aid station and as I ran by, they offered water, gel, etc and I just pointed to the finish.  The volunteer cheered and declared "...I was a man on a mission".

Michelle and the kids saw me go by and then quickly changed locations to get a view of the oval and caught me on the way in.
I was trying to give the guy ahead of me some space, but I was gaining on him.  I was taught that you don't pass someone in the finish chute, but as I look back, I should have passed him!

It turns out that the guy was in my age group and he finished the race one place and one second ahead of me!  The marathon time was better than I expected at ~4:20.

The Finish
As I ran down the finish chute, I heard Mike Reilly declare "You are an Ironman!".  This was something that I'd read about and heard from other experienced finishers.  Complete an Ironman before you're 50...Check.

I was grateful for the two volunteers who escorted me in the finish area, helped me turn in my timing chip, get my finisher metal, t-shirt and hat, and take pictures in front of the M-Dot logo.

Amazingly, Michelle and the kids caught me for a quick post-finish photo.  Then, I was escorted to an area with tables, chairs and a bunch of tired athletes who were chowing down on pizza, subs and drinking chocolate milk.  I was led to a chair and sat down with my chocolate milk in my hand and a solar blanket over my shoulders.  If felt great, until I sat down and the adrenaline wore off and I realized I'd been up since 4am and racing since 7am and it's currently 8pm.  In the next 10 minutes or so, I went from very warm to shivering cold and thinking I was going to pass out.  My breathing was short and I pulled the solar blanket tight around me to hold in some heat.  I concentrated to get my breathing back to normal, had a few sips of chocolate milk and started to feel better.  I was offered some hot chicken broth and that helped warm me up and put back some salt.  I was ready to stand up and could now feel exactly which muscles had carried me through the day.  They complained a little, but it was time to re-find the family.

Post Race
Megan - my post-recovery volunteer handler
I really wasn't sure where to look for my support crew, but Megan, a volunteer assigned to help me, let me use her mobile phone to call and we quickly found each other.

Dave and Jill
We also found Jill who finished about 25 minutes after I did.  Turns out that her foot was giving her trouble and she eased up on the run after having a very speedy swim and bike.  This is her 3rd Ironman race and she helped me commit to Ironman Lake Placid and was a constant training partner throughout the last 6 months.  Thanks for all the help Jill and it was fun seeing you on the course.
Proud family and finisher

I was excited and relieved to finish and I did make it in under 13 hours, even though my real goal was to simply finish and experience the day.  My family and support crew played a key role in my success.  They were very understanding during my training time and really helped keep me motivated during the race with cheers from the sidelines

We retrieved my gear and headed back to Grammie's House for a quick shower, then Michelle and I headed back to the finish line to watch the last 2 hours of the race.

Andy Potts wanted a picture with me...
It was fun to cheer on the finishers and share the energy of the crowd as it got closer to the 17 hour cutoff.  Andy Potts, the professional triathlete who won the race in 8:25, came out to help cheer on the final finishers and hand out medals.

It was very emotional as it got closer to midnight and the cheering and music grew louder with each person crossing the line.  Mike Reilly, the master of ceremony for the entire day, was whipping high-fives and declaring "You are an Ironman" to these late night finishers from within the finish chute.

Mike Reilly - The Voice of Ironman
He was also whipping the crowd up and had everyone dancing and singing "Y-M-C-A" and shouting "You are an Ironman" as people crossed the line.  It was sad as the final athlete on the course missed the midnight cutoff and was run across the finish line with the help of two volunteers.  He didn't look good and I suspect he was headed to the medical tent for attention.

Exerting for 13 hours may sound strange to some, but I really enjoyed the entire day and the overall experience.  It was great to set a big goal, create a plan to meet it and then execute the plan and achieve it.  I grew more physically and mentally tough over the last 6 months and learned a lot about how to push my limits.

My wife gets a little nervous when she hears "first Ironman" since the training for Lake Placid took away from family time, particularly on the weekends and made for a very structured week.  It would be a great challenge to do another race, so we'll see if it works out to schedule in another an Ironman in the future.  I'll keep you all posted and thanks for the support.