What? You think I DID an Ironman just because it is in the title? Do you think I am insane!? No. I did not do an Ironman. That would be crazy. I just volunteered at an Ironman. Janice and I drove to Lake Placid, NY home of two winter Olympic games and I worked as a bike handler during the 2013 edition of Ironman Lake Placid.
In case you are unfamiliar, a full Ironman event is a triathlon that includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run. All in less than 17 hours. Nutty right? Only crazy people attempt this. Oh that reminds me. Several of my friends were doing this. Most notably Denise Reaman & Jennifer Bush. Both had done the full IM distance before but apparently remain crazy.
The trip began with a very nice drive North on a beautiful summer day. The trip to Lake Placid took around 7 hours in our motorhome with a couple breaks along the way. We actually stayed a few miles North of Lake Place at the Wilmington-Whiteface KOA. The campground was very nice and included a short walking trail down to the Ausable River.
We arrived on Thursday evening of July 25th. On Friday morning, I hopped on my bike and did a single loop of the IMLP bike course. All 3 events in the Ironman involve 2 loops. The bike course is, therefore, 56 miles. That by itself isn’t crazy. I can say I doubt that any Ironman event anywhere has a more scenic bike course than Lake Placid.
After looping the course, Janice & I headed in to town to sight see a bit and than participate in a Tri club social with other Endurance Multisport members in the afternoon. Lake Placid itself is a fantastic destination. Set in the middle of the Adirondacks it is just a beautiful setting and the town adds a resort atmosphere. Add an Ironman event with it’s shear number of people and the town was hustling and bustling with fit people, shiny bikes, vendors, and all their accoutrements. It was exciting!
Janice & I enjoyed dinner at the Hungry Trout near camp on Friday night. The food was quite good but the local model seems to be to charge for drink refills (diet coke, iced tea, etc.) So be sure to ask before refilling.
Saturday rolled around quickly and it was off to Lake Placid again this time for a group photo with the club and than a swim in Mirror Lake on the IMLP swim course. Contrary to what you might think the swim portion of Ironman Lake Placid does not actually occur in Lake Placid but rather Mirror Lake which is the lake that is featured in the waterfront of the town. Lake Placid itself is out on the edge of town. Again, the full IMLP course is 2 loops totaling 2.4 miles. Coach Erica & I would swim one loop. Only 1.2 miles. ‘Cause that’s not crazy.
One thing that makes IMLP so popular is the fact that there is a cable connecting the buoys on the swim course all together. As a swimmer, it is possible to follow the cable the entire way around the course eliminating the need for sighting, or looking up to see where you are (and how far you still have to go) while swimming. I had sort of forgotten about the cable. I make no bones about my swim anxiety in open water swimming. It is worse this year with the onset of worse asthma symptoms that I have struggled to control. But I wanted to get that swim in so Erica & fellow club member Adam Frederick and I set out. Adam is also crazy and was planning to do the race on Sunday so he only did a short swim with us. As we paddled along there was my usual moment of “What am I doing!? I can’t do this!!!!!”. I stopped and treaded water. Erica was right there. “What are you feeling”? I replied “Just a little self-doubt” and than started swimming again. As I swam and controlled my anxiety I saw a piece of grass. Wait. It’s the cable! Hmmm.
I swam along following the cable for several buoys. There are 9 buoys out to turn 1, a short 50 yards or so to the second turn and 9 buoys back. I bumped smack into about the fourth or fifth buoy. I stopped swimming and Erica said “You are totally following the line aren’t you”? I admitted that shamelessly “Yes I am”. She chided me to still sight occasionally which turned out to be a good way not to run into buoys.
Conditions during our swim were beautiful. Great water temps (no wetsuit needed) and calm conditions. By the halfway point, I had calmed down and was enjoying the swim. I started to think I could possibly swim 2.4 miles, but that would be crazy.
Back on shore, Erica & I parted ways and I went off to enjoy a picnic lunch on the lake shore before tracking down my beloved in town. The nice thing about Lake Placid is that the entire shopping district is walkable in a few minutes. Janice and I spent some time in various shops together before sitting down and enjoying a glass of wine or two in a lakeside restaurant. As a volunteer bike handler I had a 5:00pm meeting at the High School by the Olympic Oval to get instructions from our volunteer captain.
The meeting went quickly and with last minute instructions Janice & I hurried back to camp because I wanted to be up early to get to town. We needed to find parking which would be a challenge and I wanted to see all the crazy people start.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday had all included idyllic weather. Of course, for race day Sunday we woke to overcast, windy conditions with the constant threat of rain. Naturally. We found reasonable parking along Station Street and made our way to the start. We would spend most of the day with Denise Reaman’s family on the bike & run course but for now, I wanted a front row seat of all the nut jobs heading off into craziness.
The swim start was one of the most exciting places ever. I LOVE pre-race. The day is full of anticipation and hope. Music blared. Athletes readied themselves, Mike Reilly (the voice of Ironman) got the crowd and athletes fired up. He announced a gentleman’s name who had done 90+ full iron distance races. The crowd ooh’d. Then he said another gentleman’s name and that he had done 150+ races. You would think with the US healthcare system we’d be able to do something for these people. Oh . . and the race would include Dave Orlowski. One of the original nut jobs who started the whole thing. (I’m not sure if it was he who has done 90+ or 150+ of these or not).
After a stirring version of the National Anthem the race got underway with the pro men leading out the field, followed 3 minute later by the pro ladies and then the age groupers who are the heart and soul of an Ironman. In the past, Lake Placid has been a mass start. These are the starts where the gun goes off and all the crazies take off together. These starts have become a bit infamous as triathlon grows in popularity and also as the occasional swim death occurs.
I’ll digress a moment to express an opinion. Every time someone dies in triathlon or marathon it is, of course, a tragedy. I am always amazed at the number of folks that e-mail me or flock to my desk to point out the individual death and if it scares me away from doing this at all. I ask them how many people died that weekend and how many of them spent their time sitting around watching television or eating junk and why nobody is rushing to give those things up? If my time is up in the middle of a triathlon or marathon I’m okay with that. I’d much rather die doing something fun (if not crazy) than keel over on my keyboard at work while updating a meaningless spreadsheet.
Sorry . . rant light is off. Anyway, while there has been no correlation made between mass starts and swim deaths, USAT, WTC, and other triathlon bodies are making progressive changes to try to make swims safer, and less anxious for athletes. While many traditionalists don’t like this it certainly seems to make sense. With chip timing, there really is no need to force everyone in the water at the same moment that the gun goes off. To that end, IMLP employed a start similar to a marathon. Basically, your time starts when you cross a timing plate as you head into the water. Whether or not this made a big difference to crowded course conditions or not depends on who you talk to but from a spectators perspective it certainly made for a less chaotic start.
Mike Reilly did a great job of shepherding along the swim start and all swimmers were in the water moments before Andy Potts emerged from the first loop and dove in for loop 2. Not long after the first pros emerged we saw the age groupers intermixed with the pros heading out for loop 2. Andy Potts would finish the entire 2.4 miles swim in 46 minutes and leave the water with a solid 3 minute lead over the next closest competitor. He would never look back and go on to win the day easily. Here is a short video clip of the Age Group start with the new format.
Ironman has come a long way since Dave Orlowski and friends completed that first event mostly on a dare. At that time, nobody used wetsuits. Now, not only are triathlon specific wetsuits available but there are even folks to help you take the wetsuit off. Basically, you leave the water, get stripped of the wetsuit, grab it and scurry off to transition to change and get on your bike. Watching this was educational. There is definitely an art to getting your wetsuit peeled off as well as doing the peeling. But only crazy people need to worry about this. Again, a short clip of how this works including EnMu teammate Steve Thompson.
After waiting to see Denise & Jen and other club members emerge from the swim Janice and I went off to find the Team Cupcake (Denise’s family) tent and enjoy the day. We had never met Denise’s family other than her hubby Mark before but had been assured we would be welcome. And indeed we were. Denise’s parents Delores & Ron were at the tent when we arrived and proved to be really nice to chat with. Other family members including Denise’s beautiful daughters would come and go throughout the day as well. We were located on Sentinel street on both the bike & run course so could cheer on athletes throughout the day including those we were specifically looking for. Watching racers & spectators is kinda fun!
After lunch, I headed off a bit early for my 2:00pm bike handling duties. In case you are wondering, “bike handler” is yet another nicety the early ironman athletes didn’t have. In most triathlons, you get your bike from transition yourself and put it back yourself. In the full iron distance you have people. Specifically folks that do their best to have your bike ready and waiting for you after you change clothes and others to catch your bike and put it away for you after you are done riding and likely never really want to see your bike again anyway. The way it works is that you come off the bike course and there is a volunteer there ready to take your bike from you. You hand it off and head toward the changing tent to get ready for the run. Whether or not you ever want to see your bike again, the bike handler runs the bike part way into transition and hands it off to another bike handler calling out the bib number. The bike goes through one or two more handoffs before it is racked. So having the number clearly displayed is important (hint to future nut cases). I would spend most of the day working with another Endurance Multisport teammate named Tom Roberts and his wife.
While this sounds simple, it is a lot more workout than what you might think. One of my fellow bike handlers had her Garmin on and clocked 5 miles during our 4+ hour stint. I was actually thinking of stealing a leftover gel off a bike half way through. It was hot, sweaty, tiring work but quite fun. Especially when Men’s Professional race winner Andy Potts started hanging out with us at 5:00 waiting for bike out to open at 5:30. What a cool guy!
One great thing about my position in bike handling was I got to see all the top finishers including some of the really fast folks from Endurance Multisport including Cynthia Bartus and hubby Steve Thompson. I also got to see friends come off the bike and into transition including Jen. The finish line at an Ironman is awesome! With music blaring and Mike Reilly calling out names and declaring people as an Ironman it almost makes you want to try it. But that would be crazy.
The bike course closed at 5:30. Anyone still on the bike course after that was not allowed to finish. As I was getting ready to sign out and get some food a girl came off the course just a couple minutes late. My heart broke for her. I’m sure there were others out there yet but she was so close.
After 4 1/2 hours of running bikes around I was famished and grateful for the volunteer tent full of food. I grabbed a plate and sat down with folks who had been handing bikes to me all day. Their names were D.J. and Adam. They were planning to sign up for 2014 the next day. “I am too”. Wait, what? Who said that? I looked behind me but there was only a tent wall. “I’m going to get up at 3:00 and get in line”. Who is talking? Is Jeff Dunham around here or something? What sort of affliction is this?
Okay . . I’ll fess up. I caught the crazies and had decided that signing up for Ironman Lake Placid in 2014 was a good idea. My 4+ hour volunteer stint entitled me to stand in the “Your so Special” line (that is what it is really called) on Monday morning and have first dibs at signing up before the race was opened for on-line registration.
With that in mind, I finished my food and went off to find my wife so that we could get to bed early and I could be back at it the next morning. I paused for a few moments to watch the finish from a high vantage point. The tireless Mike Reilly would be calling out new Ironman finishers and pumping the crowd up until the race closed at midnight. It was 6:30 p.m. I took a few minutes to capture a bit of video. (Click the picture).
I arrived back in Lake Placid at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday morning. It was considerably easier to park. I half-expected to see a line of potential crazy people waiting on the sidewalk outside the conference center where registration would occur. But IMLP is pretty accommodating. I was able to park in an available visitor spot right in front of an open door with a night watchman and a sign that said “Ironman Registration”. All I had to do was show my volunteer t-shirt and I was admitted. I was the first person in line who hadn’t slept there. There were about 15-20 folks who worked the finish line and than slept on the floor of the Olympic Center hallway.
A mutual friend, Bill Perry, had posted to my Facebook page asking what time I was going to be there. As a couple people came in behind me, I sent Bill a message saying “I’m here now. There is no line”. A reply came moments later saying “I’m here too”. I was surprised since there were only 6 awake people there. I looked up and met my new friend Bill & his wife Dawn. We laughed and then chatted the hours away. We got a kick out of the fact that not only did the Olympic Center open the cafeteria for us at 4:30 a.m. but sent a young man out to take orders from the line. How cool is that?
Rumor had it that despite the advertised 9:00am opening of registration that it would happen early. Indeed the doors opened around 8:30a.m. after several false alarms. When that door opened and people started going, my heart rate suddenly shot up and I began to shake. Was I really about to do this? It seemed like someone else penciling my name and other information on to a slip of paper and handing it to the registration volunteer. A few clicks of the keyboard and a $742.00 swipe of the credit card and in less than 5 minutes I was registered for a 140.6 mile Ironman. Gulp! What had I just done!? Reality sank in. This wasn’t just vague talk anymore. I was committed. Or maybe should be committed. Time will tell. Oh and while husband Bill is already an Ironman Dawn Perry will be joining me as a first timer in 2014.