Everyone says you won’t sleep the night before your big race. Oddly, I slept like a baby. I was in bed around 8:00pm and woke up race morning moments before the 3:30am alarm feeling refreshed and ready to race. I got out of bed, grabbed my timing chip and put it on my ankle with the velcro strap, two safety pins, and a wrap of electrical tape. We would not be having any of the timing chip shenanigans I’ve had at every other race this year.
I ate a granola bar, and a bagel with peanut butter and jelly, and a cup of hotel room coffee. There were various bumps, door slams, and voices throughout the hotel as people got ready for race morning. About 4:30, Janice and I grabbed my special needs bags and wetsuit and stepped out the door to find out that the rain had started. The weather prediction was for showers, and a strong possibility of thunderstorms. Not good. Oh well. Can’t fix the weather.
The town was alive at 4:30 a.m and Main street was busier than a sunny holiday afternoon. Traffic was flowing one way: toward transition. Nervous athletes in lycra and their families all walking, sipping coffee, chattering and anticipating the long-prepared for day. Race morning is so exciting and fun!
We made our way toward transition where I got body marked and went in to put my fluids on the bike, attach and turn on my Garmin, and put some last minute nutrition items in my bike gear bag. I also deposited my shirt, and glasses in my morning bag and left it on it’s hook. After many race plan revisions, I decided to swim in swim jammers and wetsuit, ride in bike gear, and run in run gear so my bags were stuffed kinda full.
My stop into transition was quick, and I found Janice outside and we headed to drop off special needs bags. First bike, then run which was conveniently near the Endurance Multisport club tent. As an added bonus there were a set of porta johns just a few yards further down the road with nobody in line.
Race morning was moving quickly. My heart rate and nervousness increased as we walked back down Mirror Lake drive and I realized I needed to get my wetsuit on and get in the water for a warm up. I had a giant lump in my throat. I remembered Dr. Greene’s breathing advice, closed my eyes to relax and breathed deep. I got my wetsuit on and kissed Janice goodbye. Before we parted ways for the day she looked at me and said “Have fun out there”. This was probably the best thing I could have heard at that moment. Remember, this is for fun!
I made my way into the athlete only area by the beach and headed in for a warm-up swim. I immersed myself staring into the clear water and swam out to the orange marker buoy. As I swam back to the shore, the demons started early telling me “You really don’t want to do this”. I thought “You are right. I really don’t. I’m not going to. I can’t”. Stay calm. Breathe. Go to the starting corral. Just keep moving forward. Get in the water and try.
On the beach I tried to decide which corral to head toward. I started out in the 1:30 to 1:40 corral but decided I should move up (fortunately) and made my way closer to the 1:21 sign. I looked around the starting area in all directions for a familiar face but saw none. As the National Anthem played I continued breathing trying to calm myself and convince myself I could do this. Suddenly, I saw athletes around me looking back up in to the sky and waving. “Oh my we haven’t even started and they are delirious already”. But there was a drone hovering above. How cool! I can’t wait to see the swim start footage from that.
At 6:20 the cannon sounded for the pro men, and a few minutes later again for the pro women. Mike Reilly asked to see the hands of all the first timers. I feebly stuck my hand in the air. I wasn’t feeling like an Ironman. I didn’t think an Ironman should be scared to death. BANG! Suddenly we were off. Okay maybe not so suddenly. I’m sure somebody suddenly was off. Those of us further back on the beach stood still. It was quite a while before there was any forward movement, but slowly, relentlessly we edged toward the water. I put my goggles on. I took my goggles off. On. Off. Finally I could see the waters edge. Out ahead, mirror lake was churning with a thousand swimmers chopping at its surface. What a maelstrom!
I put my goggles on and walked resignedly past the last volunteer who told me to have a good race. I waded in, walked from shore and started swimming focusing on the relaxed stroke I had used on Friday. I also moved further toward the outer edge of the school of swimmers in front of me. I didn’t pretend the demons wouldn’t come after me. I knew they would but I was prepared this time. About 100 yards in I stopped, looked around, flipped on my back for a moment and thought “Oh no”. But then I thought about how and where I was, filed the feelings away as discomfort and started swimming again. Relax. Breathe. Swim. My asthma symptoms were kept at bay and breathing wasn’t difficult. I had a very wide line and noticed the yellow outbound buoys way out to my right at one point. I was okay with that. I had clean water with nobody in front of me. Swim. Relax. Breathe. As confidence grew I pulled myself in tighter to the line. I began to catch up to swimmers in front of me and made my way through or around them. It got even more congested at the first and second turns since they are very close together. I got around both and headed back toward shore. As I swam I counted strokes in 5 stroke sets and watched the landmarks go by. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5 sight. I repeated this pattern focusing on a strong catch and pull. What was that voice? Oh, it was Mike Reilly! I’m only about 100 yards out from the dock. Okay. I can do this.
The video shows the transition from loop 1 to loop 2 of the swim.
I got out of the water and through the exit arch and walked back around and headed out for lap two. Anyone watching would have seen me pause for a moment before starting to swim again. It seems that I can pee in my wetsuit without a problem but not while I’m swimming but I did start swimming again with greater confidence. I worked my way using a similar line to the first lap. There was a boat with a blue light near the first turn and I focused on that when not navigating through slower swimmers. My swimming was beginning to get labored as I made my way around turn 1 and 2 this time. But I knew I would make it which meant I knew I would be an Ironman before the day was over. I rounded turn 2 and again headed for shore watching the familiar landmarks and knowing how to pace myself.
The video shows how bad the rain got about the time the lightning started.
Then while taking a breath I saw it: a flash of lightning filled the sky. Oh no! I expected at any moment to get pulled from the water but I kept swimming. “Swim hard. Let’s get it done”. I refocused my efforts on a good pull propelling myself forward. Keep going. Another breath, and a lightning bolt rained down all the way to the ground. Yikes! I passed buoy 5. Only three more to go to the end. Suddenly, a blue kayak was blocking my way. A young man told me to head to shore and that I had a free pass the rest of the way. How ironic! Almost any other race I would have been supremely happy with this development and delighted with the chance at an early exit from the water. But today I was in my glory, swimming relaxed and free and so close to completing, for me, the hardest part of becoming an Ironman. I looked at the shore and looked at the dock and said “I think I can get to the finish faster than shore”. He replied “Okay. It’s your choice. You only have a couple hundred meters”. I said “Great! Thanks buddy!” and I swam on. I saw more lightning and swam a little faster. I rounded the turn 3 buoy and kept swimming until my hand hit gravel. Jubilation! I would hear Mike Reilly tell me I was an Ironman.
I had made it and swam it well. Suddenly the lightning scene from Caddy Shack popped into my head and I figured I better get out of there fast. Using my lessons learned from watching wetsuit stripping last year, I unzipped my suit on the way out of the water, pulled it off my shoulders, picked out a wetsuit stripper and pointed at him. I pulled the suit down over my hips and butt and sat down and pointed my toes. Rip! He had it off me in an instant and I tucked it under my arm and was on my way. Just then I looked to the right to see Janice standing looking out at the water. I ran over and yelled to her and got a smile and a wave and headed to T1.
I left the beach and turned left on Parkside drive. I heard someone call my name and turned and saw local star triathlete Claire Olshin. I smiled or waved or something and kept moving. I was mildly surprised to find a stream of athletes merging with our line coming down Mirror Lake drive including Endurance Multisport teammate Kevin Teles. I asked if he got pulled from the swim and he nodded. I didn’t realize they would have to run all the way down Mirror Lake drive upon exiting the lake. I think that was probably harder than swimming.
With the mass exodus from the lake, virtually half the field hit T1 at the same time. I yelled a warning to Kevin about the slippery concrete and grass, then focused on finding my bike gear bag and heading to the men’s changing tent. Did I mention it was pouring rain at this point? The tent was absolute chaos. There was not a seat anywhere. It was hot, smelly, and steamy. I looked around for several minutes before finding a free chair and that was all the space there was. I had the chair and about a square foot in front of it to change. I managed to get my swim jammers off and dry off enough to get my Assos bibs on. I put on my cycling jersey and then noticed I had put my light shell jacket in my bike bag. Thank goodness for that decision. It was raining and cool. I gladly put the jacket on, stuck my tinted glasses in the pocket and headed out of the tent thankful to be out of it’s confinement and noise. I headed for my bike and was met part way by a bike handler who went and grabbed it for me. I took the bike and headed through the rain to bike out taking care to get a bit away from the mount line before mounting up and handling the rather technical exit from bike out. I went down the ramp and hard left then down a steep, steep hill with wet brakes. Hmmm. Only 112 miles of this to go.
But I was out of the water and on the bike and feeling confident about the day. You get a bit of a downhill out of town, some flat and then a long, hard uphill toward the town of Keene. When discussing the Lake Placid bike course, the topic of the 3 bears always comes up. The 3 bears are 3 bumps near the finish called Momma Bear, Baby Bear, and Poppa Bear in that order. Really compared to the rest of the course those bumps are nothing but they get all the fanfare because of the catchy name but that first climb leaving town on route 73 is difficult. It goes up and up and up for a long way. I geared down and went for as a light a spin as I could find. My cycling legs were not kicking in yet. Still, I climbed steadily. The rain came down and I suddenly became very grateful for the new pavement on the coming Keene descent.
There is something primal about gutting things out in the elements. The rain fell. Lightning crackled. Thunder boomed. I should have felt unsafe but I loved every wind-blown moment. The first pass down the Keene descent went better then expected. I took it conservatively given the wind and rain topping out in the high 30s for speed. With the rain, and cool temperatures I was cold but thankful that I put the jacket on. Once down, I headed North along the easy and fun part of the course, stopping at the turnaround in Ausable Forks to eat a peanut butter and jelly uncrustable introduced to me by Craig Durant. What a great invention. I was very diligent on the first loop in eating and drinking getting in plenty of calories. It was a bit difficult with the rain and wearing a jacket since the jacket covered my jersey pockets but I stayed the course.
On the way back from Ausable Forks to Jay, the skies cleared and the sun came out. Suddenly, it got warm, and then hot. I unzipped the jacket but had no place to go with it so didn’t shed it altogether.
The most difficult part of the Lake Placid bike course are the hills from Jay to Wilmington on route 86. It is just a steady, hard climb. That was accomplished as well as the second out and back and that left the long climb back to Lake Placid to complete loop 1. I had 4 dissolved gels in 26 oz. of water in my BTA (Between The Arms) bottle and was diligent about sipping it for the first loop. Toward the end of the loop my mouth and stomach were starting to say “No. We don’t want any more of that”.
As I completed loop 1, I climbed Momma Bear and saw a group of mostly naked college aged guys in thongs. Um. Okay. There was also a washboard band drumming and playing a decent rhythm. That was cool. I rolled over Baby Bear and saw Poppa Bear ahead. And it looked like Alp D’Huez in the Tour de France! There were spectators lining both sides with Ironfan in their midst. The yelling and cowbells gave me goose bumps and the power to scoot up Poppa Bear.
From there the course goes across Northwood road to Mirror Lake drive, past the club tents where I heard shouts from Endurance Multisport as I passed by, and then on to Parkside and special needs. The great Lake Placid volunteers found my bag and one held my bike for me and helped me fish stuff out of the bag. I ditched the jacket, found my pop tarts, and cleaned my sunglasses and put them on. I decided to wait until I was outside of town to find a shady spot to stop and eat the pop tarts so off I went.
I left the cheerful spectators in town and headed out on loop 2 of the bike and more of the same. So far I felt pretty good. I stopped in a shaded spot and was eating the first pop tart when teammate Stephanie Burke went by asking if I was okay. I said “Yep. Just having a little lunch”. No I am not a pro tour rider and not that confident doing multiple things at once on the bike. So yes I stopped to eat. Sue me.
Instead of eating the second pop tart (things went downhill with this decision) I hopped back on to catch up and say “Hi” to Steph. We spoke briefly as I went by and then I continued up the hill. The second loop was so much harder than the first especially toward the end. After the Haselton Road out and back I stopped briefly at the aid station to stretch and walk a bit. The medic asked if I need anything and I told her just a stretch. I asked if there was anything serious and she said some bad road rash from a couple of crashes and a lot of cases of hypothermia including a couple requiring ambulance trips.
The sun held court for most of the second loop but after making the turn on 86 to head back toward Lake Placid, the road steamed, and showed signs of recent rain. The air around me became a sauna sucking the sweat out of my body and making every pedal stroke torture. Thick, black thunderheads built over the mountains, and the sky crackled with lightning again. I expected at any moment to have an official come by to tell me the race was being shortened, but it didn’t happen even after a particularly close strike with instantaneous, loud thunder.
A few miles outside of Lake Placid the heavens let loose with torrential, driving rain and an accompanying wind. I could barely see through my glasses but didn’t want to take them off based on the hard, stinging drops hitting my cheeks. We had been given advice on where to seek shelter and the closest shelter to me was Lake Placid. Pedal on.
This storm did not last long and finally died to sullen, grey clouds. But Mother Nature’s one-two punch of thunderstorms, followed by searing sun were taking a heavy toll on my cycling legs. It became a grind as I climbed up the now sparsely populated Poppa Bear. Once again over Northwood, past the cheers from Endurance Multisport and on toward Parkside, Main Street, and the bike finish.
I’d like to say I was jazzed about starting the run but I was truly cooked from the bike. I was having a difficult time imagining how I was going to run 26.2 miles. I briefly thought of calling it a day. It occurred to me if a volunteer questioned me too closely they might not let me continue. I was a bit fuzzy and awkward in my movement. I didn’t know it then but later I would come to the realization that I had completely missed my nutrition on bike loop 2. But I wanted to hear Mike Reilly tell me I was an Ironman so I pressed on.
The changing tent was much less busy now with participants spread out through the bike course. A volunteer helped me pull stuff from the run bag and put cycling stuff back in. He told me to let him know when I was finished and he’d take care of the bag. I put on running shorts and tri top and pulled on my calf sleeves. My feet were like prunes from my soaking wet socks and drenched cycling shoes. I dried them off with a towel and sprinkled them liberally with baby powder before putting on my socks and shoes. I grabbed my hat, snapped on my race belt and sent my run bag off with a volunteer. I really needed to pee before running which I considered a good sign and I suddenly discovered the beauty of being a guy. The men’s changing tents had urinals.
After taking care of business I headed out the tent flap, set my Garmin for run, and took off for Main Street with the encouragement of the crowds. The first couple miles of the run course is nearly all downhill. I tend to go out too fast off the bike and was trying to control my speed. I knew I was exhausted and low on energy and wanted something like a 9:30 pace. No matter what I did I was between 8:00 and 8:30. I felt like I was crawling and I was still going 8:15. The clouds cleared and the sun came back out. The freshly fallen rain evaporated off the black asphalt. The steamer was on. I foolishly passed the first aid station without stopping. As I neared the steel bridge on river road the orange cones turned in to big orange blobs in my vision. I was losing it. “STOP. Walk. It’s not even 4:00. You can walk it in if you have to but don’t blow it now”. The bonk had crept up on me. My legs felt like concrete, and attempting to run started a chain reaction that nearly caused me to fall down. Oh boy. Eat a gel and just get to the aid station.
I began grabbing water, ice, Coke, and some sort of food at each aid station. Cookies, orange slices, banana pieces, and chicken broth. For several miles this was the pattern. I’d leave the aid station with a cup of ice and Coke, sip the Coke, eat the ice and then run to the next aid station. I was only able to run maybe a 1/4 mile of each mile. I slowly slogged my way around the loop. At one point while walking along Steph passed and asked in her truly concerned and compassionate voice “Are you okay”? I nodded and said “Yeah . . just bonked a bit”. I can see why she is a good EMT.
I pressed on and began a 3 telephone pole strategy. Run 3 walk 3. This got me back to town. I was far from alone. There were more people walking now then running. I made my way through the cheering crowds. It is a little hard to hear “You are doing great!” when you feel awful. It is particularly hard when you know your strength is running and you have no strength left to run.
I made my way up mirror lake drive. As I neared the Endurance Multisport tent I saw Ironfan and he called my name and said “How are you doing”? I gave the thumbs down and heard grumbles and boos. Boo? Really? Then I remembered Janice’s advice. “Have fun out there”. I realized then that I really could walk it in if I had to but before the day was over I would be an Ironman and I should probably enjoy it. I hit the next aid station and got another Coke. Shortly after I saw coach Craig Sheckler and told him I didn’t have any run left. He advised to just keep taking the Coke and nutrition. Farther up Mirror Lake drive, I hit the turnaround and headed back down to Main Street for loop 2 passing by Team EnMu one more time and getting some final encouragement as I sipped chicken broth.
As I neared the end of Mirror Lake drive, the road was split by a barricade with one side marked for 2nd loop and the other said “To Finish”. I longed to go “To Finish” even as I made the left turn for the 2nd loop and could hear Mike Reilly calling people out by name. I wanted that but there was more work to do.
At the start of the downhill I did my best to run out of town again making it about 3/4 of a mile before my legs threatened collapse. I slowed to a walk again and noticed a young woman in a pink jersey with pink socks. We had leap-frogged all day on the bike. We started chatting and it turns out she was in much the same boat as me. In fact, we had both finished the swim loop (barely) and both had done the bike in about the same amount of time. She had no run left either so we spent the next 6 miles or so chatting about the day, triathlon and life. She was a 5 time Ironman finisher from Chicago and well on her way to number 6. The whole time we walked we took on good nutrition and and kept a pretty good walking pace. I laughed for the first time in a while and even spotted a tiny Labrador retriever puppy being held by a spectator that I had to stop and pet. (Come on . . it was a cute puppy. Who could pass that up?)
The sun crept down and the temperature dropped a bit from the post-storm heat. We got to the mile 20 aid station where I took some final water and said “Chrissy, I’m feeling pretty good and I’m going to give running a try again. I’ll see you at the finish”. She said “Good luck and congratulations”!
I set off on a run with a tentative pace. Hmmm. This was better. My legs responded well. My heart rate was good. 1 mile. 2 miles. I looked at my Garmin and I was holding an 8:44 pace. Not bad.I passed Kevin and then Steph. As I did I said “I found my run again”. She replied “I knew you would Pete”. I yelled encouragement to teammate and friend Dave Dammer who was heading outbound on run loop 2. I walked at every other aid station and walked the two big hills heading back to town. On the second hill I saw the sign for mile 24 and my heart leaped. This was the moment I dreamed of when I knew it would happen and that I really could do this race because nothing could stop me from here. I walked briskly up the steepest part of the hill on Main street. So many people were walking at this point spectators called out to me because I was running so well. (I kept thinking “You should have seen me an hour ago”). Up Main Street I went. Then once more up Mirror Lake drive this time at a steady run as I passed the EnMu tent. I heard cheers and waved as I went by. I spied Ironfan again and told him I found my run at mile 20. He said “Make sure you save something left for the oval”. No worries. I would hear Mike Reilly say my name and tell me I was an Ironman.
I held pace but began to wonder if they moved the turnaround for the second loop as I continued up Mirror Lake drive. I was eager to be done but felt good now. Spectators called out that the turnaround was just ahead. I rounded the bend and saw the lights for the turn. Still running, I made the turn and headed South picking up the pace more. I went back by the tents, and back by Steph working her way up Mirror Lake drive. She told me to run it in. I saw my walking companion Chrissy as well. She too had found her run again. But now I was focused on the end of Mirror Lake Drive and the turn to the oval. During training camp, I had run this road many times and knew every land mark: The tennis courts, Parkside Drive and then the split for 2nd loop and the finish.
In my mind I had rehearsed many times how I would dramatically enter the oval and high five people on my way to the line. I would find my wife in the crowd and kiss her. I would walk the last few yards to soak it all in and hear every sound. But now I ran. I wanted to cross that line. I passed groups of people in the oval. After the relative quiet of River Road the noise and light of the oval was overwhelming and overpowering. I felt a smile go across my face and continued to run. I wanted to see that finish line. I rounded the last bend and blinding spotlights showed the finish. It was a bit like death in the movies where the spirit heads “toward the light”. I was mesmerized. Somewhere in the din I heard my wife’s voice but kept running. No dramatics. No ceremonies. I crossed the line, threw my hands in the air and howled! I was an Ironman.
I was immediately met by Gail, a very nice volunteer who grabbed my arm while another volunteer placed the finisher’s medal around my neck. Gail then engaged me in conversation, congratulating me on my race and asking me pointed questions. Lake Placid has some of the best volunteers and Gail was going to make sure I was okay which I very much appreciated but I was fine. My mostly long walk had refreshed and restored me mentally and physically. I got my picture taken, a space blanket, water, shirt, and hat and with hands full and Gail convinced I was okay was sent off toward the food tent. I was so looking forward to something besides orange slices, bananas, pretzels and cookies. I walked in to the food tables looked down and saw orange slices, bananas, pretzels, and cookies. Yech. Then a volunteer came to the rescue with a slice of veggie pizza.
I sat down with my water and pizza looking back at the finish and expecting Steph at any moment. With the noise and lights and hubbub it was a blur for a tired mind. As I watched and talked to my fellow finishers I suddenly became aware of a repetitive voice calling people by name . . . . then suddenly it hit me. I MISSED HEARING MIKE REILLY TELL ME I WAS AN IRONMAN!