Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ironman Lake Placid

I'm not an emotional person. Heck, I often think of myself as a robot. I have something akin to "resting bitch face." I do smile, but usually it's to appear human when I meet someone else's gaze, or so my race photos look okay. If you saw my album of race photos, you might say I always look good, but (a) I've only posted the ones I thought were good and (b) I probably posed myself for that photo to some extent when I saw the camera operator. Even at Ironman, my smiling finish line photo is a put-on, because I'm more happy to be done than happy to cross the line. In contrast to that, my finish line photo at Ironman Lake Placid in July is the truest, deepest smile, possibly in my adult life. I first witnessed the frenetic energy of the final hour of an Ironman two years ago, on the spectator side of Ironman Wisconsin. For my money, it's the best party on Earth. So at the end of a grueling, shredding day, when I entered the finish chute at 11:32pm, on the Olympic speed skating oval, and my name was called, and the crowd went wild FOR ME, it was the most joyous moment I could ever imagine.
Of course, what "allowed" me to finish in the magic hour was a gruelingly long day getting eaten up by the brutal hills of the Lake Placid course. So just to officially finish, with less than 10 minutes to spare, felt like just as much of an accomplishment as any of my four previous Ironman finishes.

The day actually didn't start off that bad. Mirror Lake was a good temperature. It's not all that wide, so there was plenty of contact with other swimmers, but it wasn't terrible. The guide wire, suspended about 10 feet below the surface of the lake, makes it easy to follow the course, but gets more crowded since everyone wants to follow it. I was trying to stay away from the line for some space, but kept drifting closer to it. Overall for the two loops, I did what is officially "my pace" of roughly 1:22 for a wetsuit lake swim (it's still crazy to me to think I have "a pace" for swimming 2.4 miles). Never mind that when I got out after my first lap, a couple guys were finishing their second lap, I mean they did start before I did. I was feeling good enough at the end of the swim that I gave a high five to one of the rescue divers at the pier.
I was in no hurry for the long transition, out to the street, then down a block to the oval. The tent was packed when I got in, to the point that I stood over near the exit to put my jersey, socks, and shoes on. I got my bike and I was under way.
The bike course is just cruelly hilly, in my opinion. It starts down a huge hill, the bottom of which is stacked with hay bales in case anyone has a brake malfunction. It goes up a little before the long descent into Keene. Then it rolls north to an out-and-back section, then the pain begins. A hard right turn puts you on the first taste of the climbing to come. Frankly, I was kind of over the whole cycling thing about 25 miles in, so hitting that at mile 35 was not a happy time. The course flattens for a bit, then a gratuitous little out-and-back, and then the grind begins. This section is noted on the course map by its proximity to Whiteface Mountain. This is where the elevation lost on the white-knuckle descent to Keene is made up. This is the section that ate me up and made me want to quit. If it hadn't been for a cookie at an aid station, I might not have made it to the "three bears" that are the last barrier to returning to town. "Mama," "Baby," and "Papa" are the last kick in the teeth, but have the benefit of being close enough to town to be lined with spectators to energize off of. Then it starts all over again for lap two. If it hadn't been for the sugar boost at special needs, I almost certainly would have called it a day there.
I don't know if my bike's gearing is too high or my cadence is too high, but I can't seem to go slowly enough up a hill. Every uphill, I would be passing people while I was going as slowly as I could manage, about 8 or 9 mph, pushing too many watts in the process. Of course it all boils down to being severely undertrained and unprepared for the race, but a lower gear ratio might have at least mitigated the pain. On the second loop I stopped multiple times up the long climb to catch my breath. One stop was next to some spectators who were nice enough to give me some water, which helped well beyond the hydration. Another thing that didn't help was that my cockpit water bottle came loose and bounced out on the second descent to Keene. I saw it start to slip, but my hands were too busy on the brakes to catch it before it was gone. It took me so long to come to a complete stop, I was nowhere near the bottle. I sat on the side of the road for a minute hoping a moto would miraculously bring it to me, but of course that didn't happen. Fortunately, it's just a normal water bottle cage, so I put a regular water bottle there at aid stations, along with a Gatorade in my other cage. A 7:37 bike is pretty terrible, but at least I was done. Only a marathon to go.
And what a marathon. It starts downhill out of town, turns at the ski jumps, and has a long out-and-back along a stream. If I had been in a better mood, it would have been picturesque. Then you have to go back into town and climb a wall of a hill that seriously feels like it's 45 degrees. At the top of that hill, you turn left and go up just a little more. Then you get to the entrance to the Olympic speed skating oval, but instead of making a left and going to the finish, you make a right and go up just a little more elevation for a 1-mile out-and-back along Mirror Lake. And instead of going to the finish, you head back down and out of town for lap 2.
It's not as though I was having a good marathon at any point, but somewhere on that second lap, out by the stream, in the dark, I totally fell apart. I was completely spent. I was stumbling like a drunk. I was always a moment away from collapsing. I was sure I could collapse and no one would find me until morning. I wanted to just stop and sit on the side of the road. I wanted to wave down a passing 4-wheeler. I wanted to stop at an aid station. I wanted to fall into the medical station. I was desperate to miss a time cutoff and be sagged in. Even my watch stopped working. Some part of my brain wouldn't let me do any of those things. I kept moving forward, lurching like an extra on The Walking Dead. My brain wasn't working well enough to calculate if I could even make the 17-hour time limit, and I had no idea once my watch's battery died. It was a little less grim, drawing a bit of energy from the electric lights as I got back closer to town.
Then I met and angel going by the name of Amy. I have no idea where she came from, she wasn't wearing anything Ironman. She joined me as I was plodding along and asked if I could continue at that pace. I was pretty sure I could, actually a senior citizen with a walker probably could have maintained the pace I was going at that point. She assured me that I could finish as long as I kept going. She promised to bring me in, but then ran off. Amy rejoined me shortly before scaling the vicious hill. After making the turn away from the finish, she got the spectators at the bar there to cheer for me. Most times in the past when I've been in such depths of emotion, random people cheering has not helped, but somehow this time it did help. So when Amy started jogging ahead of me, I figured I'd try to follow her. Somehow it wasn't awfully painful, so we kept on jogging. Amy said "You've been holding out on me." Soon enough we were back at the corner by the oval. I high-fived Amy when she stopped outside the fence. As I was taking that last 100 meters, I really wasn't feeling high, I was just glad to almost be done. I was just composing myself for that finish line photo until I was about halfway through the chute, they called my name, the crowd went wild, and I got that big dumb grin as I felt like the king of the world... for about 5 seconds.
It's not like I crossed the finish line and it was an immediate letdown, but the buzz faded pretty quickly. I got my cap, t-shirt, medal, space blanket, photo, some water. I sat for a minute before collecting myself, bike, and gear bags. Gear recovery is really one of the worst parts of the race, but this was even worse because my hotel was up another huge hill. I was struggling with all my crap up the moderate hill in town when someone offered to help. I of course readily accepted, and she at least got my bike to the transport people. Then I was on my own to get my bags up the hill to my hotel. It was a struggle, but I managed to get to my room without collapsing. I even managed to wash myself and my wetsuit, as at that point I was punch-drunk and in the too-tired-to-sleep phase. It didn't take that long to fall asleep once I did lie down, but I only slept about 4 hours before I was up getting ready to head home.
My 7:28 marathon was my slowest ever, even slower than Ironman Wisconsin, but it still "counts" to make New York my tenth state marathon.

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