"Trust your training", "Stick to the plan", "Enjoy your surroundings", "Be grateful for your health", "Make the best of what you can't control", "Reflect on the journey", “Just one more descent to Keene”, “No more descents to Keene”, “Today is a celebration of all your hard work”, "I didn't train to walk", “Embrace the fun moments”, "Forward movement is still progress"...
Nearly three weeks have past since I crossed the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid 2017. I’ve shared a few thoughts about the race on social media, I briefly recapped the race to those who supported a Crowdrise page I had while training, I found my way into a local running magazine (GLIRC) for their September 2017 issue, and I was even interviewed by a local paper (will add link as soon as the story is out)! It's been a productive past few weeks even though I'm in a training slump. More time with loved ones, more time to focus on other life goals, and of course, time to reflect. Below is a recap of the race weekend and a journey into my mind as I prepared for and competed in Ironman Lake Placid 2017.
Friday, July 21st 2017
Two days before race day. My fiancée Sarah, our friend Justin and I drove in to the village of Lake Placid from our Airbnb to experience the Ironman Village Expo -- merchandise tents, interactive activities, good food, and all things triathlon. A sea of cars with bike racks jutting out in all directions filled nearly every parking spot in town, swarms of fit men and women wearing their favorite Ironman tee from past races walked down Main street, and families giving their undivided attention to the athlete they’ve driven hundreds, some thousands, of miles to cheer on, seem to be enjoying the positive atmosphere and summer weather.
First thing on the to-do list was to check out Bacon's Meat and Greet. Hundreds of athletes met up for a breakfast hosted by a well respected retired police officer and ate lots of bacon and lots of eggs. We showed up towards the end but it seemed like it was a well-run event and we even ended up winning a few raffles prizes! After that, we headed to athlete check-in. This took place in the Olympic conference center. If you’re not familiar with Lake Placid, the village hosted the 1932 and 1980 Olympics. Many memorable moments in Olympic history occurred here including the Miracle on Ice.
The realization of what I was about to do on Sunday started sinking in as I walked up the steps of the Olympic Conference Center. This realization was met with involuntary smiles, which primarily served to deflect my nervous feelings. Nevertheless, being greeted by warm and compassionate volunteers eased my nerves as I initialed waivers, received my race numbers, timing chip, swim cap and goodie bag. I’m unsure if this goes for all Ironman races, but this is the first race I’ve ever done where they tell you “be sure to pick up your shirt with this ticket AFTER you cross the finish line”. After hearing that, the letters DNF (Did Not Finish) immediately engulfed my mind. I quickly extinguished those letters with the phrase “trust your training” on loop in my head. A kind lady talked me through all the race morning procedures, clipped the official Ironman wristband on me and asked if I wanted to wear an additional wristband that would indicate I was a first timer. I told her, “that’s who I am, so absolutely”. With that, it was official.
My training schedule that day included a 15 mile bike ride and a 35 minute swim. The purpose of the bike ride was to get accustomed to a set of carbon wheels I rented for race day. The significant difference in weight between carbon and factory wheels means less effort, more speed. After picking my bike up 45 minutes later, I joined several other solo riders and groups on their way out of the village of Lake Placid down route 86. The one concern that began to dance around my mind was “what if I get injured now, what if a car hits me today?”... It was quickly remedied by repeating the phrase, “make the best of what you can’t control”. I’ve clocked in over 2,000 miles on my bike over 9 months of training, I wasn’t going to let one day derail the focus I’d need to manage what lies ahead.
Heading down Route 86, I was technically doing the bike course in reverse, but this meant a leisurely and less-technical ride to spin out the legs. I found myself smiling, randomly, whether it was, again, a deflection of lingering anxiety or pure joy. I told myself “I’m here, everything I worked for is being put to the test this Sunday”. The bike rode magnificently. The wheels rolled with what seemed like no friction, occasionally being tossed side to side by a crosswind that swept from the rivers to my left meeting the mountains to my right. 7.5 miles in, I flipped a U-turn and switched to the bike’s small ring since the way back was uphill. I recall thinking about one of my earlier Ironman Lake Placid training sessions back in late November 2016, sitting on my trainer with an expected ride time of 45 minutes which used to kick my ass, watching people walk past my apartment wearing their winter jackets. It was a nice realization of how long I’ve been training for this race, from the boring indoor trainer rides to the cold morning runs and all the times I’d walk to my car from the pool, wet and shivering asking myself “why?”.
The rest of Friday involved some leisurely walking around, a calm and relaxing 1,500 meter swim in Mirror Lake with Sarah, a mile-long underwear fun-run through town, and a great deal of lounging. We were staying at a cabin that was built 30 years ago by the woman who currently owns it. Its a cozy cabin nestled in the thick of the Adirondacks, surrounded by greenery, wildlife (including wolves, as per owner), and the cleanest air I’ve ever inhaled, ever. My friend Jacob arrived later that night and we enjoyed some wonderful star-gazing and mindless conversation before I transferred all my items from pre-packaged gear and special needs bags to the official Ironman special needs bags. I tripled checked that everything I needed was in there and retired to get the best sleep possible (really important to do 2 days before race day).
Saturday, July 22nd 2017
After 8 solid hours of sleep thanks to melatonin and the silence of the Adirondacks, we woke up to a gorgeous day. Our curiosity led us to explore and wander around the property. Saturday was all about relaxing. We eventually went back into town to officially check my bike in and hang my gear bags. At a full Ironman, there are racks where athletes hang a bike gear bag and a run gear bag. As athletes come into transition from the end of the swim and end of the bike, they first run to their designated spot on the rack, grab the appropriate gear bag and run into a large tent to change clothes, fuel up and do anything else you may need to before the next leg of the race. It all became more and more real as I saw everything I had been reading about for months on end.
After the drop off, it was important to keep my mind entertained with anything that did not have to do with race day. As a group we contemplated hiking or renting kayaks. We went with the latter and added a stand-up paddle board to the mix. It turned out to be a great idea. Neither of us had ever been on a stand-up paddle board, so at least for me, it kept my mind busy and entertained, learning something new while finding time to relax. We switched off and I eventually settled into a kayak and enjoyed watching athletes swim past as they sneaked in one last swim before race day morning. Next thing I knew, we were all having dinner and I was officially counting the hours until I’d be slipping my wetsuit on to start the swim.
I often don’t sleep well or sleep at all the night before a race, but I must say, I slept a solid four hours which may have been due to the absolute peace and tranquility of the land we were on.
Sunday, July 23rd 2017: Race Day
Alarm was set for 3 AM. I was hoping to be out the door by 3:30am. I’ll probably never know what the group was really thinking when I shared this plan with them the night before, but their timeliness and positive attitudes deserves to be commended. A mediocre breakfast, a warm cup of coffee, and onto the next. The stars we’re still across the sky and we began packing the cars. While I saw Sarah and Jacob working on some window paint on their cars with supportive messages for me, I saw the final product on Sunday morning. It meant so much and made for a wonderful start to my day. As we reached the parking lot, mind you, it was still dark out, volunteers were out in full force directing traffic and welcoming athletes. A quiet line of athletes waited for the shuttle into town, a silence broken by Sarah’s enthusiasm and official Ironman cowbell! We decided to walk into town. At this point, I had to drop off my special needs bags. These bags are meant to hold any items you may want during the halfway point of the bike and the run. My bike had a spare for nearly everything that was on my bike, including frozen bottles filled with my nutrition to make for an easy swap at mile 56. It also included layers to give me options in case I had to deal with rain or cold weather. My run bag essentially held the same, a replacement of anything I’d ever need (except replacement running shoes). Both bags also included a $10 REI gift card for the volunteer that would ultimately assist me with my bag.
The hours flew by. After my body marking (race number and age), I went for a quick check of all my gear in the transition area, I pumped up my tires and secured my hydration on the bike. I had two water bottles filled with Infinit Nutrition, which I’ve been training with for the past three months after trying out several different nutrition options. This meant I did not rely on any solid calories or food for the matter to meet the my nutrition plan’s goals, but I knew I would be taking in some solids on the way. Ironman Foundation volunteers greeted other Ironman Foundation athletes and I, offering their assistance and well wishes. It was a nice and warm surprise to have that extra layer of support just over an hour before the cannon goes off. Reflecting back on my process of preparation on race day morning, I tend to spend a solid minute staring at my bike just before I decide that everything is good to go. It’s during that moment that I repeat every phrase I listed above and take a long, deep breathe as I accept the fact that I’ll be moving forward at different intensity levels for, basically, the rest of the day.
Sarah, all along, has been offering the best support I could ask for. She manages to say all the right things at the right time and gives me plenty of space when I start to turn inward. We walk toward the lake and I could feel my nerves start to tingle. There are people everywhere. Many have been through this before, some have done 10, 20, 30 Ironman races. Many are in the same boat as me. Ironman number one, an experience well beyond the day you do your first triathlon, Olympic or even half Ironman.
The tiny beach where we had set our gear Friday during our swim was littered with athletes and support crews, better known in the triathlon world as sherpas, walking around, talking to loved ones and giving themselves one last pep talk. I took this opportunity to go for a warm up swim.
The day was gorgeous and the sun was trying to find its way through a partly clouded sky. The forecast had read mid 50’s, partly cloudy in the morning followed by mid 70’s, full sun in the afternoon followed by low 60’s, clear skies in the evening. Perfect.
I knew what was next while I was warming up. So I said to myself, “today is a celebration of all your hard work”, over and over until I felt at ease. I ensured my goggles fit well, my earplugs were settled in and that my watch was ready for the start line. Did a quick stretch and I took one salt/sodium pill. Athletes had already begun filling the designated start area. A sea of men and women in black wetsuits. I said my goodbyes to Sarah, Justin and Jacob and I went towards the 1:15-1:30 (I think) swim-pace sign. Athletes are expected to seed themselves according to their anticipated swim time. With a goal of breaking 1:30, I wanted to hopefully be with those that share a similar or slightly faster pace.
The first canon went off, without warning. Meaning the Pros were off! “IT’S ON!”, I thought to myself. I began shuffling my way down when I saw a well know coach, Jeffrey Kline who hosted me when I came up to Lake Placid three weeks prior to train on the course. It was great to unexpectedly see a familiar face just before the start. I also met a couple of nice guys as we waited for the Age Group canon to go off, which is the best thing that could happen to you as you're waiting to start a long course endurance race. We exchanged small talk and provided some last minute motivation. A few minutes later, the second canon went off. I think my mind went a bit numb and silent as I shuffled my way up. Along with 2,800 other athlete I felt a mix of joy due to being healthy and fit enough to even attempt to do this ridiculous race along with a sense of fear due to the fact that, statistically speaking, many people were not going to cross the finish line at the end of the day.
The pack went from a slow shuffle to a slow jog when I eventually reach the start line and I high-fived Mile Reilly (with an extra squeeze of his hand) as I slipped my goggles on and went into race mode, or beast mode, or simply fish mode.
Swim Loop 1
All the advice about swinging hard left during the swim went right out the window, I found pockets close to the cable which provided a clear line for me to swim. The cable is technically is a rope that connects all the buoys, making it unnecessary for a swimmer to have to sight since the rope will allow you to know if you're swimming straight or not.
I found my rhythm early on yet it was met with the occasional slap on my feet, nudge to my side or realization that I wasn't swimming straight. Next thing I knew, I was 400 meters into the swim and my mind didn't have time to worry or feel anxious. It had to manage the present moment second by second. I felt alive!
My field of vision would occasionally see a pair of feet as I approached swimmers ahead which made me pop right out of the water to find the best line way to pass them. The butterflies from earlier must have flown out my mouth and found a better home because I was feeling good and had reached turn one a few minutes faster than my anticipated goal time.
By turn 1 of my first loop, the pros had started to catch up to me on their second loop. I felt strong and comfortable with the nudging and the flailing limbs, especially around the corner but nothing prepared me for what happened next. One of the Pros palmed my back and submerged me as he continued swimming past me. As if I wasn't even there. I popped out of the water and looked ahead as he kept plowing through Age Groupers. For a split second I was furious, but I kept swimming and was eventually genuinely impressed by the sheer force and speed the he had. I found myself swimming right above the cable being greeted and passed by many other swimmers who also wanted a spot on that line.
Towards the end of loop one I began to feel confident that, of all continues to go at my current pace, I'd finish the swim well below my goal. Of course, that's when I get jolted with a Charlie Horse on my right hamstring. I immediately lose the use of that leg so I'm forced to roll onto my back and swim backwards as I tested my right leg's movement while still moving forward. The cramp wasn't fully gone, but I decided to flip back over and swim without the use of that leg. It worked and I was close enough to the beach to start my second loop where I'd shake my leg out and say good riddance to the cramp for the rest of the day.
Swim Loop 2
Loop two felt as if it went by much quicker, mainly because the athletes were now more spread out on the swim course and I was warmed up. I found my rhythm and went into auto pilot. Any break from autopilot was to either manage someone passing me or someone to be passed. Form check was helpful and so was acknowledging the relaxing feeling of keeping my neck down because I knew that wouldn’t be the case during the bike.
Turn 1 and 2 came up quickly. My mouth began to dry up and I was getting thirsty, which is likely to happen on an hour+ long swim. I swam over the cable again for the way back towards the swim finish and just hammered it home.
As I approached the swim finish, I saw a scuba diver under me who was taking photographs. Unfortunately for him, I accidentally kicked him in the head. I began kicking hard to get blood flowing into my legs for the bike. I finally reached land again, stood up and started jogging towards the wetsuit stripper volunteers. With all the bumping and shoving, being submerged and getting cramp, I can't complain over a swim time of 1:29.
Wetsuit stripping must be the most fun a volunteer can have on race day. As I ran to the wetsuit stripping area, there was a sea of volunteers to go to. It isn't until you lock eyes with one and mutually agree in that split second of nonverbal, and slightly intimate communication, that he/she is your personal assistant for the next 15 seconds. Unfortunately for me, it took about 45 seconds because I was having trouble getting one of my sleeves over my watch. Fortunately, another volunteer came to help and next thing I know, I'm on the ground with both my legs up as they rip the suit off of me and I'm off to the transition area.
Covered in sand, barefoot, cold, wet and thirsty, I remember opening my eyes wide for the first time all day and had my first experience with the Lake Placid crowd. Crowds of people lined the path we had to take to get to transition, a good 200 meters or so. I took it all in, and I smiled. This time a genuine smile of joy and excitement. I could not have been happier to get started on the bike ride, an event that I anticipated would take me over 7 hours.
I hear Sarah, Jacob and Justin and I head for the transition area. I grab my bike gear bag off the rack and head into the change tent. As I enter I try to take in everything that's going on, which was not a smart thing to do. Guys (there was a men's and a women's change tent) were dousing themselves with sunscreen and tripping all over themselves as they hanged into their bike gear. I found an empty chair and focused on myself. I started digging into my bag, either approving or disapproving whether I'd be using the items as they came out. I opted for no long sleeve which turned out to be an inconvenience (I was wearing a one-piece tri suit under my wetsuit). A volunteer walked by asking if anyone needed any help. Over the groans and calls for help, the volunteer heard me call for him and I handed him a bottle of sunscreen. I just said, “everywhere”, and he got to work. Helmet on, glasses on, bike shoes, sunscreen on, ready to roll.
As I hobble out of the change tent in my clip-ons, I ask a volunteer holding spray-on sunscreen for another layer and off I go. I hear another volunteer call out my bib number, 134, and I immediately think, “Yes! They're going to have my bike ready for me”, and that they did. I heard Sarah again as she was running her own race going from spot to spot. Grabbed my bike, thanked the volunteer, I hopped on, clipped in, switched my watch to bike mode and I was off.
Bike Loop 1
As you turn out of the transition area, which is inside the Olympic oval, you're met with a quick 180 turn followed by a steep downhill into town. This is when I first truly realized how cold I was. Wearing a skin tight, one piece tri suit, it's only 8am and in the high 50’s, I immediately regretted not putting my long sleeve on. I met that concern with “make the best of what you can't control”. So I started thinking about how nice the day will only warm up from here on forward. And it did.
When you first get on the bike during a triathlon, it's key to keep a high cadence to warm your legs up. For Ironman Lake Placid it's especially key to take the first loop easy. With all the adrenaline running through me, it took a few minutes to convince myself to bring my effort down to a comfortable level. This was especially the case during the first climb, about a mile into the course.
Course familiarity helped a great deal. I had previously driven up to Lake Placid in April and early July to ride the course. I had a good sense of what to expect. Having the road blocked off from traffic added a layer of safety that made me feel more comfortable than I anticipated. Removing the thought of having a car pass you too close, or worse, hit you, made the bike ride far more enjoyable.
At this point, I realized my watch was not reading my heart rate. This is still a mystery to me, but it may be due to my chest strap having been submerged for an hour and a half while I was swimming. It's hard believe though, because I've worn it on long swim days in the past. Regardless, all my advice from coach about staying in heart rate zones and actually staying in my recommended heart rate zones depending on where I am in each sport, went right out the window. “Make the best of what you can't control.” I went by feel. and it allowed my to enjoy the scenery.
About nine or ten miles into the ride, you're met with the start of the descent to Keene Valley. The first time I went down the descent to Keene Valley, I was genuinely terrified. Strong crosswinds surprised me in strong gusts that threatened to blow me over. I had no idea how to handle the descent back then. I focused on the ground in front of me as opposed to behind me. I didn't keep a foot down and I sure as hell was not keeping my hands and arms loose on the handle bars.
I'm glad to have experienced the descent three times before race day. In early July, I took the hill with newly learned skills and familiarity. It helped, but there's nothing quite like hitting 35+ mph on a bicycle, especially one meant for speed because it will only want to go faster.
As I approached the start of the descent on race day, which is clearly marked by road signs that say “low gear” and have a picture of a truck on a 45 degree angle, I remember repeating, “keep your eyes ahead, keep your arms loose, stay focused, stay on the right, feather your brakes, don't look at your speed. Make it to the bottom in one piece, surrender to those that pass you on the bike, for you will most likely catch up to them on the run”. I repeated variations of those phrases for the whole descent. A good 5 to 6 miles.
At one point, I saw an ambulance in the distance. As I rode past, I saw a rider on a stretcher being wheeled towards the back of the ambulance. Bike debris spread out on the road. I wished him well and carried on. I was shivering and I remember I biker passing me saying, “don't worry bud, it's almost over”. He must've sensed the fear in me from 100 yards out. I passed no one on the descent and I could not have cared less.
After the descent, the bike ride turned into a mix of gradual ascents and descents. We rode through little towns that had people lining the streets with signs and cowbells. These were great mental breaks in the monotony of pedaling of hours on end. The scenery became more and more beautiful and I began recognizing riders.
After several miles of riding, you begin to settle in with a pack of riders that are keeping a similar pace. I would talk with some of them and simply just ride alongside others. About 30 miles in, I decided to stop at an aid station to use the restroom, because I honestly didn't know what I actually needed to take care. After the quick stop, I clipped back in and grabbed a Gatorade to add on board.
About 40 miles in, the Pros were on their second loop, passing by us going the other way on the Ausable out n’ back portion of the course. This meant that they were about 11 miles behind and coming in hot. I imagined they would pass me during the climb into Wilmington. Of the Pros, I was only familiar with Andy Potts. He won the very first half-Ironman man I competed in back in 2015, Timberman 70.3 in New Hampshire. Andy was in second place when I first saw him on the bike on the Lake Placid course and he was being chased by two other Pros for what made a close race. These guys were hoping to finish the race in under 9 hours!
As you finish the out n’ back, you're met with a long hill. As you look ahead you see a line of cyclists, all in their small ring, crawling up. It looked more painful than it actually felt. And for the all the bikes that passed me on the descent, I felt good passing many cyclists on this and other ascents. There’s a left hand turn out on the course which I believe keeps you on route 86 and on your way back to the village of Lake Placid. This turn feels good to make. You know you have a little over 10 miles to go to finish your first loop. These last few miles of the loop include the most number of hills but also take you through the Sentinel Range Wilderness Area and along windy mountain roads that run alongside the Ausable River.
On route 86, the road is open to cars going in the opposite direction. It didn’t make too much of an impact on me unless a large vehicle went by at a high speed causing a strong wind to rock me. This didn’t happen often and if it did, it wasn’t too difficult to anticipate it to correct it appropriately. At one point, I saw a tiny white Fiat coming up a hill ahead of me. I thought to myself, “that’s not Jacob, is it?” He had mentioned having to head back down to new york city a bit early, so it wouldn’t have been a total surprise to see him on the course, but what timing! As he neared I gave him a few solid fist pumps and he must have caught them because as he passed me, I turned to look back and he had stopped his car in the middle of the road. Just seeing a familiar face out there was enough to provide a level of comfort that eased my mind into enjoy this beautiful day.
Maybe 15 minutes later, I see a Harley Davidson pass me. The same one that was leading the Pro men when they passed by on my way back from Ausable. I was waiting for it, the sound deep swoosh of their carbon wheels be turned by their superhuman endurance and power. Sure enough, a few moments later, the three leading Pro men passed me. They must have been going about 28 mph, which is about what the winner averaged for the the whole bike course. This meant that they passed me as if I was simply going for a leisurely ride, and they were on their second loop! Impressed and inspired, I tucked into aero and check in on my metrics.
Towards the end of the stretch along the Sentinel Wilderness Area, I felt I was slowing down on my nutrition intake so I took more frequent sips. My bladder was now sending me signals. I’ve been asked a few times, “what do you do if you need to use the bathroom?”. My first answer is “you just go on yourself”, but, as previously mentioned, I stopped at a porta-potty around mile 30 because of how conveniently located they were at the aid stations. In addition, volunteers would rack your bike and ask if you if you needed anything refilled while you would go to the bathroom. So I made another bathroom stop before the first loop ended and I was ready to tackle a trio of hills called the Three Bears.
Reaching the Three Bears means you’re not far from town but you still have some work to. I kept making sure I wasn’t overexerting myself and soaked in the cheers from people lining both sides of the street on Papa Bear. One hill that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the Three Bears is the hill that follows Papa Bear on Northwood Road. They should call this hill the Grandpa Bear. If you don’t pick up momentum for it, it can certainly be a grinder.
The next part of the bike course, as you come down Mirror Lake Drive into town, made my adrenaline skyrocket. I was picking up speed as I saw Mirror Lake in the corner of my eye, clear of any athletes, calm and open to tourists again. The streets were FILLED with people cheering, sounding cowbells, and soaking in the sun. As I sped through town, the sidewalk barricades that lined the streets created a fast and fun section of the course that allowed for fast corners and hearing your name get called out as you fly down Main Street. Turning on Cummins Road, I saw Sarah and Justin right across where I’d ultimately stop for bike special needs. A quick stop which involved replacing my nutrition bottles and taking a gel (mainly to have a new taste in my mouth). Unfortunately, I was so focused on what I needed and getting started with the second loop that I forgot to give the volunteer the REI gift card that I had thrown in the bag the day before. Luckily, I had another chance to give one out at the run special needs station. A few enthusiastic “woots!” to my support crew and I was off to do it all over again!
Bike Loop 2
The tricky part about the second loop is the fact that the same hills you took on during loop one have a completely different feel to them. Looking ahead around the bend of the hill that’s about two miles out of town, the line of cyclists look like they were all moving in slow motion. I mean, crawling. I felt strong and kept overtaking people on the hills. In the long run, I’d get passed on the downhills by many more than I’d pass on the uphills, but I needed some wins psychologically. I must say, it’s a strange feeling being the only one passing people on a long uphill, but at 130 pounds, I guess there isn’t much weight for me to carry.
The crowds of people that parked themselves on the side of the road to spectate changed from loop one to loop two. Some people had probably gone home to rest, or stopped by the local brewery for a burger and a beer, some maybe went to spectate elsewhere. A few others remained where I first saw them, but were significantly more inebriated on my second loop. People were creative and immensely encouraging with signs, music, dancing and more signs. The start of loop two was fun, much more fun than the cold start of loop one. The weather was warming, the mileage on my watch was in the 60s, I was on pace to clear the 5pm bike cut-off time by two hours and I was about to put both descents to Keene Valley behind me.
Approaching the descent on loop two was significantly more terrifying than the first. Although the weather was warming, the winds were picking up and changing direction. As I passed the Use Low Gear sign, the winds made their presence known and reminded me that this is an Ironman, not a ride around the park. And for me, whatever earning title of an Ironman means finishing the damn thing, not setting a speed record, so once again accepted that I’d be passed by many bikers, tossed my ego off to the side and took the deepest breathe I’ve ever taken in my life. The wheels began rolling and the speedometer kept climbing. “Just one more descent to Keene”, I kept repeating.
One of the most important mental strategies I've been able to to implement during training, especially when fear kicks in is to commit my focus onto the mechanisms that are moving me forward, whether I'm swimming, biking or running. This takes a great deal of interest in biomechanics and the an understanding of how a bicycle works but it was worth the time I invested to learn as much as I could. What this did for me was allow me to become laser-focused and impressed by how the bicycle was moving at this high rate of speed in a stable, rigid and streamlined manner. The attention to aerodynamics, the application of the quark composite brakes, the shear friction and heat build-up of all the moving parts flooded my brain and immersed me in the experience to the point in which I had left fear way behind.
5 or 6 miles later, I reached the bottom and I began repeating “no more descents to Keene, no more descents to Keene”, although I wasn't quiet about it. I found myself saying it out loud and a biker who heard me had the audacity to say “but that's my favorite part!”, as he sped past me…
The rest of the bike ride just happened. I can’t seem to put it any better than that. With the descents behind me, the fear behind me, the only thing I thought could stop me along the rest of the ride was a severe mechanical issue with the bike. Flats, tire gashes, chain issues, I put my time in to learn it and practice it all. Being told that I needed new tires when I took the bike in for a tune-up back in June was great news. The bike mechanic was in awe of my rear tire that I’d both indoors and outdoors. All the wear and tear from the indoor trainer created a flat spot that favored one side of the tire more than the other. Long story, short, since I was I didn’t want to buy a separate wheel to put the old tire on and simply replace the whole wheel and tire set whenever I’d ride indoors, I asked for the old tire back, asked the mechanic to install new tires on my wheels and learned to replace the whole rear tire each and every time I rode indoors. I was flat-proof with a personal best 3 minute 45 second rear tire tube change.
What i could share about the rest of the second loop was that my experience of being mindful of my form, technique, nutrition, and sense of time allowed catastrophizing thoughts to just come and go. They never stuck around for more than a few seconds before I acknowledged them, accepted they existed at that moment, and simply said, “not now, I’m busy”.
I want to say it was when I reached mile 90 of the bike that I began to have strong feelings of happiness are pure joy. A strong sense of being well on my way to completing amy first Ironman was trying to get the best of me. It was important to remain focused being that this is a challenge that can end your day and even end your life in a split second. I was choked up but I fought it. I urged this wave of joy hold tight for at least another six hours because I had 22 more miles to ride and 26.2 more miles to run.
Ironman Lake Placid rules state that you have to be at mile 101 by 5:00 PM or else you can no longer continue the race. If I recall correctly, I crossed the 101 mile marker just past 3 PM. I won’t say this made me happier than finishing the descents, but I was thrilled. If there was any part of the race that worried me leading up to this day it was making that final cut-off.
As I approached the Three Bears again, I began to stray from my training plan a bit. The thoughts of being less than 5 miles away from finishing the bike leg seemed to override the steady power output I’ve been exerting for the past 7 hours. I felt strong, I felt fast, so I went for it. Mama Bear was behind me, Baby Bear was barely a hill, and Papa Bear felt like, for a split second, I was competing in a Tour de France stage, grinding away at a respectable uphill speed, with a couple of enthusiastic fans cheering and running alongside me for a few feet. The crowd was larger the second time around at the top of Papa Bear and it gave me the motivation to blast through the last hill on Northwood Drive. From that point on, it was an 18-20 mph semi-sprint through town with transition a few turns away. Looking back it feels like it only took mere seconds to bike through the village of Lake Placid as I approached the dismount line at the back of Lake Placid High School.
I stopped the bike, swung my left leg over and another Charlie Horse that kept me from moving for a good 20 seconds -- as more and more bikers kept coming in. A wonderful volunteer stayed with me, eventually helped me start moving and I hobbled away as another pair of volunteers took my bike. “Good riddance”, I thought. I kept hobbling as I finally allowed a flood of thoughts engulf me regarding the upcoming marathon. Fuck.
Transition two was sloppy. As I jogged down the path towards my run-gear bag wearing my bike cleats I grunted which each hobble. I went past my run-gear bag and simply turning around with that minimal amount of momentum was a chore in itself. I snatched the bag off the rack and hobbled into the tent. As I sat down, I let out a solid woot that unintentional prompted the attention of a volunteer. He came my way and asked me if I wanted water. I said “no”, and he replied “I’m getting you water anyway”. Seven and a half hours of circular motion and friction was relieved as I slipped each bike cleat off as I cringed. New and fresh socks went on which felt like I was royalty and then the running shoes. For a second, the cushioning made me feel as if this marathon was going to be a piece of cake. I clipped on my race belt, took a salt pill, drank the water I “didn’t want” and put my glasses on. And then I stood up. And everything went to shit. I felt as if I was stepping on bricks that had shards of glass crazy glued to them. It got worse with each step. I almost convinced myself that I had to use the porta-potty just to delay starting the run. I remember looking around the changing tent as I stood by the exit. I saw many hurting men, stoic men, confused men, and scared men. I was probably all of those in one, fighting off my feelings and striving to grasp onto something. “Forward movement is still progress”, I repeated to myself a few times. I was off, in pain, but I was up to the marathon. 112 miles of biking, the part of the race I was most concerned about was completed. The swim felt like it happened three days prior.
The Marathon - Run Loop 1
The crowd was loud as I ran out of the changing tent. I called for a volunteer to apply sunscreen which happened faster than an Formula pit stop and I just happened to see Sarah. I went over for a few words and a hug which was just enough to sharpen my mind and ground myself for what was to come. The bricks and shards lasted another mile. By the third mile, I found my rhythm and found myself smiling again.
After my experience in the changing tent during the second transition, I knew I couldn’t go to that mental place again, especially not during the run. I found peace in remembering all the people that supported my wild idea to do this race. Regardless of all the email and social media spamming I projected and regardless of all the hours I selfishly claimed as my own, to go train, countless people supported this endeavor in so many creative and heart-warming ways, there were many people cheering me on, and that feels like nothing else in the world, especially when you’ve empowered yourself this whole time to complete a challenge as tough as this. Sifting through my memories with these family members, friends, coworkers and acquaintances made time fly by. Before I knew it was out off route 73 which is the area more populated with spectators. I dropped my sunglasses pouring water on my head at some point and just kept going. As I made the left on River Rd., which is a scenic, beautiful stretch of road surrounded by farms with horses prancing in the distance and brooks snaking through trees, I knew I had just over 4 miles until the turn around. There were enough trees to help you understand why the air in the Adirondacks has a distinct taste and a certain thickness to it that makes you want to breathe just a little harder. I had to stay mentally strong here, especially being on the first loop while seeing the mile markers for the second loop.
My pace was slow. It fluctuated between 10:30 and 12:00 minutes depending on which kept me confident that I was staying in a low enough heart rate zone to finish the race but also slow enough to worry if I could possibly bump it up a notch with no repercussions. Even though my pace was slow to my standards, as I approached mile 10, I realized I was on pace to complete a 2 hour, 15 minute half marathon which meant, if I just doubled that time, I could actually break 14 hours! To all the runners out there, it’s quite common to become a hell of a mathematician out on the course yet forget all about fatigue, inflammation, nutrition, hydration and everything else our body goes through during the second half of a marathon. Luckily, I began to have a conversation with another triathlete which made the time pass. It also confirmed that I could probably go a bit harder because I was able to comfortably have a conversation. A mile went by, he slowed to a walk at an aid station and I kept going.
As I approached the village of Lake Placid again, I was met with the steepest hill on the course. Crowds of people lined the streets to lift the spirits of those walking and celebrate those crazy enough, like myself, to keep a steady pace up the hill. The halfway point was approaching which meant I’d have access to my run special needs bag. A line of volunteers yelled bib numbers as we ran past them to the volunteers that hunted for our bags. A kind gentleman had my bag waiting for me, open. I reached in for my water bottle containing liquid calories and nutrition. I opted to slip on a last minute purchase, arm warmers. I always thought arm warmers were silly and useless. I’m now convinced they’re a much better option than putting a long sleeve on a provide a relieving compression to your arms that may or may not benefit blood flow, science still isn’t convinced of those claims. The last, and most important thing I pulled from the bag was a gift card for the volunteer, because they deserve it all and more.
Run Loop 2
As I went into the last half of the marathon, thoughts about being nearly finished began to surface. I felt tremendous joy. I was also in familiar territory, running along side Mirror Lake. My neck would turn right more than I wanted it to, trying to recruit memories from the swim that took place there nearly 12 hours ago. Hearing random strangers yell your name out (it's written on your bib number) is something else. It brought me back to running the NYC marathon. It’s amazing how a crowd can make you feel as if you’re floating. I saw and heard Sarah and Justin again as I headed out of town.
Just out of town, the spectators had really turned up the excitement. A local pub had college-aged kids outside blasting 90’s one hit wonders which I couldn’t help but joining in on the karaoke. High fives, a guy serving bacon on a plate, a salt supplement company with a guy dancing to hardcore EDM as if he was raving at the Burning Man Festival and a slew of hilarious signs attached to construction signs, road signs and mailboxes. My mind was in a happy place which helped me find a deep appreciation for all those long 18, 19, 20 mile runs down by the beach into the night.
Unbeknownst to other runners, I found myself having a great deal of fun running at my slow pace while others would run, then walk, then run, then walk, ultimately gaining no distance on me. I started creating a whole narrative around this. I began to think that as soon as these runners started walking, it’d just be “a matter of time before that skinny guy in tights passes me again”. I played this game with about 5 individual runners and one duo. It lasted a good 11-12 miles. I’ll never forget the duo. One wore a cowboy hat, the other towered at least 6 and a half feet tall. I’ll never forget them because they acted as a tether. A tether would ultimately break free from. As the game played on, I felt an attachment to the back and forth which could have easily kept me comfortable all the way to the end. I didn’t want that though.
As the sun began to set, my dreams of breaking 14 hours began fading. I was confident I’d finish well below 15 hours, but how well I finished depending on how much I was willing to empty my tank by the time I’d reach the finish line. I was sorted through these feelings and thoughts, I began self-suggesting that walking a bit would somehow help me in the long term. “I didn’t train to walk”, I repeated. I especially didn’t train to walk at any point under 20 miles, since that had been my longest training run. I opted to slow down to a walking pace around mile 20.5 for three small hills and it was useless. I should have just kept going at my numbingly slow pace, chugging along like as if I were cooling down from a long run.
As I exited River Rd., I was now desperate to stop playing this game with the duo. I would hear them decide what landmark they’d start running at and what landmark they’d start walking at. This couldn’t be how I was going to end my race. Just before the large horse farm on Route 73, I heard one of them say from behind me, “alright let’s start running at that sign”. By the time they started running I had begun to test my legs at a faster pace. My run stride increased, I lightened my ground contact time, and I felt as if I was flying. I left the duo in my dust.
The Final Kick
I dug deep and found myself getting more and more comfortable with the uncomfortable. What was once a smile reminiscent of a kid speeding on a bicycle for his or her first time turned into the serious, laser-focused and sometimes off-putting face I often wear. A face that means “step aside, I’m on a mission.” With each step, I got closer to the sub 9 minute pace I’d hold all the way to the hill back to town. By now it’s practically night time. People are still out on the street. I’m passing people I thought I’d never see again. And even though those people were now walking and struggling, they’d commend me for my newfound boost of energy.
The hill back up to Main Street was epic. From a distance, I heard a guy on megaphone yell, “We have a runner!!!”. It drew the crowd up on their feet as I fought to keep my pace up the hill. Once again, the crowd's energy lifted me. I was only a few miles from the finish. Up to the first aid station on Mirror Lake Drive, I had stopped for at least water at every aid station on the run course. As I considered my routine, I felt little need for extra nutrition. The road became dark, for some reason the street lights weren’t functioning. I guess it made it that much more dramatic. The turn around on Mirror Lake Drive came up much quicker this time as my pace was steady around 9:20/mile. As soon as I made the turn around, the wave of emotions I had during the end of the bike ride came rushing back with twice the force. I wanted to cry because of how far I had already come. I once again, had to tame the feelings back down and ask them to wait about 20 more minutes. I was running right past aid stations. With a stern look on my face pointed straight ahead, I said “thank you”, but did not for one second consider slowing down at this point.
Only a few times did I think about the fact that I started this race around 6:30 AM and the now the stars were out. Mirror Like Drive was now lined by mostly volunteers. As I approached Main Street to make the quick right towards the Olympic Oval, I picked my head up high and was floored seeing the crowd eager to lift each runner making those last few turns before the finish. The wave came back and I didn’t care where it went. I teared up, laughed, screamed what felt like all at once. I had fleeting thoughts that I could potentially clock-in a sub 5 hour marathon but I didn't care anymore. I was going to finish. If I dropped to the ground at this point, I still had 2.5 hours to crawl to the finish line. It was in the bag.
I entered the Olympic Oval and I had about 100 meters to go. As I turned the oval, I felt like all those people knew exactly what I had gone through these past 9 months, and in a way, they did, through the person they were out there to support. I began to slow down, but it didn’t matter anymore. I had turned the rockets on for the past 4 miles and I deserved every step towards that finish line. For added effect, Ironman is smart to blast construction-grade floodlights at you from the finish line. I had no idea where Sarah was but I knew she was watching. I had no idea where Mike Reilly was, but I knew I’d hear his voice soon enough, I had never felt the way I did at the moment before, but I knew it meant more to me than all the fanfare of Ironman and triathlon and carbon bikes and keeping fit. I jogged a few more steps and all I heard was, Marc Fernandez, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN! And the wave finally crashed into the arms to two lovely volunteers.
About 2800 men and women started Ironman Lake Placid 2017 and 2199 ultimately crossed the finish line. All 2800 are winners for simply toeing the start line.
Official time: 14:20:47