Ironman Lake Placid Race Report- 4th Overall, 8:57
When I was a kid, I used to spend two weeks every Summer at my family's cabin in the Adriondack Mountains. We have this tin-roofed, red, rustic home there that sits nestled in this forest of the best smelling pine trees you can imagine. Just out the front door and down a few steps is Limekiln Lake- a crystal clear, chilly, and picturesque body of water that was an absolute oasis for a kid (and, happily, still is, even for a 34 year old).
One Summer, in my early teens, I decided I was going to swim across Limekiln. In my moderately athletically talented teenage mind, I might as well have been swimming across the English Channel. This was a BIG deal. I was awesome. My step dad came out with my in the canoe (likely ensuring I didn't drown, though he was nice enough to say it was to keep boats away from me), and we set out for this epic journey. Now full disclosure, before you go to Google Maps...this lake is about a mile across....so, yeah. Anyway, long story short, I made it across, climbed out on the other side kind of wobbly-legged, looked back to survey my conquest, and crowned myself King of the Adriondacks before getting in the canoe for the row back home. Because NO ONE would ever swim two miles round trip, that's just insane.
Thankfully, a couple decades have past, my confidence has been tempered slightly, and my athletic abilities have progressed a bit. But one thing that hasn't changed- the Adirondacks have a special place in my heart. So as you can imagine, I was thrilled that Ironman Lake Placid would host a men's professional field on July 23rd, 2017.
This season has been a strange one for me. I started with two dismal performances at San Juan (mechanical) and South Africa (illness). I then changed coaches, hired a strength specialist, completely revamped my nutritional approach, and recommitted myself to being the best athlete I could be.
My first race under new coach, David Tilbury-Davis, was Eagleman 70.3 in June where I finished 7th. Given some of the easily correctable missteps from that race, coupled with the power and pace increases and great training block I put in for Lake Placid, I went in to the Ironman with more confidence than I've ever had for a race. David changed just about everything with me- my nutrition, my training philosophies, my respect for recovery, my mental outlook, etc. All of those things are deserving of their own blog posts, so I won't make an already long race report even longer, but suffice it to say I was excited to see what would unfold over 140.6 miles.
I arrived in Placid the Thursday before the race and settled in to my hotel on Main Street. The lead up to the race was thankfully unremarkable- I spent some time with family and friends in town, got a few workouts in, attended the pro meeting, registered, and generally just laid low.
As part of my new diet/nutritional approach, I was really happy to not have to do any acute sodium loading or calorie cramming the night before the race. And, perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first race eve I was ever able to sleep straight through!
We had an early race start so I was up just before 4am. I had my breakfast of waffles with peanut butter and coffee, got my bike checked in and transition area set up, went back to the hotel for some muscle activation work and dynamic exercises, and then headed to the start line.
The swim at Ironman Lake Placid is actually in Mirror Lake (less risk of oversized crocodiles). It's a two loop, clockwise course, with a short beach run between loops. Because this is the US canoe and kayak training center, there is actually a lane line about five feet under the water with buoys every 30 or so meters, for the entire course! This means that the first loop is absolutely incredible, much like swimming in a pool, but the second loop, when we meet the back of the amateur field, is absolute mayhem. Such was the case this Sunday.
I was fortunate enough to have raced about half of the men's field just a month earlier at Eagleman, so I had an idea of who I wanted to line up near. The gun went off, we battled for the lane line for about 400 meters, then things chilled out and we all went to work. A small group was off the front immediately, then a couple stragglers sporadically spaced, then my group of five. I was comfortably sitting in third for the first loop, enjoying the draft and feeling pretty good about the day. The other four guys in my group beat me out of the water by over a minute at Eagleman, so clearly the swim work I'd been doing was paying off.
We got through the first loop and out on to the beach smoothly. I checked the clock and saw 29:39. Definitely slower than I wanted/expected, especially given how nice the first loop felt, but given the group I was with I just figured this was a slow day and got on with it. As we entered the water for the second loop though, I noticed a TON of amateurs still entering the water. Uhoh. The amateurs are told to stay to the left of the buoy line so that the pros can swim on the right with unobstructed water, but given what we ran in to, I'm going to say roughly 600 amateurs missed that memo. So the second loop was rough.
Knowing we were going to get bogged down in the fray and not wanting to get popped out the back, I ran through one of the pro men on the beach and made sure to get back in the water in second, right on the heels of Doug MacLean, who was leading our group. This turned out to be the best strategic decision I could have made, because Doug turned himself in to a human spear and just drove on through everyone. I must have touched his heels a thousand times on that loop (sorry, Doug!), just out of fear that losing contact meant I'd be giving up two minutes, and thankfully Doug never retaliated with a kick to the face (thanks, Doug!). I was sure we were going to give up a chunk of time, but we exited the water at 59:54. I think we lost one guy from our group in that second loop, so four of us headed to T1 together.
One thing I've got down about this sport are my transitions. Speed suit came off (pros had a non-wetsuit swim), top went up, helmet went on, and I was on my way.
I was just really, really excited to get on my bike. David has done wonders for my power numbers and I felt like I was holding on to a secret that I finally had the opportunity to reveal. The goal was to ride around 280 watts (previous IM wattages were closer to 245), but to race strategically so I could attack and surge when needed. I took the opening miles out pretty hard- a mix of excitement and good taper- and set my sights on reeling in some of the guys I knew couldn't be far up the road.
The Placid bike course was slightly changed in the weeks leading up to the race, which meant that I knew I'd get a look at my competition early on in the ride. I wasn't totally sure of my placing or time gaps, so it was great to hit our first turnaround just about seven miles in to the ride. Approaching the turn, I saw Ventum teammate Justin Daerr, and Paul Ambrose riding together (legally- a fact I feel I always need to stress since it happens so infrequently). Knowing their pedigree, I figured they couldn't be too far from the front end of the field. It took me 2 minutes to hit the turn, and in that time I saw three other guys, all riding solo.
A four minute gap to Justin and Paul was big, but it was so early in the race and my legs felt so good that I decided to try to bridge that big gap. The next turnaround would come shortly after the 30 mile mark, so I started to dig to see if I could close the margin. I passed the three guys in between us quickly and hit the top of the big descent, right around mile ten, in full chase mode. Of course, this being the Adriondacks, the 0% chance of rain in the morning's forecast meant that it was exactly at the moment I started to pick speed that the rain started. Wet roads plus 50+ mph speeds apparently freaked out my between-the-arms water bottle, because on the steepest and bumpiest part of the hill, right around mile 12, the bottle carrying all of my first lap nutrition decided it was time to bail. And any thoughts I had of stopping to grab the bottle were quickly dashed when, as I looked back over my shoulder, I watched it land lid down and explode. Shoot.
With 100 miles to ride, I had a momentary freak out. That bottle of Infinit nutrition had 975 calories in it and was meant to take me to special needs. Without it, I'd be running a huge deficit all day. But, with no real other option (RIP bottle), I decided to at least keep the pressure on to the next turn and see what my gap was to the guys up the road. I grabbed a couple gels and a gatorade along the way and hoped that I could cram some calories in me to tide me over until special needs.
By the 30 mile turnaround I had closed a minute on Justin and Paul and could see a couple other guys coming back to us. I was still dropping the guys behind me, so it seemed like the best plan was to keep on doing what I was doing and hope I could figure out the nutrition along the way. Up the climb and back in to town, I closed another minute and was sitting about two minutes back on Justin and Paul (who were, at this point, sitting around 7th and 8th). I grabbed my much needed second bottle of Infinit at special needs and went out for the second loop.
Unfortunately, I really started to feel the fact that I only had about 300 calories for the first loop around mile 60. I took a ton of Infinit in and grabbed another gel, but it felt like a bandaid as the miles ticked by and the legs wore down. At the first turn on the second loop, I was back to three minutes down. At the far turnaround, the gap was back to four minutes. Thankfully the guys behind weren't pulling any closer, so I resolved to just get back to town as best I could and see what the run would bring.
The long climb home ended up being my saving grace. Getting out of aero and standing, I found I could summon some actual power, and, though I didn't know it at the time, I stopped the bleeding to Justin and Paul and started reeling a couple other guys in. When I hit Mirror Lake Drive (about a mile from T2), I caught one of the early race leaders and passed him, which brought me to transition in 8th.
I ended up riding a 4:51 on considerably fewer watts than I knew I was capable of. The first loop ticked by in ~2:20, so that 2:31 second loop really hurt!
I hopped off the bike at T2 expecting a total collapse, but thankfully my running legs felt oddly good. This second transition was as unremarkable as the first, with the exception of the fact that I passed another guy in the tent and exited T2 in 7th.
I felt AMAZING right out of transition. I crammed in a bunch of calories from my gel flask (knowing that I was still likely to pay for that 700 calorie deficit I was playing with), got confirmation from Robby that I was in 7th, and looked up to find 6th just a few meters ahead of me. I made that pass and kept the pace comfortable. Everything was feeling solid and I was excited to get on to River Rd and see where I was placed.
Eventual race winner, Brent McMahon, is an alien. He was on a completely different planet than the rest of us and I saw him very early on the three mile stretch to the turnaround. After a big gap, Andy Potts came running toward me in second. And not too long after that, I saw the third place bike parked on the side of the road with no runner. My brief "huh?" moment was quickly answered as TJ Tollakson appeared on the back of a golf cart getting a ride back to town. This bumped me in to 5th. Around a couple more bends I found Justin, now running solo in third and looking phenomenal. As I approached the turnaround, I saw Paul running about 40 seconds up on me. I was still feeling great, so I hit the turn and made the pass in to 4th pretty soon after.
It's worth mentioning at this point, because he becomes pretty important as this run story goes on, that the first person I ever met in triathlon, Adam Alper, happened to be on the course, right in the middle of River Road. No one ever spectates on River Rd, which makes it a pretty lonely place, but sure enough, Adam was standing right in the middle of this tough stretch every time I went through. And on this first lap return leg he yelled out, "hey man, you just passed Paul Ambrose and you're in 4th place at Ironman Lake Placid, that's pretty cool". I took a moment to think to myself, "yeah, that is cool", before quickly following that up with, "shit, you have to hold on to this for another 19 miles!".
Running back in to town was business as usual. I actually felt good climbing the two steep hills and got a big boost by seeing my friends and family on the side of the road. Despite my strong first loop- I ran around 1:26 for the first 13.1 miles- Justin was absolutely flying and my gap to him was close to seven minutes. I certainly wasn't giving up on catching him, but it realistically seemed like he'd have to come back to me more than I could go to him.
Chalk it up to excitement, the crowds, the endorphins, or whatever, but it was right around this point that I shot myself in the foot. Like I said, I felt great on the first loop, and that calorie deficit from the bike felt like a thing of the past. I had taken in the majority of my 400-calorie gel flask during the first 13, and it seemed like I was on pace for a low 2:50s marathon. But, as I approached special needs on the run, I started this stupid internal conversation (yes, I was responding to myself) regarding whether I picked up my bag on the way out Mirror Lake Drive or the way back. I couldn't remember if I called my number out while going out then got it coming back, if I called my number and collected it right away, if I just stared really hard at the guy handing bags and he surmised my desire for my second gel flask, or what. So instead, I just ran past special needs, hit the turnaround, and ran past it again. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I regretted that almost immediately. As soon as I started going downhill at mile 14, my legs felt like garbage. I passed Rob and managed to smile while telling her I suddenly felt terrible, but that smile faded really quickly. At the start of River Rd around mile 16, I started to cramp in both legs. I was thinking all sorts of thoughts, mostly profane, mostly directed at myself, and was trying to figure out what survival mode looked like. Brent, Andy, and Justin were gone, so it was a matter of holding on to 4th while nursing what was now around an 1100 calorie deficit for the day.
And then, I found Adam again. He cheered, I told him I thought I was going to die, and he got really serious and stared at me and yelled "you have to eat, you have to eat, EAT EAT EAT". Or maybe none of that happened and I hallucinated that interaction, but either way, I figured I should eat. I grabbed a gel at the next aid station and that helped bring me back a bit. At the turn around near mile 19 I was not happy to see my deficit to 5th was now around three minutes. Honestly, I don't know where it was in the previous 18 miles, but it hadn't ever felt that close!
I passed Adam again, undoubtedly looking like death, and again, he just started screaming "EAT!" at me. Over those last 10k I was like the cookie monster- any edible sugar thing that was held out went immediately in my face. The cramps really started to stab on the ski jump hill around mile 22, and I was pretty sure I was going to get passed, collapse, or collapse and get passed.
Back in to town and up the hills for the final time, I passed my amazing friends and family (making sure to keep my distance from them out of fear that eye contact or a high five would mean immediate destruction). I was sure the pass from 5th was coming and just tried running this ugly shuffle run thing so as to not completely seize up. I hit the last turn at mile 25, didn't see any other approaching pros, and finally relaxed just a bit. I maintained the same stride and pace so I didn't end up as the dummy who squandered a 4th place finish by falling down on the side of the road at mile 25.5, and finally relaxed a bit when I saw my gap to the next guy was now close to six minutes.
In to the oval, over the finish line, done.
I had spotted myself some time to run under 3 hours, but in the end ran 3:00:35. And just like the bike ride, the second loop of the run was no fun.
Ironman Lake Placid was a great day. I executed well, made some silly yet easily correctable mistakes, and came away feeling great about my future prospects. I was 4th overall with an 8:57:09. Not quite King of the Adirondacks, but slightly more impressive than my 1-mile lake crossing.
So many people played a part in getting me to this finish line in a reasonably fast time. I've already made this way longer than it should be, but I'd be remiss if I didn't especially thank Ben Kessel of Priority Fitness for helping to make me stronger and healthier than I've ever been, and David Tilbury-Davis for his guidance, expertise, belief, and commitment. I can't wait to see what's coming next.