Lake Placid Ironman 2016 Race Report

I finished my second Ironman: Lake Placid. 

I did not PR. (Ha! Not even close! I was 30 minutes faster at Boulder which is at frikkin’ 5000 feet altitude. On the other hand, Lake Placid has 6800 feet of elevation gain. So that may have had something to do with it

As the second oldest Ironman event in the United States, you can read lots of good articles that describe what to expect and how to train for it (like this onethis one, or this one). Im not going to rinse and repeat that story in this blog. Instead here are some tidbits that I learned and in the telling I’ll reveal how I got pink eye (I think that’s a first for a triathlon injury), clocked in the head by a competitor after the swim, and chalked up yet another toenail suicide.

The swim start is self-seeding based on your projected time. I was surprised by the size of the crowd and the crush standing on the beach waiting to for the race to start. Lots of people pushed from behind desperately trying to reach their perfect start spot. Not all of them could have been trying for Kona slots so I suspect it was case of contagious pre-race jitters.  In hindsight, this should have tipped me off: when the bumps and shoves start before you enter the water, you’re in for a hectic swim.

As all the Lake Placid race guides will tell you, there is a “cable” under the buoys on Mirror Lake and people fight to swim over it to use it as a sight aid. I figured I’d swim about 20 feet off to the left to avoid the feeding frenzy. It was good plan and it might even have worked — if I’d been 50 or 100 feet off the line. But 20 feet away wasn’t nearly enough. In the 5 or 6 triathlons that I’ve done, Lake Placid was the most contact I’ve had in any swim. 

Despite my desire to stay away from the washing machine, I have a tendency to drift to right while I swim. So every once in a while I’d find myself back in the thick of things: blocked by three people swimming abreast directly in front of me while somebody (or somebodies) were trying to crawl over my back from behind. On the first lap out, this happened with some regularity. At one point I got water in my goggles, but I just let it slosh around because there was no way to stop to clear it without getting drowned by the stampede of wet-suited lemmings directly behind me.

Eventually, on one of my drift-to-the-tight excursions, I found the “cable”. I was expecting something with more substance. You know, like a steel rope ski-lift cable. Instead it's more like a green algae-tinged clothes-line. 

The swim is a two lap out and back loop. On the return portion of the first lap, I finally managed to find some open water just off the line and I swam there for about 1/8th of mile. I hoped to do it again on the second lap, but no such luck — it was almost as crowded as the first lap. Even on the final leg of the swim I got a solid knock to the back of my head by a windmilling swimmer. (Ironically, this was merely a foreshadowing of things to come.)

Exiting the water you head left and run up a slight hill (more foreshadowing) and then onto the streets to reach T1. Some course guides say that there is carpet on the pavement; others say that you should anticipate running on pavement with bare feet. The reality is that there are carpet runners on the path. The runner is a couple of feet wide down the middle of the six foot wide path. So while there is carpet, if you want to pass someone in front of you, you’ll have to run on pavement in your bare feet.

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IMLP version of the red carpet treatment


At the top of the hill exiting Mirror Lake there was a long gauntlet of wetsuit strippers. They worked in pairs and were great/helpful/cheerful (as were all the volunteers at IMLP). After stripping my wetsuit down to my waist, they motioned for me to lay down so they could get peel it off my legs. I laid on the ground — and was promptly kneed in the head by another triathlete who was running past. I got clocked a good one and I must have looked a more than a little dazed because the volunteers asked me three times if I was I was OK. 

The last question was the best: “Are you sure?"

Of course I was sure! I was there to run an IRONMAN! Those shiny stars circling my head Bugs Bunny-like and the lovely bird chirping noises would keep me company during the rest of the day. I guess my noggin’ must have toughed up after playing contact sports with a Silverado because I shook off the disorientation quickly. I grabbed my wetsuit and headed to T1, grabbed my bike bag, and entered the changing tent where I had no problem finding a seat. 

Unlike the Austin 70.3 and Boulder (I think), no one left their helmet and glasses on their bikes. (Or at least I didn’t see anyone do it.) The only thing I moved to my bike that morning was a water bottle and some Bonk Breakers. I had planned to have a towel under my bike to wipe my feet before I put on my socks and shoes — but when it was clear that everyone else was going to put on their cycling shoes in the changing tent I shuffled my plans at the last minute.  In the process I somehow I neglected to put the towel in my bike bag. So I wiped off the sand from my feet with my socks the best I could and in my panic neglected to lube my toes. I didn’t realize my mistake until about three quarters into on the bike ride though.

Last year at Boulder I wore tri-shorts for the entire race and slipped a pair of cushy bike shorts over them at T1. I got some interesting blisters around my thighs from the bike short grip bands and it was hot wearing two pairs of pants so this year I practiced my hundred mile ride in a pair of tri-shorts. I didn’t have any issues with them so I figured I go with it. Here’s a tip though: your tri-short pad isn’t quite as comfy when it’s wet. I regretted my decision for the first 10-15 miles and thought I was in for a very rough ride, but once it dried it was OK — not plush, mind you, but not bad either.

The bike course for IMLP is described as hilly. 

And it is. It’s in the Adirondack Mountains after all. 

There are lots of hills. Many are steep, some are long, and some are steep AND long. What I didn’t glean from the reviews I’d read was that the steep hills were “smallest cog” tough. While I’m not strong on hills in general, I hardly ever shift down into the easiest gear. I can safely say that I gave my little cogs a good work-out at IMLP and we more than made up for our missed time together. 

Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Sure, strong bikers passed me going up the hills (especially in the first 50 miles of the course when the faster bikers were moving up the group), but there were plenty of people all around me grimly trudging up the hills just like me.

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Cruising along the beautiful Ausable River

What goes up must come down, of course. Except that at IMLP. 

First you go down and then you have to climb back up to get where you started. (That’s just so wrong.) The first big downhill is into Keene. It’s actually series of steep hills each longer than the last. The first hill is exciting and a little scary. The second one is definitely scary. And for me, the third hill well beyond scary and was solidly into terrifying. I was feathering my brakes on the hills and I still broke 40 mph at one point.

(My wife asked me after the IRONMAN if I appreciated the beautiful scenery of the cascades on the way down into Keene. “Hell, no! I was watching the pavement intently 10 feet in front of me the whole time like my life depended on it.”)

Meanwhile people in their aerobars were passing me (and others) at a good clip on the descent into Keene. (God bless them. I don’t have that kind of courage/suicidal tendencies.)

By the time I finally got into Keene, my hands literally ached from gripping my handlebars so tight for so long. I couldn’t wait to get onto the flats so I could rest my triceps and hands by getting into my aerobars. It’s a LONG descent. And on the second loop the wind whipping past my sunglasses at speed dried my eyes until they were painful. That, plus the irritation from the lake water in my googles, gave me one very bright red eye by the end of the race. I can’t wait to see the race photos. :-)

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IRONMAN Finisher: Phil “Pink-Eye” Miller

The next 20 miles were a joy. Some rollers but mostly flat. My shirt and shorts were finally dry and I was beginning to warm up. (There’s nothing like a 35 mph bike ride in wet cloths when its 65F.) 

Well, a joy with one notable exception: There’s an out and back at the town of Jay. About 1/2 a mile into the leg I saw the lead pack on their way back from the turnaround all in their aerobars and pushing hard. It was heartening at first… “There go the age group leaders!”, I thought. “They are just ahead of me.” But as I kept riding longer and longer to get to the turnaround point it became ever more depressing. About 5 miles and 15 minutes later I realized that we were only 1/4 way into the bike race they were 30 minutes ahead of me and getting farther away with each passing moment.

After you leave the town of Wilmington there is 12 mile climb back into Lake Placid, more or less. There are downhills and some flats but overall you’re gaining the elevation that you lost cannonballing into Keene. All the race reports talk about the dreaded “three bears” — three steep hills just before you get to Lake Placid. The reality is that they are about 2 or 3 miles long and the seven miles leading up to them are gruesome — especially with the headwind we experienced. The bears may be steep, but they’re short. They’re merely the insult to the injury of the LONG climb out of Wilmington.

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Stretching my back with my hands on my arm rests

The second loop was a lot like the first except warmer. My Garmin said it was 92F and my new aero — but oh-so-marginally-ventilated — helmet was starting to cook my brain. (Weather forecasts had called for a high of 75F just the day before.) 

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Look Ma! Only one hand!

I had kept a reasonable pace for the first 90 miles purposely holding back and not trying to muscle up the hills. I used the small cog on the cassette without any guilt to keep my cadence up and watts down. Race guides that I had read say that if you held back on the first loop and feel good at mile 90 to go for it. I felt OK so I tried to open it up a little — and realized that actually my legs were toast. (And this was before the second climb out of Wilmington, mind you.)

So toasted that I seriously considered getting into town by hook or by crook and then DNFing. I really didn’t think I could run on those legs and I wasn’t looking forward to a seven hour, 26 mile trudge. I average 17.3 mph of the first 56 miles and and 16.2 mph for the second half. Nothing to be proud of and that was despite going “easy” for the first 90 miles.

It was around this time that I noticed my one of my toes was getting a hot spot from rubbing inside my cycling shoe and it suddenly occurred to me that I forgot to lube my toes. Oops. Too late now.

I grimly pushed on and figured I’d sort it all out when I got to Lake Placid.

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Why is this man happy? Because he’s going to get off his bike soon…

I finally made it back to Lake Placid and rolled into T2. A volunteer grabbed my bike. I was so engrossed in making sure that I turned off my cycling computer and grabbed a water bottle off the bike that I completely forgot to DNF. :-) Sometimes being absent-minded can actually help… 

I grabbed my running gear and started the marathon. 

The first couple of miles out of town are downhill and I actually clocked a 7:40 pace on the second mile. Wheee! It was my fastest split of the day. 

I started walk/running almost immediately but I was quite okay with it. I followed my strategy at Boulder: walk whenever I wanted for however long I wanted — as long as I eventually start running again. I made it to the half marathon mark at a little over 2 hours and was pleased that I was on target for a 4:10ish marathon.

My strategy: Walk the uphills and run the downhills = 1 minute per mile slower pace going uphill. (Graph courtesy of GraphMyRun.com Analysis tab, of course.)

The marathon (and the bike course) are simply beautiful. 

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IMLP is most gorgeous race I’ve ever run. The bike course goes past the ski slopes on Whiteface Mountain which make for a beautiful backdrop.  The bike (and the run) wander for a while next the Ausable River which races over rocks at times and meanders still and deep at others. Heading back into Lake Placid on the run the 1980 Olympic ski jump is laid out in front of you. It’s breathtaking. The hill itself is insanely steep and tall. And then there’s a 394 foot ski jump built on top of it. 

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The view of the Olympic ski jump. And people think triathletes are crazy…

Like the bike course, the marathon has hills. There’s a particularly steep hill around the 12th mile of the marathon. It's 1/2 mile long and climbs a ridiculous 150 ft. That’s a 5.6% grade. (Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon is a mere 3.3%.) Keep in mind that the marathon leg is a double loop — just like the bike course. That means that at mile 24 (or 139 miles into your IRONMAN) you’ll experience that hill again. 

That’s just evil.

I had very bad thoughts for the designers of the Lake Placid IRONMAN course many times throughout the day. ;-) I suppose I should just be thankful that they didn’t make us run up ski jump hill. (You just know that they thought about it…)

On the other hand, that hill shows up in the middle of Lake Placid proper. The crowd support in town is insane with upbeat music, a great vibe, and spectators who think watching sweaty, tired people shuffle past is the most fun since beer and skittles. In my opinion, the spectators in Lake Placid are even more awesome than the crowds at Boston. (And that’s a very high bar.) There aren’t as many spectators at Lake Placid — the marathon course is empty for big sections — but once you get into town the crowd is simply wildly enthusiastic.

As good as the spectators are, the volunteers are even better. Every one along the many, many well organized aid stations was cheerful, helpful, and dedicated. I dropped an energy bar handoff at a bike aid station and the volunteer apologized to me. The race director must put something in the water because I’ve never seen such happy people picking up other people’s trash as the volunteers at IMLP sweeping up cups and wrappers at the aid stations.

The volunteers are even more helpful and engaging at the finish. Just past the finish line, two volunteers came over to grab an arm each to help me stand. When it was clear I wasn’t going to fall down, one left but the other became my personal butler: gathering and carrying my finisher shirt and hat, ushering me to the finish photo line and waiting with me, finding me seat and setting me down, and then asking what food and drink he could bring to me. While I was waiting for him to return (with grapes and orange slices) two other volunteers came over to see if I needed anything. I sat in the finisher area for 30 minutes resting and nibbling and was asked at least once every five minutes by different volunteers if they could get something for me. And when I thanked them for their kindness, they thanked me for running the IRONMAN. 

Go figure.

So when everything was said and done I finished in 12:35:12, 19th out of 125 in my age group. I had acquired a shockingly bright red eye, accumulated yet another blackened toenail, and got clocked in the head twice.

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Peace out? No, it’s IROMAN finish number two.

But it was worth it. :-)

IMLP is a hard course, but it’s extremely well organized, the scenery is gorgeous, and the volunteers are simply awesome. When I run this again, I think I’ll forget about trying to PR and simply live for the moment and have fun.




© Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016