Every year I’ve gone to Ironman USA I’ve learned or seen something new about the sport, and maybe about myself too. The first year, it was a curiosity factor – I had no emotional attachment to the race or triathlon, but I guess you could say it got me interested. Last year, I’d gotten more interested and was there to volunteer. It seemed to be about joy – the joy of competing, the joy of finishing, the joy of the moment… I was caught up in it and even did my first tri two months later.
This past Sunday, the lessons meted out at IMLP were twofold – suffering and love. We got up early race day, and took our backroads route into the parking area we knew we could get access to. This had a slight positive of giving us access to the car during the day, but with the road closures it still isn’t easy to get around. So we’d planned to spend the day in Lake Placid. My ideal day would have been to watch the swim start, wander around a bit, have a bite, then go down to the lake and make a base camp for swimming, with good access to the bike and run courses. After some time, heading out to have a nice dinner, then campfire etc. We’d mapped out our “monster” ride for the day after the race (more on that later).
The skies were overcast which has a cooling effect, unlike the prior year where it’d been quite warm throughout the day and few clouds. I thought to myself, not so bad for racing. We went down to the lake side and were able to hear the cannon go off for first the pros, then the main field. The race was on, and we watched the thousands of churning arms and legs advancing along the buoys. Just then we felt a drop of water, and another, and another. Maybe it would stop, I thought, because I couldn’t imagine the alternative.
Cycling in the LP area is for me boundary pushing. The climbs are long and sometimes VERY steep, views jaw dropping, and descents heart pounding. Maybe more experienced cyclists take all these things in stride, but for me, I am still learning how to put it together in those kinds of conditions.
For those training on the Ironman loop prior to or after race day, cars and trucks add an extra concern. The bike course is one of the hardest IMs out there for sheer brutal nature – I’ve heard this from people who have done multiple IM courses, and from books, and from the actual profile of the bike course that can be found online. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes, so I’ve no reason not to believe this.
The seven or so mile descent from LP to Keene happens along a twisty, windy road. It has its share of roughed up bumps, two lane traffic with no shoulder in areas, and a rusty metal guardrail beyond which is a drop to the river below. It gives me a pit in my stomach to see cyclists flying down, and I haven’t had any desire to follow suit. It looks anything but fun to me. That said, I see many people making the loop successfully even with the traffic, and on race day, thankfully one lane is just for the cyclists, and vehicle traffic restricted by the heavy police presence etc. It seems like there are always cyclists on the IM course when I am up there, with heaviest use on the days leading up to race weekend but mostly people not competing that year.
On the opposite side of the loop is the way up, a prolonged several mile climb with no recovery areas. I don’t know what the grade is, but it’s steep enough. It will burn the quads and those headed up on the climb always look haggard halfway or more up. This road, by the way, continues on up to Whiteface.
The sections of the course I have done are more varied, some with steady climbs but always with areas to recuperate somewhat. 9N has a nice clean shoulder in most areas, which makes it easier to enjoy some of the scenery. I have not ridden what I think are therefore the two hardest sections. Ok, back to race day, now that I’ve covered the course. By the way, all of this assumes nice weather.
Ironman USA 2008 did not have nice weather.
Imagine you have paid thousands of dollars in gear and entry fees, trained for a year with long rides and runs that may leave you little energy to do anything else, made a race plan, traveled with friends and family in tow, and have all the positive outlook for an ideal race. Now, race morning, crumple up that race plan and throw it out the window, because as you exit your swim ready for your 112 mile extremely challenging ride, you quickly figure out your 2008 IM race will take place in a full on 15 hour downpour that prompts flash flood warnings.
Where do you find the motivation to go on?
I found myself wondering this over and over. I’ve ridden in the rain, both on days I was prepared to (at least, having a jacket with me), and days I was not (sudden dark sky and down it comes). It’s not real fun. If you’ve got glasses on, they fog and get coated with droplets. If you do not, the water streams down your face. Cars splash you, the brakes get soft, tire traction is not ideal, and you are cold and and wet. I often can’t even feel my bike shorts in the rain because they are clinging to me so much. The water runs down my legs into my socks and soon my feet are soaking too. And I’ve never set out to do a long ride in the rain.
So, the suffering of IM2008 was borne on the faces of cyclists coming through, and later at the bike to run transition. There was a firm collective gritting of teeth and focus to get through what they had to. As a cyclist, I found it hard to put myself in their shoes, because I’m not sure what would make that worth it to me. I can’t describe just how sloppy it was, but as an example, spectators were standing in ankle deep water along the bike course at points. There wasn’t any hanging out along main street, and only a small row of onlookers under umbrellas along the course gates. As the riders went by, their back tires left a rooster tail of water spray. Even worse for the guys who brought their disc rear wheels, great for nicer weather (and I’d think flatter courses), but it’s like the saying of bringing a knife to a gun fight – the wrong tool for the day. We didn’t take any pictures.
I don’t mean to say everyone was miserable – they surely seemed appreciative just the same of their friends and family in town. Out on the bike course (we happened to drive some of it later) it was a little different though – with only their own thoughts to keep the feet going.
I’ll never say there is an “easy” way to do a full Iron distance triathlon, from my vantage point as just an onlooker. It requires too much of oneself to get through the months of training and finally race day. But this was a shared experience in suffering. In my book the 2008 competitors – and crowd too – were ready to go beyond themselves to be there in the moment. I’m not sure where else I’d see such a display.
Which brings me to the second lesson of the day – love. I have learned more over the last year about the sacrifices made for one person to realize an Ironman goal. There’s some effect of this on any triathlete, cyclist, or even serious athlete in general, but Ironman distance is 3 endurance races in one, and training is effectively a part time job with no pay.
Spouses, kids, parents, friends… many have paid the price along the way to support the person getting to the start in the first place. In gifts of gear, in gifts of time to train, in gifts of taking on more themselves. An Ironman is an individual accomplishment but never achieved as an individual, if this makes any sense. And on top of paying the day to day price, here these family and friends all are, standing and yelling, clapping, waving signs, wearing their shirts, standing for hours in the rain, in ankle deep water, all for a few glimpses of the athlete as he or she passes by in just a few seconds.
That’s more than dedication – it is love.
Part 2 which will be a write up of our (my?) 3rd annual Lake Placid area “monster” ride hopefully tomorrow…