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Race Report – Ironman Lake Placid 2018 (Part 3 – Bike)

This ended up being really long, so I’ve broken it into parts. You can find the rest here (when they’re ready):

The bike course at Ironman Lake Placid is supposed to be one of the harder ones in all Ironman events, mainly because of the hills. It is a 2-loop ride, so 56 miles on each loop. The Ironman site shows that each loop of the course has 4182 feet of climbing, so that makes 8,364 feet for the entire 112-mile ride. Fortunately that isn’t really the case. If you look at this version of the course, it comes in at 6,822, which I think is more accurate because my Strava recording (using a Garmin Edge 500) registered 6,138 feet over 112 miles.

Discrepancies in the exact elevation notwithstanding, this is still a tough bike course with a significant amount of climbing. I had never focused on my climbing until this year, and had worked on it as much as I could before this event. I’m still very slow, but I feel like I at least built up some endurance for climbing on a long ride.

I had decided to make a full outfit change between different parts of the race because I didn’t think that I could ride 112 miles in tri-shorts. So I changed out of my bathing suit and into bib shorts and a cycling jersey. Because of the weather forecast and my tendency to always be cold, I also wore sleeves, a cycling vest, and a light running/cycling jacket. All of this took me too long, over fifteen minutes. At least the volunteers are ready to hand you your bike as you run out from the changing tent and through the rows of bikes. I was told to shout my number as I ran. The number was passed along by the volunteers, and my bike was right there for me when I reached my row.

T1 = 15:18

The start of the bike course features a sharp 180-degree turn while descending. I had been warned about this on the previous day and had looked it over. I wasn’t worried about myself, as I had done some turn practice for a time trial last year and periodically do tiny circles in parking lots for practice. I didn’t have any other athletes near me when I got here, but watch out for others who may have less control. For visualization purposes, this turn is where the first loop ends and rejoins the course for the start of the second loop. I didn’t have to worry about anyone coming from that direction though, as even the pros aren’t able to swim and then bike 56 miles by the time the slow swimmers start to bike.

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Waving to my family as I start my ride.

From there, the course continues downhill, makes a 90-degree turn to the right, and plunges down a steep decline before another 90-degree turn to the left. The ground was marked with warnings to stay slow. I had already ridden the lower part of this during my practice ride two days ago, so I felt comfortable letting myself fly a bit faster here. Just make sure you’re ready to brake and make the left turn. The road levels off and you’ll make a right turn onto Main Street here, and this is where I felt like I was really on the course.

The beginning stretch between this point and the Olympic ski jumps is a great chance to warm-up your legs. The pavement is smooth with some small rollers, followed by a fun downhill section right as you reach the ski jumps. By this point, I still hadn’t seen any rain, but the sky was gray and foreboding.

Once you pass the ski jumps you’ll encounter the first hills of Lake Placid. This is around mile 2.5, and I think was one of the toughest parts of the course. I hit the climb and tried to remember what I had read about this course: don’t go out too hard on the first lap. I shifted into a low gear, focused on the road directly ahead of me, and tried to find a rhythm for my climb. Raindrops began to fall and the wind kicked up, directly into my face.

For the next seven or eight miles, I was miserable. The rain intensified and was accompanied with squally winds that beat against me as I tried to make any forward (and upward) progress. Even going downhill (for a brief stretch) was tough, as I had to pedal through the wind. It also grew colder, with the wind, rain, and a drop in air temperature of about 10 degrees (F). I cringed for the athletes wearing only tri-kits. My fingers and toes were numb, but I never felt cold in my core, so I knew I’d be okay.

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OMG, this sucks!

At this point, I reached the first out-and-back of three on each loop of the course. This was a nice flat run out to the Olympic bobsled course and back. The first of the aid stations is at the end of it, and the road was more sheltered from the wind. I had been unable to drink anything so far (Gatorade Endurance) because the wind had been too strong to let go of my handlebars to grab a bottle. I guzzled some liquid and tossed away my first water bottle here, even though it wasn’t empty (learning from past experience), and took another Gatorade Endurance from a volunteer.

I turned to the right upon leaving the out-and-back and continued climbing for a short distance further before finally arriving at the Keene descent.

I love descending as fast as possible, so I had been looking forward to this section for some time. I wasn’t particularly happy about the rain and the wind, but I had also ridden in similar conditions before and had decent tires on my bike. I had seen this part of the road when we drove the course, so I knew that there weren’t any sharp turns ahead until the town of Keene. I flew downhill, pedaling into the descent, but kept my hands on the brakes, ready to slow if I felt out of control. The greatest challenge on the descent was watching out for the other athletes. I know that not everyone loves to careen downhill at high speed. But unfortunately many riders didn’t stay to the right either. I tried to shout, “on your left” a couple of times, but either they ignored me or didn’t hear me in the wind. I did manage to pass most of them (only to be later passed on the flat), and rode into Keene more optimistic about my average speed than I had been on the earlier climb.

I had no way to really estimate what my pace would be for the bike course because I had never ridden this far, and I’m still pretty new to hills, only training on them for this season. My time at the Quassy Half bike was 4:16, but that was only a 54-mile course. IMLP was not as hilly as Quassy, but longer, with hills stacked at the end. I knew that if I kept my average pace at 14 mph, I’d finish with no need to worry about the cut offs, so that’s what I looked for on my Garmin.

The next section of the course starts with a sharp left in the town of Keene and follows Highway 9N north. Here is your best chance for some speed, as this section is all flat until Jay. The gorgeous Ausable River will be on your left. You’ll cross a bridge in Upper Jay, make a right turn, and continue with the river on the right. Look out for two aid stations in this section – one just after the turn in Keene, and another a short distance before you reach Jay. I had to stop at one of these to get my nutrition out of a back pocket in my jersey. Usually I can manage that without stopping, but my fingers were still a bit numb from the weather. The squally rain and wind had let up by this point, but the day remained overcast with some drizzle and wet roads.

The left turn in the town of Jay (mile 26) could be considered the start of the climb back to town, although the worst of it starts later, around the end of the Haselton out-and-back. But this hill that you encounter at Jay is the first one you’ve had to climb in a while, so it means that it’s time to grind away on those gears again. From here until about mile 39, you’ll ride some rolling hills interspersed with a few flatter sections.

I was still feeling pretty good at this point, and was looking forward to the Haselton out-and-back and the Game of Thrones-themed aid station ahead (I had spied this when we drove the course). I made a right turn on Bilhuber Road, then after just a short ways, another right onto Haselton Road. This is the second out-and-back on the loop, and the longest of the three. You’ll have to be ready for another 180-degree turn at the end of it, but this section is also pretty flat and fun to ride. After I turned around and retraced my way back south, the sun even showed itself briefly.

The out-and-backs are also fun because you can watch for other racers, and looking for friends and family can help relieve some of the mental stress of such a long ride. Finally I arrived at the GoT aid station and had decided to stop here for a bathroom break. The volunteer that helped me held my bike and my layers and even brushed sand off my shoes so that I wouldn’t have any trouble clipping in when I left.

There is another hill at mile 39, then a flat section, and then the last 13 miles of each loop are all uphill. The third out-and-back (a new addition to the course this year) starts at mile 44.5 (near the start of that 13 miles) and is short but has a steep section to get back onto the main road. This out-and-back is at the ski area, Whiteface Mountain, and has another 180-degree turn. I heard/read many negative comments about this addition to the course, but I liked it. I enjoyed the bike handling involved in the turn and had fun in this short, slightly twisty section.

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Whiteface Mountain. Photo by Theedster123 under Creative Commons license.

From there, it’s mostly straight and all climbing, but with some amazing scenery as you pass alongside High Falls Gorge. The river is still the Ausable River. I can’t really figure out how it flows in a circle around the entire course, but it just does. The hardest part about this section is that you’ll have to keep pushing up hill after hill after hill. No part of the climb is terribly steep, but there aren’t ever enough downhill miles to recover from the climbing until you reach town again. You will find another aid station here, but I had just stopped, so I just continued to exchange bottles and rolled on.

The last few hills are named Momma Bear, Baby Bear, and Papa Bear. They are labeled on the ground so you’ll know when you’re here. Someone had written Goldilocks on a hill right before the bears, and Ray Ray Bear on a tiny steep section after the other bears, but I’m not sure if those names will stick for future years.

If you’ve read about the IMLP course elsewhere, the three bears are the hills that are always mentioned. The build up about them is worse than the actual climbs. Momma Bear is no worse than all the other hills, and Baby Bear is just a bump. Papa Bear is more substantial, but when I got to it on the first loop, the crowds that were here to cheer the athletes on helped me to get through it. Papa Bear is also the last real climb on the course. After Papa Bear, you make a couple turns and roll into town. The end of the loop passes along part of the run course here, but you won’t find any runners on it until you’re on your second loop.

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I hadn’t been able to look over this part of the course beforehand, but it was easy to follow. The roads are closed and the route passes behind the high school to the back side of transition. It meets up with the beginning of the course here at that 180-degree turn, but at this point you’re coming at it straight-in. Also – just next to transition before you ride through the high school parking lot – this is where your bike special needs bags have been staged. I didn’t feel like I needed anything out of it, but I did stop to get a Rice Krispie treat out of my jersey and eat it.

On the second loop, the mental battle became harder. I tend to be really stubborn, so I never had any worry that I wouldn’t be able to tough it out and make it through. It was just an uncomfortable process. I knew how all the hills felt already, and the weather was getting better. My legs were tired, but no more than I would have expected. My average pace had dropped after the hills on the back side of the course, but I was still optimistic that I could keep it at 14 mph.

While the rain had stopped, the wind had not. The climb out of town was very rough, and the Keene descent on the second loop was more treacherous. I had to focus to keep my bike from getting pushed laterally by the wind. Another athlete that I spoke with briefly said that her bike had actually jumped sideways a few inches with one wind gust. The clumps of athletes had thinned out by this point, so the Keene descent was easier to navigate otherwise.

I found that the flatter sections after Keene were still fun, but my average pace was slower than on the first loop. I started to worry about cut off times. As of the 2018 rules, athletes have 17 hours to complete the entire course, but there are intermediate cut offs as well. For the bike course, the first lap had to be done by 1:30 p.m., you had to reach the fifth aid station (about mile 100) by 5 p.m., and you had to complete the second loop by 5:30 p.m. Finally, you must complete the swim and the bike sections in 10:30.

If everyone had started the race at exactly 7 a.m, then the 5:30 cut off would fall at a total race time of 10:30. But with the self-seeded start beginning at 6:40 a.m., I think everyone was in the water before 7 a.m. That complicates your ability to track where you are in regards to that 10:30 cut off unless you are tracking your entire race on one computer, OR if you make a special note of your start time. I was too distracted to do that at the start, and I also used different computers for the swim and the bike so that my battery life wouldn’t fail me.

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The flat part of the course. Photo courtesy of Joyce Pedersen via Creative Commons license.

I kept pedaling, pushing as much as I could, but my legs were feeling more and more fatigued and just didn’t have much to give. I watched in horror as my average speed dipped lower. On the second loop I knew that I couldn’t afford to stop for a bathroom break, but I also didn’t think that I needed to. I hadn’t thought that I had started out too hard on the first loop, but by the time I reached the back side of the course I had arrived at what I will call my “worst idea I’ve ever had” point.

This is something that seems to happen to me in every long event. It’s that time when I start reconsidering all my decisions to ever do a triathlon. This event that I paid money to participate in is now the worst idea I’ve ever had. Every time, I swear I’m never going to do this again as I ponder why anyone would sign up for this in the first place. This typically seems to be the point at which everything starts to hurt. For IMLP, it hit me around mile 90.

My left leg was starting to bother me. My knee hurt, my old ankle injury hurt, my muscles hurt. My neck and shoulders were stiff and sore from being in the same position on a bike for so many hours. My seat hurt, and there wasn’t any way to make it better.

Mentally, doubts start to creep in. I’ve ridden 100 miles before, but never 112. I have to run a marathon after this and I don’t like to run. What’s wrong with me? Will my ankle hold up for a marathon if it’s already starting to hurt?

It started to rain a little. The number of athletes on the course was thinning out. The rest of the course was uphill. But – I had come here to finish. I kept pedaling, aiming for steady progress rather than any surges in speed. I just had to keep moving.

Now, each mile that ticked off on my computer meant one mile closer to town, one mile closer to the run course, and one mile closer to the finish. “C’mon, legs,” I told myself. Push, push, push.

I rode out-and-back at Whiteface Mountain. I climbed past High Falls Gorge. I started to wonder when I would reach the Three Bears. I knew that these marked the last of the climb into town, but I couldn’t remember the course well enough from the first loop. Everything had gone fuzzy in my memory. I had left the gorge behind and was passing through an otherwise nondescript wooded section. Finally, I recognized the road ahead and found that I had reached Momma Bear.

Up and over, pedal pedal, I was almost there! Then I reached Papa Bear. The spectating crowds had thinned out and quieted. The hill assumed mountainous proportions. The only thing that kept me going at this point was knowing that I only had another mile or so of flat or downhill riding once I reached the top. Oh – and that looming cut off time.

I reached the top, surged forward, tried to pick up a little speed, and found the spectators as I reached a point where the bike course and the run course overlapped. I rode past Mirror Lake, made a right turn, swung around and through town, then rushed by bike special needs, ride behind the high school, and made the final turn toward transition.

My eyes fixed on the dismount line and I focused on staying upright, on not falling. I managed to unclip, slow down, and get my foot down. I was shaky, but I had made it!

A volunteer asked if I was okay and I probably mumbled something or nodded. I took a deep breath and swung a leg over my bike. My legs trembled but held me up, and I hobbled across the line.

BIKE TIME: 8:32:05

I love my bike, but I was ecstatic to be off of it. I handed it over to a volunteer and knew that I had to keep moving. There was one small problem though: I could barely walk.

I’ve felt that way on the two 70.3 races I had done prior to this, but not to the same degree. I hoped that I’d loosen up and figure out how to run in a few minutes! But first – I needed to change into my running gear. I shuffled through transition, grabbed my bike-to-run bag, and entered the changing tent.

My time was not what I had hoped for, but I had been uncertain of what to expect. And really – I hadn’t fallen over, crashed, become hypothermic, or injured anything (I think). After the day was over, I would discover that I had completed the swim and bike sections in 10:29:00. I had done it with only a single minute to spare.

Now it was time to run!

Next: Part 4 – Run

See all my race reports here.

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Race Report – Ironman Lake Placid 2018 (Part 2 – Swim)

This ended up being really long, so I’ve broken it into parts. You can find the rest here (when they’re ready):

The swim at Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) is supposed to be one of the more friendly of all Ironman distance swims out there. It takes place in Mirror Lake, which offers great swimming all summer. Several training camps and coaches run swims in Mirror Lake leading up to race day.

The course is a 2-loop swim with a short run across the sand between each loop. The large red and yellow inflatable Ironman buoys mark the course – a straight-forward rectangle with long sides and a narrow base. The end of the inbound leg takes swimmers along the end of a dock and into the public swim area before turning in toward the beach.

Pool

Mirror Lake is as calm as this pool along its shore.

This course is popular because it features an underwater cable (see Part 1 of this race report), good visibility, and calm water (i.e. no waves or wakes). I had heard mixed opinions on following the cable for the swim. The advantage of being on the cable was that I wouldn’t need to sight. The most obvious disadvantage was that everyone else would want to be there, so I’d risk more crowding.

The athletes at IMLP are not separated into age groups for the start, and the mass start that was used in the past has also been eliminated in favor of corrals based on estimated pace. The pros still start first, but after that, it is up to each athlete to place themselves in the section for their estimated swim time.

I slept better than I thought I would before the race, only waking up twice during the night. I’m not a morning person, so any activity that makes me wake up before 9 a.m. is difficult. I had all of my clothes and remaining bags ready to go, though, so I was up, dressed, and on my way to transition efficiently in the morning.

Morning Transition

Transition area on race morning.

The transition area is right along the main street through town and gets crowded early on. We had family drive us there, and I followed my sister-in-law to drop off our special needs bags. These areas were very close to transition, so it didn’t take very long. We literally just dropped our bags on the ground or handed them to a volunteer. On the way to the run special needs area, we could also see the path that we would have to run from the lake to transition.

Next up – last minute bike checks and set up. We made our way into transition, and I attached my bike computer, water bottles, and nutrition. We had decided not to bring our own bike pump, and went looking for one. I grabbed one of the ones from Ironman, but it didn’t seem to fit on my valves. After struggling with it for a few minutes, I gave up and we borrowed one from another athlete.

That was it. I was ready to race. We had at least an hour before the start, so we headed to the shore of Mirror Lake to contemplate the day ahead. The weather was forecast to be rainy for a good portion of the morning, but the exact time of the rain had been changing with every forecast. The day started out with a hint of sun before clouds rolled in over the lake.

Rock Sunrise

Race morning sunrise as the clouds arrived.

My cheering section and sherpas arrived and we people-watched and just took it all in. It was finally time to get ready to swim. I donned my wetsuit and handed off my bag. For those athletes who didn’t have anyone to help them, you could drop off a morning clothes bag at a designated location. That same bag would be provided to you at the end of the race if you used this option.

By this time, many swimmers had already assembled behind the barricades in what I had thought were the faster swim time corrals. I extrapolated my goal time from what I had swam in Eagleman last year, so I was hoping for a swim time of 1:40. My sister-in-law was expecting a similar pace, so we stuck together as we tried to find our places in the crowd.

It was quickly apparent that the sections for each pace were too close together, and the athletes outside the barricade couldn’t get to the right areas. Officials weren’t letting anyone over the barricade either, so we had to keep walking back. At the end of the barricade, there were too many athletes to squeeze in, and everyone had the same complaint – that we couldn’t get to the right pace group. I figured that I wasn’t in contention for any records, so wherever I ended up would ultimately be fine. The race is timed individually when you cross the timing mats.

Once the swimmers at the front started to enter the water, the officials let everyone squeeze in along the beach, between the water and the crowd. At this point, we were able to move up to where we wanted to be, so it worked out in the end.

For the start, no one was restricting our entry to the water, so all the athletes kept walking en masse until we were in the lake. I started my watch – a Garmin Forerunner – did a few dolphin dives at the beginning, and then began to swim.

My general strategy going in was to keep it slow and calm at the beginning, avoid a huge mass of other swimmers, and to keep my breathing to just one side since I think my insistence at bilateral breathing was part of why my swim at Quassy 70.3 didn’t go that well.

From the start, I found that I was on the cable. I hadn’t planned it that way, but because I had moved around the crowd to the right, that had me positioned to the right side of the mass of swimmers on a clockwise swim. I figured that I’d stay on the cable to start with and if I started to get beat up too much, I would find a way to move to the outside.

After a few hundred yards, I discovered that I loved swimming along the cable! I was pretty far to the right, essentially right along the buoys. It appeared more crowded a little to the left, but I was able to complete the entire swim without getting punched or kicked. I did try to stay alert to my peripheral vision and tried to avoid anyone who was doing breaststroke kick, moving erratically, or flailing. Additionally, I experienced some major drafting. All of the swimmers had created a current and I felt like I was being whisked along. I was able to occasionally find someone’s toes to follow, but even without drafting a specific person, I was benefiting from everyone else’s efforts.

One hazard that I had not anticipated was that without sighting, I ran into the buoys! The soft Ironman ones weren’t really a problem, but the smaller permanent ones that are held by the cable were hard and more difficult to spot if I did sight ahead. They were connected by a vertical rope to the underwater cable, so looking out for this was the best way to avoid smacking into them.

The first loop of the course went well and I was able to keep my breathing under control. Before I knew it, I was coming up on the dock and the short stretch before the beach. I could see the sand beneath me as the water became more shallow. I took it easy getting my legs under me, afraid that I may cramp, but I had no problem getting on my feet.

The run across the beach was really short. But even so, Ironman had an aid station there. I gulped a glass of water and jumped back in for my second loop.

My time on the first loop had been a few minutes faster than my goal pace, but as I swam out along the buoys again, my right arm started to bother me. I’m right-handed, and therefore stronger with that arm. In training, my LEFT arm had felt strained on a few long swims, but never the RIGHT one. It didn’t seem to be affecting my movement. I tried to ignore it so that my stroke would remain even, and it never grew worse as I finished my swim.

Swim Finish

On the last inbound leg, I knew that I was going to make it. I had never swam the full 2.4-mile distance in my training. I felt tired as I left the water, but not exhausted. I stopped at the wet suit peelers, but when they pulled the legs of my wet suit off, I had to sit on my butt. Even though they had mats down on the beach, sand still went everywhere! I would be brushing sand off for the rest of the day.

The run from the water to transition was easy. I jogged most of it, up a slight incline, then downhill to transition. The road was covered with mats. I ran into transition, grabbed by swim-to-bike bag, and entered the changing tent.

SWIM TIME: 1:41:37

My time was very close to what I had hoped for. No complaints there!

Next: Part 3 – Bike

See all my race reports here.

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