I attended my first Ironman event in Lake Placid when I was twelve years old. My mom and I went up for a day trip not realizing the event was happening. Lake Placid was swarming with people. Lots of spandex, lots of bikes, lots of cowbells. It was cool, but I didn’t quite get it.
When I was in high school, I attended IM LP to support my chemistry teacher and coach as she competed in her first full Ironman. I had the distinct pleasure of training with her for runs and lifeguarding while she traversed the pool countless times before starting the school day. She finished the 140.6 mile beast in an impressive 13.5 hours after passing out in T2 for about a half hour. Watching the progress of her persistent training and seeing her exuberant exhaustion after the race was inspiring.
A couple of years later, after volunteering consecutive years, I attended IM LP to watch a high school friend compete. In the end, poor nutrition and nerves got the best of him. It was heart wrenching to see him walk towards his group of spectators lounging on the beach mid-bike. As the letdown for one friend was settling, the excitement for another was building. A high school acquaintance and teammate whose progress I had been intently following via Facebook was also competing. Bumping into his family I learned he had cruised through the swim and bike at mind-boggling paces. I caught him running down Sentinel Road on the first loop of his run and despite having already swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles, he looked to be attacking his marathon at mile race pace. Shortly thereafter, he would cruise through the finish line- smile on his face and high fiving the crowd- amid thunderous applause and the announcer roaring, “Logan Franks you are an Ironman!” He broke a ten year long standing record for his age division and placed 11th overall in a field of approximately 2,000 athletes. I was overwhelmed with pride and respect for the diligence and hard work of this hometown hero.
The next year, I was in Lake Placid again to support a friend chasing the monster. Despite solid foundations of training, she fell short. I cannot begin to fathom the disappointment, frustration, and courage in that moment- the decision to walk away from a year’s work. It was painful to watch. The race went on without her and as I drove out of Lake Placid that night, nearing the midnight cutoff, several handfuls of athletes were still making their way to the finish after almost 19 hours of racing.
Yesterday I attended Ironman 70.3 Syracuse. I ran the race on a relay team the inaugural year in 2010 and ran the race again as a member of a relay team in 2011. In 2010, the race course was touted as difficult- a chilly swim, a gnarly, but scenic bike ride in the northern Piedmonts, and an easy point-to-point run ending in downtown Syracuse. The year after, the course was changed to include an ass-kicking run loop rather than a point-to-point. Maybe the excitement of the atmosphere lit the fire, but I ran a half marathon personal best. Revisiting Jamesville Beach Reservoir yesterday was like going to Ironman Lake Placid- race nerves hit me even though I was only spectating. The energy and the anticipation filling the air were palpable.
I almost missed Mac as she came out of the water and ran to T1. [The long bearded man with the double nipple piercing that ripped off his neoprene wetsuit moments before she came out of the water might have had something to do with that]. Some waves of athletes still stood on the beach waiting for their race start.
While my mom and Jordan waited at the waterfront to see Greg come out of the water, I dashed off to catch Mac take off on her bike. Thirteen minutes later, Greg set off on his bike, too. The Syracuse bike course is a big, 56 mile loop and is not particularly conducive to spectators on foot. We ate lunch, hydrated, and slathered on sunscreen while we waited for the bikes to come back to T2. Spectating is tough work!
As the minutes ticked closer and closer to the time we expected to see Mac and Greg, we waited beside the corral under the inflatable, “Bike In” Ironman arch. The pack leaders began flying into T2 in no-time. After a few cyclists came through, the hum of the generator across the corral from us halted. The arch began to deflate and lay across the corral like a barricade. Jordan, my mom, and I were first on the scene. Thinking fast, my mom began to untie the arch and race personnel quickly joined in the effort. We helped to maneuver the deflated structure to the opposite side of the course- out of the way of incoming athletes. Crisis diverted. Shortly thereafter, a guy with a gas can filled up the generator and the arch was inflated and repositioned. The 1,575 athletes still on the course were none the wiser.
Mac came in off the bike hot and after I snapped a couple of pictures of her headed into T2, I was off to catch her along the run course. Since the last time I ran the course, the course has been changed to an out-and-back completed twice. Though the monotony of the course may be a little burdensome for the athletes, the course adjustment makes spectating easier and makes the logistics of aid stations easier (and boy, were the aid stations a necessity on such a scorching hot day).
The first mile of the new course reminded me of a high school cross country race. It wrapped around an open grassy field and then climbed a modest hill to a narrow dirt trail. Not wanting to interfere with the race, I dipped off the course shoulder and ran to the road. The course follows the undulating hills along Apulia Road before dropping steeply downhill onto Palladino Road where the miles flatten out over a small bridge across Butternut Creek. I ran across people’s lawns to avoid the course and made my way to just beyond the bridge. Mac was running back to the Ironman Village to complete her first lap of the run and she was looking strong. As I trotted in proximity of her I was impressed with her pace. Her San Diego blood must be better suited for that kind of heat than my Upstate blood. I powered up the Palladino Road hill to catch her a couple of more times along Apulia Road. She spotted Greg before I did. He looked strong.
I ran back to the Village to see Mac at the turn-around and knew we would see her at the finish line in about an hour. Then the waiting game began.
The first finishers were long gone- probably showered and in an unreasonable amount of compression gear gorging on electrolytes and calories. The first male finisher completed the 70.3 mile course 19 minutes faster than any other competitor. I spotted the first female finisher, [a woman in the 45-49 age division], during her run and she was comfortable and conversational. She came through the finish with a huge smile on her face.
56 minutes after seeing Mac come through the Village to start her second run loop, we saw her round the corral bend into the final stretch. She powered through the Ironman 70.3 finish arch in just under six hours, placing second in her age division. It was nothing short of awesome. Hearing her recount the race, I could feel the nervous excitement in my chest. Doing this, triathloning, is a way to test not only physicality, but mental toughness. Yesterday would have been a great day for Mac to have said, “Well, it’s hot and I’m going to finish, so I can let up a little.” It was hot. Like, really hot. Like, the water I left in my car could’ve made a nice cup of tea, hot. She could’ve slowed. She could’ve stopped. She didn’t. Running a race like she ran, and like all of the athletes ran, takes grit.
I get it. I want it. And I’m ready to find out if I’ve got it.