By Raymond Britt
I had a single, simple goal for the 2007 Ironman USA Lake Placid, my 28th Ironman race: to reach the finish without wondering why I put myself through the torture of Ironman one more time.
In the past, I'd raced for personal bests, I'd raced for Kona, I'd raced to push myself harder than ever before. Not this time.
For 11 hours and 30 minutes at the 2007 Ironman Lake Placid, I delivered a reasonably fast race (considering my limited training window), and literally made it to the end pain-free, without aches, without struggle, without giving up.
In five previous races in Lake Placid, I’ve been faster and I’ve been slower. But I’d never enjoyed it as much as I did in 2007.
It was the easiest Ironman I’ve ever raced. On one of the harder Ironman courses in the world. How?
Fifteen months earlier, during the Ironman Arizona 2006 race, I realized I had had enough. I was burned out. It hurt too much. It didn’t seem worth it. It didn’t seem fun anymore. I liked the training, not the competitive racing.
So I stopped.
I skipped what had been my annual favorite triathlons – IM Lake Placid, IM Wisconsin, and Chicago Triathlon – without a tinge of regret. I was on the sidelines in Wisconsin and Chicago, observing and shooting photos, but not wishing I was on the course.
I had signed up for the 2007 Ironman Lake Placid race, like everyone else, the day after the 2006 event, just in case I wanted to race. For most of 2007, I planned on skipping it.
Then in early June 2007, just seven weeks before Ironman Lake Placid, I changed my mind. Having raced there five previous times, I really liked the Lake Placid race, and I was beginning to get the itch to return.
But when I decided to race, I promised myself this time it would be different. New Rule: If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.
I wanted to race Lake Placid without spending a second wishing I was not on the course, without a moment asking ‘why do I do this to myself’, without those seemingly unending times of struggle and pain, without giving up.
With seven weeks until the race, I needed to build endurance and speed quickly. But I applied the same approach to my training: when it stops being fun, stop doing it. So I kept it simple, did what I wanted to do. By the time I reached the week before the race, I was well short of my usual Ironman racing peak condition, but I was happy where I was.
I knew when I arrived in the transition area on race morning, I'd be prepared to have a great day of endurance. All I wanted to do on race day was to enjoy swimming a smooth 2.4 miles, riding 112 miles in the beautiful Adirondacks, and run a steady 26.2 miles, consistently, to a solid finish.
Race morning was chilly but calm as the sun rose over the mist rising off of the glass-smooth Mirror Lake. More than 2200 racers made their way to the swim start, and from what I can tell, all got in the water before the gun.
I had entered the water at about 6:45pm, and swam to the far side of the start area. Once there, I found a rock to rest upon, as I looked back over the growing field of swimmers. Soon, there was little room for many of the swimmers, especially just to the right of the starting line.
This is where I knew hundreds of swimmers were poised to pounce on the most direct path in the water -- along a thin white line, just below the water's surface, that stretched from buoy to buoy. I could just imagine the pounding that many of them were about to suffer (which was later confirmed), while I was happy to remain as far away as possible.
When the cannon fired at 7am, I eased into swimming position, and started slowly. I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't been in the water to swim, really, since April 2006. You heard right.
I really don’t like swimming, so I stayed out of the water, completely, since Ironman Arizona. I had been using the Vasa Ergometer for cross-training in winter 2007, and really enjoyed that land-based workout, so that became my swim training. So I had several 1 to 2 mile 'swim' sessions under my belt before getting into the water, but I was unsure about how the land-based training might translate.
To my happy surprise, I felt great in the water. The motion on the Vasa felt identical in the water, with a natural motion that was most comfortable. Consistent with my goal of taking it easy in the water, I was not interested in setting any swim time-trial records. I just wanted to get through the swim with nearly 100% of my energy intact for the bike and run.
My first quarter of the swim, from the start to the far end of Mirror Lake, took place on the outer fringes of the pack. I did not want to get mixed up in any contact, so when in doubt, I moved to the outside. I sacrificed some benefits of drafting, but felt fresher mentally and physically.
The water was still somewhat frothy from all the swimmers, and I really could not see the buoys or course direction in those first 15 to 20 minutes. So I just spotted relative to other swimmers near me. As long as I was near others, I assumed they were headed the correct direction, and I followed them.
The pack seemed to thin out after the first turnaround, and even though I was only trying to stay near the outside swimmers, soon I was surprised to find myself swimming on the line, buoy to buoy. Soon, I could hear the voice of the race announcer, which meant we were nearing the end of the first lap. Taking stock as I entered the second lap, I felt excellent, if still not fast. That was fine with me.
The second lap seemed faster and smoother than the first. Time passed quickly, despite a distinctly slower lap time that the clock revealed when I got out of the water at the end of the 2.4 mile swim. I realized time was flying while I was having fun. That was the goal.
The Ironman USA Lake Placid bike course is one of my favorite on the Ironman circuit. As I told some people before the race, 'the course can kick you, and you can kick the course.' Meaning: this is a difficult bike course in many ways, but there are ways to turn the challenges to your advantage, gaining some speed from the climbs that can take it away from you.
The first 14 miles to Keene Valley are, I believe, quite a perfect way to start a hilly bike course. The first miles include several climbs that force you to settle into a steady rhythm while discouraging any attempts to hammer too early. Your leg muscles are warmed up with inclines followed by lesser declines allowing increased cadence and higher speed. After seven miles, the fun begins, and the screaming downhills begin. For the next few minutes, I, and others around me, flew down to Keene Valley under blue skies, no wind and perfect conditions.
The next 10 flat miles to the town of Jay flew by, and then we took the left turn toward Wilmington. The next few miles featured longer, steadier climbs, and I concentrated on pedaling in complete circles, while keeping my breathing easy and constant. It was working. I could hear others around me gasping a little, and knew they were struggling already.
This reminded me that I did not want to get to that point anywhere on the bike course. I would need to maintain a pace that did not lead me to the point of huffing and puffing.
This was my sixth time racing Ironman Lake Placid, but as I rode the 14-mile out and back on Haselton Road in Wilmington, I could have sworn that it was easier, with less challenging small hills, than I had remembered. What was really happening: I was hammering less, and more prepared to take this section comfortably. This was good.
Exiting Haselton Road, the course heads directly to the base of Whiteface Mountain, to the part on the elevation chart that scares most athletes. It looks like it goes straight up for 10 miles. In reality, it's a steady escalation, with periods of relief, but it is ultimately unrelenting. I rode through this section relaxed, not hammering, not worried about speed.
In fact, my bike computer had not been working at all, so I had no idea how fast I had been riding. I was fine with that. Less to worry about, the pressure to go fast, which I tend to apply to myself, was removed.
Like the Haselton section, the climb back into Lake Placid to complete the first 56 mile lap seemed shorter and easier than I had remembered. Even the final four back-to-back climbs -- nicknamed Baby, Brother, Mama and Papa Bear -- seemed inconsequential enough for me to wonder if the course had skipped one or two of them.
Again, time and climbs flying while riding steady and having fun. The difference between this ride and what I had done in the past: I had not been riding at my limit, and I was riding within the range of my training.
I had done winter training on my CompuTrainer, but my outdoor training rides had been lacking. That needed to change. I quickly jumped to regular 40 and 50 mile weekday rides, and my longest ride before Lake Placid was 63 miles.
While I had raced Lake Placid in the past on a base of weekly 100-mile rides, I still had confidence I knew the course well enough to take my limited training to 112 miles without difficulty.
Entering Lap 2, I knew I would soon reach the point marking my longest ride since April 2006. The wind had picked up, and became a noticeable challenge. In the past when I had encountered strong wind on an Ironman course, from Roth Germany to Penticton Canada, I had internally cursed at it, and tried to force myself through it.
This time, I simply accepted that it would slow me -- and everyone nearby -- down a mile per hour or two. I stuck to the plan that had been working so far: steady circular pedaling, smooth cadence, never pushing the breathing. I was also staying on top of salt tabs, taking one every 90 minutes. All of this was helping.
Nearing the 70 mile point, I began to feel the concern that always creeps up on me at that stage of the ride. For some reason, I have often bonked around the 70-mile mark, but have usually found a way to get out of it over the next 30 miles, though it tended to not be pleasant.
This time, I passed through 70, then 80, then 90, and even 100 miles feeling great. At 100 miles, the Lake Placid course presents the return climb to Lake Placid, typically a stretch of screaming quads, grimacing, and some choice swear words.
To my complete amazement, I felt like a Tour de France rider, spinning on those final miles as comfortably as possible at that point in the race. Reaching the transition area with what turned out to be a 5:50 bike split (not my fastest on the course, not my slowest either), it was clear that sticking to a simple no-hammer, ride within my comfort zone approach was working.
Could I keep it up on the run?
I had been running marathons consistently, though not fast, even after I stopped racing in triathlons. I have always been a runner first, and I do enjoy running in triathlon. But in running competition and in most Ironmans, I had always been driven to push as hard as possible, to fight through the pain to achieve the best time possible.
Then I was introduced to a new way of experiencing long-distance running by Dean Karnazes.
Last year, Dean, who’s a stunt-ultramarathoner and very nice guy, toured the country running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. I joined him on three of those occasions, in Des Moines, Arizona, and Chicago. To make it through the journey, he ran the daily marathons casually, at about a 4-hour pace, most of the time with a smile on his face, and with time to converse with whichever runner was at his shoulder.
I had been used to running at speed, trying to get from A to B as fast as possible, but when running with Dean, this was, of course, out of the question. And it was fun. Really fun. It was a new way of running, just to enjoy it.
I took this philosophy to my run training. Time and distance were what I concentrated on, not speed. This was a welcome break from my running approach since I had begun running in 1994.
In each of my five previous races in Lake Placid, I remember taking my first steps onto the run course fairly gingerly, as my strained quads protested the new running motion. It had taken me a while to get used to running, and even then, most of the marathon would be run in various stages of discomfort, from cramping to forced walking.
This time, as on the bike, I was most happy to start running with what felt like almost completely fresh legs. In the first mile, I ran up the sharp incline just past the first aid station, a first for me. I had also skipped the aid station entirely, while in the past, it had been a welcome oasis to load up on Gatorade and Cola.
I just kept going as if I was running those marathons with Dean. Not in any hurry, not too slowly, either. It was what enough spectators called 'good pace!' for me to believe that it was actually true.
Following the course past the Olympic Ski Jumps, to the River Road turnaround, and back into Lake Placid, it all felt great. I settled into a rhythm of stopping at every other aid station for two cups of cola with ice, allowing myself to walk a few steps while drinking. I also allowed myself to power walk the inclines, to help keep my breathing under control.
By the time I neared the Olympic Oval containing the finish line, and saw the arrow pointing to 'Lap 2', I didn't feel the usual dread of having to run the loop again. This was beginning to feel like a long training run at home, and I really didn't want it to end.
The sun was heading to the west and the air was cooling slightly. I headed out to the ski jumps and River Road, not even counting the miles. When I'm feeling stressed in races, I start looking ahead, looking for mile markers telling me I'm that much closer to the finish. This time, I felt no such need for it to be over.
As I returned to Lake Placid for the final time, my pace was about the same as it had been when I started. I still felt good. I realized that I had made it through the day with no more pain or struggle than on any training day in the previous seven weeks.
During that training time, I sought increasing distance and speed, but always at a relatively easy level of effort. The data in my training plans shows that I was able to achieve it. But the best part was that I was able to bring that conditioning from training at home to the course of Ironman Lake Placid.
Rounding the final curve on the Olympic Oval, the finish line came into view. The clock read 11:30:xx, a better Ironman time than I had seen in two years. And more importantly, a great time considering I had just completed what I considered to be my easiest Ironman ever.
I crossed the finish line not with a collapse of relief, but with a smile on the outside, and delight on the inside. The goal had been met: Ironman was fun once again, and I was eager to do it again. And I will.
For more: IronLakePlacid.com