Friday, August 9, 2013

Ironman Lake Placid

I (John) tried to sign up for Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) last July and was unable to grab one of the few slots available when general registration went online.  Not a big issue because I really wasn't sure I was ready to tackle such a big event in only my second year of triathlon.  Knowing how quickly the slots are eaten up, I wanted to make sure that I got in for 2014.  If I didn't, I would have to wait another whole year.

There are only two ways to be guaranteed a spot for the following year.  1) You have to race in the present year (see aforementioned issue about this point of entry) or 2) you can volunteer to work this year's race for 4 hours or more.  If you volunteer for a qualifying shift, you get a bracelet that allows you to register for the next year before the online registration opens.  Well, I chose option 2.

I signed up for a 6-hour shift as a "Finish Line Grabber" from 6pm to midnight (the race cut-off time).  I thought this was a great gig because these are the hours that the bulk of the age-groupers (people like you and me, not the pros or elites) would be muscling down the finishing chute and crossing the line after an 11-17 hour race day.  In addition, I knew several people that were racing, so having the opportunity to see some of my training buddies at the finish would be a great experience.

The slots to race IMLP sell out quickly.  The hotel rooms and lodging options sell out only a few hours later.  By the time I was able to register for the volunteer job, the only place I could stay was a campground 13 miles outside of town.  In fact, they only had "no-hookup" tent sites available.  Basically, you get a piece of dirt, nothing more.  That was OK, because I was planning on doing this solo, and I can rough it pretty well.

Our accommodations for the weekend.
While I was at an open water swim session with some other triathletes, John G mentioned that he was going up to volunteer, but he didn't have a place to stay and there was nothing available.  I said that if he didn't mind a tent and an air mattress, he was welcome to join me.  He accepted the invitation and our plan was in motion.

We drove up after work on Friday night, not getting to the campsite until after 1:00am.  We brought our bikes and planned to ride the bike course (one loop of 56 miles) on Saturday morning.  Since I had to be at a 12:00pm volunteer meeting, we were up-and-at-'em on only 5 hours sleep.  The campground was located right around mile 40 of the bike loop, so we started there and headed into town.

We made the turn onto Route 86 and were stunned at the beauty of the area.  It was absolutely spectacular.  Mountain views, running streams and all the greenery the Adirondack region offers.  We could not have asked for better weather and the skies were a stunning blue.  Our route actually started at the most difficult part of the loop.  We climbed and climbed and climbed some more until we crested Papa Bear (the third of three consecutive climbs just outside of town).  Within a few minutes, we were in the town of Lake Placid, making a stop to pick up another friend who was going to ride with us.

Mirror Lake
It is difficult to put into words the energy and vibe that exists in Lake Placid during Ironman weekend.  There were more bikes than cars, more swimmers than bikes and more runners than swimmers.  It was like going to triathlon heaven.  The crisp air had a slight odor of carbon fiber and BodyGlide.  Mirror Lake (where the swim leg of the race is held) was just that, a mirror.  As you look down the line of race buoys, the mountains reflect their grandeur off the glass-like water.  We made our way toward the high school and Olympic Center area, aka transition.
The Ironman attitude is unmistakable!

Transition was located inside the Olympic Speed Skating Oval.  Around the perimeter were huge tents to be used as a medical station and athlete changing areas.  The size of this event and all the equipment, people and apparatus that comes with it was awe inspiring.  I knew this was a big event, but it is hard to appreciate it from pictures alone.  This was one hell of a production, and Ironman does it well.

We proceeded to complete our 56 mile loop and was able to experience, firsthand, what it will be like to race this event next year.  Although it was a tough course, I had planted in my head that this would be like an Alpe d'Huez-Col du Galibier stage of the Tour de France.  It wasn't, so I was pretty happy about that.  The run course, on the other hand, scares the crap out of me.

After a shower and a nice lunch at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery (highly recommended), John and I attended out volunteer meetings and browsed the expo in the transition area.  A dinner, quick campfire and some calls to home and we turned in early for a busy day at the race.

We got up at 4am (nothing unusual about this for either of us) to get into town by a little after 5.  The entire town is closed off for the race, so we had to park on the side of the road, about a mile out of town.  Not terrible, but it still meant a decent walk to get to our car (aka base camp for the day).  We made our way towards Mirror Lake and the swim start.  We saw a few people we knew who were racing, so we wished them luck and got in position to see all the action.

John Graziano and Scott Leslie just before the swim start.
Later that day, Scott was deemed and "Ironman" by Mike Reilly.
I was a little disappointed that the swim start format had changed.  I wanted to both witness and experience the infamous "mass start" that Ironman events are famous for.  Their new "rolling" start was designed to be safer and hopefully prevent injuries and fatalities, but I am not sure that was the answer.  The chaos of 3100 athletes pouring into the water from the beach was beyond description.  Athletes were running into the lake at full speed and then fighting for position and some open space.  It was just crazy.  We stuck around until the pros started their second lap.  There really isn't much to see when you have thousands of people wearing the same swim caps and black wetsuits.

New "rolling" swim start.  This continued for about
15 minutes until the last athlete was in the water.
We made our way over to the bike out, having the pleasure of seeing Andy Potts (the eventual winner) lead the pack out of T1.  We watched just about every athlete leave T1, despite the dizziness you feel watching everyone whiz by at 20 miles an hour.  Now we had hours to kill before our volunteer shifts started.  We made our way around town, catching the leaders start their second bike lap and the run.

Andy Potts leading the pack out of T1!
Andy still leads the way out of T2.  At this point, he
accumulated over a 10 minute lead.
The women rocked this race also.
John G volunteered as a bike handler from 2-6.  Holy crap did he earn his early registration with that gig!  He was sprinting his ass around transition non-stop, grabbing bikes from the athletes and racking them in their appropriate slot.  High pressure stuff considering these bikes are like family to each athlete, never mind the cost.  He finished his duties just as I started mine at the finish line.

John G in a sea of carbon fiber, earning his 2014 slot.
Andy Potts coming in for the win!
Not your typical pro athlete.  Andy takes time for photos
and autographs with volunteers.  He stuck around for almost an hour.
There are few things that I have done that were as rewarding as working the finish line of this race.  I was honored to be the first person to make contact with an athlete as they completed such a monumental achievement in their life.  Whether it was their first or tenth, they did what it takes.  Although they were brief, my conversations with these folks were inspiring and motivational.  In my short time with them, I learned about their struggles, successes and motivations.  The one thing that struck me was the gratitude EVERYONE crossing that line had for the volunteers.  They all said that volunteers were instrumental in getting them through this challenge and said "Thank You" more often then I could count.  Because I had an opportunity to be more intimate and conversational with each athlete, I feel that I accepted the thanks on behalf of all the volunteers along the way.

"Catchers" working the finish line.
I had the distinct pleasure of "catching" a few people I knew.  That was an added bonus to the day.  Also worth noting is that John G, after working 4 hours as a bike handler, jumped in to help out at the finish line for the next 6 hours!  What a trooper.

At about 11pm, I came to the realization that I had been on my feet all day.  Literally all day.  I had not sat down at all, since 5:30am when we parked the car.  I was both exhausted and energized by the the day's events.  John and I worked till the end, when that last athlete was proclaimed by Mike Reilly to be an "Ironman".  We headed back to the campsite, ready to take on the challenge we just witnessed by signing up for 2014 the next morning.
The infamous Mike Reilly.  Every athlete in an Ironman wants to
hear this man shout their name and proclaim their status as an Ironman.

We waited in line for 2 hours the next morning, meeting even more interesting people along the way, but we made it official.....John and I are now officially in Ironman Training!  Lake Placid 2014, here we come!

The private beach for next year's accommodations.  A slight improvement
over the piece of dirt we had this year.

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  1. John - Great Blog post! I can totally relate to your experience as I was a volunteer in 2010 with the intention to sign-up for 2011 - which I did and had a life-changing experience as I earned MY Ironman title. Good luck in going after yours. Mike Reilly is waiting for you!

    It's an experience like no other, the training and the event itself. Thank for helping me really remember my experiences as you described yours here.

    You may have motivated me to jump in and volunteer for next year's race. And maybe I can get back up to Long Island and join you for some of those LONG training days you're in for.

    Go get it!

    Tom Barbieri

    1. Tom-

      We can't thank you enough for your support, it is greatly appreciated. I am already doing long days (16-20 hour weeks), I can't imagine them getting too much longer, but I am sure they will!

      I have an extra bike, so when you are in the area, let us know. Talk to you later.