My First Triathlon: The Lake Placid Ironman
Like many marathoners, after running for several years I was looking for a new challenge. So without knowing how to properly swim, owning a bike, or encompassing rational decision-making skills, I decided to register for my first triathlon – the 2017 Lake Placid Ironman.
A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run is not a course to be underestimated – so I decided to train properly and hire a coach. I already had a certain level of fitness from CrossFit and marathons, but Coach Ken pushed me to a completely different level. He told me early on that ‘consistency would get me across the finish line and intensity would get me there faster’ – so I went to work.
Anywhere from 1 to 8 hours per day, 6 to 7 days per week, for 7 months, I was doing some combination of swimming, biking, running, yoga and strength – including two marathons I already had on the books. Most of the time, I loved it. I loved seeing my times getting faster, my heart rate staying low, my mileage increasing, and my confidence growing. But there were also times I didn’t feel like training. It’s tough to sacrifice time with friends and family. It’s hard to hit the track in the rain and snow. It’s painful to sit on that [insert multiple expletives] bike for what feels like eternity. And it’s difficult to keep going after setbacks. But I did it. Day-in and day-out, I stuck to the plan – only missing or adjusting less than a handful of sessions.
The not-so-pleasant aftermath from one of my many bike falls.
Nutrition and rest became a much more important aspect of my life. My appetite increased significantly as I wanted to eat every 1-2 hours. I’m more of a grazer so this meant small meals more often – 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 2 dinners and lots of snacking in between. I went from an average of 7 hours of sleep per night to 9, and added afternoon naps following long weekend sessions (I know some can function on only 4-6 hours of sleep per night but I don’t understand nor do I trust these people – sleep is important). As the weeks passed, my endurance skyrocketed – and I could feel it.
THURSDAY – 3 DAYS UNTIL RACE
At 4:00am we piled 5 adults, 2 toddlers and a cooler of snacks into a 15-passenger van for a 10-hour road trip to Lake Placid NY. And if that wasn’t fun enough on its own, my family decided to make the trip more exciting by attempting to sabotage me with their germs – my dad was contagious with strep throat, my mom was convinced she was a carrier, my nephew had a fever, and my sister wasn’t feeling well. So, armed with 6 bottles of airborne, a box of face masks, and a strategic seating pattern, we were off – with each passenger hoping they wouldn’t be the one to infect me right before the race.
The transit van to Lake Placid.
Eventually we arrived at the house which was located at the south end of Lake Placid near the restaurant Lisa G’s. Places booked up quickly, but we were lucky enough to find one 0.7 miles from the center of activity – perfect for walking as the town was way too congested to drive.
FRIDAY – 2 DAYS UNTIL RACE
First thing Friday morning CK accompanied me to Mirror Lake where I tried my first ever open water swim – a.k.a. he made sure I didn’t drown (which I didn’t – so that was good). I wasn’t sure what to expect as I was used to swimming in 83°F water, but the lake was only 74°F. Plus, I hadn’t swum more than 200-yards in my wetsuit and I had no idea if it would cause me to chafe. On a recommendation, I opted for a sleeveless Xterra beginner wetsuit that I snagged for only $99 – and after all the costs associated with registration, travel and the bike, I was happy to take any bit of savings anywhere I could get it. It ended up being the perfect suit to keep me warm, allow adequate arm mobility, and cause minimal-to-no chaffing.
First attempt at an open water swim in Mirror Lake.
Because I had no idea what I was doing, I spent a couple minutes observing the other swimmers to see if there was any swim etiquette I needed to follow. I determined that I had to swim to the left of the buoys, make a clock-wise circle in the lake, and try to stay out of way of faster swimmers. The water was murky and it took about 10 minutes to calm my nerves, but I was able to focus on keeping a steady heart rate, figuring out how to sight, and getting comfortable in open water. By the time I was swimming back to land, I felt pretty good.
After a quick shower and gathering the rest of the entourage, we headed to the conference center for check-in. I entered an athlete-only room with white tape arrows on the floor that led to various stations. First up, signing away my life and agreeing not to sue anyone – always comforting. I was then weighed and had the results written on the back of my race bib – this was to help medics in case I were to become dehydrated during the race. I then got my race packet, gear bags, swim cap, bike stickers, ankle tracker, some swag, volunteer bracelet, and two wrist bands. The first, a mandatory blue wristband designating I was an athlete. The second, an optional orange wristband letting everyone know this was my first Ironman. I opted to wear it because 1) it’s exciting to be at your first Ironman, and 2) I figured people might cut me some slack for my newbie status when they realized I had no idea what I was doing. Since it was my first triathlon, I really was just going with the flow.
Registration materials: bike check-out tickets, bike and gear sticks, volunteer bracelet, ankle tracker, and wristbands.
After check-in, we headed to the Oval – the hub of all Ironman activity. We walked through the expo (where I saw wheels for $15,000 – just the wheels), picked-up my Ironman backpack (the real reason why I registered) and attended one of the mandatory athlete briefings. The briefing was super helpful by outlining what to expect during the week and the rules of the course. Plus, the race director cracked a lot of jokes which put me at ease. As odd as it may sound, this was one of my favorite pre-race experiences.
It’s starting to get real!
We then headed over to the Olympic Center to do a little exploring. The major attraction was the Herb Brooks Area – the rink where the U.S. Hockey Team beat the Soviet Union during the 1980 Olympics, an event referred to as the “Miracle on Ice”. Pretty much a must-see when visiting Lake Placid.
Miracle on Ice – pretty much a must see in Lake Placid.
We then grabbed dinner and headed back to the house where I began prepping my gear bags – and thus concluded that triathlons are ridiculously high maintenance. Compared to marathons, there is so much stuff. I did organize most of it in clear zip lock bags prior to the trip, so all I had to do was dump everything in the official gear bags provided by Ironman. A pretty good tip I read during the excessive hours I spent researching what to expect.
So. Much. Stuff.
SATURDAY – 1 DAY UNTIL RACE
Saturday was bike check-in and bag drop-off for bike and run gear only – morning clothes and special needs would be dropped off race-day morning.
As my mom and I were walking to the Oval, I noticed the stickers on my bike weren’t exactly placed in the same spots as everyone else’s – again, newbie status. Thankfully, the stickers were vinyl so once I reached the bike tent a volunteer was able to easily re-adjust.
Earlier in the day I had my blue athlete wristband replaced because it turns out I swell like a balloon when it’s hot and it became too tight for comfort. However, that meant that my race number was then hand-written on the new wristband instead of officially printed. This of course caused a delay – a.k.a. a scene – while getting my bike checked-in. Eventually, I was allowed to continue, but only after they took a photo of my wristband, license, and bike.
The Oval – the hub of Ironman activity.
I then continued and had my bike officially photographed before placing it on the bike rack marked with my race number. Because this was all new to me, I did a lot of observing other people and talking to volunteers about where I would be entering and exciting the Oval – very helpful.
Once comfortable with the bike situation, I hung my gear bags and met my mom to do a little shopping in the official merchandise tent. She was pretty pumped when she found my name in a list of participants on the back of a shirt, so she bought it for me – but didn’t give it to me until after I completed the race.
We found my name!
Because I wasn’t able to attend any of Coach Ken’s Lake Placid camps, I wanted to drive the bike course. So that afternoon CK drove while I made notes about the hills, sharp turns and cutoff locations. It took over an hour – in a car. And that was only one loop. I was going to ride my bike around that loop – twice! Once digesting that fun information, I headed to bed. Race day wake-up call comes early and I wanted to be ready.
SUNDAY – RACE DAY
My alarm went off at 3:00am and I was up. Surprisingly, I slept really well. My mom had breakfast ready at 3:15am – 3 eggs, a toasted bagel with peanut butter, and orange juice. It’s a long day so the goal is to consume some major calories and still have time to get things moving before heading out the door… if you know what I’m saying. Nutrition was a huge part of the day and something that could have easily ended my race. Gut-training was just as important as everything else – something these people heard all about, lucky you guys.
The morning crew who got up early to wish me good luck.
At 4:30am my mom, CK and I headed to the race. First stop, body marking outside the Oval – race number on both arms and age on my calf. I was then able to access my bike and gear bags that were checked-in the day prior. After adding a handheld water bottle to my run gear bag, I headed to my bike. I attached my bike computer (I didn’t want to leave this out overnight – though some did), and added my liquid and nutrition bottles to my aerobars. I’m not the best at reaching down or behind me to get fluids while on the bike – so I bought the world’s most expensive aero water bottle for fluids, and came up with the ingenious idea to Velcro my nutrition bottle to the aero bars. While trying different types of nutrition during training, I ultimately learned that the easiest and best way for me to consume calories was to drink them. I stuck with Honey Stinger gels because they had no caffeine and had ingredients I could pronounce (seriously, try reading the ingredients of other brands and let me know how many words you can actually pronounce). My goal was 3-gels (300 calories) every hour, so I mixed 12-gels with a little bit of water to create my fuel for the day.
My not-so-aerodynamic fuel setup on the bike.
I then headed over to drop off my bike special needs bag. It had a second bottle of nutrition, a mini coke, and a few Pringles for a mid-course treat. I opted out of using a run special needs bag and just headed straight to Mirror Lake for the swim. Turns out all that stuff didn’t take as long as I expected, so we were there pretty early – but at least we secured good seats for the start of the race! Around 6:00am athletes were finally able to jump into the water and warmup. I handed my morning clothes bag to CK – versus checking with my bike and run gear bags – and got ready.
The swim was a self-seeded, rolling start. The pro men started at 6:30am, followed by age groupers at 6:40am. I placed myself in the 1:15 – 1:30 wave towards the back. It was slower than my projected swim time but I wanted to avoid the swim fight. Everyone told me how violent the swim can be with kicking, pulling and swimming over each other, that I had created this insane image of me being pulled under and choking on water – thankfully this did not happen.
And here we go…
The swim wasn’t nearly as bad as I had envisioned. There is a cable that lines the course, but you have to be pretty close to see it. It also happens to be where all the action is. I opted out of this and swam several feet to the left of the cable in self-preservation. My sighting can only be described as utterly horrendous, so I began lifting my head completely out of the water to see the buoys. Not at all efficient, but it did allow me to see where other swimmers were – because as it turns out, most swimmers are also terrible at sighting. When someone came diagonal across my path, I stopped and let them pass. I had the whole day ahead of me so losing time on the swim was better than getting rattled before the day even began.
The straights were relatively good, but the turns were congested. I accidentally kicked people and they accidentally kicked me. It wasn’t anything debilitating, just startling. Everyone was just trying to get their own space and keep moving. Before I knew it, I was crossing the timing mat to start my second loop. Because my watch wouldn’t last the entire day, I chose to use it during the run. This left me completely in the dark about my time during the swim. But soon enough I finished the second loop and was out of the water in 1:29:13.
Survived the swim!
Next up was the transition from the swim to the bike. I was able to unzip my wetsuit and get my arms out before running to a wetsuit stripper. She yelled for me to get on the ground and had my suit off in less than 2 seconds. I barely had time to get on my feet before she handed me my wetsuit and yelled ‘get moving, good luck’. I then began the ½ mile run from Mirror Lake to the Oval. I opted to forgo a tri-suit – because my bum appreciates the finer things in life, like extra padding provided in cycling shorts – and instead wore a bathing suit under my wetsuit. I was conscious of how unsupported and exposed I was, but apparently this is normal and I had no choice but to kept moving.
I came into the Oval and grabbed my bike gear bag. I had tried to pee during the swim – I’m not ashamed – but as it turns out it’s actually pretty hard to do when moving. So, like a civilized human being, I used the porta potty before entering the women’s changing tent. I knew I would spend extra time in transitions changing my attire – and I was ok with that. A volunteer dumped out my bag and handed me what I needed. Too bad I forgot a towel. I did have a rag to wipe my feet so I made do with that. I put on my bike shorts, sports bra, cycling shirt, bandana, socks, shoes and helmet. Sprayed some tri-slide down my shorts and covered myself in sunscreen. I took a drink of water, had a few Pringles and headed to my bike.
The announcer called my number and a volunteer had my bike waiting for me as I approached. I grabbed it, said thanks, and headed to the mount line. The area was a little crowded and I could only mount my bike after crossing this line. Once I had space, I clipped-in and was leaving transition in a time of 12:23.
The bike was by far my weakest discipline. During my training, I was completing the distances but not in the required times. And although I had 17 hours to finish the race, there were several cutoffs I needed to make or I risked being pulled out and receiving a DNF (did not finish – literally my worst nightmare). My goal was to finish each 56-mile lap in 4 hours. I focused on my cadence and started repeating my mantra of “focus on your nutrition, race your own race, this is the fun part”.
The first loop was gorgeous – giant mountain faces, rushing waters, and lush greenery. The beginning sections were mostly downhill where speeds could exceed 50mph. I thought I’d be breaking during this section, but I reached about 35mph and felt completely comfortable – thank you hill training! Turns out when I can see the bottom of the hill, there aren’t too many sharp turns, and there are no cars, I really enjoy the bike.
It may not look like it, but I’m actually enjoying this part of the course.
About an hour in, the road got a bit rough. It required me to not only watch the pavement, but also dodge the items flying off people’s bikes. Unfortunately, I was one of these people and lost my nutrition bottle. This was a real bummer considering I didn’t have any backup on me and I couldn’t access my special needs bag for another 3 hours. Knowing how important nutrition was, especially on the bike, I stopped at the next rest station to re-adjust. I replaced the water in my aero water bottle with Gatorade (to help with calorie intake), put a couple bananas in my bento box with my electrolyte pills, and got back to riding.
I made small talk with other riders, took in the scenery, and eventually made it to the hills climbing back to town. About 4 miles out from Lake Placid there are three back-to-back hills nicknamed Mamma Bear, Baby Bear, and Papa Bear – the names were literally spray painted on the course. It seemed to be a big deal, but in my opinion, they weren’t the hardest hills. They are, however, lined with people demanding that you ‘get up this hill’. A welcomed energy boost from the long stretches of no people and no music. It can be a dangerous place when it’s just you, your thoughts, and an unhappy bum.
As I came into special needs, a volunteer held open my bag while I grabbed my nutrition bottle, took a sip of coke, and threw back a few Pringles. Less than 4 hours for the first lap and I was ecstatic! Within a couple minutes, I was off – ready for lap 2.
This time leaving town I saw my Dad and yelled to him, but he didn’t hear me (I should have called his first name instead of “Dad” – rookie mistake). However, my yelling did alert everyone else – including a couple of friends who had made it to Lake Placid at this point.
The best support team. Ever.
The second time around the course was definitely not as fun as the first. The towns that provided energy were now desolate. More athletes were talking to one another – just trying to keep themselves in a positive place. The last 30-miles were the hardest part of the race for me. Everything you can imagine about sitting on a bike for 8 hours, happens. It is NOT pretty and it IS painful.
I finally made it back to the bear hills when I finally saw Coach Ken! I don’t know how he found me, but he ran up those hills while chatting before he told me to have a nice run and he’d see me later. I was feeling good at this point knowing I only had 1-2 miles until I was done with the bike. As I turned the corner to head towards transition, I saw CK in front of me yelling my name! I didn’t see him with my family at the beginning of this loop, so I was excited to see him. That, and I knew I would be off my bike in 45 – 60 seconds. After a total of 8:11:31, I was finally off the bike – hallelujah and thank you sweet baby Jesus.
The transition from bike to run is much quicker than T1. I dismounted before the dismount line and handed my bike off to a volunteer. I had a short run – in my cycling shoes – to grab my run gear bag and head to the changing tents. I kept the same top and socks, but changed my shorts and shoes. I did the tri-slide and sunscreen routine, and added a visor and compression socks. Even though it was overcast, being out there all day will fry you – especially someone like me, who the sun apparently hates. I had gels around my waist, a water bottle in my hand and I was off. Total transition time of 7:38.
Almost immediately after coming down the hill from transition, I saw everyone again. It had been over 4 hours since I last saw them and I was pretty pumped! Plus, I was finally at my wheelhouse – the run.
I apparently make weird faces when I get excited to see people I know.
The run course passed through the center of town 4 times which created lots of energy to feed from. I was feeling good, but decided to the use the bathroom early on. I’m glad I did as my urine was bright yellow. I knew I was dehydrated and needed liquids, so I slowed my pace and began drinking pretty consistently. I saw several people throwing up on the side of the road, and a couple people being taken out of the race. I certainly did not want that to be me.
Many athletes follow the 9 and 1 rule – 9 minutes of running, followed by 1 minute of walking. I’m not very good at the run-walk combo, so I ran the majority of the course – with the exception of 2 large hills that required more energy than it was worth to run. I focused on my liquid intake and repeated my mantra, “stick to the plan, one mile at a time”. It may seem silly, but having mantras helps keep me from spiraling into a deep dark place of no return.
At some point Coach Ken comes running through a field onto the course. I’m pretty sure he was having a beer and dinner – and I can’t say I wasn’t jealous. He deserved it though – there’s no way I could have gotten to where I was without him. He said I looked good and that he’d see me later, so I went on my way. The half way point was somewhat difficult because I saw several people turning right into the Oval – meaning they were finished. I, on the other hand, was turning left which meant I was just starting my second loop. I had to remind myself that I was racing my own race – and I was doing pretty dang well.
Some pretty sweet signs my sister made.
Darkness fell during the second loop, which only means one thing – I was part of the chicken broth club. My nutrition plan was to consume one gel every half hour, however after 4-5 gels (and months of consuming more than I’d like to think about), I decided I didn’t want any more. I had somewhere between 2-3 hours left and I just viewed it as a buffet of my choice. I had chicken broth, coke, Gatorade, water, grapes – and it was wonderful. I was so thankful I was in a good place mentally and physically. Coach Ken always told me that if I started to doubt myself or started thinking negative thoughts, I needed sugar. My hope was to never get there to begin with – and I didn’t.
Because I used different watches during the race, I didn’t know exactly where I was timewise – but I could guess based on time of day. My goal for the race was 16:59:59, though I was planning to cross between 11:00pm-11:30pm. After the bike, I thought I’d come in somewhere around 10:30pm, but as the run grew closer and closer to the end, I knew I might finish around 10:00pm. Turns out I did the run in 4:59:55 – that included 2 bathroom breaks, and walking up a total of 4 hills. I’m normally a 4:15 marathoner, so this is almost spot-on from a guy who told me to expect an additional 45 minutes – I was planning for an extra 60 to 75 minutes.
The last 2 miles of the race were AMAZING! I don’t think there’s a word that gives the feeling any justice. People were lined everywhere screaming my name. I felt as if they were invested in my journey just as much as me and my family were. I made sure to smile at people, say thank you, and show the appreciation I had for them being there – because at times it was their energy I fed off of to keep going.
As I approached the Oval I saw two women running ahead of me. I didn’t want to cross the line with anyone else, so I sped up to pass, but slowed down once inside. The biggest piece of advice I received was to take my time in the Oval and slap the hands of the people cheering. They may not be running, but they are experiencing this and want to be a part of the event too. So that’s what I did. I slapped the hands of little kids and said thank you to the people congratulating me.
It was loud and bright once I hit the red carpet – making it difficult to really see anything. As I approached the finish I finally heard Mike Reilly – the voice of the Ironman – say “Heather Miller, YOU … ARE … AN … IRONMAN!” I didn’t cry, I didn’t think “thank goodness that’s over”, and I wasn’t was crippled by pain. I was really happy and proud of myself – and I just kept smiling. I was smiling because I accomplished something that once seemed so overwhelming. I was smiling because I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could have this opportunity. I was smiling because I had an amazing support system who understood the sacrifices I chose to make during this process. And I was smiling because I actually had fun doing it.
And now I’m an Ironman!
Immediately after crossing the line two volunteers, referred to as “catchers”, asked how I was, if I had any cramping, and if I could walk. Somehow, I was way better than after any of my marathons. They grabbed my finisher shirt, medal, cap, water, space blanket and led me to the photographer for my photo. I was then on my own to get my coke and a slice of pizza. There were massage tents but I had a full spa day planned for Monday and I wanted to see everyone, so I skipped that. CK had checked out my bike and gear bags while I was on the run course, so I didn’t have to worry about anything but enjoying the finish.
Post-race photo with the crew.
The next day I was feeling good, so we attended the celebration breakfast, got massages, and did some shopping along Main Street. I came across a cute shop called ‘Christmas in Lake Placid’, where I bought a custom ornament to commemorate my experience.
Commemorative Ironman Ornament from “Christmas in Lake Placid”.
My official time was 15:00:38. I crushed my projected time by over an hour – though I have to admit that the 38 seconds irks me. If I had known how close I was to breaking the 15-hour barrier, I would have pushed myself.
The thing that surprised me the most was how calm I felt during each component of the race. It’s overwhelming to think of the day in its entirety, so I broke everything into small, manageable pieces. And although 15-hours is a long time, it goes by fast. It’s strange to go from months of intense training and then for it to suddenly be over.
Training was the hard part; the race was just execution.
So will I do another? You know, Cozumel or Santa Rosa certainly sound like great racecation options…
Surprise celebratory gifts from amazing friends, plus a look at my finisher hat and medal.