Built for the 1980 Winter Olympics, the 90 and 120 meter ski
jumps, set flights of both victory and disaster. Against the natural panorama they are stark reminders that no one leaves Ironman Lake Placid untouched.
I almost didn't attend this year's Ironman Lake Placid. Dark clouds blew over my original motivations to race and a personal struggle much weightier than 140.6 miles ensued for months. When at the moment I nearly cancelled my plans my quixotic self was rejuvenated. That's when, in a poetic confluence of events, I met the men and women behind Athletes for a Cure and AllTri. It's for their cause I decided to humbly toe the line and raise funds. To joust the windmills of my time.
With my head filled with Cervantes's notions of dreaming the impossible while raising awareness for those affected by prostate cancer I sought the windmills that are the ski jumps. As plans of personal redemption go this was one had real possibilities. Race an Ironman course on my own terms, make peace with the past, and joust for those who can't; and I'd cross the finish line renewed. As an athlete you and I are never more perfect than when we are racing.
So let's race!
It was threatening rain during the short walk from the rented house to the swim start. While putting on my wetsuit the weight of the task covered me. Heavy in thought, I sat down on the banks of Mirror Lake and it began to rain. The one question that loomed darker than the clouds over head that was, "Was it enough?" Had I done the right training in the amounts needed to joust? Should I play the race conservative and do just enough to get by or push myself from the cannon's shot? My answer was: the hour had come to be bold and honest. No more hiding self-doubts in a coat of bravado. It was time to expose them to the light.
Getting through the swim was the first order of business. Covering the distance was what I had trained for but what I didn't expect was 2.4 miles of shoving, grabbing, and kicking for the entire swim, not just the start and the turns. Half of the time my hands protected my face and the other half they pulled myself across the water. Just as soon as I would break away from the traffic around me I would swim upon another pack. It didn't matter if I swam wide to the right of the buoys or to their left, I was met with kicks and elbows. I exited the water in just over 1 hour and 23 minutes. Well below my best performance but, not to take anything away from the other swimmers, it was a tough morning commute to transition.
That would be the easy part of the day.
I dashed into and out of the changing tent and onto the bike without delay. Through the transition area it was all smiles, waves, and kisses that rained down like confetti.
The Lake Placid bike course has something for everyone. From white-knuckled 50 mph descents, to flat stretches for hammering, and finally a grinding climb up Whiteface Mountain to crush any fantasies I might have that this course is easy. It's on the last few miles of the climb they see you. Standing there, snagging clouds in their crowns, the ski jumps see every turn of the pedals.
The first of the two loops of the bike had only one mishap when I lost my asthma inhaler at a water station while exchanging empty food wrappers for full. Shortsightedly, I didn't stop to retrieve it. Seduced by the downhills I felt too good to stop. But nonetheless I completed the first 56 miles ahead of schedule and was feeling great for it too.
Soon that would change.
Once out of Lake Placid for the start of the second 56 miles it's only a few rolling hills until the steep downhill sections begin again. That's where I pushed the pace and one by one I passed those who had been ahead of me for the morning. No sooner did I pass the mile 76 marker did I feel the first sharp pain in my gut. In a matter of minutes my stomach was churning and my face felt flush. Around mile 80 I was hanging over the guardrail vomiting with all my involuntary strength. From that moment on the complexion of my race would change. The fight was on and the windmills weren't the only things turning.
Throwing up on the bike was never in my training schedule and certainly not in the race plan. I had a flat tire plan, a broken chain plan, a nutrition plan, a hydration plan, a dropped-a-water-bottle plan, even a wardrobe malfunction plan. But what I didn't have was a get-sick-and-continue-to-race plan. All of the technology for measuring my heart rate, wattage, and average speed was shelved. The only plan now was the suck-it-up-and-keep-moving plan.
The simple approach was the best. As the sport increases its technical measuring capabilities, and we enter increasing levels of complexity and decision making, we need to remember that the simple path can harness all the solutions, all the answers, and all the power we'll ever need.
The plan now was to push when I felt good and rest when I didn't. The plan was to take in water and salt as much as I could stand. Just keep moving and keep jousting. Even if I had to throw up again. (Which I did I second time.) No matter how much time it took.
Seven hours is a long time to be on a bike and every muscle in my body didn't hesitate to painfully remind me of it too. While cresting the final hill before entering Lake Placid I looked at the ski jumps casting long shadows. This time they were regally shining in the early afternoon sun. Unimpressed by my accomplishment, they knew there was a marathon yet to run.
On occasion I see the run as a happy, exhilarating, and nourishing to my soul experience. In running my mind flees with the my feet and the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in my chest, in rhythm with my feet and the swinging of my arms. But not this time.
I managed one of the few smiles of the day with the ski jumps looking on.
I hadn't eaten in four hours. My eyesight was fading and the usual pulsing of the running joy in my ears was replaced by a heavy pounding of a headache. My chest was aching from the asthma. The error of not retrieving my inhaler had me hurting and wheezing. For the first time, ever, I felt like stopping. Quitting was not an option but, I had a problem to solve, one with 26.2 miles and two very steep hills to climb. What I needed was a solution.
My solution was not to look - or at least to look as infrequently as possible - at my stopwatch or far down the road. I had to stay centered on the moment. I looked down at the pavement directly in front of me. Concentrating on the basic, essential things that I had to get done, I put one foot in front of the other. I silently counted to 100 then started again, over and over. Time passed more quickly and productively by staying focused in the moment. Time on the clock was not a problem as long as I kept moving forward.
Feeling a little better I took in some food at a water station. Bad idea. Soon enough I was doubled over the shoulder of the road. I threw up two more times on the run. Making sure I drank water and dowed salt were my only hopes of finishing. That, and a shot of inspiration.
And the motivation I needed came from watching the other athletes. I wasn't the only one walking and I wasn't the only one coloring the course. More than a couple of others were sick too. I felt for them and offered words of encouragement when I went past. It's possible they were feeling just as bad as I did and maybe worse. If they could keep keep moving then I would too. Even if it meant admitting my losses.
Lost were my plans of setting a personal-best time at the Ironman distance. Lost was grabbing this course by its throat and shaking it with all I had. Gone was my daylight finish. The peace I despirately sought passed me without as much as a word. But, instead of accepting my loses as endings I saw them as detours - headed in the intended direction - and kept on moving. Eventually, I was on the last set of hills towards the ski jumps. They were still visible in the night sky and refused to be ignored. And so was I.
Losing is something that happens to us all one time or another. It happens so often you'd think we'd all be experts at it by now. The problem with too many of us is we equate losing with total failure. Instead of becoming experts at bouncing back, we've become expert victims who don't try again. I've had my share of loses but I refuse to become a victim. Just like in this race, I've had to bounce back, several times, during the same day. It's a part of Ironman - and life - and you must train for and accept its eventuality.
The marathon took 6 hours and 20 minutes to complete.
The Lake Placid finish is on the outdoor speed skating oval next to the Olympic arena. Running towards the finish line was like being awakened from a bad dream. In my dream, lasting 32 miles on the bike and 26 miles of the marathon, I was a broken, exhausted man with a stomach in revolt. The music, the spotlights, the throng of the cheering spectators woke me out of my daze. When I awoke, a few hundred yards from the finish line, I was an athlete again. Finally, I was strong, alert, and could run like the wind. Crossing the line I flexed my arms in celebration. One step later, I fell into the arms to a volunteer.
Finished: in 15 hours, 9 minutes, and 18 seconds.
When it's at its hardest there's nothing more valuable than courage and courage is available to all of us. Finishing didn't require a great amount of physical strength - just look at my pace per mile to see that - but it is , in fact, based almost entirely on strength of mind. The joust began there and that's where it ended.
In February I renewed my purpose and set out on a noble path available to a late-adult-quixotic athlete. Okay, so Quixote lost touch with reality and began titling at windmills and maybe all of this Ironman business and jousting ski jumps may seem crazy too. But in the end, I achieved several goals that most men never attain. Or so I suspect. Maybe someday I'll have a clearer vision of what all of this means because today I'm too close to the smoke to see the fire alarm and too busy fanning the flames to pull it.
Yes, I do see Ironman as quixotic and still worth the effort.
We all need to pursue some noble and difficult-to-attain goals, or what's a life for? Today, this is mine.