2003 Ironman USA -- Lake Placid, NY
We arrived on Tuesday to the farmhouse in Jay, NY that wed rented. Had the rest of the week to just hang out and relax. Tamara and Ashley spent a lot of time being rock hounds, the house had a creek running by it, and a river just a short drive away with tons of great rocks. It was cool to be back at the same place we’d been in February when everything was white with snow. Now it was so green and different, we could hardly recognize the place.

I got my bike put back together after the plane trip, and mostly thought about the race and the course.

This is a very tough race course, with the bike being two 56 mile loops. The highlights of the course are the 8 miles or so of descending that starts right out of town, and the 10 or so miles of climbing coming back into town at the end of each loop. This climbing has 5 main climbs, going right beside Whiteface Ski resort, and you come up on a road that has mountains on either side. I would find out later, a good description would be like a FUNNEL, to channel brutal headwinds directly into your face as you try to come back into town, but that’s not for a few days.

On Wednesday, I went out to ride 30 miles or so, including the difficult part of the course, I wanted to see just how hard this would be for a Florida boy to handle. We don’t have anything like Whiteface mountain in Florida to train on you know. Weather was beautiful, and while the climbs were longer than anything I’ve ridden before, they weren’t bad, I should have no problem as long as I didn’t try to go too fast on them.

Next day, Thursday, my plan was to ride the DOWNHILL section of the course. Figured this would be a blast, flying at 50+ mph down a mountain on my bike. What could be more fun. I have Tamara drop me at the top, and off I go.

It’s another perfect blue, light-wind day and I can’t wait. A few ups and down, and I come to a pretty serious descent, no brakes, just get in a tuck and let it go. I watch my speed go through the mid-30's, then 40, immediatly, the front of my bike starts an uncontrollable wobble. I clamp the top tube with my knees, I squeeze the handlebars as tight as I can to try to keep from completely losing control, and none of it does much good. I get on the back brake as much as I dare, and almost go straight down at the first touch of the front brake so that is out. I guess pure terror would pretty much describe the feeling here. I’m fairly certain I’m about to be sliding on pavement, at 40 mph, wearing what basically amounts to nothing, a thin layer of lycra shorts and shirt, coming to a stop at the rocky side of the mountain. Even though I’ve slowed the acceleration, I’m still not in control, I clamp the top tube tighter with my knees, the seat with my thighs and regain my composure enough to tighten even more on the handlebars, squeeze the rear brake, and by this time, I hit a little flat part of road that allows me to actually come to a complete stop. I feel relieved that I didn’t crash, because I really thought I had lost it, then I feel kind of silly that I didn’t take things a little slower. I’ve never been that fast on this particular bike(49 mph was top speed on the computer), or on these wheels. And it turns out, with the way my weight is positioned forward on the frame, at that speed, it just doesn’t work. It’s not a problem for any of the riding I normally do, and it’s a mistake I’ll never make again.
I get my thoughts together, and let the bike start rolling on down the mountain. It’s all I can do, with both brakes on hard to keep the speed under control. By the time I get to the bottom of the mountain, my upper body, neck, shoulders, forearms, biceps are all simply exhausted. I’m so tight I can noticeably tell it. Thankfully, it’s an easy 20 mile spin back to the house on flat roads. Tamara and Ashley catch me in the van about 10 miles down the road and can’t believe I’m almost home. They thought I must have ran off the mountainside and they'd passed me.Very close to being what happened, and I’m just glad they didn’t have to pick me up off the road as they were coming down.

The rest of the week, I’m getting my gear together, doing some swim practice and trying to figure out how to fix the downhill problem, I’ve got to go down that mountain two times on race day. I never resolve that, and just DREAD having to ride down.

Race day starts early and unfortunately, the weather has turned sour. Thunderstorms and high winds. I have Tamara drive me in, and drop me off close to the swim start. They’ll go back home, and wait for me to ride by the house, which sits about ½ way around the two loop bike course. The swim is in Mirror Lake, and the water is as clear as a swimming pool. In February, I’d walked on it, now I’m swimming in it. It’s a two loop swim course of 1.2 miles each loop, and the cool thing is that there is a cable that the bouys attach to that runs several feet under the water for the whole course. It’s used for rowing competitions, and with the clear water, it’s just like a lane marker in a swimming pool, you can swim the whole course and never have to look up. I line up toward the front, as far away from everyone as I can, but it’s no use. The start of an Ironman swim is like being in a washing machine. 2000 athletes starting at once, all trying to fight for the same spot. I take my blows from others hands and feet, and give my share and eventually settle into an easy pace for the first loop. I pick up the effort for the second loop, I’m feeling pretty good. Lap times for each 1.2 mile loop? Within 3 seconds of each other 33:48 and 33:45.

I exit the water, and make the long jog up to transition to get my bike. The wind is blowing(50 mph gusts) and the thought of taking those downhills on wet roads is not inviting. It was worse that I’d imagined, I stayed HARD on my brakes to keep my speed as low as I could, but the roads were wet, and the crosswinds. You’d be going down with mountain barely in control, with rock wall on one side, a solid line of trees on the other, then the trees stop as you come to an opening for a bridge or whatever, and you’re BLASTED with this cross wind that literally throws you across the road. I was scared to death on this section of road. The only thing good about it, was that I’d already been down this part of the course, so I KNEW to keep the speed as slow as I could. Had I pulled the stunt on race day, that I’d pulled on Thursday when I started flying down the road, there is no doubt I would have crashed badly. With all the other cyclists, and the wet roads and brutal cross winds that were blowing us across the road, I would never have maintained control.

I survive the downhill, and cruise around the course for the last 10-12 miles of hills and headwind back into town. Turns out, the way the wind is blowing, and with the geography of the mountains on either side of the road as it is, we have 12 mostly uphill miles into an unrelenting, brutally hard headwind. All of us were literally crawling along on our bikes. This stretch of road took me an hour or more to ride, 10 miles long. I’m not a great cyclist, but I sure ride better than 10mph anywhere else I ride. Even the few downhill sections you had to pedal to keep from coming to a stop. Very tough, and we still had to do it again. Funny thing, as hard as that section of road was, I would have gladly have ridden it a third time rather than do the downhill again. I was that afraid and out of control descending that mountain. But I did it, and as I came in to the last 5 hills of the climb into town on the 2nd loop, the bottom dropped out. The rain was coming down in buckets. But on the positive side, that’s where you get to literally hundreds of spectators cheering for you like your Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. The rain didn’t matter, if anything it was like a desperate last ditch effort for Mother Nature to try to stop me. Not this day, I cruise into town feeling good, and looking forward to the run. As mentioned above, spectators and race support is the best I have ever seen at any race. The people there are awesome.

The rain is still like a solid wall of water when I start my run. Stepping off the curb into ankle deep water. Better than hot as far as I’m concerned. Again, the crowds in town were just incredible. People lining every inch of the streets cheering for each runner as they go by, it’s so cool. I settle into a comfortably fast pace, I had decided to run this marathon aggressively, as long as I could. If this was going to be my last Ironman, I’m going to push it, but I also had decided I wouldn’t run myself into the ground, I wanted to enjoy myself and take it all in. A guy along the course had an Olympic gold medal that he was letting us touch as we ran by. I stopped and held it, very cool to have a gold medal from the Olympics in your hand. I ran really well through 9 miles, then hit the hills coming back into town. I tried to take it fairly easy, I had to do this whole loop again, but coming in to town, I started getting really cold. The whole day of clouds, rain and wind had starting getting to me, I probably hadn’t eaten enough and was just running out of gas. It was also getting later in the day and the temps were starting to come down. In any event, I had a long sleeve shirt in my drop bag at the ½ way mark of the run, 13 miles. I got to that point, the rain had stopped, I put on my nice dry long sleeve shirt, and decided to take a walk break to eat, drink. My downfall as far as racing goes, after an hour of swimming in cold water, riding 112 miles in wind and thunderstorms, and being soaked to the skin at the start of the run, and night coming on and the temperature dropping, the last thing I wanted to do was to get all wet again from sweat. And walking felt SO good. I was enjoying seeing all the sights, the crowds, the signs everyone had up for their friends and family. I knew my time would suck, and Tamara and Ashley would wonder what the heck happened to me, but it was actually a very different experience to just go along and take everything in. Usually I’m in ‘race mode’ just trying to pass people and not get passed, going as hard as my body will allow, but this was almost like being a spectator. For the next 13 miles, I walked probably 9 of it, and slow jogged a little. I did run the last couple of miles, mostly to go ahead and get in. Running into the Olympic Skating Oval where Eric Heiden won his 5 Gold Medals, and making the ½ loop to the finish, with huge screen TV showing you finishing, spectators screaming ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN’ , and knowing your family is there waiting is an awesome experience. Ashley poped out on the course to run the last 50 yards with me and cross the finish line. We got a great photo, hung around a little while but I was cold and had got wet again, so was ready to leave. We found a restaurant, I got my traditional Double Burger Loaded with EVERYTHING and extra cheese(blue cheese in this case! Awesome!)
Tamara and Ashley were great support for me while at the race. They made all kinds of signs that they put out on the bike course, and I saw them while on the run too. We had a great week.