Monday, June 30, 2014

Lake Placid preview

It's 7 am on the last Friday in June. Four of us load up the trusty Subaru with a big pile of carbon candy and hit the road for northern New York. Mara and Don and I are all aspiring Ironmen/women, and our instigator and guide is Owen, a Lake Placid Ironman finisher who's trained there several times.

Lake Placid hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and it's the site of the second oldest Ironman (topped only by the world championship site in Kona, Hawaii). It's a surprisingly tiny town tucked away in the Adirondacks, and as you wander through town, you look up and there's the speed skating oval where Eric Heiden swept the men's events, there's the hockey arena where the good old US underdogs prevailed over the evil Soviets in 1980's Miracle on Ice. It's hard to imagine that such a quaint, humble place could contain an event of such magnitude. Of course, it no longer could--the broadband connection alone couldn't sustain it. Lake Placid was the home of the last small town Olympics that we'll ever see.

The hotel parking lot is full when we arrive, and most of the vehicles are plastered with triathlon stickers. Ordinary-looking New England tourists wander the streets, along with hundreds of lycra-clad athletes on bicycles and on foot. After checking in to the slightly shabby (but friendly and perfect, in a just-wheel-your-bikes-through-the-lobby kind of way) hotel in the center of town, we walk over to Mirror Lake, where dozens of swimmers in wetsuits and spandex are checking out the course, 4 lines of buoys that stretch most of the way across the lake.

I am intimidated as hell. Oh God, I think, what am I doing here? These people are professionals. There isn't an ounce of extra body fat on them. Their bikes are incredible. They are fast and strong and they all know what they're doing and oh oh oh. We get in to swim, and I'm discouraged. I'm tired and slow and the goddamn course seems to go on forever. Swimming is so lonely and my head can be so mean. But then, just past halfway through the first loop, a guy turns into my lane and matches my pace for the rest of the circle. The company is a drug--even though we don't speak or even look at each other, the silent companionship of this stranger energizes me and turns my mood around. He gets out with a quick "thanks" and wave at the end of the loop. Don and I take turns drafting each other on the second loop, which helps when my calves cramp to the extent that I can't kick. By the time we finish, Mara is waiting for us on shore, surrounded by a half-dozen half-dressed, handsome 40-something men in Ironman condition. I start to realize this is all going to be OK.

Lake Placid reminds me of Camden with triathletes. It's also like the middle-aged olympic village edition of With the knowledge of our shared experience and interest, there are no barriers to open conversation--it reminds me of meeting the only other foreigner in a small town while traveling--you just start talking to each other. It's an athletic flirtfest. By dinner time I'm pretty much in heaven.

All that notwithstanding, my primary goal this weekend is to find out what kind of speed I can expect on the bike route.The Lake Placid Ironman is famous for being especially hilly, so I've been worried about my pace. On Saturday we head out into the perfect summer morning. There's about a 10-mile descent right out of town-- a couple miles of which have me going a thrilling 40 MPH. Zooming past glacial lakes with mountain backdrops, passing and being passed and sharing hellos, it's a bluebird day and everyone on two wheels shares a shit-eating grin. There are several triathlon training camps happening this weekend, and there are hundreds of people out on the course. It's Adirondacks 101 as we travel through horse farms and past fly fishermen in trout streams.

I spend some time riding with a cycling coach from one of the camps. It's the most helpful and disheartening ride I've ever had, and I realize yet again that I don't know anything about anything, and also that I have to do this again next year. This year it's enough to log the hours and the miles, and do a good job at work and stay healthy and have a good time. Next year is the year I get the power meter and I pay attention to the heart rate monitor and I learn how to really ride a bike and do drills and set time goals and and and.

There are very few women out there, and we offer each other special acknowledgement and encouragement. I meet a guy from Brooklin who doesn't intend to ever do the race, he just likes riding here. The locals are not all thrilled with our presence, and I'm sympathetic when I consider how bad it would be if Camden were overrun not only with the usual crowds, but also with thousands of Type-A athletes focused on only one goal.

I've been hoping I could swing a 15 MPH pace for the course, which is two 56-mile loops. I manage 15.8 miles per hour on the one loop, and I've got gas left in the tank. I'm confident I can achieve 15 in the race.


The next morning is equally beautiful, and I take off to run on my own because my pace is slow and I'm wary of this pulled hip flexor that's been keeping me from running. I'm really scared that's it's going to stop me completely. But I head out of town into the crisp morning sun, and I'm thrilled that I have no pain and I'm running a 10-minute mile, a pretty good pace for slow old me. At about mile 4, I'm so overcome with joy and gratitude that I just break down, sobbing so hard I have to stop. I can't believe I get to do this. I can't believe my body is cooperating, that I've got this much health and grit and privilege. I pull myself together enough to run a very satisfying 12 miles, but I'm a weepy fool for the better part of the day. 

I'm totally inspired. See ya in a month, LP.

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