I had a singular goal for Ironman Lake Placid: finish smiling. They say Placid is a town of miracles given the US Olympic Hockey Team win over the Russians in 1980. I think they are on to something ….
I did not have the time or inclination to train my heart out as I did for Ironman Florida or Arizona. Life was full of wonderful but simultaneous projects, so here is what complicated my preparation for this race:
- Lake Placid is considered one of the more difficult bike courses in Ironman because of the climbing. I live in Miami – there are ZERO mountains.
- I embarked on an incredibly motivating yet time consuming project with the Camillus House Children’s Run Team for formerly homeless children. That completely bit into my training time including one week where no training was done at all.
- Joe decided we should turn this into a road trip and drive from Miami to Lake Placid. We spent three weeks camping, hiking, rafting, climbing, and eating (more on that soon.) Though epic, the trip was not the ideal way to taper.
No, not really. I honestly did not care what time I finished; my best math got me in between sixteen and sixteen and a half hours. Sure, I’d hope for better, but those times would be okay. My coach created a minimalist plan to reach that goal and chocolate milk helped me recover day in and day out.
I had freak out moments where I doubted my comparatively “light” training. But this was the first time I had so much family with me at an Ironman, and I understood this was their vacation too … I didn’t want to be the nervous wet blanket. The night before the race, eleven people were having dinner as I tried to force myself to sleep.
When Joe dropped me off at transition he mentioned this was the calmest he had ever seen me before a race. I guess Lake Placid is a place where miracles indeed happen.
The Swim: 2.4 Miles
Unlike Ironman Arizona where you are wading in a lake with close to 3,000 people when the gun sounds and everyone takes off in a floating mass, Lake Placid has a rolling start. Much like a run race, you place yourself according to your expected finish time. You’d think this made the swim more civil, but not in my case. I thought I seeded myself correctly towards the back of the 1h10’ to 1h20’ group but as soon as I got into the water I was whacked in the head and my goggles filled with water.
The swim is in the rightfully named Mirror Lake. Flat as a pancake, the two loop course is famed for having an underwater cable along the entire 1.2 miles. People mentioned there was usually a big fight to “get on the cable” as doing so would enable you to swim without having to look up and sight the buoys. I do a lot of open water swims and sighting doesn’t bother me so I had no intention of picking a fight. That’s why the first scuffle was such a surprise.
My strategy was to stay to the right of the underwater cable. You can swim there as long as you go around the turnaround buoy; this way you are not shorting the course.
Yet I kept being pounded there, and all of a sudden I was on top of the cable and got some distance without being hounded.
In training, I wasn’t fond of my Masters swim class but instead of finding an alternative I swam once a week, every other week … or so. I did swim in the ocean at my race pace and figured “good enough.” But not being in great swim shape made the first loop feel eternal.
I thought the second loop would be less crowded; I am used to salt water, so a lake swim is a delight and I wanted to enjoy it. Not so. For some reason there was no escaping the washing machine and it seemed that regardless of where I went, someone was already there. The defensive swimming slowed me down but I still managed to finish on target which was a huge relief.
I jogged to the tent where thankfully a volunteer came to my rescue. Lake Placid has a reputation for unpredictable weather, with rain and cold. I’m a warm blooded Miami girl and packed any cold gear I owned. I had everything from rain jacket to insulated gloves but opted to dump almost everything. It seemed warm and I was willing to take my chances with the rain.
I came out of the tent with a deer in headlight look. I saw Joe and my sister in law Rita, gave them a big hug, and took a deep breath. Here it was: the infamous bike course with lots of climbing I didn’t know how to do.
Bike: 112 Miles
I read a million course reviews, and everyone suggests you ride the course before the race. It’s good advice that I couldn’t take. I knew the sections to look for: the climb out of Placid, descent to Keene, the flats of Jay, the Cherries and the Bears. I drove it, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I figured I’d wing it, as I do with many things in life (not a strategy I recommend.) Therefore my first loop consisted of: “was this the climb out of Placid?” Only to find out later as I huffed and puffed “no THIS was the climb.”
The same with decent to Keene, a six mile fast and furious downhill stretch worthy of Evil Knievel. “Was this the decent to Keene?” Only to find out later as I hung on for dear life, “no, THIS was the decent to Keene.”
But as challenging as it was, the course was stunningly beautiful. My friend Amy suggested to look at the sights when things got tough, and I guess I took her advice to heart. I was dilly-dallying and finally noticed I didn’t pass one single person in the flats of Jay, the one area of the course that played to my strengths.
My friend Moira explained that once I took a right turn from Jay, the climbing would begin and wouldn’t stop until I reached Lake Placid: about twelve miles. My biggest concern was that I would not make it up; it’s not like that hasn’t happened before. In Portugal I just could not pedal any more up an incline and had to get off my bike to walk. Granted, that course had an average incline of 11%, but my confidence took a massive beating.
I saw the sign for mile ninety, but I was still on the first loop and closer to forty. I put my head down, climbed up to Wilmington, and was unexpectedly okay.
However from Wilmington to “the cherries,” the tougher climbs that make Lake Placid legendary, is what caught me by surprise. I was climbing but didn’t think I was, and at one point I realized I was already on my lightest gear with the hill still stretching before me. It’s not a predicament I enjoy as I thought:
“If that hill get’s any steeper, I am not sure I’ll make it up.”
But I pedaled, and as ungracious as I was, I got up that as well as the cherries and the Bears. Those climbs, especially the last one, Papa Bear, the steepest climb right at the end of the loop, is lined with people cheering. I could hear them though I couldn’t see them, and much less thank them for being there. I felt rude and antisocial, but I was looking down, huffing and puffing. If I looked up and saw how much farther I had to climb, I would’ve possibly cried.
I got a boost of energy and confidence after making it up those climbs and onto the second loop. After all, I had just conquered what had kept me up many nights in fear, and still at a faster pace than my conservative 14mph average goal.
“Bring it on sucker,” I told the bike course, “I can take you down.”
That confidence didn’t last.
My back, which had been bothering me throughout the road trip north, decided to rebel. It felt fine during the first loop but it was screaming by the second like an angry toddler having a massive tantrum.
On my aerobars, off my aerobars, nothing helped. That spread to my butt, leg and finally the ball of my foot which was exploding. It felt as if I had a flaming baseball pressed between my foot and my shoe.
I stopped at the water station and asked the medic if they had Biofreeze or any numbing/cooling gel. He didn’t. Instead he offered Advil which I subsequently downed as if I were taking a kamikaze shot in college.
The medic told me to make sure I drink enough as they had seen a lot of dehydrated athletes. That’s when it dawned on me it was hot. Reading fellow athlete’s race reports they say it was unseasonably hot and with strong headwinds. I’m so used to both of those I didn’t really notice either. All I noticed was my back, there was no space to feel anything else.
I reached mile 92, from where those last twelve miles of climbing start.
“Oh. My. God. I can’t do it.”
I looked at my watch and saw that I was riding even slower than my already slow 14mph goal, and what I had thought was a conservative eight-hour bike goal was shot.
A volunteer suggested I get off my bike and take a break. I sat, stretched my back, and ate the most delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich ever made. I asked someone if people walked up Papa Bear, and they replied: “yes. It’s still forward movement and there is no shame in that.” That was my plan, I would walk up Papa Bear. So what?
With a newfound bravado I got on the bike to finish. I heard myself say “I can’t wait to run a marathon,” and if you know anything about me, you would know just how bizarre a thought THAT was. I hate running; I love cycling.
I was waiting for my legs to not be able to turn over so I could stop and walk but it never happened. I made it to the top of Papa Bear. On the next climb, I decided to stop but again my legs kept moving. A spectator was there cheering and I was too embarrassed to stop in front of her. At the crest of that climb I was done. I was freaking done and so ready to run.
Getting off the bike, I could feel the bottom of my feet swollen, but as soon as I stood straight my back pain all but disappeared. Maybe it was endorphins, or the Advil, but my back was no longer a factor. The toddler stopped the screaming and passed out asleep. The tent was almost empty as I was far at the back of the pack. I had about seven hours to do a marathon and even if I had to walk the whole thing, I would still finish.
Run – 26.2 Miles
But I kind of wanted to run. In training, I adopted the Galloway method which transformed the way I feel about running. I decided on very short intervals of 1’30” run and one-minute walk. If I were on a downhill, I would run even if in a walk interval; and if it was an uphill I would walk even if in a run interval. As I was leaving the changing tent I heard someone say “Cristina, are you ready to run a marathon?” I smiled and said “heck yeah!” In Arizona, I could not fathom running a marathon when I first started. This time I was looking forward to it, another Placid miracle.
As I began the two-loop course, I saw the first female about to finish. I was so far behind everyone else but it didn’t bother me. I ran one minute and a half, walked a minute like clockwork.
Beep run. Beep walk.
I was wearing a 5Q tattoo, and at least twenty people asked me what that meant as they had seen 5Q signs along the road.
I got my shpeel down to ten seconds:
“there are 50 spots for professional men to race Kona, but only 35 spots for professional women. We want to make them equal. There is a petition online, just search 50 women to Kona.”
One guy thanked me for doing that, he said he had two daughters and was a strong believer in Title IX and equality in sports. But I couldn’t engage more than that, and encouraged him to sign the petition, which you can do here.
At mile 12 I heard: “there she is! Maaaaaammmmiiiii.” It was my family. I don’t tell my family to stay around and spectate all day, I know how hyper my boys can get. Instead, Joe took them to Fort Ticonderoga and learned about American History while I raced. So when I heard them I was excited to know they were there and would be at the finish line.
I hugged and kissed them and heard someone behind me say “that’s what it’s about.” He was right, that moment, for me, is what mattered most about Ironman.
Forget the outside assistance rule, my boys ran with me for about a quarter mile.
They stayed behind and I began the second loop feeling strong and at a steady pace. That was a first.
I met up with Meredith from Swim, Bike, Mom and walked alongside her for a bit. She was having a miserable time and I was so amazed she was still keeping her head in the game. Amy, from Amy Says So, crossed me several times looking super strong and I knew she was having a great race by the smile in her face and the energy in her cheers to me.
Night fell, blisters came, cold set in but I kept going. I was feeling great and kept my pace for the entire time. I would finish my marathon in less than six hours which was better than Ironman Arizona, and not too far off Ironman Florida my best race (and flat course). The last two miles were a bit of a torture because you pass right by the Olympic Oval where the finish line is, you hear a cheering party but you still have a couple of miles to go.
I figured I’d make it in just under sixteen hours. But as soon as I entered the oval I saw my family again cheering for me. I stopped to hug the boys whose arms were extended.
The last quarter mile or so is inside the speed skating Olympic oval and it’s the most electric finish chute I’ve ever experienced. Lined by hundreds of spectators both standing and then on bleachers, the cheering was intoxicating. I ran slowly, high fiving every hand that was extended as I watched my kids run behind the crowd. I wanted them to see that part. I wanted them to see me high five people, to smile from ear to ear, to sense the feeling of success of conquering something that once seemed so far fetched. I want them to believe that anything is possible too.
Do you know what they call someone in Lake Placid who finishes in 16:04?