2009 Ironman Lake Placid (and some others) Race Report
I’m not sure where to begin with this race report since I haven’t written one for an Ironman in three years. The lack of writing wasn’t due to my lack of Ironman racing. I was just tired of writing the same report where I talked about how great I felt going into the race and then some diabetes related incident happened during the race that caused me to have a less than stellar day. As most of you know, I’m a type 1 diabetic. I’ve been racing Ironmans for as long as I’ve been a diabetic. I do a pretty good job (no one’s perfect) managing my sugars in every day life as well as in training and racing. It’s rarely affected me in any of my Olympic or half-ironman distance races, but it always seems to show itself to me in some new way when I race an Ironman. I’ve had some extreme high blood sugars where my entire body cramped up, severe dehydration where I lost 15 lbs and took a nap on someone’s front lawn, crushing sugar lows where I could barely see and was saved by a good friend who gave me his remaining gels, etc. You would think I would have learned by now that this distance just isn’t for me, but like I do every year, I thought this year was going to be different (doing the same thing over and over with the same result might qualify me as insane). Like I always want to believe, I wasn’t going to let my sugars dictate my race result again in an Ironman.
I decided to mix it up a bit this year and focus on my running to try something new so the long training it takes to do an Ironman didn’t get stale. I had qualified for the Boston marathon in 2007 in Bar Harbor, Maine so I signed up for Boston this spring with a goal of going sub-3 hours even though my PR to date was 3:08 in Bar Harbor and before that it was 3:31. I kept up the biking and swimming through the winter, but I had a very difficult time motivating myself this year. I really had no desire to go out and ride in the cold or swim when it was still dark out. But running wasn’t a problem at all. I was pushing my weekly run volume farther than anything I’ve ever done. I was getting in some good long runs w/ a few fast friends (Phil, Kip and Travis) who were also running Boston or the DC marathon. That really pushed me because they were making me hurt on our training runs and in some of the Backyard Burn trail races. But I was really enjoying the running and looked forward to my next workout whether it was with those guys or doing Washington Monument loops with Ashley or hitting the track for the first time ever. I could tell that I was getting stronger which only motivated me to run more. I raced the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in April as a test run to gauge my fitness for Boston and was pleasantly surprised when I was able to keep it together mentally and physically for a PR of 59 minutes. That one hurt, but it gave me some good confidence for Boston.
I had heard a ton of stories about Boston just tearing up your quads if you take it out too fast in the first 5 miles which are mostly downhill. I was careful not to get caught up in the excitement and paced it pretty well, albeit a little faster than I would’ve liked. After things settled down a bit I put it into cruise mode and started ticking off the miles on pace for a sub-3. But by mile 11 or so I could feel my quads starting to scream and I knew at that point I was in for a world of hurt. My quads continued to get worse with all the pounding of the downhills. My only respite from the pain were the hills around Newton which I was able to motor up pretty quickly and running past the girls of Wellesley where I didn’t feel any pain. A buddy of mine, Proulx, joined me for the second half of the race and got the crowd fired up as I came by. It was almost a constant wall of cheers for the last 10 miles with him around. But not even all that support could prepare me for the last 4 miles of the race. I was still on track for a sub-3 if I kept my target pace together. On paper it shouldn’t be too hard since those miles are either flat or downhill so I should fly to the finish. Riiiight. I ran this “fast” section slower than any other mile out there. Every step felt like someone was pounding my quads with a baseball bat. I saw sub-3 slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it. I ended up crossing the line in 3:02. Was happy with the effort and only slightly bummed at missing my goal time. In hindsight, I should have really focused a good part of my training on running downhill, not just up, so my quads would be used to that kind of punishment.
I took a few weeks off from running after Boston, but I figured I needed to start ramping up my swimming and biking since those two had been getting the shaft lately. I went back to the track in the third week after Boston and had a major calf seizure at the end of my first workout which then turned into a hamstring strain. Ugh! Even though I was an idiot and should have taken more time off from running and certainly from any kind of speed work, I was smart about dealing with this setback and basically stopped running for the next 6 weeks. This killed me because I was really hoping to use Boston to take my Ironman running to the next level and now I had to focus on physical therapy (thank you Sonia!) during the period where I should have been logging some big run volume. By the time I started shuffling/running again, I felt like I had lost my entire Boston run fitness. I was starting to readjust my goals for Lake Placid with the thought of having a good swim and just crushing myself on the bike since my run wasn’t going anywhere.
It was pretty hard to motivate myself to get out the door to train even though I had some great training partners who always made it fun once I got out there. But training for a big triathlon when I knew it wasn’t going to be the race I wanted because of my hamstring issues was just depressing. Despite that, I really started to ramp up the biking at this point even though I was feeling sorry for myself and did the Diabolical Double the day after racing the Columbia Olympic tri. The DD is a sick ride that Kyle Yost created late one night when he must have been really pissed at his friends. It is a ride consisting of 130 miles of biking and over 16, 000 feet of climbing out in Deep Creek Lake. What does that mean? It’s hard and it hurts and you hate the 5 mile descents because you know you are just going to have to climb your way up and out of whatever you just came down. Kyle and I did the DD with some strong riders from Rapha, a British cycling apparel company, who were doing a cross country tour of epic rides and to no one’s surprise they chose Kyle’s route. After barely surviving that near 10 hour day in the saddle, I could feel myself getting fitter on the bike about a week later. I went back out to Deep Creek for mini-SavageCamp over Memorial Day weekend for some more climbing and descending mixed in with some swimming and shuffling. My biking was really coming around even though my running was non-existent. I ended up racing the Black Bear half-ironman in early June, but in a shocking display of intelligence, I pulled the plug after the bike even though I was in a pretty good position heading into T2. That was my first ever DNF, but I had to keep telling myself the bigger goal was Lake Placid. I just tried to stay positive and focus on what I could do to get to LP as strong as possible.
The final notch in the training belt was SavageCamp proper. I went out to Deep Creek for the week with a ton of people training for all types of races. We had a solid core that was looking to put in some huge miles as our last prep before Placid. I basically had about 3 good weeks, including this one, where I was able to run so I quickly ramped up my miles to get in three 15-milers before the race. We ended up biking almost 500 hilly miles (including another Diabolical Double), running close to 60 miles and swimming another 5. I’d provide a tally for the number of wine bottles and beers we finished, but I lost count by day 2. We had great time training, eating, drinking and relaxing. With three weeks to go until race day, there was nothing left to do but sharpen the sword.
My taper went well. I was very relaxed but also very twitchy by race week so I just wanted to get this thing going. My hamstring was feeling pretty good. I didn’t think it was going to be a huge issue for me in the race, but I wasn’t sure what to expect since I hadn’t put in the run miles I typically do for an Ironman.
I loaded up my race gear bags for T1 and T2 and special needs with all sorts of back-up blood glucose meters, insertion site insets, testing liquids, extra test strips, hand towels, batteries, etc. Basically, everything that had gone wrong in one of my previous races, I was ready for. I was just praying for clear skies or at least not the downpour that we had last year because that makes testing my blood sugars a real challenge since it washes the blood away before I can get a reading. Last year, I made the mistake of not testing enough in the rain and paying the consequences later in the race.
So of course when I made my way down to the swim start, the skies opened up and it started to rain. Stay positive. This is just one of the many challenges that an Ironman will throw at you throughout the day. You can have a melt-down or you can make a decision and move forward and on to the next hurdle thrown your way. I hopped in Mirror Lake and seeded myself off to the right, 3rd row and away from the underwater rope line which is great for sighting, but also great for getting pummeled since everyone wants to be on that line. When the cannon went off it was utter mayhem for the first 5 minutes. I was almost in full on sprint mode. I had a guy on my right that was on the same stroke rhythm and opposite side breather as I was so we would literally both pop up for a breath and be staring inches away from each other’s face. His eyes were bulging out of his goggles like he was absolutely terrified. I imagine he was seeing the same thing. It never really spread out as we made our way out to the turnaround buoy, but on the way back in I decided to test the underwater rope line and was able to get right on top of it without too much contact. I ended up cruising in on the line without really having to sight. It was almost enjoyable. I came in around 29 mins. Nice. If I could keep this pace, I would break an hour. But for some reason I always seem to fade on the next part of the swim. I think I just lose concentration. Maybe I lost some of the draft. I was able to get on the line again which made sighting a breeze. As I rounded the final turn for the last stretch heading back to shore, I kept telling myself to focus and keep pushing the effort. I really wanted to get in under an hour. I kept my head down, had a few stroke thoughts in my head and kept pushing it. By the time I looked up I was in shallow water and I had a short sprint to the timing mat which read 1:00:35 when I crossed. Doh! So close. Oh well. I put it behind me and thought about the next part of the race. I grabbed my insulin pump from the head nurse, got stripped of my wetsuit and made my way the 1/4 mile to the transition area. I kept the pace steady and deliberate as I didn’t want to forget anything critical for my race at this point. Figured a few extra seconds here was worth it because leaving something key behind in T1 could end my race. I was on my bike, soaking in the some cheers from the crowd and taking advantage of the break in the precip to test my sugars as I headed out of town.
I’ve raced Lake Placid 3x before so I knew this course inside and out. I had it mentally broken up into little sections which made it a lot easier than thinking about riding for 112 miles. Going out of town, there are a series of hills that I knew I had to take it easy on. I just got into a groove, let my heartrate drift down, took in some water and stretched out the legs. I kept this going for the first 40 miles. Never exerting too much effort, continuing to hydrate, checking my sugars which kept elevating after the swim and generally doing nothing that would tax me for the first few hours. My main concern was getting my sugars down which had continued to creep up to 300+ (ideally I’d like to keep them around 150 for racing; non-diabetics maintain sugars around 90). This always happens to me after an Ironman swim. I think it’s a combination of being off my insulin pump for an hour or so and all the adrenaline from the race. I’ve made the mistake in the past of taking on too much insulin after the swim and have had to deal with a hard sugar crash later in the race. But it’s also important to get the sugars down as fast as possible because elevated sugars can cause me to have debilitating cramping. I was patient and conservative with my insulin intake, but I was checking my sugars a lot so I could see which way they were trending and how quickly. They finally started to come down after a few hours and then I noticed they were dropping really fast. This has happened in previous races and I haven’t caught it until it was too late. I started to eat/drink my gels and energy drinks even though my sugars were still around 200. They continued to drop and I continued to eat and drink until they finally leveled off at around 100 at the halfway point of the bike. I now did something new and lowered my basal rate on my insulin pump so I was getting about 2/3 of what I would normally get from my pump. The pump mimics the pancreas in that it can provide a basal rate of insulin continuously for 24 hours in very small increments.
So far I’m on track. I’m feeling good. Legs are still fresh. The slight cramping I was feeling from the elevated sugars stopped after sucking down a bunch of salt tablets. I was hydrating well and taking in the right amount of carbs and calories per hour and my sugars are now in a very manageable and predictable range. I made my way out of town again for the second loop and up the rolling hills before I hit the 5-mile screaming descent into Keene. As I started the descent I was passed by a 21 year old kid. He never got too far ahead of me, but thankfully he had enough separation because the next thing I know, he is sitting up and making some adjustments on his bike when a steady stream of liquid starts shooting off from his person. Keep in mind that we are going 45 mph, I’m in full aero position, it’s chilly, this guy is taking a nature break and I’m not gaining on him. It was quite impressive. I realized at that moment that he was more of man than I ever hoped to be so I didn’t bother chasing after him once we got on the flats heading into Upper Jay.
I kept cruising along only thinking about each little section that I had broken the course into, looking out for my friends on the course and just trying to keep things moving. I saw Chip up ahead and Ted and Brady right behind me on the final out and back. I expected to see Chip ahead since he was first out of the water in 47 mins, yes, 47! I was surprised to see Ted and Brady back there since they usually pass me long before this. That kept me motivated to see how long I could hold them off before the inevitable pass from them. As I made my way onto the final 12 mile section which is just a series of uphill rollers with some short climbs right at the end, I was happy to see that I wasn’t getting passed, wasn’t going that hard and was actually passing a few dudes who were starting to blow up. The wind really started to pick up here which did make all that climbing a little bit more difficult, but everyone was in the same boat so I just kept the effort steady as it’s easy to push too hard when riding into a headwind. I couldn’t stand up for those final climbs because my quads were starting to cramp again. I must’ve sucked down about 20 salt tablets in that last hour to keep those cramps at bay. I kind of figured my race was done in some ways. I had a good, but not great bike with a 5:30 split and the run was just going to be a wild card. I had no idea what to expect.
I got off the bike, grabbed my run bag and hobbled to the T2 changing area. I wasn’t feeling great and then felt even worse when I realized I had grabbed my dry clothes bag and not my run bag. A volunteer helped me put my stuff back in the bag and ran back to the bag rack to get my run bag. I sat there for what seemed like eternity, but it was probably about 90 seconds before he reappeared with what I needed. I got out of there as quickly as possible and out on to the run course for who knows what lay ahead.
As I started to run past all the screaming crowds and out of town, my legs immediately felt pretty good. The first mile is mostly downhill and my split reflected that. The few other guys around me all commented on how fast that first mile was. The next two miles are pretty flat so I just decided to get comfortable, keep it steady if not slow and find my pace. Well my pace became two more miles at 7:30/mile pace. Way faster than I wanted to go at this point in the race, but it felt easy. I decided I was going to run on feel even if it meant my splits were faster than I had any business going. Whether it was the right call or not, I just figured that I was going to be hurting after mile 15 no matter what pace I ran since I hadn’t run much in the last two months and I hadn’t run more than 15 miles for any long run.
I just got into a great groove and tried not to think about anything but the moment I was in. I was running the Ironman marathon and felt great! I was in shock, but I also knew that a lot of people have run those first 10 miles of the marathon only to see the wheels come off. I stayed calm and just kept clicking off the miles. I saw of bunch of my friends out on the course which fired me up since everyone was looking good at this point. I even made some friends out on the course. Around mile 8, I hear almost every other person coming the opposite way say hi to Vinu (Vinu Malik founded Fuel Belt and qualifies for Kona almost every year he races). I figured he was right behind me so I just tried to hold him off as long as possible since I knew he is a great runner. When he caught up to me I started talking to him a bit. Nice guy. Next thing I know, I’m running 6:50/mile pace and it felt good. Uh, time to finish this conversation and let Vinu go do his thing or I’m going to be walking the second half of this marathon. He ended up running a 3:24 and qualifying for Kona again. I made my way back into town and up the two long, steep climbs before doing one of the hardest things in an Ironman, turning left to go back out for the second loop when I could just turn right and be at the finish line.
At this point in the race, I felt like I was keeping a steady effort even though my pace was starting to drop off a bit. My sugars were starting to get low (they got down to 64 at one point) so it was a constant battle to eat/drink at every aid station. I started sucking down gels and slowing down to take in coke, Gatorade and water every chance I had. This kept my sugars out of danger of going too low, but it was getting tough to keep eating so much this late in the race. When I got to the last turnaround, I knew I had about 6 miles to go and it was time to dig deep. I wasn’t sure where I was in my age-group. I had passed a few guys on the run and I don’t think anyone passed me so I figured I was near the front, but I had no way of knowing what place I was in. I didn’t see anyone behind me so I just told myself that I needed to finish strong in case some other guys were fading up front since every spot counts at this point. Things were really starting to hurt at this point so I kept replaying some commercial I saw on Versus while watching the Tour de France. It was basically a highlight reel of a bunch of different sporting events with some good ol’ boy doing a voice over about underdogs and how stats sometimes just go out the window if you have enough passion. I know. Maybe it was cheesy, but for some reason it just spoke to me and I got all fired up when I was watching it on tv. It had the same effect out on the course, but it now had the added bonus of getting me all emotional. Ok. Don’t think about that too much or you are going to be a blubbering idiot when you cross the finish line. I kept plodding along, passed one more guy in my age-group who was slowing down and made my way back into town and got re-energized by the huge crowds and knowing that I was almost done and I had actually run this marathon after walking so many prior to this. There was one final out and back along the lake which seemed to take forever and I felt like I was using every ounce of energy I had left even though I was slowing down. It was a bit surreal for me to finally reach the track with the finish line only a few hundred yards away. I couldn’t believe I didn’t have any issues out there and that I was actually racing an Ironman and running the entire marathon. I ended up crossing the line in 3:31 for the marathon and 10:12 for the race. It’s an odd feeling, in the best way possible, when wanting something so bad for 6 years finally happens. Although Kona has been a goal of mine for a few years now, my bigger goal has been to race an Ironman where the day can be a celebration of all the training and sacrifices it took to get there. I’ve never had that feeling until this race and it’s one I’ll always cherish. Thanks for reading.
Age group - 13/312
Overall - 66/2200
Missed Kona spot by 3 minutes. Grrrr.
Run splits - http://connect.garmin.com/activity/10054055
Awesome race!! Tell you what... I'll trade you a sub-3 Boston for an one hour IM swim!! :-)
Very inspring report Sean - and great job on the race! I can't believe you missed a Kona spot by 3 mins!!