There we were about to set out on a drive around the bike route at Ironman USA Lake Placid.
I had managed to team up with some Americans from the room next door. These turned out to be Derek Richie and Seth Mosier. Derek’s wife (Kelly) and one of two of his friends (Stephen Kenrick and Brian McGuire) who were also racing arrived later in the week. We had a brief chat and agreed to touch base later to do a reconnaissance on the bike course.
I clicked on the altimeter on my heart rate monitor as we set off. In that moment the vague spectre of Julie Andrews floated in the air in a vaguely Austrian way. The bike course, like the run course, was a hilly two lap affair. Some 3 km out of the town there is the first climb. This is about 1km (which passes the Jackrabbit Inn – so I felt that temptation to stop would be strong on lap two). Then there is a long 10 km descent on the flat for about another 25 km then two significant climbs separated by a long flat(ish) stretch. Even the flat stretches of the bike course were undulating. The last 14-15 km into Lake Placid at the end of the lap was almost uninterrupted climbing. In total the 180 km bike course accumulated over 2000m of ascent. This is where I started to have rather twitchy memories of the Leicester Marathon. To put this in context my normal long bike route that takes me through York, Ripon, Harrogate and Bolton Abbey accumulates 1200 m of ascent in 180 km. There was no doubt that the bike course was challenging. The run course was a two lap out and back affair which took you through the town centre for much needed morale boosting support four times. There were two major climbs – both about 10o. The first one encountered was about 300 m and the second a mere 100 m in length. However I had done a lot of miles for this race and felt confident. There was no doubt that this course was considerably tougher than either Ironman New Zealand or Austria that I had done last year. At least the swim would be flat – although with 2000 odd (and the occasional normal) athletes (and I use the term with some caution when applied to myself) in the water it is safe to say that the swim would be the usual choppy (i.e. as in karate) affair. Even the weather forecast looked good. The hot and humid weather was supposed to clear for a brief period (i.e. race day) before rain on Monday and a then a return to hot and humid conditions on the Tuesday. The temperature was forecast to drop to 74oF. A chilly night was forecast which would drop the water temperature somewhat – just as well really as it was borderline for wet suit use as it was (above 22oC you are not allowed to use a wetsuit due to risk of dehydration) water temperature was measured on Saturday morning at 21.5oC).
Right for the last time, never to be commented on again, promise etc etc. Race day dawned extremely bright and exceptionally clear (as always – maybe it’s a commentary on how few races I do in the UK!) I awoke at 3am (well before any of my alarms (note plural there – too many miles and too much money were invested for me to sleep in and miss the race) went off. I was in the town, bike checked, into wetsuit and ready for the start in good time. Rather unusually I didn’t get there early and spend time wandering about thinking “I have plenty of time” only to have a mad dash in the last half an hour. I met up with Derek, Stephen, Seth and Brian. Kelly who was not competing wished us all good luck and we all went through the process of getting ourselves into the water. There was a brief pause for a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and then we were off.
The swim was a two lap affair. Rather unusually I found that my wetsuit was chaffing around the neck and this meant that occasionally I had to adjust the collar somewhat – this lost me some time, as did my apparent inability to swim in a straight line but on the whole I was happy with the swim. I covered the 3.8km in 1:16 (I am now going to skip the few seconds so all the times will be in hours: minutes). There was a 300m run to transition a quick(ish) change and then off on the bike. In Transition (T1) I took time to put on plenty of sunblock – and managed to forget part of my bald pate: I now have three brownish strips marking the ventilation slits in front of my bike helmet on my head.
The bike course turned out to be just as horrid as I anticipated. Out of T1 a few sharp bends and fast descents took me to the first climb which I shot up at a pace that surprised me. Long days of bike training around Bolton Abbey and Burnsall had paid off. Feeling strong, out the saddle I felt happy that I would be able to drive through the climb so switched up into the big gears and Lufthansa’s baggage handlers struck back. The brutality that my bike had been subjected to on the flight over had caused minor, and unnoticed, damage to the front chain rings and the chain and given that I was putting quite a lot of force through the drive system at this time when the chain slipped off the cogs. A number of things then happened in quick succession. Firstly I slowed substantially. Secondly, the sudden lost off support catapulted me forward onto the handle bars: my right knee hit the bar ends and as I pitched forward I wont say what hit the headset. I managed to stay upright and on the bike, but my momentum was lost and I ground to a halt half way up the hill. Even more galling: Derek and Stephen passed me (I presume Brian did too but I did not see him) - Seth was so far ahead of the rest of us I think he had been on a jet ski instead of in a wetsuit – he was chasing a place at Ironman Hawaii. Inspection of the chainset was not good. Some of the cogs were damaged and the chain appears to be twisted: it looked like terminal damage and I thought that less than 10 km into the bike course my day would be over. Fortunately geology came to the rescue. You may be wondering what esoteric aspect of my understanding of the earth I am referring to – the answer is none. What I actually mean is that I hammered one of the front rings with a rock until the cogs were straight and I could get the chain back on (I think Jim Huggins fainted when I told him this). I rather gingerly got back on the bike having lost about 10-15 minutes being rather resigned to not using my full range of gears. The remainder of the lap passed without incident and I came into Lake Placid still feeling strong. The end of the major climb was just before the start of the town and had a crowd. By this time I had restored some confidence in my gears and was out the saddle climbing again and attacking on every hill. It’s a great feeling having people cheer you on – all our race numbers had your name on it so people could actually shout your name in encouragement. Buoyed up by the cheering masses – well ok but the somewhat muted few – I started the second lap feeling good – what could go wrong now?
A flat tyre – that’s what could go wrong now. On one of the flat sections of the course the bike felt unusually dead, I was slowing down and strange noises were coming from the back wheel. However I was prepared for this, and for the first time in a race I had to change a tube and got to use my nice new CO2 tyre inflator. This meant that I was actually on my way again in approximately 10 minutes but it was another delay and another break in my rhythm. A rhythm that was broken again when someone at an aid station managed to spill some Gatorade bottles in front of me – I was vexed at almost crashing because of someone fooling about but somewhat mollified by another competitor commenting on my bike handling skills (this was a first). The main climb on the second lap was hard going. There was now no shade and the simple physics of differential heating and cooling around lakes meant that there was a head wind. Nevertheless I was back in Lake Placid some 6:35 after setting out from T1 not bad for such a hilly course especially given some of the problems I had experienced. My time in T2 was taken up by changing, putting on more sunblock, having some pretzels and generally trying to get my running head on. I was actually still feeling good: I had drunk sufficient water en route and had eaten enough. I had avoided drinking Gatorade Endurance as I had not used it in training and was able to carry my own sports drink on the bike. I was resigned to using Gatorade on the run as this was the only drink available. So only the little matter of a marathon remained between me and Ironman glory (well maybe not glory…a better term would be not-glory or an inglorious finish – for me to finish first in one of these would require a freak tornado to wipe out the top half of the field and even then I would probably stop and gawp at the chaos long enough for someone to pass me in the last 100m…).
The run was well organized: there were aid stations every mile and my cunning plan was simple; I would run to each aid station take on some small amount of fluid and then run to the next aid station. In this way I could think of it not as 26 miles, but 26 food stops – on a mind games front there are few better than this for someone who enjoys eating as much as I do. On the first lap I was going well – as I powered up the second 10o climb I again found the crowd cheering me on (as they did for everyone I should say this was not particularly partisan – although I was one of the few to run up this hill at this stage of the day – something I would later regret) and I averaged about a 9 minute mile pace. On the second lap the effect of the Gatorade Endurance kicked in. At this stage I can only say that it is called “Endurance” as it is an effect you have to put up with. In my case this was quite severe stomach cramps. I felt ok on the start of the second lap I shouted to Seth as he powered towards the last two miles of the marathon some 10 miles in front of me. I had passed Stephen and Brian on the second bike lap and they were both on the first lap of the run course when I saw them again – but by the 17 mile mark I was in serious discomfort and when I caught up with Derek I was forced to walk for about 20 minutes while my stomach cramps abated. I would have been quite content to stroll the remaining distance chatting to Derek had he not used some serious moral blackmail to get me moving again. By the 20 mile mark I was beginning to feel better – I eschewed further offers of Gatorade and stuck to water, grapes and Pepsi and I was able to attack the two serious climbs again. As I pushed back into the town there were again people to cheer you on and I felt my spirit lift somewhat as I pushed past the 24 mile mark – the end was in sight. I was determined that there would be no more walking! As focussed and implacable as I was in my world, the outside world was still there and in some cases shouting – not that I noticed. Kelly told me the following day that she saw me twice in the last two miles: at one point she was less than a metre from my right ear, shouting my name at the top of her voice and it completely failed to penetrate to Bill’s world. I had room for one thought only in my carbohydrate depleted, somewhat dehydrated mind – the finish and it was (by the time I passed Kelly the second time) less than 400 m away. I found some reserves of strength, lengthened my stride and ran into the stadium and onto the running track. I was vaguely aware of the crowd, vaguely aware of the commentator saying my name but acutely aware of the finish line which I crossed in 12:52 minutes. The marathon had taken me 4:35(ish).
Crossing the line I went through the usual mix of things: I was given a medal, goodie bag and stripped of my ChampionChip. I was then given a brief medical examination and then taken to the massage tent and thence to the food tent. Derek, Stephen and Brian all finished over the next couple of hours. Seth by this time had finished early enough that he could have done another lap of the marathon course while waiting for the rest of us! By the time the massage was over and I had been given some pizza (I could not face any more pasta) I decided I would wander up the hill to the Ben and Jerry’s shop there to join a lot of other competitors in some cold post race refreshment.
A great day – a well organized race in perfect conditions and a few more lessons learned. I would certainly do this race again. Entry for Ironman USA Lake Placid opened at 10am the following day (Monday 25th of July 2005) and the two thousand race slots were all taken by 4pm. I was not one of them!
Returning to Canada on the 26th the customs official took one look at my passport, my race finishers T-shirt and waved me through.
A less than satisfactory footnote came courtesy of Lufthansa. Although the flight was fine, the bike box was once again brutalized. One of the handles was pulled off and the cracked wheel housing further damaged making it unusable. Anyone wishing advice on writing letters of complaint please contact me as the one sent to Lufthansa called upon all my academic abilities with the written word. Whether it will achieve anything is a different story.
The only question that remains is “what will be next? Ironman France in Nice or Ironman Coeur D’Alene in Idaho?” I sill have some thinking time on that front.
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Some of you may be aware that I am active in raising money for a charity called St Dunstan’s.
St. Dunstan’s (www.st-dunstans.org.uk) is a charity for the blind. It focuses on ex-service men and woman who were either blinded in service or have become blind after retirement from the Armed Forces. Whether you agree with the policies of the Government that sends our troops into action, it is invariably the service men and woman, along with their families that suffer.
In order to raise funds for St Dunstan’s this year, I am competing (and I use the term loosely as the chances of me finishing on the podium are so small as to be virtually non-existent) in Ironman USA at Lake Placid in New York State.
In previous years some friends and colleagues have expressed moral qualms about supporting a charity which is focused on the armed forces. I personally believe this to be misplaced, but I recognize that some colleagues may hold a different view. Therefore, I would ask those who do hold this view to sponsor me, but to advise me that monies raised should be remitted to the Sally MacGill Memorial Fund (Sally was a Professor in the School of Earth and Environment who was killed in the Boxing Day Tsunami). In the absence of clear instructions to the contrary I will presume that you are happy to support St Dunstan’s, which after all, is fully deserving of support. If you are happy for funds to go to St Dunstan’s please feel free to make a donation through my web page: http://www.justgiving.com/imbill2005
If you wish funds to go to the Sally MacGill Memorial Fund please let me know directly.
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 By curious co-incidence Stephen used to play rugby for West Potomac RFC. This is a club for which I made a guest appearance for in a seven-a-side tournament on the day of Ironman USA in 2000. Once again it is proven that the world is not as big as you think*.
* Well actually, the world is as big as you think. As a geologist I can prove it by a variety of methods ranging from looking at the gravitational field or the time it took for the seismic waves from the Boxing Day 2004 earthquake to bounce around the outside.
 On the second lap of the run on race day these felt more like 300 and 100 km respectively.
 As it turned out this was not an issue and I did a good enough hatchet job to have no further problems. Just as well really as on large parts of the second lap I was effectively reduced to using what is colloquially termed the “granny ring” to go up some of the hills.