July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Ironman Lake Placid: ‘The Hardest Race I’ve Ever Done’

Ironman Lake Placid was the hardest race I have ever done. Here’s the story:

10:30 p.m.: I set two alarms and drifted off to sleep.

2:30 a.m.: I woke up, but it was too early. The alarm was set for 4:30, so I drifted back to sleep.

4:00 a.m.: I woke up again. I closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep.

4:28 a.m.: I shut off the alarm minutes before it was set to explode, I mean go off.

For 30 minutes I went about my routine. Start the coffee, read emails. Then apply my IRONMAN rub-on tattoos.

I popped in my new contacts, sipped my coffee and double-checked the gear I was about to take to the swim start.

At 5 a.m. I got a hug from the wife and I set off for my first stop: the bike. I had to put my water bottles into the bike and inflate the tires. I had let out a little air the day before since the bike was going to sit all day in the hot sun.

The difference in temperature between 12 midnight and 12 noon at Lake Placid can be 20 degrees. Why guess it the night before and risk a tire going boom in the heat of day during the race? It was better to just inflate them back up to 95 percent on race day.

I took a minute to say my morning prayers.

Then it was time to tuck the cell phone into my bike gear bag for later. Blue is your bike stuff, like my bike top. Red is your run stuff. After I double-checked my stuff I headed down to the swim start.

We actually swim in Mirror Lake, not Lake Placid next door. This is important. If you show up at Lake Placid, you will miss the race.

I had been down to the swim start the day before with the family and marveled at the beauty of the lake.

I was going to have to swim from shore, down those yellow triangles and back along the orange ones to the shore twice.

A total of 2.4 miles.

Today it was overcast and there was a fog on the lake.

I kept thinking, “This reminds me of Loch Ness.”

I am grateful that my friend Ed Lapa was there to keep me company. It was unfair to drag the wife and kids to the start. Trying to find your father/husband when everyone is wearing a wetsuit is like looking at a group of seals at the zoo.

Ed and I hung out off to the side until it was start time. I handed him my tallis and tefillin before I got in line. The swimmers lined up like lemmings and marched into the water based on our finish times.

Volunteers held signs with finish times. Since I was aiming for an 80-minute swim, I stood at the back of that group.

If you are a slow swimmer you don’t want faster swimmers crawling over you. People still crawled over me, but at least there were fewer of them.

Swimming laps in a pool is a relaxing experience with calm waters. An Ironman swim is like watching fish flop around in a bucket. Everyone is trying to get to the front. On the first loop, I quickly followed the underwater guide cable and swam straight. I exited the water after 40 minutes.

I was so happy to be ahead of my goal time that I did a dance as I ran back into the water for lap 2. On the second loop I again followed the underwater cable. More people crawled over me. They kicked me in the nose, they elbowed me in the jaw, but I kept swimming.

Since I was constantly monitoring the swimmers around me, I was not caught off guard. I did not panic. I simply relaxed as my shoulder was pushed down. It only lasts 1–2 seconds, so I just let it happen. You have prepared for a year. Why blow the race on a moment?

A few times people grabbed my ankles as they swam on my heels, so I did my best to speed up. By the time I exited the water for the second time, my arms were fatigued.

I was happy.

It meant that I had swum at maximum effort for as long as I could. I didn’t go too fast and I didn’t hold back too much. After a year of practice, I did what I had trained to do.

There were volunteers there to help me remove my wetsuit. Then I ran past cheering crowds down road on the carpeted path to the changing tents.

I grabbed my blue bike gear bag and I sat down in a giant humid tent of triathletes. I placed the bag’s contents in front of me: socks, bike shoes, helmet, sunglasses, bike top…

I moved quickly, but methodically. If you rush you can actually cost yourself time by making mistakes.

Once dressed, I stuffed my wetsuit, cap and goggles into the “Bike” bag and exited the tent. Standing in the sunlight again, I tossed the bag to a volunteer. The next volunteer applied sunscreen to my arms and legs. That’s one of the advantages of Ironman.

I mounted my bike and started out onto the next stage of the adventure.

The bike course is two 56-mile loops on serious hills. I was warned to take it easy on the first loop.

On the big downhill everyone around me was riding their brakes. Not me. I went flying down the hill at 46 miles mph and let out a big, “WEEE!” At the halfway mark of the first loop I was averaging 18 mph.

I was happy to be above my average speed. I was hoping to average 15 mph for the 112 miles. Then I hit those 22 miles of incline out of the valley. By the end of the first 56 miles I was averaging 15.3 mph. That was my average the last time I did Ironman.

I knew there was no way I was going to be able to hold that on the second loop, my legs were shot. On the second loop, I went screaming down the incline again. At mile 50 I decided it was time to daven mincha. I recited the davening by heart as I pedaled along. When I started the Amidah, I made sure that I had enough momentum on the bike so that when I pedaled three rotations backwards I wouldn’t fall over. At mile 70 the fatigue started to set it. You can turn off the voices in your head and ignore the pain, but at some point over-taxed muscles will shut down. I knew the next 42 miles were going to be a balancing act of pushing hard, but not so hard that I became too fatigued to go on.

I shifted to my easier gears. The problem with the last 28 miles of the bike course was those hills. It felt like they went on forever. Between the hills and the heat, my only relief was ice water. Normally I have to slow down to grab a water bottle from a volunteer at an aid station; not this time. I sipped the ice water and the miles trickled away slowly, 75 miles became 85 miles. 15 mph average was gone and I was heading for an 8-hour bike ride, but I was way past worrying about meeting the 5:30 pm time cut off. I knew that I had a 1 hour and 25 minute swim. I could take nine hours to finish the bike, if I needed to. If you take more than 10.5 hours to reach the end of the bike ride, they disqualify you. I had enough time; I just needed to not pass out.

The pack of riders I was with were like a swarm of bees that surrounded me. If I passed them on a descent they would catch up to me as we hit an incline. The conversation was always the same:

“How ya doing?”

“Everything hurts and I’m dying” was my response. Then I realized.

You are cycling in the IRONMAN. You are in the hot sun on a bike; you are in your happy place.

By mile 90 (my second time passing the “mile 34” point on the map), I was deep into the slow incline, the sun was beating down. I was dripping sweat and my legs were aching. If I stood on the bike, I could climb faster, but I ran the risk of cramping and having to stop. It was mentally as hard as it was physically, because it took so long to get through. By mile 95 my heart rate was too high, so I stopped. I knew that a 2 minute break couldn’t hurt, but not taking one could.

Mile 95 became mile 105. Seven miles to go, I was now into “The Three Bears,” the finally three inclines. I raced to the top of them and went screaming downhill for 6 miles. Then, like I had practiced, I opened the straps to my bike shoes and slipped my feet out. With my feet on top of the shoes I rolled into transition.

At the dismount line, I hopped off my bike and handed it off to the volunteer in the neon yellow shirt. This is always my favorite moment of the race, since I know that if they are not asking for the timing chip around my ankle, I’ve made the time cut off.

It was just past 4:20 p.m. I now had 7 hours and 25 minutes to run 26.2 miles.

As I walked to the changing tent, “Betsy” popped up and said, “Don’t worry, your family knows how you are doing.”

Betsy was one of my triathlon Facebook friends. We spoke on line a few times, but this was the first time we had actually met. No idea how she found me as she was volunteering at the Ironman.

I grabbed my red run gear bag and found a seat in the changing tent. Off with the bike socks. Talc my tootsie. On with the new socks. On with the sneakers and out onto the run course. It was 4:28 p.m. It was the moment of truth. Had all the 3 a.m. runs been worth it? Had the new bike shoes worked to prevent blisters? I put one foot in front of the other and like magic, I was running!

Mile 2 of the run and my phone “pinged.”

WIFE TEXT: “How are you doing and don’t lie to me?!”

I put the phone away and focused on running.

I reminded myself, “I’M RUNNING THE IRONMAN!”

It didn’t matter how hot the air was, I was all smiles.

At mile 3, I passed my friend, “Scottish Steve,” standing on the road cheering on people.

“How are you doin’ mate?” He asked in his heavy Scottish accent.

“Tell my wife I’m running.”

First aid station was around mile 4, Ed Lapa asked me the same question and I gave him the same response.

Hopefully my wife would believe my friends.

I checked my watch at the mile 6 turnaround. It was 5:46 p.m. and I had been running for 1 hour 15 minutes.

WAIT! There are 4 of these 6-mile turnarounds. If I could hold this pace…I could finish in 4 and 1/2 hours from now????

“Too optimistic,” I told myself. Then my phone “pinged.”

WIFE TEXT: “Do you think you will finish before midnight?”

ME: “Yes. I’m guessing between 10:45–11:15”

WIFE TEXT: “We will be there.”

There was one unknown I was factoring for, but at mile 8 I realized something, “My feet aren’t blistering!”

My feet hurt, but I finally beat the curse. I was finally running an IRONMAN without blisters.

At mile 10 I was back in town and walking up the big hill to the turn around. I had decided that I should hold back a little. No reason to blow out my legs.

Because my name was on my race bib, spectators kept calling out things like, “RUN DAVID!”

I hated it. I knew what I was doing.

At the top of the hill in town I could see the entrance to the finish. This was the first lap and I was looking for something else; an indicator of my pacing.

At the mile 13 turnaround, I looked at my watch. I had been running for about 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Now I knew I was going to make it by 11pm. I even had a shot at a sub-six-hour marathon.

At mile 14 my friend Ed Lapa saw me walking up the other end of the hill. He ran over to me,

“What’s wrong? Are you alright?”

“Ed, I just set a personal record for an Ironman half marathon.”

He smiled and I ran off down the road.

By mile 16, I was all smiles. I was in pain, but I was smiling. It was 8:15 p.m. and I had 10 more miles to go. If I could hold the 13+ minute run pace, I would have a sub-six-hour marathon. This is what I do when I’m racing. I’m always running numbers in my head.

I reached the 18-mile turnaround and I stopped at an aid station for potato chips and water. My body had sweated out so much sodium that my back was starting to cramp.

Without sodium, I would die…in which case I will not finish the race.

I reached the mile 20 point by 9:30. I had been in motion for almost 15 hours at that point. I texted my wife that I was an hour away.

WIFE TEXT: “We are here.”

I ran down the road into town. I stopped at every aid station for water. Sometimes I sipped flat Coca Cola, but I ran.

After almost 15 hours of Clif Bars and Gatorade, I need fuel that would be absorbed quickly into my gut.

Flat Coca Cola does that.

Up that hill one more time and left turn into the Olympic Oval for the finish line I went.

“David.” I ignored the spectator.

“DAVID! Turn around! You still need to run to the last turn around!”

Betsy had just saved me. Had I kept going, I would have been disqualified for missing the last mile in a race 140.6 miles long.

I ran straight for another mile. At the orange cone, I turned around and heard the “beep” of the time tracking sensor. Back down the road and into the stadium I ran. As I entered the Olympic Oval, I took my banner out of my back pocket unfurled it. The crowds were screaming, but instead of smiling, I started to get teary eyed. I thought of my wife and boys. My whole world was waiting for me on the other side of the finish line.

I stepped onto that red and black carpet, and I heard those magic words,

“DAVID ROHER…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

By David Roher

 

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