This is, of course, a long race report. It was a long race. And (ahem) my first Ironman, so insist on inflicting the experience on you!
Ironman Lake Placid is an extraordinary experience. From top to bottom, from waiting in line at 4:00 a.m. post-race outside Lake Placid High School to crossing the finish line at whatever time, it is alternately amazing, terrible, awesome, intimidating, awesomer (yeah, that’s right), scary, and glorious. I can’t wait to hear what all you people who signed up for the first time think about your experiences.
Early on, I hired Chip Warfel as my coach, and it was the best decision I could have made. Chip was quite simply a great coach. As the winter turned to spring and shorter workouts became longer, the experience of training for Ironman actually got more and more fun every week, and I learned a huge amount about the physical and mental aspects of Ironman racing from a very good friend.
As for the training itself, there’s nothing quite like getting dragged by Chip across the hills of Howard, Carroll, and Frederick Counties to make you feel like a real rock star. The Garrett County Gran Fondo, the hardest 102 miles I’ve ever done, is also paradoxically the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike, thanks to Rachel and Alan Wiederhold (seriously, the guy actually told the cows on the side of the road on Killer Miller to “mmmmmmooooooooooove.” YOU try riding up that hill AND laughing out loud at the same time). Sprinkled in there were other big rides with, naturally, Rachel and Alan, Deb Taylor and Danny Mooney, and others (again, you know who you are!). It was long. It was hot. And it was over way too soon. By the end, I was loving every bloody moment of it.
To top it off, I felt ready. Once I was in Lake Placid, I was very much at peace about the race. I had trained well, had a good strategy in place, and felt confident. In addition to some of my best triathlon friends in our house, my mother and stepfather decided to make the 5-hour drive from over from Maine to see the race. This was going to be special.
Part of the magic of this race is the time one spends surrounded by so many great friends before, during, and after the race. I stayed with some of the best people a guy could ask for and had an amazing time. Living for almost a week with Ironman veterans like Kim Sheridan, Lisa Farias, and James Bettis was a huge help, as was the selfless sherpa support provided by Loretta Trumble (it didn’t hurt that all of them knew their way around a kitchen, either!). The pre- and post-race dinners were as much a part of the experience as the race itself (those of you who were there – you know who you are!), know what I’m talking about.
While I’m giving shout-outs, let me just write this as well: You can’t actually appreciate the amount of sacrifice your family makes for you to train for an Ironman until you are in the thick of that training. It is no small thing and requires constant, daily acts of selflessness. I know this because I saw my wife Heather do it day in and day out. I am simply staggered that she would without a second’s thought do that for me, so that I could chase some silly goal that is important, let’s be honest, only to me. I have well and truly “married up.”
Swim: 1:19:41, 300/448
It is an awe-inspiring feeling to be marching through the crowd of thousands to the swim start at an Ironman. There is a palpable electricity in the air. I got into the water with my buddies Rachel, Alan, and James, we wished each other well, and I positioned myself in the center and slightly behind the main pack of swimmers. I was fully prepared for what Mark Yost memorably described as nautical combat, and when the cannon went off, was pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t as bad as I envisioned. There was a lot of contact on that first lap, to be sure, but it was generally the polite kind and not too fearsome. That was to change.
The second lap for me was something out of a gladiator movie, minus the sandals. On that loop, I was kicked hard 3 times (twice hard enough to spin my goggles off my face), punched in the kidney once, and had my ankles grabbed several times, never mind the constant jostling and jousting. I suspect that for the people around me, the legendary first swim lap at an Ironman was a terrible beast to be treated with great caution, but once they got comfortable on the second lap, all bets were off. It was a brutal event.
Slow, yes, but deliberately so. With a long bike ahead, I was intent on not making any mistakes. And man, do I appreciate those of you who volunteer in the change tent. I don’t know what the women’s tent is like, but the men’s tent is hot, humid, and (how to say this politely?), smells of man musk. It’s got to be the reason why some triathletes turn pro, just to have an excuse to avoid the changing tent.
Bike: 6:47:22, 277/448
It felt good to be on the bike. The first loop was not bad, and I was a bit surprised to see that nearly all of the people around me were intent on laying back. My own strategy was similar. I just wanted to keep a relatively low, steady heart rate and maintain a solid, if unspectacular, pace. My climb out of town was measured and steady, followed by a thrilling 6-7 mile descent into Keane. Once into Keane, it hit me: I’m actually riding the bike leg of an Ironman. I had to tell myself to lay back, because it was easy to put the hammer down and push up well past 20 miles per hour if had wanted. For nutrition, I was going with a 6-scoop bottle of Perpetuem, a normal mix of Cytomax, and water, supplemented by a salt tab once an hour and the occasional nibble on a Clif Bar for a change of pace. Except for a small bout of lower GI distress that forced me to make an unplanned pit stop at an aid station (with a line at the port-o-pots, dammit!), this worked out extremely well.
The course starts the long climb back into Lake Placid around mile 35-ish, and I found that while my race position dropped on the flats, I was able to make a lot of that up on the climbs. The Garrett County Gran Fondo is a terrible master, but teaches you to become a steady, patient, and powerful climber. When I arrived back into town, I was able to draw on the crowd’s energy, particularly passing the great MMTC tent, and got a welcome jolt of energy and good juju. Restocked Perpetuem and Cytomax at bike special needs, and continued on.
The wind really began to kick up on the second lap. In particular, the second, climbing half of the second lap was very difficult. My bike splits became appreciably slower, and I could feel myself beginning to crawl into my pain cave. It’s easy to underestimate the challenge of that second loop. Coming up to Papa Bear, the last big climb, however, I knew the ride was almost over, and my spirits brightened. What really picked me up though was when someone jumped out of the crowd and began sprinting with me up the hill and shouting encouragement: Heather, my rock star wife. At first, I was far enough into my cave that I had no idea it was her, but the moment I realized who it was, I broke into a huge grin and felt fabulous again. The great Kim Sheridan captured the precise moment when I realized it was Heather, and it is one of my favorite pictures ever taken of the two of us in our 13 years together. I felt great pulling into the bike finish.
T2: 13:03. Super-duper slow. Torpid. Dilatory. Stagnant. Slothful. Why? Well, again, I was intent on taking my time to avoid mistakes, but I made a huge one anyway. Like a dumbass, I grabbed my T1 bag instead of my T2 bag and didn’t realize until I was back in that Turkish bathhouse they call a changing tent. I eventually got things right, then got held up at the line at the sunscreen station. Speaking of which, let’s face it: Ironman ain’t pretty. There’s a special place reserved in the afterlife for those volunteers who choose to rub sunscreen on sweaty racers who smell like hell and have peed on themselves at least twice over the previous 6-8 hours.
Run: 5:22:53, 254/448
As I left T2 I glanced at the race clock and realized that a 13-hour race was a possibility – that would be excellent. Running out of transition, a feeling of unreality washed over me: I can’t believe I’m running the marathon leg of the Ironman. What a great feeling. But the 13-hour race? Wasn’t going to happen.
The atmosphere in town was electric, and I again had to consciously dial back my pace to keep from going out too fast. My strategy, which paid off in spades when I practiced it at Eagleman, was to go out around a 10:00-10:30 pace, let everyone else go, and then slowly reel them in as they faded later in the run and I got stronger. It didn’t work quite the same way this time, not because it was a bad strategy, but because my body starting letting me know that no matter what my brain was telling it about how great it is to compete in an Ironman, it can still be one painful, humbling event.
In accordance with my plan, I walked for 30 seconds every mile, taking a hit of gel and 4-8 ounces of water at every walking portion. This was effective, but because the aid stations were not evenly spaced on the mile, I wound up stopping there as well to fill my water bottle. I kept this up until around mile 6, out in the middle of nowhere on River Road, where dreams of Ironman glory go to die. It is a psychologically brutal out and back with easy to moderate rollers, but it winds along the Ausable River, and there is no end in sight until you are right on top of the turnaround. On this stretch, my mildly arthritic back, always a problem, and my hamstrings began seriously tightening. Thankfully, in addition to the mighty Mark Yost, I saw some of my best racing buds on that route – Chip, Alan, James – and that helped my spirits.
Once off of River Road, it’s up two challenging hills on the way back into town, where, thanks to the energy of that crowd, my pain melted away. The run out and back on Mirror Lake Drive was a blast, the MMTC tent – with my great friends, Heather, and my mother all raising a huge ruckus as I ran by – a beacon in what was becoming a very, very difficult race.
Then, it was back out of town and onto River Road, the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, where I again saw Chip, Alan, and James, all looking a bit more ragged around the edges than I’m used to seeing, but still, it was great to see my brothers in arms still in the fight. My back and hamstrings got tighter and tighter – my 30-second stops became 2-minute stops to stretch, and I had to stop at every aid station to stretch yet again for a few minutes. My hopes of a 4:30 marathon melted. My stomach stopped tolerating its diet of gel, water, and salt tabs, so I switched to chicken broth and cola. When it stopped tolerating that, I switched to cola and pretzels. When it stopped tolerating that, I went only with water.
One bright moment out there in the middle of nowhere: While crouching down to stretch at one aid station at mile marker too-far-from-the-finish-to-matter, a huge, hulk of a volunteer loomed up out of the twilight and said “Good job, MMTC. You need anything?” Turns out it was Sergio Vasquez, a name I had seen before, but had never put with a face. A quick chat with a new friend in the middle of nowhere: It’s good for the soul and makes membership in this club absolutely priceless. Still and all, I’m not proud of the dark and terrible thoughts I had between miles 18 and 22. (Those of you who shared a hilarious and definitely non-pc dinner with me the next night know what I’m talking about!)
Finally, I got out of there, and as I made my way into town, the crowd’s energy just made everything better. Up the hills, Main Street, and Mirror Lake Drive, all a snap, with cheering strangers at every turn. I will never, ever forget the feeling that came over me again as I made the turn onto the speed skating oval and into the Ironman finishing chute, which Al Trautwig once called “a human pot of gold,” and I hope that I never take that for granted in future Ironman races. Coming around the final bend, it felt as if my feet were 6 inches off the ground. I pointed up to where I knew Mike Reilly would be standing, cupped my hands to my ears, and he hit me with it: “Mike Petersen from Greenbelt, Maryland, for the first time, you are an Ironman!” Then it was nothing but glory, pride, and… pizza.
There are certain moments in a person’s life when they never feel more alive, more renewed. All that was true for me. It’s no secret that Ironman is about testing your limits, about removing yourself from the comforts of life to discover what you’re really made of. Crossing the finish line was for me like crossing a threshold, not unlike when I was awarded my doctorate or when I got married. The latter will always be the best day of my life, but there’s no doubt that completing an Ironman feels like one of those boundary-crossing moments. From here on out, I will never not be an Ironman.
And that’s pretty cool.