IMLP Race Report: I saw the lightning & heard “all swimmers to shore”

Monique McDonough Her View, Race Day 1 Comment

This was my second Ironman  race — and finish — at Lake Placid. The first was in 2006, just two weeks before Greg and I were married. Then, I can remember thinking two things: (1) don’t fall off the bike, and (2) don’t get bad tan lines for your wedding dress. This time around, all I could think about what how truly scared I was riding my bike during two thunderstorms. It was almost indescribable.

The morning started out pretty uneventful. Even though it rained in the middle of the night, they sky was dry in transition. Somehow, I was really nervous. More so than in other races – it was almost like I was a first timer. My hands were shaking so much that I couldn’t pump air in my tires (no lie, the pump owner did it for me). I found Greg after I put my water bottles and nutrition on the bike, and we headed to get our wetsuits on. Walking around calmed my nerves, but the sky made me nervous. About 10 minutes into the start of the race – which was about when I was entering the water during the phases swim start – it started to rain.

I hoped for just rain, crossed the timing mat, and tried getting into my swimming groove. From the beginning, it was hard. Just as the blogs had predicted, the seeded swim start was a debacle for middle of the pack swimmers. People tend to seed themselves in faster start groups than they should, and I was constantly battling for space, and accelerating to go around slower swimmers. In normal IM races, there’s a natural thinning of swimmers across the first loop. With the phased start, however swimmers like me get punished continuously. There was nowhere ahead of, behind me or beside me for space.

Then it got worse. I was about ¾ of the way through the entire swim (so about 2 miles into the 2.4 mile swim course) when the thunder overhead turned to real lightening. I – literally – pulled my head up out of the water in time to see a vertical bolt of lightning hit the ground in the distance. A large number of the 2500 athletes were still in the water and a woman on a kayak yelled “All swimmers to shore”, and pointed to the side of the lake, not the finish. I never swam so fast and just tried to move fast enough to get to shore before the next lightning strike. Luckily, everyone got out of the water safely but it was scary for the athletes, and the spectators on the bank of Mirror Lake.

After the swim, I ran down Mirror Drive – the road parallel to the lake – towards the transition tent. In my mind, I thought “there’s no way they can continue this race. They’ll just cancel it and give us another entry to IM Maryland, or Lake Tahoe, right?” I even stopped my watch so I would know exactly how much time I was in the water – about 8 minutes shy of finishing. (And, for those who were following online, that’s why Greg initially had 2 swim splits, and I only had one. I never crossed the timing mat because they sent me right to transition.)

The next thing I knew, people were running past me. But they weren’t running for shelter, they were actually competing! Shoot – I was wasting valuable time. So, I started my watch again, grabbed my transition bag, and ran to the changing tent. I was still thinking, “they can’t really run the race, can they. I mean, would they risk sending the athletes out on metal bikes during a thunderstorm”. I asked again out loud, and a woman next to me answered that the chances of getting struck on the bike were so thin that I shouldn’t worry. Still perplexed, I went through the normal race motions. I got my bike, and asked the volunteer who helped me “I’m not crazy, right? Going out on my bike in a thunderstorm?” Thankfully, he said “no, you’re not crazy.” And followed up after handing me my bike “just be safe.”

Yes, they kept the race running, in spite of the thunderstorms. It rained heavily for the first 20 miles of my ride. People in my pace group were so cautious that the bike mount area was almost a “no, you go first” dare, instead the usual free-for-all. My bike handled well, but I was cautious and used the breaks a fair amount. I was really happy that I had put a rain jacket in my transition bag – especially when I passed a bunch of athletes stopping at aid stations for make-shift garbage bag jackets. That certainly didn’t help with the aerodynamics.

The rain was cold, and in some places it was sleet. But once it cleared up, I was able to get into my groove. The newer course (slightly changed after my first IMLP) was much easier and the flat portion seemed to be downhill both ways. I remembered my mistake from the first time – burning my legs on the first loop – and kept telling myself to bike at 70%. I could go faster, but why should I? Catch folks on the 2nd loop. Which is what I did.

I came through town after my first loop, grabbed the Cheetos and some extra chamois butter (my new favorite gear) from my special needs bag, and headed back for Round 2. The sky was clear, and it was warming up, so I ditched my jacket. Then my bike started squeaking; because of all the rain, my chain was washed clean of all the bike lube (Greg put some in his special needs bag – boy was I jealous) and there was nothing I could do except go, and wish for bike lube. I thought about stopping at an aid station, or flagging down a support crew guy, but the timing never worked and I was always in a groove when I went past them. I could tell that I was working harder than I had on loop 1, and was bummed because it wasn’t about the course or my fitness or pacing; it was about the chain. Then, with about 15 miles to go, I got really nervous.

I saw a dark cloud overhead. All day, I had been watching the sky and calculating which direction was SW (that was the direction of the winds that day, and thus the direction of the storms). Sure enough, the dark cloud moved to my direction and opened up, and the squeaking sound on my bike was masked by the sound of rain and sleet, and even closer thunder than earlier in the day. For parts of the final miles, I couldn’t see 2 city blocks in front of me. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone, though the bikers had thinned significantly (as I had passed a lot of them by this point). I saw a guy in a Navy uniform and said “Let’s go.” I followed him for about 2 miles and then determined that my will was stronger – and I passed him. Scared and eager to get out of the storm, I pushed harder and faster. The thunder was louder but this time I didn’t see any lightening. All I could see and feel was the rain and sleet, and I wished for my jacket, or rather, to just be off the bike. As I came to the final big climbs (mama, baby and papa bear), I was cruising, and the rain tapered off. I was on such an adrenaline rush that I passed every single biker on the hill and kept pushing through town. My second loop was faster than the first loop, and nearly 10 minutes faster than the last time I did Placid – even with the horrific rain.

Transition was just up ahead and all I could say to the volunteers was “I’m so happy to be back. I’m so happy to see you.” I wasn’t uncomfortable from the bike, like I had been in other races. Instead, I was just happy to be safe. Happy to be closer to a situation I could control. Happy to know I would finish an Ironman.

My volunteer in the tent was amazing and helped me change quickly, even with my bathroom break. I popped 3 Tylenol (preventative mainly, though I had a  tweak in my left knee, and my lower back was getting sore from all the time in aero position.) Otherwise, I felt awesome!

I opened my bag of baked Ruffles, started chowing while other volunteers applied sunscreen at the run exit, and then I started on my journey. The first mile is pretty much all downhill, but I felt great. My legs didn’t burn like they had at the Kinetic ½ ironman. I felt like I was just starting my first workout of the day. But, even so, I worked my plan. 9 minutes of running. 1 minute of walking. I managed to see my mother in front of the Spruce Lodge (where we were staying). It was the first time I had seen her all day, and I could tell she was scared, and relived, and proud, and happy. She told me that Greg was up ahead, and we traded some comments about the swim start. Mothers always worry (and now I not only relate to what she feels, I can empathize with how hard it must have been for her to see the day unfold from the sidelines.)

I kept cruising on my run, and finally saw Greg on the out-and-back around mile 5 of my run. He was walking (also working his plan), with his shirt unzipped for some venting, but otherwise he looked good. We quickly hugged and kissed, and agreed that we would see each other at the next out/back. I was able to catch him 3 times on the run, which was so fun and gave me something to anticipate. Around mile 7 or 8, I saw Tracey, who has been my partner-in-crime at all 4 Ironman races. We exchanged complaints about the swim (she didn’t finish either) and I assumed that I would see her on the run. What I didn’t realize was that she was on loop 2, not loop 1. She had a phenomenal race. Matt, our other training partner and the best overall athlete of our group, however did not. He trained so hard for IMLP, but his stomach got the best of him on race day, and he had a tough run. He deserved a PR for everything he did, but it just wasn’t his day.

As for me, my focus at this point was the run run plan, and it was simple –and it involved math, which is the way that I keep myself “busy” during long races. At every aid station, so each mile, I took a cup of water and a cup of ice.  If the aid station mile was divisible by 4, then I took a GU. If the aid station mile was divisible by 5, then I took 2 electrolyte tablets. It mostly worked. Around mile 20, my plan started to unravel. The nutrition plan had been working, but the run/walk portion was harder to keep in check. It was a timing issue. As my pace slowed, I started missing the aid stations, or hitting them mid-way (so I would walk twice in 10 minutes). The extra pushing to try to minimize my walk time became a bit harder as I got more fatigued. And my stomach began to get angry. Then the bottoms of my feet just got sore. So, rather than kill myself (or risk puking, like the guy behind me) I chose to keep my wits about me and crank out my 13-minute miles with power walking.

Oddly, the race seemed to go quickly for me. At the last few miles, though, I just didn’t have much left in me. I felt spent and my legs were done. Somehow, with ¼ mile to go, when I could see the Olympic Oval and hear Mike Riley’s voice clearly, I kicked up the run and savored the moment. The lights were blinding, and I just ran to the finish with my arms up. I was an Ironman, again, 6 years and 2 kids later. And I felt, well, mixed. And somewhat unfulfilled. Odd, I know.

The moment wasn’t as magical as I had remembered. It was somewhat bittersweet. I completed the race, and on a day when the conditions were horrific and the mental “grit” was needed more than previous races. But oddly, I have no idea how long it took me. My official finish time shows 13:53:53, but omits a time for the 2nd loop of the swim. (Which is consistent with all IMLP 2014 finishers’ times). My finish clock photo shows 15:10:26, but that’s from the start of the race, when the pros entered the water. It doesn’t reflect my later swim entry/actual race start time, which is somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes after the Pros. Finally, my watch, which would have had my exact time, showed 14:45:36, which also is too short because I stopped my watch after getting out of the swim early – thinking the race would be stopped completely. So, even though I know my bike was 10 minutes faster and my run 5 minutes faster than my IMLP 2006 time (and my swim time was on par or faster) I still don’t actually know I had a course PR.

So, while I’m certainly proud of what I accomplished – finishing, and finishing healthy and safely – I still feel somewhat unfulfilled. And, the only thing I can think to do is race another Ironman. Crazy? Absolutely. Well, friends, that is Ironman.

See you at the starting line, just not at Lake Placid again. 🙂

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