Are Ironmen athletes?

Yes and no. Real athletes have speed and quickness and strength. Some of the people competing at Ironman events are real athletes. I am not.

You can complete an IM because you are an athlete, or because you are simply too pigheaded to quit. Not everyone can hit a curveball or run a sub-3 marathon, but everyone can force themselves to keep going for 16 hours when the bottom of their foot feels like someone has dropped a white-hot charcoal briquette into their shoe. It doesn’t take talent, just a stubborn refusal to give in. To win an Ironman, you need to be an athlete. To finish an Ironman, you simply need Ironwill.

I said I was done with Ironmen after Louisville last year. But in that race, I finished almost dead last in the swim. That drove me nuts. I don’t expect to podium like Liz and Mike. I don’t expect to finish in the top 3 in my age group and qualify for Hawaii. I don’t even expect to finish in the top half of the field. But still, 2900 people swam at Louisville last year, and 2850 swam faster than me. Fat people beat me. Seventy year-olds beat me. A woman my age with a dislocated shoulder almost beat me. I mean, really, can I be that bad?

So in October my coach Nancy suggested I try one more time at the Ironman Lake Placid, which is usually an “easy” swim because Mirror Lake (where the swim is really held, not Lake Placid) is smooth, the course is particularly well marked so you don’t swim in a drunken weave like I did at Louisville, and best of all, the water temp is always low enough that they allow wetsuits, good for ten or fifteen minutes for weak swimmers.

Perhaps I should have done more research. If I had, I might have learned that when a world class athlete who has done 13 Ironmen tells you something is “easy,” they may not be using a standard definition of the word. True, Mirror Lake is flat and the course is well marked, but unlike Louisville, where swimmers enter the water sedately two at a time, Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) uses a “mass start.” That means is that you and 3000 of your closest friends all paddle out and tread water. Then, when the cannon goes, you try to make your way down the course crawling over slower swimmers and being crawled over by faster swimmers behind you, getting scratched, kicked in the face and punched every inch of the way. It’s like having a fight blindfolded in the shower with three sumo wrestlers.

If I’d done more research, I might also have found out that IMLP is in the Adirondack Mountains and has more than double the hilliness of Louisville. I might have found all of that out, but who knows if it would have mattered. I was a man obsessed. I was in search of redemption. I wanted to prove to my swimmer son and wife that I am not a loser.

Lake Placid is in the absolute middle of New York state, hours from any interstate or cell phone tower, and almost impossible to get to. It is a tourist town, famous for being an occasional Olympic host city and a weekend getaway for people from New York City who want a day or two of snow skiing in the winter or kayaking in the summer. Liz and I arrived on Friday, drove around the tiny parking lot for a half hour waiting on a space, and then finally checked into the Northwoods. We lugged our bags and my gear upstairs to our large, but dilapidated room. Our dog Addie took one look at the room and simply shook her head, obviously disgusted with the accommodations and embarrassed that Liz and I had finally been reduced to this circumstance. She daintily searched the room for a semi-clean patch of carpet.

On Friday I checked in at the high school gym and received my blue bracelet. That night I went to the athlete dinner, two miles away at the show grounds. I bought a cheap poncho and walked in the rain because we did not want to give up our parking space. Except for being full of Canadians (Lake Placid is pretty close to Montreal, eh?) it was just like last year’s banquet in Louisville, with the hyperbolic Mike “this is the best event I’ve ever been at!!!” Riley, the obligatory feel-good athlete story, and the stern official explaining the rules. I left before it was over.

On Saturday, I did a brief (hour and a half) swim/bike/run in the morning and spent a couple of hours getting my gear together. That meant putting numbers on my bike and helmet, organizing the stuff I needed for the bike and run into two big plastic bags, and carefully laying out my swim gear and breakfast. Then I went to bed and slept all afternoon. That night we had dinner with my coach, Jim, and his friends from Madison, Cindy and JB. Cindy is one of the top amateurs in America. She falls into the category of athlete, as do her partner JB and Jim. Cindy has already qualified for the world championships in Hawaii and Jim and JB were trying to qualify at IMLP. At dinner, we talk about my sleeping most of the day. Jim is clearly a little worried by my snoozing, afraid that I will be up all night. I try to change the subject, since he has his own race to worry about.

The next morning Liz and I get up at 4:15. I begin stuffing myself with food. Liz walks out on the balcony and says “It’s not as cool as they said it would be.” In Ironman, cool is good, warm is bad. In this case doubly so, because it may mean the weather front that was predicted to come through overnight may not have come through. If it rolls through in the next two hours and there’s lightning, that means the race can be shortened by skipping the swim. But I simply shrug. Que sera, sera. It’s too late to worry about the weather now.

I love Liz more than any person on this planet. We talk a half dozen times every day. But I am quiet as we walk down the hill to the start. For the last year, I have spent hours in cold pools, taken dozens of lessons and done endless monotonous drills. I have swum thousands and thousands of yards, well over a hundred miles. Now I find out if I have really made any improvement. Not much else to say.

In the transition area, I do a final check of the bike, add a little air to my bike tires and take the plastic bag off my seat. I leave the restricted area and Liz and I walk down to the swim start. At 6:30, I head into the corral, the big fenced area where the competitors wait to enter the water. A few minutes later I and the others walk over the timing mats and wade out. I see my coach and we talk for a minute, then without saying anything we split up and each find a position in the water. I bob in my wetsuit while nervous first timers chatter around me. At 6:50, the gun goes off and the pro’s start, and at 7 our gun sounds. En masse, 3000 people all plunge for the start line and fight to make our way down the course. The water churns and there is so much spray from the flailing arms and kicking feet that it feels like rain.

At the end of the first lap, 1.2 miles, I look at the clock. It reads 50 minutes. That’s disappointing because it means I am on track for a 1:40 swim. In fact, the clock shows the time for the pros and hasn’t been reset yet. My time isn’t really 50 minutes as the clock shows, which is bad, but 40 minutes, which is fantastic. But I don’t know that. I think I am behind when in fact I am well ahead of my hoped-for pace of 1:24.

Everything at LP is two loops. I run out of the water after my first lap and across the mats and back in for the second loop. The second lap is easier, things have spread out a bit and when I bump into people I can raise my head, look for clear water and steer toward it. I feel myself getting into a rhythm. I chant all the things my swim coach and friends have told me over and over like a mantra. Stretch (Leah.) Finish (Keith.) Swim wide (Joe). Pull. Pull (Nancy). At the midway point of the second lap, my left calf cramps, but it is a small cramp and I stretch it out and keep on swimming. I feel bee-bees hitting the water and realize it really is raining, but they can’t cancel the swim now. Pull. Pull. Finally, I climb out of the water and read the clock. 1:20! Not just 45 minutes better than Louisville, but downright respectable!

I run up to a volunteer who’s acting as a stripper. He yanks down the zipper of my wetsuit and yells, “Down.” I drop onto the concrete and he pulls my wetsuit over my body and down my legs. He tosses me the inside-out suit and turns to the next swimmer. Grinning from ear to ear I run up the long hill to transition. Halfway up the ramp, I hear Liz yell, “Sam,” and turn and yell over my shoulder “One twenty!” I see her now, she’s grinning and jumping up and down like a six year old at Christmas. “I know,” she yells back. One twenty. I am deliriously happy.

Of course, the advantage of being obsessive-compulsive is I instantly focus on a new goal. With a 1:20 in the swim, that means 12:30 overall is theoretically possible. I grab my bike bag off the rack and dive into the transition tent. In Louisville, I was literally the last male into the changing tent, so I had the huge tent and a few volunteers to myself. But this time I’ve arrived in the middle of the pack, and the dark tent is packed and hot, full of half-naked men changing clothes and stuffing wetsuits into bags. My sunglasses fall out of my bag and to keep from losing them I put them on, which means I can’t see. I finally get out of the tent and ask a volunteer to slap some sunscreen on me. She does but it’s obvious she thinks I am crazy, since it’s now raining again.

I race out of town, trying to calm down. My coach has given me strict instruction on my heart rate, and I force myself to slow. The steep downhill is wet and slick. On the side of the road, many competitors have flats, which often happens in the rain. I am a coward and stay under 35 mph all the way down. People fly by me. At the turnaround, I calculate my time. It’s an astounding 19.6 mph! Wheee.

If I’d done that research, though, I’d have known that LP is downhill out, uphill in. In fact it’s even worse than that, downhill and downwind out, uphill and into the wind back. I am living in a fool’s paradise. I make the turn and begin the slow painful climb to the turnaround. My speed drops to 14.4 mph for the second quarter of the ride.

It’s discouraging, but the good thing about wearing a heart rate monitor is you know exactly how much you can do without blowing up. 14.4 mph was slower than I wanted, but if I pushed my heart rate beyond where it should be, I would pay for it later by running out of energy.

The six hours or so on the bike is a very busy time. On my training rides in the Indiana hills, I daydream and am pretty careless about shifting. If I get caught in the wrong gear, I just stand up and fight my way up the hill. But you can’t do that in a race. In a race, that can completely destroy your legs and leave you drained. The objective is to always pedal at the same high cadence (number of turns per minute.) At IMLP, you shift perhaps a thousand times over the course of 112 miles.

The bike is also where you take in your nutrition. In an Ironman, I will burn up between 12,000 and 14,000 calories. That’s roughly 25 Big Macs. Obviously, I can’t carry or digest 25 Big Macs. On the bike, I can take in somewhere around 2000 calories and on the run somewhere around 500. If I go over that, I will get sick and either have cramping and diarrhea or slow down to a snail’s pace while my body digests the lump in my stomach.

However, if I go under 2500, I run the very real risk of bonking (running out of fuel) sooner in the run. Most people bonk at some point in the run, but bonking in mile 20 is better than bonking in mile 18, equivalent to about 20 minutes in overall time. Therefore much of the bike is spent carefully managing intake of fluids and calories. I do reasonably well on this ride, although I drink a little too much and it costs me time. At Louisville, I was at the very back of the pack after the swim, so I could just stop my bike and pee in the ditch. At Lake Placid, I am up in the group and have to actually use the Portajohns, which probably costs me 3 or 4 minutes overall.

The second lap of the bike is very similar to the first, 18.8 going out and 13.7 coming in. I finish the bike in 6:49, 20 minutes slower than Louisville. However, Lake Placid is a much more difficult course. My ride wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as it appears either. Interestingly enough, I came out of the water in 1676th place and I got off the bike in 1676th place. That means that somehow, even though at least a hundred riders passed me, I managed to pass exactly the same number.

I pulled into the transition area, handed my bike to a volunteer and bolted for the changing tent. This time I was a little more prepared and managed the process a bit better. I left the tent and ran up the hill. Liz spotted me and ran beside me on the sidewalk. I was puffing and panting and she ran along effortlessly, even though she was dodging spectators and talking. She could have at least pretended to be out of breath.

At IMLP, the run is a two loop out and back. In other words, you run 6.5 miles, turnaround and run back 6.5 miles the same way. Then you do it again.

The truth is, I had no idea what to expect from the run.

My coach argues that the “Ironman run is not really about running,” meaning that it has little to do with how well you run in the gym and everything to do with how much energy you have left by that point. Would I have enough energy left? Also, I was injured in January and missed almost two months of training time. Would I pay for that lost time now? Even worse, would my piriformis syndrome flare up and would I limp in? After the bike, finishing in 12:30 was no longer realistic, but I still had a good chance to break 13 and be a “daylight finisher,” both of which I wanted to do. It all depended on the run.

I felt fantastic as I left Liz and town behind. I floated along, moving fast and passing people left and right. It felt like I was running downhill.

Because I was. Those sadists who laid out the Lake Placid course did the same thing on the run they did on the bike, downhill out, uphill back. I did 9:45 per mile out and 11:06 back. Still, that’s an average of 10:20 or so, which equates to a 4:30 marathon. I would be ecstatic to do a 4:30 marathon on that course. That would give me both my daylight finish and my sub-13 time. At the end of the first loop, I was in great position.

Even better, I was close enough to the front to see some of the elite athletes come running by. True, they were hours ahead of me, but at least I saw them. I also saw my coach Jim and twice yelled at him. Both times he started and looked for me, but I don’t think he saw me either time. Of course, my friend Cecilia was about the same distance behind me and twice yelled at me, and I did not see her until she called out my name. Maybe it’s some competitive thing, you automatically look at the people ahead of you and ignore those behind you, I don’t know.

By the second loop of the run, I was really hurting. The pain starts on the bike, but that is a polite, unobtrusive pain. Your butt says “excuse me, I hate to bother you, but this is not terribly comfortable.” By the midpoint of the run, the pain is like an obnoxious drunk, lurching along beside you and yelling in your face with every step, “Hey, buddy, this hurts. How much more of this crap do I have to put up with?” In this case, my feet hurt like they always do, but my hamstrings and quads also screamed at me that they hadn’t run more than 15 miles all year and simply weren’t ready for this. By mile 22, it was clear I would not break 13, and I dropped my head and began walking. I forced myself to run a few hundred yards of downhill, and then I’d walk up the next hill.

The course at LP is lined with thousands of people. As I passed, they read my name off my race number, leaned out and urged me on, “Come on, Sam, you got it buddy. Take it in strong.” I thanked them and tried to lift my head, but strong was long gone by that point and I was simply finishing. Somewhere in the last stretch, I heard Liz yell my name, and managed to run the last quarter mile. It was still daylight as I crossed the line and heard Mike announce, “Sam Hill, from Chicago, Illinois. You are an Ironman.” 13:11, a half hour better than Louisville over a tougher course. I passed a few hundred people on the run.

Jim finished an hour ahead of me, and won his group (and a trip to the world championships in Hawaii) by 11 seconds, despite a flat. Cecilia finished a bit behind me, really closing with a fantastic run. I did not catch JB’s time.

After the race, I sat on a curb with a space blanket wrapped around me and ate a Subway sandwich while I drank a cola. I couldn’t find Liz in the crowd, and finally gave up and walked back to the hotel and called her cell. Of course, she was still at the race looking for me. By the time she got back, I’d taken a shower and used the roller I got at Christmas on my quads. Liz gave me a chocolate milk, beer and pizza. I managed to get down the liquids and two slices before I gave up, carefully pulled up the covers over my swollen feet and closed my eyes.

As I lay in bed, I extended one arm and used the other to pull it across my body. I then did the other. That’s something us swimmers do.

Sam Hill is a writer and business consultant who lives in Chicago. His work with Fortune 500 companies has taken him all over the world. Very few of his clients know he is a novelist and even fewer know he grew up in the projects. He has written five books and has had short pieces published in Fortune, Financial Times, LA Times, Harvard Business Review and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He secretly thinks himself very interesting, but those who know him well think not…

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8 replies »

  1. This was riveting. I mean, I have NEVER once thought a triathlon might be something I should do. So maybe “riveting” isn’t quite right. Maybe I mean “morbid fascination.”

    I couldn’t stop reading, though. Congratulations. You are one more crazy man.

  2. Congratulations. Never done an Ironman, never will, but I used to run long distance competitively, so I have some idea what you’re talking about. As you say, a lot of it is just about being stubborn.

  3. I run the Turkey Trot every year hung over, and I’m dying by the 2nd mile. It’s about 5 miles and I’m getting passed by people that in theory shouldn’t even be walking let alone running. It’s embarrassing, because I’m good at almost every sport I play, but I do not have the mental toughness to just run. Congrats on accomplishing this and many other iron man competitions.

  4. Fantastic read Sam. Not quite as dramatic as your Louisville story but nonetheless a stunning and awesome accomplishment. it gives me an unbelievable amount of motivation. Thanks for sharing your adventure.