My husband just completed his fourth Ironman in Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Olympics. This was also his first, six years ago, so it was a rich experience to return. After all, that first experience in Lake Placid is what helped us fall in love with the Adirondack region and ultimately find a cabin of our own in Long Lake.
Because of the Ironman, I’ve been thinking a lot about endurance and the human spirit. When I tell people that my husband does Ironman-length races, the responses vary between awe and confusion, the latter usually expressed as: “All of that? In one day???”
For those of you uninitiated, the Ironman event starts with a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike and finished off with a 26.2 mile run. No small feat. In fact, it seems impossible to many people. Not to me. I live with the guy. I know the work that goes into readying his body for this race: yards logged at the pool, half days riding his bike and hours spent running – all of that every week for months. After six years, it’s all, well, sort of normal to me. The first year, a long bike ride was going to conflict with a family vacation at the beach. His solution? He rode his bike over 100 miles from Philadelphia to the Jersey shore. Yeah, he did.
I’m not trying to say that doing an Ironman is easy. Not even remotely. I’m saying that hardcore dedication to months of training go into making it to race morning. And I’m saying that the more time you spend with a person who does endurance events, the less outrageous it seems.
When we arrived at Lake Placid last week for Tom to pick up his packet, I realized that for him, this is like me returning to VCFA for my alumni weekend. These are his people, sporting weird socks and race t-shirts from all over the country. And almost every single one is as tall and lean as my husband. Some, I grant you, don’t look that way.
As I watched the competitors leave with their race bags, I wondered how the big guys would fair in the run, especially if it’s hot and how the smaller women would manage the swim, when everyone starts at the same time.
Let me tell you, whether or not you think the sport crazy, there is nothing like being on an Ironman course and watching the athletes muscle through the day. The swim is surreal. As 2500-some athletes enter the water sending plumes of steam from the early morning lake, they are surrounded by jewel-colored kayaks, people on paddle boards and even scuba divers. Music plays in the background while Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, energizes the crowd.
An hour or so later, they are racing out of the water, stripping out of wetsuits and tearing toward their bikes. Well, maybe not tearing, but not sauntering, either. Tom said it gets lonely out there on the bike and quiet. There’s a point where there’s nothing but you, your bike and the thoughts in your head. To me, this is what makes an Ironman an Ironman: the ability to push through the negative thoughts when your body is depleted and you’re alone, facing hours of running after hours of biking.
My favorite part of spectating is cheering on the runners. They’ve already been out there for at least eight hours and they’re beginning a marathon. This time, the kids and I parked on a road where we could see the runners fours times (because it was a two-loop course). I watched and cheered while people ran with focus, slowed to a walk, stopped to stretch tight muscles. I cheered on 25 year olds and 62 year olds and everything in between. A woman, older than me, ran by with “Beer at finish” written across her torso. There was a big guy running on a blade. Another missing a hand. Four guys wore pink tutu’s. There were people racing for a cause and people racing for themselves. Right before my eyes, each one transformed the impossible into something possible.
Tom finished well, considering that he’d gone into the race with a calf injury and wasn’t sure he’d finish at all. Talk about determination – five men finished in the 70-74 age group and one of them was our dentist, completing his first ever Ironman in 15:49. Tom believes that anyone can do an Ironman if they put their mind to it and give it the time and dedication it deserves. I’m not in a hurry to test that theory for myself, but I am inspired by what the human body can accomplish with training and a whole lot of spirit.