Ironman Lake Placid is one of the best Ironman Triathlons. Beautiful and terrible at the same time it is one of the Ironman races that should belong in every triathlete’s bucket list. Here Maria Simone gives advice on how to make the most of your day on the Ironman Lake Placid course.
Racing Ironman Lake Placid
Unless you were lucky and fast enough to nab a slot online, or via a foundation slot, then you waited in the long line that wraps around the Lake Placid High School and the Olympic Oval. You came running out of that high school gymnasium with your golden ticket to race the second oldest Ironman in North America. 365 days until the big event.
Flash forward a few months. You’ve been training steady, and now the big day is a little over 2 months away. You’ve visualized entering the Olympic Oval to the sounds of Mike Reilly proclaiming in the way that only he can, “YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!”
If this is your first time preparing for Ironman Lake Placid, you are no doubt wondering (fearing?) what to expect. The course may not be the most difficult Ironman there is, but it is challenging, with many people squeezed into a tiny space for the swim, of climbing in the bike course, and a rolling marathon that makes you work for your finisher medal.
The key to a successful day at Ironman Lake Placid is discipline. If you do not have a disciplined, strategic approach to this race, you will be punished for it. The marathon tells the tale of those who pushed too hard on the first loop of the bike.
I’ve raced Ironman Lake Placid twice, and I’ve trained on that course so many times, I’ve lost count. I can tell you where the potholes are (hopefully, they’ve fixed those!). In this post, I’ll share with you some tips for racing IMLP. These tips are geared for those who will be racing the course for the first time.
The nature of an Ironman mass swim start, with 2500 bodies all starting at once, makes it daunting enough. Now, let’s take that same swim start, and put it in a narrow lake. That’s the Ironman Lake Placid swim start.
Positioning is key, as is a willingness to get bumped. There aren’t too many places you can go without getting jostled around a bit – unless you are super fast and can beat out the pack at the start, or you are willing to wait a few moments to let the pack take off.
Before you decide you are going to wait, think about it. There is an incredible draft on this swim, and if you swim the buoy line, you have the added advantage of a cable that runs the entire length of the course. That’s right: there is an underwater cable that runs the entire length of the course, which means there is no need for sighting if you can get on this line. Of course, everyone else wants to get on that cable too.
So, if you are a more timid swimmer, then you may want to consider starting back, and away from the pack. There are a few options here. You can start on the right bank, toward the back of the pack, and/or wait a few minutes. I’ve started at the right bank both times. The first year (2010), this was a perfect strategy, and I never got bumped once. In 2011, however, I was mauled, and had to go with the flow, and wound up swimming 4 minutes slower than I did the previous year.
When I do this race in 2013, I will start back-of-the-front-to-front-of-the-middle of the pack on the buoy line. (I hope to swim between 1:10-1:15). My thought: I’m going to get mauled no matter where I start, I might as well cut the distance and swim that cable. So, if you aren’t timid, I recommend the same. Seed yourself accordingly, but stay on the buoy line.
From the exit of the swim to the transition area, you will have to run about a quarter of a mile, on the street. It’s a little rough on your tootsies, so tread lightly. The best part about this run: it is lined with people, 5-6 rows deep, all cheering and pushing you on. It’s super exciting!
Try not to let that excitement get you too riled up as you run to transition. Keep your HR in check. It’s waaayyyy to early in this day to get near your redline.
Depending on where you come out on the swim, a volunteer may or may not be available to help you get your bag. I recommend being prepared to grab your own bike bag. Practice this the day before – know where your stuff is!
My first experience in the changing tent was overwhelming to say the least. Have a plan for what you will do in transition. Be prepared for lots of hot, humid, naked bodies. If you aren’t changing clothes, then I recommend staying outside of the tent to get your stuff together. Grab a volunteer for help. They are AWESOME!
Ironman Lake Placid Bike
Ah, yes, the bike. No, this is not the most challenging Ironman bike course on paper. Yet, improper execution can quickly turn it into the hardest one you’ll ever do. Those who miscalculate the difficulty of this course pay for it dearly. I’ve seen athletes make the mistake in training, and on race day.
My advice to you: Do not underestimate this course.
There is a lot of climbing in this course, most of which comes in the second half of the loop. An effective Lake Placid bike is a disciplined one. I’m not suggesting that you should be on a sight-seeing tour – although, the views are absolutely SPECTACULAR. I am suggesting that you have a smart pacing plan based on rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and/or power, and that you understand where this bike course is likely to bite you on the boo-boo if you aren’t careful.
There is a lot of folklore about the “three bears” of this course. I’m here to tell you that mama, baby and papa bear are the least of your concerns. The initial climb out of town, the climb up 86 into Wilmington, and the rollers along the last of the course are a much greater concern.
Immediately after you exit T1, the bike course makes a short descent on a narrow strip of gravel and goes directly into an almost 180-degree turn. This area is lined with other bikers trying to clip into their pedals and spectators trying to catch a glimpse of their athletes.
Suffice to say, it’s a tight squeeze.
Rather than get caught up in the throng (if there is one when you get there), you may want to consider walking your bike just after the apex of the turn.
When approaching a significant goal, like riding , I find it easiest to break the goal down into manageable parts. As I see it, a loop of the Lake Placid bike course has 7 parts.
Climbing Out Of Town
The first of the loop, along Route 73, is relatively flat. Then, you begin to climb for about 5 miles. Mixed within this climb is one section that is relatively flat. But, overall, you are heading up in the opening of the loop, from a low of 1,692 feet to 2,071 feet.
I’ve read others’ reports of the course, and I’m surprised at how little this opening climb is discussed. To be fair, it’s not a “killer” climb, and is manageable in the big ring. However, I do think that if you push this opening climb too hard in either the first or second loop, you will regret that decision when you hit the hillier sections along the second half of the loop. My recommendation: spin it at a moderate effort in the small ring to keep your legs fresh. There’s plenty of time for big ring hammering when you get to the next two bits of the course. If you are feeling good on the second loop, and you are a strong cyclist, you can consider that big ring. But, remember: the final are the most relentless.
Overall, this section is about 10 miles.
Descent Into Keene
What goes up definitely goes down, and down and down. The descent into Keene is approximately 6 miles long, and has 3 sections to it, which are delineated by a series of “Trucks Use Low Gear” signs. In between each section, while you are still descending, the grade becomes less severe. These are good opportunities to collect yourself if you are a timid descender.
The first and second signs warn: “Trucks use low gear .” The descent is quite picturesque–that is if you weren’t whizzing by it with every fiber of your being concentrating on holding the bike, maintaining control, and looking out for dips and cracks in the road.
Note: The shoulder areas of this course are not “impeccably smooth” as described on the official Ironman site. Rather, they have plenty of imperfections, including areas where it just drops off. Be careful, especially if you are up there training when there is traffic on the road. On race day, that side of the road is closed to traffic, but you still want to stay to the right to allow faster cyclists to pass.
In between the first two “Trucks Use Low Gear Signs”, you continue to descend, just not as steeply.
The third “use low gear” sign follows quickly upon the second and this section lasts for about 2 miles. This third and final section of the descent is the steepest. The more courageous cyclists have reported speeds in excess of 50 mph by the end of this descent. However, it is possible to control your speed. If you aren’t feeling like a daredevil, remember to stay to the right and feather your brakes to control your speed. Don’t jam them! Know your limits, and stay within them.
At the end of the descent, as you enter the town of Keene, you will make a left turn onto Route 9N, heading towards Jay.
At this point, the course takes a decidedly less Evil Knieval-esque flair. This section is flat, and a net downhill, although the grade is very very slight. You can really move on this section. But, be forewarned: the climbing is coming. So, I recommend being smart about how aggressively you ride here. Stay within your limits, especially on the first loop.
This section is great for aero position, eating, drinking and soaking in some beautiful scenery. It is positively gorgeous!
The Route 9N Out-and-Back
Around mile 24 or so, you will come to the intersection of 86 and 9N; you will continue along route 9N for a little over 5 miles, for the first out and back section. The “out” part of this out and back is a slight downhill, similar to the previous section. When you make the return trip, you can feel the “pull” of moving on a slight uphill. As with the previous section, it is easy to eat, drink, get aero and enjoy the scenery.
When you finish the out and back, you will make a right hand turn onto 86–and then you climb fairly steadily for several miles. You are moving up, up, up in a stair-step rolling fashion. This climb is not necessarily very steep, but its placement at this part of the course makes it a challenge. Again, stay disciplined.
You will have the opportunity to descend for a mile or so, then make a right hand turn for a brief out and back section on Haselton Road, which is mostly flat. After completing this out and back section, you will continue on 86, and that’s when the rollers start. At this point, there is about 16 miles left to the loop and you are heading back into town.
In this section, you are climbing in a stair-step fashion up a series of areas: Whiteface Mountain, Walkers Gorge, Wilmington Notch, High Falls Gorge – to name a few. The scenery is beautiful, and the challenge is fair. No single climb is particularly steep. However, the cumulative effect requires patience and a smart pacing plan.
Once you ride by Riverside Road (which will be on your left), there is a final bit of flat section (probably less than a mile). Then, you climb up some rollers that have been dubbed Little and Big Cherry before you meet the Bears. Mama Bear is first, Baby is in the middle (really just a bitty roller) and then you see Papa Bear. It’s a short climb (you can see the top and it takes just a few minutes to get there). On race day, you should be able to see the names written in the road. Once you get here, you are just a few miles away from the end of the loop.
On race day, Papa Bear will be teeming with spectators—many of which will be in some type of crazy costume. Every time I come through this section, I feel like I’m in the Tour de France. Enjoy it!
As a side note: Lake Placid has some of the best spectators – if not the best – of any race I’ve ever done. Give them a little smile, and your energy will be returned ten-fold. It’s fantastic!
Heading Back To The Oval
After climbing Papa Bear, you will see Cobble Mountain Lodge and Northwoods Rd to your right. You will turn onto Northwoods to head back to Lake Placid to start your second loop, or to head into T2. There are plenty of spectators to cheer you along. There is nothing particularly notable (or long!) about this section–unless of course you are finishing up the bike.
As you come back to transition, a wonderful volunteer will grab your bike for you. Make sure you take anything you need off your bike.
You run to the gear bags, and grab your bag. Make sure you know where your gear is by adorning it with a colorful ribbon, and doing a practice walk through the day before.
Ironman Lake Placid Run
You will run out of town, on mostly downhill for a little over 2 miles. Then, when you get to River Road, you go left. (You’ll note that on the bike course, this is the area you went right for the climb out of town.)
River Road is an out-and-back section of the course, in what is a bit of a no-man’s land. It’s hard for spectators to get back there because the roads are completely closed to vehicular traffic – including bikes. However, the aid stations are typically “themed,” and the volunteers are incredible with their support. It also helps that the scenery is gorgeous. Even still, it can be a little lonely out here.
River Road features a series of small hills. No one bump is particularly steep or long. However, similar to the bike course, there is a cumulative effect. So, again, my advice is to remain disciplined. At this point, those who hammered the bike will begin to feel the toll of that effort. There is quite a bit of walking to be seen back on River Road. Don’t let it affect you: stay focused, stay tough.
After completing the out-and-back on River Road, you will run back up those hills from the first two miles of the loop. These hills are steeper than what you’ll find on River Road, but they are relatively short. The IGA hill (so named because there is an IGA store along this section) is pretty steep, so stay disciplined, stay calm, and carry on. Luckily, this area has plenty of spectators to cheer you on.
As you come back into town, you will run past the transition area, for another out and back section along Mirror Drive. This is a short, relatively flat section, lined with spectators. You will also be able to grab your special needs bag along this stretch.
After this out and back, you head toward the transition/finish line area. You go left for your second loop, or straight on for the glory of the Olympic Oval.
The finish of the Ironman Lake Placid allows you to complete a partial lap of the Olympic Oval, which is lined with spectators, all holding their hands out for high-fives.
The first year I did this race, I foolishly rushed this part. I ran straight through, keeping my eyes on the ground. The second year, I didn’t make the same mistake. I embraced the energy of the spectators, gave some high-fives, and felt like a big deal coming around the final bend to the sound of Mike Reilly saying, “Maria Simone – You are an ironman!”
Stay disciplined, race smart – and you’ll have a fantastic day on this course.
*Note: Portions of this article have been adapted from previous reports on my blog, RunningALife.com.
Maria Simone is runner-turned-triathlete, who blogs about her experiences at http://www.runningalife.com. She is a Level 1 USAT Certified Coach with No Limits Endurance Coaching (http://www.nolimitsendurance.com). She can be reached at [email protected], or follow her on twitter @maslife.