I call her the IronWeft. Which I guess makes me the IronWarp, although “The Coach” (Beth Lamie) likes to refer to me as “the accidental triathlete”, because I have accidentally gotten into the sport by just accompanying Neil in her training (well, the biking at least, most of the swimming, and as little running as I can get away with).
When she first told me she wanted to do an IronMan, my reaction was: “Are you crazy? We are old and worn out.” Of course, my second reaction was (to myself): “never tell Neil she can’t do something, you idiot.”
And so it started. Initially mostly biking, doing longer and longer rides — distances we thought were impossible (the “century”, or 100-mile rides in one day) became normal rides. The “hardest thing you will ever do in your life” (aka the “B2B”, Harpoon Brewery-to-Brewery ride from Boston to Windsor, Vermont, 147 miles in one day) became almost enjoyable. Luckily we were surrounded by encouraging fellow enthusiasts all along the way.
Then the swimming started. I suppose it made sense. We were members of two pools (and at one point, three). I supposedly knew how to swim, but it was never a pleasurable pursuit. Neil knew the basics, but knew she needed to improve. We started by just doing laps on our own. I struggled with my phobias and boredom, Neil persisted. She started going to “Masters” swim practices. She got faster and faster. In open water, I can no longer keep up.
And the running? I used to run a 10k every lunch hour, but not for years. Neil started slowly, and once again, slowly but surely outpaced me. I made a few attempts to keep up, but just seemed to keep injuring myself, so now I am in charge of making the restorative fruit smoothie ready for her when she returns.
Over the past few years, the intensity and duration of Neil’s training has grown tremendously. Luckily, we both have the flexibility to take a 3-hour lunch break when necessary. We can’t imagine how people with 9-5 jobs can manage the training volume required for an IronMan.
And then there are the races. Neil progressed from sprint triathlons (something so short even I can do them) to Half-Iron’s to parts of full, as a team or in an AquaBike. We travelled around New England to these, practicing preparation, the logistics of lodging, the reality of racing. Often we were accompanied by #2 daughter, Whitney, who seems to have also caught the bug. Each time, the process got smoother, the transitions tighter, and the result better.
I pretty much knew the IronMan was going to happen when Neil started working for Chris Hebert who was creating the Plymouth Iron-distance Tri. Part of her “compensation” was an entry. The first year, she did the bike leg as part of a team and raced the 112 miles. This was quite different than our century rides. The second year, she did the AquaBike (swim and bike, no run). Watching her get into Plymouth harbor at 7am under small craft warnings and swim off to Europe pretty much let me know she was committed.
The Coach invited us along to “training week” in Lake Placid two years ago, and we fell in love with the place. It is a beautiful venue, and the Golden Arrow where we stay is just perfect — right on Mirror Lake (the swim course) and not more than 200 yards from the Olympic Oval which is the nexus of the race. We swam the lake, and biked the course, led by the coach, down the infamous 6-mile “descent” into Keene (at 45 mph, my brain started to imagine my elbow grinding along the asphalt if I went down — I decided it was time to apply some brakes!), out along the Ausable river into Jay, out to Haselton and back, up the hills past Whiteface, and over “the bears” back to town. We were both hooked. We’ve been back, Neil to run the half-marathon (which follows the IronMan run route), then to train again, and finally to watch “Mr. Coach”, Mike Lamie, win his age group in 2009.
That time, we had to camp. Not my favorite sport. But the hotels in Lake Placid sell out a year in advance of the race. As does the race. I was in charge of waking Neil at 2am the day after the race and driving her into town so she (along with at least 100 other nuts) could camp out in a back alley behind the high school to register for next year’s race. I went back to the tent and got a few more hours of sleep. When I returned at 7, we discovered that race volunteers get a separate line with precedence for signing up. And there were at least 600 of them. Was this all for naught? Luckily no — by about 10am Neil’s line was moving, and a volunteer indicated that it was very unlikely anyone in line would not get an entry.
Knowing what I knew about the hotels, I hot-footed it over to the Golden Arrow to wait in my own line. At 11am, they would open their reservation desk to take deposits for next year — rates were up, and there is a 5-night minimum. We are starting to learn that this is an expensive sport. But we got our room, and on our way to a celebratory Starbucks, Whitney calls to say that she has managed to score an entry on-line! Looks like mother and daughter will be racing.
The training starts in earnest now. Every day is 1, 2, or 3 sports. There are “progressive” spin classes that grow from 90 minutes to 3 hours. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster Beth’s music is there to distract us! We enter Indoor Time Trial competitions and train on Computrainers to judge our progress. Many laps are swum in the pool, and there are even a few treadmill runs. We pray for a warm and early spring to get outside. Mother nature obliges, although not without first popping the Kingsbury bubble and sending us in search of another indoor pool. The Pine Hills rescues us, allowing us the use of theirs while the Kingsbury is out. And then suddenly, we are swimming in “open water”, round and round Little Pond — dodging anglers and lifeguards.
The B2B is on perhaps the hottest day of the year this year. It is a true test of our nutrition and hydration plans. Whitney learns that she needs to adjust hers. Our “tune-up” race, Mooseman, is thwarted by daughter #1 receiving her Doctorate of Medicine on race day. This is a good thing. Having a Dr. in the family will surely be important if the Iron madness continues.
Then suddenly, race day is upon us. Lists are checked and re-checked. Bikes tuned (including a last-minute trip to Todd Kenyon of TTBikeFit). Transition bags and nutrition planned. Meals for the night before (can’t rely on Lake Placid hospitality for that). Logistics: which car? bikes on the roof or in? when will we depart? when to register? will there be time for a swim? when will Whit arrive?
Having two athletes in the room, I mostly stay out of the way. They check each other. I plan how to carry the camera, and try to remember the places Beth has taken us to watch, and calculate estimated times of when to be where. (I know the coach will be there much ahead of me, watching her daughter Cait, who is a pro.) I try to lie as still as I can in the bed, to let the IronWeft maximize her sleep, if she can. I wake in a cold sweat, panicked about the swim. I try to blot out the idea of my wife or daughter being clobbered by some over-agressive swimmer — we’ve seen some really sizable athletes in town.
I read by headlamp until 4am. It’s time to get up, get to the start for body-marking, and to make the last minute checks. Supposedly, they will pump their tires and then give me the pump to put away while they go down to the swim start. 5:30. 6:00. 6:15. The start is at 7:00. Where are they? Mike Lamie is calling. “Where are you? Whit is with us. Neil has a problem with her bike.” Oh shit. I’m not permitted to help with the bike. I hope she can figure it out. Turns out her valve stem broke off. She is in support, getting it fixed. Will she make the swim start? Finally! At 6:35 she appears. A quick exchange, good luck! And I try to find a place to shoot the swim start.
I can’t possibly make them out in the 2500+ people at the start. I shoot some panoramas, and use my big tele to scan the crowd. Boom! They are swimming. Somewhere. Out there. I hope they are swimming wide and carefully. I run back to the hotel and shoot a few pix of the swim from the balcony. Then back to the swim start, working my way around to try to catch them coming over the mat on the first loop. I manage to spot Neil. I guess living with someone for 30-odd years you get to know their movements.
I work my way down to the run-in to “T1” (the first transition, from swim to bike). The coach has shown me this spot. The runway curves and you can spot the athletes coming down the chute. I see Cait. I see Eric. Hey, there’s Whitney! She is sooner than I expected. And then, before I know it, Neil too. They’ve had decent swims, in spite of going wide… Whit has about a 10-minute lead, but I am quite sure Neil will make that up.
I scoot around the Oval down School Street to see if I can catch Neil on the bike out. I hope that her tire has held. I’m pretty sure that I have missed Whit, she surely went out while I waited to see Neil come in. I’m scanning the bikes, looking for other athletes I might recognize, or that I saw near Neil. Still not there. Wait, oh, she’s got her long-sleeve pink shirt on. Spotted her. Here she comes. And down Colden, and “Go Neil!”
I have a little time now. Surely her bike will be at least 2.5 hours. I’m going to get on my bike and ride backwards down the course to River Road — the turn where the coach had us watching last year. But I forgot to figure out how far around the course that is, so I have to guess how much time to leave. Well, better early than late. And I haven’t tried biking with my camera pack before. But it works. And I am there in plenty of time. No one has come by yet. Not even the lead pro. I have company. We chat. Talk about how we plan to get around and see our athlete. Here comes the leader. Soon enough, I see Tim Snow (Mr. Cait). My fellow spectators are impressed. “You know him?” I see Cait. I see Eric. Gee, I wish my eyes weren’t so bad. It’s pretty hard to spot people far enough in advance to get a picture. Then suddenly, “Hey, Dad!” It’s Whitney, going by on her first loop, still ahead of Neil. I’m impressed. But not too far behind, there she is! Looking strong. “Go Neil!”
I stray from the coach’s spectating plan and decide to bike back to the hotel by going up River Road — it’s the run course, but I know no one is running yet, so it will still be open. Then I find out why that was not a plan. It ends up on the bike course going out of town, and I am stuck with the car traffic, going out Old Military Road, wondering how I will circle back around and get to the hotel. I want to go on line and check Neil and Whit’s splits to see how they are doing overall. Damn AT&T for having such lousy data service that I can’t do it on my phone. After a few double backs from wrong turns, I get there.
I can see from the tracking (that could be better too) that Neil was #2/9 after the swim and is putting an impressive lead on in the bike. Whitney was #23/73 in the swim, and keeping pace with Neil on the bike. I return to the coach’s spectating plan and get myself to the top of “The Bears” to catch them on their second lap. I see Neil first, she’s ditched her long sleeves. Still looking strong and comfortable on the bike. Now my dilemma: do I wait to look for Whit, or do I scoot down 86 to catch Neil on her run out? I wonder how far ahead Neil has put herself? Before I can decide, Whitney answers for me, by showing up only 40 seconds behind Neil. Wow!
On to the intersection where the runners will turn to head out of town. I get there just in time to see Cait coming in from her first lap. Then I see Neil and then Whitney on their way out for their first lap. I know they will be out there for at least 2 hours. I talked about going back down to River Road and coming in from the bottom to see them at the turn, but I’d really like to check their splits, to see where they are.
No way am I going to be able to cross Club Drive, now that it has runners going both ways (and in some places runners and bikers), especially dragging my bike and my camera. I hadn’t planned this out. I guess I’ll go back to the top of “The Bears” and then ride against the traffic being detoured down the wrong lane of Northwood on the bike course and then around Mirror Lake Drive backwards around the lake to the hotel. After a close encounter with an RV that takes more than the lane, I get there, wake my laptop, and refresh the splits for Neil, Whitney, and some of their competitors.
From what I can tell, Neil is now #1/9 (two of her competitors appear to have not even finished the swim) and has put a 45 minute gap between herself and her nearest competitor. Is that enough for her to stay ahead? It means the competitor has to make up 2 minutes/mile on Neil, but I know Neil’s run is her weak point… I guess I will have to try to check again after the first lap. Whitney has moved up to #16/73, in a very strong field. Apparently my girls are really strong bikers!
I take the opportunity to go get some food, at least for later. Not sure I can eat with the excitement, but also, I wonder if the athletes will want a midnight snack once they get back to the room. I go to our favorite 46 Sandwiches and order a do-over of yesterday’s lunch. Then put it in the fridge. I eat 1/2 a power bar instead.
Back I go to the intersection. I catch up with Barry Ahern, who is cheering on everyone, but especially Pam Roesch. Cait has finished, placing second — Beth and Mike come down too. I see Eric come in for his second lap — looking pretty good, although I will later find out he is really being bothered by a hamstring. Soon Neil shows up. The hill is a killer. We cheer and she gets jogging. I know she will at least finish now. There’s plenty of time, even if she has to crawl the whole way, and she looks like she is doing fine. It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon. She’s been out there for 9-1/2 hours. The pros are finishing. I know she has at least 2-1/2 hours to go. I wait to see Whit, who has dropped back about 25 minutes behind Neil. She has youth, but has not done the run training that Neil did. I hang out to cheer Pam in on her last lap. Barry runs along with her.
But now I want to get back and check the splits again. And, I really ought to stock up some victory beer — now that I am sure there will be a victory. I head up to Lake Placid Brewery, which is having a whing-ding of a barbecue along Club Drive, and pick up a 12-pack of Ubu Ale.
I work my way back to the crosswalk across Club Drive. There are now 3 lanes of runners: out, back, and finish. Mikaela (Cait’s sister) is leading the charge! We finally get through, and I am back and refreshing. #2 has only made up 12 minutes after the first lap! Granted the second lap is longer, and Neil is surely getting tired, but it seriously looks like she could win at this point! Holy smokes.
I decide I should get some ice in the coolers, for the Ubu, and in case the athletes have body parts in need of icing. I try to keep everyone posted, answer all the texts and emails and phone calls. But it’s difficult to keep it all going, keep the running estimates in my head, figure where to be, remember the camera, get the right lens, and oh yeah, push the button!
At this point, I figure I need to work my way into the stadium to try to scope out a spot where I will be able to get a few pix. Beth and Mike are in the bleachers, and I (unknowingly at the time) get a great picture of them cheering Bob Falcone as he finishes. The light is pretty low, and I have to guess a bit as to what I am shooting.
Things are taking longer than I expect. Beth and Mike decide to go back out to look for Neil on the course. I get a text from Mike: “19:45 On her way”. Realize I don’t know where they have seen her. “Far?” Hey, here comes Ed Powers. Neil should be pretty competitive with him. Mike: “20:02 No”. There she is! The race clock is ticking up to 13 hours. Will she break 13? Not quite. 13 hours and 34 seconds. Holy smokes. I wonder if she is still in first?
I guess I should see if I can reach her to congratulate. Gee, we didn’t plan what would happen now. She’s walking past the Medical tent, that’s a good sign. “Neil!” Doesn’t hear me. Can’t get over there — “Spectators please move back, give the athletes room”. She sits about as far away in the food tent from me as possible. I guess I’ll just stand here and hope she looks this way eventually. She looks ok. She’s chatting with a volunteer, eating, drinking… Finally she sees me. I get to give a congratulatory hug and kiss. We decide I will go watch for Whit to finish and she will wait for her in the food tent.
Deb Brewster is texting me. She is wearing out her refresh button. Neil has won her age group! By 6 minutes. Holy smokes. Text from Mike: “20:34 Whitney is 1.5 mi from finish”. Gee, she might make it under 14 hours. Tick-tock. Any minute. Tick-tock. She must be just about there. There she is! Hurray. 14 hours and 4 minutes. She looks a little unsteady. A volunteer is escorting her to the recovery area. She sees Neil. There are tears from both. What an accomplishment. Wow, wow, wow.
I eventually make contact again. Whitney is in dire need of some food and drink. Her mom, always a mom, is fetching. I tell them I will get their bikes. They agree they will pick up their transition bags and walk back to the hotel. Takes me a lot longer to get the bikes than I think. I have to walk 355 degrees around the stadium to get in, wait for a volunteer to fetch the bikes, and then get past security. Once more across the crosswalk on Club Drive, still crossing 3 lanes of runners, thinning a little, but there are still 2-1/2 hours to go before the midnight cutoff.
“Dad!” It’s Whit and Neil — they are walking up the street right behind me. Hugs and congrats. Amazing. Holy smokes. They are moving slow, but they are Ironmen! Holy smokes.
Mike is calling. It’s 9:00 on Monday. We’re chattering about going to the awards ceremony. Neil is wondering what to wear. Mike: “You know you need to go to slot allocation at 10?” “No.” “Yeah, if you want to go to Hawaii, that happens this morning at 10 — check your athlete packet”. Thanks once more to Beth and Mike! We would have totally missed out. We were clueless. Partly, it never occurred to any of us that Neil would win her age (and set a new course record) and get a slot to race at the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Holy smokes. We’d better get a move on…