Ironman Lake Placid Race Report: I Need Never Get Old by Susan Nofi

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When I wrote my first Equally Inspiring blog post, my first full Ironman was a very safe 193 days away. As the big day grew closer, I was filled with self-doubt. What possessed my previously un-athletic self to attempt an Ironman at 47? And you know the expression “too big to fail”? My now-husband Chris and I were doing IMLP together and had decided to get married the very next day. Our families and some close friends were all traveling to Lake Placid to watch the race and the attend the wedding the next day. No pressure, right?

 

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But Lake Placid is magic. We drove up the Thursday before the race, and as soon as we hit the Adirondacks, the nervousness disappeared and I was just excited. We checked into the condo we were sharing with 5 friends from our tri club, HEAT (Hartford Extended Area Triathletes). Two were racing and 3 were there to train, volunteer and support those of us who were racing, along with several other HEATsters staying nearby. We walked over to the convention center to check in and get our athlete bracelets, then we wandered over to the expo. It was surreal standing in the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, trying to imagine crossing the finish line as Mike Reilly pronounced me an Ironman.

 

Over the winter, we had asked Mike Reilly if he could pronounce us husband and wife too, and officiate at the wedding. Unfortunately, he had to fly out right after the awards ceremony and couldn’t make it. I wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t do it: he’s a busy guy and I’m sure he gets bombarded with all kinds of requests. What surprised me was he seemed genuinely touched we’d asked, and disappointed that he couldn’t make it. He suggested that we meet up for a beer when we all arrived in Lake Placid. We had a nice chat on a deck overlooking Mirror Lake, about all things Ironman and also his grandson. Such a nice guy, I really enjoyed meeting him.

 

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The next couple of days were a pleasant blur of greeting arriving family members, the wedding rehearsal, relaxing with our roommate, and doing one last easy ride, run and swim. The night before the race our support crew cooked the best pre-race meal I’ve ever had. Our bikes and bags had been checked into transition, our friend Dabney applied our temporary tattoo race numbers, and all that was left to do was try and get some sleep.

 

Race Day: The Swim

 

I slept pretty well, considering. In the morning, our tri club president, Coach Kurt, kindly dropped off all of our special needs bags. We only needed to set up our bottles and nutrition in transition before heading over to Mirror Lake. Rather than strip down to our bathing suits in transition, and leave our sweats and shoes there in the “morning clothes bag” provided, we planned to change at the swim start and pass off our stuff to Dabney there. We hadn’t counted on was the mass of humanity on Mirror Lake Beach. It’s a miracle we saw Chris’ sons before the race start: my sister came down to watch the swim and we never saw her. We never found Dabney either. We put on our wetsuits and seeded ourselves in the group with our estimated swim finish time. We prepared to ditch our belongings in a garbage bin, which seemed the only option. But the awesome spectators next to us, after trying to page Dabney with their megaphone, offered to take our things and connect with us the following day to return them. Just as I was scribbling my cell number for them, Kurt appeared and took it off our hands.

 

We edged toward the water, and when the videographer pointed the camera at us, Chris said: “Ironman today, getting married tomorrow”, the people around us cheered, and we made it onto the official Ironman Lake Placid Race Day video. I’d been watching those race day videos throughout the training for inspiration. And now we are in one!

 

I couldn’t have asked for a better swim. Right before we entered the water,“Best Day of My Life” by American Authors came on. I love that song, we had all just listened to it the night before at my request. Good omen. The rolling start went smoothly, I had seeded myself in the right spot for me. Everyone else complained of getting kicked, elbowed and beat up on the swim, but I somehow managed to avoid the worst of it. When I exited the first lap, I heard Mike Reilly announce my name. I spotted and high-fived my friend Sean, a medical volunteer, right before entering the water again for the second loop. I thoroughly enjoyed the swim. Each time I turned my head to breathe and looked up at the mountains, I was so happy to be there in that moment.

 

I was also happy that I had decided to wear my silly superhero bathing suit under my wetsuit. I thought it would help with pre-race nerves. Hard to take oneself too seriously dressed as The Flash and Wonder Woman’s love child. Side benefit: from the moment the volunteer stripped off my wetsuit, as I ran the 800 meters or so back to transition, crowds of spectators were cheering me on, “GO WONDER WOMAN!!!”. Everyone had told me that the spectators at IMLP make you feel like a rock star. It’s true! It was fun. And I finished the 2.4 mile swim in 1 hour and 32 minutes, better than I had hoped for.

 

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The Bike. The Drama.

 

I’m still new at cycling and it’s my weakest discipline of the 3. Unfortunate, as it’s the biggest chunk of the 140.6 miles. When I mounted my bike, I was still on cloud nine from the swim and planned to enjoy every minute of the bike too. We’d been warned over and over again, including at the athlete briefing, not to go out too hard. They say people hammer the first loop, then crash and burn on the 2nd loop. I took that advice seriously. Too seriously, I later learned. I rode at a very comfortable pace, soaking up the beauty of the course, and loving spotting family and friends who were all along the course. Chris has a large family and they were everywhere. Climbing the three bears near the end of the first loop was so much fun. The crowd support was amazing, and our friends had chalked funny and encouraging messages on the pavement for us to read as we climbed the hills known as Mama, Baby and Papa bear.

 

As I approached the special needs station, the guy in front of me started vomiting. Repeatedly, all the way down Mirror Lake Drive. I am in awe of this guy’s coordination: he just turned his head to the right while spewing and kept right on riding. I don’t know if he was able to rehydrate and go on to finish the race – I hope so – but I did see him pull out of special needs and keep on going. While I was stopped in special needs, and a wonderful volunteer was helping me restock, I noticed the girl next to me looked a little dazed. Before I could ask if she was okay, she went down and volunteers were yelling for help as they carried her off the road. Seeing people puking and passing out rattled me. It strengthened my resolve to stay on top of my nutrition and hydration, and to keep riding at a comfortable pace so I would have something left for the run.

 

I took off again through the village: hearing the cheering crowds, seeing HEAT friends, and riding past the Olympic Oval really gave me a boost. I started me second 56 mile loop, still at a comfortable pace, still loving life. The herd had definitely thinned, but volunteers kept saying things like “looking good, you’ve got plenty of time”. They were referring to the 5:00 PM bike cutoff. If you don’t make it back to transition by 5:00 PM, you are not allowed to start the marathon and your race is over. It wasn’t something I had been overly stressed about. Based on when I finished my swim, and based on my training times, I knew I should make it comfortably. It wouldn’t be a very impressive bike time, but I know I’m not fast. My only goal was to finish and become an Ironman.

 

While riding through High Falls Gorge, another cyclist called out to me and asked what time it was. I told her I didn’t know,but I thought we were okay. Right? Hmmm, we are okay…right??? I could have attempted to find the screen on my Garmin that would tell me the time, but suddenly I didn’t think I should be playing with my Garmin or doing anything that might slow me down. I just kept pedalling as fast as I could. I feel silly admitting this now, but I had never customized the display on my Garmin to show my average overall pace. Which would have enabled me to better monitor whether I was keeping up a pace that would get me into transition before 5:00. Have I mentioned that I am a newbie and still getting the hang of this whole thing?

 

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I will say right now that every single volunteer at IMLP was AMAZING. I am not embellishing. Every single one. But at this point of the bike course I encountered the best volunteer of them all, the one who saved my race. She screamed at me “You’ve got 4 miles to go, mostly uphill, but YOU CAN STILL MAKE IT IF YOU MOVE, GO GO GO GO GO”. I yelled my thanks and pedaled my heart out. Waves of horror washed over me as it sunk in. After months of training, I might have just blown the whole race because I hadn’t paid attention to the time. This was not how the day was supposed to end. I cranked my legs as hard as I could, I crested freaking Papa Bear (he wan’t so cute the second time around) and hustled into transition. Dabney yelled DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT TO ME AGAIN!!!! (with love, haha) and we headed to the changing tent. We saw Chris’ sisters, who are nurses and had been volunteering in the medical tent. They had been watching and waiting for me to come in. I had been clueless about how close I was cutting it until the end, but everyone who was tracking me had known I was in trouble.

 

I made it back to transition 4 minutes before the cutoff. Four minutes!!! Had I not pushed so hard at the end, I would not have made it. I wish I could find that volunteer somehow so I can thank her. I had hoped to finish in about 8 hours. My ‘out for a Sunday drive’ approach to one of the most challenging bike courses in Ironman had taken me 8 hours, 47 minutes and 45 seconds. Yikes.

 

The Marathon

 

My euphoria at making the cutoff morphed into dread. I had been racing for more than 10 hours already and still had 26.2 miles of running (walking, possibly crawling…) ahead of me. As Dabney calmly talked me through changing into my running clothes, I begged “I don’t want to do a marathon, you can’t make me!” I was only half joking. She looked me in the eye and told me I was going to be an Ironman before the night was out. Then she told me to go. I did. As I exited transition I saw 3 of my oldest dearest friends waiting for me. I got hugs. I started to feel better. I saw Kurt, who had been yelling to me on his megaphone for a while before I finally noticed him. I snapped out of my daze and kept going. I saw my family and some of Chris’ sitting outside their hotel, which was right on the course, in a section where the bike and run overlap. I passed that spot 4 times throughout the race and seeing my boys, parents, siblings, nephew and aunt and uncle out there was a highlight.

 

I finally spotted Chris, who was relieved to see me. He hadn’t seen me since the first loop of the bike and was worried. I got a kiss and kept going. I saw Kristen, our teammate, roommate for the week, and the one who introduced Chris and I. She was having a great race. She checked to make sure I didn’t need any supplies, then she took off, telling me to try the chicken broth the next time I got to an aid station. I did. It was delicious, salty and reviving. I managed to keep up a run/walk that was mostly running for the first half. As I approached the oval, people were yelling encouragingly, “you’re almost there! you’re almost done!” when in fact I had another 13.1 miles to go. The people who really were almost done headed into the oval toward the finish line, and I headed out for loop two and a long night. I could hear Mike Reilly announcing the finishers, and hoped I would make it back before the midnight cutoff so I could hear him announce my name too.

 

It got darker. I got slower. I kept going, from aid station to aid station. The volunteers were amazing. Energy gels, chicken broth, coke. I kept moving. Chatted with the other athletes and we kept each other going. Scored some glowstick jewelry. Swore under my breath (or not so under my breath) that River Road was never going to end. It did. By the time I headed up the hill into town, my run/walk had turned into a walk/trudge. Then my sister-in-law Diane appeared out of nowhere and started walking alongside me. She told me Chris had finished a while ago and despite some cramping earlier in the run, he was doing great. That news and the company were a welcome distraction. She stayed with me for a bit then had to head back to her hotel. Just after she left, my sweet brother Greg showed up. He’d been waiting at the finish, then started walking down the course to see where I was at. I must have looked like hell because he said “you don’t have to talk”. He walked with me until we saw Chris, then my brother left for the finish area.

 

Chris had finished a couple of hours (and beers) earlier. He had a great race, exceeding his expectations by finishing in 14:20, and he filled me in on how the day went for him. Full of adrenaline and excitement, he started talking about adjustments we should make to our training plan when we start training for Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2017. Whoa buddy. We hadn’t decided yet whether we were going to do a 2nd Ironman. Let’s see if I make it through this one alive first, shall we?

 

Truthfully, I’d felt pretty good all day, absolutely no GI issues. But that last stretch on Mirror Lake Drive, I started feeling queasy and stopped begin able to take in anything other than water. Spectators were so nice and encouraging, telling us we were almost there. This time I really was almost there. Right before I entered the oval, Chris kissed me goodbye and took off for the finish area so we could get a picture together when I was done. Chris had tried getting me to run a little during that last mile, and I kept telling him I CAN’T. Can not, do you hear me? I am done. I am never running again.

 

And then I entered the oval. And suddenly I am RUNNING, and the crowds are SCREAMING. And I am coming down the carpet, and the camera lights are flashing, and Mike Riley’s voice is ringing in my ears, and I am finishing. And just like that, I am an Ironman.

 

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Afterward

 

This report is ridiculously long, so I’ll keep the update short. Wedding was wonderful. I can’t believe how good we both felt the next day. Chalk it up to adrenaline, extreme happiness and all the love from family and friends. We did two 70.3 races after Placid this season, Timberman and Pumpkinman. Next week, we’re doing the Philly Marathon with Chris’ youngest son: it will be his first marathon and our 6th. We’ll be volunteering at IMLP 2017. I can’t wait to pay it forward after all the 2016 volunteers did for us. And we’re registered for Ironman Mont-Tremlant 2017. Training starts in January.

 

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When I watched video of my IMLP finish, I loved the song that was playing when I finished, but I didn’t recognize it. A friend – with an assist from Shazam – recently figured it out for me. It’s by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Cold Sweats. “I Need Never Get Old”.

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