Comment: Doug Campbell recalls his experience at Ironman USA

Published 10:46 pm Saturday, August 14, 2004

By Staff
Wellait's over. Eight months of my life spent training for my second Ironman triathlon race as well as the race itself. I'm left with a mild case of post-Ironman depression and a ton of memories. For the uninitiated, an Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon run. All completed consecutively on the same day, in case you were wondering. This is my second attempt at the full Ironman distance as I successfully finished Ironman Florida last November. This race is called Ironman USA, and it's held every July in Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of the "Miracle on Ice" USA gold medal hockey team and the five gold medals won by US speed skater Eric Heiden in the 1980 Olympics. In fact, headquarters for the race weekend was inside the speed skating oval. So, having never been to Lake Placid, I was very excited about the race as well as soaking in the Olympic history.
As you approach Lake Placid by car, the first thing you notice are two giant ski jumping towers that absolutely dominate the landscape. They are so tall and steep that it seems impossible that people actually ski down them and launch themselves into space. For some reason contemplating the jumps actually helps calm my pre-race nerves as we head into town. The people of Lake Placid, accustomed to having international events held regularly in their town, turned out in full force in support of the Ironman race. Banners and signs welcoming us were everywhere. Quite a difference from Panama City Beach last fall where we seemed an afterthought to the locals after a busy summer season.
After registering for the race, the first thing I did was a course reconnaissance. I knew that the Adirondack Mountains were going to add significant difficulty to the already imposing task of finishing the race, and boy was I right. The run course didn't seem too bad. Only four short steep hills with some smaller rolling hills sprinkled in. The bike course, however, became more frightening by the mile. Definitely more up than down. The impending race day effort and the weight of my own expectations were starting to take a stranglehold on me.
Race day dawned chilly and bright. A bank sign read 41 degrees as I made my way to beautiful Mirror Lake in downtown Lake Placid for the swim start. Nothing is more exhilarating than a pre-Ironman start as 2000 athletes tread water in the early morning mist awaiting the firing of the cannon. A big boom, and we were off.
I knew the 2.4-mile swim would take me about an hour and ten minutes, so I seeded myself accordingly. The first 500 meters all I could do was swim conservatively and try not to get kicked in the face. This is part of the swim that is affectionately called the "washing machine." I was finding out why first hand. Fortunately, things soon sorted out and I swam comfortably, if not speedily, until the end. I got out of the water in an hour and 12 minutes. So fararight on schedule.
I love riding my bike. Whether its 10 minutes down the road with my children or a six hour training ride. However, my love of riding came seriously into question during the last part of the 112 biking miles of Ironman USA. It is two 56-mile loops of rolling hills, mountainous climbs and very fast descents. My personal highlight was the six-mile downhill from Lake Placid into the town of Keane. This descent is very fast and I reached a top speed of 45 miles per hour. It certainly got my attention especially since there were many other athletes around me. Only one person needs to lose control to cause a massive pile up.
Towards the end of the loop, the last nine miles into Lake Placid are a series of climbs that have Tour de France-style names - Big Cherry, Little Cherry, Mama Bear, Little Bear and Papa Bear. Most people are pretty worn out by the time the Bears show up, so it is a very satisfying to conquer Papa Bear. Especially for the second time. After I reached the top of Papa Bear part two and made my way into Lake Placid once again, I found myself tired, hungry and hot but not defeated. I had never ridden anything as challenging before but, after nearly six hours of cycling, I was ready to get off my bike and test my running legs.
Much to my surprise, my running legs were very late to the party. I dismounted my bike and very nearly fell over. My right hamstring seized up completely and both legs felt like tree trunks. My wife, Donna, was across the fence yelling encouragement, but I was much too surprised at my condition to respond.
As I waddled my way into the men's tent to change into my running shoes, I had real doubts about how I was to continue. Running 26.2 miles is just too far to contemplate with frozen legs.
Mind over matter. That is the secret to Ironman. If you want something bad enough, your mind will find a way to get it done. Even as your body is screaming to stop and take a nap. As I walked out onto Main St. to start my marathon, I willed myself to start running. I'm not sure how, but the thousands of people lined up cheering possibly had something to do with it. After the initial shock wore off, blood started circulating and running started to feel more natural. The miles flowed by and before I knew it I was heading back into Lake Placid with one 13-mile loop done and one to go.
Unfortunately, the second loop didn't go nearly as well. The uphills seemed harder and even the downhills hurt. I was reduced to walking a number of times. But, happily, my will never broke as I continued to move forward while envisioning the finish line. As I made my way back into Lake Placid, the crowds grew larger and more vocal. I actually enjoyed running for the first time in quite a while.
Finally, it came. The entry into the Olympic oval. After nearly 12 hours, 9000 calories and immeasurable blood, sweat and tears I was nearly done. As I sprinted toward the end, the roar of the crowd, the Olympic mystique, the sight of the Ironman USA finish line made up a moment I will never forget.
Final thought: Ironman triathlons are hard. That seems like such an obvious statement, but I don't mean just physically. It tests the limits of your mental toughness as well. I'm often asked why I do it. The bottom line is there is no easy answer.
As near as I can figure, it is a combination of my natural competitive instinct, a celebration of the extraordinarily fine health God has blessed me with and just simply making the most of life's opportunities. My father died very suddenly and unexpectedly eight years ago. So I know first hand how fleeting life can be. Life is about experiences and I don't want to leave any on the table.
Thanks to my wife Donna and my children Cameron and Sophie for putting up with my obsession. The story continues next year, however, as Ironman Wisconsin 2005 awaits.
Doug Campbell is a Niles business man who competes in triathlons around the country