An Ironman Lake Placid guide

Ironman Lake Placid is almost upon us for the 15th time. It seems like just yesterday that Graham Fraser, stood in front of the athletes at the welcome dinner in 2008 and proclaimed, "Wow, 10 years ago we put an Ironman in Lake Placid, now we have a real legacy."

We’ll walk you through what to expect at Ironman Lake Placid step by step through the event, but if you can remember one thing, remember what 1999 champion Thomas Hellriegel said, "I left my legs on the hills of Lake Placid." It's not like there is a single climb like Nasty Grade at Wildflower or the Beast at St. Croix that stands out. The hills of Lake Placid are small to moderate in size, but over the day, they grind down the strongest athlete.

Let us look at what is in store:

The swim course

As others have spoken of, outside of Roth or the Esprit Iron distance race in Montreal, the swim in Mirror Lake is the closest that you may ever come to swimming in a pool. Of course you are sharing this pool with around 2,500 lean, shaved, tapered and excited athletes with all kinds of dreams of PB’s, lifetime achievements and Kona slots.

New this year is the Ironman rolling start that changes this somewhat over previous years. We’ll examine that in second, but first let’s examine the venue. As many know the swim course has an underwater cable that marks the local canoe and kayak course that doubles as our swim course. The straightest line is swimming right over the line (or 1 foot to the side of it if you don’t want to bang head first into buoys every 50 yards or so). The reality is that it makes no difference if you are over the line or 15 feet away or 100 feet away. You cannot go off course and a Greek mathematician named Pythagoras told us that we’re all going to get to the turnaround pretty well covering the same distance. So in many cases it may be better to not get in the dog fight around the cable and just let the guys beside you do the fight. You still get a solid draft.

With the rolling start we will also be swimming clockwise vs. counterclockwise in the mass start. At the surface this does not mean much, however, please note that you will swim the entire length of the dock twice this year versus once in previous years. Times may therefore be around 50 meters slower unless the turnaround buoys are brought in marginally.

Swim technical Q&A:

Will it be wetsuit legal?

Lake Placid water temp can hover on the verge of the WTC cut off of 76.1 degrees. In 2011, those racing for podiums or Kona slots had to go not wetsuit. As of this writing the temperature of the Lake is hovering at the limit with a high likelihood of going downward. Be prepared for both options in which case a swim skin may be nice to have for a no wetsuit swim.

If wetsuit should I go long sleeve or sleeveless?

If the water temperature is near the cut off, some athletes may feel warm in a full sleeve wetsuit, although it is faster. This is a personal choice.

What do I sight off? Any land marks?

Visibility is excellent so the buoys are pretty clearly viewed. But in reality the entire field, almost no one in the field goes off course.

Goggles choice, tinted or clear?

There is no direct sun in your eyes during the race time. Clear is fine.

Anything I need to know leaving the swim and heading to transition?

The run is around 300 yards to transition. It is carpet on top of tarmac. The run to transition and in transition can be congested depending on when you get out of the water, although with the rolling start this should change. Be patient, while being quick. You won’t make your PB happen here, but don’t sprint either and make this your fastest quarter mile on feet all day like most people do. If it is raining it can be slippery so be careful.

Bike Course

The bike course at Ironman Lake Placid consists of two loops. In each loop we can divide things up into four distinct sections: The climbs heading out of town at T1, the descent to the town of Keene, the flats to Jay and then the series of hills which constitute the hardest riding time back to Lake Placid, via Wilmington, the Whiteface ski area and High Falls Gorge. In total each loop exceeds over 3,000 feet of descending and then climbing. Let’s look at each section and their unique challenges.

Section 1: The Jackrabbit Rollers

This is your first 30 minutes of riding out of Lake Placid. You are basically riding a net uphill on a series of steep to gradual incline rising around 500 feet of vertical in the first 8 miles or so. No single climb is that tough, so tapered out of T1 there will be many people flying up this section at their sprint tri race effort. Don’t join them. If you have a power meter, believe in the number you are seeing. You’ll immediately know if the guy blowing by you will literally blow up on loop 2. By loop 2, there will be a lot of guys whose race has ended by this point on the course. They will be still in the event, just no longer racing. Even on loop 2 on the Jackrabbit rollers, your race is really only barely starting. Patience still rules. The small chain ring is probably your friend for 90% of the field

Pavement Quality: On this section it is bad to horrendous as of 5 weeks ago. If it has improved, that would be a bonus. Be careful. Fortunately, most of the riding is uphill and slower.

Section 2: The Cascade Screamer down to Keene

The next 8 miles are all downhill with a false flat in the middle. This is a great time to top up on nutrition. Depending on when you got out of the water, this section could be busy with other riders, although the rolling swim start promises to make this less congested. Depending on your skill, you can head down in the aerobars all the way without touching your brakes, or in a tuck in the drops. This is fine for advanced riders with a clear road ahead. Speeds can exceed 45 mph and in some cases get close to 50 for bigger athletes. There can also be some wind gusts and cross winds in this section especially if winds are out of the east. There is no real difference between how you ride this section on loop 1 vs. loop 2 other than the fact that the road will be less congested on loop 2.

Pavement Quality: While not as bad as on the Jackrabbit rollers, the high speed makes it tough. The pavement has a washboard surface from bouncing winter snowplows, which can make riding your $5000 tri machine more like riding a bucking horse at 45 mph. A trick here is to put one leg down (your outside one) and put all your weight on the leg and lift your body 2-3 mm off the saddle and let the bike buck underneath you. This makes for a much smoother descent on the washboard pavement.

Section 3: The flats from Keene to the turnaround and back to Jay

This is the section where you get a bit of an Ironman Florida terrain in the Adirondacks. There is hardly any elevation change on this. Put your head in an aero tuck and go. This is a great time to fuel up. There is a massive large shoulder on both sides of the road so there is no reason to be drafting either. This section can feel long and never ending on loop 2. Pace yourself out and get aero as it can also be windy as this is the most open section of the course.

Pavement Quality: Excellent

Section 4: The Climbs

The last 20 miles are all climbing with two short down hills where you can freewheel and coast. When you take all the flat riding and then the climbs, essentially from the bottom of Keene to the finish you are pedaling continuously without a single break. This is one of the hardest aspects of Ironman Lake Placid. All the elevation lost on Keene, you gain most of it back going back to Lake Placid. There will be quite a few folks who will leave their legs behind on these hills on loop 1. If you have a power meter, follow your numbers. If you have a heart rate monitor, cap your heart rate. Don’t spike your effort. When you get to this section on loop 2, the actual racing actually starts. Everything up to then it is like you commuting to the start of the real event. The dreams of PB’s, the road to Kona or good marathons can start here on loop 1 if done well, but equally easily end on loop 1.

This section can be divided into two parts. The first being the set of climbs from Jay to Wilmington, followed by the left turn at Wilmington then the climbs past Whiteface Mountain, High Falls Gorge, the run turnaround at the intersection of River road followed by the 3 bears: Mama Bear, Baby Bear, Papa Bear (the markings for which have disappeared with the new pavement). No single climb is that tough, but the sum of all of them breaks the strongest legs. Also if it is a cold day or if there is driving rain, the road through High Falls gorge turns into your worst wind tunnel nightmare. You are going uphill, but stay aero. Resist the urge to sit up and stand because the wind will literally push you back. At the end of loop 1, half of Lake Placid will be cheering you up the steepest pitch back to town on Papa Bear. Resist the urge to sprint. The crowds are awesome on this section, so give them the thumbs up. You also need to use this entire section to refuel on both loops, especially loop 2. Don’t end this section on loop 2 on empty. You have a full marathon to run.

Pavement quality: Excellent

Bike Technical Q&A

What is the hardest hill on the course and what gearing do I need?

As previously mentioned there is no hardest climb. There are many moderately difficult climbs. 34x25 or 34x27 small gearing is recommended for most riders. If you don’t have a compact with a 34 tooth small ring, it would be beneficial to upgrade the cassette to a 12x27 or 11x28. Those on Shimano drive train can actually go with an SRAM chain and SRAM 11-32 cassette. It works with the B screw set all the way back. Unfortunately this won’t actually work on an SRAM drive train unless you go to a long cage rear derailleur.

Aero helmet and tri bike or road bike and vented?

It depends on your goals but the fastest choice will be tri bike with aero helmet. If you want comfort, then a road bike and vented helmet is fine, it just won’t be as fast.

What Wheel Choice?

Go with the most aero wheel set up you can handle, noting that there can be wind gust on the Keene descent. In the end this is a personal choice in terms of speed vs. bike handing. If it is day with calm winds, your most aero wheel section will be perfect for all parts of the course

I hear it can get cold and wet in Lake Placid some years? What clothing do I need?

If you want to know the long range weather forecast in the Adirondacks, wait for 20 minutes because there is a good chance it will change. One thing we do know is that this region is 2000 feet above both the Great Lake and Atlantic weather systems. When all the humidity rises 2000 feet up from either the east or west it most often turns to rain. It’s not that it is constantly raining in Lake Placid though. But there is a good chance that some point in the day there may be rain. As the area is 2000 feet above sea level, it tends to be slightly cooler than the lowland. However, it could also be as hot as Kona. Be ready for all kinds of weather. In the 14 previous year, we’ve probably had every type of weather.

How many bottle holders do I need?

There are plenty of bike aid stations. 2 holders is probably plenty, one for your drink of choice another for water or perform off the course. You are literally 15-20 minutes from the next aid station at all times. It really is a 112 mile long buffet if you want it to be.

Run Course

We know that all the excitement is about the bike, but the real racing starts when you leave T2. Many of us joke that if the Lake Placid run was an open marathon not that many people would enter, because there is no chance for a personal best. Actually Lake Placid does hold an annual marathon and half marathon on the very same course in June. The course has a mix of flat and major climbs. Generally you will find that the course is well sheltered from wind.
Unlike many courses such as Kona, Penticton, Roth or Tremblant where you have large parts of the course where the scenery does not change and where things can turn mentally mind numbing, at Lake Placid, there are constant changes in physical challenges that can take the mind off the course. We can break things down visually as follows:

1. Down hills out of town toward the Marriott/Schultz's
2. Horse grounds flats
3. Ski jump down hills
4. Left turn, then open famer field after "horse crossing" on River Road
5. final meandering section of road by the river (closed area) to the turnaround
6. Repeat, 5, and not look at ski jumps during 4 on the return
7. Ski Jumps up hill
8. Horse grounds flats (can be windy and probably the only place where there is wind)
9. Killer Up hills into town
10. Right turn, Mirror Lake out
11. Turn around, Mirror Lake back

Breaking each loop down into these distinct sections gives athletes something to shoot for next rather than worrying about how much distance remain. As others have pointed out, the first stretch of down hills after T2 is not the place to try to gain time for your PB. Use the first three sections above to gradually get into a groove before you get on River road. On loop 1, you can almost consider these first sections an extension of T2, and on loop 2, you are getting ready for where the real racing starts around mile 16 on River Road. The climbs back into town are quite steep. Don’t get demoralized as everyone is hurting. Try to keep running and don’t mentally break and if you cannot run, promise yourself a brisk walk and immediately start running when it flattens out. On both loop when you run the first uphill on section 9 (above), it does not end. In fact, it keeps rising and riding until you turn right onto the Mirror Lake Drive out and back. Pace it out because the difference between going slower and faster on these climbs is not that much but the ability to be able to run well on Mirror Lake drive after the climbs can make a big difference to your run split. There is one more section that happens on loop 2 that you don’t do on loop 1 and this is the final entry into the Lake Placid Olympic Oval and the 200m sprint to the finish line. This is the same finish line where Eric Heiden won 5 Gold Medals in the 1980 Olympics, and you have your own gold medal waiting there. This is probably the single most spectacular finish line in all of Ironman triathlon including Kona. Kona is just more spectacular because of its heritage, but Lake Placid is spectacular for its physical set up.

Enjoy the race and enjoy this section. Whatever you do, don’t leave your legs on the hill of Lake Placid by being a loop 1 hero.

About the Author: Devashish Paul is our lifestyle contributor who has finished Ironman Lake Placid 10 times and over the course of racing and running his Epicman training camp, has covered the bike loop over 50 times and the run loop over 30 times and has previously punched the ticket to Kona via Lake Placid. Dev will be going back to race at Ironman Lake Placid for the 11th time on July 28th.