Racing Ironman Lake Placid? #wegotthis

June 30, 2018

2018 marks the twentieth running of Ironman Lake Placid. Both beautiful and challenging, this course is one that most athletes won’t soon forget. While its hilly course isn’t really a great choice for a PR, it is a race that rewards the patient athlete who races smart.

Let’s begin with the swim, which takes place in the crystal clear Mirror Lake. For all the added challenges that the bike and run courses present, you at least get the benefit of quite possibly the simplest swim course on the entire Ironman circuit. The two-loop course is an elongated rectangle and includes exiting the water and running along the beach to start your second loop. What makes this course especially easy to follow is a cable that runs under the water directly underneath the buoys, which means if you can swim close to the buoys and see the cable, you never have to worry about whether you are swimming in a straight line. The downside to this is that of course most athletes will try to get on that buoy line, which can make your swim quite crowded. If you are someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with a lot of contact on the swim and you are willing to lose a bit of time by staying out of the draft of the main pack of swimmers, there is plenty of room to the outside of the buoys to swim wide and have your own space. 

Once you exit the swim, it is a fairly long run up to T1 which is located at the Olympic speedskating oval. The very beginning of this bike course is a little tricky with some winding turns and then a pretty steep downhill complete with hay bails just in case. So you want to start out very much in control and keep your hands on those brakes until you make the turn onto 73, at which point you can settle into aero for a while. 

One of the things most people talk about on this course is that the last twelve miles are all uphill. What people seem to forget to mention is that the first ten miles are mostly uphill as well, so be prepared to do some climbing right out of the gate. None of the hills on this course are particularly steep, but you will find yourself grinding away quite a bit. This is why it is so important not to get too excited during those first miles on the bike. If you are tapered and rested your legs should feel fresher than they have in months. It’s far too easy to start way too hard and blow the rest of your race in just the opening miles of this race. Stay conservative and ride within your abilities for 112 miles, not just the first fifteen! 

After completing those first uphill miles, it’s time for the infamous Keene descent. This is a lot of fun if you like going downhill fast, and not so much fun if that makes you uneasy. The important thing, again, is to ride within your ability and stay in control. And if you need to pass someone, make sure you look behind you before moving over to the left. Yes, you may be going 50mph at the time, but I guarantee you that there are people who will be going even faster than that, so always be aware of cyclists around you. If descending is something you are comfortable with, you can do this entire thing in aero, even with a few tight corners. 

Once you reach the bottom you will make the left onto 9N and this is the flattest section of the course. Yes, there are still some hills, but this is the easiest place on the course to maintain a consistent effort. Though depending on the day, it can be windy. 

The 2018 course is reverting back to the “old” course, which will take away the out-and-back at the end of this stretch where you go out to Ausible Forks and replaces it with an out-and-back on Haselton Road, which was the course up until 2010. On paper this change adds a bit more elevation gain. But it also changes the timing of some hills and breaks up some of the climbing, so to me this is actually an advantage on your legs. Ausible Forks was flatter and faster, but it pushed the climb to Jay later. So from the time you turned onto 86, you were basically going uphill for the rest of the loop. Now, by getting the climb to Jay out of the way earlier, you get a little break before you turn to do that last twelve miles back to town. 

This turn onto 86 and climb to Jay is another often overlooked hill on the course, but it is one of the longest and steepest hills out there. Once you’re done with that you get some more rollers and a bit of a downhill before that out-and-back on Haselton Road. This is very rolling, and is more up than down on the way out, and more down than up on the way back. The worst of the climbs comes not long before you turn around, so you get to ride right back down. 

Once you are finished with that section it is time for that last twelve miles to town. While I’m sure most have heard that it is “all uphill” the while way, this isn’t actually the case. It is certainly far more up than down, but you do get a few breaks, albeit brief ones. If you are pacing smart, the first time around you will probably feel like this section isn’t nearly as bad as everyone seemed to warn you. Don’t get too complacent, because somehow the hills are twice as bad the second time. But, again the key is just to ride conservatively and spin up those hills. Eventually you will reach the Three Bears. Papa Bear of course is the biggest and steepest, and is usually lined with many spectators cheering you on. But what most people seem to forget is as soon as you get to the top of that hill, you make a right turn and are stuck climbing one more steep little hill before you finally descend down toward Mirror Lake. Just at the end of the lake you will get to the bike special needs area, and then you get to ride through town and  head back out and do it again. Ideally you want to feel like you rode the first loop too conservatively. And keep in mind that because the first ten miles of the loop are all uphill, there is an awful lot of climbing between finishing the first loop and beginning the second. But if you pace this all well, you should be able to finish strong.

Now it’s time to run a marathon. This course starts with close to a mile of going downhill, which sounds really nice but it is really easy to get a little over excited here and go much harder than you should, so it is important to relax and ease up a bit so as not to pay for it later. Once you are at the bottom of that hill, the two-loop out-and-back course is fairly flat with some rolling hills. You also get the benefit of getting some shade from the trees. The spectators thin out quite a bit the further you get from town, so just be prepared to deal with that mentally. 

The most difficult part of the run course by far is running back up that hill you ran down right out of T2. And you will have to do it twice: once at about mile 11 and again at about mile 24. It is pretty steep and will seem never ending when you are only two miles from the finish, but the crowd support certainly helps you there. The good news is that once you make the turn to the final out-and-back on Mirror Lake Drive it is all fairly flat to the end. There is also nothing quite like getting to circle the Olympic speedskating oval to the finish line on one of the most iconic courses on the Ironman circuit. 

~Molly Zahr is a QT2 coach and winner of the 2006 Ironman Lake Placid