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The Journey to Ironman Lake Placid

The following was authored by Cathy Huang who recently completed her first full Ironman at Lake Placid! It is hard enough to run a marathon but running one after swimming 2.4 miles and a 112-mile bike ride is a step many of us have yet to complete! This is how Cathy trained and performed at Lake Placid and her original post can be found on her Strava.

Queens Distance

The journey to an Ironman takes a village, and I am so thankful for my village that got me to the finish line for Lake Placid! From the encouragement (read: coercing) to sign up for the race, to the training buddies who made sure I logged miles, and family and friends who provided mental and emotional support leading up to, during, and after the race – thank you!

It’s been weeks since I completed Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) and it still feels surreal that it’s done. It took me a long time to write this recap because there were so many different aspects of my journey that I wanted to convey without making this recap even longer. I decided to focus on the why, the how (training), and the race so that if I ever decide to do this again, I’ll remember what some of the main drivers were. I’m also hoping it provides perspectives for others who are considering tackling the 140.6 miles. There’s a lot more details than what’s written, so happy to discuss further over a run/ride/drink/meal anytime!

– Finish time of 12:55:00 – 20th in AG; 104th in Gender; 619th overall
– Swim 1:32:56
– T1 8:56
– Bike 7:06:21
– T2 9:25
– Run 3:57:24

Basking in my sweet, sweet victory.

Where It All Started

If you told me when I first started doing triathlons 5 years ago that I would one day compete in an Ironman, I would’ve told you you’re crazy. In fact, after I did the half-ironman distance in Lake Placid in 2017, I said I would never do a full in Lake Placid… But when you’re surrounded by the same “crazy” friends who like to push the limits, you inevitably end up signing up for one. My reason for Ironman Lake Placid is redemption. I Did Not Finish (DNF) the Age Group Nationals Champion Triathlon last year, which was the first time I DNF. I won’t go into all the details, but I signed up for IMLP as a goal to work towards. I wanted a course that would have an easier swim and Mirror Lake is exactly that. IMLP is a hilly course, but also an iconic race and one of the longest running Ironman events, or so the friends who were already registered told me when they were encouraging/coercing me to sign up.

The Training

I signed up for the race almost a year out with the intention to work on my swim technique (my weakest sport) and keep up a running base during the winter, before ramping up the miles on bike in the Spring. But between the combination of being the busiest time at work, buying an apartment, and moving to Queens, I didn’t start triathlon training until late March. Most people take 6-7 months to train for an Ironman but given I was short on time, I tried to maximize my training by incorporating brick workouts (doing two different sports with minimal rest time in between) to help my body adapt, focusing on swim drills to improve my technique, and doing one long bike ride during the weekend. I started with 50 miles as a long bike ride before getting two 100+ miles before the race.

While I almost never met this schedule, my training plan was to swim 2-3x, run 2-3x (two early weekday runs, and one run on the weekend after a bike ride), and bike 2-3x a week. In reality, I had a great training week if I swam 1x, bike 2x (usually only over the weekend), and ran 2-3x a week. Training hours per week varied between four hours to peak of 15 hours (more in June when I ramped up the long bike rides). I missed more training than I liked, especially when work hours got crazy, and it led to many moments where I really considered deferring my race because the training and miles seemed impossible. I felt stressed about being behind in my training, which added to me not feeling ready and questioning why I signed up for this race. Thankfully I had family and friends who lent an ear, talked me off the ledge, and offered to ride/train with me to keep me accountable. Shoutout to Maria and Kieran for the routine and company during our early #morningmiles; Jason, Samson, and Jackie for the company on long bike rides; CC and Alex for their advice throughout my training; and to Jessica and Jian for calling me impromptu at always the perfect moment to ease my concerns, and sound advice to focus on one week at a time. Lastly to David for always being my #1 supporter and taking care of everything else (often doing all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry) so I could focus on training.

It wasn’t until two weeks before the race that I finally felt ready for the Ironman. Yin, Jackie, Nima and I went to Lake Placid for a training weekend. We swam two loops of Mirror Lake on Friday and Sunday, and rode almost the full bike course (minus the newly added out and back by the Olympics Center) on Saturday, followed by a brick run. It was a hot day and we didn’t have enough water on the bike course but we got to fine-tune our race strategies. I learned I needed to eat every 45 mins and that I needed to drink way more liquids. I also finally felt comfortable (enough) going down Keene Valley descent  (about 5 miles of downhill ~2,000ft elevation change) to not brake the whole way down. Of all three sports, I trained the least in running. My longest run was 13 miles 8 weeks before the race, but I was trusting my running base that I’ll be ok for the marathon.

Congrats to Jackie, Nima, and Yin on finishing! We couldn’t have done it without this support group.

Race Weekend

Friday – I finished packing around 1AM Friday morning (so much for getting extra rest before the race!). I had learned from other Ironman friends that Ironman is not like your traditional triathlon where you get to lay out all your race gear for each segment. Instead, you’re given gear bags to pack what you need for each transition, in addition to special needs for halfway through the bike and run. Worried I would forget something, I re-packed multiple times and used ziplock bags to simulate packing for the gear bags.

David was really great at trying to help me relax on the drive up to Lake Placid, and didn’t let me split the five-hour drive so that I could focus on positive race visualization. We arrived at the athlete check-in around 1PM and met up with Vikram, Yin, Jackie, and Nima for athlete briefing. We went for an easy 30 min swim before heading for our Airbnb to make a pasta dinner and pack our gear bags. Even though I had prepared my bags already, I still repacked a few more times until I felt ready. I ended up not using the special needs bag for the run since I planned to carry my gels. Knowing I likely won’t get much sleep on Saturday, I was in bed by 10:30PM.

Saturday – After a light breakfast, we headed out for one more short brick (13-15 mile ride and 2 mile run) before bringing our bikes and gear bags to transition. On the way to the Oval I realized I had left my goggles and cap at the lake after the practice swim yesterday. Rookie mistake since you’re not supposed to use anything new on race day! Not the worst thing to lose since you can test the goggles before the swim start and make adjustments. I bought new ROKA goggles at the Oval. After hanging in our gear bags, I counted the number of rows I would need to pass as a mental note for when I get out of swim and back from bike tomorrow. Trying to stay off our feet, we checked into our new Airbnb before joining TriLife’s pasta dinner (thank you CC for making that delicious meal for all of us!). Besides great food, we got to talk to the TriLife coaches and other athletes on race strategies. I was most worried about the potential rain forecast, especially if it happened while I was on the Keene Valley descent. Based on when I expected to start the ride and when the rain was going to happen, I might be going down the descent right when it started raining. Knowing it was something outside of my control, I just hoped for the best. We left by 8PM and I was in bed by 9:30PM.

Saying farewell to my gear bags on Saturday – not your usual transition site!

RACEDAY – I managed to fall asleep almost right after going to bed but woke up a few times throughout the night until my alarm finally went off at 3AM. Vik and I wanted to get to transition right when they opened (4:30AM) in case there was limited parking (we were staying in Keene), so we headed out earlier than Nima, Yin, and Jackie. My breakfast was oatmeal with Justin’s version of Nutella and half a bagel. We arrived at the parking lot around 4:45AM and took a short 15 min nap before getting on the shuttle bus to transition. After getting to transition, I lost Vik and didn’t see him again until I was on the run. Saw Alix at the entrance to transition and she marked my arms with my bib number, and age on my left calf. For triathlons, your age is for the end of the year, not your actual age. I dropped off my special needs bag for the bike (second half of my food, which was Honey Stinger waffles and SIS bars, and a cold bottle of water with SIS tablets), pumped my bike, went to the bathroom one more time before I walked over to the swim start. I was carrying a banana with me to eat 30 mins before my swim start. Once I was in the swim area, you can feel all the nervous energy and buzz as athletes went in for a practice swim and spectators watched. I ate my banana and went in for a short swim to test the new goggles – works great!

Lake Placid swim is two loops of Mirror Lake, and a self-seeded swim start so you put yourself in the corral based on when you think you will finish the swim. My best practice swim time was 1:50 but I seeded myself in the 1:20 – 1:30 corral based on Ildar’s advice that everyone else is seeding themselves faster than actual pace, so I would get stuck behind other swimmers if I didn’t do the same. I saw Yin and Nima at the same corral, which was great since I didn’t see them since the night before. I lost Yin when she went for her practice swim but Nima and I got to talk to other first-timers before it was our turn to enter the water. The cannon went off (for the pros to start) and before we even started our swim, we saw the top three men finish their first lap (talk about fast!).

In my first lap, I was in a vortex of much faster swimmers and they helped pull me along. The best part of swimming in Mirror Lake besides the calm water is a cable line that holds the buoys and marks the swim course. Most swimmers try to stay close to this line to help with sighting and minimize extra yards, but you often get scratched, kicked, and bobbed in the head by the other swimmers. I tried not to swim right on the line but was pushed toward the line by the other swimmers so just tried to draft off of them. I finished the first lap in 43 minutes – my fastest yet! Grabbed a cup of water and ran back into the lake. In the second lap, most of the faster swimmers were already done but I was still getting bobbed and kicked to the point where I got really annoyed. I just wanted to get out of the water! When I got to the final turn before the exit, I was met with more arms and legs contact before I finally got out of the water. I realized later I got a cut on my right ankle, likely from another swimmer’s Ironman wristband, which is now a new battle scar on my ankle. I finished the second lap in 49 mins for a total swim time of 1:32 – 20 mins faster than I expected!!!

I happily ran out of the water and made eye contact with one of the wetsuit peelers, Mary, who got me out of my wetsuit. Got to say hi to CC and Alix during the run to transition before Mary caught up to me – my timing chip had came off when she peeled off my suit! Good thing she saw that or my time wouldn’t have recorded! I grabbed my bag from transition and ran into the changing room. This was an interesting experience as everyone was quickly stripping and volunteers were trying to help us get dressed and sunscreened up before the run. I tried to dry myself off with the towel I packed before changing into dry clothes. A volunteer came over to help me with my socks and I ate half a banana (the other half fell), drank 3/4 bottle of water before I ran out of the tent and to my bike. If you’re lucky, a volunteer would’ve already grabbed your bike while you were changing but given I was middle of the pack and there was so many of us, I grabbed my own bike.

The bike ride is two 56 mile loops of the Adirondacks, with about 8,000 feet of elevation gain per the athlete guide. You have small hills in the beginning, then a huge descent, then hills, more hills, and more hills. Then you repeat that again. I did the practice ride in 6 hours and 50 minutes and I felt good, but I wanted to save my legs for the run so I was aiming for 7 hours on the bike. I can’t say I remember all the details of the bike, especially the first loop. I remember going a little easier in the beginning, enjoying the beautiful views, going down Keene, some hills, eating every 45 mins, drinking every 10-15 minutes, taking two salt tablets per loop, and successfully grabbing water and bananas from the volunteers in the aid stations without unclipping or falling off my bike.

So happy to see David and Jenny – right after first loop of bike!

Around 30 miles, I saw a porta-potty and started thinking about needing to pee. Before the race, I read about people peeing on the bike to shave time but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t stop at that aid station but a few miles later, the urge to pee was bad. I tried not to think about it but the next aid station wasn’t for another 10 miles! I barely held it together before I finally got to the aid station. Of course, everyone else seemed to have skipped the earlier station and there was a queue for the porta-potties. I felt like I was going to explode. I finally got to do my business and continued the ride.

Around 50 miles, I started to feel very full. I was eating and drinking on schedule but perhaps too much since I didn’t practice this before, or I didn’t factor in the half bananas I grabbed from volunteers. I finished the first loop (around 3:23) and saw Alix during special needs and told her how I was feeling. She told me to only drink water until that feeling went away. I reapplied some chamois butter, grabbed the rest of my nutrition and cold bottle, and started my second loop. This is where I saw CC, Jenny, and David on the course and that gave me a small boost. Short lived because around 60 miles I was SO sleepy. All I wanted to do was pull over and take a nap. Since the bike portion is so long, the ride can get very monotonous. In hindsight, I should’ve packed gels with caffeine to wake myself up but since I never got sleepy on training rides, I didn’t think I’d need them. Between going down Keene descent (very happy to report no rain at this point because I had shaved off time during the swim!), which had some strong headwind, and another bathroom break that included reapplying sunscreen, I felt more awake. The full feeling I had finally went away and I was able to eat again. At this point my butt was starting to get sore. I didn’t realize I would have the opportunity to change for each leg until a week before the race and had done all my long rides with tri shorts, so per the “nothing new on race day” rule, I was racing in tri shorts. Tri shorts don’t have as much padding so I was feeling the pain.

When I got to Wilmington (another hilly portion of the ride), we got a few minutes of heavy rain, but not on the descent. I was relieved for the rain but right after, we were hit with 100% humidity and I could feel the steam coming off the ground. It was hot and with 16 miles left (which were mostly uphills) and a sore butt, I was losing steam. I stuck to the same nutrition plan of eating every 45 mins and drinking water and Gatorade (when my SIS water ran out) so I wouldn’t bonk on the run but I couldn’t keep to the same pace as before. During the practice ride, I was able to climb the second round of mama bear, baby bear, and papa bear hills with ease but I struggled on race day. There was a great support crew on top of papa bear cheering everyone on, and I leveraged their energy and pretended all the “Go Grace” written on the floor was actually “Go Cathy.” Finally, I got back to the village and saw the runners and knew I was close to transition. There was one more small out and back and this is where I saw Ildar who told me I was crushing it. Fueled by his positivity, I picked up the pace a little right into transition. I couldn’t be more happy to get off my bike and handed Eleanor to a volunteer to rack her. My Garmin watch showed about 7 hours for the ride so I was still on track with where I thought I’d finish.

Grabbed my bag in T2 (the second transition) and ran into the changing tent again. I had decided before the race that I would change my entire outfit again so that I would be comfortable on the run. I even took the time to wipe my face and reapplied sunscreen so total time spent was longer than my first transition. Some may say this was wasted time but comfort was important to me.

For the run, I had a secret goal of 4 hours, and it was actually my only goal for the Ironman. It was a secret goal because I didn’t think I can do it since I ran only 15-25 miles a week and had done no speed work. It was a goal because before this year, in all my triathlons, I felt terrible on the run. It was more of a mental block on my end that I wanted to train so I had this 4:00 mark on my mind when I started the marathon.

At the beginning of the run, the sun was out and it was HOT. You start off with a huge downhill that seemed great until you realize you’ll later need to run back up for the second loop. My legs didn’t have that heavy feeling after getting off the bike and I was able to keep up a pace around 8:30 ish per mile. I had set my watch on ultratrac mode to save battery but because it wasn’t picking up signal as frequently, I couldn’t always tell if the pace I was seeing on my watch was accurate. I saw Ildar again at the beginning of my run and we chatted for a bit before I was on my own. I stopped at every aid station to either get water or shove ice down my sports bra to stay cool. I could tell everyone around me was feeling the heat and humidity and most were walking by this point. I had watched a Ted Talk on “How endurance athletes are using the power of the now” before the race and it talked about focusing on the present to get through the run/difficult part of the course. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and was able to break up the marathon into smaller miles, like thinking about the early morning runs I did with Maria and Kieran on Mondays and Fridays. Because the run was set up to be 6 miles out then back into the village, and repeat, I was able to see the other athletes multiple times on the course. I saw Fabian around 3 miles and Jackie was going back into the village as I was about to hit the 10K mark. I slowed down my pace around mile 8 and this is when I started to walk through the aid station instead of running through them, taking two cups of water – one to dump over my head and one to drink. It was still sunny and hot. Going back into the village around mile 12 was when we hit that big hill we started with, and I decided to walk it. I didn’t want to waste effort going up the steep hill and risk cramping, which worked well for me. My Strava showed my pace for that hill was still around 9:33 so the walk was definitely worth it. I saw TriLife members, David, Jenny, and Vik around the halfway point, which gave me another boost.

My nutrition plan was one SIS gel every 40-45 mins and I stuck to it. I ate some chips and pretzels on some of the aid stations, took a few licks of salt from salt base to prevent cramping, and continued taking water and shoving ice down my sports bra. My shirt was completely drenched in a mixture of sweat and melted ice. I was passing everyone on the run and still feeling relatively good. My legs were getting tired but again I thought of the Ted Talk and kept thinking, one foot in front of the other. Around mile 20, I saw Ross from TriLife on River Road and he told me to imagine everyone in front of me as a “kill” and to keep up the pace. It made me laugh and think of Ragnar days. When I got back into the village, I saw TriLife, David, Jenny, and Vik again (yay!). I walked the big hill again and knew I only had about 3-4 miles left even though my watch was showing me something different. I was trying to do math to see if I could hit my marathon goal but I was estimating maybe 4:03 or 4:04, which was ok too. I started to think about needing to pee again and saw a porta-potty around mile 23. This part of the course has a small out and back so I was thinking maybe I’ll pee on the way back. At the turnaround point, I saw Ildar again and he tells me I’m about to finish under 13 hours if I kept up this pace. I really wanted to pee but I was about to go through the finisher chute and blocked out the thought. I saw Jackie again and I ran in front of him for a little bit before he started running towards the finish. Going through the finisher chute I started to get emotional when I realize I was about to finish the race. I saw CC and she’s telling me to chase Jackie, but I just started crying. I wanted to hold on to this moment. I came around the finisher chute, saw the red ironman mat, saw Jenny, and David on the left, right before the finish line and heard Matt Riley say, “Jiayan Huang, you are an Ironman.” I had crossed the finish line.

Mixture of tears and joy as I crossed the finish line. Will never forget this moment.

Ildar was by the finish line and I told him my marathon goal. He checked the app – 3:57. I had beat my goal and that made the finish even sweeter.

Would I do another Ironman again? I initially said no but I think a part of me will want to. I had such a great race experience and want to hold on to that high a little longer. For now, I’m basking in this sweet victory.