Ironman Lake Placid 2014: Tales of a Sherpa and Emotional Guardian

Where should I begin with this post? Let’s go alllll the way back.

ironman-lake-placid-2014-kona-or-bust

This trip north for Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) has been one year in the making. As you may remember, I went last year to train, volunteer, and spectate, and after the 2013 race, one of my teammates signed up to take on this 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. And with her registration, I committed to returning in 2014 as a full-fledged Sherpa—and I was pumped! Placid epitomizes paradise, and I wanted to go back in any capacity.

It’s tough not to compare this year’s experience to what happened last year, but overall, they varied—a lot.

Let’s start with the Sherpa-ing.

ironman-lake-placid-athletes-training

I absolutely love training and racing, but sometimes it’s refreshing to be in a race environment and not actually race. Crazy concept, right? As a type-A person who does triathlon, I’ve discovered being a Sherpa utilizes my skill set. Not only do I have the logistics under control—planning our day to be the most efficient, knowing where to drop off special needs bags, etc.—but I can also talk the talk. And knowledgeably too. During race weekend, one of my goals included memorizing course maps and the athlete guide so I could answer every question my teammates asked me.

In addition to knowing everything about IMLP, I also took on the role of emotional guardian. I needed to be positive, reassuring, and flexible at all times. Moods swing easily in the days leading up to the race, especially when certain factors come into play: someone’s doing their first Ironman, someone’s shooting for a specific finish time, etc. Needless to say, everything became more intense, and when the crankiness and anxiousness kicked in, I wanted to be there to listen, calm them down, and provide support.

One main difference between 2013 and this year centered on training. I did some final tune-up sessions with teammates—a few race-pace efforts on the bike and some open-water swimming—but logging workouts was not my number one priority. Case in point: My Slice saw only 15 miles, tops. But I knew this would be the case, and I’m totally OK with it. My main goal was to be there for my teammates in every way possible.

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Being there wasn’t exclusive to race day. This was the first time I watched people go through Ironman training. Each of my five teammates approached the distance differently—not to mention they came from various backgrounds, had different goals, etc.—and I learned a lot in terms of how I will navigate long-course training. (We’re talking at least 10 years from now, by the way. And that’s another post entirely.)

More importantly, this was the first time I trained with people who were tackling this distance. During the week, we’d do similar swim and bike workouts, and when Saturday and Sunday rolled around, they’d go long. Very long. Sometimes, I’d tag along and bike 40-50 miles while they did twice the distance. Or if they had a cutback week, then we’d ride together.

Bottom line, when you train together–for six months, at least five days a week, and for nearly three hours everyday–you become invested in their race. And when they have an Ironman on the horizon, it’s impossible to remain unaffected. When dull aches surfaced during long runs, I sympathized. When brick workouts got crushed, I felt invincible. When tune-up races approached, I experienced sympathy taper crazies. Basically, Placid became a pseudo race for me.

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During the race itself, I wanted to be there during all three disciplines, so I volunteered as a wetsuit stripper. At Syracuse 70.3 in 2012, I worked in the same capacity and had a blast. So not only would it be fun, but this position would also grant me access to athlete-only areas—which meant I could be with my teammates right up until they charged into Mirror Lake. Plus, I’d have a front row seat: I’d be able to pinpoint each person when they finished their each loop, and if I played my cards right, then I’d be able to help everyone take off their wetsuits. Four of my five teammates logged both loops of the swim, and I was able to see everyone during the wetsuit stripping process. (Due to thunder and lightning, the swim was cut to one loop or 1.2 miles. Some athletes swam both loops, but others were pulled from the water.)

After the swim, I camped out in front of our hotel—which was conveniently located on both the bike and run courses—rang my industrial-sized cowbell, and cheered until my voice grew hoarse. (And obsessively checked IronTrac, obviously.)

As the day progressed, my mental involvement intensified, which I didn’t think was possible. Waiting for the team colors seemed like an eternity: ‘They should be off the bike now. Why aren’t they here yet? Did something happen? What’s going on?’ Soon enough, the red and black kits appeared: ‘Yes! They look so strong and dialed in!’ And when not-so-great stuff happened, all I could do was run with them briefly, remind them they’re strong, and tell them they’ve overcome this before. But I couldn’t really do anything. I felt helpless. And it was the worst feeling. I had to trust their training and have faith they would work through the tough spells.

Sure enough, they pulled through.

And when they entered the oval, running strong and passing people and accomplishing their goal … being able to see the culmination of their dedication and their training and their hard work was incredible.

Clearly, it was an emotionally charged weekend. And I’m so grateful I was able to be a part of it.

8 responses to “Ironman Lake Placid 2014: Tales of a Sherpa and Emotional Guardian

  1. Girl, coming from my family, the Ironman is sacred and a massive commitment. In my brother’s case, and in a lot of cases, the smallest thing can throw the whole goal off the tracks. Someday, you (and maybe me!) will do one, and can only hope that you will have someone equally as supportive by your side. I love that you could share this and be that person for them.

    • When someone signs up for this race, it is really an event their entire family and support system undertakes. There’s no way you can adequately prepare for it alone. And yes, it’s obviously a huge commitment for the individual, but there’s a lot required from those supporting the athlete. That’s one of the reasons I want to pay it forward now–because I’ll need that support one day. 🙂

  2. I’m so glad you had a great time and that you were there for your teammates! Having supporters, at any race but especially one of this nature, is a big help. I’m thankful we’ll have people with us at our Ironman!

    • I’m glad you’ll have people there too! It’s a long day for everyone, but it’s even tougher having to tackling it by yourself.

  3. This is so cool! I’m really excited to spectate my first Ironman next month-this makes me want to volunteer at one!

    • Yes, spectate and volunteer! It really gives you a greater appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes.

  4. You, Lil Sis, were the best Sherpa imaginable! Thank you for all your support throughout the entire season. So glad you were up there with me (and all of our teammates) while I tackled this huge goal. I hope you will always be my Sherpa and I promise, when the time comes, I will be yours!

  5. Pingback: Getting Perspective in Lake Placid - Fitness and Frozen Grapes

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