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You Are An Ironman

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News / August 08, 2019
Editor’s note: N&R photographer David Conner II completed the Lake Placid Ironman race in Lake Placid, N.Y. on July 28. Here’s his first-person account of preparing for the 140.6 mile endurance test ... and how it all went.

“… an adventure was going to happen.”
— Winnie the Pooh

And this adventure began, as all adventures do … on a bike ride.

I mentioned to my friendly neighborhood pulmonologist that I was considering doing Ironman Lake Placid as part of my 60th revolution around the sun.

“Why wait,” he said. “Do it now while you are still young.”

And thus it began.

Little was I to know how much of an actual adventure it would be.

2018 was an interesting year for me in that when it was all said and done, I was seriously overtraining, injured, and wondering whether I was having heart and lung problems. Toss in the fact my father had died in May and it had all the makings of a truly crappy year. 

And even with all that, I completed Ironman Chattanooga 70.3, IMRaleigh 70.3, two other non-Ironman branded 70.3 races and an Olympic-distance triathon before that fateful bike ride.

I began doing “tri’s” — combo swim/bike/run events — several years ago after neck surgery finally eliminated debilitating shoulder pain and I was finally able to get back into the pool.

A few months after surgery, when I was finally released to do whatever I wanted, I signed up for Beach to Battleship, a non-Ironman, 140.6 distance race the following October in Wilmington, N.C.

A full distance triathlon, or Ironman, is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run, to be done in one day, with a 17 hour time limit.

At that time I hadn’t done so much as a sprint distance Tri, much less the beast of a 140.6. But what the hell. As they say, a good time will be had by all.

So I searched online for a training program, jumped in the pool and began doing laps, and ramped up my running and riding. 

That spring I did a sprint distance Tri: 800 meter swim, 15 mile bike and a 5K run, and when I finished, I was hooked. Now to exponentially increase those distances.

I continued with the training, I had a 12-week plan and figured I would just restart it and finish a week before the big October race.

I did my first 70.3 mile triathlon in July in Williamsburg on a brutally hot, humid day, and after that didn’t discourage me, I figured I might have a chance to finish. 

Two more 70.3 races, several sprint distance races, some seriously hard training days, and the next thing I knew it was race week. 

Beach to Battleship came and went and although a tough race, the ocean tide made the point-to-point swim a little easier. Then came the 112 miles on the bike on flat ground, and a 26 mile run, and that was mostly without any serious difficulties —except for a hiccup at mile 18 where I ran out of gas and stumbled to the next aid station … and food.

The fire was lit for full distance races. First, though, I took a break from them for a few years and focused on getting sons two and three out of high school and competed in shorter races.

Until last year. By then I knew I wanted to do something big for year 60 (birthdays, of course) only to be told why wait, do it now. 

And I did.
Signing up was the big first step.

Triathlons are not cheap races, and an Ironman branded race is seriously expensive.

But if you are going to go on adventure, make it epic.

And in triathlon circles — except for Kona — nothing is as epic as Ironman Lake Placid. The Adirondacks, cold water, hills, lots of hills, epic hills, with a finish line at the Olympic speed skating rink. Lots of crowds, support and did I mention … hills.

So I was in.

Now to do the training. 
My body had other ideas. 
It first began in the pool. Normal swim. Somewhere around 2,000 meters and close to the end. I got to the deep end and suddenly couldn’t catch my breath.

I climbed out by the ladder and walked to the shallow end. Something I never do, which surprised the lifeguard who asked if everything was OK. I told him I was good, I think. Got back in and completed my swim, albeit at a slower pace.

Mentioned it to my running buddies and before I knew it I suddenly had an appointment with that friendly neighborhood pulmonologist.

Tests were done. Lungs were good, but I happened to mention I couldn’t get my heart rate up to what I consider normal training range.
So then I end up at the cardiologist and they began doing their own special tests. Tests that originally said I could have a possible valve leak, but more tests would be needed to verify. 

What the hell, let’s get it straight now. So off I go, and finally after a cardiac MRI, we determined no leakage, but somehow I had a cardiac infection, probably the result of the overtraining. 

So, released to train as I want, with the caveat that it would take a bit of time to build back to my original level, I began training in earnest for Placid.
Or so I thought.

Later during my training, my left hip suddenly decided it didn’t want to do hip things anymore. So with hip pain, ankle pain, tight calves and a general ache and weakness from the waist down, I finally accepted the idea that I could not fix this on my own, so I went to a physical therapist where we zeroed in on the problem of tight muscles, caused by my aversion to stretching.

It was so bad, that walking was a struggle, running was painful, my swimming was pathetic, and the one thing that I have always been able to do without thinking — ride my bicycle — was floundering.

So. I listened. I learned. I did all the little exercises. I stretched. I took up yoga. I strapped on a floatation belt and ran in the pool … for hours … because it didn’t hurt. 

I changed training programs to one that stressed quality miles over quantity and slowly I was beginning to see a glimmer of improvement. 

But even with that, I was considering postponing my Lake Placid adventure until 2020 because nothing was coming together.

By late April I was considering tossing the whole season to spend the year trying to rehab.
But then I decided to try a new race, IMVirginia, in Williamsburg.

I figured a flat course, with the run on the Cap-to-Cap trail with the biggest elevation change a bridge, would be a good test.

I came out of the water of the 1.2 mile swim at 42 minutes, knocked out the ridiculously flat 56 mile ride in two hours, 38 minutes and did the 13.2 mile run in two and a half hours. 

Well maybe I have a chance. 

Two weeks after that race I did IMChattanooga 70.3, a race with a rolling bike course that was better suited for me, to see where I stood. 

Because of the river current, the swim was shortened to 1,500 meters. Going with the flow, I knocked it out in 23 minutes. I set a personal record on the bike course, finishing in 2:42, and struggled but finished the run in 2:42.

Next stop, Lake Placid.

Thursday before the race, car loaded, youngest son Neal and my brother Michael as navigators and company, off we went. 

I am not good at sitting still, and 14 hours in the car did not bode well for my already tender legs. It showed on Friday as I limped through the race expo and prepared my bags and bike to be set up in transition on Saturday. 

I did a short swim in Mirror Lake to get limber and realized how far out in the middle of the lake we would be swimming.

I don’t freak out, but treading water, far from shore, and knowing I’d have to swim back — well, it was more than a little disconcerting.

But that would be a worry for race day on Sunday morning. 

Saturday, a quick leg loosening run in the mountains, and then ride the bike from where we were staying, the 14 miles to Lake Placid to rack the bike and set up my transition bags.
Fourteen miles, 55 minutes. Nearly 1,000 feet of climbing.

It doesn’t bode well for Sunday. Those 14 miles come at the end of each 56-mile loop.

It will be a long day in the saddle. 

Each loop starts with about 14 miles of a steady climb, a fast descent followed by miles of fast rollers, before doing that final 14-mile climb.

And then you do it again.

I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Sunday starts early. Transition opens at 4:30 a.m. and I want to be there early to get parked as close to the finish as possible because I know walking to the car will hurt.

We find a great spot and head to transition. I go to my bike, let her know we will have an epic ride today and be ready, and head to make sure my bike and run bags have everything I need. 

And off to the lake to wait. And wait. And wait.

The pros hit the water at 6:20 and at 6:40 we begin to go in … all 2,500 of us. All in the water by 7.

Placid is a two-loop swim. First loop of 2,000 meters, get out, run across a timing mat and jump back in for another 2,000 meters.

Nothing is as depressing as getting out of the water, looking out across the lake and thinking, “damn, I have to do it again.”

So back in I go. 

My goals doing a Tri is to … 
Not drown …
Have fun dancing on the pedals … And survive the run.

One loop down. One to go.
So with aching shoulders damaged by way too many bicycle wrecks, back into the water I go.

One stroke at a time, one buoy at a time. Count them down. There is the dock. The final pull. Feet can touch the ground. Run up the shore. Fall down for the wetsuit strippers to pull off your suit. Up and running to transition. 

You. Did. Not. Drown. 

Goal 1 in the books.

On to goal 2.

In transition. Shoes, gloves, helmet, sunglasses, nutrition, salt. All accounted for.

Grab bike, run to start line and go. Fast downhill, couple of twisties, one uphill, downhill, and the long slog uphill begins.

Take it easy. Keep your heart rate down. Don’t cook the legs the first loop.

Calories every 10 miles, salt every five.

Tap dance the pedals. You’ve got this. 
First lap comes and goes without any issues.

Quick stop at special needs to load up on more calories and out for second loop. 

And the heat comes. And the headwind. And hot foot from your feet swelling in your shoes.

Loosen straps. Put your head down low and keep dancing on the pedals. Not tired yet, but can feel it coming.

Heart rate still low, power is steady. Push through the pain. Finally the last long out and back. Now a straight shot to the final 14-mile climb. Steady. Don’t push.

The last time up the Three Bears, a short out and back and you can hear the crowds in Placid.

Time to let the adrenalin loose and hammer the last few miles.

Sprint up the final climb, quick turn. Jump off the bike and release your pride and joy to a stranger, hoping he will take care of her because she gave everything she had to get you here.

114.4 miles in the books. 
Now just a matter of a little marathon.

Grab sandals, race belt, kilt. Twenty-sixpointtwo miles between you and those words from Mike Reilly. “David, You Are An Ironman.”

Almost immediately you realize it is not going to be easy. Your legs are shuffling more than running. Short stride. Your hips do not want to open up and your feet are tender from the tight cycling shoes.

There is no such creature as an “easy Ironman.” That is like saying easy pregnancy. 
All are hard. All hurt. Some don’t hurt quite as bad. 
It is up to you how much pain you can endure.

Today was going to be painful.

One aid station at a time. Get to the next aid station. One mile at a time, run when you can, then walk like you mean it. 

The first 13 miles are finally done.

Thirteen and change to go.

Mile 14. Hips say enough is enough. We have no more to give. I try to run/walk two more miles, but by mile 16 I realize if I am to finish, it will be walking.

And so I walk.

Darkness descends. You hit River Road, a flattish section of the run along a river that in the daylight is beautiful. In the darkness, only amplifies your pain. 

One step at a time. You’ve got this.

Goals change. Make it to the next spotlight illuminating the darkness. Bright, then dark. Bright again. Then dark. Then more dark. 
Your mind begins arguing with your body. The battle for supremacy is fierce.

Just quit. No one cares. You have nothing to prove.

The body is winning, but then the mind stops the noise. 
If you quit, you will know it … and have to live with it.

Brief aside.

Several weeks before the race I asked Brandy Palmore, if she had anything special of her father’s that she would let me borrow to carry with me.

I never played football, or team sports for that matter, preferring the solitude of a solo bike ride and the quietness of an early morning run when the only thing out is you, the stars and the occasional skunk.

But during football season Fred Palmore would always ask about what crazy thing I was doing, any races I had run with Brandy, and what I was working on now. I would tell him. He would shake his head and with that smile/smirk of his would say, “Damn son, you are tough.”

I wanted to honor Fred Palmore by carrying something of his during the race.

Brandy gave me a bandana he would always have with him at football practice and games and with her blessing, carried it along for the ride.

It was stuffed down the front of my wetsuit for the swim, tied to my handlebars for a front row seat for the bike, and was wrapped around my race belt for the run.

Now in the darkness I felt it brush against my hand and I could hear Palmore telling his defense it was time to toughen up.

And I did.

It was time for rule 5. The rule that comes into play when you have nothing left to give. 
So I straighten up, tell everyone to shut up and harden up.

Finally, the end of River Road. A long, uphill climb. I get there and the road levels out a bit. I greet everyone at the aid stations, thanking them and telling them I are done. I won’t be back. 

Downhill and I see Lake Placid and hear the crowds. One more long climb up and I can see the finish line … but not yet … not for me.

A one-mile out-and-back around Mirror Lake before I can cross that finish line. So I leave it behind. Heading out one more time.

Knowing the 17-hour cutoff is coming, but I now know nothing will keep me from the finish. I hit the turnaround and look back, back to the finish.

My steps get faster, I blow past the last aid station, moving faster, adrenalin building, pain disappearing and I make the final turn into the oval. I hit the barricades, people lined up on both sides and I see myself on the big screen rounding the last corner and there it is.

The red carpet, the finish line, Mike Reilly. I slow slightly to give the person in front of me space. He has his moment and then it will be mine. 

Picking up speed, raising my arms as I cross the finish line. 
“David Conner, of South Boston, Va., You Are An Ironman.”

Nothing else matters.

The pain will return, as will the workouts.
All those 4 a.m. runs, 6 a.m. swims, six-hour plus bike rides on the trainer.

They were the adventure. This is the reward. 

By the numbers.

Swim – 1:51:29

Bike – 6:56:12

Run – 7:08:27

Finish time – 16:21:34

2019 training

Swim – 114 miles

Bike – 6,722 miles

Run – 547 miles

Will I do it again. Probably, but not next year. Guess I have to find something else to do to celebrate 60 years.
But for now I will continue to rehab my hips and try to find my missing run.

And maybe take it easy … at least for a few days. Sitting still has never been my strong suit. 
And besides, I owe a lot to my running buddies who helped me get to the finish line. 
Time to reciprocate. 

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