If this is your first time preparing for Ironman Lake Placid, you are no doubt wondering (fearing?) what to expect. And, even if you’ve done the course before, you may be wondering how to master the challenge that is IMLP, the oldest Ironman course in the continental U.S.
The course may not be the most difficult Ironman there is, but it is challenging, with many people squeezed into a tiny space for the swim, 5600 feet of climbing in the bike course, and a rolling marathon that makes you work for your finisher medal.
The key to a successful day at Ironman Lake Placid is discipline. If you do not have a disciplined, strategic approach to this race, you will be punished for it. The marathon tells the tale of those who pushed too hard on the first loop of the bike.
I’ve raced Ironman Lake Placid several times (2010, 2011 & 2013), and I’ve trained on that course so many times, I’ve lost count. I can tell you where the potholes are (although, it’s been repaved almost in its entirety so not too many of those left!). In this post, I’ll share with you some tips for racing IMLP. These tips are geared for those who will be racing the course for the first time, but veterans may also find something worth reading.
Until 2013, Ironman Lake Placid featured a mass swim start. Starting in 2013, Ironman Lake Placid became one of the test venues for the Ironman Swim Start Initiative. Having done this race both as a mass start, and with the rolling start, I can say that the new starting method is FAR SUPERIOR to the previous mass start. Mirror Lake is narrow, and when you had almost 3,000 people starting to swim at once, it was an absolute mess.
With the new rolling start, it was much much smoother–and faster. While there are still people everywhere, it isn’t quite the thrashing, gnashing wrestling match that it’s been in previous years.
Beyond the start, Mirror Lake is one of the nicest places I have ever swum. There is something simply magical about that water that makes you feel strong, refreshed and ready to go.
And, the rumors are true: there is an underwater cable that runs the entire length of the course. Get on that cable, and you never have to site. Of course, about 2500 of your closest friends also want on that cable. In 2013, I was able to swim the cable for the entirety of the second lap without much fighting.
The swim is two loops, going clockwise, and requires that you get out of the water at the end of the first loop to run across the timing mat. The run is very short, just a little u-turn along the beach and back into the water you go. It’s easy to get on feet and draft through the duration of the swim. (I swam 1:09 in 2013, and was able to be on feet both loops, although the second loop was not as “busy” as the first.)
From the exit of the swim to the transition area, you will have to run almost a half of a mile, on the street. It’s a little rough on your tootsies, so tread lightly. The best part about this run: it is lined with people, 5-6 rows deep, all cheering and pushing you on. It’s super exciting!
Try not to let that excitement get you too riled up as you run to transition. Keep your HR in check. It’s waaayyyy to early in this day to get near your redline.
Depending on where you come out on the swim, a volunteer may or may not be available to help you get your bag. I recommend being prepared to grab your own bike and bike bag. Practice this the day before – know where your stuff is!
My first experience in the changing tent was overwhelming to say the least. Have a plan for what you will do in transition. Be prepared for lots of hot, humid, naked bodies. If you aren’t changing clothes, then I recommend staying outside of the tent to get your stuff together. Grab a volunteer for help. They are AWESOME!
Ah, yes, the bike. No, this is not the most challenging Ironman bike course on paper. Yet, improper execution can quickly turn it into the hardest one you’ll ever do. Those who miscalculate the difficulty of this course pay for it dearly. I’ve seen athletes make the mistake in training, and on race day.
My advice to you: Do not underestimate this course.
There is about 5600 feet of climbing in this course, most of which comes in the second half of the loop. (The elevation data comes from my Garmin. Over a series of various rides, 5600 feet is the most consistent elevation accounting, yet is in contrast to the 6700 feet on the IM website.) An effective Lake Placid bike is a disciplined one. I’m not suggesting that you should be on a sight-seeing tour – although, the views are absolutely SPECTACULAR. But, I am suggesting that you have a smart pacing plan based on rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and/or power, and that you understand where this bike course is likely to bite you on the boo-boo if you aren’t careful.
There is a lot of folklore about the “three bears” of this course. Mama, baby and papa bears are the least of your concerns. The initial climb out of town, the climb up 86 into Wilmington, and the rollers along the last 16 miles of the course are a much greater concern. Here’s a basic overview of the course:
Immediately after you exit T1, the bike course makes a short descent on a narrow strip of gravel and goes directly into an almost 180-degree turn. This area is lined with other bikers trying to clip into their pedals and spectators trying to catch a glimpse of their athletes.
Suffice to say, it’s a tight squeeze.
Rather than get caught up in the throng (if there is one when you get there), you may want to consider walking your bike just after the apex of the turn. Really, it just depends on how busy it is as you exit T1.
When approaching a significant goal, like riding 112 miles, I find it easiest to break the goal down into manageable parts. As I see it, a loop of the Lake Placid bike course has 7 parts.
1. Climbing out of town
The first 3 miles of the loop, along Route 73, is relatively flat. Then, you begin to climb for about 5 miles. Mixed within this 5 mile climb is one section that is relatively flat. But, overall, you are heading up in the opening of the loop, from a low of 1,692 feet to a high of 2,071 feet.
I’ve read others’ reports of the course, and I’m surprised at how little this opening climb is discussed. To be fair, it’s not a “killer” climb, and is manageable in the big ring. However, I do think that if you push this opening climb too hard in either the first or second loop, you will regret that decision when you hit the hillier sections along the second half of the loop.
My recommendation: spin it at a moderate effort in the small ring to keep your legs fresh. There’s plenty of time for big ring hammering when you get to the next two bits of the course. If you are feeling good on the second loop, and you are a strong cyclist, you can consider that big ring. But, remember: the final 16 miles are the most relentless, and in the second loop those final miles can be absolutely demoralizing if you didn’t gauge your effort correctly.
Overall, this section is about 10 miles.
2. The Descent into Keene
What goes up definitely goes down, and down and down. The descent into Keene is approximately 6 miles long, and has 3 primary sections to it, which are delineated by a series of “Trucks Use Low Gear” signs.
The signs come in a series and warn: “Trucks use low gear XX miles.” This includes 3 main segments that are about 2 miles in length.
The descent is quite picturesque–that is if you weren’t whizzing by it with every fiber of your being concentrating on holding the bike, maintaining control, and looking out for dips and cracks in the road.
Note: The shoulder areas of this course are not “impeccably smooth” as described on the official Ironman site. Rather, they have plenty of imperfections, including areas where it just drops off. It’s pretty bumpy as well, so be prepared to hold on!
Be careful, especially if you are up there training when there is traffic on the road.
In between the main segments of the descent, the course is still descending but it does flatten out enough for you to gain your composure and prepare for the next segment.
The third series of “use low gear” signs follows quickly upon the second and this section lasts for 2 miles. This third and final section of the descent is the steepest. The more courageous cyclists have reported speeds in excess of 50 mph by the end of this descent.
However, it is possible to control your speed. If you aren’t feeling like a daredevil, remember to stay to the right and feather your brakes to control your speed. Don’t jam them!
Know your limits, and stay within them.
At the end of the descent, as you enter the town of Keene, you will make a hard left turn onto Route 9N, heading towards Jay.
3. The flats
At this point, the course takes a decidedly less Evil Knieval-esque flair. This section is flat, and a net downhill, although the grade is very very slight. You can really move on this section. But, be forewarned: the climbing is coming. So, I recommend being smart about how aggressively you ride here. Stay within your limits, especially on the first loop.
This section is great for aero position, eating, drinking and soaking in some beautiful scenery. It is positively gorgeous!
4. The Route 9N out-and-back
Around mile 24 or so, you will come to the intersection of 86 and 9N; you will continue along route 9N for a little over 5 miles, for the first out and back section. The “out” part of this out and back is a slight downhill, similar to the previous section. When you make the return trip, you can feel the “pull” of moving on a slight uphill. As with the previous section, it is easy to eat, drink, get aero and enjoy the scenery.
5. Climbing 86
When you finish the out and back, you will make a right hand turn onto 86–and then you climb fairly steadily for several miles. You are moving up, up, up in a stair-step rolling fashion. This climb is moderately steep, and its placement at this part of the course makes it a challenge. Again, stay disciplined.
Somewhere along here you will get your first glimpse of Whiteface Mountain.
You will have the opportunity to descend for a mile or so, then make a right hand turn for a brief out and back section on Haselton Road, which is mostly flat. After completing this out and back section, you will continue on 86, and that’s when the rollers start. At this point, there is about 16 miles left to the loop and you are heading back into town.
6. The Rollers
Unlike years past, this section has been completely repaved, and is glorious! Those who have been there prior to 2012 will note how chopped up the pavement was here, making it impossible to ride the shoulder. No longer!
Along this section, you will climb in a stair-step fashion up a series of areas: Whiteface Mountain, Walkers Gorge, Wilmington Notch – to name a few. Despite the climbing, there are some areas that are flat enough that you can maintain a good pace. As you come into High Falls Gorge, you get a descent and a semi-flat area that allows you to bank some time before you climb again.
The scenery is beautiful, and the challenge is fair. No single climb is particularly steep. However, the cumulative effect requires patience and a smart pacing plan.
Once you ride by River Road (which will be on your left), there is a final bit of flat section (probably less than a mile). Then, you climb up some rollers that have been dubbed Little and Big Cherry before you meet the Bears. Mama Bear is first, Baby is in the middle (really just a bitty roller) and then you see Papa Bear. It’s a short climb (you can see the top and it takes just a few minutes to get there). Once you get here, you are just a few miles away from the end of the loop.
On race day, Papa Bear will be teeming with spectators—many of which will be in some type of crazy costume. Every time I come through this section, I feel like I’m in the Tour de France. Enjoy it!
As a side note: Lake Placid has some of the best spectators – if not the best – of any race I’ve ever done. Give them a little smile, and your energy will be returned ten-fold. It’s fantastic!
7. Heading back to the Oval
After climbing Papa Bear, you will see Cobble Mountain Lodge and Northwoods Rd to your right. You will turn onto Northwoods to head back to Lake Placid to start your second loop, or to head into T2. There is nothing particularly notable (or long!) about this section–unless of course you are finishing up the bike.
As you come back to transition, a wonderful volunteer will grab your bike for you. Make sure you take anything you need off your bike.
You run to the gear bags, and grab your bag. Make sure you know where your gear is by adorning it with a colorful ribbon, and doing a practice walk through the day before.
You will run out of town, on mostly downhill terrain for a little over 2 miles. Then, when you get to River Road, you go left. (You’ll note that on the bike course, this is the area you went right for the climb out of town.)
River Road is an out-and-back section of the course, in what is a bit of a no-(Iron)man’s land. It’s hard for spectators to get back there because the roads are closed to vehicular traffic – including bikes. However, the aid stations are typically “themed,” and the volunteers are incredible with their support. It also helps that the scenery is gorgeous. Even still, it can be a little lonely out here. Prepare yourself for it mentally. Use this section as an opportunity to get into your rhythm. Stay focused. Continue to eat and drink on your schedule.
River Road features a series of small hills. No one bump is particularly steep or long. However, similar to the bike course, there is a cumulative effect. So, again, my advice is to remain disciplined.
At this point, those who hammered the bike will begin to feel the toll of that effort. There is quite a bit of walking to be seen back on River Road. Look away! Don’t let it affect you: stay focused, stay tough.
After completing the out-and-back on River Road, you will run back up those hills from the first two miles of the loop. These hills are steeper than what you’ll find on River Road, but they are relatively short. Stay calm, carry on. Luckily, this area has plenty of spectators to cheer you on. If you walk any portion of the steepest climb, you will typically be taunted by the announcer at the top of the biggest hill on 73 before you get back on Main Street. Nice, huh?
As you come back into town, you will run past the transition area, for another out and back section along Mirror Drive. This is a short, relatively flat section (with a small grade incline on the way out, vice versa on the way back), lined with spectators. You will also be able to grab your special needs bag along this stretch.
After this out and back, you head toward the transition/finish line area. You go left for your second loop, or straight on for the glory of the Olympic Oval.
The finish of the Ironman Lake Placid allows you to complete a partial lap of the Olympic Oval, which is lined with spectators, all holding their hands out for high-fives.
The first year I did this race, I foolishly rushed this part. I ran straight through, keeping my eyes on the ground (I was embarrassed because I was crying from joy!). The second year and third years, I didn’t make the same mistake.
Stay disciplined, race smart – and you’ll have a fantastic day on this course.
Have you race Ironman Lake Placid? What tips and tricks do you have to share? Are you racing it for your first time? What are you most excited about?