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Swimming on empty

LAKE PLACID -- People sometimes ask me the order of a triathlon and wonder why the swim is first. In the minds of many people, they would rather swim last and get the refreshment of the water after pounding out miles on the bike and run.

But yesterday's training session in Lake Placid was a great reason why the swim is always first.

Because if you get tired on the run, you just start walking. If you get tired while biking, you can go into an easy gear or, worst case, walk your bile.

If you get tired when you're swimming, you, um, have no other than to keep swimming or find someone to rescue you.

The morning began with a ride of the Ironman loop -- a 56-mile bike ride that has very little stretches of flat road. The big news of the day -- the descent into Keene, which is long and steep and, for me at least, kinda scary, has been repaved. This will be joyful news to those doing the Ironman Lake Placid race next month as the potholes and poor road conditions are much improved.

The next portion of the ride is my favorite. It's relatively flat along route 9N into Jay and Upper Jay. It's beautiful scenery and almost makes you want to stop and snap some photographs. But there was too much riding left to do to justify that.

Next is the turn back onto Route 86 and the climb into Wilmington. For me, this is the part of the ride I hate the most. It's a short steep climb and then the road just seems to gradually climb -- forever. Eventually you come to the portion of the course known as the out-and-back. This is a right hand turn onto a back road that travels about six miles, then turns around. 

After this portion is complete I stop my watch and head into a gas station. I need to replenish my water bottles. I was careful to sip my water and my sports drink every 15 or 20 minutes. I also went with fig newtons as my fuel and had two each hour.

Then came the final 11 miles which everyone always talks about. The first part is a climb past Whiteface and this is where two of my Train-This teammates bonked. After getting past this area comes the final five rolling hills named Little Cherry, Big Cheery, Mama Bear, Baby Bear and Papa Bear.

Those hills equal what's affectionally known as "granny gear" -- I get into my easiest gears and spin up. If I'm lucky, I'll be going about 8 miles per hour.

I felt pretty good about the quality of my ride. I completed the course in a decent amount of time, used all my gears and worked the hills pretty well (and tried to feather, not slam, on my breaks during the downhills).

An easy 30-minute run followed and after the first 10 minutes my legs started to feel better. I frankly have no idea how fast I was running or how far I went.

It was about feel and quality not quantitative measurements. And I was pretty happy.

After grabbing a sandwich for lunch and lazying around the motel with teammates, I went over to Mirror Lake with two of them -- Eddy and Steve -- to swim a lap of the Mirror Lake course. 

The rest of the gang was going at 4 p.m.

I went early.

Why? I honestly have no idea.

It wasn't my best decision of the day.

Because had I waited until 4 p.m. I would have had other people to swim with and our coach, Mary, was out in a kayak to supervise and look at our swim strokes.

And, had I waited, I would have learned that the course was set up too long. Apparently there is some other (non-swimming) event that the buoys were set up for.

This made a lot of sense.

Because while 1.2 miles is a long way to swim, the buoys on the way out seemed to never end.

I had planned to take it easy and figured if I just went slow I would be fine.

I saw Eddy turn around, He was only planning on swimming for a total of 30 minutes. I lost Steve who was faster than I was.

I looked up and saw ... no one. Not another soul in the water.

At this point, I was getting pretty darn tired. The bike and run took a lot out of me and now I have to swim back. Frustrated that I couldn't make it to the end of the course (which, at this point, I didn't know was far too long) I crossed over the middle the course and started the swim back along the return buoys.

Only I was tired.

And I started to panic a bit. I was out here, all alone. What if something happened?

I bobbed around in my wetsuit. I floated on my back. I even did some backstroke.

Yet, I couldn't calm myself down.

Then I caught a glance of guy on some sort of canoe. It was long and skinny, almost like a kayak, and he was on one knee while padding through the lake. I called him over. At this point, my fatigue and panic were giving me a side cramp so I asked if I could hang on his boat for a minute. He was nice enough to help me out.

With some calm and some rest I was able to start swimming again and made it back to shore just fine -- in a nice steady, slow rhythm.

Initially I was pretty disappointed.

But when I put it all together -- the fatigue of the day, the not-so-smart decision to go out with faster swimmers and the fact that course wasn't marked as the Ironman swim course -- I felt pretty good about my 50-minute swim effort.

I even decided that I had worked hard enough during the day to warrant a cone of premium ice cream.

Saturday, as it turned out, was the celebration of International Olympic Day.

What better time to be in Lake Placid as an athlete, testing yourself to see how far you can and learning, all the time, how to be patient and forgiving with yourself.
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