It’s very early in the morning on a Sunday in late July. One by one, athletes wake from a restless sleep. Most have an image in their mind of crossing the Ironman finish line and hearing Mike Riley say his famed phrase, “You Are An Ironman”. While the day promises to be a long one, it pales in comparison to the thousands of hours that have gone into preparing for the Ironman event. In life’s bucket list, the Ironman has become a common quest but uncommonly achieved. Each racer today will travel over 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running. Two men walk with transition bags in the dark towards the brightly lit area loaded with bicycles and gear. Chris Schulten of Middlefield will be racing his 15th Ironman while Scott Slater of Lyme, CT, nervously eyes his first finish. Schulten has prepared by covering thousands of miles through Connecticut via commuting to his job at St Raphael’s Hospital. Slater trains in the few allowable hours of working as a mason and caring for his newborn girl and his two year old son. Ironman Lake Placid is one of the many events hosted by Ironman Inc., but it is clearly the institutions most cherished child in the US next to Kona’s World Championship. The Lake Placid venue is unparalleled. The Adirondack Mountains envelope the picturesque town that surrounds Mirror Lake. While 2800 athletes make final preparation for the all day race, 3000 volunteers get ready to take their places. Thousands of supportive families know what today means to their athlete. They lug bags often with young children in tow and escort their athlete to the transition area. Here, they watch their loved one have a race number drawn with a Sharpie on the back of his or her leg. For most, a final kiss goodbye seals a bond of support that the athlete will carry throughout the day. The brothers-in-law both feel the nerves inherent in what will happen as the swim unfolds. Thousands of spectators squeeze around the small beach and the athletes begin to filter into the water. There is virtually no room to move both in and out of the water. Music meant to inspire pumps overhead and energy is undeniable. Schulten has something to prove, not to the crowd, but to himself. He is racing on the heels of an entire year of injury. Just a year ago during the marathon run of Ironman Utah, he experienced a career halting back injury that would remain at the forefront of his mind through out today’s race. For Chris, just being at the starting line today felt like a relief. Thousands of pink and green swim caps dot the waterscape as the cannon blast, signaling the start of the race. The water temperature is warm so the security of the wetsuit has been disallowed for those that are racing for few Kona Ironman World Championships slots. Schulten opts not to use the wetsuit hoping for his 5th qualification. Slater finds comfort in the buoyancy of his suit wishing to survive the agitated swim ahead of him. The surge of swimmers is a sight to be seen. The mass Ironman start rivals the best of any sporting moment giving goose-bumps to anyone witnessing it. It can be compared visually to what happens when a school of blue fish surges on a school of bunker. The swimmers battle each other really just looking for their own piece of real estate. Nearly two and 1/2 miles of swimming like prizefighters will hopefully bring the swimmers out of the water unscathed. As the pros have long left the water behind, the rest of the group begins the exodus from the water. One by one, they crawl from the lake with their goggle etched eyes, making them look like creatures from ‘Land Of The Lost”. When one enters the Ironman, the entry asks for one’s occupation. We know the pro’s occupations, but what about everyone else? For one day, everyone has left their occupation behind and taken on the job title “Ironman”. Doctors, Brick-layers, firemen, grandmas and a slew of others run towards transition clad in black wetsuits. One by one, each of the bikes are taken on their 112 mile journey that will carry riders through a course highlighted by a 14 mile descent, a beautiful valley, a 17 mile climb and a ride through town where the cheers will undoubtedly make each feel like a rock star. Despite the fatigue, many can’t help but smile, because each athlete has never felt so alive. Schulten averages a solid 21 miles per hour on the bike leg setting him up for a good run. His back muscles seem to be holding together at the six mile mark of the marathon run. Despite his misfortune from the year before, the ghosts of the past race doesn’t seem to be slow him down and he averages a 7:35 per mile pace. Meanwhile Scott absorbs the massive distance he has taken on one step at a time along with the other 1013 other first-timers. The marathon course will journey past the venues of the 1980 Olympic games. The towering ski jumps in the distance will remind each athlete that they too can achieve what may be seemingly impossible. The course teases each runner as he or she must skirt the Olympic Oval finish line and cover 2 more miles before returning to become a Ironman. The feeling of running on hallowed ground is undeniable on this day. Inside this oval, Eric Hieden won his 6 Olympic Gold medals and adjacent to that, the rag tag team of young US Hockey players defeated the Soviets back in 1980. Back then, Olympians were amateurs like most of the athletes running today. Perhaps, this is why one by one, the runners charge into the finish line beaming with pride. For the last 200 meters, all the pain is briefly forgotten and most look like children on Christmas. Slater makes his first Ironman finish and his grimace transforms into a smile. Schulten makes the turn into the stadium as the announcer realized his proximity to the 10 hour benchmark. With that, the stadium erupts into cheers and he sprints around the turn into the 10 hour finish then falls into the arms of the volunteer catchers just over the line. His children watch inspired and awestruck by how their dad ran like a superhero without the cape. The storied finishes continue into the 17 hour mark. Tears flow from one finisher as a photo of a loved one is clutched in his hand. National flags are waved, one makes a cartwheel, fist are pumped, legs buckle and personal histories are written. As midnight looms the final athletes are welcomed by a frenzied party of over-caffeinated spectators and volunteers cheering them across the finish line. The voice of Ironman announcer, Mike Riley, now raspy and strained can be heard across Mirror Lake. “You are an Ironman”, he says with the same energy he has had all day. It’s been an epic journey for all and collectively the athletes have covered nearly 392,560 miles. Schulten finished his 15th Ironman in 42nd overall while Slater’s 11:51 finish proves that he is no longer a beginner in this sport. Both Schulten and Slater rest now knowing that they were part of something big, something that will stay with them regardless of the fact that life goes back to normal in the morning. In place of the salt encrusted race jersey, the aching athlete struggles to to adorn his new finisher t-shirt over the sore muscles. Despite the wobbly legs and soreness throughout, for some reason life seems better; because after all, “You are an Ironman”.
7/26/2011 06:11:58 am
wish I was there. Amazing video! Job well done Chris and Jen.
7/26/2011 07:26:53 am
Great story and pics Jennifer and congrats to Chris
7/26/2011 09:52:35 am
Wendy...perhaps we should sign up together soon...watcha think?
7/26/2011 09:53:26 am
Tom, wish you were there to help me get shutter speeds right. Still so much to learn, but it sure is fun trying to figure it out.
7/26/2011 12:40:36 pm
Once again very nice pics and story congrats to Chris
7/27/2011 09:28:11 am
Great job Jen. I think you did more work than us!!
7/28/2011 01:54:42 am
Congrats to Chris. Great photos and video. Thinking about it tires me out!
8/3/2011 12:33:14 pm
Amazing job, Chris! And Jen, your photographs are soooooooo excellent! You guys just never do anything halfway, do you? Awesome...
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