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Swimming in inspiration at Ironman
July 31, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 395 lbs.
Last week: 395 lbs.
Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.
Total lost: 75 lbs.
My assignment at Ironman Lake Placid on Sunday, July 27 was going to be a challenge — so I thought. My goal was to find inspirational stories to help me get motivated through the rough patch I’m having this summer.
Yet on the Mirror Lake beach, surrounded by more than 2,000 Ironman triathletes — plus thousands of enthusiastic supporters and volunteers — I found myself awash with inspiration. You couldn’t turn around without finding it. Sometimes, it found you.
I began my day before dawn, taking a school bus shuttle from the Wesvalley Road parking lot to the high school teachers’ parking lot behind the Olympic Center. By 5 a.m., Lake Placid was buzzing with people. Athletes and their families were streaming to the Olympic Speedskating Oval like ants drawn to candy, in steady lines from hotels around the village, slowly moving toward a common destination.
By this time, cheery volunteers in bright orange Ironman T-shirts were lined up in the middle of Main Street in front of the Oval, holding up black markers, looking for athletes without numbers on their arms. You had to have a number on your body to get into the Oval to check your equipment. Many athletes had bicycle pumps so they could fill their tires with air before the swim.
The pro men started the race at 6:20 a.m., followed by the pro women. The final cutoff was midnight. With a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, it was going to be a long day for everyone.
After equipment checks and potty breaks, it was time to head to the swim start at the beach. A sea of triathletes converged on the Mirror Lake shoreline, stretching, meditating, putting on their wetsuits and swim caps, and nervously striking up conversations with strangers as they looked at the calm water. It was a pleasant morning, and some people worried about the day’s forecast of “possible thunderstorms.”
This is where I found my first inspirational story, 60-year-old Mac Rand of Lake Placid, who was about to embark on a quest to complete the Ironman course on Sunday and repeat the task on Monday. He was part of Team in Training and had raised $29,126 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of his friend Greg Sauter, who died of leukemia in 1992.
“I feel pretty calm right now,” said Rand, standing shirtless on the damp grass, several feet from the water. “I think the two days are going to be very different experiences. Today is going to be about staying within myself and not letting my competitive self overrule the more rational side. My coach says I have to be in a bubble and let everybody else kind of do their thing, and I’ve got to do what I’m planning to do because I have to be able to start tomorrow feeling good.”
Before Sunday, Rand had completed four Ironman races, the last one in Lake Placid in 2011 when he finished in 12 hours, 15 minutes. His goal for Sunday’s race was to finish in 14 hours.
“I really have to hold back,” Rand said. “The swim, to me, is kind of a warmup. The bike, that’s where it’s going to be really hard for me to kind of let the world go by. Just go at a pace I feel really comfortable at. Go in a gear or two easier than I normally would. Having the home-field advantage here of living in Lake Placid, I know the course very well, and that has been a real plus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden it. I can tell you where all the potholes are, and I know where to sit up where there’s a bump. So I just need to be smart. And then on the run, I will walk every aid station, make sure that I get some nutrition in me. I’ll walk up the hills, and I’ll walk down the hills just to save my legs. This is not about time today; it’s about finishing strong.”
It was a year ago on race day that Rand decided to complete the Ironman course two days in a row for charity. I think one Ironman is crazy enough, but two? That’s a total of a total of 281.2 miles. It’s like going to Albany and back — or a straight shot to Newark, New Jersey — in two days, all by swimming, biking and running. Crazy!
But apparently, it’s doable. Rand finished his second triathlon Monday evening, even though it rained all day.
So when I’m getting down on myself for not losing the weight I want to, or when I start to have doubts about my ability to overcome physical and mental challenges, all I have to do is think about Mac Rand and his back-to-back Ironman days and say, “Yes, I can. I’ve got this.”
Rand may have had home-field advantage, but he still had plenty of challenges to overcome. In addition to the rain on Monday and thunderstorms on Sunday during the swim and bike portions, his nephew recently died, leaving a hole in his heart.
“The last week has been really tough with the loss of my nephew, but he’s with me in spirit,” Rand said. “I’ve got hundreds of donors to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society who are with me. I’ve got a list with me that I’m going to be carrying throughout the entire day today and tomorrow, so I’m confident.”
Rand’s strategy was to take his races one day at a time, which is a great lesson for me and others trying to lose weight and achieve physical fitness goals.
“I can’t think about tomorrow right now,” Rand said. “Today is about being smart, enjoying the experience, and we’ll see what the day gives us and then get ready for tomorrow.”
From my experience training for and walking in the Lake Placid Half-Marathon in June, I know it’s those small, precious moments that mean the most to the participants: a hug from a fellow athlete, ice water from a spectator when I’m overheating, hugging my wife at the finish line. They keep me motivated. They make me feel so good that I want to do it again. Those kinds of special moments — thousands of them — could be found all along the Ironman race course.
As waves of athletes began their race on Sunday, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked into their anxious eyes. It was go time. Aside from checking their watches and adjusting their goggles, as I took their photos, they gave me thumbs up, peace signs, and some even made the sign of the cross on their chests. Volunteers lined up on each side of the start line to offer handshakes, high-fives and words of encouragement as the participants headed into the water. I was struck by the generosity and genuine compassion from the volunteers. At the finish line, for example, some of the “catchers” were so enthusiastic when the athletes crossed the finish line, you’d think they were related. Some hugged athletes they had never met before.
This is the magic of Lake Placid. What I’ve found on my weight-loss journey is a community filled with people who are sincerely rooting for their neighbors and fellow athletes. After all, many aren’t trying to win races; they’re just trying to finish. And no matter how good you are — whether you’re a professional, Olympian or average Joe — you have struggles in life. That’s our common bond.
It’s people like Lake Placid’s Darci LaFave, who completed her fifth Ironman on Sunday, and Billy Whitney, who has finished four of them but couldn’t compete this year due to injuries, who give me the inspirational pushes I need. I spoke with them after the race, and their support and encouragement was sincere and heartfelt.
I’ve found Lake Placid to be an ideal place to heal and create a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the many opportunities to become active, healthy living is a way of life. There’s a freedom here you don’t find in other communities, where the work day seems to be the most important part of the daily routine. In other communities, exercise is a chore. In Lake Placid, being active is as natural as breathing, as involuntary as a heartbeat. It’s the kind of lifestyle I need to lose the weight.
It’s those ample opportunities to stay active that breed the special moments you see at various athletic events here. This community attracts inspiration.
It attracts people like Allan Tyson, of New York City, a man who is legally blind and competed in Ironman Lake Placid this year. He was the guy on the tandem bike riding with guide Greg Cho as part of the Achilles International team. Tyson became visually impaired after a bicycle accident that left him in a seven-week coma. Doctors didn’t know whether he would walk or speak again, but they didn’t know Tyson’s drive. If you want more inspirational stories, look into Achilles International, which helps enable people with all kinds of disabilities participate in mainstream athletics. Tyson is a member. He can’t see, but he can compete in Ironman. That’s inspiration.
Lake Placid also attracts people like Gregory Durso of Stony Brook, who became paralyzed after an accident at a Vermont ski resort more than four years ago. As I was standing on the Mirror Lake beach taking photos, I saw a man and a woman carrying Durso from the end of the first lap and placing him back in the water for his second lap. The more I looked into his story, the more I was inspired. He has no use of his legs, and he competed in Ironman with the aid of a hand-peddled bike and a wheelchair for the marathon. That’s grit.
It’s stories like these that give me the strength to continue my weight-loss journey and the confidence to complete it. I may never hear those words directed to me, “You are an Ironman,” but hearing this phrase over and over at the finish line lifted me up and made me wonder.
Could I become an Ironman one day? Big, fat me? I suppose so. After all, I have the use of both my legs, I am not blind, and I would only have to complete one Ironman race, not two. So it’s possible. I could someday hear the words, “Andy Flynn, you are an Ironman!” Wouldn’t that be something? Crazy, right?
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Mac Rand poses before starting the Ironman race on Sunday, July 27. On Monday, he repeated the feat for charity. (News photo — Andy Flynn)