Wow, what a weekend in Lake Ontario.
Oh Hello Beauty…
This story is the story of being a Race Sherpa. This is a side of the race that I don’t typically get to see and or tell the story of. Lord Business, Ben, and I typically race the same events. But anyway, back in the late spring/early summer during the shuffle of Ironman training Ben signed up for The Great Lakes 100 – Lake Ontario. He begged me to sign up, but I resisted. I knew that after finishing Ironman Lake Placid, taking on a 100 mile triathlon would be another big deal and I was relatively certain that it wasn’t something that I would be into because I wanted to take a break from following a difficult training plan for the remainder of the tri season. Any how, he went ahead and signed up with a friend of ours. So let’s get to the race story!
There were four of us who would be attending this event, two racers and two race Sherpas. I had gone immediately to Air BNB and found a cute little cottage right on Lake Ontario that was less than 15 miles away from the race venue. It was perfect for our needs. We had decided to head to Western New York on Friday AM as it was a long five-hour drive plus we wanted to get settled in before heading to packet pick up between 5-7 pm. It also was clear that the weather was going to be bad so the guys needed extra time to pack appropriately for the event. Doesn’t everyone want to race when it’s a high of 54 degrees, raining and 25-30 mile per hour winds? Sure sounds like a winner to me… said no one ever.
Packets picked up and Race Ready!
Anyway, the race is a 1 mile swim (or 1 mile trail run), 84 mile bike and finishes with a 15 mile run. The guys chose the duathlon option considering that Lake Ontario was 51 degrees and had some serious swells going on. When we got to packet pick up we were told that there was a total of 54 people registered for the event. Hello lonely. It was clear that between the weather and the low amount of athletes they would definitely have a long day. After we picked up packets, we headed back to the cottage to make dinner as the guys packed all of their gear and nutrition for the next morning into plastic bags. Fun. Everything went smoothly and I think that we were all in bed by 9:30 PM with alarm clocks set and ready for 4:45 am the next day.
The day started cold and dark. We packed up the cars and headed to the race venue. Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought to bring a head lamp so bikes were stocked and tires were pumped in front of the headlights from my car. After getting everything ready, we walked down to transition. The whole things was relatively informal. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision on behalf of the race directors or if it was a reflection of the size of the field, but informal ruled the day. As Sherpas we were able to be right in transition helping to get things ready and set. After futzing around a bit everything managed to get set up and we headed to wait for race start inside the building. There was a quick athlete meeting where racers were given the option to switch from the tri to the du since the water temp was about 50 and there were one foot swells. Some people changed and some went ahead and got ready for the frigid swim.
Dark…lots of bags… check!
Right before race start the forecast held true and it started to rain. Great. They lined all of the athletes up at the swim start or the trail run start and sounded a horn for go time. After everyone was out we did take a peak at the swimmers so we could just verify that there were indeed crazy people at this race. The guys made it through the trail run quickly and packed up to head out on their bikes. It was so clear that it was going to be a long day, but their spirits seemed good and they were ready to face the day. As good race Sherpas we headed out to find breakfast. We knew we had about two hours and twenty minutes before we would need to be back at the bag drop/special needs area to see them come through on their first loop of the bike.
After packing face quickly we headed back and waited in the car for them to make their first stop. When Lord Business came in I ran up to hold his bike while he reorganized, got food, etc. He said the course was lonely, cold and he wasn’t feeling right. I immediately started to worry. He said his heart rate was too low and he couldn’t get it to go up. In addition he was freezing from fighting his way into the winds that were 25+ miles per hours on some parts of the course. From what he said they were absolutely unrelenting. I helped him pack up his fuel, told him to keep his spirits up and assured him that once he finished the bike it would get better. So he headed back out for bike loop number two. Forty two more miles into the wind would surely be great. Again, said no one ever. Shortly after he left the area, our second athlete, Jeff, made his way to the bag drop. He was feeling good and was still in great spirits. We quickly got him repacked and headed back out for the rest of his bike. So one not so great and one great athlete at the bike half way check in. Not too bad I guess.
Jeff’s own personal Sherpa!
After the guys went back out we quick went to the cottage to pick up run clothes for us in case we decided we might have time to sneak in some time for ourselves. It quickly became clear that we wouldn’t be doing a solo run and that was completely ok with us. Our first may day was a call from Jeff saying that he had a flat and was having trouble changing it. We jumped in the car and headed that way. It was unclear as to whether the race had a sag vehicle and again the weather was terrible so we were off to help if we could. Along the way we had hoped to spot Ben nearing completion of his bike leg, but I was pretty sure we had missed him. Then up ahead at an aid station I saw him, sitting down with his head in his hands. I pulled the car over so quickly it was fortunate that I didn’t cause an accident. After talking to him it was clear that something was going on with his heart rate and his nutrition. I encouraged him to rest a bit, eat some food and see how he felt. The woman staffing the aid station told us that everyone was struggling to finish the bike leg and that he was not alone. We told him that we needed to go and help Jeff with his tire but that we would be back to check in on him.
We then sped along to help Jeff out. Bike sag did show up with a few tubes, a pump and that’s about it. The man admitted to knowing nothing about bikes and being unable to help. So after almost an hour of sorting through bad tubes that kept pinching, etc we managed to get Jeff up and running again. Note to self… change more tires and ALWAYS make sure you have what you need to change your own flats in a race. Ugh, stressful. We headed back to the aid station where we had left Ben and he wasn’t there. The volunteer informed us that he was feeling a bit better and had resumed biking. Perfect. Hearing this we went ahead to transition to check on him.
Unfortunately due to all of the cold and the wind, Ben’s spirits were pretty low. He didn’t want to go out on the run. His faithful Sherpas rallied his spirits and promised him that completing the race would be worth it. When he left transition I was so concerned that he wouldn’t complete the 15 mile run. The wind was howling and there were so few racers out on the course that it was totally uninspiring. We immediately hatched a plan where we would switch from sherpa to pacer. I spoke to one of the race directors and he let us know where I could find Ben out on the run course. He also indicated that pacers are fine at this event. So, Lonnie drove me out to somewhere around the 2.5 mile mark where we found him. I informed him that if he would wait one minute that I would run the remaining 12.5 miles with him. He asked me why and I simply stated because. He agreed. So in a flash, I was doing a run right along side him.
We were following his plan of a 5 minute run followed by a 1 minute walk. The wind was horrible but fortunate the rain was holding off. We worked our way from aid station to aid station. They were every mile on the course. Unfortunately, many of them were unstaffed. So, I took it upon myself to look through the offerings at each one to see what Ben might want and or need to complete his race. Being a pacer, I opted not to take anything as I wanted to leave it for the racers. I ran with a bottle of water that I had in the car with me and that’s it. We ran through corn fields, apple orchards, a state park trail and more. In addition we ran in amazingly tough conditions. Ben did great and didn’t even get angry with me for being so upbeat and positive along the course. I was really trying to be encouraging even if it was annoying. Around mile 11 the wind got increasingly bad and Ben started to really struggle with sore feet. We switched our strategy to run a phone pole, walk a phone pole. It took time and persistence but as long as we were working our way to the finish line I knew we would get there. He has far too much pride to quit unless forced to. At one point I did state that “we do a lot of crazy shit together.” I think this was somewhere along the shore of Lake Ontario as I was wishing that we had a camera with us. Anyway, I was very happy that I jumped in to run with him and I know that he was too. He informed me several times that without my support and encouragement that he would have walked much more of the race. I can promise you that I probably would have had I been alone out there too. There were almost no racers and again very little course support.
Once we got him across the finish line, we quickly changed clothes to bundle up and tried to sit out of the rain to wait for Jeff to finish. He wasn’t far behind, but unfortunately, we missed his first finish because we were inside trying to warm up. Ugh. He was kind enough to recreate the event so we could take a number of pictures before heading inside for the award ceremony where both of the guys got an age group award.
This was a really tough race and I give both of these guys a lot of credit for completing it. One hundred miles is no joke and it certainly isn’t in bad weather. Unfortunately, the race was also a bit of a bummer. It really was a beautiful course and had the weather been nice and there been more racers it could be a fun race. They lacked a lot of racer support and I’m so thankful that Lonnie and I were there because we were able to provide some of that support to the guys. I know that outside support is not allowed in many events, but in this one it would have been difficult to complete without it. I saw a fair number of people with run support and cars pulled over helping them out, so it certainly wasn’t just us. I’m still awaiting results to come out because I image that there were a few DNF’s. We wrapped up the weekend with a quick side trip to Niagara Falls. I had never been there before and I’m glad we took the extra time to fit in the side trip! It was stunning!!!
Anyway, that’s how we spent our weekend. And my take away is that we need to do really good research on a race before signing up next time. Oh and that being a sherpa and a pacer is a nice hat to wear once in a while. You forget sometimes how valuable those roles can be and it’s nice to encourage your partner on a tough day. And I felt like I got to wear my Swim Bike Mom Ambassador hat a little in encouraging them to finish in such tough conditions. We worked hard to #justkeepmovingforward !
So, that’s that story! How was your weekend?