The Adirondack 540
Since 2003 when I did my second-ever Ironman, I have always loved racing in Lake Placid. At its best, the weather is clear and crisp and the high peaks stand out so sharply against the sky that you’d swear you can pick out every branch of every tree from miles away. Cycling up and down the Adirondack Mountains is as thrilling as it is challenging, with thigh burning climbs and screaming, white-knuckle descents.
Looking for an endurance event that would test me without requiring my injured feet to run, I found the Adirondack 540 , an ultra bicycle race held over the third weekend in September. The race, as its name suggests, is just over 540 miles – or 880 kilometres - long, consisting of four laps of 220 kilometres each. Luckily for those of us without the legs to pedal for two straight days and nights to cover 880k, there are options to do one, two or three of the laps as well. I modestly and realistically opted to do the one-lap race, nicknamed the Bronze Blast.The course describes a sort of figure eight, part of which follows the Ironman bike route. It begins in Wilmington, passes through Lake Placid and continues through Keene. At this point cyclists head south to the halfway point at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, then back through Westport, Elizabethtown and Keene to Wilmington. Before the start, Race Director John Ceceri warned us that even though the fiercest climbs were early in the race, we were not to underestimate the challenges of the second half. His words would burn through my head many hours later.
Race morning was clear and frosty with a significant wind from the north. I joined a small number of dedicated riders, bundled in layers, as we straddled our bikes in the parking lot for the 7:00 am start. As the only obvious tri-geek in the group, I received the expected jibe about my carbon fibre Cervélo P2C, and vowed not to show up at one of these roadie events again without a proper road machine.
We separated from one another almost immediately after the start; not much danger of drafting with only a couple of dozen of us in the race and 220k of state highway along which to spread out. The first 30k or so were very well known to me, having ridden the Ironman course many times. After the familiar breathtaking descent into Keene, I turned right down Route 9 into unknown territory. Most of the highway was bereft of traffic and the tall pine trees towered overtop like a cathedral ceiling. There were some rough spots in the road, but for the most part it was a smooth and enjoyable ride. At about kilometre 115 I stopped at the Super 8 motel in Ticonderoga, the halfway checkpoint. A highlight of this checkpoint, aside from the extremely friendly and helpful volunteers, was the presence of Fred Boethling, Director of the Race Across America. I got the chance to chat with Fred during my short break, picking up some intelligence on the chance that I would ever decide to do RAAM. I do try never to say never.
Coming from Elizabethtown to Keene, at around 180 kilometres, in what I thought was nearly the home stretch I encountered a section of road that the cue sheet had called innocently, “4 mile climb”. It was not so much a climb as it was a 45-minute torture session. The grade is not steep, but it is long and relentless enough to make you feel like you’re going backwards. By this point I was also bonking due to sloppy nutrition practices earlier. So my mood was anything but cheery. The words of the Race Director boomed through my ears with every pedal stroke: don’t underestimate this part of the course. I had, and I was paying. However, this too passed and eventually I zoomed down into Keene, through Upper Jay, along the Ausable River and up route 86 to the finish. This part would have been more enjoyable if I had not left everything I had on the gentle “4 mile climb”.
As I wheeled into the parking lot of the motel at the finish, I had the familiar feeling from my early Ironman days of being the last living soul left in the race (actually it turned out I was fifth out of eleven finishers in my category). My time was around nine hours and fifty minutes for the 220 kilometres. This is a glacial pace for me nowadays, but I had entered the race at the last minute with next to no training under my belt, and I was ecstatic just to finish. The good news was that my legs felt strong and I could have gone for a run if I had wanted. Let’s see the roadies try that.
That evening, comfortably rested, showered and fed back at my motel in Lake Placid, I strolled a ways down Route 73 and noticed a well-lit-up cyclist ride past me in the gathering darkness, perhaps a 540-miler starting his last lap with another eight or nine hours of riding ahead of him. They are made of different stuff, these ultra distance people and I was intrigued to be in their company on a couple of occasions this season. There is a step – a leap – I need to make before I can truly consider myself one of them. Defining that step will be my next challenge.