The Run and the Finish

As I head out on to the run, the women’s leader, Heather Fuhr is passing onto the final short out-and-back before finishing.  The first men have already finished, and I have a full 26.2 miles to go.  And now at about 4:30 in the afternoon, it’s as warm as it has been all day.


Immediately I have a small equipment problem.  My nutrition on the run is in the form of gel, and I have a flask full of my favorite flavor – Raspberry Hammer Gel.  In training runs, it’s worked fine to hold it in the small mesh pocket on the back of my shorts.  But I guess the water bottle belt that I would have in training helped keep it in place, because now it is bouncing around way too much, and I hand it off to my uncle.  This is not the time you want to be learning new things about your equipment, but nothing to be done about it, and there should be plenty of food available at the aid stations. 


In the shadow of the ski jumps, approx mi 4

I take off at a fairly easy jog, which is my plan—settle in easy, and hopefully be able to pick up the pace as I go along.  Sadly, this will not happen.  I never do achieve a pace any faster than about a 10 minute mile.  But there are people who are only walking even from the first.  I feel about how I would in a marathon at mile 25, only I’m in mile 1.   There are several sizable hills, and while I run up the first one, I walk the rest of them.  For the first ten miles, I run most of the rest, walking through the aid stations.


The course has two loops (catching on to a theme here?), and each 13.1 mile loop is made up of two out-and-back sections.  This is great for spectators, and nice for us too since I still have 27 teammates out on the course.  Each time we pass each other we come out to the center of the road to high five or hug and check in with each other.  People are looking good… given how hard we’re working.  Most of us still seem happy, and alert, both good signs. 


The first, longer out-and-back is much prettier.  We go past a water stop where one of the volunteers has an Olympic gold medal he has us all touch for good luck, right in the shadows of the Olympic Ski jump.  I pass my teammate Ginger going the other way, who is the only one from our group who is more than a full 13.1 mile loop ahead of me.  As always, she’s gliding and almost making it look easy… she will finish in 11:32:26 and qualify for the Ironman Championship in Kona!!!   I make it to the first turnaround point.   I’m having some mild stomach issues… I think I’m drinking too much liquid at the aid stations (it’s hot!), but I’m having trouble eating much of anything.  I’ve tried most of what they have to offer – Gu, bananas, pretzels, bars, and none of it is at all appealing.  I try to force down at least a nibble of something at each stop.  And I remind myself that it could be much worse, others are unable to keep anything down for long.


Running at the outskirts of Lake PlacidI had hoped to pick up my pace after about mile 5, but that’s clearly not going to be happening.  But it’s becoming evident that almost nothing could keep me from finishing, and that’s huge!   Lots of things hurt—my shoulders and lower back more so than my legs, but nothing feels like it’s going to bring me to a stop.   Even if I had to walk the rest of the way, I should be done by midnight.  And the marathon is the one part of the distance that I’m mentally best prepared for.


Funny and not-so-funny lies that spectators tell you:

“You look great!”

“You’re almost there”   (whether it’s the end, an aid station, the or a turnaround, people seem to want to tell you that you’ve almost arrived when you’re half a mile or more away, or for the end, as much as 5 miles away.  Stop saying this, for crying out loud!)


Lots of TNT friends have made the trip out to Lake Placid, and many of them have stationed themselves out into the run course. We’re so lucky to be here as part of a group… it can be lonely and even boring out there, it’s a huge boost every time there’s a friend to talk to.  Also, there’s an occasional group of spectators who use a race program to find your name as you walk by… It’s nice to hear “Way to go Neal” from a stranger.


Onto the short out-and-back

Around Mile 10

Onto the short out and backAnd then when I return into town there’s tons of people, and Martha and Katee and my family whooping it up as I pass by. 


We pick up the special needs bags around mile 11, heading out on the shorter out-and-back.  I have a long-sleeve shirt which I might want by the end (it gets pretty chilly here in the evening), but I hate having it tied around my waist so I hand it off to my family, and the “In memory of Louie” cap that Leslie has made for all of us.  I hand that off too—I want to wear it across the finish but it will get all yucky now— it’s still hot enough that I’m sponging water over my head at the aid stations.   And I have another gel flask.  To my surprise, this gel tastes better to me than any of the other food, so I decide to carry it, even though I’ll have to hold it in my hand the whole time.


After the second turnaround, Dave Richards catches up to me, he’s almost done.  “Awesome job Dave!” I tell him.  “I think I can finally tell you truthfully that you’re almost done.”  “Really?” he says “How close are we?”  This is so typical DR, he has no idea where he is in the race.  “I’m pretty sure you’re about half a mile out”.   “Oh man, I want to break 12 hours so bad” he tells me.  I look at my watch.  “I think you’ve got it.  Go!!”  He motors on, and finishes in 11:59:08.


Mile 13

As I pass my family right around the halfway point, I tell them that it’s going well, but I’m sure the second loop is going to take substantially longer than the first.  Since the first loop has taken about 2:30, I know that my overall time goal of 14 hours is sliding out of reach, but I’m not feeling at all disappointed about it.  Again, the visualization is helping keep me positive in an area where I’ve had trouble before—when I’ve walked during previous triathlons it’s always bothered me, because the run should be the strongest event for me.  But today, I’m going to be an ironman, and the amount I walk or the overall time are minor details.


Wayne and Sheila are sitting right at the point where you would veer to the right to run into the stadium to finish your race, but I have to veer left and do the entire loop again.  I tell myself it won’t be too much longer before I get to make the right turn into the finish chute.


The last half of the run is where the challenge becomes as much mental as physical.  The first mile out of town feels like the longest mile of the whole day.  When I see the marker, I can’t believe I’ve only made it to 14.  I’m definitely walking more now, and one of the big down-and-back-up hills is right here.  On the plus side, it’s beginning to cool off… the sun will be setting well before I get back to town.   Staying positive is important here, because I tell myself I can try running again each time I walk.  Sometimes I can only run 100 yards, sometimes I get about ½ mile.  When people ask how I’m doing, even when I’m walking I say “I’m excited!  I’m going to finish!”  It may be possible to come in under 15 hours, but I’m not all that worried about it.   “C’mon” I encourage one runner… “you can almost feel the medal around your neck.”  “Yeah… I just hope it’s not too heavy!”  he says.  I laugh at this image… so beat at the finish that you tip right over under the weight of the medal.


The sunset is beautiful and I’m in a good place to enjoy it.  I figure I must be ok if I’m enjoying the scenery and encouraging random people as they go by.  But once it gets fully dark I’m ready for it to be over.  I’m wearing reflective tape, and I pick up a glow stick at an aid station.


At about mile 136 of a 140 mile day, I add one last honoree to my list.  A woman is on a bike, probably looking for a friend out on the course.  She sees my Team in Training jersey and asks who I’m running for.  I tell her the story of Louie, at least as much as I can wheeze out at the moment.  And my Nana, I add at the end, and tell her I’m carrying pictures and lists of all my honorees.  “Ah”, she says, “I just lost my grandmother a few months ago in April.  Would you run for her too?  Her name is Elizabeth.”  Grandma Elizabeth becomes honoree # 28, I head for the finish, the woman on the bike wishes me a good finish and heads out.


 In addition to water and Gatorade and food, the aid stations on the run have chicken broth and de-fizzed coke.  Because I’ve never tried it in training, I’ve been avoiding the coke.  It gives you a quick rush of energy from the sugar and caffeine; our coaches have said ‘once you start drinking it, you have to keep drinking it at every aid station, or else you have a bad sugar crash’.  I switch now, primarily because I can’t stand the thought of one more sip of Gatorade.  To my surprise, it helps me… I feel a little more energized and run a little bit more during the last 5 miles than I have for the last hour.


One more time I pass through town, and my family is waiting for me.  I grab the Louie cap, head out on the last out-and-back, and they head into the bleachers at the finish line. I’m too tired to even understand what they’re telling me.   Later they will tell me they barely had time to get in place at the finish before I arrive.  I guess I picked it up a bit in the last stretch, so anxious to get to that finish line.  The last out-and-back is nearly deserted, spectators have mostly gravitated into the finish.  We’re running along Mirror Lake, and it seems impossible that this is actually still the same day that I did that long swim.  I reach the last turnaround.  I think for the millionth time, Wow, I’m really going to do this!!! 


Wayne and Sheila are still camped out right before the entrance to the skating loop and finish.  I stop for a moment and give Wayne a hug, hopefully I remember to thank him for helping get me here.  Enjoy this last bit, he tells me.


To my surprise, one runner goes charging past me as I enter the loop.  I look around… I’d like to have the finish chute to myself.  I’m trotting easily, a huge smile on my face, the crowd gets bigger every few feet.  I make the final turn into the lights of the finish chute.  I don’t say this often, but I’m pretty damn proud of myself.  How many times have I imagined this moment?  And now I’m here.  I high-five people all down the chute, I look for my family – they’re right at the finish line.


A few feet before the finish tape I point and look upwards for the honorees I wish could still be here, but I know they’re watching.  For Louie, Nana, Greg, Ned, and Tom.  I blow a kiss upward.  I lift my arms over my head (where is this energy coming from?!).  I hear the magic words:


#530 from San Francisco California… Neal Smyth…



I cross the tape and jump up and down (well, that’s what I have in mind, I’m sure photos will show that I actually have about 2 millimeters of clearance off the ground!)  14:55:44. They hang the medal on me.  Craig McGinnis, who was my mentor during my first triathlon season is volunteering in the finish.  They call these people ‘catchers’, because many athletes use their last strength to get to the finish and may need assistance.  I’m exhausted, but exhilarated!  Craig makes sure to point out the medical tent on our way to pick up some food, but I’m gonna be ok.  Well, they might need to surgically remove the smile from my face later!


Eventually I make my way out and find my very excited family and friends.  We talk about the race and watch the finishers for awhile, until the rain starts.  The last half hour of the race, rain starts dumping on Lake Placid and lightning lights up the sky.  One more test for the iron wills of those athletes, including a couple of my teammates.  And many spirited spectators will stay until the end.  Terry Jordan, whose visualization helped me so many times during the day, will be the final official finisher, coming in at 17:00:13


The next day everything will hurt, but for the moment, I hardly feel anything.


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