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There remains to be one final challenge in the Adirondacks and that will include returning to the river for a class III-IV white water rafting trip. I battled with my girls and tried to convince them to go fishing, but like most cases I caved and provide them with an exciting finish to our mountain vacation. We travel 90 minutes to North Creek and despite our newly found experience from the last trip 2 years ago, I am still quite anxious about being on the river following the Ironman. I do my usual solicitation with the top rafter, convincing him that we will need the top guide on the river based on the basket case of a dad that he is dealing with for this slippery slope of a trip. I get Todd to be our captain, which we called “The Todd”.  Many a high fives ensued as the man with 12 years on the river puts me instantly at ease. The conditions are spectacular and my confidence is growing. The previous trip did not give Amy, my youngest daughter, the opportunity to row, sit up in the boat and enjoy a true Viking type expedition, but on this occasion, she proudly took her position. It was directly in front of me and it would not be long before I am snagging her on the shoulder and preventing her from being ejected into the roaring rapids. We dice and slice down the river and it appears like we are in the clear with only one remaining rapid to go. Suddenly, the warning calls go out, a boat has capsized and the entire crew just up the river is dumped! Emergency procedures are signaled and it was amazing to watch all the rafting companies come together and work as if they were all one outfit. Each company looking out for one another and going into rescue mode. We pull a couple people in our boat, but the look on those rescued tells the story of fright and uncertainty as they patiently await the word on loved ones and other subsequent rescue attempts. Although it was only a matter of minutes before all passengers were accounted for, you can see the toll and affect it had on those most directly involved. A wonderful outcome, which included great team work, communication, and focus by all those on the river that day!  A fantastic finish to a fabulous “Ironman: Journey To Lake Placid.”     …and God willing…many more………

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The day is done and it’s time to celebrate with family and friends! The congratulatory messages begin to pour in over the phone and on the Internet. It was instant rock star status, at least for a little while!  I’ve never seen Amy and Casey so proud of their father then I have on this day and being the best role model I can be may be the biggest reward. Although the town was missing many key players that could not make the trip and those that were there racing made an early exit, good times emerged with some new faces and special friends. Barbara Cronnin-Stagnari took the stage as the 5th place finisher in her age group and made Mike Reilly announce her stellar 57-minute swim! Barbara hooked me up with great swim advice and introduced me to the course at Old Westbury, which afforded me some excellent closing rides, away from traffic and into the zone. We raised our glasses as the sunset in the middle of town and the plans for next year’s reunion ensued. Ken Jones, Christina Hill, Bob Spina, and Anne Hallaby Vargus were just a few of the familiar names put to faces on this glorious afternoon. The family continues to grow and perhaps it’s the great reunion in the mountains that helps motivate us to continue to push our limits and call ourselves ironmen and ironwomen!

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Transition is 6 minutes and I fly out of town and down the hill. The legs are beginning to find the road, the heart rate is smoothing out and I have a shot at the title! I make the left turn and begin the long truck down the road. Suddenly, my right quadriceps renders me completely lame and forces me to the side of the road. I am only 3 miles into the marathon and I can’t relieve the cramping. I attempt to stretch and I’m getting tighter with every movement. A volunteer offers to get me medical treatment and I adamantly refuse as to be in total denial that this is even happening! I drink my performance drink, pop some endurolytes and begin to walk in attempt to relieve the pain. “How can this be happening?” Is my race day over, my personal best out the window?” I began to re-access my race. I had eaten like a champ, methodically taking in calories, fluids and supplementing with portions of banana at every station. I came to the realization that I had been traveling quite close to the “red zone” for the many remaining up hill, into the wind miles on the bike course. I ran out of town like a kid in a candy store and was paying for my over indulgence of sweet, delicious, marathon mountain roads. I chuckled a bit and found comfort in the fact that my legs were loosening up and I was back on the move. I was careful to keep the pace down in an effort to avoid being road kill on the course. I arrived at the end of the road, crossed the timing mat and realized I have one touch of this mat remaining and I am home free! In an attempt to avoid getting too far ahead of myself, I refocused and continued to plow up the road. The task of getting back to town on the first loop may be the most difficult portion of the run, especially given my recent blow-up at mile 3 and my refusal to walk. Steady, and ever so careful, but moving forward. I manage the steep slope and the crowds are nothing short of spectacular. I felt like I was running through a stadium that packed the house like never before in this race. “Go James, you can do it, you’re looking great!” just to name a few of the energetic, encouraging and continuous onslaught of remarks from a charged crowd. I spot the Armata’s and they are screaming at the top of their lungs in excitement because I am now cruising and looking unstoppable! Wanda is atop the hill on my right, Mary and Iron Lucha on my left and the Runners edge guys including Cook and company just up the road. The lake run feels like an eternity, but the return trip as I pass my friends one last time before heading back out goes by quick. The mood is outstanding and the words “Final loop” is most comforting. I continue to plow past the field, moving up more than 300 spots overall and 18 spots in my age group on the bike; I have no intention of giving up any positions. The run is my back yard, central park is my oyster and the thoughts of one more training run begins to light fire under my, well, ya know! I’m doing my best to stay in control and wherever possible offer assistance to my fellow competitors. I’m more than stocked with endurolytes, an electrolyte replacement capsule, and happily supply a woman requesting some at the aid station and another couple of guys down on the ground with severe cramping. I see Brian from Asphalt Green and he is working hard on the course. I catch my buddy Steve Tarpinnian from Total Team Training of whose “colors” I proudly wear and as a matter of good luck continue to suit up with in every big race for some additional good luck. I tell him to get ready to rack it up at Wise Guys, the local town bar in which we have created a post ironman tradition. He says, “I thought you weren’t going this year?” I responded by telling him “Things change when everything is going well!” At this point it was all gravy as I had arrived at that final 7 mile run in the park that I did on a daily basis and makes this closer so much easier in my mind!  I realize that my incident at mile 3 forced me to re-negotiate my goals, drop the pace and get home safe. I was fine with that and the day was almost done! It was time to take it back into Lake Placid and as the flags that fly from the Olympic arena soar high in the sky and come into view, I begin to taste victory. I’m trying not to be over zealous and I have my mind directly fixed on that red zone meter. Do not blow up; continue taking fluids, yet at the same time, I need to get in under 13 this year! I attack the town and do the math. I’m close and riding a thin line between cramping up and getting in! The excitement in the town once again moves me closer and as I carefully pace down the Lake in the final mile I grab a quick refill to ensure a safe landing. The final turn is made and I turn it up a notch and pass a few more people. The oval is in sight and I am going to get in less than 13 hours. The day is done as I climb an additional 54 spots overall and 15 spots in my age group for a 12:57:36 finishing time!

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I cruise down to the oval, grab my bags and scurry to the tent. It’s a mob scene so I wrap myself in a towel to maintain decency and slip into my bike gear. It’s too warm for my vest and for the first time decide to leave the “rain-protecting, frigid cold, slide into Keene garment” behind on this tour.  Out of transition in 11:30 and like clockwork in the mountains it begins to rain and then begins to pour! It is now “teaming” and I’m questioning my decision to bring the vest. To make matters worse, my speedometer is not functioning and I decide not to waste any more time after a lame attempt to repair the malfunctioning piece of equipment. “Is the rainstorm that continued for 13 straight hours in 2008 going to be today’s fate?”  Am I going to have to estimate my mileage and pacing all day and work this course without the use of my clock?” The rain gradually tapers off, my speedometer becomes an insignificant piece of equipment and I’m happy to be climbing in the mountains. I realize that the ride to Keene is the time in which my speedometer is most needed to judge the speed and keep that section under control. I’m a pretty good judge of speed and rely on my instincts to get safely down the hill. The wind is at our backs, which is usually a good thing, but I’d prefer that scenario on the nasty uphill sections!  The day is flying by and the necessary task to begin taking on calories seems more challenging. I’m not hungry, but understand the value in replacing calories and having enough energy to continue to compete throughout the day. I’m scrapping down the bananas to raise potassium levels and avoid the “cramp monster!” I come upon the new section that replaced the traditional trip down and back on Hazelton road. The ride to the Ausable forks is gorgeous and adds yet another beautiful feature to this already magnificent course scenery. The ride into Wilmington is quite challenging and the mountain feels steep! The final stretch to Lake Placid, which is also up hill, is into the wind and throwing down yet another set of high hurdles! I manage to get back to town, and as I swing by the special needs station, the volunteer graciously offers to hand me the contents of the bag. My strategy is to grab and go, get away from the transition area and have a quick visit with my family just around the corner.  I arrive at our designated spot and a woman is warning us of the potential disqualification based on my families support. I know she meant well, but was making a scene and destroyed the short visit and reloading of supplies that we have enjoyed in previous years. Instead, it became a desperate attempt to get my drinks, food, and greetings in record-breaking time without drawing the attention of an official, which was hindered by the loud, whaling woman! I began giving orders: ” Give me my drinks, come on I need my food, no, I don’t want any spares!” And as I climbed up the hill, the guilt of not being appreciative of my families continued support made for a tough trip through town. I felt bad, but knew they would understand my lack of patience and tolerance under the circumstances. I rode out of town with a 3:15:56 first loop split and was right on pace!

The final loop requires an additional push as the conditions have improved with some cloud coverage on a humid day and roads are now completely dry. The goal is to get in at 6:30 and negative split the course. I want to make up time on the hill and as I begin to max out with the wind at my back, I feel by bike sliding out from underneath me and the wind rips into my 81mm rims and tries to take me out! I refuse to lose and once again look at the big picture not allowing a few precious minutes gained on a downhill ruin my race. I get down into the valley, tuck my head down into aero position, grind it out and continue to eat! Arrived at the Ausable forks down and out and take full advantage of this fast, flat section!  All was going well as I attempted to open my last granola bar wrapper and found myself in a ridge in the road. I was trapped and about to get taken out! I re-established my hands firmly on the bars, ripped the pedals with everything I had and dug myself out! This was a nice little reminder to watch the road conditions as I approached the final portion of the course. It would be approximately 22 more miles, mostly uphill, the wind in our faces, which is even stronger then the first loop. I’m carefully eyeing my watch and attempting to calculate my closing time. I’m working hard and shoot for 3 p.m. to be out on the run course and have a shot at a personal best. Despite the difficulty level on the mountain, I feel energized and continue to push. I bang the last hill and sprint into town trying to reach my mark. I’m once again greeted my Karen, Casey and Amy, relieved that they are not holding a grudge from previous transition. Instead, they are really excited and I know that I’ve put up some good numbers on the bike. A 6:30:56, 17.2 mph average and a negative split on 2nd loop of 56 seconds! Outstanding effort and I’m thrilled to lace up and get to the run course.

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Race morning arrives in typical fashion, which includes awakening well before the alarm. Surprisingly enough, I slept well for a pre-race evening, but I am not feeling well rested. I’m a bit anxious and a tad uncertain of my morning management plan. I never want to be at the lake too early, but being tardy creates panic and that energy needs to be preserved. I follow my routine listed on my note pad and that helps to relieve some tension. My wife Karen is by my side with a comforting smile and words of encouragement, “You’ll do great my Bear!” As always, Karen carries me for many miles and she will always be my greatest inspiration! I check in with my kids who are soundly sleeping, but I must depart with a hug and a kiss, which I manage without interrupting their dreams. I begin the trip down to the Lake to drop my transition bags and see John Lennon. No, I’m not hallucinating; it’s a gentleman I met upon arrival to Lake Placid outside the hotel. We struck up a conversation and I told him that I was aware that he had done this race before because in my love for music, I can’t help checking the participant list for the famous rock stars that will be joining me and thousands of others on this day! We joked a bit more about the fact that Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones were not on the list this year as they have in the past and wished each other good luck.  I made my way to the special needs bags area and it is a hike up that road, but happily unloaded the bags filled with Gatorades, extra sneakers, spares, Co2’s and began my trip to the oval. Based on this year’s plan I was definitely going against the traffic as the majority of people drop bags last, but based on my hotel and weight of my bags I needed to go directly to the spot. I can’t help feeling like I’m in the scene in the movie “Midnight Express”, involving a young Long Island man arrested for smuggling hash and tossed in a Turkish prison. He eventually finds himself in a psych ward in which the loony birds are all walking around a pillar and this guy decides to walk in the opposite direction against the grain! The feeling is quite disorienting and somewhat disturbing! I actually feel as if I have found myself in a land of very disturbed people (based on this event some might firmly agree) and to make matters worse I’m upsetting the conventional methods of pre-race preparation!

I come upon my friend Caryn; one of very few familiar faces and that helps to snap me out of it! I wish her the best of luck and continue to the oval to get body marked and make for final preparations. Everything is going according to plan and as I enter the bike arena, the gentleman is blaring on the loudspeaker, “3 minutes to get out of transition, you must leave now!” I removed the plastic covering, meticulously checked my bike, and worked my way to the exit. It is too warm to put on my wet suit, but I slip it on half way and begin the march up the hill with plenty of time to spare. I see an acquaintance that I met at the local pool and at this point just happy to see another familiar face. Mary and Iron Lucha are on the scene and would make up a big part of the limited personal fan base on the day. I see Bob Cook and his lovely wife just to the left of the chute and then I’m greeted by Marc Roy, Jose Lopez and Rich Barkin at the swim start. The number of familiar faces continues to grow and at a time when it was most needed! I slide into the water waste high and then comfortably find a seat on the dock awaiting the start. I chat with a guy named Sam and share with him some advice on my swim plan to stay to the left of the line, as I have been successful in this approach in 5 previous races. Sam is appreciative of my advice, which is then magically confirmed by a public announcement:  “Swimmers may swim to the left as long as you keep the far buoys to your left when reaching the outer points on the swim.”  I’m wishing that bit of advice I gave Sam was not publically displayed as I now fear 3,000 people going with that strategy and my little private Idaho becomes the scene of the “7” train in rush hour en route to Grand Central Station! I shake it off, push away the negative thoughts, only to have the new announcement hauntingly repeated over the loudspeaker: “My apologies, the race director has informed me that NO ATHLETES ARE PERMITTED ON THE LEFT OF THE LINE!” These are not the words I want to hear and have no intention of changing my strategy for this swim start! I begin to reflect on my many years of successfully completing the swim and don’t allow any negative thoughts to enter into my train of thought. I notice that the time is drawing near as they prepare for the National Anthem and realize the stage is up at the pavilion and not on the pier as I imagined. I was thankful that the singer wanted to go solo and not use me as a back up as I think it would have cost many dividends and greatly affected my race.

In nothing short of that which is pure drama, the cannon explodes, the gasp from the athletes and the crowd and we are on our way! The crawl along the dock, the patient anticipation of the extreme numbers and massive amount of swimmers, and the plan is beginning to unfold. I find some space to the left and off I go! Finally, the long awaited, incredibly stressful part of my day has begun and it’s not so bad! There is so much anxiety that builds over days, weeks and even months that it’s just an incredible feeling to no longer be worried and be able to unleash my energy. And still, I must be willing to get in with the pack! I begin to comfortably stroke and follow the path of bubbles in front of me that provides me with the only permissible form of drafting in the race. The questions begin to mount: “Will we be disqualified for being on the left?” I push it away, smile and begin to sing. The tune from last evenings mass puts me at peace and I’m completely immersed in the swim, enjoying the coolness of the water and the indescribable calm which I’m experiencing. It is raining, but I don’t feel a drop! I’m surrounded by nearly 3,000 other swimmers and I’m not getting touched! I was scared out of my mind at the start of the day and I no longer have any fear! Grace, and I don’t mean the cute girl in the white cap swimming next to me, although that didn’t hurt, but that of the Lord is with me! I know the Iron Friar is in the lake as well and the prayers from the Baptist church continue to be my guide to safety.  I emerge from the first loop in 42 minutes, right on pace and prepared to knock down the last loop. I settle in and pick up the pace and once again find myself untouched. The meters slide by, the turn around and then that grin that naturally makes up the lines of your face as you close down the last stretch. The glowing lights from the Ironman swim finish neon lights and the roar of the crowd is slightly muffled from under the water, but become increasingly more vivid and surreal with each stroke. I arrive at the beach at 1:21, and despite the long day ahead, I’m tickled to have reached this point. My family is, without fail, videotaping the scene, fist pumping through transition and thrilled to have arrived at the next section of the race.

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My favorite time arrives as the Jeep is packed and the 3 a.m. wake-up call is set for the mountains and I attempt to relive my childhood through my daughter’s eyes while the city sleeps. A fantastic ride and upon arrival at 10 a.m. our hotel room is ready and this absolutely sets the tone for our trip and prepares us for race week.  I go to registration and I am greeted by Mary and Iron Lucha who are volunteering.  The process is smooth and I am satisfied with 174 lbs. as my official race weight. I speak with the representatives at ASI, purchase my photo package and finally seal the deal on photos for my book. I do the traditional walk through the oval and unfortunately and as suspected the expo is limited in give aways. I see a familiar face from N.Y.C. and it turns out to be Brian from Asphalt Green. Asphalt is the pool facility that we use for our swim teams as well as our summer swim portion of camp and Brian works with us on the scheduling of lanes.  I’m excited, as it was a nice surprise to have Brian join the field. I continue on and have some peaceful, comforting words with one of the girls from the mission church.  She invites me to attend their Baptist service as a tradition to pre-ironman race. I thank her for her gracious offer, but I have the “Iron Friar”, 12-time finisher doing the mass at the local Roman Catholic Church, which can’t be missed! I did express my concerns with the mass swim start of 3000 and the tricky downhill portion on the bike course and request prayers for a safe day, which was kindly, granted. I conclude my visit to the oval with some last minute purchases for back up spares, co2’s, and treat myself to a hat. I test out the ironman performance drink being sampled and happily discover that the orange and red flavors will be served on the run course and the lime which I tried to use in training will be on the bike course. My plan was set and it will include having my own purple Gatorade in all my bottles out of transition and supplies at the special needs stations on the bike course. It’s a little discouraging to have to supply my own, but fluids are up there with the most important part of my nutritional day and I must be able to consume the proper amounts to get to the marathon.

The day is slipping away and I head back to the hotel and review my list. At the top of the list is to contact the race director for the live interview and demo of the National Anthem. I eagerly make the call and was informed that the singer has decided to go solo and not use me as a backup. Despite my disappointment, there is a sudden calm in the room and a weight off my shoulders that allows me to focus on my race. Although my decision to add yet one more challenge to this day was brave and motivated by a long time dream, it was ripping the life out of me and destroying a race that I invested a lot of time and energy.  I can make it happen one year, but perhaps a more thoughtful approach that involves some volunteer work for the race and allow the main focus to be on performing on stage with the harmonica in front of 10,000 people without staring down the mouth of an Ironman race would be more appropriate!

I immediately go down the list and check the items that need to be completed and the time line for each task. I fiddle with my race stickers, transition bags and begin to lay them out across the bed. I am thankful for the additional space in the suite we rented this year which allows me to keep my race gear separate from my regular luggage and all the families as well. The transition bags can be very confusing for first time racers and even in my 6th attempt at this race, items and special needs change and it’s important to be meticulous with the contents of each bag. And yet, all this serious talk about bags begs my inclusion of a piece written years ago known as “Fullers ode to transition bags:

“When you sign in you will receive 13 bags: 1. dry clothes bag. this bag is to put your morning-of-the-race dry warn cozy clothing in after you change into your wetsuit at 4:30 am on the morning of the race. you will put this bag with all 1700 others in a big heap and Uber Volunteer Doug Fuller will sort them all out while you are racing. 2. T1 bag: put this on the T1 rack that has your number on it, a nice half awake lady will be there to help you. 3. T2 bag: place this on the other rack with your number on it. 4. Special Needs Bike Bag walk 1.3 miles up Mirror Lake drive in your wetsuit and bare feet and drop this on the side of the road near your number. 5. Special Needs Run Bag: place this on the other side of the road from bag number 3, no I mean 4. After you change into bag 1 you will swim then you will grab bag 2 and bike. Someone will take your wet suit and goggles and put them in the bag that was formerly bag 2, this bag now becomes bag 6. while biking you will grab bag 3 then you will stop biking and grab bag 4. Bag 4 gets emptied of its run contents and filled with your used bike stuff and now becomes bag 7. while running you will grab bag 5. after your done running you must go find bags 1,2,3,4and 5 (actually bags 2 and 4 became 6 and 7 so find those too) which are all in orderly piles which Uber Volunteer Doug Fuller organized into rows in ascending numerical order from left to right. If you can’t find bag 2, it’s because it’s in the bag 6 pile (remember), if you can’t find bag 1, look in the bag 5 area. bag 3 is typically misplaced in the bag 4 but bag 4 is now bag 7 so there is no bag 4 area…..” and on and on and on and on……..

The inclusion of this piece provides a small view into the mindset of the athletes prior to race day. Everything is being organized, yet nothing seems to make any sense. You question every move made to this point, check and re-check your lists, and try to breathe in an attempt to keep that fierce level of energy from unleashing too soon! I remind myself of the very long road that I have traveled to get to this point, review the few remaining details on my list, and that provides me with some levels of calmness.  I check my schedule, “Swim one loop of the lake, enjoy a quiet dinner with the family, and meet some friends at the beach for our annual IBSEX.” Yes, my little piece of paper lists all those things with actual time line. Seems simple enough?  However, the solo swim around the lake last time ended in a panic attack and a race to the shore. No problem, I’ll simply have my family take out a boat and shadow me. I am cautious, extremely respectful of the water and rules involving swimming, which dictates that you should never swim alone, are ruling the day! The plan is swiftly put into play and yet my wife and kids never quite get within 100 yards of me? I’m swimming the loop thinking, “What’s the point?” I relax, swim a few more strokes and get into a zone. I simply leave it alone, push back the silly talk in my head, sing a few tunes from the ‘Dead’, and find my way home. “I’m a poet, I don’t know it, my feet show it, cause I’m Johnny long-fellow.”

And with that, it’s off to dinner and the beach. In short, dinner was nice, but the meet and greet at the beach was a bust! Mary and Iron Lucha, the only friends in attendance and the realization that this year’s reunion of “blue page peeps” and “Garv-aid station hommies” will not be happening this year. The Mayor, Woody Freese, soon to be 12 time finisher of this race and in the company of only 4 others did not make our traditional toasting event. Woody is still the man and I enjoyed the little stat that he posted that includes his exceptional 100% attendance record at this event. I’m actually in the “every other year club” which distinguishes itself with 6 ironman finishes in the 12 year history and includes less than 50 participants over the years! However, things happen on race week that demands that the priority be on race preparation and so just a few proudly represented on the beach that evening.  In honor of all my family and friends I close the night with my best rendition of “Little Red Rooster” and in keeping with tradition play a bitter sweet National Anthem to an audience of only 3, while looking out on Mirror Lake and accepting what will be.

The list on Saturday is short and to the point. Test ride the course, inspect the bike, drop bags and the bike at the oval, dinner, evening mass and to bed. Stay off your feet, stay out of the sun and hydrate! Use the wake-up call if available, set your alarm and for goodness sake, don’t screw up the a.m./p.m button! Anyone keying in on this chapter to help race day preparation should note the simplicity and length of this paragraph as a critical reminder of what your pre-race day should consist of and let it be your greatest guide!

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