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Triathletes Get Far More Than They Bargained For

Carolyn Cole, of Cornish, N.H. and Chris Thompson, of Claremont, N.H.  completed the Lake Placid Ironman on July 27. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Carolyn Cole, of Cornish, N.H. and Chris Thompson, of Claremont, N.H. completed the Lake Placid Ironman on July 27. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

Ironman triathletes talk often about the importance of keeping emotions in check to help conserve energy while swimming, bicycling and running over courses covering more than 140 miles. For participants in last month’s Ironman Lake Placid, weather-related trepidation was part of that emotional package.

Cornish resident Carolyn Cole and Claremont’s Chris Thompson were two of 2,600 triathletes caught in a severe thunder and lightning storm while plodding through the course in and around Lake Placid, N.Y.’s Olympic Complex.

Thompson, 37, and Cole, 51, were in the middle of Mirror Lake — host of the 2.4-mile swim that was the first leg of the race — when the heavy rain arrived and they began seeing lightning flashes. Already a chaotic setting with thousands of people trying to out-swim each other, things got even more frantic after that.

“It’s really stressful even in good weather. You’re getting elbowed, you’re getting grabbed and kicked by people trying to get ahead. People are clawing over you,” Cole said. “Things got even more complex after the storm hit.”

Added Thompson: “It was like throwing raw steak into a pool of piranhas.”

While looking increasingly forward to getting out of the water, Cole tried to weigh out the risks of the situation in her mind.

“I kind of went back to ‘electricity 101’ in my head,” she said. “I said, ‘Is my rubber suit going to help me?’ ” Cole recalled. “I decided the answer was, ‘No.’ I said, ‘OK, we’re all going to get fried. This is the end.’ ”

Not long after Cole and Thompson exited the water, event volunteers evacuated approximately 700 participants from Mirror Lake as the most dramatic portion of the storm arrived.

With swirling winds, torrential rain and chilly temperatures augmenting the flashes and booms, Cole and Thompson slugged their way uphill for the start of the 112-mile bike leg, broken into two trips over a 56-mile loop through Lake Placid and neighboring towns. An eight-percent downgrade for eight miles into the town of Keene caused extra challenges in the precarious conditions.

Both Thompson and Cole are strong cyclists, but every passing of a competitor meant potential collisions with riders coming up from the rear.

“It was really difficult to predict the behavior of other riders, because you couldn’t see or hear them,” said Cole, an attorney who lives near Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. “You didn’t know if somebody was going to wig out and try to fly by you at 65 miles per hour because they think they’re not going to hydroplane like the rest of us.

“After every boom of thunder, there would be silence for 5-10 seconds and then just a lot of nervous laughter.”

Wind was also a factor, swooping in from varied directions at high speeds.

“The wheels on our bikes are really designed to cut into the wind (as in a headwind),” said Thompson, a Stevens High graduate who began triathlon training five years ago. “They’re really not built to take in wind coming in from the side. It was like a freight train coming at us.”

On a clear day, the stretch run of the bike loop is an idyllic road, winding along a river with the Adirondack Mo untains highlighting the landscape. It was Cole’s favorite stretch of the event last year, her first Ironman.

“I was kind of mad because that stretch is so pastoral, serene and gorgeous when it’s not pouring rain,” Cole said. “During these kinds of events, I try to stop and smell the roses — not literally, but just slow down and take a moment to appreciate the beautiful setting and how fortunate I am to be there. This time, I could barely see past my glasses.”

By the second bike loop, the storm had cleared and the sun came out. Cole and Thompson suddenly had other oppressive elements to deal with — heat and humidity.

“It was hot, which added a whole new set of complexities,” Cole recalled.

Thompson finished the race in 12 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds, good for 161st in his men’s 35-39 age group.

After getting excellent time during her first 13.1-mile running loop, Cole grew nauseated near the start of the second loop and finished in 12:57:42, 17th in her age group. That was faster than her time last year, although she fell short of her goal to be in the top 10 among women aged 50-54.

“It was a long and lonely last 12 miles,” Cole said.

That is, except for the final mile or so, where fans line the streets to cheer on competitors.

“You hear the announcer and the spectators cheering and it’s like you’re in the Tour de France,” Thompson said. “With a couple miles to go, you stop conserving energy and just kind of let go and enjoy it. I was choked up.”

Cole said she openly sobbed, releasing pent-u p emotions she said are necessary to contain in order to have a successful race.

“You go through pretty much every emotion you could think of (during the race), but you have to keep a lid on them,” she said. “You can’t let yourself get too pumped up or too discouraged, or it’s going to catch up with you. When you get near the finish of an ironman, you feed off the energy from the crowd, the pace picks up and you feel great. You’re finally able to let out all of your internal joy and relief.”

For participants in the Lake Placid Ironman this year, it was a relief just to finish the race safely.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.