What You Need to Know About Ironman Lake Placid: The Course, The Town, The Weather
No one knows the Ironman Lake Placid course better than race champion and coach Jennie Hansen. Prep with her expert race recon, from Lake Placid course profiles to necessary gear to the best spots for spectators.
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As a native of upstate New York, Ironman Lake Placid holds a lot of special memories for me. I train on that course every single summer, both as an athlete and as a coach hosting training camps, and in 2013, I won my first Ironman race as a pro triathlete at Lake Placid. Needless to say, I love this course, and nothing makes me happier when I hear that many triathletes who have raced Ironman Lake Placid love it, too.
The below race recon will help you prepare for a great race at. We’ll cover everything from the weather and course profile to gear and racing strategy—plus all the best places to eat, drink, and stay while you’re in town.Section divider
Ironman Lake Placid: Weather
The most common summertime conditions in Lake Placid feature relatively cool, often overcast (or rainy) mornings that turn into sunny, warm afternoons. Average morning lows in Lake Placid in July are in the mid-50s, with average afternoon highs in the upper-70s. But this can also swing widely, with temperatures sometimes dropping down into the 30s at night or warming up into the 90s during the day. Lake Placid can be relatively humid in the summer, and usually sees some rain every few days in June and July. Winds can vary from light to gusty, depending on the day.
Race day in Lake Placid has brought every condition in the book, from all-day cold, drenching rains to wind to sun, heat, and humidity. In 2014, a strong thunderstorm rolled through during the swim, and athletes were pulled out of the water and ushered down Main Street to transition. In 2018, some athletes encountered torrential downpours, gusty winds, and even some hail on the bike course, leading to some being pulled off for hypothermia, all while downtown Lake Placid stayed completely dry. Conversely, in some years, afternoon humidity (which can cause deceiving heat buildup even without extremely warm temperatures) and sun have caused many runs to fall apart. Temperatures are also known to drop off in the evenings, even when the days have been warm.
Lake Placid weather, particularly precipitation, can shift on a dime. In short, you won’t know for sure what race day holds until you’re out on the course. Hope for the best, but prepare—and pick the right gear—for the worst, just in case.Section divider
Ironman Lake Placid: The Swim Course
The Ironman Lake Placid swim course is one of the simplest swims on the Ironman circuit—two clockwise rectangular loops of Mirror Lake, with a short run onto the beach between laps, and the famous cable buoy line several feet below the water’s surface to sight off of the entire way. The aptly-named Mirror Lake is typically calm and clear. Because the cable makes navigation so simple, though, real estate right along the line comes at a premium; be prepared to fight for space if you want to swim right along the cable. Otherwise, stay wider if you wish to avoid the crowds. The second loop can get trickier to navigate, as some front-of-pack swimmers start to lap those at the back of the pack, but the volume of swimmers in a relatively small lake ends up creating a whirlpool effect, so times tend to be fairly quick.
The swim course is always open for training prior to race day, most commonly accessed at Mirror Lake Beach. The buoy line is always in place, although the loop distance may vary outside of Ironman weekend, as the cable is sometimes set for various other events (regattas, etc) on the water. No motorized boats are allowed on the lake, making it safe for training at all times. Just be sure to still look up from the line, as you may encounter a rouge paddleboarder, or swimmers heading in the opposite direction.
Mirror Lake water temperatures tend to end up in the upper 60s to low- to mid-70s on race day. While temperatures may flirt with the 76.1 degree cutoff for awards and Kona slots, the swim has ended up being wetsuit-legal for all age-groupers every year since 2011. Pack your swimskin, but chances favor a warmer, wetsuit-legal swim. Athletes prone to overheating may want to consider a sleeveless wetsuit. Even outside of the buoy line, sighting is easy on this course with no areas of direct sunlight, so wear whatever tint of goggles you’re most comfortable wearing.
RELATED: The Best Triathlon Wetsuits
As far as Ironman swims go, Lake Placid is one of the best. The underwater cable makes navigation a breeze, though you should still practice sighting in training, just in case you decide to swim on the outside of the pack for a bit of space.Section divider
Ironman Lake Placid: Bike Course
In a nutshell, the Lake Placid bike course features a bit of everything: The two-loop course (with a couple of out-and-backs each trip around) includes a long descent, some nice flat roads, some shorter, steeper climbs, a bit of rolling and winding, and finally, longer, sustained climbing. The variety on the course means that racers will be challenged throughout in many different ways—but you’ll never be bored.
After athletes exit transition, they’ll immediately be subjected to a couple of short downhills with sharp turns as they weave out to Route 73/Sentinel Road. Use caution in the early going so you don’t throw yourself into a hay bale at the bottom of the turn. Once onto 73, the course undulates for the first few miles, with a few punchy climbs and fast descents, before hitting the first more extended climb out of town. Although not particularly long or steep (about 10 minutes long for most riders), this climb can cause athletes to burn matches far too early in the bike course, so be careful. Shortly after the climb, about 8 miles into the ride, athletes will turn into the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex for a short, smooth mile out and back, return to 73, and climb (and descend) a bit more before reaching one of the most defining features of the IM Lake Placid bike course, the infamous Keene descent.
The Keene descent begins around mile 12, and features about a 1500-foot drop over 4-5 miles. It can be broken down into three main sections—all kicked off with warning signs for trucks—that flatten out slightly between, providing a chance to check speed. Once past some snowplow ruts on the first section of the descent, road conditions are generally good. Speed demons will hit 55mph easily, but more cautious riders shouldn’t despair, as it is possible to keep speed more controlled.
9N and Jay
When athletes hit the town of Keene at the bottom of the descent (at around mile 17-18), they’ll get a chance take a deep breath as they turn left onto 9N and head north on a nice, relatively flat section of the course through Upper Jay, featuring smooth roads and beautiful mountain and river views. This is a great place to settle into the bars and cruise along. Once at the town of Jay, around mile 27, the course makes a hard left onto 86. Be sure to downshift ahead of time, as one of the steepest, toughest climbs on the course is immediately around that turn. The course will continue to gradually climb for a couple of miles, then descend for a bit on 86. Athletes then make a right onto Bilhuber and continue onto Haselton for an out-and-back that’s about seven miles each way. This section features relatively short, rolling hills and some fun twists and turns.
The Notch and the Three Bears
After Haselton, the course heads back out onto 86 to begin one of its other defining features, the 11-mile trip back up to town from Wilmington, sometimes called “the notch.” Most of the climbing is gradual in nature (the whole trip is a bit over 1,000 feet total of elevation gain), with flatter sections in between the more challenging inclines. Athletes can catch a glimpse of Whiteface Mountain to their right, prior to riding past the High Falls Gorge and onto a slightly steeper section. More views will greet athletes as they work their way up more gradually past ponds and streams, eventually reaching the climbs known as the three bears (Mama, Baby, Papa). Although other climbs on the course are longer or steeper, these have gained notoriety thanks to their placement within the last few miles of each loop. Once up Papa Bear, the course turns right onto Northwoods Road, before winding back through town and behind transition to begin the second loop. Crowd support through town is energizing, and will provide a much-needed boost prior to tackling the difficult loop again.
Despite the overall elevation gain, most climbing is fair gradient-wise and there are plenty of sections to lay down speed in the bars as well. Most athletes will wish to stick to their triathlon bikes (as opposed to their road bikes).
As for wheel set-up, more experienced, front pack riders will still benefit from a deeper, more aero set-up to maximize speed on the descent and flats, while those who struggle more on climbs may wish to stick with a lighter wheel (versus a disc). Winds are another consideration, though, especially on the Keene descent, as they can create treacherous conditions, so lighter athletes or those who tend to be nervous in wind should opt for a shallower front wheel.
As for gearing and cranks, this depends on athlete ability and strength. Most athletes will do well with mid-compact (52/36) cranks and 11/12-28 cassettes. Stronger athletes may opt for a standard (53/39) crank, while those who tend to struggle more on climbs or not be able to train on them much prior to race day might opt for a more compact (50/34) crankset or larger (11-12/32) cassette.
RELATED: Ask A Gear Guru: Which Wheel Depth Should I Be Riding?
Lake Placid’s bike course really features a bit of everything, so practice it all! The Keene descent is not particularly technical, but it is long with lots of elevation drop, so athletes should have some comfort level descending hills. Those who wish to take the descent more conservatively should be cognizant to keep to the right on race day. As for the climbs, they can grind athletes down, so spend some time working on prolonged uphills. With that, the best way to approach the course is to try to use gearing to “flatten it out” and maintain as steady of an effort as possible, so work on riding (but not hammering) hills in training.Section divider
Ironman Lake Placid: Run Course
The two-loop Lake Placid run course features a downhill start, a long, slightly rolling out-and-back, and then some tough climbs that will be rewarded by energy and cheers from enthusiastic spectators back into town.
The first three miles of the run course start off with a descent from transition down Main Street to Sentinel Road (Route 73, which later becomes Cascade Road), a relatively flat portion for a bit, and then another quick descent down to River Road. This section of the course is fast and fun—crowd support is highest along the first mile or so, and spectators remain peppered along this stretch.
Athletes then make a left-hand turn onto River Road, and run just under 3.5 miles (each way) out and back. Compared to the large hills on the course, the out-and-back is typically described as “flat,” although this is relative: a few gentle, rolling inclines are still present, so don’t expect a pancake. The turnaround offers athletes their first chance to get an idea of where they stand within the field. This stretch is devoid of spectators (other than residents) and can get lonely (and, depending on the weather, hot), but enthusiastic aid station volunteers and fellow competitors help make up for it, as does some beautiful scenery. Be sure to look up at the ski jumps as you head back towards Cascade Road!
Mirror Lake Drive
Once done with River Road, athletes turn right, and head back up the way they came down—with a climb off of River Road, a relatively flat section, and then the steep climb up Sentinel Rd. The course turns left onto Main Street as the climbing continues (albeit at a less steep angle), before veering off onto Mirror Lake Drive. Athletes will head up along Mirror Lake for about a mile (special needs is along this stretch), U-turn at mile 12, and head back down (with another chance to size up the competition) to finish up the first loop and begin their second.
To the Finish
Be sure to again soak up the spectator energy throughout the Main Street/Sentinel Road stretch for a mid-run boost before again hitting the relative loneliness of River Road, where distance will drag more that second loop. While the final four miles are hilly and tough, crowd energy will build throughout, and the downhill final mile doesn’t hurt, either. As they make the final turn to enter the Olympic oval for the finish, athletes run through a short, quiet area before turning onto the track. Take a moment to reflect on what’s about to be accomplished there, before soaking in one of the best finish lines on the Ironman circuit while rounding the oval and finishing the race.
The downhills straight out of transition (and again on the second loop) of this course are quad-busting, so it may be best, especially for athletes prone to impact-related pains, to opt for more cushioned shoes. That steep pounding can do a number on foot skin and toenails, as well, so this is probably not the race to try going sockless for the first time. Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! Cloudy mornings often become sunny afternoons in Lake Placid and much of the run course has sun exposure, so don’t get caught off guard and burned. Evening temps can drop quickly, so athletes who plan to be out on the run course into the later evening and night hours should pack an extra layer in their special needs bags, as well.
When coming out of transition right onto a downhill, in an area of the course with great spectator support, the temptation to feel like a rockstar and take it out quickly is hard to resist, but be patient! A whole lot of running (and hills!) follow those first few gravity-assisted miles, so don’t blow the quads right off the bat. Settle down, because reality will set in quickly.
Once onto River Rd, keep in mind that the terrain isn’t completely flat, so don’t panic if mile speeds vary a bit-the way out tends to be a bit quicker. Aim to maintain a steady heart rate or power throughout this section. The climbs back up towards town are steep enough that many athletes chose to walk them, which costs very little speed for the amount of energy saved. In the second loop, same ideas apply: lean into the downhills, try to minimize braking forces, use them for a bit of recovery, and stay as steady effort-wise as possible on River Road, while saving a bit to make it back up to town again.
RELATED: How to Run Smarter in Hilly RacesSection divider
Ironman Lake Placid: Logistics
Logistics surrounding race day for athletes staying in town within walking distance of the Olympic oval are fairly simple, as both transitions and bike and gear bag drop-off are located there. The swim start is also just a short distance away. While walking may not be ideal prior to race day, downtown Lake Placid gets congested and parking can be hard to find. Ironman Village and athlete check-in are located at the Horse Show Grounds, about two miles south of the transition area along Route 73. This is easily accessed by car (or bike), and ample parking is available.
On race morning, parking in town is very limited and can be completely unavailable, with some roads along the race course blocked all day, so athletes and spectators staying outside of walking distance will likely want to utilize shuttles from designated lots (Adirondack Medical Center, Lake Placid Elementary School, Lake Placid Fire House) outside of the main drag to transition. Look for bike special needs drop-off outside of transition, while run special needs bags can be dropped behind the swim start area on Mirror Lake Drive. Race day in downtown Lake Placid is best navigated by foot or by bike, so tell your spectators to plan accordingly.
Where to stay
Lodging in Lake Placid Ironman weekend is notoriously pricey, many times with minimum night requirements to book a room for race day. But the convenience of staying within walking distance of the race is often worth the investment—especially for family members who may need a race-day reprieve. Several hotels are in town, but book early, as these tend to sell out quickly. Otherwise, rentals are often available in the neighborhoods surrounding town, including the streets up on the hill above town to the west and northwest of Mirror Lake, or at the south end of Mirror Lake.
Athletes who don’t mind a race morning drive and shuttles, and who prefer a little more peace and privacy might wish to look at rentals in the Wilmington or Jay areas, or even along actual Lake Placid (yes, different than Mirror Lake). The nearby towns of Saranac Lake (about 15 minutes away) and Tupper Lake (about 30 minutes away) may also provide more budget-friendly options. Those who don’t mind roughing it a bit can camp out at the Whiteface Mountain KOA campground on the way up from Wilmington (about ten miles from town), as well.
RELATED: Escape to the Adirondacks for a Family-Friendly Train-cation
Local bike shops and running stores
Lake Placid is home to two bike shops for any of your last-minute needs. Placid Planet Bicycles is located on Route 86 just north of downtown Lake Placid, and High Peaks Cyclery is located on Main Street, along the run course. For run gear, including shoes, race and hydration belts, apparel, and nutrition, check out The Fallen Arch on Main Street.
To catch the best views of the swim, stand up on the hill above Mirror Lake beach, or sip coffee at the small park further down Main Street that sits along the swim course. In order to cheer for your favorite athlete exiting the water, head down to Parkside Drive and stand along the run to transition. Get there early, though, as this stretch tends to be packed!
The bike course features several areas to cheer. Get to Sentinel Road to spectate as athletes initially head out onto the early portions of the course. After that, the best bike viewing opportunities come as athletes are finishing up their first loops and heading out again through town. Many spectators will walk (or bike) a bit to the corner of 86 and Northwoods Rd to help athletes up Papa Bear, and the stretches along Mirror Lake Dr and right in town on Main Street are filled with spectators and energy.
If you’re looking for a place to offer specific encouragement, head up behind the Olympic Center and Olympic Museum as athletes complete their first loop behind transition. Athletes will be climbing here and it tends to be quieter than on Main Street, making it a great location to have a second to better recognize and communicate with racers.
As for the run course, Main Street tends to be the most popular area to view the race for a reason, as athletes head through this stretch a total of four times on the run. Other popular viewing locations include along the Sentinel Road hill or along the Mirror Lake Drive out and back. Some may wish to travel further down Sentinel/Cascade Road to slightly quieter locations, or encourage athletes up the hill as they turn off of River Road. Of course, be sure to head over to the Olympic Oval to watch your favorite athlete come across the line! If you’re on Main Street, remember that athletes will have just over two miles to go when they come by that stretch for the final time, so plan accordingly if you wish to catch the finish.Section divider
Ironman Lake Placid: Post-Race
Eat + Drink
For a post-race libation, the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, Big Slide Brewery, and Great Adirondack Brewery all feature a variety of locally brewed craft beers for all tastes. Wine fans can head right into town, and enjoy sampling at the Goose Watch Winery, while overlooking Mirror Lake.
Lake Placid has no shortage of restaurants either! If you’re in the mood for a pre-race pizza or pasta carb load, try Bazzi’s or Main Street Pizza. For a quick, lighter breakfast or lunch, grab a bagel at Soulshine Bagel, or some crepes, a sandwich, or a salad at the Big Mountain Deli and Creperie. Post-race, the possibilities are wide. Smoke Signals has great barbecue, while many restaurants, including Lisa G’s and The Dancing Bears offer a variety of creative, tasty American fare. If you’re craving a burger, the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery also hits the spot there. Or, grab some Thai food at the Little Thai Kitchen or sushi at Mito Japanese Steakhouse. Those who might still want something sweet after hours of sports drinks and gels can grab some ice cream at Emma’s Creamery or Stewart’s (that’s right, the convenience store has great ice cream), or some baked goods at Bluesberry Bakery.
Lake Placid is a beautiful area, with no shortage of natural sights to see and Olympic history to check out. Appreciating the High Falls Gorge while climbing for miles on end on the bike is difficult, so taking the short, relatively easy hike around the park afterwards is enjoyable. Or, after running past the ski jumps, ride a chair lift and elevator to the top, and enjoy the views.
Those who are mobile enough for some scenic recovery walks can check out an abundance of relatively easier trails in the area, including the Peninsula or Heaven Hills trails, and the trails to some of the nearby ponds along Route 86 (Copperas Pond, Owen Pond, Connery Pond). For stunning views with (less) walking, drive up to the top of Whiteface Mountain.
Sports history buffs will also enjoy checking out Lake Placid’s Olympic history at the Olympic Center. Finally, take a walk down Main Street and stop into the stores offering everything from Adirondack-themed décor, to board games, jewelry, olive oils, and more. Support the local community the way they supported you on the race course the day before—it’s worth it!
Jennie Hansen is a professional triathlete and coach. She has raced Ironman Lake Placid four times, including a win in 2013. Jennie is also a native of upstate New York, and has travelled up to Lake Placid to train, race, and/or spectate every summer for the past ten years, along with heading up training camps and coaching numerous athletes across the finish line.