‘Irondad’ competing in Lake Placid this weekend
LAKE PLACID — What 50-year-old Russell Newell likes the most about competing in Ironman triathlons — especially here in Lake Placid — is the community of racers and sharing “war stories” with them.
His new book, released in May, features a few of those stories, including many details about his extremely challenging Ironman Lake Placid race in 2018. The book is titled, “Irondad Life: A Year of Bad Decisions and Questionable Motives — What I learned on the Quest to Conquer Ironman Lake Placid.”
Newell is back in town this week for his fourth Ironman Lake Placid race — staying in a vacation rental on Mirror Lake Drive with his wife Karoline and four children: sons Peter, 8, and Fintan, 5, and daughters Nora, 3, and Fiona, 9 months. They live in Reston, Virginia, and Newell works in the Washington office for the UnitedHealth Group, which is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 2018, Newell finished Ironman Lake Placid in 13 hours, 32 minutes and 9 seconds (886th). During his first Ironman Lake Placid in 2012, he didn’t have children, but this Irondad is finding it more and more difficult to juggle family life while satisfying his addiction to these 140.6-mile races.
“The more kids I have, the harder it is to find time to train,” Newell said. “This year has probably been the most difficult.”
When it was just one or two kids, Newell said it wasn’t as hard.
“I could not feel as guilty leaving my wife with them, but now with all four of them, and the range of ages, it’s a little more challenging. … when I have to pick and choose when I go out for a 5- or 6-hour ride, and it ends up being a two-hour ride on the bike. Or if the kids want to me to do something, I kind of have to choose family.”
That means Newell hasn’t trained as much for this year’s Ironman Lake Placid as he wanted to, and he’s not sure how his body will handle it.
“But what I lost in training, I hoped to have gained in experience,” he said. “I hope I’ll get the nutrition right this time.”
That nutrition plagued him during the 2018 race, even though he was more prepared than ever.
“I probably trained better for the 2018 race than others, and I ate better on the whole. I hired a nutritionist and had lost some weight and was really fit,” he said.
Newell even made biking a part of his commute into Washington.
“That was 20 miles in and 20 miles back,” he said. “Then I ate too much, and I ate the pepper shot and I had stomach issues the whole race.”
Pepper shot? Yes, that’s one of the war stories from the book.
Newell traditionally gets cramps in his calves by the end of the swim in Mirror Lake. So, 30 minutes before the swim in 2018, he took some advice from his uncle, Bob Falconi, who was competing as well. Uncle Bob handed him a tube of cayenne pepper juice.
“It’ll help with cramps,” Uncle Bob said.
Newell knew it was a risk. One of the basic rules of racing — whether it’s a half marathon, marathon or an Ironman triathlon — is to never introduce a new nutritional component on race day.
“Ever,” Newell wrote.
But he thought, “A pepper shot? Why not? What could possibly go wrong?”
After all, Uncle Bob would know best. He was a “guru” of Ironman and ultra races.
Yet during the swim, Newell’s insides began churning. He looked for a rescue boat. Was it the pepper shot? Was it appendicitis? Was he going to die?
“I really didn’t think I was going to finish the race,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to be picked up in the swim.”
Karoline’s only condition for her husband’s Ironman obsession was, “Don’t die.” So that wasn’t an option. Neither was asking for help from a rescuer.
“I knew that the minute I touched a boat or received help, I would be done for the day,” he wrote. “I would not hear Mike Reilly announce twelve hours or so later that Russell Newell was an Ironman. And that was seemingly more important at that moment than seeing my kids grow into adulthood.”
So he toughed it out. After being stripped of his swim gear, he ran toward the bike transition area at the Olympic Speedskating Oval … in search of a porta potty. The book details some of the 18 times he almost soiled his pants during the race.
Newell said if he gets the nutrition right this weekend, he may finish quicker than he did in 2018, despite not having trained as much.
“I think if I’m not in the porta potties half the race, I might be able to beat that time,” he said. “They say you can never really prepare for Ironman because it’s such a long race. Anything can happen. … There’s so many things that can go wrong.”
And that’s what readers learn in the “Irondad” book, what went wrong in 2018.
Yet there are many other parts to this book: how Newell got hooked in the first place, how he’s managed to juggle the training and family life, tips on competing in Ironman Lake Placid, what his wife thinks about all of this triathlon stuff and how they’ve been able to endure it during their 10-year-old marriage. Karoline even has her own chapter in the book explaining her feelings.
“I try not to take it personally that Russell waited until we got married before he decided to tackle the illusive (and insane and brutal and life-sucking and bank account-draining) Ironman,” she wrote.
Karoline included a couple of tips for spouses.
“If your significant other says they want to participate in ‘just one’ Ironman race, they’re lying,” she wrote. “Despite the time, pain and cost, completing an Ironman is a high that can’t be replicated. As soon as they’re finished and no longer feel shooting pain in their legs, feet and spine, they will want to go back for more. Congrats — Ironman is now a part of your relationship. Buy yourself an ‘Ironman Support Crew’ fanny pack.”
Other than the community, there are a couple more reasons Newell keeps competing in Ironman races.
“It’s forced physical fitness,” he said. “If I didn’t have a race looming ahead, I probably wouldn’t do all the stuff I’m doing — the biking, the weight training and all that. … It helps me keep up with these kids. I need to be in shape to chase them around.”
Yet Karoline was right. Despite the torture, finishing Ironman Lake Placid is a high that can’t be replicated.
“Once you cross that finish line, there’s nothing like that,” Newell said. “And I get really emotional about 100 yards from the finish line and can never stop from crying. You put so much work in it, it’s such an exhilarating feeling and accomplishment when you do it.”
After the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run — getting cheered on by his cowbell-clanging family — Newell hopes to let the tears flow while Mike Reilly announces over the PA system, “Russell Newell, you are an Ironman!”