Starting a new era or finishing strong?

Ironman triathlon forces soul searching for Lake Placid community

Spectators watch the start of the 2014 Ironman Lake Placid race from the Mirror Lake beach house, where the Lake Placid brand is clearly on display on the banner. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

As Ironman officials prepare for their 23rd triathlon in Lake Placid next summer, the community is once again debating whether this race has overstayed its welcome.

Only this time — instead of letters to the editor or social media comments — there’s an official Ironman Task Force documenting the opinions of those who want to see the race stay or go. The task force has met twice since Sept. 14 and is preparing a public survey. By the beginning of next year, it is hoped that the members will have formulated an opinion and made a recommendation whether Ironman’s contract will be renewed after the 2022 race.

Yet it’s ultimately up to the local entities that sign the contract: the village of Lake Placid, town of North Elba and Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. They’ve also said they want a consensus from the other towns affected by the race: Jay, Keene and Wilmington.

We’ve heard the complaints for years: Ironman keeps regular tourists away during a busy July weekend; the athletes training on bikes are a nuisance to motorists; the course shuts down my road/street and I can’t leave my home or business or return during the race; etc.

We’ve also heard the kudos: Ironman is really good for my business that weekend; athletes return with their families at other times of the year to spend their money; the race helps keep Lake Placid a world-class international sports destination; etc.

Competitors start their Ironman Lake Placid triathlon in July 2019 with a 2.4-mile swim on Mirror Lake. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Soon the town and village will have a new destination management plan, which is supposed to protect communities from the negative effects of tourism. DMPs are designed with one goal: “Harmony of quality of life for residents and quality of place for visitors.” It’s all about balance.

That means the Ironman Task Force, village, town and ROOST must decide what that balance will be for Ironman tourism and the Lake Placid/North Elba community. Should it stay or go, or should it be tweaked to offset the negative effects? It’s a heavy responsibility, and it will be difficult. No matter what they decide, however, there will be a lot of people who are skeptical of the process and who are unhappy with the result. Exactly how this balance — for all events — will be addressed in the destination management plan is uncertain at this time, but it’s being discussed. The plan is expected to be finalized after a town hall meeting.

Lake Placid is a tourist town. There’s no debate about that. It’s what the economy is built upon. Lake Placid been a resort since the 1800s, and that will not change. In fact, the community is doubling down with the state’s multi-million-dollar investment in the local winter sports venues.

The question is, “What kind of tourism is appropriate?”

The community decided more than a century ago to cultivate sports in Lake Placid, mainly winter sports, yet summer sports play an even larger role in today’s economy. This push led to the III Olympic Winter Games in 1932, many more Olympic bids, World Cup competitions, U.S. Olympic team trials, the 1972 Winter World University Games and the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980. And now, with upgraded Olympic facilities, this town is poised to host even more national and international competitions, including the 2022 U.S. Olympic team trials for ski jumping and Nordic combined, the 2023 Winter World University Games and the 2025 International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation’s World Championships.

Jodi Siegel (1109) finishes her Ironman Lake Placid triathlon in July 2014 at the Olympic Speedskating Oval after a 26.2-mile run, 112-mile bike ride and 2.4-mile swim. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Lake Placid is a sports town. There’s no debate about that. Just look at the sports events, organizations and venues in the Olympic Region, which includes Whiteface Mountain in the town of Wilmington: a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center (summer and winter sports); a world-class combined track for luge, bobsled and skeleton; headquarters for USA Luge and an office for USA Bobsled & Skeleton; training facilities for U.S. Biathlon and USA Nordic; Lake Placid Horse Shows; Summit Lacrosse tournaments; Can-Am Rugby Tournament; hockey tournaments for children and adults, including the CAN/AM Pond Hockey Tournament on Mirror Lake; Lake Placid Classic Half Marathon and 10K; Lake Placid Marathon and Half; High Peaks Cyclery Mini Triathlons series; Empire State Winter Games; home of the New York Ski Educational Foundation; Skating Club of Lake Placid; and figure skating, speedskating, ski jumping, freestyle and cross-country ski competitions.

The question is, “What kinds of sports tourism are appropriate?”

Is it everything but Ironman? Or should some of these other sporting events be nixed from the calendar or changed?

There’s one major difference between Ironman and the rest of Lake Placid’s sporting events. Ironman shuts down more roadways for a longer period of time than the Lake Placid Marathon and Lake Placid Classic. And there is no venue for Ironman to retreat to; the village of Lake Placid and towns of North Elba, Jay, Keene and Wilmington are the venue. The event and its host communities are intertwined — making it both a major headache for full-time residents and a charming location for participants, families and supporters.

Is there room for balance? Will changes help? If so, what kind of changes?

Is it about the numbers? Ironman attracts more than 2,000 athletes, plus their families and supporters, and about the same number of volunteers. Paring down those numbers may not be economically feasible for the Ironman organization, which is a business.

Is it about the timing? Would a 70.3-mile race work in July instead of a full Ironman, or will we still have the same problems? Moving the race date earlier or later in the calendar is not suitable because of the weather. Summer is short, and Ironman needs summer-like weather for its race; the cold weather is what sunk the 70.3 race in September after a few years.

Will Lake Placid survive without Ironman? Absolutely. The economy survived without it before 1999, and it can survive without it in the future.

Yet the Ironman question is about more than survival. For locals, it’s about quality of life. For the village and its brand, it’s about how Lake Placid is seen around the world.

Do you think “Ironman Saranac Lake” or “Ironman Adirondacks” have the same brand value as an “Ironman Lake Placid” race? Not even close. People around the world come to Lake Placid because they know it was the host of the Winter Olympics and the home of the Miracle on Ice hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Many people outside the area can’t even pronounce “Saranac Lake” or “Adirondacks.”

For this reason, Ironman needs the Lake Placid name to draw thousands of paying customers to its race here. And they pay a lot of money; an individual entry costs $844. Would Ironman survive without Lake Placid? Absolutely. But it would most likely take a financial hit.

The Ironman brand also helps Lake Placid’s reputation as an international sports town. We can brag that Ironman’s first race on the U.S. mainland was in Lake Placid. We can brag that this is one of the most scenic and challenging Ironman courses in the world. And we can brag that it’s the longest-running Ironman race in North America.

Is Ironman good for Lake Placid and therefore should stay, or is it a parasite that needs to be removed? That’s the debate. Ultimately, after the pros and cons are weighed sufficiently, we want a decision that’s best for the community.

We don’t have the answers, and we can see both sides of the issue, but it’s impossible for us to put ourselves in the shoes of families and business owners living along the 140.6-mile Ironman route — from before 6 a.m. to midnight on the last Sunday every July. Others can simply stay away from the course on race day, but these residents can’t. How can we keep telling them to “Stop whining, and take one for the team?” With every renewal of the Ironman contract, that’s exactly what the town, village and ROOST have been saying to these people — our neighbors, friends and family members. That’s not right. What’s the balance for them?

We wish the Ironman Task Force luck with their fact-finding mission. Sadly, there will be winners and there will be losers after a contract extension is either signed or rejected.

No matter what happens, we need to start thinking about how to live with each other in harmony beyond the Ironman decision.

There’s a lot of soul searching going on in Lake Placid right now — mainly with full-time residents, but with second-home owners as well. As taxpayers and neighbors, they should have a say in these matters.

In the end, this conversation is about much more than Ironman. It’s also about solving problems such as short-term vacation rentals taking over residential neighborhoods and pricing locals out of parking on Main Street.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. This conversation is about how to find peace, prosperity and safety and how we want to live in this town we love so much.