SARANAC LAKE - There are plenty of inspiring stories about how the world of triathlon has impacted the lives of people who got involved with the sport. A single shot of the cannon that signified the mass start of the swim of the 2007 Ironman Lake Placid changed Wes Wilson's life forever.
In fact, the 52-year-old Bloomingdale resident said that brief moment on the day when he witnessed his first Ironman may have actually saved his life.
Prior to 2007, Wilson used to stay away from his hometown of Lake Placid during the event. But that summer, he accepted an invitation from his niece to watch the race, and his life hasn't been the same since. A long-distance truck driver, Wilson used to weigh 300 pounds and live a life of drinking beer and watching television.
Wes Wilson receives encouragement from his niece Daci Shenfield during last year’s Ironman Lake Placid.
Morgan Ryan/Lake Placid News
He'll be looking to finish his fourth consecutive Ironman Lake Placid this year, and afterward, add the numbers 2013 to the previous three years on the red, white and blue Ironman tattoo on the back of his right calf.
"Ironman had been in Lake Placid for years, and I always avoided it," Wilson said. "I weighed 300 pounds. I wasn't in good shape, and I didn't want to be around. But then I went and saw one.
"When I was standing on the shore for the swim, my heart started racing," Wilson continued. "When that cannon went off, my life changed immediately. I used to be 300 pounds. I was pre-diabetic. I had high blood pressure. My doctor said I wasn't looking good."
Wilson said his hobbies were drinking beer and watching NASCAR races prior to seeing his first Ironman in the Olympic Village six years ago. Since that day, Wilson has shed more than 100 pounds and hasn't touched a drop of alcohol. He has stayed focused on preparing for numerous endurance races that include Ironman Lake Placid, Tupper Lake Tinman triathlons and various marathons.
"I live, sleep and breathe Ironman," Wilson said. "Growing up in Lake Placid, I was just a fat kid who used to get picked on. I was always skipping gym class. What an amazing journey it's been."
After watching his first Ironman Lake Placid, Wilson spent the next three years preparing for the race. And he had plenty of work to do. He didn't own a bike and he didn't know how to swim. The first time he was invited to run in a 5k, he asked "Is that like a marathon or something?"
One of the first things Wilson did was purchase a cheap bike at Walmart. He upgraded to a better bike shortly after he piled up some miles on the road.
"When I told my wife (Cheryl) I wanted to do the Ironman, she said 'Okay, but just don't go out and buy a $5,000 bike and only ride it once or twice,'" Wilson recalled. "So after I did a 50-mile ride on my Walmart bike, I think that was proof enough."
Running came next. With the help of his friend and training partner Bill Peer, an avid local runner who is also an Ironman, Wilson built up his endurance on his feet.
Swimming, however, was another matter. After getting comfortable with biking and running, Wilson went ahead and signed up to compete in a Tupper Lake Tinman, which is a half-Ironman distance race held each June. But not long before that race, Wilson still needed to learn to swim.
"I figured if I can bike 50 miles and run 13 miles, I'd do the Tinman," he said. "But when it came to swimming, I knew I'd sink like a rock."
Wilson, who also lives in Florida during the winter months, took an unusual approach in his quest to master swimming. With his wife helping as a coach (she didn't know how to swim either), he went to the library, found two books on learning to swim and headed off to the pool.
"The pressure was on," Wilson said. "I was already signed up for the Tinman and I still didn't know how to swim. I didn't want to say I had to drop out of the race because I couldn't swim. I found some how-to-swim books, and my wife was literally by my side at the pool with them. I was still scared to death when I stepped into the water at that Tinman, but when I got to the halfway point of the swim, I knew I was home free."
In order to secure a spot in his first Ironman Lake Placid triathlon, Wilson signed up as a volunteer for the 2009 version of the race. In an amusing anecdote from his inaugural attempt at the 140.6-mile distance, Wilson just happened to run past the home of his former gym teacher, Lake Placid's Bob Birk.
"On the run, I saw my old gym teacher standing at the end of his driveway," Wilson said. "I stopped and asked him if he remembered me, and ultimately, he knew me by my eyes. And then I asked him if I made it to the finish line, could he go back 30 years and give me an 'A' in gym class."
Wilson said he doesn't pay much attention to his finish times in the Ironman, although he did admit it has taken him about 10 minutes longer to complete the race since his 2010 debut. But on Monday, he did say he feels pretty good with less than a week to go before the triathlon.
"I'm never going to be a fast Ironman," he said. "I'm just happy to reach the finish line. One way you can tell it's me out there is I'll be wearing a smile the whole time. To me, the Ironman feels just like Christmas."