Ironing out a life

A single cannon shot, signifying the mass swim start 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 he witnessed his first Ironman may have saved his life.

“I used to be 300 pounds,” Wilson said. “I was pre-diabetic. I had high blood pressure. My doctor said I wasn’t looking good.”

This year he’ll look to finish his fourth consecutive Ironman Lake Placid and afterward add “2013” to the previous three years on a red, white and blue Ironman tattoo on the back of his right calf.

Before 2007, Wilson used to stay away from his hometown of Lake Placid during the event. That summer, however, he accepted an invitation from his niece to watch the race, and his life hasn’t been the same since.

“I wasn’t in good shape, and I didn’t want to be around,” he said. “But then I went and saw one.

“When I was standing on the shore for the swim, my heart started racing,” he continued. “When that cannon went off, my life changed immediately.”

A long-haul trucker by trade, Wilson said his hobbies used to be drinking beer and watching NASCAR races on television. Since that day in 2007, he 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 the Ironman Lake Placid and Tupper Lake Tinman triathlons as well as 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. 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 he 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, ‘OK, 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, a half-Ironman-distance triathlon 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 as his 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.”

To secure a spot in his first Ironman Lake Placid, Wilson signed up as a volunteer for the 2009 race. His first go at the full 140.6-mile distance was the next year, 2010.

In the middle of it, he 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 Ironman finish times, although he did admit it has taken him about 10 minutes longer to complete the race since his 2010 debut. On Monday, however, he did say he feels pretty good with less than a week to go before this one.

“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.”

Contact Lou Reuter at 518-891-2600 ext. 29 or