Veteran medical staff keeps Ironman triathletes healthy

LAKE PLACID – Cora Clark says it’s the people she meets and gets to work with every year who keep her coming back.

“I love it,” said Clark, who runs the medical tent at the annual Ironman triathlon. She’s been a volunteer at every Lake Placid Ironman since the first one in 1999, including Sunday’s 15th annual. “If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. I meet a lot of great people, volunteers and athletes.”

Clark, a registered nurse, remembers one person in particular, a woman with a brain tumor who competed in the Ironman six years ago. The two connected then and have continued to stay in touch.

“She’s had several surgeries since then. She’s had more cancer pop up, but she’s one determined lady and she keeps going,” Clark said. “She completed (the Ironman World Champion-ships in) Kona (Hawaii) last year, and she’s gong to race the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall. There are some phenomenal athletes you meet, and you remember them year after year.”

Clark is just one of more than 250 medical professionals – nurses, doctors, physician assistants, laboratory technicians, EMTs – who volunteer their time and expertise at the Ironman each year, providing care to hundreds of athletes, and the occasional spectator. Without them, the event wouldn’t be possible, said Jeff Edwards, Ironman’s vice president of North American operations.

“We’ve had the race here in Lake Placid for 15 years, so these are among the most experienced medical volunteers anywhere on our race circuit,” he said. “They’ve encountered more interesting things than any others anywhere, and they are exceptionally experienced at handling whatever they encounter here.”

Just what do they encounter? It depends on the weather and the time of day, Clark says. When it’s rainy and wet, there tend to be more accidents on the bike leg of the race, so that means abrasions, contusions and the occasional fracture or broken bone. When it’s sunny and hot, or toward the end of the race between 4 and 10 p.m., dehydration is the biggest problem.

During Sunday’s triathlon, or at least at the start of it, the cooler temperatures led to some athletes experiencing hypothermia, particularly when they completed the swimming leg, Clark said.

Ironman competitor Richard Ptakowski of Washington, D.C., walked into the medical tent around 11 a.m. Sunday, but it wasn’t the cool weather or the challenges of the course that did him in. He said he contracted a virus five days earlier and tried to tough it out but eventually decided to drop out of the race.

“I just wasn’t taking in fluids, and I was having a really hard time,” he said as he was hooked up to an IV. “I could tell I just had no physical energy.”

Ptakowski said he had no complaints about the medical care he received, calling it “first class.”

When an athlete is brought to the medical tent, he or she will check in at a desk where their medical history is kept on file. From there, the athlete will go through a basic assessment and get their vitals checked. Those who are dehydrated may be given intravenous fluids as they sit in one of the roughly 90 folding beach chairs set up inside the tent, covered with a reflective space blanket and given cups full of a high-sodium broth to replenish their electrolytes.

In some cases, an athlete’s blood will be drawn and sent across the room to an on-site laboratory run by a team from Adirondack Health.

“I don’t think there’s too many other laboratories that could probably be set up on a triage basis in a medical tent,” said Jeremy Greenwood, lab supervisor at Adirondack Medical Center-Lake Placid. “It really helps the turnaround time and the outcome of the athletes.”

Extra effort is made to keep track of competitors with special health concerns.

“We have people who run this race who have a lot of health problems,” said Pattie Randolph-Clark a nurse practitioner and 10-year Ironman volunteer. “We have diabetics, people with asthma, people with other medical problems. When they came out of the water, we know their numbers. If they need medicine, it’s all lined up: their inhalers, their glucometers, their insulin.”

The medical tent serves an average of 350 patients during the race.

“We try to treat them all here,” Clark said. “Many times we can rehydrate them here so they can go home or back to their hotel to take a shower and get something to eat.”

If an athlete needs more serious medical attention, he or she will be taken by ambulance to a local hospital. Ambulance personnel will also take patients directly to the hospital from the race course, if needed, Clark said.

What hospital will they go to?

“We try to divide it up between all the area hospitals, mostly Lake Placid and Saranac Lake,” Clark said. “If they’re on the bike course, they could go to (Elizabethtown Community Hospital). It depends where you’re on the course what hospital you go to. It also depends on how busy they are in their respective ERs.”

Adirondack Health’s Board of Trustees decided last week to convert the Lake Placid ER to part time, pending state Department of Health approval. Despite the cutback in hours, Adirondack Health officials have said they could ramp things up for events like the Ironman.

“I’ve been told that it won’t be a problem,” Clark said. “Everything will work itself out. I have faith.”

While many of the medical volunteers who work the Ironman are local, some come from all over the country to help out, like Tonya Kallmeyer of Virginia Beach, a physician’s assistant. She signed up to volunteer so she could get a spot to compete in next year’s Ironman.

“It’s actually the first Ironman I’ve ever seen,” she said. “They sent out the emails saying they needed help with the medical, and I’m like, ‘Sure, that’s what I do. This is my job anyway.’ It’s been exciting. I love it.”

Some medical volunteers joked that their experience has made them think twice about competing in the race.

“Around 9 or 10 (p.m.), when you see the people straggle in and they can barely make it to the chair, you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do that. No, thank you,'” said Jamie Recor, Adirondack Health’s lab manager.

“But the whole event is a tremendous boost to the local economy,” Recor added. “Just to throw a couple hours of volunteer work in there to insure it’s successful, to me that’s important.”

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or