Professional men line up with two Kona spots on the line

Brent McMahon, the 2017 Ironman Lake Placid champion, speaks to the audience at a men’s professional panel held at the Olympic Speedskating Oval on Friday. MaMahon, as well as the rest of the men in the photo are all looking to be the first to cross the finish line in the race on Sunday. Also pictured, from the left are Joe Gambles, Matt Russell, Balaz Csoke and Sam Long. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — Last summer, the female professionals took center stage at the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon. In recent years, the race has alternated between the top men and women in the sport, and on Sunday, it will be the men’s turn to chase down a coveted professional championship on one of the Ironman circuit’s most difficult courses.

On Friday, some of the top contenders in the men’s professional field appeared at a panel discussion in the Ironman Village at the Olympic Speedskating oval and talked about the upcoming race.

One of the pros, Matt Russell, grew up less than a two-hour drive away from Lake Placid in the St. Lawrence County town of Lisbon. Canadian Brent McMahon, who hails from British Columbia, was also there and returns to defend the title he won in Lake Placid in 2017. Also joining the panel were Joe Gambles of Australia, Hungarian Balaz Csoke and Sam Long of Boulder, Colorado.

Russell, McMahon and Csoke have all raced in Lake Placid before, and Gambles and Long are newcomers to the event in this village.

In high school, Russell ran track for the Canton Golden Bears and was first introduced to the sport of triathlon in Lake Placid at the weekly High Peaks Cyclery mini-tri series. He also competed in his first 140.6-mile distance event at the 2009 Ironman Lake Placid.

“This is kind of my backyard, hometown race,” Russell said. “It all started her for me when I was 18 with the mini-tri. It took me 13 minutes to swim 400 yards. I literally doggie-paddled the whole way. This is a special place for me. Obviously, if you are here, you know it’s a special place.”

In addition to racing for a title Sunday, the men will also be battling for two professional slots that are offered to compete at the 2019 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Russell has already qualified for that race with a sixth-place finish at the European Championship in Frankfurt, Germany in June, while McMahon, Long, Csoke and Gambles hope to take care of that step on Sunday.

McMahon won the men’s race in Lake Placid two years ago, and said a big reason he is back to defend that title is to earn a trip to Kona. His two earlier attempts didn’t pan out after he withdrew from Ironman Boulder during the run on a cold, wet day, and then skipped a planned appearance another Ironman race in Ireland.

McMahon, who is 38, not only reached the finish line first here in 2017, he got the job done by setting a new record of 8 hours, 13 minutes and 53 seconds. On his way to victory, McMahon shaved nearly 10 minutes off the previous course mark set in 2004 by British triathlete Simon Lessing.

“I’ve done well here, I’m comfortable on this course, so this was an easy decision to pick this as my race to qualify,” McMahon said.

Csoke, a native of Hungary who now lives in Switzerland, will be racing for the third time in Lake Placid. He expects things will really begin to get interesting during the second half of the Ironman’s 26.2-mile foot race.

“I absolutely feel that it’s going to be a fast day with all these guys around,” he said.

At age 23, Long was the youngster on the panel. In May, he grabbed his first professional title, winning the Chattanooga Ironman 70.3 event.

“I’ll tell you I won’t win the race in the swim, and I’ll try not to lose the race in the swim” said Long, adding biking is normally his strongest leg in triathlon. “I think this course, from what I know about it, it’s the kind of race where you have to do your own thing all day. You don’t go crazy, you stick to your plan, you stay patient.

“We all have different strengths, different weaknesses,” Long continued. “My plan is to be consistent all day, do my best in all three, not oversell my beans so to speak. That way I have some beans to put in the bean jar at the end of the run.”

Gambles, who currently lives in Boulder, said he breaks an Ironman triathlon into pieces, commenting that on the run, he resets his watch to zero about every five minutes.

“It’s a long way, and in Ironman and I like to break it into bite-size pieces the whole race,” he said. “The bike, the swim, the run, all three. In the end, you hope it all works out.”

Russell, who is 36, has eased his way back into Ironman after surviving a horrific crash on his bike while he was competing in the Ironman World Championships in October 2017. Russell said his biggest concern was his neck, and added that he’s been feeling pretty good.

“I’ve done a couple more Ironmans (since 2017) and I wanted make sure that it wasn’t giving me an issue, which it didn’t,” Russell said, adding that he is happy he doesn’t have to worry about qualifying for a trip to Hawaii this time around.

“I didn’t want to come to this race to be in the hunt to also get Kona, to be fighting with these guys,” he said. “Exactly a month ago I raced Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt, and I got my slot that way, so the pressure is off in that sense, and I’m sure the guys are happy that they don’t have to battle me too.”

As the last member of the panel to speak to the audience Friday, McMahon offered some advice.

“I think most importantly is inspire yourself,” the reining Lake Placid men’s pro champion said. “You’ve done a lot of hard work to get here, you should be proud of that. Obviously finishing, completing, achieving that goal is what you want. Be inspired by everything you’ve done up to now. That’s why your here.”