By JAMES M. ODATO
Eric Kreckel fixes his stare at the road ahead. He leans over his handlebars and sees black bordered by green. He sees possibilities.
“Can’t isn’t in my vocabulary,” he says.
As he trains for his second Ironman Lake Placid this summer, he knows he is not a typical triathlete.
In some ways, Kreckel is like the other 3,000 who registered to spend a day swimming 2.4 miles in Mirror Lake, biking 112 miles through the High Peaks and running 26.2 miles among Olympic venues: He knows he’s a crummy swimmer. He knows he’s a strong biker. He knows he’s an OK runner.
But he also knows he’s in pain before he puts on his wetsuit; his hands and legs are numb before he gets into his bike shorts; his brain doesn’t quite register where his limbs are in space as he pounds the pavement.
He knows he has multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath around nerve fibers. It disrupts the flow of information between the body to the brain.
Kreckel deals with it partly with medications, and partly with determination.
In this 21st Ironman in Lake Placid, Kreckel is set to be the only participant to don the orange and black uniform of Team Placid Planet, the bike shop in the host village whose team tend to be just bikers.
He doesn’t broadcast his MS. Even Placid Planet owner Kenny Boettger, who holds the stopwatch at the time trials Kreckel competes in, did not know about Kreckel’s illness until a reporter told him. Boettger says Kreckel has gone from a “casual” rider a few years ago to “hard core, really fast.”
Those without MS, Kreckel says, cannot easily imagine how he feels: “If you were to take a hot spike up through your heel, through your toes and through your knee—coupled with spasticity problems … .”
He is among the two or three who disclose they are competing at this arduous competition with an unusual medical condition, says Greg Borzilleri, race director for the Ironman.
Added to the challenges, Kreckel this year developed chest pains and found out he has asthma. The lung illness flared up during a recent cool afternoon time trial race.
Kreckel began coping with the nerve damage that comes from MS more than a decade ago.
Perhaps, he says, the 2007 diagnosis saved him.
He tries to work out six days a week, twice a day. “The consistent training and exercise help manage the chronic pain and the psyche—keeps you calm,” Kreckel says.
MS led him to the Lake Placid Ironman, a contest he was unlikely to join before being stricken with intense aches, paralysis and fatigue.
He had been smoking a couple of packs a day since 1989, his senior year of high school in Webster. He had been pouring himself into his job at a Plattsburgh fiber-optics company where’s he’s worked since 1997 engineering connectivity networks throughout the Adirondacks. He rarely exercised, except in winter when he served as a ski patrol instructor and volunteer at Whiteface Mountain.
He started getting the symptoms of the disease in 2003 but it progressed to the point of seeking the opinion of specialists at University of Rochester Medical Center’s neurology department.
After pondering the likelihood of life with a wheelchair or a walker, he says, he decided changes were in order.
He began eating smarter, eschewing fast food for leaner protein, vegetables and fruit. He dropped about 30 pounds. The beer belly he was developing receded.
Today, the 48-year-old stands 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 147 pounds.
It was a slow return to athleticism with plenty of setbacks. His previous longest ride had been about 30 miles and that had been years ago. He traded a mountain bike for a high performance road bike.
His left leg had been particularly damaged from MS. The muscle had atrophied and the prominent feeling was pain. He worked up to 10 miles of riding—by joining the Placid Planet time trials on a Wednesday after work one day.
“This is where the journey started,” he says, referring to the course along River Road near the Olympic Ski Jumps. He showed up that first time with his 27-speed Cannondale but saw the others had two-wheelers worth five figures and they knew how to ride them fast.
“I had my ass handed to me,” he says. “I was by far the slowest guy that night.” Then he adds a line that often punctuates his stories: “I thought I was going to die; but it also made me want to get better. “
His time improved over the six-week trial season and then he rode locally near his home north of Plattsburgh. During Whiteface ski season, he also ran on a treadmill. That resulted in an inflamed Achilles tendon.
Part of the problem is that his left side is “stupid”—the MS has caused him to have trouble recognizing where his foot is in relation to his body. He has adapted somewhat from muscle memory, but he can no longer do some drills on one foot when skiing.
The body-brain communication breakdown caused him to run wrong and resulted in injury. He had to stop.
Kreckel kept up the bike training and decided to try the 100-mile MS ride in Vermont in 2012. It would be his longest bicycle trek.
Find course maps for the July 28 race at https://bit.ly/2HTJEpK
He practically sprinted for 50 miles before a flat derailed his effort. The operators of the sag wagon urged him to ditch the race, but he refused, waited three hours for a replacement tire and rode angry the last half of the race.
He ended up passing dozens of people who had spun by him during the repair. He finished ahead of a good deal of the pack, including another rider with MS. That man, Scott Hinman, has become his best friend.
“We bonded so closely because we’re the same person,” says Kreckel. “We’ve got the same personalities, same outlook on life, more or less the same belief structure,” he says. Their personal lives have tracked closely, for instance both dealt with divorce in the same point in time, and a host of physical setbacks.
The two understand each other’s disease symptoms and both have pledged to not let MS define them. “He’s in pain every single day of his life,” Hinman says. The friends talk about how society views people with their illness.
Says Hinman, 47, a financial planner in Vermont: “It used to make me so angry when people say: ‘You don’t look like you have MS.’ It does not look like anything.”
He says he has watched Kreckel get stronger despite a spate of medical problems and other distractions.
Kreckel started talking about triathlons a few years ago, but that came with a huge impediment. He feared the water, having nearly drowned twice as a boy. He couldn’t swim a stroke, so he hired a coach and started spending time in a local pool.
He opted to see if he could run a half-marathon first. So he began running again, a 5K here, a Turkey Trot there, and he wasn’t terrible.
Just before a half-marathon he went roller-skating with his girlfriend.
He broke a fall—unrelated to his MS—by putting out his hand, and shattered the bones around his wrist. “Instead of signing up for races, I had two surgeries on the arm, a titanium plate and a cool scar about six inches long with 50 sets of staple marks. There were no triathlons happening that year.”
But he did start biking soon after, in a cast and on a fixed-speed because he couldn’t adjust the gears. Before long, he joined a team to take some of the runs in the Peak to Brew Relay between Whiteface and Utica.
By 2016, it was time to try a triathlon, the Tupper Lake Tinman. Even though his left hip hurt, he competed. The following week, his orthopedist said the pain was due to a fractured hip.
After rest and therapy, he was back at it.
He ran a few half-marathons and went back to the Tinman the next year and improved. He competed in a triathlon at Lake George that was ultimately called off because of severe weather. Wet and chilled from the swim, he suffered hypothermia after the bike leg.
He set his sights on the Ironman in Lake Placid. First, he volunteered. In 2017, he was posted at the final stage of the bike race near the Hungry Trout Resort on Route 86 in Wilmington.
“When you watch people, person after person, going by you, absolutely visibly suffering with what they’re doing, part of the thought is: Why do you want to do this to yourself? And part of it is, I will do this and I won’t suffer like this,” he says about that mindset. “It’s bullshit. Pain comes.”
He signed up for the 2018 Ironman a few days later.
Last July, scared and anxious, he rose at 3 a.m., drove to Lake Placid and dove into Mirror Lake along with a few thousand other competitors.
“I proceeded to get beat up in the mosh pit of the lake—pretty rough if you’re a slow swimmer,” he says. He exited that first leg of the endurance test almost an hour and 35 minutes later in 1,957th place out of 2,093.
“Then I got on my bike,” he says. “All hell broke loose.” He finished the bike course in 6 hours and 23 minutes—471s t place overall.
He felt strong.
“I stepped off my bike and I fell over,” Kreckel says. “I declined medical attention.”
He changed clothes and took off running from the Olympic speed-skating oval, to Main Street, down the hill by Lisa G’s restaurant and up Route 73 toward Wilmington. “I didn’t feel bad and that made me happy, basically my wildest dreams were coming true. I’d gotten the two legs done and all I had to do was do a marathon.”
He ran, knowing the route required two trips up the “Lisa G Hill” on the loop, and that it wouldn’t be easy. “If you look at the obstacle you’ll never get over it,” he says.
About 4 hours and 46 minutes later he was at the finish line, with a total race time of 13 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds—better than he could have imagined.
Hinman was there at the end taking pictures. He was in tears as he photographed the man who finished 692nd out of 2,093. “For a guy who’s been through what he has been medically, it’s mind-blowing,” he says. “I’m so proud of him.”
Kreckel does not intend for Lake Placid to be his last athletic test. He hopes to eventually earn a spot or an invitation to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, which the organizers call the “most iconic one-day sporting event in the world.”
To qualify he would have to be speedier, and be a top finisher for his age group.
“Time will tell,” he says. “I’m not done yet.”