Local Ironman triathlete trains in biking paradise

Michele Gagnon bikes in Acadia

“I wasn’t the most skilled soccer player in college,” said Ellsworth City Planner Michele Gagnon as she biked down a woodland road in Acadia National Park. “But I was a machine; I would be after the ball constantly, like a bodyguard.”

Twenty-six years after college, Gagnon, an Ironman triathlete and a mother of two, hasn’t changed a bit, though she doesn’t chase soccer balls anymore. Instead, she burns 4,500 calories a day while training for her next Ironman, where participants must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles (the running alone is a full marathon).

“I’m eating pasta at 10 o’clock at night,” said the 50-year-old Blue Hill resident, who does 10 workouts a week. The workouts involve four-hour bike rides, nine-mile runs, and mile-and-a-half swims. “You can’t eat enough, it’s ridiculous.”

Gagnon has only been living like this for the past five years, but she’s been addicted to the bike since she was 12, when her dad took Gagnon and her sisters on a bike ride around Quebec’s Orleans Island, on the St. Lawrence River. Pretty soon, the Quebec City native started biking the 12 miles to school and back. After that, she started biking to her boyfriend’s house over 120 miles away, and then she started biking through Europe and beyond.

“Biking is freedom,” Gagnon said. “You feel like you’re on a cloud, you can go places and you don’t even need a license.”

But of all the places she’s biked, Gagnon said that Acadia National Park crushes the competition.

“This place is a biking paradise,” she said, pedaling down the 27-mile Park Loop Road. Vibrant green forests flanked one side of the road while cliff-top views of the glittering blue Atlantic framed the other. The road takes visitors past some of Acadia’s most famous landmarks, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Cadillac Mountain, and Jordan Pond. “It’s got great pavement and beautiful views of the ocean. Every morning I’m here I’m like, ‘I live here?’”

DSC_0077_wkgThe pavement plays an especially important role. On cracked, torn-up roads, Gagnon worries about going downhill too quickly and hitting a bump at the wrong angle. But on the smooth, one-way bike paths of Acadia, she can tuck her head down low over the handlebars and draw her knees in close to the bike frame, accelerating well past the 35 mile-per-hour speed limit.

“I’d rather not know how fast I’m going downhill,” she said.

Maybe she’s hurrying to make up for lost time. When Gagnon had kids at the age of 26, she took a break from intense exercise until she started running again 12 years ago. Her sisters encouraged her to do a 10K, and Gagnon soon found herself running a marathon. The marathon became a triathlon, and the triathlon became her first Ironman in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she swam without a wetsuit in near-wetsuit conditions so that she could qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, in 2011. Some people wait years to qualify for Kona. Gagnon did it on her first try.

“The whole town was cheering for you,” she said, about the world championships. “The people I met on the plane came out to cheer for me, yelling ‘Go Michele!’” Over 2,000 people compete in the world championships, but the race organizers make sure each competitor is taken care of. “There are two people supporting you the whole way, giving you gels, inflating your tires, putting on sunscreen.”

Since Kona, Gagnon competed at an Ironman in Panama City, Fla. For each Ironman, Gagnon — which relates to the French word gagner meaning to win — has dropped her time by 32 minutes, an incredible rate of improvement. She also has competed in three Boston Marathons, not that she likes running or anything.

“Running is brutal on your body,” Gagnon said “But with biking there are little motors to help people get up a hill, or pedal assists or recumbent bikes to help you get fit, regardless of your weight or body type or if you have Parkinson’s.”

But there’s one thing that makes biking especially enjoyable right here for everybody.

“And we have the park!”

Park Loop Road starts at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, 25 Visitor Cove Road, Bar Harbor, 207-288-3338, https://www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm, Entrance fees are required one mile north of Sand Beach.

Former reporter, David Roza grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and covered news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.