Sunday would have been Ken Meadows' fourth Ironman Lake Placid but the former firefighter from Babylon sacrificed his race day plans when a downtown building burst into flames Saturday evening.
When he saw a column of smoke rising from a building on Main Street, Meadows said he jumped into action.
"It was a no-brainer. That was more important than any race, that moment," said Meadows, 49. "You don't know how many lives are in the building. Everything turned out fine but you don't know that going into it."
Meadows said he was driving back to his hotel in Lake Placid when he spotted the burning building. He asked his son to park and then ran back to help out. By the time he arrived, he said, people were starting to rush out of the blazing building, but first responders had yet to arrive.
He and a friend, Mike Delgado, 42, a volunteer firefighter from West Islip and Ironman triathlete, were one of the first few on the scene. Without firefighting gear, they systematically checked the building, making sure all occupants were safely out, even forcing locked apartments open, Meadows said in a telephone interview. "We just did what we could," he said.
The flames spread to a neighboring building, with both located near Mirror Lake, according to The Associated Press.
The lake is part of the Ironman course, and the water was tested at 5 a.m. Sunday to make sure it was safe for swimming, said Ellie Seifert, public relations director for the event.
When the competition began at 6:30 a.m., Meadows was not among the roughly 2,500 athletes jostling into the water. Despite training since January, he decided against participating in the grueling all-day event.
"I wasn't feeling too good today," he said.
Philip LaHaye, a vice president at Ironman of North America, said Meadows' decision to help at the fire and forgo the race was "a tremendous sacrifice."
"He spent months and months" training, LaHaye said of Meadows. "It's a huge time commitment and he made a choice to go in [the burning building] and help, knowing that racing the next day probably wasn't in the cards."
Ironman officials offered Meadows a spot in next year's Lake Placid event or another elsewhere. Delgado participated in Sunday's event, which included a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run.