Live Low, Race High: Ironman Lake Tahoe Race Report
(For just the race report open this entire post and scroll down to RACE DAY)
When I found out there was going to be an Ironman race in Lake Tahoe, becoming the first Ironman branded race in California since Ironman California back in 2001 (the year I started in the sport), it had already sold out and there was a lot of speculation about how difficult it would be to race an Ironman triathlon at elevation. With the race sold out and my 2013 season pretty much a bust due to continual injuries and months of physical therapy, I thought little about competing in the race that was “in our back yard” until an opportunity presented itself; more on that in a bit.
At the beginning of 2012, I began to notice little pains in both my right knee and ankle. As the year progressed the pains would come and go and never got to the point where I would have to stop, so I just trained and raced through them. It was a good year for results and I finished with qualifying and racing in Kona. But afterward, I knew I needed to let my body recover. So… I rested. Thinking this was a good thing; I later came to realize there are proper ways of resting and as my physical therapist told me on my first visit back in February, “This will probably take a good two to three months, to get you back to where you can just train again.” WHAT? I thought, “She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. Two to three weeks maybe.” She was right.
Until Tahoe I had only raced three times in 2013. I didn’t follow a training plan because of the slow recovery and several other commitments outside the sport. And when the recovery finally afforded me a couple weeks of consistent, swim, bike, run training I was off to Haiti on a mission’s trip affording me no training for a couple weeks, only to return and race at Vineman 70.3 the following day! Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty, as I suffered through to a 5:17 finish; a full half hour slower than usual. But I felt good and capable of training for a season-end half distance and/or Olympic distance race some time in September. Then I got an email from our triathlon club, “Interested in racing Tahoe?”
At this point the longest run I had pulled off was the 13 miles at Vineman, prior to that; 8 miles in training. I texted my coach, “Do you think I could be ready for Tahoe?” His text back… “Will you be able to run 20 in two months?” I knew this meant at the peak of training prior to a two week taper which Brian has had me do for the past couple years I’d have to run 20 miles straight. This was a week after Vineman and I had already been running and things were starting to click. So, I texted back, “Got 10 in this morning.” Immediately he got back with, “GO for it!”
When I received the special “tri-club” code for the entry, I really wasn’t thinking about the course or logistics for a last minute entry, I was just thinking “Yippee! I get to do an Ironman this year!” It wasn’t until I received confirmation of my registration that I thought, “Oh no, what have I done?” I started asking some of the folks in the club who had been going up to train for the race about lodging and race locale and what were the conditions and course like? Pretty much heard, that all the Squaw resorts were sold out as well as the hotels along the lake and in Truckee. A friend of mine knows the CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows and an email from him confirmed lodging would be difficult at this time. But that was to be the least of my worries as the next week I had been feeling so good, now able to run, with my swim and bike fitness I was able to really pour in the miles and put in nearly 40 miles of running by capping off the week with a 14.5 mile run. I didn’t really pay much attention to the soreness in my left heel in the last few miles running home as I’d been feeling all kinds of different niggling tweaks as the body was adjusting to the riggers of training. But I definitely noticed it the next morning as I got out of bed!
I had heard about plantar fasciitis and even felt a little of it for a few weeks a couple years back but I didn’t understand how badly it can immobilize you and make you whimper like a toddler. So, I thought I’ll just let this heal up by taking a week off of running and stretch it real good and that tendon will just bounce back! A week later all that pain was gone as I walked around so I laced up my running shoes and took off for an easy 6 mile run. Immediately there was a little discomfort but like always, I assumed it would go away as I warmed up. But no! at three miles into the run, it was like I had stepped on a railroad spike that split my heel in half. All I could do was hobble back and beat myself up for doing too much too fast. I know the rules of training, no more than a ten percent increase per week. I had ignored that and my body was letting me know! As I did the research on PF it was painfully evident. There would be no running for at least the next month and most likely not even for the next several months! So how was I going to pull off an Ironman?
Initially, I thought since our lodging was now covered and I had paid for the entry with no possibility of a significant refund and with our vacation scheduled around the race, we’d just go up there relax and I’d get in a healthy morning swim and challenging bike ride and then cheer on a bunch of my friends as I watch them complete an Ironman. Joy kept telling me… “You can walk it.” But the thought of being out there until however long at night was not appealing. I know a lot is said about the folks who come in during the late hours and how inspiring they are but I tend to feel bad for them imagining how miserable being in your head for that long could be; wondering, “when will this end?”
Earlier in the year I had told a friend that I would race with him when he did his first triathlon, TRI California’s Pacific Grove. So, now I’ve run but three miles in practically two months and Ironman Lake Tahoe is 10 days away and it’s the last day to sign up for Pac Grove. My friend said, he’d understand if I didn’t do the race with him but I’m now thinking, let’s see how the foot feels. If it gets painful, I’ll just drop out. So, sign up I did! And not only finish I did, I got 2nd place in my AG! What the hey!? Yeah, my foot was a little sore afterward, but it bounced back within a day. Now a week away, I’m thinking… I might be able to run a little bit up in Tahoe!
On late Wednesday evening when we arrived to the unbelievable location and mountain home (of which we cannot thank our hosts for enough!) we knew we were in for a fantastic vacation. But it wasn’t until the sun came up the next morning we realized we were in a world of beauty and serenity that would make this week exactly what we had needed. The only disruption from the rest was the actual purpose for which we came… the Ironman.
Here is the typical detail leading to the race start.
Thursday, registration – Friday, put the final touches on the bike and go for a ride on part of the course. I had brought my deep dish ENVE 8.9 wheels but again at high speed and severe cross wind, the bike develops a nasty high speed wobble. So, I took the bike into Paco’s (great bike shop in Truckee!) and got a new cassette and tires for my Zipp 404’s. I also purchased some arm warmers and gloves as the weather report was stating it was going to be pretty cold on race morning. On Saturday, the weather was changing as I put together my gear bags. By noon it started to sprinkle on me as I went out for a short run that had my heel feeling fine but my calves tender. By the time we left for Squaw Valley to drop off my run gear it had turned into a complete downpour! People were scrambling for cover and the transition tent had a running river of water going through it. When we arrived at King’s Beach to drop off the bike and bike gear, the rain had subsided a bit but the lake was a churning washing machine. Oh boy… what have I done? That night the weather report stated the storm would be completely past by 2:30am but the temperatures were going to drop to around 29 degrees, that’s Fahrenheit!
When the alarm went off at 4am, I had little rest as most of the night was a combination of tossing and turning with senseless dreams of frozen bikes and a marathon run that never ended as each turn was the same. Joy made coffee; I had a small bowl of granola with banana and some cantaloupe. I walked outside to see how bad it was… The sky was clear, the road, slightly damp and the temp, definitely chilly! As we drove to King’s Beach over Brockaway Summit, there were few cars with us. But as we circled our way to Troy and Robin’s cabin, which was a block from T1, cars and confusion were everywhere. Joy’s plan was to just drop me off and then drive straight to Squaw Valley to park and shuttle back to the swim start. It took her a little effort to get over to Highway 28 but she did it and was back in time for the canon blast.
When I got out of the car the temp read, 32. After dropping off my special needs bag for the run, which had a long sleeve shirt and old fleece lined cycling vest, I headed into body marking where fellow SVTC (Silicon Valley Triathlon Club) board members, Christina and Carolyn did the honors. The day before when dropping off the bike I was a bit miffed by the location of my bike but now discovered it was a prime spot right in front of the Event Center and alongside a row of porta-potties. Once I took all the frozen plastic off the saddle and handlebars and filled up my water bottle with a concentrated dose of Hammer Fizz, I walked into the warm Event Center and waited about 45 minutes before taking off all my layers of warm clothing and putting on my wetsuit. At 6:25 I exited the Event Center, removed my fuzzy socks and placed my morning cloths bag into the box labeled for my number, 2623.
As I walked in the frozen sand, the sun was coming up just enough to reveal the snow that had dusted all the mountains surrounding the lake the day before and gave enough light to see the signs that indicated where you might want to seed yourself for the new “rolling start” method of swim entry. Not sure how I would swim at altitude I gave myself a little extra time knowing I would purposely not go hard, so I lined up in the middle of 1:11-1:20 as a projected finish time for the swim. As the canon when off for the professional men and women at 6:30 and 6:33 respectively, the age group canon went off at 6:40 and it took about 5 minutes for me to get in the water. As I crossed the timing mat I started my Garmin 910xt and officially my day had just begun.
Swim: The water is shallow for the first 100 meters or so. I chose not to warm up with a swim because I didn’t want to get out, be wet and wait literally while it was freezing! So, the slow march into the mist rising from the water was a bit surreal. When it was deep enough we all seemed to jump in, lemming like and the first thing that struck me was how crisp, clear and tasty the water was. It was cold too but not too bad, in fact the further out from shore the more the water seemed to warm up. However, there was a problem. As you looked up to sight, you literally were in a fog! The mist was so thick you could only see about 10 feet ahead of you. So we just followed the person in front of us, until I came across a volunteer on a surfboard saying, “You’re off course, go right!” As I looked around I could see I wasn’t alone and we headed right to a yellow buoy about 50 yards away. Most of the swim was without congestion and again because the water was so clear it was easy to see folks around you underwater. At the “in water” turn to the second loop of the swim the water was shallow enough to walk. Several around me chose to but I stood up only to check time and move on. Ironically, I looked but immediately forgot what it read, Oh well, I was feeling pretty good. As long as I didn’t kick hard to fend off an attack of wrists and elbows, I was fine.
Now as the second loop was well underway the sun came up over the mountain ridge and lit up the yellow buoys and sighting became much easier. At the turn, the sun was right in our eyes so you had to look for a triangular silhouette. Finally, around that last buoy, I was happy that even though I hadn’t been running, I didn’t stop swimming. Like most of my races over that past few years I’ve come to enjoy that final stretch of swimming telling myself this is the calmest and most comfortable I’ll feel for the rest of the day and to enjoy it. As I exited the water, I carefully pulled back my collar and grabbed the zipper cord and tugged upward. Now wishing I had waited my chest and back were exposed and bristled against the frigid air. I looked at my Garmin and this time remembered the time, it read 1:08.Wow, I didn’t expect that having gone fairly off course and taking it easy throughout the swim but I’ll take it.
Official swim time (not sure what Garmin did) 1:09:18 / AG place 29
T1:I don’t normally post transition details but this one is an exception…when I grabbed my bag, I noticed the strings were frozen solid as the wetsuit strippers forced me down on wet, icy concrete. Running to the change tent, I dragged my frozen big toe across the pavement, I couldn’t feel it, just knew that I did it cause it almost tripped me. Now in the tent it’s a wall of guys! It takes me nearly 5 minutes just to find a space to unload my gear, which was the typical helmet, shoes, sunglasses and nutrition along with a towel, a pair of arm-warmers, knee-warmers, a head cap, my entire race kit, gloves, a long sleeve shirt and a windbreaker. My fingers were frozen as I tried to warm them up with the towel as I stripped bare of my swimsuit and dried completely before slowly putting on all these cloths. But I hadn’t thought this through and put on the long sleeve shirt before the arm-warmers… ugh start over. This caused me to advance my Garmin into the bike mode. Now knowing my transition time would not be recorded correctly, all I could do was guess but I knew… it was by far the longest transition in my life! Official Transition 1 time: 20:50
Bike: Clickity-clack, I ran the bike to the mount line and slowly clipped in and again, not trying to go into the “red-zone,” I took it easy out of King’s Beach. It was cold! But I’ve done training rides in the rain that seemed worse. The race organizers were providing a place to drop gear at mile 15, where they said the temps would be warm enough by the time we arrived there… nope, not true! I was riding down the Truckee corridor with a group of about 10 guys all minding their own business except one who blatantly, disregarded drafting and drop back rules, so I had to say something but his comment back is too rude to write on this post. As we got up into Truckee the course has some fun little up/down and around parts on a bike path into aid station #3. This is a short aid station, as it sits in a small parking area, so it requires some thought as to what you want, in other words you can’t go shopping here; it’s one item and you’re out. Now over to highway 267 there are a couple miles to the Schaffer Mill Rd. turn. I know these parts as this is where we’re staying for the week. I had already gotten permission from the guard gate at the first round about heading up into Martis to drop gear there. By now the temps were in the mid 40’s so I stopped in and shed the windbreaker and long sleeve shirt. Used their bathroom and even filled up my water bottle since I missed that at the last aid station (see what I mean?). This was perhaps a 6-8 minute pit stop but well worth it as the guard shack was nice and warm, besides, I told myself, “Today, you’re a completer not a competitor.” Now back on the road, when I started the first real climb I was somewhat familiar as we were able to get in for a short distance the day prior but had only heard about these tandem back-to-back climbs starting here and ending at the top of Brockaway Summit at 7200ft. Here, I turned my Garmin over to read altitude and it started at just under 6000 and the climbing began. It was a little up and down for the first couple miles then it hits a pretty steep pitch for about a half mile then it just continues up to the north summit of Northstar. There’s a little flat before a final uptick to the Ritz Carleton then it’s a fast and technical descent back down to Hwy 267 where the second climb begins and here it’s three miles up with no break and the final mile is 8% grade. Again, following race plan to just stay calm and easy, I was grateful for the new 28-11 cassette on the back! Now the fast and smooth rocket race to the bottom at King’s Beach as the road was just recently paved, but like every first descent I take it easy… you never know what you don’t know. At the bottom I make the right hand turn back onto Hwy 28 and notice a bit of a tail wind making this even more enjoyable after all that misery going up and up. There is a short out and back at Carnelian Bay and when I’m back on 28 all of a sudden my chest is on fire! I never saw it but a bee must have gotten down my singlet and retaliation for getting stuck there… stuck me there! I’ve been stung a lot on training rides but this was the first for a race and man, did that one hurt!
Now on the second loop down the corridor the field was pretty spread out. There were times I would pass someone and I could look well up the road and not see anyone. This is a nice section of road to just get settled in your aerobars and cruse. Again back through Truckee, oh darn there’s that short aid station again, missed another water bottle. But, at the round about to Lahontan I dropped off my arm and knee warmers and gloves, used the potty again and filled my bottle! The guys in the guard shack were great and made the stops pretty fun. Okay… now the real test. How will the legs feel round two? Surprisingly good and it made me think how smart the choices were for my long training rides ranging between 8,000 to 12,000 feet of climbing. At the top of Brockaway I made a point to say something funny to the spectators as that is a good way to check your attitude especially, wait for it… at altitude! With no brakes and holding aero, the trip to the bottom was much faster and the ride this time to Squaw without bee incident. There is a little 7% grade climb you get to do three times along the lake and this time it comes at mile 100. Where’s that attitude check? Oh, yeah, still smiling!
Making the turn into Squaw Valley I again check my legs for lactate build up and note that things feel good. Only two more miles and T2 before I’ll know whether I’ll be able to run or not. Official bike time: 6:20:42 / AG place 20
Run: I took my time in T2 as Conrad, another fellow SVTC’r, helped me with my gear. I changed my socks, not sure why as my other ones were completely dry, which was a first for an Ironman… perhaps it had a lot to do with those two bathroom stops, if you know what I mean. I chatted with a few guys about the bike course, which confirmed one thing; we had all but forgotten about the swim. As I exited the tent, I got lathered up with sunscreen, grabbed some water and off I went… I immediately saw Joy so, I stopped to say hi and give her a kiss goodbye for the run. As I ran through the parking lot to the first-mile aid station, I couldn’t help notice how good my left foot felt. NO pain! Oh my, is it because I went back to my KSwiss shoes? Could it be the recovery? Well, I don’t know but it made me happy to be running. Yet, I had to stop almost right away as the first aid station was our SVTC aid station, so I high-fived a few folks, and gave a quick report on the day and then back at it… running, which I was able to do for the first 3 miles with ease. I kept the pace light and mentally was checking for any sign of foot pain, which slowly crept in on the turn to the highway. So, at this point I settled into what I determined would be my game plan for finishing; run a little walk a bunch, run a little walk a bunch. With a total of nine miles of running over the past two months with six of those the prior weekend, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go the distance even if I was pain free. So… there I went.
The bike path along the river is spectacular! What a great run course. I made sure even though my effort wasn’t typical that I hydrated and fueled. I didn’t have my typical stash of electrolytes with me so I started eating potato chips to get some salt. At the mile ten turn around I was still doing the “run a little walk a bunch” way when I saw fellow FCA-E teammate Robin coming at me. I knew she’d catch me pretty quick, which she did and stopped briefly enough to say a quick prayer for me! Thank you Robin. As the sun was beginning to dip the shadows grew long and the temps were dropping. Coming back the wind was in our faces. At about mile 13 we were able to get the contents in our special needs bag, which I quickly put on as the cold was setting in. At mile 16 I saw Robin’s husband Troy, who told me Robin had started to bonk a bit and was walking some too. He encouraged me to keep up the run/walk as long as possible. With it I was able to manage between 10-12 minute miles. When I got to the village before starting the second loop, I first saw Robin coming out of the village, so yes she had been struggling and I could see it in her face, Then, in the crowd, I saw my wife, who pointed out that my sister Kimberly and my father Dave, had made their way up from Reno to see me race. This is the first time my father has seen me in a competition and I was glad they were there. As I stopped to give hugs and get a little face time, Kimberly reminded me that I was in a race and I should get going. Okay, the shorter loop two was about to begin and it started well by going through our aid station but I did more talking and not enough eating so about a quarter mile down the road I started to feel a little light headed and woozy. Not good! Now I’m bonking. I realized it was going to take two aid stations to get back to normal and I could afford no more running until I did. So, I walked and walked, started drinking coke and chicken broth and let up on the water and ate a bunch… I walked up the hill and to the 2nd turn around just after getting back on the bike path. At the short climb back up to the highway I saw a couple folks approach in a steady run, who I made a note in my head to at least have a little competition and not let them catch me. So, when the downhill began I started to run.
It hadn’t gotten completely dark just yet but those approaching me were now carrying headlamps, I thought, “Don’t make them give you a headlamp.” More competition… and as I ran down to the turn into Squaw, I realized I was running a pretty darn good pace. Where was this coming from? One last little climb I started to walk but thought, “Heck, this is it. Run and hopefully, you’ll break 5 hours for this run/walk.” So, like Forrest, through the forest, I just kept on running. It was hurting but I was determined to see a 4:50something at the end of the run.
Coming into the village was really cool! There were so many spectators cheering, it reminded me of Kona! As I came around the final turn there was someone just in front of me but I wanted the crowd to myself so I pushed hard to get in front and down the chute… As I was high-fiving those who’s hands were extended I could hear Mike Reilly’s voice say my name and those four special words, “You are an Ironman!” Official run time: 5:07:33 / AG place 30 (forgot that my Garmin had switched to auto-pause and all those potty breaks and a couple stops in the village to talk with family, had made up the extra time from the 4:58:20 on my watch).
Official overall time: 13:03:29 – AG 50-54 place 30/159
Now a couple days after the race, I’m still a bit sore and my foot is doing amazingly well with practically no pain. I will rest up the remainder of this week and go for an easy bike ride on Saturday. People on FB and Slowtwitch are saying a lot about how hard the course was and how it’ll be the next St. George… but I don’t know, I did St. George and swore never to go back… I just didn’t care for it, had a hard day and was well prepared. Here, I’d come back; yeah it was super hard and the conditions, stupid! But it was beautiful and doable. Squaw Valley is a fantastic, spectator friendly location and with a little tweaking from what we all learned from this inaugural shindig; it can only get better! So there you have it. The season is over for me and it’s time to get really healthy! I know I’ve got a lot of work to do to be ready for next year and hopefully it will not carry the lows of this year but have as many highs as this race did for me.
Thanks for all your support and I look forward to sharing more of what I learned about my life and faith from this race in a post soon to follow.
- What is IF