Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ironman Lake Tahoe

It is indeed that beautiful.
It was so cold in the Sierras above Reno that snow reportedly covered the ground Saturday night in Truckee, California, through which we would pass twice on the bikes during the race.  (I question that report, but it makes a good story and it accurately captures the air temperature.)  At Lake Tahoe it had stormed all day Saturday, including downpours as we racked our bikes at T1 in Kings Beach.  When we showed up Sunday morning for last minute puttering around before the start, saddles, handlebars and pedals wore thin layers of ice.  Temperature readings depend on who is relaying the story, but I've heard 28 degrees from more than one source.

The start of a race always comes too soon.  Before nearly any race, but certainly before an iron-distance triathlon, I spend the entire lead-in just hoping something will happen to cancel the race.  Imagine -- all the fun of visiting the venue with none of the distress of a full day's racing!  But the pros were in the water and the anthem was sung and the new Ironman swim start format -- much like the start of a marathon, whereby the age-group crowd moves through the starting arch and across the timing mat in a constant flow, rather than the traditional mass start -- was underway.  I was probably in the water by 6:45 a.m.

The first few strokes were frigid.  The icy rain had cooled the lake closest to the shore to an abominably low temperature.  But by the first buoy, where the shallows ended, the lake temperature warmed to a balmy 65 degrees.  From that point the swim was fine and even pleasant.  There was a thick mist rising from the lake which obscured all but a few swimmers around me and, as I approached them, the direction buoys.  On the second lap around the rectangular 1.2 mile route, the sun rose over the mountains and the mist dissipated.  Each breath brought views of the lake, forests, and high mountains overhead, the tallest wearing fresh caps of what we call in Alaska "termination dust."

The swim took too long.  It always does.  I stumbled out of the water, grabbed my transition bag, thankful for the large horde of spectators braving below-freezing temperatures to bring us cheer; flopped to the ground while volunteers shed me of my wetsuit; and entered the changing tent.  The tent was a madhouse.  It might have been too small to begin with.  Given the cold outside nobody was willing to leave to get on his bike.  The chairs were occupied.  The floor was crowded.  I found a small square of floor and donned my gear as best I could.  Helmet, glasses, shoes -- and coat.  This was not a morning for spandex zoot-suits that dry off in the wind!  I left there faster than many and underdressed relative to the crowd.  Many savvy competitors took up to a quarter of an hour in transition toweling off and changing into full sets of dry cold-weather bike clothes.

I had no desire to get on the bike at all, but this was the last "A race" of 2013, the prior ones had not gone all that well, my brother and s-i-l as well as P__ were in town to cheer, and I've already described the bike course in a prior post.  I wasn't about to miss riding that loop at least once.  Again, it didn't hurt that the spectators were enduring just as much cold as was I and somehow showing enormous enthusiasm.  (On the "Dublin Scale," with the crowds at the 2009 Dublin marathon setting the top mark for enthusiastic support, the Lake Tahoe crowds rate well into the 9s!)  I let out an uncharacteristic "GAAAARRRRR" when starting to ride, to the apparent delight of the crowd, and proceeded to ride much harder than caution would dictate in an effort to get blood to my extremities.  It didn't work.  By 20 miles in my hands were blocks of ice resting on the aero bars and I literally took to thumping my fists against my chest (yes, chest-thumping) in a silly-in-retrospect effort to get my cardio-vascular system firing on all cylinders.

Not long after that the sun rose higher overhead and the climbs started.  The elevation profile of IM Lake Tahoe is subject to some dispute.  Ironman has reported both 6550 feet (pre-race) and 5300 feet (post-race news release).  Both are patently false.  Ironman has a huge incentive to under-report elevation gain -- triathletes don't like to climb hills!  Reports from pre-rides went as high as 8500 feet.  That may be overstating it.  D__, my frequent racing and training partner and an occasional commenter  here at runningprofs, clocked a fairly likely 7700 feet.  It's not out of control for a long Sunday ride, but when you have a clock in front of you displaying average pace and you are hell bent on keeping it above a certain number -- well, it was brutal.  But the climbs had the pleasing effect of curing any problems with cold!

The bike route was inspired.  We traversed the shore of Lake Tahoe before heading north on highway 89 following the Truckee River.  After passing Squaw Valley, where several hours later we would land for T2 and the run leg, we continued north to Truckee, a phenomenal little mountain town situated on Highway 80, 30 minutes west of Reno.  Truckee had closed down for the day.  Crowds lined the streets drinking beer and cheering as if watching streams of shivering age groupers roll by is great sport.  A left turn to start the first climb into a neighborhood uphill from town, a pleasant roll on a bike trail designated as a no-pass zone, a few more turns on neighborhood streets, and we met Highway 267 going south toward Tahoe.  267 starts with a barn-storming descent.  The course then turns into the Alpine Meadows ski resort and begins climbing in earnest up roads high onto the flank of the mountain.  That climb goes on -- and on -- and on, leading to a fast but challenging descent back to 267.  A right turn -- and maybe 1000 feet of climbing over the next 2.2 miles to Brockway Summit, the high point on the course at 7200 feet.  I'm not unused to going 6 miles per hour on a bike, but I am unused to calling that racing!  From Brockway Summit the next two miles are downhill at an 8% grade with brand new pavement and large swooping turns.  Both times on that descent the computer registered greater than 50 mph.  It was enough to peel one's lips back, whether in a grin or due to the wind may be hard to tell.

Having tossed my coat after lap one, lap two was a phenomenal cruise in the California mountain sun.  Twice I passed P__, my brother, and my s-i-l, cheering and taking photographs by the roadside.  The end of the ride at Squaw Valley (1/3 of the way around the loop again) was genuinely disappointing.  That although, commenters will observe, the end of the bike is when we get to start running.

Running the marathon leg of an iron-distance triathlon is nothing like running any other race, at least for an amateur.  I'm not the first to observe that the entire enterprise is controlled collapse.  After five iron-distance starts including three terrible run legs and two failures to finish, I learned in St. George in 2011 that forcing myself to walk -- even early in the run-leg when I felt like running -- enabled me later to run when I would otherwise be stumbling or quitting.  I repeated that at Vineman that same year with the pleasing result of personal bests both for the run-leg and overall.

I did it again yesterday at Lake Tahoe.  9' running.  1' walking.  Timed to the second and no cheating.  When that got too hard, 7' and 1', and eventually 5' and 1' to get me over the hump at mile 13-14.  In the second half, extend the running and walk through the aid stations.  By the last 10K I was running mostly continuously.  The difference between this strategy and the other option -- run until I have to walk -- is that under the controlled approach I am in command.  When I run, get winded, and stumble to a walk, I find myself defeated both physically and mentally.  If I run and walk on a set schedule, I am proceeding according to a plan and keeping my head in the race.  In Lake Tahoe I (somewhat accidentally) accomplished the improbable result of a negative split in the run leg, with the second half a full 10' faster than the first.  Support from my family; friends with whom we were sharing a rental house; and the continually extraordinary crowds -- as well as sharing the run-course with two friends -- went farther than I could describe toward keeping me on target.  One doesn't like to quit when there are expectations to meet.

I went to Lake Tahoe with what in retrospect was a Pollyannish hope of a personal best time or even a (gasp) competitive finish.  Instead I spent my 40th birthday working harder than I had ever anticipated and did just well enough to finish with my head held high.  I could not be more thrilled.


  1. Great report! Great day!! Great accomplishment!!! Congrats!

  2. What an awesome way to celebrate! Congrats and happy bday!