Lake Tahoe Ironman by Dan Weintraub

0475_26285

By Daniel Weintraub

They weren’t supposed to pass me on the climbs.

A little over an hour into the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe race last Sunday, with the sun rising over the snow-capped Sierra, racers started passing me on Dollar Hill, the first small climb on the bike course. That’s when I knew it was going to be a long day. I am slight of build, and climbing on the bike has always been my strong suit. I am supposed to start passing the big guys when the road tilts up hill. But not on this day. I was in trouble early, and it would go, well, downhill from there.

An Ironman race, for the uninitiated, consists of a 2.4 mile rough-water swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2 mile marathon. This was my third, and my goal was to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. To do that I would have to finish at least third in my age group. After more than a year of training just for this race, I thought I was ready.

But Ironman Lake Tahoe was no ordinary ironman, if there is such a thing. The course as laid out appeared to be the toughest in the world. The elevation at the start – the swim was at Kings Beach on the lake’s north shore – was significantly higher than the highest point on any other course. And we would climb 1,200 feet from there to the highest point on Brockway Pass, with a total of more than 7,000 feet of climbing on the bike course — again, more than any other ironman race. The run from Squaw Valley to Tahoe City and back, and then out and back on a shorter loop, was fairly flat, but even the small climbs on that course would feel like mountains at elevation.

Still, the course seemed perfect for me. The lake would be better than an ocean swim, the climbing on the bike suited my skills, I could train at elevation and the run seemed manageable. I thought I was ready for everything, having trained on the course on several summer weekends. Then the weather turned. The day before the race, the last day of summer, an unseasonably cold storm moved through Northern California. The wind picked up, and it started raining. As the sun set, snow mixed with rain. The forecast said the storm would move through overnight, and it did. But race day dawned with the temperature at the beach below 30 degrees. Ouch.

Yet the start at 6:40 a.m. was surprisingly comfortable. The race organizers commandeered a community center next door to give us a warm place to wait and don our wetsuits. I had to stand outside for only a few minutes on the beach before the swim, and the water temperature, at about 60 degrees, was fine. The gun went off and after 67 minutes of pushing, shoving, and hunting for a clear path in the lake through 2,500 swimmers, I was out of the water three minutes faster than my goal and on my way to the first transition. I was in 18th place in my age group.

That was chaos. An ironman has a “changing tent” where you can dry off and get ready for the bike. Many racers strip nude before putting on their bike gear, but I planned to leave my shorts on to save a few seconds. I grabbed my gear bag outside, took one step into the tent and was stunned. It was packed with bodies, standing room only, and still dark in the faint morning light. Guys would later call it “very Roman,” and a “Turkish bath house,” among other things. People bent over to pull on a sock and sat up to find a butt or other body part in their face. More importantly, many racers lost food and gear, including shoes,  in the mess as their stuff mingled with their neighbor’s at their feet. After one glance I decided I wanted no part of that and went back outside to change on the asphalt. It was still under 30 degrees, and I could barely move my fingers. Simple chores like putting on my socks seemed to take forever. Once I got dressed, the run to my bike was also longer than normal, and when I got there, my bike seat was covered with frost. I fumbled with my Garmin bike computer for 30 seconds or so, trying to turn it on. By the time I headed out, 10 minutes had gone by. Typically the first transition takes me three or four minutes. I was frustrated to have lost so much time while not even on the course, but I didn’t know at the time that my transition would be among the fastest. Many people took 15 or 20 minutes between the swim and the bike!

As I jumped on my bike and started riding the first section from Kings Beach toward Tahoe City, my legs just didn’t have the zip that I was used to. I still don’t know what went wrong, but while I would typically start the bike dialing back my power to conserve energy for the long haul, on this day I had to work harder than I wanted to just to come close to maintaining my goal pace and power. Again, what I didn’t know was that so many other people were suffering the same fate.

Despite my struggles, the first 40 or so miles on the bike course, from Kings Beach to Tahoe City, Truckee and Martis Valley, went pretty well. Between the transition and the start of the bike I passed a few guys in my age group and started moving up. I did not know it but I was in fifth place at the bottom of the big Brockway climb the first time around. I would have been happy with 15th at that point. But as I climbed Brockway Pass I felt slow, and guys were passing me again.  Regular cyclists will tell you that, while struggling, they often suspect they have a flat tire, even stopping to check, only to see that it was their legs, not the tires, that were the problem. But this time as I neared the summit I looked back and sure enough, I had a slow leak, and half the air in my rear tire was gone. Changing the flat with my cold fingers was clumsy, and it took me eight to ten minutes to get back on the road again. At the time I thought that delay could easily be the difference between qualifying for Kona or not, and I was upset. On the bright side, my son Max and my oldest friend, Kent and his son were there to cheer me on, so we were able to chat and they offered encouragement as I worked on the tire. They kept me calm and focused. That was nice.

Once I was off again the rest of the bike leg was fairly uneventful, if still not as fast as I’d planned. It was difficult to eat in the cold (at first my food was frozen) but I was able to keep to my nutrition and drinking plan. I guess because of the cold, I needed to pee on the second lap, something that had never happened to me in a race before. I did so without leaving the bike on a quiet section of the road. In other places it was great seeing so many fans alongside the course, cheering for their friends and family and all the other competitors. After completing two full laps and heading for the final segment from Kings Beach to Squaw Valley I felt pretty good. But my bike split was about 40 minutes slower than my goal, and I was 30 minutes behind third place. I thought maybe I could make up some time on the run, which is supposed to be my strong suit.

It didn’t happen. I came out of the transition ok but my legs again felt heavier than I was used to from past races and training sessions. Pacing myself by heart rate and time, I met my goals for the first five or six miles and passed several guys in my age group. I was moving iback into the top ten and still had a chance to make the podium. My plan was to keep my heart rate around 140 to 145 for the first loop, then push it hard on the second, shorter loop. Then, as we approached a turnaround at Tahoe City, I began to lose energy. My pace slowed. I tried and tried to push it, but I just didn’t have it. Even after we turned and the course started a gentle downhill I could not really pick up the pace. I was only ten miles into the marathon, and it was getting ugly. For some reason I was running with a pronounced tilt to my left side, but I couldn’t even sense that, or fix it. After a while I couldn’t stand the thought of eating more energy gel blocks, with their high concentration of sugar. Instead I ate bananas, which I always enjoy. And I was drinking my water. But I couldn’t get my mojo back.

By mile 17, as I approached the village at Squaw Valley and the end of the first loop, I was ready to quit. I knew I was out of the money and the thought of trudging through 9 more miles just to say I finished did not appeal to me. I’d already finished two ironman races. Why go through this torture just do that one more time? My whole body hurt and I felt weak and spent. My stomach started hurting, something that rarely happens to me, and I stopped to try to throw up, thinking that would help. I couldn’t even do that. But my family and friends who were there – including Chips Mark Murray and Jenny Hitchings – wouldn’t let me quit. My girlfriend Nicole, who rode the entire bike course in reverse and then shadowed me on the run course, was also insistent. They all told me I had to continue,  and they said I’d be happy that I did. After circling the village at Squaw, packed with spectators screaming their support for all of the athletes, I realized my crew was right. I had to finish. So I sucked it up, put one foot in front of the other, and headed back out for the second loop.

At this point I was no longer racing. I just had to finish. I stopped at every aid station and drank a cup of chicken broth, and Mark pushed me to drink some coke to settle my stomach. The sun was going down and it was getting dark, and colder. I stopped to walk several times, and slowed to chat with my crew. Finally the village and the finish beckoned ahead of me. As I ran through the village, I slapped high fives with the spectators who lined the route, made the final left turn and wobbled my way across the line. After a 4:28 marathon, my final time was 12:12, about 90 minutes slower than my goal. But 12 must have been my lucky number, because that was also my place in my age group, out of about 225 registered and 124 who finished.

I was stunned that I had finished so high, and even more dumbfounded that I had actually moved up during the run. It turned out that the race was far more difficult than anyone expected. The drop-out (did not finish) rate was 20 percent, compared to 5 percent in a typical ironman. The winning times in my age group were by far the slowest of any recent Ironman, and the time it took to qualify for Kona, third place at 11:12, was more than 40 minutes slower than I had guessed it would take before the race. If I had known that going in, I might have done some things differently. Live and learn.

I am now planning to take at least a year off the ironman circuit, to let my body and soul recover. I’m entered in the Boston Marathon next year, which will be special the year after the bombings, and with my younger son in graduate school there. Other than that I plan to do some shorter races, and maybe some trail running.

But I won’t forget Ironman Lake Tahoe. I’ll be back. I have some unfinished business there.

 

Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years and is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org Reach him at Daniel.weintraub@gmail.com



About Laura Matz