Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Fun and Frigid Ironman Lake Tahoe

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of joining ~2,300 adventurous triathletes for the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe near Squaw Valley, CA. This course was already set to be one of the toughest Ironman races on the planet with its high altitude swim and four big climbs on the bike, but when the temps dropped to the low 30's on race morning, it sealed the #1 slot for sure. Thanks to the help of great volunteers and fellow warriors, I was able to find that finish line in the Olympic Village as the sun came down, and was thrilled to be a part of a killer day of adventure. Encore! Encore!

(A chilly scene as Ironman Lake Tahoe kicks off, photo courtesy of Tahoe Daily Tribune;
unfortunately my camera was stolen so I'm going to have borrow pics for this report)
I was pretty nervous the night before the race, much in thanks to still feeling those sore cracked/bruised ribs from my fall at the Matterhorn Ultraks 46k four weeks ago (the pics were worth it, I swear!). If you've ever injured your ribs then you know what it's like - everything feels fine until you cough, laugh, or sneeze, and then you nearly black out from the pain and have to check your shorts for spontaneous leakage. I had given the ribs a few week of rest, and fit in three pool sessions and three bike rides before the race, not nearly enough for something like IMLT. I could only hope that the trail running fitness was a good enough base. I checked in with my endurance-friendly doctor, who said "you aren't going to hurt yourself more with cracked ribs, but it's gonna be painful from the first stroke...then again, you types are in it for the pain anyway, right?". Um, not quite the way I would say it, but he's got a point. More pain for my money, I guess.

My IMLT entry had been paid for by a close friend (a whopping $675!), and with no refunds/postponements allowed, I was feeling guilty enough to at least start the race. Plus I love it when there are new races in the Lake Tahoe area and want to be a part of them in any way I can. I ran into my friend and super-triathlete Kyle Welch at the check-in, and he was in a similar situation wondering if it was wise to finish given his short course race season wasn't over. He wisely pointed out that the swim, bike, and run all had loop formats so there were lots of options to bail and cheer. So let's do it!

(How do you know Ironman is in town? Lots of cars with bikes on the back worth more than the car)
(Many Ironman competitors take "fanatic" to a whole new level...I don't think a little snow is going to be enough to back them down)
My freak out level reached new heights as I was shoveling snow off my car at 4am on race morning. WTF?!? Is this race really going to happen? How do you swim at altitude when it's snowing outside?!? It was starting to sound less like a tri, and more like one of those dare stories that ends with "...and that's how I lost my toes". I checked Twitter for the cancellation message, but all I found was other nervous athletes alternating between "holy crap" and "let's do this". Yup, not the only one! I grabbed my wetsuit and headed down to Kings Beach. 

I zipped into my wetsuit and donned my Vibrams to ease the walk across the crunchy, frozen sand. The fog hung on the lake, thick enough that we couldn't even see the first buoy from water level. The ghostly silhouettes of paddle boarding lifeguards faded in and out, assuring us we were not alone, and I loved the mystery of just heading straight into the foggy unknown with thousands of random warriors. One woman next to me had a panic attack, and with a few friends, walked away from the start saying "noooo way". But for most of us, it was GAME ON. At 6:40am, we filled the air with primal screams and charged into the abyss!

(EPIC SWIM! Photo courtesy of TRS Photos
(Heading into the unknown, photo courtesy of TRS Photos)
(Paddlers and safety crew keep an eye on us, photo courtesy of Susan Locke)
(Getting inventive to escape the cold ground)
The water was cold (~55 degrees), but not nearly as cold as the air, which oddly made it easy to bury your face right in. The ribs ached from the first pull, as promised, but the compression of the wetsuit and icy water really took the edge off. I took a kick to the ribs in the first half mile from a swimmer who was apparently heading back, and immediately made my way to the first pontoon for a short break. But as my hands and feet froze up, I realized it was better to just keep moving, so I found a less crowded spot in the lake and got back to business. 

As we made the turn and started heading back on the first lap, the view a mile off the shore was incredible! Snow in the mountains, swimmers coming out of the fog, and the sun desperately burning through the clouds. By the time we finished the first lap (1.2 miles, ~40 minutes), the sun began to light up the sandy floor of Lake Tahoe and cast the mountains in an orange glow. Amazing! I had no idea winter swimming could be so fun.

(Romaine Guillame and Joe Gambles are first out)
(Walking on water, photo courtesy of Jason Neary)
(Swim done!)
As we got out of the water (2.4 miles, 1:26), the sand had warmed enough to assist my dizzy stagger. My hands and feet were lifeless ice blocks, and when I found my transition bag with a frozen knot on top, I just had to laugh. What the hell are we doing?!? It took eight frigid minutes of waiting in line to make my way into the T1 tent, already packed to the edges with Romanesque nakedness. Seeing naked dudes cheek-to-cheek in front of the heater while sucking the ice off of their transition bag knots is a vision I will not long forget, but believe me, that was the thing to do if you were shaking from hypothermia. A handful of angelic volunteers picked out the worst of us and got them warm, and after 26 minutes (longest T1 transition ever), I had on ALL my bike gear, scraped the frost of my bike seat, knocked the icicles of my handlebars, and hit the road.

It was good to get rolling, although the chilly air wasn't doing much to revive my extremities. I was on my road bike today (ribs couldn't take the aero position of tri bars) and opted to go harder than I should to get the blood flowing. My family jewels had already retreated far into my body cavity (always a shocking feeling), giving me a rare chance to experience how a bike seat must feel for a woman. By Tahoe City (mile 10), it began to warm up, but we soon turned into the shadowy corridor of Hwy 89 and the temps dropped back into the 30's. The jewels will have to hibernate a few more miles.

(Bundled up and having fun!)
(Putting in some chilly miles, photo courtesy of TRS Photos)
The good folks of Truckee were out in force (mile 30), and the course took us right through downtown before climbing up to a bike path and putting our faces in the sun. Aaaahhh! I got back six of my fingers, which was enough to open food packets at the aid station where I stopped. Just as I was inhaling a banana, another rider slammed into my elbow and knocked me over, but I halted my anger when I saw him b-line to the port-o-potties and ALMOST make it. Almost. Yikes...can't say I would have been any more civil in that scenario!

(A tough bike route...now go do this 2 1/2 times)
The first big climb up Martis Creek (mile 40) was exactly what the doctor ordered, and we all got out of the saddle and got our core temps back on track. I could hear the sighs of relief from the other riders as they shook out their tingles and even shed a layer or two. The crowd support was simply outstanding - we could tell they were cold, but they were yelling and cowbelling on every corner. I rode with one crazy Czech guy who was doing his 99th Ironman (5th this month), and when I asked which was the toughest, he said "this one...and I haven't even started the second climb". Phew! I thought this course seemed awfully tough. 

(Climbing through the pines)
The descent was well marked, leading us quickly out to the 2nd climb up Brockway Summit. I settled into a rhythm just as Male Pros Chris Macdonald and Maik Twelsiek lapped us. Outstanding! Both would manage a sub-5 hour ride on this tough course. The descent down Brockway was super fun, and we easily hit 45-50 mph as we began the second lap.

(A lot of talented dogs did signs)
I stopped at Tahoe City (mile 60) to shed my jacket and winter gloves, take a bio break, and stretch out. So far all was good...ribs were hanging tough, jewels had returned to normal suspension, and my shoulders and triceps were complaining the most from that swim/bike combo. I got back into the race, narrowly missing another cyclist as she hit one of those football-sized pine cones and skidded across the road. Good thing she had so much gear on...she just got back up, kicked the pine cone to the side of the road, and kept going!

(A couple of layers later)
(The road bike gave my ribs some room)
The second round of the camel hump mountains (mile 85) took a bit more digging, and the sweet smell of wet pine had already dried into the familiar high Sierra dust. I rode with a guy who STILL had his wetsuit leggings on, trying to warm up. Interesting option! The descent down Brockway was littered with calamity this time, and I spotted three bloodied cyclists on the side of the road. Ouch! Hopefully everyone was okay.

(One more trip through Truckee, photo courtesy of Gretchen Brugman)
I was stoked to see the "Mile 100" sign, and I could see the Pros along the run course on their first long loop. They were hauling ass! Macdonald was chasing down Twelsiek, while the Women's race had three within two minutes of each other - Sweden's Asa Lundstrom, Jeanne Collonge from France, and Great Britain's Catriona Morrison. I couldn't believe they were almost done! Actually, I could. I had been in the saddle for over seven hours. ;-)

I took my time at T2, fully changing into warm running gear and getting lots of liquids in. I soon pulled over to strip down to just a singlet (mile 2) as the Valley was quickly warming up, and also stashed my headlamp. My stride had seen better days, but at least running pain is a pain I can manage (right, ultrarunners?). The 8 min/mile came easy, as long as I walked the aid stations, so I didn't push myself beyond a comfortable aerobic pace.

(Volunteers were life savers, photo courtesy of Sabrina Martinez)
As we got to the long river stretch (mile 5), I saw the familiar faces of Robert Tomkinson, Dave King, Kyle Welch (he's going to finish too!), Jady Palko and other faster triathletes, then made the turn (mile 9) and was able to give some shout outs to Barbara Ashe, Karyn Hoffman, and the many folks I had met over the last few days. These out-and-backs are a great distraction!

(Keeping pace along the Truckee River on the first out-and-back)
As the sun went down (mile 18), I found my wool shirt and headlight again and hid my camera (which was later stolen...bummer!), and watched as Jack Frost returned and added his magic to the mountain valley. Mylar blankets were the norm on the course, and I joined others in drinking as much warm chicken broth as my body could handle. We got a nice boost of energy as we came through the Olympic Village again and saw some finishers, then headed out for the last six miles. It was the perfect energy boost...I kept on running the rest of the way.

(Coming through Olympic Village, photo courtesy of Margaret Moran)
(Grabbing some high fives in the finisher chute)
Glenn Schiavo passed me in the last 0.2 miles, saying he had finally gotten his body temp back to normal...at mile 22 in the run! He crossed the finish just ahead of me, and I came in at 13 hours, 43 minutes for 707th place. Phew! Glad this one is done! I grabbed some food and warmed up in the massage tent among the tired smiles of my fellow finishers. What a story-worthy day! I soon was sipping a Black and Tan in the local Irish pub, warming up and cheering on those chasing the midnight finish.

(Made it!)
(Finish line love)
(Ain't nothing like an Ironman finish, photo courtesy of Susan Lacke)
(Women's champion Ana Sundstrom sneaks under 10 hours, photo courtesy of Susan Lacke)
That night, I dreamt of swimming under the snow-capped mountains and appreciated that full-body-cast soreness I hadn't experienced since my first Ironman. These events are tough, and this one was quite likely the toughest of all time! So glad to have been here, and somehow gotten through it on so little specific training. A friend texted me from the morning sign ups, where usually the competitors return in droves to get early access and fill the race entries for next year, and there was only eight people in line. Yup! But as I sat on the deck on what was going to be a hot recovery day, I realized Lady Tahoe could have just as easily cooked us. That's part of the adventure!

(Found on the IMLT Facebook page)
My congrats to Chris MacDonald (8:55) and Asa Lundstrom (9:58) for setting some seriously high bars for speed on this course, and to the Race Directors, volunteers, local cheering crews, and fellow competitors for putting on a world class event. I highly recommend it!


  1. Congratulations!! Great write-up. I wasn't in town but was following a few friends (mainly Karyn Hoffman) and had been looking forward to reading a report. Very well done.

  2. Hey Scott!

    I'm the guy you passed upside down in the ditch :) Glad to hear you finished strong! 13:43 is awesome! I came in about 25 minutes behind you, definitely feeling the cold from the run.

    Glad I got to meet you, and find this sweet blog!

    1. Alex! So glad you found the finish! Your photo was awesome (he was covered in dirt after three flats and a crash) but my camera got swiped so I couldn't post it. Very impressive you were able to finish this one as your first!

    2. Thanks Scott! It was easily one of the hardest/best experiences of my life. Looking forward to the next one! Such a bummer about the camera. If it's any consolation, my car got broken into in SF yesterday and they swiped a bag of clothes. Luckily they didn't know what a powertap was!

  3. Scott -

    I'm curious what you think of the Ironman crowd, especially now that you've seen one outside of Kona. They seem pretty agro to me relative to the calm hill people of the trail running circles. What do you think?

    1. We are all cut from the same cloth, that's for sure. I get the impression everyone who made it to the starting line embraced a fitness-based lifestyle, a curiosity to know where their limits stand, and the identification that comes with the completion of a extraordinary adventure together. Not too different from ultras in many ways - just more gear, more variety of training, and less dirt. ;-)

      I found the personality mix at IMLT to be much more varied than Kona. Of the people I met, about 40% were trying their first Ironman, 40% had fully embraced the lifestyle (tattoos and all) and geared all their training around 2-4 Ironman races per year, and about 20% were regular destination travelers mixing up their year with an event-based vacation. All of them loved Lake Tahoe! And Lake Tahoe loved them back - every business I spoke to said it was a big cash cow that fit right in between the summer and fall seasons.

  4. Excellent report, Scott! I love how you take the pain and the other setbacks, like getting your camera stolen, in stride rather than dwelling on them and feeling sorry for yourself.

    1. Ribs heal, cameras get replaced (with a new iPhone5s), but these stories live forever! You know how it is - as soon as cross the finish, everything is positive. ;-)

  5. Another great report. Winter swimming, eh? Might have to give that a go. The Husband and I (both ultrarunners) were just talking about how much more determined crazy conditions make us.

    Also, I laughed out loud at the "I don't remember eating a Fucking Legend."

    Way to persevere, ribs, numbness and all!

  6. Congratulations Scott! Loved the write up. Great seeing you there.

  7. You and 2800 others are amazing for thinking this was a good idea. Congrats on surviving it and being able to deal with the rib pain. And I can easily imagine the frustration over the camera thing - take the camera but leave the memory card!

  8. Word. I had pics of the Czech guy, Alex covered in dirt, the guy biking in his wetsuit, 70 yr olds in speedos...the camera value was nothing compared to that memory card! ;-)

  9. Thanks for posting your adventures! Out of your last 3 races, Pikes Peak, Matterhorn, or Lake Tahoe IM, which one did you enjoy the most?


    1. They were all pretty amazing. My head is still spinning from all of them! I liked them each for different reasons, so perhaps it's worth sharing why:

      Matterhorn Ultraks was the true "bucket list" race. Big mountains, international competitors, the awesome town of Zermatt, and great atmosphere. If you haven't been to Zermatt, it's a must do for the experience. If I were to only do one of these three, it would have been Ultraks.

      Pikes Peak is a runner's race. Lots of history, great shwag, people that will talk running all day and all night, and a fun little town to chill in. I will likely go back next year and bring the family, and wouldn't be surprised if there are many trips in my future. Much like Boston, I feel like it's a community and event I would love to see regularly.

      IM Lake Tahoe was tougher than the Matterhorn and Pikes Peak combined, and like most Ironman races, you better be ready to put the time and money into the training to do it right. If you're looking for that kind of challenge, IMLT is as good as it gets. The thing I like about Ironman races with hills like IMLT is that it takes your training and fitness to a whole new level. I will certainly do another Ironman, but will likely use the urge as an excuse to visit a new place on the planet. The Czech guy on the course gave me lots of ideas (his favorites were IM France, IM Cozumel, and IM Canada). You will likely find me volunteering at IMLT next year to be a part of it in a different way. It's a great race!

      Hopefully that helps if you're choosing!


  10. Quick clarification. 2650 registered one year ago. 2267 actually came race day and started. A refund of $150 was available to those who decided to back out.

    1. I did not know that. Thanks for clarifying!

  11. Congrats, but this is arguably just as difficult, if not more...


  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Scott,

    Great Job man. I always enjoy your posts and am look forward to when our paths may cross again. Seriously thinking about signing up for Tahoe 2014 for my first ironman. It appears from your post that several people did that.


    Charles Zuckerman

    1. Absolutely do it! It's a mountain lovers Ironman. Given your ultra running background, you've got the chops. Don't think - just sign up!

  14. Shannon Hogan Warburg9/26/2013 10:35:00 PM

    Pure hell. Pure heaven! Thanks for memorializing the sufferfest for those of us too tired to write a word or too afraid to recall the T1 changing tent. Eeesh!

  15. Great race report. It was a tough one for sure. I'm happy just to have finished. The guy who was doing his 99th Ironman is Mexican, not Czech. His name is Luis Alvarez. I sat next to him on a plane last year after Arizona.

  16. Thanks for the report Scott. I am doing IMLT 2014 and will read this blog more than once I am sure. Quick question....looking back, if you didn't have the rib injury, would you have preferred your tri-bike or was the road bike the right call with the climbs?

    1. Congrats! You're going to love it!

      In retrospect, the tri bike was the right call. 3/4 of that loop is quite fast and the aero position would have been helpful. I would suggest adding a few more teeth to your cassette for the climbs and you'll be set up perfectly.

  17. Scott, Great review. I think I want to tough the cold and climbs in 2014. I wonder when you shed layers, what do you do with them? Any specific gear you'd recommend for this race?


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