Wednesday, September 25, 2013

IRONMAN Lake Tahoe 2013 (Race Report)

Last year’s IRONMAN Zurich Switzerland was a disastrous outing in many ways. Sure, I had a great swim… but I paid for that effort on the bike and the run. What’s worse: I was under-nourished and bonking, which lead to a veritable tailspin during the marathon. It wasn’t a fun race, and I was determined to learn from those mistakes heading into IRONMAN Lake Tahoe.

“Race your own race,” I said to myself. I didn’t want to get caught up or competitive in the swim. I knew I needed to race within myself on the bike, and not push myself too hard or too early on the run. And most importantly, I needed to be sure I was eating early and often throughout the day.


As in 2012’s IRONMAN Zurich and IRONMAN St. George, weather played a major role in this race. The problem this time wasn’t gusting wind or thunderstorms, but extreme cold. The air temperature was in the mid 30’s at the start of the day; the water temperature was in the low 60’s. The sandy beach felt like ice under bare feet, and even wetsuit-clad racers were shivering as we waited for the starting gun to fire.

1,800 athletes await sunrise on a chilly Sunday morning

My race began at 6:40, when the first wave of swimmers hit the water. Before long, I found myself between the first two groups of three to four swimmers, but the leaders were moving quickly. I could have pushed a little harder to catch their slipstream, but I knew that’d be a slippery slope - and one that I’d pay for later. I decided to play it safe. I settled back into a comfortable rhythm and into the second group.

That was my intent, at least. Unfortunately, the leader of the second group was either having trouble sighting or simply couldn’t swim in a straight line. It seemed like there was a lot of angling and course correcting. By the time we reached the first turn (900 meters out), I had had enough. I decided to sight my own line.

It was a smart move on my part, I think. I didn’t push any harder, but I found myself getting from buoy to buoy much more efficiently. I wasn’t initially making a lot of forward progress versus the swimmers in the chase group, but their poor sighting meant they were swimming a lot further (and a lot harder) than I was.

Leading the second pack out of the water

All told, the swim went very well for me. I felt strong throughout and paced correctly; I emerged from the water with plenty of gas left in the tank. Oh, and Mike Reilly announced my name as I dashed into transition. That’s always a good sign!

A few notes on the swim:
  • Though there had been some serious chop on the water in the days before, the lake was calm and clear on race morning.
  • Fog and steam coming off the lake made sighting near the beach very difficult. The buoys weren’t large enough to be seen above the mist.
  • The sun crested the mountain ridge to the east as we were starting the second lap. The light angled beneath the dense, gray clouds and made for a spectacular (and colorful) sunrise that I was able to appreciate even as I was swimming.
  • Where Zurich was a mass start (2,500 athletes entering the water at once!), Lake Tahoe employed a self-seeded/staged system. Athletes entered the water in waves by estimated swim time. It’s a bit less impressive for the spectators, but I rather enjoyed hitting the water with only the dozens who expected to clock in under 60 minutes.


I had forgotten about the cold while swimming, but the transition tent proved to be a harsh reminder. The air was still in the mid 30’s. I was shivering before I even had my wetsuit off and then struggled to towel off as best I could. I took extra time to change out of my wet clothes and into a dry cycling kit: two jerseys, a pair of shorts, thermal arm warmers, gloves and two pairs of wool socks. It wasn’t enough.

Suited up and ready to ride

The sun had risen above the clouds, but it took several hours for it to burn them away. My fingers and toes were ice for the first two hours of the ride. It was bitter cold, and the higher my speed, the colder it felt. It wasn’t until we hit the first significant climb of the day - Martis Camp - that I was able to start warming up. I could finally see my shadow as I crested Brockway. The descent was still chilly, but the clouds were gone!

Enjoying the sun in Truckee

A few notes on the bike:
  • I didn’t feel like I was passed by a ton of people during this race - not like in Zurich or Western Australia, at least.
  • Technical descents aside, the challenging (read: hilly) suited me very well. I did get passed by strong riders on flat and downhill sections, but as soon as the road turned back uphill, I was able to regain a lot of that ground.
  • Taken individually, this race’s two climbs, Martis Camp and Brockway, make the biggest climbs from Zurich, St. George and Vineman look like child’s play. And we had to climb them twice each!
  • Someone should tell aid station volunteers to pre-open packaged food before they hand it to you. It’s especially difficult to get one of those wrappers open when you’re going 20+ miles per hour and your fingers are frozen!
  • As far as energy and nutrition goes, I think I hit my lowest point in the race during the last 10-15 miles. The road from King’s Beach to Tahoe City and then on to Squaw should have been blazing fast, but I was hurting a little and the thought of running a marathon kept me in check.
  • I saw a bear!


My second transition was pretty relaxed - the tent was almost empty when I arrived. I changed out of my cycling gear and into running gear, laced up and hit the road. Brian K. had caught me on the bike and we set out on the run together. I don’t think either of us felt great for the first few mile, but a rhythm eventually developed.

114.2 miles complete!

The first ten miles of the run were pleasant. I was holding a fairly comfortable pace and feeling good, but as I started back toward Squaw Valley, my stomach started cramping. It wasn’t upset; I didn’t feel sick. I just couldn’t run more than a few steps without a sharp, cramping pain in my abdomen. Brian hit his stride and went on to pound out an incredible marathon split (and finish time!) while I eased up and started walking.

It was a frustrating (and very long) trek back to Squaw Valley to start my second lap. I’d jog a few test strides every so often, but it wasn’t until mile 21 or 22 that I was actually able to run without pain. I think I’m going to credit my stomach settling down to the chicken broth that the volunteers started handing out at aid stations after 5pm. It was warm and delicious and gave me my stride back. I felt strong (e.g. uninjured and not sore) as I shifted back into gear and set out across the final miles to the finish.

Pretty happy to be almost done!

That final approach from 89 to Squaw Village was absolutely gorgeous. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the light was spectacular. The sun had only just set when I came down the finisher’s chute. I saw Kristine at the final bend, friends and family behind her - one of the happiest sights I’ve ever seen - and high-fived as I ran down the final straight and across the line. It was a hard day, but it was over.

A few notes from the run:
  • The run course was surprisingly not hilly, which was really nice.
  • Despite all of my injuries and training deficit, I actually felt great on the run course. I don’t know what I did to spark those stomach cramps, but I think I could’ve posted a marathon PR had they not cropped up.
  • I met Edward James Olmos!
  • I really, really enjoyed all of the fan support on the run. There were so many people cheering, and so many people who I knew racing alongside me. It was uplifting to see so many friends out there: Bharath, Liz, Virgilio, Mike, the SF Tri team, Alex L. and company, Vitaly, the M2 crew, and more!


Official splits/results.

After finishing and finding my family, I went on to change and settle in to cheer Alex and Bo, and the other friends who were still on course. Darkness fell quickly after the sun set, and the temperature dropped back into the 40’s. I’ll leave it to Bo and Alex to tell their own story, but it suffices to say: they’re now both IRONMEN!

IRONMAN Lake Tahoe was an amazing and challenging race, harder than Zurich, prettier than St. George. By racing smart and eating often, I came closer than ever before to executing my race-day strategy. Only those stomach cramps marred the day, but that’s something to live and learn from. I finished strong, feeling whole (uninjured) and positive!

Side note: It turns out I'm one of just 91 athletes to have finished both IRONMAN Lake Tahoe '13 and IRONMAN St. George '12 - two of the hardest races to date. I can't tell if that means I've got good bragging rights or poor luck!

It’s rarely possible to actually enjoy an 11-hour race, but I certainly did this time. The natural beauty of the course, the proximity and convenience, the challenge - and most importantly, the support of friends and family - really made this race shine. Sharing the experience (both of this race and of the entire triathlon season) with my two best friends was the best kind of icing on the best kind of cake.

Done, dusted and freakin' tired!


In the short term, it’s time to give my body a break - to mend and strengthen, to watch football, eat pizza, have a few brews, and most importantly, spend time with my wife!

If you had asked me about next season a few weeks ago, the response would have been negative. I was burnt out and hurting, but now… I don’t know how it happened, but I’m feeling uncharacteristically refreshed and excited! For the first time ever, I’ve finished one of these races feeling more excited about next season than before. This season definitely had it’s ups and it’s downs, and I’m sure the next one will, too… but I’m ready for ‘em!

Thanks for reading my dry and verbose account, and for following along throughout the season! I’ll add bits and pieces as the memories come back. And be sure to stay tuned to the blog: I’m sure Bo and Alex will provide more colorful recaps, and Kristine’s tackling the Nike Women’s Marathon in just a few weeks’ time!