I didn’t know it at the time, but my day was more or less doomed before I even got out of bed race day morning. The course was very challenging, starting the race at over 6,200 feet of elevation was bound to have an impact, and I was fresh off racing a tough half-Ironman two weeks prior (Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas). But, none of those reasons are why I was in big trouble. The reason is simple: it got cold. And, I don’t mean chilly or a little cold. I mean freezing. Literally. A nasty weather front blew in Saturday morning bringing many hours of rain and even snow. Yes, snow. But, punishingly enough, dropping the forecasted temperature even lower. As in a low in the 20s and a high in the 50s for race day. Ugh. I may be fast. I may be tough. Whatever I am, I am not capable of withstanding extremely cold temperatures during any long-course event and certainly not an Ironman.
Love seeing friends and teammates before the race: the awesome Petruzzellis!
Having been fortunate enough to come to Lake Tahoe for a training camp, I knew the terrain pretty well. (There was a small section of the bike course that was closed until race day.) More or less, I just tried to stay mellow other than the normal “week of” race workouts. I did, though, monitor the deteriorating weather. Seeing what Sunday was likely to hold, I did all I could to prepare. I bought a skull cap. I made some homemade over-socks (think socks that go over your bike shoes). I had my Tour-de-France newspaper trick. I had four layers of biking clothes, including my kick-ass and awesome Wattie Ink World Championship kit. I had arm-warmers. I had European cold-weather cycling socks. I had everything I thought might help. Frankly, I am not sure what else, if anything, I could have done. Accepting the likely reality of what I would face, I just chilled and enjoyed the racing environment.
Think it is cold??? No sighting issues at all either.
Waking early, I did my usual race day routine: three-hour prior to start wake-up, oatmeal for breakfast with a small, weak coffee, shower, final packing of gear, and off to Transition. Reaching Transition, I luckily bumped into two friends (Gloria and Ken Petruzzelli, two great people and Coaches as well); always more fun to see friends AND get body-marked by them rather than a stranger! After that, I prepped my bike as fast as possible as it was just a little cold. Like 27 degrees cold. Yikes. Given that I had covered part of my bike (cockpit and drivetrain) with garbage bags, only half of my bike was covered in ice. Chipping ice off my bike was a first for me. Finishing that, I hurried to the convention center building to get out of the elements and await my start. Nicely enough, as soon as I got inside I saw many friends from Camelback Coaching and was able to chat and chill with them.
My Coach, Bill Wilson. Last time we will be happy and warm for hours…
Soon enough, it was time to don my wetsuit and head to the swim start. Sadly, this meant leaving the warm comfort of the indoors and subjecting myself to the elements. Whether it was the right decision or not, I opted to wear my sleeveless wetsuit. This may seem crazy as the water temperature was likely in the mid-50s, but I love swimming in my Blueseventy Reaction. That wetsuit is extremely comfortable and I love having total arm freedom. Looking back, I don’t think having sleeves would have made any difference. The water wasn’t the problem for me, it was the air that would exact a price on my system.
Eating one last Double Latte Powergel (Yes, I wanted a small drip of caffeine), I made my way to the starting line in the first wave of sub one-hour swimmers and got ready.
With the cannon boom, the day began. Walking about fifty yards before I could swim, I became aware of my first issue: visibility. A few dozen other athletes and myself all seemed to stop simultaneously and wonder aloud, where are we supposed to swim??? Because of the fog, visibility was nearly zero. I am not kidding. I could not even see the first swim buoy. Regardless, we all began heading away from shore in what seemed like the right direction as we had to go somewhere.
From there until the swim exit, my route wandered all over the place. Normally, I have little, if any, right or left drift in my swimming. But, having no targets made route selection challenging. A few times, I’d be in a pack of swimmers when a watercraft would emerge from the mist (think some Stephen King novel). We’d all reach the kayak, jetski, or whatever and be told we weren’t simply swimming off course but were way, way, way off course and would have to backtrack a ton. The swim buoys are numbered so you can track your speed if you want. This also means you know how far you still have to go until the next turn buoy. Of course, if you only see Buoys 1, 2, 4, 7, and the turn, you know you’ve missed a few. I was missing buoys the entire swim. This was more than a little annoying and I knew it meant a longer-than-2.4 mile swim and extra time in the water.
Mercifully, I reached turn-buoys and knew I was actually making progress. I could also judge my progress by the depth visibility and the chill of the water. The deeper the bottom, the further from shore and the farther I was going. At the same time, the warmer the water (and “warmer” not really meaning warm; just not freezing), the further from shore.
Reaching the end of the first loop (of two total swim loops), I found the thermacline and enjoyed the water temperature plunging back into the high-40s/low-50s. I could feel it most in my hands and feet. That tingly, painful feeling you get when exposed to extremely cold water? Yeah, it was great. (You can read the sarcasm right?)
I will admit that the one benefit to the cold was I could increase my effort. Without any fear of overheating (HA, like that was possible on that day), I could swim as hard as I wanted and I took advantage of that. Once I got back to deeper water on my second loop, I began to push my effort and knew I was moving well. Finally, nearing the exit, I began to mentally prepare for the torture I knew I was about to face.
My swim time was 1:06, putting me 42nd in my age group (out of 375) and overall (out of 2,751). Given the cold, the near total lack of visual cues, and how bad I felt, I was fully expecting a 1:20 or higher so I am very happy with the 1:06.
Here is where mental preparation really matters. Knowing my abilities and limitations, I knew I had to get somewhat warm before getting on my bike. To race through transition and leave with a chill would nearly guarantee a DNF or a long, slow day. Changing quickly out of my swim gear and donning just enough clothing to leave the Change Tent, I grabbed all my bike gear and sprinted over the Hot Tent. Once there, I found a spot as close to a heating vent as possible and donned all my bike gear. Then, I sat there for about twenty minutes. Yes, you read that right. Me, the guy who is always trying to set land-speed records in both transitions sat on his butt for twenty minutes. Getting warm was far more critical than shaving five, ten, or even fifteen minutes of my total time.
Once I stopped shivering uncontrollably, I left only to immediately return to shivering. Sigh, this was going to be a tough day. I walked the length of the transition area, saw the amazing Anne Wilson, and walked right into the Kings Beach Convention Building to get warm again. Anne followed with a down jacket. For five minutes or so, I stammered how cold I was and she rubbed my back and arms trying to bring some warmth. Concluding I would get no better, I said thanks and wandered into the Lake Tahoe Arctic morning for a small bike ride.
My final T1 time was 35 minutes. Let me repeat that, 35 minutes. That may seem ridiculous, stupid, wasteful, whatever but I think it actually should have been longer. I’d love to see an analysis of T1 times and DNF rates. I am certain that those with the shortest T1 times also were the most likely to DNF. Failure to get warm under those conditions was a total recipe for disaster.
Pathetically enough, I entered T1 in 42nd place in my age group and left it at 277th place. I guess a 35 minute get-warm-or-die break will do that. (Side bar, a stunning 895 people “passed” me in T1, yikes!)
Before getting to the bike, allow me to describe the course in logical sections:
Kings Beach to Dollar Hill to Squaw Valley Turnoff to Truckee: About 15 miles of mostly downhill other than Dollar Hill, a short, somewhat steep one mile climb around Mile 5. The Squaw Valley Turnoff came around Mile 10 and biking this area too fast on Loop 1 = running out of gas or worse (e.g., DNF).
Truckee to Martis Camp: About 10 miles starting with some small climbs in Truckee, followed by rollers until the entrance to Martis Camp.
Martis Camp to Brockway: About 7 miles of rollers that increased in size and severity until the climb to Northstar Ski Resort/Ritz Carlton Resort. That climb was two miles averaging about 5-6% grade. Think uphill, no breaks, and four total switchbacks. Not easy, not fun, and very draining. The final 2ish miles were a European-like Alpine descent along a mountain-hugging road, twisting and zipping down at frightening fast speeds, 35-45 mphs for those willing to take some risks.
Brockway Summit: About 5 miles with the first 2.5 miles being straight uphill, with the first 1.25 miles being relatively “mellow”, about a 5% grade, and the second half being a punishing, exhausting 1.25 mile climb averaging a 9-10% grade. Think hellish, cruel, and murderous. The second 2.5 miles was a rocket-speed, mountain descent down a recently paved highway that was half-closed for the race. New pavement and a highway means consistent turns, bends, and surface for those willing to push their limits, 45-55 mphs for those with some serious confidence (or stupidity, depending on your view).
The Rest: At the bottom of Brockway, you repeated the loop again, and then biked to the Squaw Valley Turnoff, which left just a short, easy climb into Transition 2.
To keep this report at least reasonably short and readable, let me just share some of the more descriptive terms I heard to describe the bike course: Challenging. Hellish. Terrible. Brutal. F***ING joke. Alpine. Unreal. Soul Crushing. Back Breaking. Impossible. Ridiculous. And more… it was, in short, tough. Having ridden most of it, I knew this going in. I also study any bike course online (usually with mapmyride.com; the best source for accurate race information. The graph below is from my garmin), so I felt at least somewhat prepared. For those not so fortunate, I felt awful. To make matters worse, the nasty climb in Martis Camp was never open to the public to preview (unless you happen to be lucky enough to know someone who owned a multi-million dollar Martis Camp mansion AND someone who worked for the forest service and could open the Emergency Access Gate between Martis Camp and the Ritz. Yeah, I don’t know those people and highly doubt anyone in the race did so we all were stunned to see this steep, switching-back two miles on race day. Twice. Thank you WTC for this awesome surprise. Again, sarcasm here.)
I am not going to detail my entire ride as it would turn this report into a treatise and you would stop reading. I wouldn’t continue either. Instead, let me just summarize how I felt for the entire ride: freezingly shivering (I know “freezingly” is not a word, but I think it captures how crappy and cold I felt very well so I am going with it) to uncomfortably cold. That’s right, I never felt better than uncomfortably cold.
I did things on this ride I’ve never done in any race:
I stopped to pee. Twice. I know this will stun you, but I didn’t want to urinate in ALL my cold-weather gear. Not because it would smell or be nasty. I didn’t want to be damp. That would have only made my ride more miserable.
I stopped to have hot chocolate. In fact, I had two cups it tasted so good.
I stopped to remove cold weather gear before each big climb. Then, at the summit, I stopped to reapply it. I learned on the first descent that I’d immediately return to freezingly shivering if I didn’t.
I stopped to eat. Twice. During my first loop, I stopped to eat/drink. I was certain if I tried to both ride and eat/drink, I’d crash. See, my hands were shaking and my arms weren’t working very well. Grabbing my bottle, opening my Bento Box, accessing a waffle or gel while holding a straight line or staying on road was not going to happen. Stopping was the only option. Frankly, I had difficultly chewing. You know, that “I’m so cold my jaw isn’t working because it is frozen AND cramping from chattering for hours” feeling??? Yeah, that was me. It was just great.
I stopped to lie down. With the second climb up Brockway Summit starting at Mile 90, by the time I reached the top, I was dead. At the top, I dismount, racked my bike, and lied on the pavement. It was wonderful. When I stopped panting, I proceeded to eat three candy bars, a banana, and a full bottle of PowerBar’s Ironman Perform. Never ate that much in any one moment in a race before either.
So, there you have it. My ride was 112 miles long, done under chilly duress, and filled with “never done this before” moments. Not exactly the race plan I had created or intended to follow but I played the cards that were dealt to me and considered it a success to reach the end of the bike. Of course, this just meant I now had to run a marathon. Ugh…
My final bike time was 6:49:21. Amazingly enough, as bad as I felt I was doing, I was still passing people constantly during the bike. The new Athlete Tracker from Ironman allows you to see how many athletes (age-group, overall, and sex) you pass or get passed by at each split. I passed anywhere from 8-12 age-group athletes at each split, other than my ten-plus minute break at the top of Brockway Summit (when 12 re-passed me). On the bike, I went from 223rd to 144th in my age group. Not bad for not caring! (Follow-up side bar, of the 895 that passed me in T1, I re-passed 493 of them in the bike.)
Pretty boring, other than I used the bathroom. Oh, that and my legs were toast. The Run was really going to be the “run”. I knew I wasn’t going to set any records and was ok with that. The potty and attitude definitely led to my 6:45 time. I entered T2 at 144th in my age group and exited at 144th conveniently enough.
Leaving T2 and running through the Ironman Village (at the base of Squaw Valley) was great. The crowds and cheering filled me with energy and hope. Sadly, after five minutes, I reached the parking lot and the people were gone. With them went my energy and hope too. Without a doubt, my run was going to be comprised of running when I could and walking the remainder.
Thanks to my black hole of lethargy, there wasn’t much drama to my marathon. I was so out of energy that I literally could not run for more than five to minutes at a time. I’d try. I’d give it my all. And after about three minutes or so, I’d just be out of gas. I felt great. My legs felt good. My heart rate was where it should be. But, I had almost no energy. So, run and then walk. Run and then walk. That lovely pattern repeated over 26.2 miles. Could I have dug deeper? Yeah, probably. Was I willing to dig that hole for myself and push? Not at all. Having long relinquished all time goals, walking became exceptionally easy. I was a little nervous as I was wearing my K-Swiss Kwicky Blades for the first time in a full marathon. They’ve been great for all other races this year, including a bunch of Half-Ironmans, but I hadn’t done a marathon yet in them. (End result: they are fantastic. Best running shoes I’ve ever used.)
One of the two interesting things was that I was consistently passing people. Not in a “I am faster than you” way, but almost like a slowly speeding accordion. Umm, what? Well, when I could run, I was running well and I’d pass everyone I caught. Then, I’d walk and some of those people would, in turn, pass me. Before they got too far ahead, I’d be running again. Eventually, this pattern would result in my leaving them behind. Please know, I had zero objectives to pass anyone. I just wanted to finish but, in pursuit of that, I was apparently moving faster than most. Stunning, I know.
Very happy! Ironman #6 is done!
The other comical thing was my finish. With about a half-mile to go, I was walking and chatting with a friend of mine, with no cares in the world. Until I heard a spectator tell someone that it was “about 7:36”. That time might seem rather arbitrary, but my race clock started at 6:40am, meaning if I finished at or after 7:40pm, I’d have a 13:XX:xx finishing time. I know I said that time goals meant nothing, but a 13 hours Ironman was unacceptable at that moment. So, without pause, I sprinted as fast as I could to the finish line. I ran as hard as could, even hurdling the traffic cone barricades at times to pass slower-moving athletes. How fast was I running??? I averaged a 4:54 minute/mile over that last half-mile, so yeah, I was flying!
Best pizza EVER! :)
My final run time was 4:20:09 for a final time of 12:58:30, putting me 104th in my age group and 489th overall. During the run, I started 144th in my age group and somehow passed 40 age group athletes! I frankly have no idea how this is possible but the numbers don’t lie. (Final side bar, of the 895 that passed me in T1, I re-passed 190 more during the run. Still no clue how…)
All in all, Ironman Lake Tahoe is great. The swim is gorgeous, the bike is very tough but doable, and the run is amazing. But, variable weather is a reality and this can dramatically change everything, as we learned this year. If you are looking for a fun, scenically-wonderful, and challenging event, this is for you. If you want something a little more consistent and dependable, head to Ironman Arizona, Florida, or events like that.
Thanks for reading!