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I survived Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013

It’s been a week since IM Lake Tahoe, and I’ve needed this week just to get my thoughts in order about that race! Not to mention I needed some time to recover from a raging cold that settled in just after the race. This was my third Ironman (I previously finished Ironman Canada Penticton in 2010 and 2012) and Tahoe was BY FAR the hardest. It was a bit of a soul-crusher, I’m not gonna lie. And by all accounts, my sentiments are shared by most, if not all, who raced last weekend. Even people who have done 10 or 15 Ironmans are saying Tahoe was the hardest. So without further ado, my IM Lake Tahoe race report.

No proper race report from IM Tahoe can begin without talking about what happened the day before. Snow. That’s what happened. My mom and I arrived in Tahoe (Squaw Valley) on the Wednesday before the race . Thursday and Friday were beautiful. So beautiful that in between race registration, short swim/bike/run sessions, a moonlit full moon swim, and shopping, we were suntanning by the pool. A cold front storm had been fully predicted to hit Saturday, with the good weather but cooler temperatures returning for Sunday. Snow was forecasted above 8000ft. But nothing can prepare you to see snow, at 6200ft, in T2, the day before an Ironman. We had to check our bikes in at Kings Beach on Saturday, and although the sun came out briefly while I was at T1, it was windy and cold, and the rain started again shortly after I left. I found it really hard to stay focused on the pending race while the weather was going crazy around us. It seemed as though the storm was never going to pass and like there was no way they could run a full Ironman when there was snow building up at the top of Brockway summit. But I went to “sleep” Saturday night hoping for a full Ironman the next morning.

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Quite possibly the most beautiful setting for an Ironman. Lake Tahoe with snowcapped mountains.

I didn’t want to get to T1 too early because it was so cold in the morning. 36F/2C. My dad drove me to Kings Beach and I had time to knock the ice off my bike (seriously), put nutrition on my bike so it wouldn’t be frozen from leaving it overnight (it was still frozen just from being there a couple hours), put socks in my T1 bag (I never wear socks when riding but this situation required socks), and change into my wetsuit. I can’t tell you how hard it is to make yourself believe that you’re going to jump in a lake and swim for over an hour when it’s 2C outside. I’m know I’m crazy (at least that’s what I’ve been told) but that’s REALLY CRAZY!! I was able to give my warm clothes to my dad, I said my goodbyes to him and Farida, and I walked out to the lake. And that was the last time I was warm all day.

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It was a double rainbow kinda day. 

Have you ever walked on frozen sand? I have. You know that top layer of sand that’s wet on a normal day? Well on Sunday, it was frozen. Ice. I was wearing old socks to keep my feet “warm” and it still hurt to break through the layer of ice. But let me tell you, I’ve never seen such a beautiful swim start. The water was warmer than the air (I heard high 50s, about 15C) so there was a thick layer of mist, about 4 feet high hanging over the water. The sun had not yet risen but daylight was breaking. And all the mountains surrounding the lake were snow-capped. It was truly surreal.

Ironman started a new swim initiative this year, implementing rolling swim starts at some of their races. A rolling swim start is similar to a marathon start where you seed yourself according to predicted swim time, the gun goes, but your actual race time doesn’t start until you and your chip cross the start line. It’s meant to reduce contact in the water and have you swim with people of similar ability, instead of having to crawl over slower folks or being crawled over from behind. I love the mass start of Ironman Canada, I think that’s part of what makes the race so special. But I’m very comfortable in the water and don’t mind some contact here and there, maybe because I will fight back! I did not like the rolling start. I didn’t find I had any less contact than before. I seeded myself at the back of the 1:00-1:10 corral, as I was looking to swim faster than 1:08.

When the gun went, the start was very calm, there were guys standing under the swim start arch slowing everyone down. There was about 100 yards of shallow water out to the first buoy before you could actually start swimming. Pretty much everyone walked that. The water was cold and clear. On a nice day you can see down to the bottom in 90ft of water! It’s like the ocean, better than the ocean! Because the sun wasn’t up yet we couldn’t see that far down but it was still very clear. What we couldn’t see was the buoys. They were completely shrouded in mist. So that meant absolutely no sighting. At first I kept trying to sight and find the buoys but it was impossible so I just got into a pack and hoped they knew where they were going, kept my head down, and swam. I remember a few people swimming like 90 degrees in front of me, totally lost. It was a beautiful swim, everytime I turned my head to breathe seeing mist, then snow covered mountains. But I felt slow. I couldn’t get anything going. I couldn’t get into a rhythm. After 2 loops in the water, (thankfully we didn’t have to get out of the water), still not being able to see the buoys, but with the sun rising, I exited the water. I saw 1:23 on the clock and I didn’t know if that was our gun time or the pros. I was definitely disappointed but not surprised to see that time because that’s how slow I felt. I didn’t know until after the race I had swam 1:12, which is still slow for me, my slowest IM swim, but easier to handle than 1:23.

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Happy to be out of the water. Credit: FinisherPix

I calmly found my T1 bag and took a look at the wetsuit strippers removing wetsuits on the cold pavement and quickly decided that wasn’t for me. So I went right into the change tent and took my wetsuit off in the tent. It was pretty busy in there but I was able to get all my cold weather cycling gear on in about 13 minutes. I wore: a toque, tshirt, bib shorts, jersey, vest, arm warmers, leg warmers, socks, toe covers, toe heaters (for skiing), and full finger gloves. By the time I was changed the tent was full and I had to step over so many people just to get out of the tent. My experience was good in T1, mostly because I can swim well enough to get out of the water ahead of the big pack finishing after 1:20. But many many people had horrible experiences. There are stories of lineups to get into the tents (both men and women), people getting naked and changing outside the tents, in front of spectators because they couldn’t get into the tent, 30-40min T1 times. The tent was the same size as in Penticton, but the race organizers failed to account for the fact that we were all doing full changes into warm cycling clothes which takes a lot longer and causes big traffic jams in a small space. Whereas a normal transition takes a few minutes, my 13 minute transition was one of the faster ones! I do remember being really impressed with all the Ironman wearing full-on winter cycling gear. Normally we’re all pretty much naked, in small spandex kits, but this was not a normal race.

I saw my dad, Farida, and Lyndsey just before I hopped on my bike. That was a nice boost! The crowds at Kings Beach were amazing. In fact, all day the crowd support and volunteers were  amazing. Dare I say, better than in Penticton? It was so awesome to see all the support especially for an inaugural race. The first 15 or so miles back to Squaw Valley are “downhill” except for Dollar Hill, which is a short but annoying hill we had to get over 3 times during the day. My bike was not shifting properly for the first few miles, due to the ice and cold temperatures, but eventually it started working fine. The temperature had not warmed up significantly, and even climbing Dollar Hill did not make me warm. I was freezing. Specifically, my hands were freezing. For the first 2.5 hours I could not feel my hands. Which makes eating/hydrating/holding on to the handlebars, very difficult. I know that in the cold you burn more calories because your body is shivering to try to heat up, so I was trying to eat as much as I could. But even once I could get into my bento box, my Bonk Breakers were frozen! The race organizers added an extra “aid station” on the bike as a clothes drop. As long as you had your number on your clothes and they were dropped in that area, you could get them back. I fully expected to be dropping some of my clothes on the second loop but there was never a moment all day, where I was too hot. It was that kind of day. Also in the first hour I was realizing I couldn’t get any power out of my legs. I thought my power meter was broken! No matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t get the numbers up. I tried not to worry too much about it because I was still in the range Jack (my coach) had given me and I was trying to be patient (a quality I don’t possess), wait to warm up, and hoping my watts would increase then.

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What hill? Credit: FInisherPix

The other problem I was having was with my stomach. I wasn’t able to “get things going” in the morning so I had a lump sitting in my stomach that was making me really uncomfortable. Finally after climbing up to the top of Truckee at about mile 25, I hit the porta potties and my stomach was a lot happier. That’s the first time I’ve ever stopped on the bike in IM, and of course it was when I was wearing layers and layers of clothes! Not a fast pee break!

Then a while later I realized somehow my seatpost had been slipping down. I dealt with this same problem with my first Cervelo, which lead to Cervelo replacing that frame to my current one. Since then I haven’t had any problems, until Tahoe (of course). Probably related to the cold. Anyway, I stopped at the next aid station, brought up my seat and tightened it again, and it was fine for the rest of the race. No panic!

The first big climb is in a private area of Northstar called Martis Camp. It’s basically the playground of California’s super rich. Ginormous lots, with log cabin mansions, complete with their own private ski lifts and runs to their front doors. Oh, and there’s a big frickin’ hill in there too. The elevation profile on the Ironman website shows a smooth, constant climb through Martis, but I’m here to tell you it’s anything but. There were switchbacks, which were very demoralizing to see riders snaking up the road above you, and there were climbs then small descents, then more climbing. At the top of the hill at the Ritz (I told you it was fancy) the big descent started. I really like descending and the roads were wide and smooth, not scary at all, and easy to go fast. I felt strong, and patient all through Martis so I was doing what I was supposed to do.

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Cruisin. Credit: FinisherPix

The descent from the Ritz turns right into the long climb up Brockway. It sucks. No two ways about it. It’s just a long, slow climb up to 7179 feet. Again, I was staying patient and just doing my thing. I felt strong and proud of the work I’ve done with Jack this year doing hill repeats and trying to make myself a better cyclist. The crowds on Brockway were amazing. Just like the tour! People in costumes, tons of signs, loud cheers. I felt like a total rock star. Someone had posted signs all around the course with pictures of a dog cheering on his dad. They were so cute and there was a bunch going up Brockway that kept me entertained. The first time up I had to roll down my arm warmers a bit and open my vest but that was the most I ever tried to keep cool. Then it all just got zipped back up for the descents. I think I hit 44mph down the backside of Brockway, which is the fastest I’ve gone on my bike.  And that was one loop. So it was back to Squaw for loop #2. Pretty much the same as the first loop but the climbs up Martis and Brockway were definitely harder the second time.

At one point in Martis, I heard a motorcycle behind me and then a lady talking to the guy riding behind me. I knew he was riding close to me, and she thought he was too, and since she was a course marshal, she gave him a drafting penalty! A little while later, that guy and some other guys rode up to me and they were talking about the penalty he got. He was from Australia, this was his 11th Ironman, and 3rd this year, and first ever penalty. He said that yes, he was indeed drafting off me, because “how could you not follow as ass like that! I’ve been following her all day!”. He was hilarious and that made me laugh for quite a while after.

The best way to describe the second ascent of Brockway is carnage. I’ve never seen so many people walking their bikes up a hill (I never had to walk!) and I’ve also never seen so many people (guys) laying flat out on the pavement at the top of the hill. Passed out. It was crazy. I stopped for a second to gather my wits, but I didn’t lay on the ground! It was crazy!

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Rocking the pink and Betty Designs. Credit: FinisherPix

Right before I got off my bike I saw my family. That was really cool! I was really happy to be done with the bike, also my slowest bike time yet, but really, I feel like one loop of the Ironman Canada course is equal to one loop of the Tahoe course, and then you have to do it again. It’s a real killer of a bike course.  But I was actually proud of my effort on the bike, I felt strong pretty much the whole way, and I was thankful for Jack making me do so many hill repeats this summer. I would not have finished this course last year, that’s for sure. My cycling has come a long way.

T2 was a completely different experience from the mayhem of T1. It was calm and inviting. Almost too inviting, because I didn’t want to leave! The nice volunteer helped me get changed because after 8+ hours of exercise, even changing by yourself can be tricky. At one point she said to me “you’re so skinny!” and all I thought was haven’t you seen skinny triathletes all day? You must be saying that to everyone!

Right out of T2 my legs felt heavy but I knew/hoped that feeling would go away. I was still focused on having a good run and trying for a 4-something marathon.  I saw my mom and dad, Farida, Lyndsey and Mike again so I stopped to chat for a bit. I was also trying to take in gels to keep up my nutrition because I still wanted to run well. However, right from the start I couldn’t get anything going in my legs. It’s like they weren’t responding to anything I tried to do and I couldn’t even get to the slowest pace my coach had suggested. Things started to go downhill at the first uphill around the Resort at Squaw Creek. I was still feeling ok and talking to a nice, motivating guy. The course was run mostly on a bike path with a short section on the side of the highway leading out to another bike path. I stopped for my long sleeve in special needs around mile 7, along the part of the course that heads out to the turn around at mile 10 in Tahoe City. This was a very tough time for me. I did a lot of walking. My head wasn’t in the game. I don’t know why I was walking, I think mostly because it made me happier. I kept asking myself why I was walking when I was perfectly capable of running, and I couldn’t give a good answer, but I just kept walking. Finally at mile 12, I decided to start drinking coke at aid stations, and of course, I perked right up! I picked up my headlight at special needs on the way back and I was able to “run” most of the way back to the turnaround in the village, mile 18. I was actually feeling not too bad at that point, but it was almost like as soon as I saw my mom, I started feeling bad again! She said after my eyes were a bit glossy and she was quite worried about me.

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Ironman shuffle right out of the gate. Credit: FInisherPix

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Credit: FinisherPix

Also around this time, the sun had set, so it was getting COLD and DARK. I picked up a space blanket from a volunteer and wrapped it around my waist as a skirt to try to get my legs to warm up. I wanted to run because that’s how I was staying warm but my legs weren’t letting me (or maybe it was my head not letting me run). I asked a lot of aid stations if anyone had new legs. I was serious! No coke or Perform, just new legs! The second time around the Resort was awful. All the hot tubs were lit up and looked so inviting. I was cold and all I wanted to do was get over the fence and sit in the tubs. But things really hit a low point once I made the turn onto the highway section. About mile 22 I had a major meltdown. I was walking uphill, on the side of a highway, in the dark, by myself (there were lots of people around me, all walking too), heading away from the finish, and I didn’t think I could make it back. I really didn’t. So I walked and cried, and cried some more, for about a mile when I finally snapped out of it. I ran back past Pan Man (a guy sitting on the side of the path, banging a pan with a wooden spoon, who wouldn’t let anyone walk past him. If you read other IM Tahoe race reports, you WILL hear about Pan Man) and actually I ran most of the way back! Well, I stopped a couple times to dance to Gangam Style and Harlem Shake, and walk through the aid stations to get my coke, water, 1 chip, and 1 grape (very precise!). I will never understand how it happens but somehow, when you know the finish is near, suddenly running becomes easy and I was alive with energy, high-fiving all the spectators, and actually passing a ton of athlete in the last one or two miles. That final turn into the finishers chute was awesome. Apparently my mom and Farida were right at the finish but of course I didn’t see them. I also didn’t hear Mike Reilly call me an Ironman but that’s ok, I’m sure he did.

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You are an Ironman! Credit: FinisherPix

Because of all the craziness associated with this race (altitude, hills, cold) the sense of comaraderie among participants has been awesome. Never have I seen people being congratulated so much (and well deserved congrats) for just toeing the start line or DNFing. I think that’s because a lot of us, more that we’d probably like to acknowledge, came close to DNFing that day. I swear, when I was crying on the side of the road at mile 22 in the freezing cold night, I could have been one of those with a DNF beside their name too. At that point, even though it’s “only” 4 more miles, it may as well be 40 or 400 miles, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I’m so proud of myself for not giving up, and for finishing a brutally tough race, possibly the toughest ever. I didn’t reach the goals I had set for myself, mainly to run a 4-something marathon. I love running, it’s my favourite discipline, and I’m a good runner, but it doesn’t show in Ironman. I just run out of gas. But nothing annoys me more than to see another 5-hour IM marathon. So I’m gonna keep working at it, and I know one day it will come together because I’m capable of running faster, I just haven’t got there yet. And at least I tried and I finished. I’ll be back (Ironman Boulder 2014). I love the Ironman finish line – that’s what keeps me going. I am an Ironman!

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This medal sure tastes sweet!

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3x Ironman. Credit: FinisherPix