When the stories about the initial running of Ironman Lake Tahoe are told, they will surely focus on two things: The toughness of the course and the weather.
When I signed up for Ironman Lake Tahoe last summer as part of Team In Training I knew it would be an adventure and I was not disappointed. After raising $8,000 for cancer research and patient care, swimming 56 miles, riding 2,500 miles, and running 400 miles I felt I was ready. I’m a huge fan of skiing at Lake Tahoe (Northstar and Squaw) and after 16 years of Wildflower I was ready to go for the ultimate challenge.
It was no surprise that the bike course was going to be tough – our team had a couple training weekends in Tahoe and although the Martis Camp portion of the course wasn’t open for riding ahead of time it was easy to bike through Northstar to get to the Ritz Carlton and get the Ritz/Brockway double shot. Nobody should be surprised about how much climbing there was.
A few of us data geeks had been analyzing our power data to try to make predictions about how we would do. I used Strava to piece together most of the race course, including creating quite a few IMLT-specific segments. I used this data to make predictions of how my day would go and where I would be at particular times. You can see those files here:
In reality I was planning on finishing somewhere around 11:00 pm. The spreadsheet shows a way I could finish before 10:00 but that was really super-optimistic and not realistic at all. I was almost certain I was going to finish before the cutoff and that was my main goal.
For the data analysis geeks: After 10 months of training I showed up to race day at 170 pounds with an estimated Functional Threshold Power (FTP) of 220 Watts. (2.85 Watts/kg) I am a 38 year old male, exactly 6 feet tall. (with slightly shorter legs and longer torso – I ride 172.5 mm cranks) My longest training ride was 104 miles and my longest training run was 20 miles. I have done Wildflower many times but this was my first Iron-distance event.
As for the weather, this is the Sierras in the Fall and that means chilly nights and sometimes cool days, with occasional rain, snow, etc. The “Seasonal Weather Averages” link on Weather Underground tells us that the average low temp at King’s Beach for September 22nd is about 32 degrees with an average high around 72. If you search for “tahoe summer hail” on youtube you’ll find plenty of videos of hail storms, snow storms, etc. Inclement weather in the summer is not uncommon in Tahoe. Many of us did the America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride around the lake in June and can remember it being cold in the morning then.
Three weeks ago everyone on the Internet was freaking out about smoke form the Rim Fire possibly affecting the race but a week out from race day all people could talk about was a cold front that was supposed to blow through on Friday and Saturday before race day, leaving cool and clear conditions for race day. I would prefer cool over warm so I thought this looked like a good scenario for me although I hadn’t really thought through the details. Plus, any precipitation we got pre-race would probably tamp the remains of the fire and help the air quality.
The week before
We arrived at Squaw Valley on Tuesday and had a couple days of really nice late-summer weather with highs in the 70′s and chilly nights. I had a great test swim at King’s Beach with Robert Thursday morning and we quickly realized that the water temperature was going to be ideal but the air temperature was going to be very cold, meaning hanging out pre-race and T1 were going to require extra attention to keeping warm. It was also clear that those of us on the run course late at night were going to be contending with temperatures in the low 40′s. The first 25 miles of the bike is mostly shaded and downhill (except for the small hill at Dollar Point) and the temps on the bike ride were going to be cold.
After checking in for the race and getting over the initial adrenaline rush of going through my registration swag, I joined about a million other people in the North Face store at Squaw Village looking for a few extra bits to keep warm on race day. Half the store was on closeout sale and they probably sold out of every piece of running gear they had.
The official Athlete’s Meeting and dinner was Friday night and it was a high rush to be in the tent with 2,500 pumped up athletes. The voice of Ironman – Mike Reilly – led the festivities and shared some interesting stats with us, like how almost a third of the racers were from California, and how this race had 27% women as opposed to the Ironman average of 25%. They warned us that the weather on Saturday was going to be ugly but that everything should clear up for race day on Sunday.
Sure enough, Saturday came and brought us rain and lower temperatures in the morning, then deteriorating throughout the day. The wind decimated the tents in the festival area, but there was nobody hanging around outside anyway. We dropped off bikes and Transition 1 bags in a light rain and tried to drive the portion of the course in Martis Camp, a private gated community that had graciously allowed us unwashed heathen partial access to their slice of heaven between the hours of 3 and 5 pm. As it turns out they wouldn’t even allow us full access to the roads which I thought was pretty rude.
Side Note: I like that the course included the climb to the Ritz but I don’t think they should run the course through Martis Camp. I think they should take the alternate way through Northstar, the way that many of us had been training with. If Martis Camp doesn’t want to embrace Ironman, why deal with them at all?
On the way back to Squaw the real front moved through and we got some full-on snow. Not just a dusting but perhaps an inch of accumulation in some places. The jokes and freaking out on Facebook kicked in to high gear but the front had passed through so the weather started to clear. When we drove back into the valley at 5:00 the whole valley was visible, with clear air and all the peaks dusted with snow. People may have been freaking out about the snow but it was really pretty and the really was that it wasn’t going to snow or rain on race day, so everything would be just fine.
Our team had our Inspirational Dinner and I went back to the team hotel and thought about the journey over the last year and had an emotional “Mission Moment” of my own, thinking about Greg Junell, whose struggle with Lymphoma set me on this whole journey. I took a shower and went to bed feeling very calm and confident. I was as ready as possible.
Pre Race: We had too much padding built in to the transportation schedule so I ended up waking up earlier than needed (2:30) and sitting around a lot. I woke up on my own before the wakeup call (as always) and got up and ate some breakfast and sat around reading work emails and took another shower to kill time. Took the shuttle from one hotel to another hotel and then sat around to kill time. Took the first bus of the day to the King’s Beach and started to prep.
Transition was cold – obviously lower than freezing because I wiped my bike off and then the water re-froze while I was standing around. The best part of the pre-race experience was finding the Event Center which turned into an impromptu changing area which was heated. Getting changed in a below-freezing transition area would have been uncomfortable.
I walked across the beach and was surprised the the first half inch of sand was frozen from the rains the day before and the freezing overnight. That was a new experience. I watched the pros start and decided to do a little warm up in the shallows. It was good to get water in the wetsuit and get it all situated, and then I went back up the beach and put on my makeshift fleece hand warmers (with chemical hand warmers inside) to ward off the sub-freezing temps. My feet started to get cold while waiting for the start but it wasn’t bad. I felt bad for the people with no booties, or people that opted for sleeveless wetsuits because they were getting seriously cold waiting for the start.
Swim: (2.4 miles: 1 hour, 25 minutes)
I loved the rolling swim start and seeded myself well around the 1:30 sign. The start was not violent at all and everyone was very well behaved. The water was actually nice and warm (64) and of course perfectly clear and tasty. The full suit and booties and hood worked out really well. I had no wetsuit issues at all – no chafing, rubbing, poor fit, etc. The day was shaping up to be spectacular, with the mountains capped with snow, wisps of fog hiding the bouys, and it was the only time I’ve ever used ski runs as sighting markers during the swim.
I didn’t notice the altitude at all and was able to breath every third stroke (alternating sides) like I always do. I took one or two mouthfuls of water but didn’t have any trouble with chop or swell. I checked my watch after one lap and was very pleasantly surprised by my pace. By the final turn I was starting to feel a little tired and I could feel my form slipping. I was having a great swim but was happy to be finished and move on to the next event.
Transition 1: I ran out of the water feeling good and grabbed a very icy transition bag from the ground and ran over to the changing tent. The changing tent was the biggest glitch of the day that I experienced. The changing tent was WAY too small for the number of people in there and people were packed in like on an elevator, and moving around was hard, let alone bending over to change. I probably spent about 5 minutes standing waiting for a chair.
Because of the cold weather I knew it was important to take time to dry off completely and change into a full set of dry clothes. This took a little more time but was a good investment. After a record-long 24 minute transition I was off to tackle the meat of the day.
Bike: (112 miles: 8 hours, 3 minutes)
Full .fit file of bike, including power data: http://brian-johns.com/static/Brian_Johns_Ironman_Tahoe_2013_bike.FIT
This was going to be a colder than normal bike ride, with temps in the high 30′s at the start and the upper 50′s at mid-day, but I enjoy cooler temperatures more than warmer temps, so this was fine for me. Training with the Ironteam in the Winter got me ready for cold weather biking. I headed out with bike shorts, Ironteam jersey, arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, and a fleece beanie under the helmet. Nothing different than what you would expect to wear for a bike ride in 40 degree temperatures.
Seeing that it was 8:40 am, the pacing chart taped to my top-tube showed a 12.7 mph pace needed to finish the bike by the cutoff of 5:30 pm. I entered that into the Garmin’s Virtual Pacer and set on my way. My average speed on the flats is higher than that so I can watch my time cushion build up as I ride, knowing that I would spend 20 – 30 minutes of the cushion on the hills that were to come.
My training buddy and teammate Robert works for EA and mentioned the “game-ification” of sports and exercise, with FitBit, Strava, and other gadgets bringing a whole new dimension of gaming and social to exercise. I think Garmin’s virtual pacer is great little gizmo and I think of it as “banking” time that I can spend later in the game, whether it be on a hill, in a the portapotty, or just resting. The whole day is really a game to me anyway, so the virtual pacer fits right in to my strategy.
The bike course is two 46 mile loops plus a final half-loop of the mostly-downhill part. The first hour and a half of the bike has one small hill but is otherwise a smooth gradual 20 mile descent into Truckee. I was warm enough and feeling really good, so my power was a little higher than perhaps it should have been.
For the gear-heads: I ride a 56 cm Trek Madone 4.5 with a triple crank in the front (30/40/50) and a 12-30 in the back. I like to keep my cadence higher than most people, especially up hills. This was probably the right gearing for me, with my cadence dropping down to 55 rpms on the steepest parts of the second loop. On second thought, maybe one more gear would be nice… My overall average cadence of 85 RPMs is actually a little bit low for me.
The first loop through Martis Camp and Northstar and over Brockway Pass went very well and I was in good spirits and talking to lots of people. I stopped to take off a layer of clothing at the beginning of the Martis Camp climb. I started getting passed by the pros in Martis Camp and was happy that they weren’t going too much faster than I was. The descent to King’s Beach and cruise past Squaw Valley was uneventful. My time for the first lap was 3:15.
I took the opportunity to drop clothing at Squaw Valley and was very happy they had that service this year. I knew I was getting tired so I decided to back it off a little bit. The second trip through Martis Camp and Brockway felt harder and I was doing my best to go slowly. (Not that I had much choice) My time for the second loop was 3:35, an increase of 20 minutes.
The last half lap of the bike was pretty slow and I was feeling sore and doing my best to rest up for the run and clear my legs as much as possible. I tried to focus on “active recovery” and put myself in the best possible place for the run. The hardest part of that balance was figuring out if I should go harder to bank more time for the run or go slower to let my legs recover. I decided to go slower since I had almost a 50 minute cushion over the bike cutoff.
I ended up finishing the bike in 8:03 at 4:42 pm, which was 1 minute later than my spreadsheet predicted. I was somewhat unhappy that I broke the 8 hour barrier but I looked at the extra 3 minutes spent as a good investment in freshness for the run. The Garmin says I had 17 minutes of stoppage time, which includes some porta-pot breaks, stopping for sunscreen twice, stopping at aid stations to mix beverage into my waterbottles, stopping for the clothing drop, etc.
Transition 2: (10 minutes)
Nothing special to report here, but perhaps a minute or two long. That 10 minutes does include the porta-pot stop though. I went through T2 with J-wow and we started the run together. The firefighter dude was in transition with us, getting suited up in his 90 pounds of fire fighting gear to walk his marathon.
Run: (26.2 miles: 6 hours, 31 minutes)
As I started the run it was clear I was very hungry and a little dehydrated. I have a small chart taped to my water bottle that tells me what pace I need to hold to finish before the cutoff, based on an expected swim start time of 6:45 and therefore a final 17 hour cutoff time of 11:45 pm. I really started at 6:50, so my 17 hour cutoff time was 5 minutes later at 11:50 pm. I programmed my Garmin Virtual Pacer for a 14:40 pace according to the table and started on my way.
Plan A was to do a 5 minute, 1 minute run/walk strategy after walking the first mile or so to get into run mode. This strategy fell apart pretty quickly because there were so many people cheering at the start of the run that it was impossible to walk with everyone so enthusiastic. After a couple minutes I really needed to walk for a little bit and it became clear that I wasn’t in good shape. I was banking a small amount of time but I was getting woozy and feeling generally horrible. Muscles and joints weren’t that bad and my gut felt pretty good, but my lack of calories was becoming a problem.
I decided to just walk and eat until I felt better. I had potato chips, chicken broth, and grapes for dinner. I had heard about the famous chicken broth at Ironman aid stations and when I first tasted it I knew this was the stuff for me. I probably drank more than a quart of it over the first 5 miles, having volunteers fill my water bottle straight from the dispenser.
I had been speed-walking most of the time and noticed that my speed walking pace almost exactly matched the target pace of 14:40 I needed to finish. The only way I was adding to the cushion was with my spurts of jogging. I was worried about cutting it too close, or getting caught up in one of the intermediate cutoffs.
Somewhere around mile 7 or 8 I started to feel much better. It was also around here I noticed that my mental pacing math wasn’t working out completely. (I do a lot of math on the run leg of a triathlon) Between the time of day, elapsed time for the run, distance between the posted mile markers, and distance the Garmin thought I covered, something wasn’t adding up. I noticed that my Garmin was tracking distance more slowly than the mile markers, and I remembered that I had started my watch a couple minutes after I really started running. I also remembered that I started the swim after the 6:45 that my pacing table had assumed.
No matter how I got into this situation I determined that if I maintained my present speed-walk pace I would finish at 11:15 which would surely be fast enough to make the intermediate cutoffs. I was watching how much cushion my spurts of jogging were buying me and trading that off against the metabolic cost of jogging vs. walking and came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t worth it.
I had put too much into this year of training to risk not finishing so I fell back to Plan B: Survival. I made the conscious decision to play it safe and speed-walk the whole thing, rather than trying to get a slightly better time and risk blowing up somehow. I had always told myself I would be happy with any finishing time under 17 hours and this was the point when I had to accept that fate and give up any chance of heroics and just settle in for a long slow grind to the finish line.
There’s not much to say about the last 3 hours of the race. It was just a slow grind, keeping the pace up, and focussing on getting calories and fluids in and keeping my gut happy. I was getting paranoid about something going wrong. What if I twist my ankle? What if I drop something important and cramp up trying to pick it up? What if my gut seizes up? What if I pull a muscle?
For the most part it was very dark, cold, and lonely out there in the last couple hours. It was busier on the way in when we were sharing the trail with people on their final lap but heading out on our final lap it thinned out and there were times where there was nobody within a few hundred yards of me. I talked to people whenever they were near and a lot of people were talking about how they had done multiple Ironmans and this was the hardest. That made me proud because I was pretty sure I was going to finish this one.
The temperature was getting cold – probably down in the low 40′s of high 30′s – but I was completely prepared. I was in long running tights, bike jersey, arm warmers, full-fingered cycling gloves, fleece beanie, and running shell. My headlamp worked fine for the pitch-black trail and I got a few comments on my “tail lights”. The weather for me was a non-issue.
At about mile 25 I stowed the jacket and the headlamp because I wanted to look good for the finishing pictures. I speed-walked up the hill through the village and jogged the finish chute and heard Mike Reilly say that I was an Ironman. The nicest volunteer held on to me for a minute or two and got my my medal, shirt, hat, and two chocolate milks. (I love chocolate milk) I found my Ironteam buddies and then found my family.
I immediately started to get cold even though I put my jacket back on, but we stayed at the finish line until midnight to see the last finishers come in. The vibe was really awesome, as expected. I’ve watched video of the last few minutes of an Ironman before and this was everything it was hyped up to be. The energy of Mike Reilly and the crowd was amazing but it was clear I needed to get back to the hotel room for a warm shower and some food. The half hour between my finish and the end of the race flew by really quickly.
Conclusion (Overall time: 16 hours, 35 minutes)
Looking back on the race and the year, I can only be happy because I achieved everything I set out to achieve, and yet the fact that I “gave up” on the run and took the easy way out eats at me a little bit. Part of me thinks I should have at least done tried a 1/1 run/walk, or even a 1/3 “reverse run/walk” (1 minute of running, 3 minutes of walking) Anything better than just speed walking. Perhaps I could have cut the time a little bit. Also, If I had been thinking more I probably would have pushed myself to finish the bike 3 minutes faster and been “sub 8 hours” on that leg.
But the reality was that I’m probably a “one and done” Ironman and the idea of not finishing after such a huge year was just unthinkable. Now that I’ve done it it’s easy to think of things differently – if I ever do this again I’ll be willing to take more risks because the cost of failure will be lower. I’m already an Ironman so there’s less pressure. Does that make sense?
I think the event was absolutely awesome. I love the idea that there’s an Ironman that features cooler weather and a harder bike course. If you want a fast, flat, hot Ironman then there are 25 more of those to choose from. If you want an Alpine experience in the Fall, sign up for Ironman Tahoe.
Sure, they need a bigger T1 changing tent if everyone is actually going to do a full change but that’s a minor operational issue. The clothing drop was great and I’m sure they’ll refine that. (Put my stuff in a plastic bag with my number and let me pick it up with the other bags)
I like the climbing on the course and I knew the course played to my strengths: cooler weather, strong biking with lots of hills, and a mostly flat run course. The only change I would suggest would be to cut out Martis Camp and get to the Ritz though Northstar. There’s no need to go through a closed community with no option for riding the course beforehand. Screw those guys!
My training was pretty much dead-on except that things sort of fell apart for the last two months. If anything, I tapered too early. 10 months is probably too long a season and I was was probably ready in July when our other team mates were ready for Vineman. I may have gained some run strength over the last two months but the cost was huge: I was getting burned out on training and being gone all weekend.
I trained every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with the team and took Monday, Thursday, and Fridays off. I have very little motivation to train on my own but I almost never missed a group workout. This is one reason why Team in Training can work so well for certain people – the group aspect.
For the most part we did the right things. There may have been too many hills on the later training runs but just the right amount on the bike rides. I found training with a power meter to be very rewarding and I would recommend it to anyone with any sort of a mind for numbers or an engineering background. If anything, I would have liked to seen our team put more emphasis on measurement and tracking across all three sports.
I found using Strava with other team members to be a lot of fun, and was a really good predictor of race-day performance. The two books I strongly recommend are “Going Long” by Joe Friel and Gordon Bryn, and “Total Immersion” by Terry Laughlin. “Going Long” is a great overview of how to tackle the whole season and “Total Immersion” taught me how to swim efficiently.
The cold weather training we did early in the season undoubtedly paid off on race day. After 8:00 am bike rides in January I knew I was ready for a cold weather ride. Swimming at Aquatic Park and Pacific Grove in February gave me the confidence to swim at King’s Beach at 32 degrees.
Will I ever do it again? Probably not. There’s too much going on in life right now to train for another Ironman so I’ll be going back to Wildflower every year and that’s probably about it. I’d consider volunteering for Ironman Tahoe sometime because that looks like a lot of fun and I was so thankful to all the volunteers who helped me out throughout the week.
It goes without saying that I never could have done this without help from so many people. First and foremost are my family who LET me do this. Erin and her parents did an amazing job of holding down the fort for 10 months and Abby was always happy to ask if I had a good run. They were there for me all year long right up through race weekend when they let me do my thing and took care of everything. I owe them a large debt.
And of course I couldn’t have done it without Team In Training. It was a combination of happy and sad events that pushed me into this but there’s nothing like the support of the TNT Ironteam. I would not have motivated myself to do the training without them and I am thrilled that I was able to raise so much money for the cause.
The real question is: Will I be able to quit Team in Training? I know I can’t be an Ironteam participant next year but I’d like to help out somehow. Perhaps I could be a biking coach for the TNT Wildflower team, or help out with Ironteam in some fashion.
Go Team, Ironteam! (Woo)