“The only thing that matters in this world is the positive we do to make it a better world: helping others feel okay about where they are at, applauded for their courage, elevated by their accomplishments. That shared support and inclusiveness is … the soul of triathlon. That’s been true for me since that first day I dragged myself around that track, elevated by the cheers of ‘Go Team!’ ”
These are the words from Rick, a dear friend and fellow Ironman following the 2013 Ironman Lake Tahoe event.
PREPARING FOR RACE DAY
I swear, I had no intentions of signing up for the coldest and most difficult Ironman. Having biked and climbed 100 miles in Lake Tahoe in previous years, I was confident I had the physical strength and ability to complete this Ironman. I even checked the historical weather data and water temperatures and determined that I would be able to perform in weather conditions that was typical for that time of year.
I prepared as best as I could for all of it. From May through September, I had traveled to Lake Tahoe as often as I could to swim, bike and run at 6,000 – 7,000 ft altitude and to train for the 2 looped bike course with over 6,500 ft of climbing.
In addition, I made 2 equipment adjustments:
- 12-32T cassette on my TT bike. Many athletes also changed out their crank to a compact 50/34 with a 11-28T cassette or some other combination that would help them save their legs and spin up all the climbs. Yes a 12-32T can fit on a TT (time trial/triathlon) bike. It just needs a big ugly mountain bike derailleur. UPDATE: I’ve been following this year’s Facebook posts on the Ironman Lake Tahoe page. Seems like many people are opting to change their cassette/crank. I’ve taken a break this year but have been back to ride the course this year in 2014. I spin out on the course in some sections so I am going to try the 11-32T cassette, maybe even experiment with an 11-34T. Stay tuned!
- Smaller, better fitting wetsuit. It turns out that the wetsuit I’ve been wearing for the past 1 1/2 years was too big. Water was passing through my wetsuit which cooled my body down too much. I had cramped up in 72F water at Ironman Canada last year. Now I know why. The water temperature at Lake Tahoe was about 61F on race day.
I had traveled to Lake Tahoe a couple weeks before race day. The weather changed dramatically during that time. I had been training on location and while I knew the water temperature would be in the low 60’s I was not prepared for the storm that blew in 24-48 hours before. Myself and several other athletes were scrambling to find, ship overnight or have friends or family bring additional cold weather bike gear and clothing to Lake Tahoe.
Two days prior to race day, the temperature had dropped from about 71F to low 50’s F. A storm had moved in. For the first time I saw white capped waves.
The day before race day, it snowed in some parts of Lake Tahoe and rained at King’s Beach, the location of the swim start. I dropped off a small T1 bag that was double bagged inside water proof bags and decided to bring my clothing, gear and food the next day so it would not freeze over night in the rain.
The ambient temperature was 25F on morning of the inaugural of Ironman Lake Tahoe. Normally Coach Tom goes over my race plan and gives me a pep talk before the race. Instead, we spent the entire conversation preparing for freezing temperatures. We verbally walked through T1, how I planned to stay warm before the swim and how I would warm up after the swim:
- Bring all my food in the morning so it will not be frozen
- Activate 6 hand & toes warmers in T1 bag in the morning to warm up clothes
- Keep core temperature as warm as possible by remaining inside the community center building as long as possible
- Wear gloves onto the beach with hand warmers, discarding them before the start of the swim.
- Put Vaseline on my cheeks, nose and back of my hands to repel the cold water. (Tip from Dr. Amanda Stevens, professional triathlete I happen to meet on the beach that week.)
- Pour warm water inside wetsuit before the start of the swim.
- Change into completely dry bike gear after the swim
- Take off wetsuit inside tent
- Full winter bike gear with layers to be worn including toe warmers including thick bike gloves I borrowed
- Drink warm Miso soup from a thermos in T1 to warm up core temperature
- Pour warm water from a thermos onto my feet and hands in T1
- Make sure I drank Ensure to get some calories in fast. Coach Tom warned me that I won’t feel like drinking or eating when it’s very cold but to make sure that I do
- Bike with hand and toe warmers placing 1 inside my sports bra and 1 inside my back bike Jersey pocket.
The swim was eerie, mystical and peaceful all at the same time. It was beautiful to watch the sun rise with snow capped mountains in the backdrop. Lake Tahoe is one of the cleanest and clearest bodies of water. Low lying mist above the surface of the water resulted from a 30 degree difference between the water temperature (61F) and air temperature (25-27F). This made it difficult to see the buoys. I had to stop a few times to ask the life guards on paddle boards which direction to swim. I watched three athletes in front of me turn prematurely and head off in the wrong direction. The poor visibility above the water, contrasted with 45-85 feet of visibility below the water. All the practice swims paid off. I was comfortable swimming in cold water and at altitude. I did not cramp up and had a good swim despite stopping a few times to figure out if I was swimming in the right direction. In the future, I will take advantage of starting in an earlier swim wave to gain a few additional minutes of bike time.
T1 had been described as Dante’s Inferno of nakedness. I was surprised that the T1 tent was one-third the size of the T1 tent at the 2012 Ironman Canada. There were not enough chairs or room for all of the athletes. Some athletes had to wait outside because there were too many athletes spending 20-45 minutes in the tent. Once inside, some athletes lost socks or sunglasses as it was kicked or stepped on in a very crowded tent full of competitive, nervous type A personalities. I was lucky to find a chair and had the good fortune of being assisted by a volunteer named Terry, a former professional triathlete. I was shivering uncontrollably. She helped me take my wetsuit off inside the tent. There was no way I was taking my wetsuit off outside. I drank warm Miso soup and poured warm water on my feet. My hands were shaking. The heaters in the heating tent ran out of fuel. I had to rely on Terry to get me dressed as efficiently as possible. She was amazing. She politely asked me 3 times if I wanted to drink my bottle of Ensure. I got the hint after she asked me the 3rd time. She was encouraging me to drink it. She also told me that she wanted me to get on the bike as soon as possible to warm up. I thanked Terry, gave her a kiss and a hug, heeded her words and got out of T1 in 24 minutes.
The biggest issue wasn’t the actual air temperature but the rate at which the ambient temperature warmed up. Hour by hour, it remained unusually cold and took much longer to reach a high of 57F. My left quad had cramped up in T1. I had trouble clipping into my bike pedal possibly due to ice on the bike. I was dressed in full winter bike gear with tights, 3 layers, borrowed toe covers and borrowed winter bike gloves. I had 6 hand and toe warmers placed inside my shoes, gloves, bike shirt pocket and sports bra. I never felt the warmth of the activated warmers during the entire ride. The first 10 miles was very slow and the most miserable I’ve ever been on a bike. I tried to warm up slowly. Eventually my left quad would loosen up. The bike gloves were so thick, I had to stop the bike and remove my gloves to eat solid food. I remained cold for the entire time I was on the bike. I saw athletes being taken away in ambulances for hypothermia. One athlete rode 40 miles in his wetsuit.
My plan was to warm up slowly then negative split the 2nd loop. I felt strong after the longest climb up Brockway. Once I descended, I started to push harder to make up time on the bike. I felt strong and was pedaling strong as I passed the entrance to Squaw Valley at mile 60. To my surprise, I am asked to stop. At first I thought I was receiving a penalty. It did not occur to me that I missed one of the intermediate bike time cut-offs.
I’m not going to lie. It stung to DNF (did not finish). I was stunned for a few minutes and watched, one by one, all the athletes behind me stopped, some of whom were my friends. It was hard to see the stunned and disappointed look on their faces, let alone deal with my own disappointment.
My good friend and sherpa, Ted, happen to be there, cheering me on when I realized that it was over. I looked for him in the crowd and mouthed the words “I didn’t make it”. He came over and gave me a big hug. I almost cried. I told him and myself that I was ok. I gave it my best effort that day and trained hard for 9 months. I did as much as I could to prepare for the weather.
After gathering my thoughts I asked Ted for the time. It was 2:05. I had been standing there for a few minutes and later learned I missed the cut-off by 2 minutes. There were 700 people who either did not start the race or were behind me on the bike. Too bad. I felt I would have made the 5:30 pm final bike cut-off time. There were athletes who completed the bike course and decided to remove themselves from the race because they were still too cold after 112 miles. Some of these people were experienced Ironman and coaches.
My mind played the “what-if” game and I thought about how I stopped too many times during the swim, to fix my booties, to figure out where I was going; how I stopped to fix the toe covers; how I stopped to take off my jacket and eat some food; how I stopped for special needs or to use the bathroom.
I don’t know how I would have felt if I could have made the overall bike cut-off. Would I be able to run? I like to believe that if I made it to T2 I would have been able to finish the run in time, however there is no way to know for sure what would have happened. Several of my friends DNF’d the run either pulling themselves from the race due to hypothermia and dehydration or didn’t make the final 17 hour cut-off time.
The blow was softened by the fact that I had completed an Ironman Canada the year before. The highlights of the day were the phone calls and a text messages from my dearest friends and family telling me how proud they were of me.
After getting something to eat and a long hot shower, I went to cheer on my friends and others crossing the finish line. The excitement at the finish did help to cheer me up. Although I wished for all of my friends to finish, there was one athlete in particular, named Tanja who raced Ironman Lake Tahoe in honor of her fiancé who lost his life to leukemia. She spread his ashes in Lake Tahoe. I am happy to report that Tanja finished strong.
Overall, it took the Pro’s about an hour longer to finish IMLT compared to other IM’s; 565 people decided not to race that morning and 20% of athletes DNF’d. About half of the women in my age group DNF’d. Weather was definitely a factor. It was epic.
Bouncing Back & Life After IMLT
It is quite common for athletes to experience a withdrawal following an Ironman. The withdrawal can be particularly hard if you DNF’d. Everyone deals with it differently. Some take care of unfinished business and sign up for the next earliest Ironman. Some seek retribution the following year. Others decided to take a break from the sport altogether. As for me, I did not have the mental energy to prepare and compete in another Ironman right away. As much as I wanted to attempt IMLT next year, my coach and I agree that maybe it’s best to swallow my ego and pride, and accept that similar cold temperatures are too much of a risk for someone of my build and weight. At the suggestion of a friend, I naively signed up to do the North Face Challenge as my first trail marathon. It’s not an Ironman, but the challenge of learning how to trail race turned out to be the perfect distraction and outlet to redirect all the energy still stored inside my Ironman conditioned body.
I realize how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy doing Ironmans or trail marathons. I will be racing in less than 3 weeks and will be thinking of my friend Kelly who is suppose to race the 50K distance of the North Face Challenge. She is currently in the hospital battling cancer for the 2nd time. No doubt my multiple Ironman and ultra marathon friend will survive it again. I will be thinking about her every step of the way on race day.
The takeaways from this experience are:
- Take advantage of a rolling, self-seated swim wave start. You may gain the extra 2 minutes you need to make the bike cut-off.
- Prepare as best you can for the unexpected and just roll with it. If it doesn’t work out, know that you did the best you could to prepare and lean on the support of good friends and your family.
- Enjoy and appreciate the entire journey. The friendships and memories will last a lifetime. Race day will go by too fast and be a big blur.
- Sometimes it is best to swallow your pride and ego and let it go. Sometimes it is not healthy to compete with or compare yourself to others. Sometimes it’s best to just do it for the fun of it.
- The only thing that matters in this world is the positive we do to make it a better world: helping others feel okay about where they are at, applauded for their courage, elevated by their accomplishments. That shared support and inclusiveness is … the soul of triathlon. That’s been true for me since that first day I dragged myself around that track, elevated by the cheers of ‘Go Team!’