If the scenery doesn’t take your breath away, the altitude will.
So goes the marketing tag line for the 2013 Ironman Lake Tahoe Triathlon. Much as this engineer likes to poke fun at marketing, they got that one right. My first (and very likely only) attempt at the Ironman distance was at what is apparently one of the most difficult Ironman courses in the world.
Several of my Chico Triathlon Club friends who were also racing headed up to Tahoe early in the week to help acclimate to the altitude. Since the race was scheduled in the midst of the fall semester, I didn’t have that option. I was able to leave work early on Friday, and Tammie and I left for the lake around lunchtime.
The organizers required you to sign in and pick up your packets by 5:00 PM on Friday, even though the race wasn’t until Sunday. We made it in time, but the expo and registration areas were nearly vacant, as most everyone had already picked up their numbers and swag. This being a real “M-Dot” Ironman, there were many, many differences as compared to a normal triathlon. The organization for the registration process was a well clearly a well-oiled machine, and the swag was pretty cool. The run numbers have your name on them, which makes for great motivation when you’re being cheered late in the race. They also gave away custom “Ironman” backpacks, along with six gear bags. And they affixed a blue medical type wristband with your number on it, which you had to wear all weekend.
We were offered an amazing place to stay by fellow Chico racer Blake, whose dad is an architect that designed an amazing lakefront home for a friend of his. The house was huge and elegant, and the owner Bert was as nice and down to earth as you can imagine. He was even gracious enough to allow us (by us I mean Tammie) to host the Saturday night pre-race dinner there, for which we had 50 RSVPs.
I had planned to spend Saturday in as low key a way as possible. All racers had to check in their bike and gear bag at Kings Beach, site of the swim and T1. We also had to check in our run bags at T2, which was located at Squaw Valley, the ski resort that hosted the 1960 winter Olympics. This meant carefully planning your race day, with all the correct gear in the correct bags, because once you dropped it off, you wouldn’t see it again you arrived during the race. The task was complicated by the anticipated COLD weather for Sunday, with an expected low of 27 degrees Saturday night.
Saturday morning, before beginning to sort any of my gear or do anything else to get ready, Bert invited Tammie and me to join him and Blake’s dad on a boat ride. He had a very nice powerboat moored across from the house and was taking it to visit a friend in Incline Village on the other side of the lake. I was thinking I should probably just lay low and get things ready for Sunday, but decided it was too cool an opportunity to pass up.
The events of the next four hours could encompass an entire report, but the short version is that the weather was rapidly deteriorating with strong winds and an approaching storm that would eventually bring snow later in the day. We encountered some huge rocks off of Kings beach and the boat became wedged in among some of them. We tried to get the boat free, but couldn't, and were continually rocked by 2 to 3 foot waves, which eventually started washing over the stern and filling the cabin. The coast guard sent a rescue boat, but it wouldn’t come close due to the rocks and shallow water. We ended up abandoning ship and walking through the rocks and waves into shore. While we were never in any particular danger, and no one was hurt, thankfully, by the time I got back to the house I was soaked, cold, hungry, and running out of time to get my bike and gear bags delivered.
I took a hot shower, ate, and quickly sorted my gear into the appropriate bags. Tammie was nice enough to drive me to Squaw Valley and Kings beach, so I wouldn’t have to park but could instead just drop my bike and other gear while she waited nearby. All of this had to be accomplished by 4:00 PM, and traffic was really congested, but we made it okay and were back at the house barely in time for Tammie to start work on the club dinner (she forbade any athletes from helping with the dinner in any way). Laura, Ken, and Gloria all came early and pitched in, and the dinner was a great success. All the racers and their families came, and there was amazing positive energy from everyone there. It truly adjusted my spirits and made me excited for the day to come.
Race morning was like any other for me, up early, coffee, bagel, and getting to the race site. There was a lot of traffic congestion around Kings Beach, and we arrived a bit later than I would have liked. There really wasn’t much to do except put the bottles and nutrition on my bike, put on my wetsuit, and head over to swim start. I was surprised by the odd site of ice coating my top tube and handlebars, as the rain from the day before had frozen solid. Shawn was there getting the ice off my tires, and Tammie and Laura were on the other side of the fence with lots of encouragement and good vibes.
Tahoe utilized a rolling swim start, which is relatively new to Ironman racing. Age groupers line up on the beach according to expected swim time, much as you might do in a big running race. Once the race begins, you file through the swim arch which records the start time of “your” race. There is no urgency to get through, and the entire process seemed to work flawlessly. The pros took off at 6:30 and we were released ten minutes later. I only got in line about three minutes before the age group start, so I didn’t have much time to contemplate the race to come.
The few minutes I did have were surreal. I looked around at some of the other athletes; some were nervous, others focused, and some looked terrified. The rain the day before was snow at higher elevations, and the mountains around the lake were white and glistening. The sun wasn’t yet up, and there was a layer of fog across the lake, giving it an eerie feel. Before I knew it, we were singing the national anthem which was immediately followed by the loud, opening riffs of Times Like These, one of my favorite Foo Fighters songs, which I will forever associate with this amazing moment. Soon thereafter came the cannon blast and it was time to go.
The first few rows of athletes took off, but it was mostly just a casual walk into the water. It was shallow for quite a distance, and I took my time walking out until it was deep enough to swim. I felt the cold 65° water moving up my wetsuit and braced for the cold blast to my face that was to come when I finally dove and began swimming. I don’t remember feeling it at all, as I was immediately overwhelmed at the sight of Tahoe’s amazing clear blue water. I had never actually swam in the lake before, and was just mesmerized at how far I could see, and the sight of all the swimmers around me beginning their quest.
My mantra for the entire race was to go easy, which is quite a contrast to how I normally race a triathlon. I had no particular time goals, and just wanted to complete the event as comfortably as is possible for an Ironman. I fully relaxed in the swim and just took in the sights, focusing on form and energy conservation, not speed. The lake bottom gradually receded from view, but it took quite a while, as clarity of the lake is measured in the neighborhood of 75 feet. Once I couldn’t see bottom any more, I was surrounded by this an amazing blue expanse. Taking Gloria’s advice, I was truly in the moment, taking in the entire experience that this race had to offer.
I rarely had trouble with crowding or navigation, even though the fog made the buoys difficult to see. I just focused on swimming in a straight line, and one by one the buoys just came into view with little course correction needed. Before I knew it I was finished with the first lap and out on the second, looking forward to more time in the water and another chance to see the amazing sights. The only negative was that my calves began to cramp with about 100 meters to go. I tried the standard dorsiflexion technique, which really slows your progress in the water, but wasn’t having much success. I finally rolled over on my back for a short moment and allowed my body to completely relax, which alleviated the situation. I rolled back over and finished off the swim, coming out in 1:04:43, good for 14th of 125 in my age group and 170 out of about 1700 overall.
I pumped my fist and exited the water to an amazing number of screaming fans cheering everyone on. This was to be a theme for the day, as spectators, volunteers, bystanders, etc. were everywhere cheering you on for the entire day; quite an experience. I received my gear bag from a volunteer, had my wetsuit stripped by three volunteers, then headed for the changing tent, which was to be easily the worst part of my day.
The tent was entirely too small, and was already crowded, despite the fact that I had a fast swim and was in the early part of the masses. I found an empty chair and quickly discovered that I couldn’t open my gear bag. I had tied it tightly in a bow the day before so my gear would stay dry. Saturday’s rain had soaked the strings which had then frozen solid overnight. My hands were really cold and I just couldn’t open the bag. I asked a volunteer for help, and after a few minutes failing with his numb hands, another volunteer came by and ripped it open. Due to the outside temperature, I had a lot of cold weather gear to put on. I stripped down, dried off, and started gearing up with cycling shorts, heart rate monitor, base layer, jersey, arm warmers, knee warmers, socks, toe warmers, gloves, shoes, sunglasses, and helmet. My socks, arm warmers, leg warmers, etc. are all black, and it was really dark in the tent, so I ended up having to rummage around looking for things. I then had to store my wetsuit, thermal cap, and goggles in the now ripped open bag. To make matters worse, my number sticker came off because of the rain. I stashed the number in the bag and wrapped everything up as best I could.
By the time I finished, the tent was overflowing with naked guys, all shouting and trying to get ready for the bike. The chairs had all been taken by then, and the aisles were completely filled with bodies, some sitting, some standing, all blocking my path to the exit. After several more minutes, I finally worked my way out, handed my ripped bag to a volunteer, explained that the number was inside, and made my way over to my bike. By the time I crossed the timing mat out of T1, 22 minutes and 32 seconds had elapsed since I came out of the water. I found out later that Justin had come out of the water three minutes behind me but due to his “quick” transition of 15:36 was actually out on the bike course before I was.
As long as the bike was, it really wasn’t that eventful. Joanne, Shawn, and I had previewed the entire course in July, even the Martis loop which was supposedly off limits until race day. I knew the first 25 miles would be relatively flat, with only the Dollar Hill climb in the first few miles. I have been training with a power meter since spring, and just let my pace be dictated by my predetermined power range. I focused on following my nutrition plan, making sure to get the calories down throughout the ride. The gloves and cold temps made it a challenge at times (ever tried to eat a frozen Cliff bar?) but I was pretty much able to stay with my plan.
The main drag through downtown Truckee was completely closed to traffic and was bounded by Tour de France style barriers holding back many, many enthusiastic spectators. There was a huge banner over the road, and it seemed the entire town had turned out to watch the race. There were some pretty steep pitches right after downtown, and I think they surprised a lot of racers who were focused on the real hills to come later. I was expecting them and just took my time, losing ground to a lot of riders up the hills and picking some back off on the descents. I remember the course marshals at a turn on one of the hills were doing cheers, “… you’re going to turn here, and we’re going to get a beer…”
The next big milestone was the turn into the Martis neighborhood. This 10 mile stretch was where the real challenge lay, and the organizers only allowed access for two hours the day before, and only by car, so the vast majority of athletes had not been able to ride it in advance. Once again I was prepared for it, but that didn’t make it any easier. The entire route is up and down, with steep pitches and curvy descents. The last stretch up to the Ritz Hotel at the Northstar Ski Resort has several switchbacks, and I saw many, many riders that were under-geared for the gradients. I bought a 12-28 just for this race, and would have used a 30 or 32 if I had one.
Once past the Ritz, which sits at 6900 feet elevation, the course plummets back down to Hwy 267, just in time to climb Brockway pass, the high point of the course which tops out at 7228 feet. The Brockway climb had been getting all the pre-race attention, and while it was long, I didn’t think it was nearly as tough as the Martis loop. The spectators on the Brockway climb were just amazing, yelling encouragement, holding creative signs, and just giving off lots of positive energy. A few signs I remember: “Chafing is temporary, bragging is forever”. “ Make this hill your bitch.” “I trained six months to hold this sign. “ And I must mention the somewhat scantily clad female with a sign that read “I don’t do Ironmans, I do Ironmen.” A screaming descent brought you back down to Kings Beach and the beginning of the second lap, which of course means that Dollar Hill, the Truckee Hills, the Martis Neighborhood, and Brockway were all done twice.
At mile 58, I stopped and picked up my special needs bag which had three more bottles of my proprietary gatorade and protein mix. Just as I was restarting, Joanne passed by. I wasn’t really surprised to see her, as everyone knows she’s a speed demon on the bike. I swam about 8 minutes faster than her and probably entered the water several minutes before she did. But her T1 was 14 minutes faster than mine; guess the women’s changing tent was a bit more civilized and easier to negotiate. We passed each other a few times, giving encouragement, and it was nice to see a friendly face in the race. Entering Martis the second time, I was caught by Bryan. His swim was 10 minutes slower than mine, but his T1 was 7 minutes faster, and I also wasn’t surprised to see him. He was on great form leading up to the race, and I fully expected him to have a great day. The three of us rode together for a bit, which was really neat. Bryan decided to stay behind me on the remaining hills, using my power meter to make sure he wasn’t going too hard. He finally rode away on the last part of the final time up Brockway, and by that time I had ridden away from Joanne, primarily on the descents.
In the last portion of the bike, I began to try and wrap my mind around the idea of running a marathon. I’ve run six of them before, but never after a bike ride of any sort, much less 112 miles with incredibly tough climbs. I had no idea how I would feel, but knew I had done the training, and had confidence that I was following my pacing and nutrition plan.
After 2.5 laps, I finally made the turn into Squaw Valley, and was cheered on by Sean, who was spectating along with some of the Chico State Tri team. I rolled into T2 where volunteers took my bike and handed me my run gear bag. By this point the field was much more spread out, so the changing tent was downright civilized. I stripped off my cycling gear and changed into my regular tri suit, since it had finally warmed up into the upper 50s. I took my time, grabbed some water and endurolytes, got sunscreened by some very enthusiastic volunteers, and headed out on the run. My bike split was 6:55:43 for an average speed of 16.2 mph, which was good for 44th in my age group and 560 overall.
Once you exit the change tent, the run course takes you directly into the village at Squaw Valley and right by the finish line. It's an outdoor pedestrian type plaza with lots of bars, restaurants, shops, etc. geared to the winter ski crowd. Barriers had been set up and the crowds that you ran through were once again amazing. I was cheered by name almost immediately, which caught me by surprise until I realized it was printed on my race bib. There's a split in the course about 50 yards from the finish line. Those starting the run go left, those finishing go right. It's kind of cruel to have you run so close to the finish line so early in the run, but it was actually nice to have that visualization later in the run. I swung left and then ran past the Tri Club Tent City where Tammie, Laura, and several others cheered me on my way.
I have to say I was quite surprised at how good I felt starting the run. The first couple of miles are downhill and while I thought I was running slowly, I was actually at sub 8:00 minute pace. I intentionally slowed down and just tried to average 9:00 minute miles. I was completely comfortable and made sure to take something at most every aid station. Based on prior advice, I started with the defizzed cola, looking for that caffeine and sugar infusion. I tried for a gel every 45 minutes but had trouble stomaching them after the first two. I mentally divided the course in to three milestones: mile 10, mile 17 (end of the first loop), and of course, the finish. After a somewhat cruel and hilly loop around the Squaw Creek resort, the run course takes you down to the bike path along the Truckee River all the way to Tahoe City before turning around. I had run here before in previous trips to Tahoe, and was comfortably cruising along, enjoying the beautiful scenery. I soon caught up to Bryan, who was walking at the time. He started running with me, and said his stomach was in shutdown. We ran together for maybe half a mile, but he had to stop and walk again, and was clearly not feeling well.
Not too much farther along I saw Justin coming back from the turnaround. He looked fantastic, and seemed to be cruising along with no trouble at all. He had lost a huge block of preparation due to a bike-car accident over the summer, and I was thrilled to see him doing so well. If anybody deserved a good day, it was Justin. Shortly after the turnaround in Tahoe City, I saw Bryan again and then Joanne, who looked good and appeared to be running well. I made it to 10 miles in around 90 minutes, right on pace and began thinking that I might even break 4 hours for the marathon. As I said earlier, I had no true time goal for the race, but my stated goal for the entire event was to be running from mile 20 to 26, not walking, crawling, or doing the survival shuffle.
The course returns all the way to Squaw Valley, and begins some climbing once you leave the bike path. It was here that I began to realize that things weren't going so well anymore. My stomach began to shut down and I was running out of energy. I began to walk some, particularly on the uphills, but tried to keep it to a minimum. Just after mile 17 I ran by the Tri Club Tent City again and asked for a shirt, since the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. I headed through the village at Squaw and came to the split by the finish line. I didn't really look at it, preferring to keep my mind on the task at hand, getting through these last 9 miles. When I passed by the club tent on the way out, Shawn gave me his shirt and took my glasses. I received a huge boost from Tammie, Laura, Daren, Jeriamee, Ken, Gloria, and anyone else I may be missing.
I probably hit my low point on the loop around Squaw Creek Village. It's fairly hilly, and I was forced to walk quite a bit. I passed the 20 mile mark, and knew I was going to finish, but I really didn't want to shuffle/walk the rest of the way and keep everyone waiting in the cold at the finish line. My stomach was really giving me trouble so I finally decided to try a porta john stop. I was in there for several minutes, and, not to get too graphic, eventually had a productive visit. I returned to the course and got some chicken broth and pretzels at the next aid station. It wasn't far after that that things began to turn around. My stomach settled and my energy level returned. I knew exactly what was left of the course, and just divided it up in segments in my mind. Get to the bottom of the hill at Hwy 89. Get to the bike path. Get to the turnaround, which was much closer than the first one. I was running nearly continuously now, and on my way there I saw Rick, who was still coming back on his first lap. He was clearly struggling, but he gave me an enthusiastic cheer and implored me to hammer the thing all the way home. I made the turnaround, made it back to the turn up to Squaw, hit another aid station with chicken broth and pretzels, and was headed for home.
It was getting dark, and they were handing out small head lamps. An amazing number of competitors were still going the other way, heading out on their second loops. For some reason it gave me some more strength, knowing that I had already tackled that part of the course and would soon be home. I made the final pass of the Tri Club Tent Village then headed into the village at Squaw. It was actually kind of quiet as I approached the split to the finish line. The spectators were clearly waiting to see if the runners were going left (for another lap) or right. Once I made a clear move right the crowd seemed to explode with enthusiasm. I pumped my fist as I had done when I exited the water some 12 hours earlier. I blocked out all the noise and didn't even hear Tammie yell for me from the bleachers. The finish line approach was a tunnel of noise with nothing visible except bright lights around the finish line arch. I raised my arms as I crossed, and didn't even hear Mike Riley exclaim, "Gregory Watkins from Chico , you are an Ironman" (I heard it later watching the video feed from the finish line).
A volunteer immediately came to my side and tried to wrap me in a space blanket and make sure I wasn't going to fall over. I felt great, like I could have continued on another few miles. I walked a few steps, and then it hit me. I stopped and bent over, and was simply overcome by the moment. The volunteer thought I was about to collapse, but I just needed a brief moment to stop and let a few tears come. I stood up and was greeted by Shawn, who promptly offered me a beer. I posed for the finish line photo, then headed out to meet Tammie. She walked me down to the club tent where everyone was waiting to congratulate me, offer me food and drink, and generally take care of me the rest of the night.
It wasn't long before Bryan and then Joanne came by and finished their races. Rick came by a little later, just finishing his first lap, and clearly struggling. I never did see Blake, but both he and Rick finished in something over 15 hours. We stayed a little longer, then decided to head back to the house. I think a lot of us wanted to stay to midnight and watch the final finishers, but it was getting really cold and it had been a really long day for everyone.
My run split was 4:39:49 which works out to 10:40 per mile. My overall time was 13:09:46, good for 37th in my age group and 548th overall. It's been pointed out by bloggers and triathlon writers that the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe was one of the toughest Ironman races in the world. The attrition rate of those that started was 20%, with 12% of the field not making the bike cutoff and another 8% not finishing within the 17 hour limit. The mean finishing time was also reported to be the slowest ever for an Ironman race. One thing that I noted about my age group. There were 124 finishers but 194 bibs assigned. I'm not sure how many of those 70 non-finishers started the race, or simply didn't show up to begin with. But one of my main worries during training was making it to the start line healthy, something I successfully achieved. I'm sure many of my fellow 50-54 year old competitors couldn't say the same thing.
I had decided a few years ago that I wanted to give an Ironman a try the year I turned 50. I was "lucky" enough that this nearby race appeared, greatly simplifying the logistics of getting there and back. But the fact that it was local had another huge benefit. The entire event was made that much more special and memorable due to the amazing support of the Chico Tri Club. Knowing others in the race, and having so many people cheering for me, supporting me, and taking care of me, made the event that much more gratifying.
To try and wrap this tome up, crossing that finish line was one of the most memorable moments of my life. Not to compare it to getting married or the birth of my son, but the sheer exhilaration of the moment is hard to describe. I put in twelve weeks of long, hard training to prepare for it, and in hindsight, the sacrifice seems small compared to the reward. But mine wasn't the only sacrifice. Tammie fully supported me on this adventure, and was amazing all the way through the training and right up through race day. She massaged my feet after 20 mile training runs, and several times told me to just rest on the couch after a really hard workout. She understood when my work on house projects came to a halt, and when I just had to have a new gadget, such as a power meter or a new climbing cassette. I don't know if she'll ever try one, but I would love to return the favor if she ever does. Thanks for reading.