That photo about captures it (courtesy of my good friend Creighton Wong), Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013 an EPIC race of grand proportions.
The day before we’d have been doing a 2.4 mile surf, not a swim, with 30 mph winds and the first snow of the season dusting the peaks, not an auspicious prelude. Thankfully come the early hours of Sunday morning the winds had dropped just leaving a chilly start to the day with temperatures in the low 30s and water temperatures in the high 50s. Up at 4am, onto the shuttle bus at 5am and at the start area by 5:30am…still pitch black.
Have you ever stood on sand so hot you had to keep jumping from foot to foot? Imagine doing the same except this time because the sand is so cold. By the time I finally entered the water around 6:50am, after having stood waiting with over 1700 other athletes for the race to start, it felt decidedly warm on my numbed feet.
You have to walk the first 100 yards into the lake before it gets deep enough to swim, all you can see is swimmers disappearing in to the mist in the early dawn light no sign of the buoys marking the course, you dive in and start to swim blindly following the other swimmers in front. I was all good for about 5 mins and then after getting kicked and knocked one too many times I just couldn’t catch my breath and was left bobbing in the water gasping, unable to swim, the combination of cold, altitude and 100s of other swimmers had got to me. I had to rest, get my breath, flush cold water down the front of my wetsuit to acclimatize and then just stick my head back in the water and damn well swim or this was going to be one very short race. It was shaping up to be one tough day.
You have to make two loops to complete the 2.4 mile swim, as I came around on the first loop the band that I use to fold the sleeve of my wetsuit on my left arm came off, leaving the arm flapping as I swam. In of itself not a problem, however with these temperatures I now had cold water flushing down my sleeve with each stroke, I was quickly getting pretty darn chilled. The next 40 minutes I focused on keeping swimming, keeping moving. I could feel myself starting to shiver and after 1 hr 40 mins in the water was super glad to finally exit and head to transition, ranked 1622 overall. I guess I must have looked cold as I was immediately dragged into the warming tent, thankfully Kerry my darling wife & handler for the day, was with me and as I started to shake uncontrollably wrapped me with me towel.
It took me nearly 24 mins to warm up enough to get changed and grab my bike and head off. I was still mighty cold and it look me at least 30 miles (nearly 2 hours) on the bike before I started to feel some warmth coming back in to my body.
The 112 mile bike is also two loops, each loop ending with two climbs, one up to the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar and the other a climb over the 7200′ Brockway Summit. This means at mile eighty you start climb #3 and at mile ninety climb #4 with over 7000′ of climbing in total! It’s a tough course.
The first section is pretty quick until you hit the first climb at mile 30 through Martis Camp, a section of the course that winds through a gated community that had been closed off to viewing until race day itself. Eight miles later you reach the top and head down from the Ritz-Carlton to then be climbing again three miles later up over Brockway Summit, a three mile, 1000′ climb. Then down again towards Kings Beach hitting over 43 mph (shivering all the way)!
From there you loop down to Tahoe City, past Squaw Valley for the 2nd time and around to climbs 3 & 4. Things are decidedly tougher when you start climbing at mile eighty versus mile thirty. This is when you start to see people walking and pushing their bikes. Despite the fact that both of my legs (right hamstring, left quad) are somewhat impaired I was determined not to stop and kept pushing uphill. There was a big smile on my face as I crested Brockway second time around, ninety miles done, twenty-two to go. You can feel your strength draining away from your legs on those last 22 miles as the rolling hills now feel like mountains and the head wind you have to battle is just adding insult to injury. And through it all you’re thinking, “crap, I’ve still got to go run a marathon, WTF”.
As you reach the Squaw Valley turnoff the crowds are cheering you onwards and it’s just a couple of miles to the Olympic Village and transition 2, 112 miles in 7 hrs 39 mins, definitely slower than planned, but I had passed over 300 others with an overall rank now of 1308.
Time to drop the bike, get changed, this time layering up for a long night-time run, and head out for the final leg of the race. After being so cold first thing I wasn’t making that mistake again, I knew I’d be running well into the night and temperatures would again plummet in to the 30s, so thermal layer, multiple tops and long sleeve jacket were required attire in my mind. Coming out of transition, with spectators enjoying the sun, I was wrapped up snug…initially I thought I’d made a mistake as the first three miles of the run were sunny and I was sweating, then I hit the shady areas and the sun started to set and the air chilled distinctly…it was going to be a long end to the day.
You run along the Truckee river up towards Tahoe City, where you turn around at about mile nine to head back to the Olympic Village, turn around and head out again for the last nine mile loop. The light was fading by the time I reached the first turnaround and it was pitch black running back alongside the river. In the dark all you can see is a precession of tiny lamps bobbing up and down coming towards you as you head back. I reached the Olympic Village at mile seventeen after about 4 hrs, of course no one knows if this is your first or second loop so everyone’s cheering you on to the finish, until you round the turn and hang left instead of heading down the finishers shoot…another nine miles to go yet.
I was doing pretty good for the first thirteen miles, unfortunately after that my ability to keep taking down nutrition diminished, my stomach had had enough of sugary goo and I think the chicken broth, great to warm you up, not so great on a vegetarian’s stomach, was getting to me. I was feeling decidedly nauseous at this point so just pushed on taking on water and a bit of banana along the way. My goal was to keep run/walking the entire course, I was down to a 4 min run, 1 min walk…with some more walking in between! But I was moving.
Reaching the final turnaround and heading in for the last three miles I knew it was almost all over, at this point I was in my own internal world oblivious to everything around me. Each water stop passed by as I counted down the last few miles. It’d been over 15 hrs and it was down to the last 30 mins. Mile 24, then mile 25 and the Olympic Village was ahead, everyone cheering, it was in the bag as I ran up the cobble stones to the turnaround before the finish. There, the smiling faces of the crowd cheering you on, Kerry flying the British flag, a quick kiss and the finish line beckons, a final sprint and across the finish line, 140.6 miles and 15 hrs 41 mins. I am an Ironman…I don’t even hear the announcer calling out my name. It’s finally all over, 9 months of training culminating in finishing one of the toughest Ironman courses out there.
Of the 2700 entrants, 565 decided not to start, some on race day itself. Of those that started 1 in 5 did not make it to the finish! Of those 1719 that started only one was physically challenged and so I took first in class at the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe. Sometimes you just gotta show up and take part.
If you’d like to support my Ironman efforts and donate you can click the button below, the money I raise goes to help those with disabilities continue to lead even more active lives with the aid of prosthetics and adaptive devices that often aren’t covered by medical insurance.
Help me raise $6000 for the Challenged Athletes Foundation