The Path to Ironman Lake Tahoe

Swim Start of Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013

Swim Start of Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013

The last race is often the hardest and toughest. The pain is fresh and the wounds still open. But give it time to settle, let the bruised spirit heal and the pain will soon fade. The day will eventually find its resting spot along with a list of other distant races, all tagged with a lasting epitaph to eternalize the hard fought battles won and lost. “Here Lies IMLT 2013…”

The path I followed to the Ironman Lake Tahoe race proved to be the right one for me. 11 hours was the mark I had somehow set in my head (1:20 swim, 5:50 bike and a 3:40 run with 10 minutes of transitions). I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I would be very happy with 11 hours. That was it. It seemed doable. Sure, faster would be better, but I knew better than to set unrealistic expectations. I decided early on that I wouldn’t be upset with any result as long as I worked hard throughout the day, had a good time and kept life and the race in perspective. Complacent? Apathetic? No. Just had to keep my priorities in check.

About a month and a half out from the race, my training was pretty limited. In fact there was no regular training except my evening runs. I was running about 40-45 miles a week and that was it. Plus I rode my bike about once a week for an hour. I was/am nowhere near any peak performance level. However, to survive the Ironman distance, I knew that I needed to increase my training effort. Luckily, my buddy Bob Shebest, a certified triathlon coach, called me and said he was going to work with me. We talked it over and I said I could commit to about 10 hours a week. Miracously, he devised a 6-7 week training plan, with long rides on Saturday and long runs on Sunday. This was the exact opposite of what I would have planned as I would have preferred to run on fresh legs on Saturday and recover on the bike on Sunday. Yet his reason of riding then running was to replicate race conditions. Once he explained it, the light went on.

Having someone plan my training helped settle any anxiety. I’d get a list of the workouts at the beginning of the week: always 6 days with one complete rest day. Weekdays were light with the longest weekday workout being a 90 minute ride on Wednesday evenings. Saturdays and Sundays seemed to be the bulk of the long riding and running efforts. For the most part I was able to stick with the plan but missed a few sessions here and there. Sometimes I would come home from a ride and grab Dylan for a 30 minute run. I only rode and ran the first 3 weeks, and then Bob started throwing in the swim sessions. Like a good coach, he started pestering: “How about a swim session this week?” “Any chance of running or biking to the lake then cooling off with a swim?” “You really need to swim!” Finally, with about 3 weeks to go, I hit Lake Clementine and Folsom Lake after work.

Week Bike Miles Bike Hours Run Miles Run Hours Swim Yards Swim Hours Total Hours
1 63.0 3:12 43.5 5:32 8:44
2 117.2 6:42 46.6 5:43 12:25
3 108.0 6:03 43.3 5:37 11:40
4 71.8 3:45 46.2 5:38 9:23
5 110.1 5:38 28.1 3:33 9:11
6 83.7 4:30 39.1 5:07 1778.6 0:51 10.28
7 112.8 5:57 30.5 3:53 2356.9 0:53 10:43
8 51.3 2:37 8.2 0:58 0:30 4:05

Lee McKinley and I were able to ride together twice during this period. We rode one lap of the course on one weekend, and 3 weeks out rode two laps (both times we skipped the Martis section), followed by a 12 mile run on the marathon course. I always enjoy the time Lee and I are able to train together and when he started to pull away from me on our last training climb up Brockway, it was obvious he was ready. That was pretty much it. We were also dealing with smoke for a few weeks from some California wildfires so there were days that I skipped as it was just too unhealthy and risky. For the most part I kept it simple. Not that it was easy. Wednesday rides finished in the dark. Instead of doing something fun Friday after work, I would spend an hour or two on the bike then meet Nicole and Dylan for dinner. And most rides concluded with a short run, which kept reminding the legs to expect to do some running after riding. I also paced the 3:15 group at the Santa Rosa Marathon in August, which fit right into the training schedule and load. However, I felt pretty lucky to have to put in only 6 weeks of dedicated training.

Everybody has their own approach to preparation. I knew Ironman Lake Tahoe was not going to be easy. I was racing against myself and the course. I wasn’t racing anyone else. Success would equal a satisfying effort and a time of around 11 hours. It could be lesson for my son about working hard and not giving up, but let’s face it, at the end of the day his concerns are Legos and The Wild Kratts. There’s a large gap between something like an Ironman and a 5 year old. And that’s the way we prefer it.

I took Friday off work and we went up to Truckee on Thursday night. Friday morning I drove to King’s Beach for a 30 minute swim to test the wetsuit and goggles. I knew I was in trouble when I was walking past the TYR tent on the beach and this guys says, “Hey man! You can’t swim in that surfing wetsuit. Do yourself a favor and try one of these on.” He starts pointing out all the things that are wrong with my equipment. I’m immediately out of my element. You mean there are swimming wetsuits? One of the things about triathlon is how easy it is to become consumed in the triathlon world. Before you know it, the unimportant becomes very important even though it’s not that important at all.

Friday's morning swim in Lake Tahoe

Friday’s morning swim in Lake Tahoe

After 5 minutes, I thank him for his wisdom and ask if the white buoys running out from the beach mark the swim course.

“White buoys?” he asks.

“Yea, the white buoys out there.” I say, squinting and pointing.

“White buoys… You mean those seagulls?” he asks.

I really can’t believe there are seagulls evenly spaced about 100 yards lined up in the water, but it’s an argument I cannot win. I check his table, find a new pair of goggles and quickly get on my way. Still worked up about why I should spend $1000 on a wetsuit, my heart rate immediately spikes as I start to swim. “Don’t panic” I remind myself and settle into a comfortable swim/float. within a few seconds I’m abrutly overtaken by a couple other racers and they literally are going twice as fast and carrying-on a conversation while swimming. Oh how I cannot stand the swim!

Friday was a beautiful day.

Then we woke up Saturday for the kids race. Dylan was full of nerves and didn’t want to do it. But he overcame his butterflies and we ran the course together. We were about halfway through the race, just after we passed Sharon McNary, and Dylan turns and looks up at me. His cheeks burning red. He says, “Oh, it’s starting to get hard now!” I think that is one of the moments that will stick with me. And I love it.

Dylan starting to feel the burn

Dylan starting to feel the burn

But a few minutes later, he could hear the finish line and the music and he took off. He pumped his arms high in the air when he crossed the finish line and was so proud to claim his finisher’s medal.

A sprint finish

A sprint finish

Not too soon afterwards the winds started to howl, the rain began falling and the temperature started dropping. By late afternoon, about 12 hours prior to the start, it was snowing. I didn’t quite know what to think. But for me, I’d rather deal with the cold than the heat.

A Few Inches Of Snow 12 Hours Before The Start

A Few Inches Of Snow 12 Hours Before The Start

Thankfully, when we woke up on Sunday morning, the skies and roads were clear. The start couldn’t have been a more picturesque setting with the lake surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Of the events, it’s obvious the swim is my weakest and least favorite. But as luck would have it, the day before the race I decided to rent a full length wetsuit instead of risk turning into an ice block standing in the sand at the start. I drag myself through the water. Others have a nice effortless stroke. I paddle. My lower half constantly sinks to the bottom. And I zigzag. For the life of me, I cannot maintain a straight line. I zigzagged so much along the 2.4 mile swim course, my Garmin reported I swam 4.2 miles of the 2.4 mile course. I know the Garmin is not as accurate in the water but 4.2 miles is not even close. The wetsuit seemed to help and propelled me to a swim time of 1:15. Believe it or not, I managed to survive the swim.

Some of the swim leaders

Some of the swim leaders

I stumbled out of the water onto the shore. I caught a glimpse of Nicole and Dylan on the shore as I headed in to T1. There is no other way to explain T1 other than complete chaos and pandemonium. Hundreds of athletes were attempting to squeeze into a tent intended for about 50 people. I tried to wiggle my way in but realized it was impossible. I found an empty spot on top of a pile of bags. With bare butts to my left and right, I just wanted to get out as soon as possible. I had one sock and one glove and a shirt sitting in a puddle. I pulled up my shorts, grabbed the rest of my gear and bag and did the rest of my changing outside. It took me 15 minutes to get out of T1. I think that was better than the average. I jumped on my bike, seat still covered in the morning ice and headed out. Heated seats on bikes? There might be a market…

Enough cannot be said about the views while cycling along Lake Tahoe in the morning with the sun coming up. Cold? Yes. But beautiful. My brand new Profile Aero HC system came flying off after about 5 miles during a little bumpy section. I handed the pieces to a volunteer and moved on with one water bottle. I saw Dave Campbell riding between Tahoe City and Squaw and gave him a “Looking good Dave!”

Martis Climb

Martis Climb

I tried to take it easy on the first lap and maintain a reasonable effort. Nicole, Dylan and Troy greeted me in the middle of the Martis climb. I hadn’t ridden that section of the course and was surprised how scenic that area is. Near the end of the first lap, I glanced down at my watch for the first time and saw my lap was over 2 hours and 30 minutes. Ouch!

Moving Through Truckee

Moving Through Truckee

The two laps went by relatively fast and without any issues. A couple stops here and there to fill up and then empty. By the second round of climbing, my legs had just about enough. I could tell the run was going to be a kicker and the climbing was taking a toll on my knees. Kevin Buchholz surprised me at the top of Brockway. Before I knew it, the last of the major climbs was over. I couldn’t have been happier riding into Squaw, mentally preparing for the marathon and giving hugs and kisses to Nicole and Dylan at T2. Time on the bike: 6:06.

Grinding. Slowly chipping away, one mile at a time. That sums up my run. I felt I was barely moving along the Truckee River, but somehow I continued to overtake one runner after another. Just after mile 8, I spotted Lee coming the other way which meant he had about a 2 mile lead. A man on a mission. His eyes were focused straight ahead and full of determination. We exchanged our “Keep it going!” and he was gone. A few minutes later, Deirdre Greenholz gave me a big boost of energy at the turnaround point. And then on the return to Squaw I spotted Robin and Dave. How fun to see so many friends on the course, whether competing, cheering or volunteering.

Heading out for the marathon

Heading out for the marathon

Around mile 14 was the lowest point of the run for me. This happened to be the point when the song Royals by Lorde became stuck in my head. I stopped at an aid station, bent over for a minute and recovered with some chicken broth and pretzels. The chicken broth immediately raised my energy.

Soon I saw Bob giving me the finger (a big giant foam finger) as I headed back to Squaw. You know the pain of the final 6 miles of the marathon. Everything hurts. But the pain is par for the course. And pretty soon it’s only a mile to go. Then I see Jody Stange right before the finish area and a couple minutes it’s over. 11 hours and 22 minutes total and a 3:42 marathon. I’m satisfied. I finally have a few minutes to connect with Nicole and Dylan and my body goes into shutdown mode.

Spent

Spent

I’ve always thought Lake Tahoe would be an ideal venue for this type of event and it did not disappoint. I’m grateful for all the help along the way. The past 7 weeks, Nicole and Dylan have been very flexible and supportive of evening and weekend training sessions. I’m guilty for taking time away from other things to follow this Ironman path. Enough cannot be said about the incredible volunteers from start to finish (like Sharon). I’ve never experienced such a supportive event.

Compared to some ultras, this seemed like a cakewalk. It wasn’t like you had to run to the next aid station that was 10 miles over some 9,000′ mountain peak. Literally, you just had to run 1 mile at a time. Breaking it down into 1 mile increments made it so much more manageable. Hard? Yes. But nobody should have been expecting it to be easy. An Ironman in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is going to be challenging.

Congrats to friends Lee McKinley (qualified for Kona), Sara McKinley, Robin Soares, Dave Campbell, Karyn Hoffman and Layne Scoggins for having great races and making it to the end of their paths too.

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