Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ironman Lake Tahoe Race Report

Weeks after surviving Ironman Lake Tahoe (IMLT), I was still busy repressing memories -- a blog-stopper if ever there was one.

For once, I couldn't find words to describe the race experience -- well, except by using words like "freezing" and "cold."  And this was making for a narrow story-line.

They say Eskimos have an unusually large vocabulary to describe ice and snow.  Conversely, I'm guessing, they probably have few words to describe stuff like sunburn or hot sand.

So a very deep vocabulary, but not particularly broad.

After Ironman Lake Tahoe, which was raced in the September 2013 version of the Polar Vortex, I found that I was thinking like an Eskimo.

"How was the race?" a friend asked.

"Freezing.  Frigid.  Frosty.  Icy.  Butt cold," I said.

"Bummer.  So how did you do out there?"

"I was slow -- I shivered a lot.  I raced like I had been frozen in a block of ice for 10 years and was chopped free just in time for the swim start."

"You sign up again for next year?"

My friends are not all geniuses.

And so it went.  I spent my off-season watching The Bachelor.  Some former soccer player named Juan Pablo inexplicably agreed to be the guy who hands out a pile of flowers to just enough of the show's eligible bachelorettes that the ones who don't get a flower feel like total losers on national TV.

But watch it I did.

Anything to avoid confronting my blog.

Lots of people asked about the race.  I couldn't tell them much.

While my word-count to describe the cold had grown, I didn't have much memory about the details of the race or, in truth, much enthusiasm for describing the act of shivering all day or sitting hypothermic in the medical tent.

And for those who know me, you know that I live to talk about the details.  I live for telling stories about how a gel packet leaked into my tri-shorts and glued my thighs together.  I'm eager to talk about how peeing on a bike in 24 degrees Fahrenheit is different than peeing on a bike in a warm weather race.

(Initially, it's much warmer feeling -- which is quite nice.  But things get frosty in a bad location quickly.  On the whole, I'd advise against it.)

But I had nothing.  Just numb fingertips and a vague memory of exercising all day in the snow-covered mountains, shivering.

I felt like I owed my blog followers, all three of them, something more than that.

Fortunately, as I was struggling with writing this blog, a friend mentioned that LAVA magazine had written an article about the "World's Toughest" triathlon.  Naturally, I figured that the article was about IMLT -- which was cool.  The thought of being able to brag about completing the "World's Toughest" triathlon sat well with me.

I was already getting motivated to write an ode to my own toughness.

Only the LAVA article wasn't about IMLT.

LAVA had given away the title "World's Toughest" to a race in Kitzbuhel, Austria.

I felt jilted -- like Juan Pablo had given a rose to some mediocre looking chick and left IMLT standing there shuffling it's feet, looking humiliated.

But then I started thinking:  How could a race be tougher than an Ironman in below freezing temperatures, at elevation?

Could LAVA Magazine have it wrong? 

Flipping to the article out of curiosity, my eyes were drawn to a picture of a bunch of scantily clad professional ITU athletes diving into a warm lake on a sunny day. 

"Hey!" I thought.

It was as if LAVA Magazine was personally slapping me in the face.

We raced an Ironman in temperatures that were striving to rise to freezing.  We climbed 9000 feet and rode 112 miles on a bike.  There were times when we were traveling near 50 miles per hour -- unable to prevent ourselves from creating our own arctic wind-chill bubble.  The faster we rode, the closer we were to hypothermia.  Yet we rode fast anyway because we're baddasses.  (Badasses whose hands were too cold to grab a brake.)

And the "World's Hardest" title goes to a temperate-weather Sprint race for pros?

"I will not stand for this injustice!" I said, as I sat on the toilet, with LAVA open on my lap.

Looking back, that was a poor choice of words.  I did stand.  And then I flushed.  And then I ran to my computer -- so I could tell the world how LAVA Magazine got it wrong.


At the "World's Toughest Triathon" in Kitzbuhel, Austria the temperature was 73 degrees Fahrenheit the day before the race.

In Lake Tahoe, it snowed.  And it didn't melt much by race time.  

The day before the race, competitors at Ironman Lake Tahoe wrestled each other for the last pair of construction-worker gloves and packets of chemical heating pads at the local hardware store.

Those who weren't in the hardware store, were donating their IMLT entry fee to the Ironman corporation and checking to see whether registration for Ironman Cozumel was still open.

I have no idea what competitors in "The World's Toughest" triathlon were doing the day before the race.  But it wasn't either of those things.     


Did I mention that the World's Toughest Triathlon is a Sprint distance race?  It's true.  The "World's Toughest" triathlon took about an hour to complete.

At that point in the day when Kitzbuhel racers were getting a post-race massage, IMLT competitors were still swimming aimlessly in a foggy Lake Tahoe, being herded to shore by men with bullhorns.

On race day at the World's Toughest Triathlon, temperatures reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the other hand, perhaps never in the history of Ironman races, has there been a colder race morning than on Sept. 22, 2013 at Ironman Lake Tahoe.  It was so cold that I put on my wetsuit before I left my house.  And I put warm clothes on over the wetsuit.

Then, after poking my head out the front door, I put more warm clothes over the warm clothes that were over my wetsuit.  

When I arrived at the race start, there was this mysterious substance people were calling "ice" covering my bike saddle.  I had never heard of such a thing in a triathlon before, and the stuff seemed like it would be uncomfortable to sit on for six hours, so I hammered it off the saddle with my bike shoe.

The bike saddle was frozen solid again by the time I exited T1.

Unfortunately, by then, I was wearing my bike shoes to keep my feet warm, so I just sat on the popsicle-seat and rode.

The air temperature was so cold that the 58 degree lake was generating a frozen steam-like-substance that engulfed the swim buoys.

(This, it turned out, was confusing to my friend Erik Byrnes, whom I used as a seeing-eye swimmer, drafting inches off his feet.  Erik made it to the first buoy, became disoriented by the steam, turned 90 degrees to the left and was closing in on the east shore of Lake Tahoe when a man in a boat with a bullhorn asked us to kindly return to the Ironman Lake Tahoe swim course.)

To make the Kitzbuhel swim as challenging as the Tahoe swim, race organizers would have had to release Great White sharks into the Schwarzsee and cover the competitors in seal meat.

And seriously, how can the "World's Toughest" triathlon have a 750 meter long swim?  10 minutes of swimming?  Why bother?  Competitors at Ironman Lake Tahoe spent more time than that to change clothes in T1.  

Let's compare the swim starts visually, shall we?

Ironman Lake Tahoe Swim Start:

Marching into Dante's Dry-Ice Bath. 

World's Toughest Triathlon Swim Start:

Now, if I had to dive head-first into a lake, I'd probably wind up with my goggles wrapped backwards around my neck, so I'll give it to the "World's Toughest" competitors on that count.  But I'm guessing that the race organizers at the World's Toughest wouldn't have disqualified me for jumping in feet-first with one hand clamping my nose and the other holding my goggles to my face either.

On the other hand, if you wanted to compete at Ironman Lake Tahoe, there was no getting around the march into the frozen-fog-bank-of-no-return and beginning to swim into the inky depths, placing your life in the hands of some volunteer-dude in a canoe with a bullhorn who was just as cold as you and who wanted to be anywhere else but where he was.

Incidentally, thank you Mr. Bullhorn guy, wherever you are.


In a normal triathlon race report, I rarely mention the transitions.

But in this case, the contrast between the IMLT transition and the "World's Toughest" triathlon transition is striking.

Racers in Kitzbuhel probably spent less than a minute running out of the warm water into the warm air, grabbed their bikes and were gone.  Heck, they wore the same skimpy race-kit all race.  

Competitors at IMLT hit the shallows of the swim exit more than 100 yards from shore and were forced to emerge into the frozen air, skip, stumble-run, duck-walk or dolphin-dive their way to land.

Heart rates soared, warm breath turned to frozen fog in the arctic air and toes were stubbed on lurking rocks.  By the time we hit land, our icy faces, hands and feet were completely numb -- the better to disguise the pain from stubbing our toes on the rocks, I suppose.

And then we had to run another 200 yards on sand that felt like it was made of broken glass.

Eventually, we made it into the massively overcrowded changing tents, where we played full-contact musical chairs, towel-dried our neighbors and begged for help to get into our dry clothes.

And just in case it's not obvious -- pulling tight spandex over wet, goose bump-covered skin with numb fingers is like a Mensa-level game of Twister.

Doing it with some naked German's elbow in my ear added a layer of complexity for which I had not trained.

On the bike, we wore every stitch of bike clothing we owned and anything we could borrow. (In the changing tent, my wetsuit went missing and I have images in my head of someone finding it on the floor and thinking "hey, that looks mighty warm.")

My friend and Team Every Man Jack teammate Jeremy Devich wore a neoprene ski mask on the bike.  He was initially mocked.  And now he shall forever be hailed as the smart one.

Conditions on race day were so cold that my friends and teammates on Team Every Man Jack, a team widely recognized for bringing style to triathlon, wore gigantic rubber Mickey Mouse-looking gloves over their cycling gloves.  

The temperature in Tahoe was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit when we started riding the bike.  (Technically, my Garmin shows that the low temperature during the bike was 24.7 degrees, but let's just keep it simple and call it "freezing".)

This was unfortunate, because the Tahoe bike course starts with a fast, flat first 25 miles, allowing nearly everyone to ride at over 20 mph.  Personally, I was trying to go as slowly as possible to minimize the windchill.  But still, I rode at an alarmingly fast and frigid 25 mph for the first hour. 

According to the National Weather Service, in 30 degree temperatures, a 25 mph wind creates a windchill of 16 degrees.

And, at that temperature, frostbite sets in in 30 minutes.

We rode in those conditions for at least two hours before temperatures skyrocketed into the balmy mid-30's.

My buddy, Dan Ross, (one of the strongest, fastest athletes I know) biked in a hoodie and still was forced to call it a day when hypothermia set in on the way up the mountain climb the second time around.  

Now, to be fair to LAVA Magazine, the Kitzbuhel triathlon did have a difficult bike course.  

The Kitzbuhel bike course is 11.4 km (about 7 miles) in length and has a 4 mile climb from 2,400 feet to 4,500 feet, meaning that it has about 2,100 feet of total ascent.

Impressively hard.  No doubt.

But man, that's a short bike ride. 

Tahoe's bike course is 112 miles long, it starts at 6,200 feet of elevation, has nearly 15 miles of climbing and 9,000 feet of total ascent.  (I'll send my Garmin GPS file to anyone who feels the need to point out that the Ironman Tahoe website claimed that the course only had 5,400 feet of climbing).

The entire IMLT race takes place at an elevation about 2,000+ feet higher in altitude than Kitzbuhel's maximum elevation.   And four of the long climbs peaked out at over 7,000 feet.

Still, a 22 degree incline on the Kitzbuhel course is steeper than anything we faced on the Tahoe Course.  But I'd guess that the strategically gifted might think to hop off the bike and push it to the top if they had to.  And I'd venture that those folks would still easily finish the race.

The same can not be said of IMLT competitors.  As I rode the second loop of the bike course, I observed hundreds of people attempting to make the bike cut-off using the push-the-bike-to-the-top-of-the-mountain strategy on their first loops over the mountains.

By the second loop, those hundreds of bike-pushing competitors were crossing the mountain range in the backs of heated vans.

IMLT was so difficult, it was likely the first Ironman with an in-race shuttle service for its competitors. 


The "World's Hardest Triathlon" run course is 2.7 kms long. 

Seriously?  Do we even need to discuss this?  I ran that far in my wetsuit before the swim start, trying to generate core temperature before I had to climb into the ice-bath.

What is that you're saying?  Maybe the run course was really, really hard?  

So here's how Brad Culp describes the Kitzbuhel run:  "…athletes were "treated" to a sharp downhill section to start the run.  After the race, a number of athletes remarked that the most challenging part of the course wasn't in fact the climb, but the pounding of a downhill run after more than seven kilometers of climbing."  

My heart goes out to them.  Imagine having to run downhill after riding your bike for 40 minutes.

Competitors at Ironman Lake Tahoe ran a marathon at 6,200 feet above sea level.  And it wasn't flat.  Not that that mattered.  Running while you're breathing through a straw is running breathing through a straw, uphill or downhill.  

And I was still so cold from the bike that I was delirious.  I wore everything I wore on the bike for the entire run and was fending off hypothermia with something they told me was chicken broth and shiny bags of sugar goop.

Some of the strongest, toughest athletes I know quit during the run or walked the run.  

But perhaps the best measure of the difficulty of a race is the "Did Not Finish" rate. The dropout rate at Ironman Lake Tahoe was the 2nd highest in the history of Ironman and the average finishing time was the slowest ever for an Ironman branded race.

If you compare the list of people who signed up to the number of finishers, about a thousand people (accounting for about half a million dollars in revenue) didn't make it from the web page where they entered their credit card information to the start line and/or the finish line.

This means that somewhere there's a giant pile of IMLT finisher medals sitting in some poor Ironman employee's garage.

As for me, I made it.  I suffered through an Ironman in the mountains of Lake Tahoe on a day when Polar Bears would have huddled around a fire place.  I am a proud, cold, survivor of the race I think, on that day, was the world's toughest triathlon.

We deserve a rose, Juan Pablo!

1 comment:

  1. Great job Steve, YOU are an Ironman! LT is a fanny kicker, let no Austrian (or LAVA) try to tell otherwise.