I imagine there are only two people on earth for whom this write up might be worth reading. And even that might be one too many. Still, I want to get it down, if only for me.
It has been a few months since Ironman Lake Tahoe. Yesterday, I rode my bike down to Rose's in Corona del Mar with just Dave. We did one loop over Newport Coast before stopping for big doughnuts. Along the way I mentioned to Dave that, unlike anything else I have ever done in my life, Ironman Lake Tahoe sticks in my head. Now and then I catch myself thinking about that weekend and thrill at the thought that I finished - that we both finished.
I crashed my bike at the end of my last long training bike ride two weeks before Ironman Lake Tahoe. I was riding on a quiet residential street less than a mile from my house when I hit a bump of asphalt raised by a mischievous tree root. All in a split second I tangled my hands in the handle bars and flipped myself over onto my head and left shoulder. I slammed my knee into the handle bars and completely knocked the wind out of myself. There was not a moving car in sight. The first one that did roll by a minute later was an ambulance. I only recognize an omen in hindsight. This was an omen.
For weeks leading up to race weekend, Dave monitored a half dozen super advanced weather forecasting websites and we fretted about extreme heat. Weather during the Lake Tahoe shoulder season can be unpredictable. Even days before we set off to drive from Long Beach, there was no sign that a significant storm would soon sweep in. The Tridiots sent a bare-bones contingent to this race. Dave drove up with his sherpa, Mark, stopping along the way to lose some money at a casino. I drove up with my Dad, Larry.
We met mid-day on Friday at Squaw Valley where we completed registration and picked up our race packets. We scoped out Kings Beach, the location of the swim, where the wind was blowing strongly and there were white caps peaking all across the north end of the lake. By this time we knew the weather was going to be bad on Saturday, but we did not yet know how race day (Sunday) would be. Uninterested in the dinner that accompanies the pre-race meeting, we steered clear of the big race tent and dined at Fireside Pizza. Afterward, we wandered over to the big white tent and joined the meeting. What I remember of that meeting is that one of the men that did the original Ironman race in Hawaii (before it was even christened Ironman), was called up to the stage. I also remember a special request that athletes not throw food on the ground on the run course because, well, bears. There was more, but these meetings tend to drag on and I was already cold.
If you ever do Ironman Lake Tahoe you should not get a hotel in South Lake Tahoe. It turns out it takes over an hour to drive there from Squaw Valley. I selected a room there because these race outings are expensive and I could use points to stay three nights free at the Holiday Inn Express. It was a fine place to stay, but the drive was inconvenient. In a way, though, there was something nice about being physically removed from the frenzy.
Saturday morning was very cold, yet just warm enough that the wind-whipped rain could not turn to snow at lake level. Saturday is the day for staging one's bike and transition bags. Since I failed to bring footwear other than the shoes I intended to bike and run the race in, I purchased a pair of cheap shoes at a Big 5. Thankfully, I also thought to buy some thick socks for race morning. Dave and I were both nervous getting everything sorted into our various colored race bags. Trying to be helpful I pumped Dave's rented race wheel up until it exploded. You know me, always trying to help. Actually, it was kind of tricky with the extender for the deep-dish wheels; I could not read how much air had gone in. We pulled everything together and made our way back to Kings Beach.
When we got to Kings Beach on Saturday the wind was blowing 20-30 miles per hour and it was raining steadily. We laid our transition bags in puddles of water in an asphalt parking lot and racked our bikes. We covered our handle bars and seats with trash bags. Next, we went back to Squaw Valley to check in our run gear. The parking lot had transformed over night into racing streams of water.
We ate lunch at Rosie's Cafe in Tahoe City and then drove most of the bike course. We argued about when and where to turn until we realized we were all saying different things, but meant the same thing. Lots of nervous energy. We carefully passed judgement on how steep and how long every incline was, using Newport Coast Drive and the Tahoe Sierra Century climbs as metrics. "This one is three Newport Coasts, but at 7,000 feet elevation," we would say. At the top of Brockway Summit and at the accessible high points near Northstar ski resort (a portion of the race course was not open to cars) it was snowing. The whole day before was disconcerting, but the weather forecasts were looking good, like the worst of it would blow through during the night leaving behind calm and cold conditions. We drove back to South Lake Tahoe. We were anxious and cold enough that nobody thought it a good idea to venture out for dinner. Dave had slept very little for more or less two nights. It was still raining as we did our best to rest.
It is hard to remember specific thoughts about race morning, or the day for that matter. Writing this, however, so many emotions are close to the surface. Of course, Ironman race morning starts early -- in the late threes when your hotel is more than an hour from the starting line -- so it began with an alarm I was already awake for and anticipating. Neither of us spoke, but even before my phone started vibrating and playing a song, I knew my Dad was awake. I was sure Dave and Mark on the other side of the wall were awake, too. So it started with a curious blend of sleepiness cloaked by excitement and anxiety. Given the way Friday and Saturday had gone, there was a sense of foreboding, like preparation to go to the gallows, but with an unspoken hope that things might work out well. For a solid two days we watched the weather deteriorated. It was a relief that we were left with a freezing forecast for the starting line and below freezing temperatures for the first part of the bike course, but very little wind and no rain or snow.
Even having gone the full Ironman distance twice before, I could not muster a prediction as to whether or not I would finish. Out of the high elevation, the difficult bike course, the cold weather, and my still aching knee, I felt I could handle two or three, but all four? Perhaps it is just a defense mechanism -- I am sure the pros do not think like this -- but the morning of the race the best I could offer was a guarantee that I would get in the water and then get on my bike. The rest of the day would unfold the way it would unfold.
We arrived at Kings Beach well before twilight. There was a layer of ice across the top tube and on the plastic bags I had placed on my bike. Some of the gear in my bike transition bag was wet. I replaced the towel in the bag with a dry one. We moved to a small heated building opened at the west end of the transition area to get ready. We took a few nervous pictures and said our goodbyes to Mark and Larry and entered the coral to self-seed ourselves for the rolling swim start. We were relieved to have the disposable thick wool socks I had purchased at Big 5 because the sand was frozen and crunched beneath our feet as we walked.
The pre-race corral is a marvelous thing. Thousands of athletes, from thousands of places, with thousands of hours and thousands of training miles all herded and cooped inside shabby fences and behind a starting arch. All those forces and all that energy bunching together like the moments before the Big Bang. The national anthem is sung still in the dark and then the nervous energy peaks just before the pros start. Then the rest of us start and we all fling ourselves at the race with whatever velocity we have.
The warmest I was the whole race was in the Lake Tahoe water. Compared to the frozen sand and chilly air the lake water really was warm. The elevation (6,200 feet above sea level) made breathing a bit more challenging, but this just meant going a little slower and breathing every stroke. I could not see where I was going because a low cloud had settled on the surface of the lake. It did not matter because there were feet to follow and periodically a pyramid-shaped buoy, yellow for the long stretches and red for the left turns. It got crowded at each of the 90-degree turns, but it was never like the mayhem at the start of Ironman Arizona. By the second loop there was sunlight and I could see down 50 feet at least.
Exiting the water it was suddenly really cold again. I saw my Dad along the barrier fence and gave him a thumbs up. A volunteer handed me my transition bag and then I laid down on the freezing ground while another volunteer yanked my wetsuit off in one swift motion. I made my way to the changing tent, only to find that there was no room. Not knowing what else to do, I stripped down near the entrance and began putting on my wet clothes. Dave later told me that everything in his bag was sopping wet from the rain the day before. I put on all kinds of clothes and gloves and went to see what else the day had in store. Dave wore shorts, a sleeveless tri top, and arm warmers. A few miles in he had a flat tire.
The Lake Tahoe Ironman bike course was advertised to us inaugural event guinea pigs as having 5,240 feet of vertical climbing. Many of the athletes with GPS-enabled odometers clocked the elevation gain in the high 7,000s or low 8,000s. The race website now begins, "With over 8,000 feet of climbing on the bike course..." This was by far the hardest bike ride of my life and I have done multiple Tahoe Sierra Century rides. It was so cold that I did not feel my feet until late in the afternoon. I do not know how Dave did it with so little clothing.
The miles and aid stations ticked by and so did the climbs. One big one with multiple false summits up through Northstar ski resort followed by a technical descent and an immediate transition to the even longer Brockway Summit climb. The second time up the Brockway climb I counted twelve people who were walking alongside their bikes. I did not want to walk, but at least three times I stopped on this hill to catch my breath and drink. The last two climbs took so much out of me that I even had to stop on a steep (the third time over it anyway), but much shorter hill (Dollar hill?) around Mile 100 to regroup. Twice, Dave and I passed Mark and Larry on the road by the airport, where they were stationed with the Tridiot banner.
By the time made the final turn up to Squaw Valley and saw my Dad on his bike my legs felt hollow. I could barely tell him how tired I was. Coming into the transition I told him I would change my clothes and come out the tent and walk for a bit. And that's what I did. A volunteer helped me change my clothes in the transition tent and then I went to see what my aching knee and hollow legs had in them. More to the point, I went to see what my lungs and heart and mind had to share with my legs because they really didn't have anything left at all.
The first two miles of the run I felt like I was going to throw up and I mostly had to walk. My heart rate monitor strap made me claustrophobic so I lowered it to my waist like a belt. I told myself, and I think I told my Dad, that I would keep walk/jogging until I heard whether or not Dave called it a day after the bike. But I didn't have to wait long because as I came down a hill on an out-and-back section between Miles 3 and 4 I saw Dave shuffle-jogging a section I had just passed myself. And suddenly I had something more than a hope that we would get to the finish.
Down along the highway and then further down onto the bike trail by the river. Soon it was dark again, as dark as it had been when we started swimming. I looped back up into Squaw Valley and passed agonizingly close to the finishers' chute. And then back down the hill into the darkness. It was dark and it was quiet. I jogged when I could on the flat sections, but I really could not jog up or down hills. I could not straighten my left knee for fear it would buckle completely and I would not be able to move another step. The night volunteers were Good Samaritans, every last one of them. It is strange what one can and cannot eat so late in a race. This time it was chicken broth and orange slices for me. For Dave it was the flat coke. This time around, I could not touch the potato chips that had saved me ten months earlier in Arizona.
Making my way up the final hill to Squaw Valley there was a bright Ironman light shining like the Batman symbol on the cliff above the village. That was special. I walked and jogged parts of the run with my Dad, including some of that last push up to the village.
You see, this whole thing must seem silly. I do not pretend to think otherwise. Now I am at the end of the day and I cannot even write what I thought or felt when I finished. The cheers carried me through the village and toward the blinding finishing lights. It was joyful and it was a relief. Mostly it was over and I knew that Ironman Lake Tahoe would be a part of me forever. There was at the time, and there still is, a sense of disbelief. I was happy my Dad was there.
After I stopped moving my body temperature dropped quickly. I wrapped myself in emergency blankets and wandered back through the village looking for Dave while my Dad went to the car to get me clothes. Soon enough Dave marched his way through the village and I followed and screamed as best I could until he also disappeared into the floodlights of the final chute. The crowd went wild as they announced Dave was the oldest finisher of the race so far. He got second in his age group.
Days later we would hear that Ironman Lake Tahoe was the hardest Ironman race to date, with the highest average finishing time and the highest combined Did Not Start (DNS)/Did Not Finish (DNF) rate.
The other day I was driving home from the Heid's with my bike on the roof of my car when a truck behind and to the left of me started honking. I was annoyed and the driver of the truck stared at me as he passed and then pulled in front of me. Then I saw the cheap plastic Ironman Lake Tahoe license plate holder and I realized that he had honked because he saw the race sticker still on my bike. I pulled up next to him at the next light and we both rolled down our windows. "How did you do?" I asked. "I finished," he said. "How did you do?" he asked. "I finished," I said. We were perfect strangers who had once been corralled together on a cold morning at Kings Beach on the edge of Lake Tahoe. Strangers that once covered the same 140.6 miles and because of that not strangers at all. We both carried the same intangible thing that was the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe inside. I nodded to him, wished him well, and we both drove away.