Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ironman Lake Tahoe Race Report

 Tessie, the lake monster was angry that day.

You enticed me with your promise–“IRONMAN LAKE TAHOE is a can’t miss destination for triathletes”. Like lemmings to the cliff, everyone rushed to sign up for the first time race. Never mind the 6,200 foot altitude and steep bike climbs falsely advertised as 5,200 feet of climbing.  The average historical low was thirty-eight degrees, a temperature which wasn’t reached until well into the morning on race day.

 This is the same area where the Donner party was stranded in the wilderness, and had to eat each other to not starve to death. “Renowned for its spectacular mountain vistas and crystal clear lake, Lake Tahoe’s pristine setting is primed to become as coveted a destination for IRONMAN athletes ...”As long as they aren’t slow athletes, who don’t stand a chance. It’s evil beauty. The Sierra mountains, tall pine trees and clear, deep, blue lake was stunning, but the terrain was still rugged, waiting to devour hapless bike riders. The lake showed its angry nature with rain, foaming white caps and howling winds the day before the event.

Race morning, the tempestuous Tahoe temper tantrum was gone, but instead it chose to spew mist, to confound swimmers sighting on the invisible buoys. The air temperature was about thirty-two degrees, the water temperature, fifty-seven to sixty-two degrees. The snow capped mountains at the swim start were particularly gorgeous against the fog of the lake, but it did not bode a warm swim nor bike. The frost on my bike seat confirmed this.  

I swam there earlier in the week, when it was warmer. Since I wasn’t a polar bear, forcing myself into frigid water in freezing weather challenged me even with a wetsuit, hood, booties and ear plugs. I hate swimming in a cold lake. It has forced me into med tents where I violently shiver until my body functioned again. The secret to entering and exiting Lake Tahoe without hypothermia was to spend as little time as possible on the sand, which absorbed cold and radiated it back. The beach was crunchy with frost on race morning. So of course, we had to stand on it a long time it in order to enter the water, like cattle to the slaughter.
These people do not seem warm.

I waded in and within ten minutes, knew that this race was not going to go well. A good swim was necessary to have a chance of making the bike cut offs and the cold air, water and the lack of oxygen sapped my energy. Hanging on the kayaks to rest too often is sign of a long, bad swim. The guide buoys were lost in the mist.  I stayed calm, which is a feat in itself, but was uncomfortable in  the cold, choppy lake. Turning into the sun, many arms moved on the surface in the distance, splashing droplets into the light.

My bike ready for its ill-fated journey.
As the end of the first lap, a crowd of people passed me, finishing their swim.  They churned up the water and I had to avoid getting hit by the bodies. A one lap swim is much preferable to swim alone in my misery. At the turn to start again, my watch read one hour, which was not good. Someone said “ready for the next one?’ At least I wasn’t totally alone. I tried to speed up, would get a steady rhythm, then suddenly would have to rest. The last turn was the worst--swimming with tired, weak, mechanical arm motion, half dead and very cold. I kept telling myself that I am going to make it and wondered if I would get too tired and drown. At least no one heard my groans.

A zombie, I staggered out of the water and looked at my watch-two hours, twelve minutes. My longest ironman swim ever, but not my most terrible swim experience. The Ironman Arizona swim takes the prize for that. Volunteers guided a me to the change tent and took off my wetsuit and dressed me because the part of my brain that told me how to move was frozen. I barely noticed my surroundings in my daze, which was worse that after my car accident. I was led to the useless med tent, which wasn’t warm, then left after a few minutes. I ran on numb feet to my far away bike and started pedaling. 

I had not had time to pee in transition, so I stopped at a port-a-potty, not being able to do it on a bike. It took so long, the volunteers outside wondered if I fallen in. How does a bladder even hold that much pee? Miserable and cold, I pressed on. Too much time had been lost in the swim and in the change tent, so I had to hurry.

The route went downhill, and wind added to my discomfort. I stopped once, just to feel warm again. My brain was still fogged, so I didn’t trust myself to steer in the aero bars. Twenty-five miles later, I thawed out.

 Freaking snow on Northstar the day before
The race course had two consecutive enormous hills. The local residents didn’t want spandex clad bike riders invading their tony neighborhood in Martis Camp, so not everyone could sneak in to pre-ride the hill. The secret came out-this hill was a monster. It would dip, look like it ended, then steeply ascend again, and mentally it pummeled a rider.

A short death-defying, twisting, steep descent and the next demon awaited–a 2.5 mile seven percent grade climb of agony. I  averaged about 4.27 miles per hour on it. I couldn’t walk up it that fast, but some people tried to. If I did, all hope was gone to finish the race. Time stretched out uphill, but moved relentlessly ahead. Reaching the top, I knew I would have to hustle to make the 2:00 pm. cut off. My legs felt like they had been whacked with a hammer. Could I do these hills again?

 I rode hard and for my efforts, got an  hamstring cramp so excruciating that I had to stop  on Dollar Hill for a little while. I don’t know why they call it Dollar Hill, but I had decided to call it Si, after the bearded red-neck geezer in the reality show Duck Dynasty. Si is so stupid that he is funny and the thought of this had made me smile. Maybe “Si” would be less annoying than “Dollar Hill.” Whatever it’s called this hill still shouldn’t exist. 

 I still had hopes that I had enough time until  in despair I saw that it was 2:07 and I wasn’t at the Squaw Valley cut off  yet. I had only averaged 13.1 mph, so this bike ride wasn’t going to be 112 miles this time. I came upon the unlucky race official in the road stuck with the lousy job of pulling unhappy people off the course.  A bunch of bike riders were also by the side of the road looking dazed and shocked, including people I knew, which only made me feel a little better. The dream was dead. All the training hours in searing heat and altitude had come to nothing.

I signed up for this ironman in hopes of exceeding what seemed impossible. I wanted that high and missed suffering through the rest of the bike course, the run, the satisfaction of finishing and the bright lights, high fives and noise of the finishing chute. Initially, this ironman was viable for me. After the reports came out that the elevation gain on the bike was much higher by thousands of feet than originally stated , it was a long shot because while I can climb hills, I can’t do it fast enough. Not trying it was not an option, because I didn’t want to wonder if I could have ever done it. 

It feels like a failure, even though I trained hard and fought the entire race. It’s easy to get emotionally invested in a race, but much harder to detach when it doesn’t go well. A bad result isn’t as personal to me as it once was. A person isn’t the outcome of their race, as Chrissie Wellington has said.  Still, it’s a huge disappointment with all the time, energy and money put into the race.

Big risks result in big rewards-sometimes. Anything is possible-- except when it is not. Teddy Roosevelt exalted the man in the arena “who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  It still hurts. It may not be the destination, but the journey was tough and sometimes awful and a reward would have been nice. The Sierras got  the best of me. At least, I didn’t have to eat anyone.