Snowy Summer Racing in the High Sierras

By Chris Toriggino – February 1, 2014

It’s Sept. 21, 2013, and the cold front that has been anticipated all week for Lake Tahoe has blown in right on time—just in time, that is, to boost the local weatherman’s confidence in his forecast. But for the 2,000 triathletes prepping for the next day’s Ironman, the timing couldn’t have been worse. All week, the weather had been picture-perfect in the high Sierras. The sunny blue skies, with low temperatures and humidity, seemed to have been custom ordered for endurance racing. But that was all about to change, and hopes for fast times at the inaugural Lake Tahoe Ironman were fading. As athletes completed the obligatory pre-race bag drop at T1, just off to their left Lake Tahoe was being whipped into a frothy mess by the approaching cold front. Three-foot white caps were visible along the 21-mile length of the 1,000-foot-deep lake. A few intrepid athletes could be seen slowly donning wetsuits, perhaps thinking twice as to whether that pre-race swim was a good idea in the 56-degree, seasickness-inducing lake. It seemed impossible that the swim would even go off the next morning as the few who finally entered the water soon disappeared, swallowed up behind the lake’s waves. A light rain started to fall as the competitors moved away from the beach to drop their T2 bag at Squaw Valley, ten miles away. The Olympic rings greeted the athletes as they headed into the village that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and had become the site of the Ironman Lake Tahoe finish line. Along with those colorful rings, a driving rain also greeted athletes as the cold front thundered closer. A few of the athletes racing could have seen conditions like this before. In the late 1980s, the World’s Toughest Triathlon was held on the south side of Lake Tahoe in mid-August, and, on more than one occasion during the race, snow fell on portions of the bike course. Hot tubs and warming tents had been set up to bring life to the 250 racers as they completed each frigid leg. That was August, in the “heat” of the summer. This was late September, and summertime in the mountains had faded fast. As athletes performed their pre-race routines that night, the driving rain morphed into a full-blown snowstorm. Only hours away, the race was still on schedule to take place despite the current dismal conditions; the weather prognosticators continued to predict clear conditions for race day. Race morning brought crystal clear conditions, and the bank thermometer across from the beach flashed 27 degrees. Typical Ironman pre-race attire consists of shorts and flip-flops. On this day, the race venue appeared more like the base of a ski hill in mid winter. Down jackets, thick winter mittens, and thermal hats were seen on every athlete. T1 bags that had been left outside all night by race officials had become covered in ice, and many athletes were treated to wet cycling gear—not ideal attire for zipping through frigid mountain air on a 112-mile bike course. As the slow procession of wetsuit-clad athletes made its way to the ice-cold sand of the beach for the start, something even more unnerving lay ahead—fog. Though yesterday’s white caps had disappeared, frigid temperatures created a thick layer of fog over the relatively warm lake water (relatively warm water was still an icy 58 degrees). The fog resulted in significant navigation difficulties; swimmers moved at right angles to each other on account of being unable to see the guiding buoys. The water temperature was another obstacle, as dozens of swimmers had to be pulled from the water within minutes when their mammalian dive reflex took their breath away. Those who were able to continue were treated to crystal-clear water. Transitions are considered triathlon’s fourth event. Minutes can be gained or lost here, and triathletes like to brag about transition splits as much as swim, bike, or run times. Two- and three-minute transition times in an Ironman race are common: a quick change out of the wetsuit reveals cycling attire and competitors are off. Not on this day. Fifteen-minute transitions were considered lightning fast; 30-minute transitions were not uncommon. One competitor took 90 minutes. Was this due to cold extremities, a ridiculously crowded changing tent, or the layers of clothes each athlete had to put on? Yes—and also to more than a little time to think about what lay ahead on the bike course. Greeting the athletes as they stumbled through T1 on numb feet were their bikes. Often a highly anticipated sight, the ice-blanketed bikes held little appeal. How cold was it? Some athletes were seen riding bikes in wetsuits…in an Ironman. So much for late summer conditions in Lake Tahoe. But there was no time to fuss; riders were off to face two mountain passes that would prove to be the undoing of many competitors. The bike course seemed straightforward enough on paper: two major climbs per loop, two loops. The big climb over Brockway summit had been open for riding in the days and weeks before the race. The other climb, through an exclusive neighborhood of Northstar, had been closed for any pre-race review until the day before the race; then, however, the area had been blanketed in snow. This little-known and unfamiliar climb brought many cyclists to their knees, as twisting neighborhood roads, few spectators, and granny-gear climbing sapped energy. The top ten percent of Ironman athletes can usually achieve a five-hour bike split; on this day, exactly two competitors—the first- and second-place overall pro athletes—made that time. The rest of the elite age groupers saw bike splits an hour longer than average; many mid-pack athletes were seen walking their bikes up the climbs, unheard of in Ironman competitions. Marathons are always tough. Marathons following an icy swim and a frigid 112-mile bike require a monumental effort. What appeared to be a flat course out of Squaw Valley and past the Olympic village was, in actuality, not. Minor inclines stopped athletes in their tracks as the cumulative effect of the cold swim and leg-zapping bike course took its toll. Those lucky enough to finish before dusk were spared the quickly dropping temperatures.Those that weren’t so lucky continued to race against mid-run cut-offs and temperatures in the 30s as well as the ultimate midnight finish time. One in five of those who jumped into Lake Tahoe earlier in the day would not finish. Despite sunny skies in the morning, the cold weather and difficult bike course resulted in the second highest DNF (did not finish) rate of any Ironman. Pre-race rituals and yearlong training did nothing to help the 21 percent of race competitors who failed to successfully battle the elements and make the cutoff times. After years of chatter that Ironman courses have become too easy and the sport too soft, Mother Nature and the course designers put that argument to rest; Ironman Lake Tahoe will soon be considered the world’s toughest triathlon. And this is where I stop lamenting on the goal race time I did not attain or on the Kona qualifying spot I did not achieve. Instead, here is where I focus on the fact that I was one of the competitors who completed this race, and I revel in the beauty that the mountains had to offer and the character that I developed along the way. It was an experience I will never forget, and I will be a stronger person and athlete because of this cold and challenging day in Lake Tahoe.


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