Background: I registered for Tahoe 14 months ago along with my girlfriend Katie, who is a coach with the DC Tri Masters swim program. We were drawn to the race for the promise of cool, low humidity event, with a bonus of the beautiful race location. From the beginning, we know it was going to be a bit of a unique race, so I scheduled my fall to allow for a long vacation leading up to the competition. Base elevation for the course is about 6400 feet, maxing out at 7200 on the main climbs, so I arrived 12 days early for the race to acclimatize. I felt fully comfortable and on pacing about 9 days after arrival; of those who arrived later, many felt fine but some really struggled. There seemed to be a lot of individual variance.
First impression of the course is that Tahoe is a simply stunning site for a triathlon. The lake itself is completely clear – I could see bottom 60 feet down on the outside edge of the swim. The mountains surrounding the lake and bike course are gorgeous, and were even snow-capped on race day. The run is on a gentle course next to a small river, and is just as pretty as the rest of the area.
Second impression is that the bike course is brutal. I prepped for the advertised climb of 5500 feet on multiple training rides (Ironman Vietnam courtesy of Tuan is about the same amount of climbing), but depending on which Garmin you believe, the listed climb understates the truth by 2000-3000 feet. Also, for non-mountain-savvy folk, like myself, the climbs are simply different – instead of 90 miles of Poolesville-style hills, most of the climbing is concentrated in 2 mountains (Martis Camp and Brockway) which cover maybe 10 miles of the course and average around a 10% grade. The course is two and a third loops, and hits these climbs twice. I’m a Clydesdale, weighing in at around 230 on race week, so big climbs are not exactly my friend.
I arrived with a 50/34 compact front and 12/28 rear cassette, and did a test ride over Brockway a week before the race. By maxing my HR and cranking 340 watts, I made the summit. Once. That seemed like a recipe for a DNF on race day, so I decided to consult the local experts. There is a fantastic local bike shop along the course in Tahoe City (Olympic Bike Shop) who set me up with a long-cage rear derailleur and an 11/36 rear cassette, which made a huge difference on survivability and pacing. Lest you think this is a purely Clydesdale issue, Katie test rode it with a similar rig to my 12/28, and also went to Olympic to get an 11/32 rear cassette. Talking to folks afterwards, that seemed to be the optimal rig for all but the extreme climbing experts.
Leadup to race day:
The weather in Tahoe turned ugly on the day before race day, with 20-30 mph winds, 30-40 degree temps, and rain (with snow above 7000 feet). T1 bag dropoff was not covered by a tent, so we ziplocked and trash-bagged everything in our T1 bags before leaving them at the beach. Bike dropoff was also uncovered, so I covered my seat with an old swim cap and took off my aerobar pads to keep them dry. Saturday was also the first time that athletes were allowed to drive the Martis Camp mountain, which was in a gated community. Katie and I drove the majority of it, but had to skip one segment that was behind an automatic gate for which Ironman did not yet have the authorization. The volunteer at that point assured us that there was only an additional ¼ mile of climbing before we reached the end of the closed segment. Remember this point, because it is going to come up later.
Up at 3:45, breakfast of lox and a bagel (my race day tradition; your mileage may vary), dressed and dropped off at the shuttle by 4:30. Katie and I arrived at the swim start/T1 at around 5:00. The storm from the day before was gone, and it was calm and dry, but morning air temperature was 30 degrees. There was ice on the bikes, and anyone who didn’t thoroughly wrap everything in their T1 bag was already having a bad day. Water temperature was 60 degrees, and the race director was allowing neoprene booties as well as caps. There is some argument as to whether these slow you down, and by how much, but I tested a pair a few days before and loved them, as did Katie. They also kept our feet warm in the freezing cold sand, and that made a huge difference prior to the start. The swim was a self-seeded rolling start, where you lined up by expected swim time and marched into the water. I lined up in the front of the 1:20 group. There was steam coming off the lake, so the buoys were hard to see initially, but the water was so clear that you could easily follow the swimmers ahead. I had always planned to take it easy and draft the swim as much as possible, and conditions were optimal. The water was a touch chilly, but became comfortable within minutes. Turn buoys on the 2-loop course came up remarkably quickly, and I stayed on draft for the full course. I came out of the water in 1:14, feeling like I had yet to exert myself for the day, as was the plan.
T1 was… interesting. There was a standard changing tent, but due to the freezing temperatures, everyone was stopping to fully change clothes, instead of just dropping wetsuit and helmeting up. When I arrived, the tent was filled with 300+ naked men, standing room only, and more arriving every second. It was something between a Turkish bath and a cattle car. It took me 5 minutes just to get to a space large enough to change, and my overall T1 time of 18 minutes was just about average for the day on the men’s side. There was a clothing dropoff option at a rest stop on miles 20 & 60, so I added armwarmers, gloves and a longsleeve bike jersey to my normal race outfit of a singlet and a DC Tri jersey. Unfortunately, the longsleeve jersey only had a single rear pocket, so much of my race nutrition was in the DC Tri jersey underneath.
The bike course started out with a 25 mile section of flat to slightly down roads. My overall strategy for the day was to cruise, keep my HR in low zone 2, and do everything possible to guarantee a finish, instead of pushing the pace for a high ranking. My race plan for the bike, courtesy of Coach AJ (familiar to many DC Tri folks, and a fantastic coach), was to go steady at 130-140 HR, 180-190 watts on the power meter. Early on, this meant that lots of people were bombing by on the flats, but having driven the course, I was happy enough to save myself for the challenge ahead. Nutrition was a bit interesting, as I had to reach up under the bottom of my longsleeve to get to my jersey pocket, but it went fine after a few practice attempts. Hydration was Cherry-Limeade Nuun – I don’t really like the Perform brand, but I do need electrolytes for the long rides, so I just took water at the bottle exchanges, and added a tablet from my bento box. Food for the ride was buffalo-sweet potato-rice empanadas courtesy of the Feed Zone cookbook (gels and shotblox kill my stomach on really long rides, so I save them for the run), and I was taking Salt Stick salt tablets w/caffeine every 30 minutes. I have struggled for years with cramping issues, but 500-600mg of salt an hour has proved to be a major help on that front.
At mile 30 the route turned into the gated Martis Camp community, and the fun began. Remember the friendly volunteer from the day before? The one who told us about the ¼ mile of climbing? He was either a liar or a psychopath. The section of the course that nobody had seen was 2 miles of additional switchbacks at a grade between 7-12%. This sucked, though given my gearing it sucked significantly less than it could have. The descent from Martis was just as switchback-y as the ascent, and I got to watch dozens of triathletes cling to their brakes and inch down a mountain. As a Clydesdale, descending is one of my only real advantages, so I was looking forward to bombing the descent, but with folks weaving and riding the brakes, I was forced to play it safe instead.
Brockway round 1 was up next, a straight ascent at 7-11% for 2.5 miles instead of the weaving switchbacks of Martis Camp. This went fine, though after the secret bonus mountain climb in Martis, my HR was more of a 150 than a 140. Power for the whole segment was 250-260 watts, high zone 3-low zone 4 and well over target, and I started to get a bit concerned for the upcoming run. I did get to make a clean run on the mostly straight descent, pushing up around 47-50 mph in sections. Lap 2 went much as lap 1, though I was passing people on the flats this time, as the overly aggressive or under-geared climbers were already pretty much toast. Mountains in lap 2 were hard, and those who hadn’t paced themselves early on were in a world of hurt. I stayed on 150 HR for Martis, but it was into the low 160s by Brockway, plus another 45 minutes of 250+ wattage. My legs felt worn though not completely spent by the top of the final climb, and while I had 20 miles of flats and descents before the run, I knew the original plan was probably in jeopardy. My ride was complete in 7:49, which was hysterically slow based on my training rides, but was in the top half of bike results for the day.
T2 was a breeze compared to T1. The only interesting thing was how many people were dropping out. Of the 30 people in T2 with me, I heard 4 say they were done. Considering that we were only at 9:30ish on the race clock, that was deeply surprising to me.
Plan A for the run was a 9 minute run/1 minute walk cycle at 140ish HR, hopefully around 11 minute miles early, 12 minute miles late. As I discovered shortly into the run, however, Plan A was not going to happen. Even a light jog quickly popped my HR up to 155+, so I switched to jogging the descents, jogging the flats when my HR was low, and walking the rest. This worked up until around mile 9, when I started to feel a bit dizzy and nauseous. Symptoms faded when I walked, so decided to go to plan B and simply walk the remainder. I did the math, and figured that if I hiked the remaining 17 miles at 15:00 pace, I would be done by 10:30-10:40, plenty of time before the cutoff. It was boring, and got chilly as the sun went down, but a warm hat and overshirt from special needs took the edge off. Aid stations on the run course were fantastic – well staffed and supplied, and the chicken broth was magical. There was a significant darkness hazard on the course, as it was a bike path similar to Mt.Vernon trail, and completely unlit. I had a headlamp from my special needs bag, but it was still a tough path in the dark, especially for those still jogging. I finished the run in 6:26, and the overall race in 15:55. Not the A plan, but given that 20% of the field - more than 500 people – DNFed, I’ll take it.
Should you do this race?
Absolutely! (with a few qualifiers).
- Know that the bike is going to hurt. If you like climbing, mountains, and other such obstacles, this is a great course for you. If you struggle with long or steep ascents, this isn’t the right choice. I highly recommend that you talk to the folks at Olympic Bike shop in Tahoe City about gearing options for the ride (and Katie and I will rent out our derailleur/cassette rigs).
- The swim will be cold. We got somewhat unlucky with the weather on Saturday, but cold morning temperatures and a 62-65 degree lake are normal for Tahoe in September. Practice with a hood.
- Plan to go up early. Elevation makes a difference, and it seems to be very individual. Give yourself time to learn the route and acclimate at the same time.
- Outside of those qualifiers, the area is beautiful and the residents were incredibly welcoming. If you are looking for a very challenging course for an Ironman, this is a great option.
Interesting report and congrats on your finish. I had heard about the snowy conditions the day before and was hoping that someone would post a report here. Sounds like you handled the unexpected well.
Great race and great RR. I signed up for IMLT next year as consolation for not getting into IMTN. Trading a potential PR for an epic day now sounds like the right call!
It is definitely an epic race. If you are planning to race it - one thing I left out of my report is that the special needs bags are not returned (contrary to normal policy) due to the danger of bear attacks (not kidding). So if you plan to pack anything in your special needs, bring items that you won't miss
Great report and congratulations!