Ironman Lake Tahoe: IM Winter Edition

Also known as “You’re Gonna Hear Me Roar … Until I Nearly Pass Out.”

My race reports get long. Really long. That’s why they are few and far between. So, for the wide range of attention spans, I have provided race reports of varying lengths:

One word: Breathtaking.

One sentence: I endured a surreal swim, a cold and challenging ride, and an asthmatic marathon to complete Ironman #3.

One paragraph: Although I didn’t have the race I prepared for, I kept fighting all day. I swam off-course through fog beneath snow-capped peaks. I cycled with courage that resulted in a small lead off the bike. I then dug deep to finish a marathon with severe altitude sickness. I completed my 3rd Ironman on what’s being called the second most challenging of all time. It all came full circle. I wasn’t winning and I knew it. I was winning and didn’t know it. I was winning and knew it. I wasn’t winning and didn’t know it. And finally, I wasn’t winning and I knew it.

Also, here is the link to the highlight video of the day. Kevin and I are featured briefly at :57-:58. Click Here.

Long, overly-detailed story:

PRE-RACE 

I signed up for Ironman Lake Tahoe over a year ago. When I started working with my coach, Mackenzie Madison, last October, she asked if I could pick a different race, due to the exceptional challenge she knew was ahead of me. Of course not. I was mentally and financially committed to Lake Tahoe. So we set out for the challenge ahead.

I picked this race for a couple of reasons. I want to qualify for Kona and knew that the race’s timing would make it hard for a perennial Kona participant to do both. I also knew that because no one had raced it before, I would have just as good of a chance of figuring out a winning equation as anyone else. I also need a hard bike course, which this race had, and I tend not to do well in really hot races.

My preparation started out rough. In November, I stress fractured my tibia, a cuneiform in my foot, and suffered a stress reaction in my other foot. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, I was wheeling around on a knee scooter and was the temporary owner of a handicapped parking placard. I gained 15 pounds from the holiday/depressive eating combined with limited exercise.

My feet and leg eventually healed, and after a long stint of physical therapy, I resumed training and got into the best shape of my life.

The known challenges of Ironman Lake Tahoe were daunting—a race at altitude between 6,000-7,000 feet with a known elevation gain of 6,700’ —more than any other Ironman. (In the end, we climbed 7,363’ on race day.)

In preparation, I spent the 4th of July weekend training on course, and was fortunate to spend 2½ weeks prior to race day at similiar altitude in New Mexico in hopes to acclimate a bit.

Feeling really ready right before leaving Seattle for New Mexico, I started to get a pain in my foot, reminiscent of my cuneiform stress fracture from earlier in the year. My heart sank. It even hurt to walk. I stopped running immediately. I spent the last three weeks before race day aqua jogging, hoping I could still make it to the start line. I also experienced the return of the pinched nerve in my right hip that makes my quad go tingly in the most maddening of ways. I tried massage and Active Release Therapy to get it to stop. Needless to say, all my confidence flew right out the window. I kept both matters pretty private because I didn’t need the world to know that I might not race.

After neurotically checking the weather reports, I had bought wintery layers in New Mexico before leaving. The weather reports were brutal, but everyone assured me that race day would be fine! We flew into Tahoe Thursday night.

Come Saturday, I got on my bike early and finished my shake-out ride and run before the rain storm blew in. Check-in was miserable. The T2 tent was flooded, the expo closed early because the vendor tents were blowing away. It poured all day. I was so thankful that wasn’t the forecast for race day! And then it happened. Around 4 pm, the rain morphed into wet snow.

Checking in with 3 coats on!

Checking in with 3 coats on!

Snow! It was so cold, and still technically the last day of summer. With the potential for ice, I was sure they would delay the race and cut the swim to one lap to allow for warmer temps. But then a got a message from a very reliable source that the race would be done in it’s entirety, no matter what!

img_8935

Snow at Squaw Valley, just above the finish line chute.

RACE MORNING

My alarm was set for 2:45 am for a 4:00 am departure. Without an alarm, I woke just after 2 am, alert and ready to prep. Things went relatively smoothly and Kevin and I were on the first shuttle from Squaw Valley and T2 to King’s Beach and T1. It was below freezing—approximately 27 degrees and pitch black.

We arrived as transition opened and I prepped my gear. I was thankful that I double-bagged my T1 gear the day before and that I opened it to add chemical warmer to my bike shoes. Many people found their bags frozen shut.

Preparations in the T1—frigid and dark.

Preparations in the T1—frigid and dark.

Thankfully, they opened the Visitor Center to athletes to keep warm pre-race. Normally, I would have done an in-water warmup, but I didn’t want to freeze by having to exit the water after. So, I used my exercise bands to get my arms warm.

Kevin and I on our wedding anniversary, right before the race start!

Kevin and me on our wedding anniversary, right before the race start!

I wore my neoprene booties to the beach to keep my feet warm waiting for my turn to begin the swim in the new ‘swim smart’ rolling wave start process. I gave them to another age-grouper who wanted to wear them while swimming. The moment I took them off my feet were blocks of ice.

SWIM

Once I got into the water, my feet thawed immediately in the relatively warm 60-64-degree water, although it was much colder closer to shore.

Incredible setting for the Ironman swim.

Incredible setting for the Ironman swim.

Wading through the water was surreal. Sunrise had just started over the snow-capped peaks, lighting the clearest, bluest lake I’ve ever seen. Simply breathtaking. However, I couldn’t see any buoys. Zero. The fog on the lake was so dense, I couldn’t get oriented. The first buoy I saw was #4 and I was nowhere near it! I swam so off course. I tried to stay calm—even as my calves and feet threatened to cramp.

Start of the swim, or a game of hide-and-go-seek with the buoys.

Start of the swim, or a game of hide-and-go-seek with the buoys.

On lap 2, I started to lap the distressed swimmers and although the visibility was a little better, the paddleboards kept getting in my way! I hit two of them. One, really hard in the cheekbone. Needless to say, I was relieved to get out of the water. It was a terrible swim for me—so catawampus that my Garmin said I swam 2.64 miles. That’s nearly a quarter mile long. I had a lot of work to do on my bike.

The cold temps completely sucked the air out of my body after the swim.

The cold temps completely sucked the air out of my body after the swim.

Goal? 1:05:00
Race: 1:13:54

T1

Pure chaos. I expected it to be busy, but with all the racers choosing to do complete clothing changes, it was insanity. I was lucky enough to find a chair and get a towel to place my numb feet.

My frozen hands fumbled to put on my arm warmers, gloves, and the two vests I had prepared to wear. Once my socks, shoes and helmet were on, I clumsily finished the .33 mile run to my bike and was on to the bike course.

Time to ride!

Time to ride!

Goal? 05:00
Race: 08:01

BIKE

The first moments on the bike were excruciating. At 33 degrees, my whole body ached with frozen numbness. I had planned on eating first thing on my bike, but my hands couldn’t unzip my bento box. I tried to drink out of my aero bottle straw, but I couldn’t. It was frozen.

The first incredibly-cold moments on the bike.

The first incredibly-cold moments on the bike.

My next focus was to get warm—get over the initial shock and spin it out. I started to sing in my head the lyrics to the Christmastime song, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” (Maybe I should also mention that race day was also my 6th wedding anniversary to my phenomenal husband. So love was definitely also on my mind.) I finally got the bento box open only to find frozen chews.

Still had to wait to eat. It was about 25 minutes before I could attempt to eat and drink. It became priority #1. Wattage goals could wait!

The course is 2 and one-third counterclockwise loops in a somewhat triangular shape. It starts in King’s Beach, and is a gradual downhill all the way to Squaw Valley, with the exception of Dollar Hill, a moderate, one-mile climb. After Squaw, the course heads north on a screaming-fast section to the historic town of Truckee. Once in Truckee, there are a few shorter climbing sections before heading back south with a climbing section in the private, very-exclusive Martis Camp community to the Ritz Carlton. It then winds back down to start a long, steady climb to Brockway Summit at 7,179’ of elevation. Then you scream down the backside of the summit back to King’s Beach to start all over. The ride finishes by turning up to the Olympic Village at Squaw after the second full loop.

Once I got close to Truckee, I was feeling a little better and started focusing on race goals. There is a little steeper section on the other side of town and I tried to do a little bit of climbing while standing up to stretch my legs. Bad idea. I still couldn’t feel my feet so it was really clumsy.

Usually, I get a lot of kicks out of chirping, “on your left” during the bike leg. I am proud that I can ride just as hard, if not harder than a lot of really fit men. There was little joy in it this time as my frozen face made actual words near impossible. I would silently go by one after another. There was very little communication out there.

Once I turned into Martis Camp, the real work began. It starts out rolling, but rudely transforms into a Tour-style climb, complete with steep pitches and switchbacks. That wasn’t the hard part for me. Once I got to the Ritz, I took a deep breath and started the winding descent. My fear of descending, coupled with my lighter weight, led me to witness insanely-fast descents by the guys around me. I just didn’t want to crash so I was very conservative, pumping my breaks all the way down.

Climb, climb, climb. Or, maybe eating a snack.

Climb, climb, climb. Or, maybe eating a snack.

At the bottom of the descent, you make a right-hand turn, and start to climb again. This time its approximately 20 minutes of slow and steady. I was feeling good. Still semi-frozen, but I was happy to be riding steady. The spectators at the top were awesome. Crazy guys in Speedos, running next to you cheering frantically for example. At the top, I was all smiles, but took another deep breath before the next long descent. As I started the descent, I yelled out, “Courage!!” It’s really what I needed in that moment.

It was so fast and scary. I had already seen a couple of ambulance and couldn’t help but wonder what happened. I was so thankful that I had kept all my layers too because that descent was breathtaking.

Back through town at the start of lap 2, I felt like I was getting into a rhythm. But then, random people began yelling cryptic messages at me. “You’re the 10th woman.” “You’re the 28th woman.” I’m guessing one was an age-grouper count and one was including the pros. It was encouraging because I was making up for my slow swim.

Once I got back to Squaw, I heard Kevin’s voice, clear as a bell.

“You’re in 2nd place!”

Hot dog! It was getting warmer, so I ditched my insulated vest at the special clothing drop-off they implemented for this race. (Which was actually my idea!)

2nd place? Let's hunt #1 down!

2nd place? Let’s hunt #1 down!

I had no info on how far back I was, but it was the spark I needed to stay focused. I don’t know where I passed the girl in first, but by mile 72, I was leading my age group in an Ironman race and didn’t know it.

The course difficulty was catching up to me. By the time I reached Martis Camp the second time, my legs burned, but I still couldn’t feel my feet.

At the aid station half way through that section, I saw Phillipians 4:13 on a sign posted in the ground. It’s the same verse featured in my tattoo commemorating my first Ironman. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.”

I had prayed for God to be very present in my day, and He did not disappoint. I kicked it up a notch. Noticeably tired, I summited Martis Camp for the second time and prepared for the descent.

My arms were fatigued as well and as I descended, my whole body, including my face, went into a painful, constant vibration. I was so happy to be at the bottom, even if it meant it was time to climb Brockway a second time.

By then, the field had really thinned out, which was good because other riders started to weave with fatigue all over the place! One guy nearly took me out. And then I saw them. The poor athletes I was lapping. They were walking their bikes up to the summit. My heart ached for them. They were still on lap 1. I’m nearly positive they didn’t make the bike cutoff.

When I reached the summit for the second time, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. I was tired. I still received a very enthusiastic welcome from the crowd as I was one of the first handful of amateur women to reach the top for the second time. I again mustered a “courage” rally cry and descended the mountain again.

Then, it was a relative cake walk getting back to T2 … relatively. One man yelled, “you have a two-minute lead” as I climbed Dollar Hill. But since I never saw the other girl I passed, it didn’t make sense to me. I should also mention that this is at mile 100 on the bike ride and exactly where I finally had feeling return to my feet.

But, it wasn’t until Kevin yelled, “You’re in first!” as I turned up the last hill to T2 did I know what was happening.

“Nuh-uh!” I said with a smile.

Winning!!

Winning!!

I was elated. I was now knowingly winning an Ironman. And of course, so did everyone around me.

Goal? 5:40:00
Race: 6:14:18

T2

The T2 tent was completely empty. I had it all to myself. I almost skipped in, I was so excited. All the volunteers were just as excited and overly helpful. They wanted to do everything for me. It was so cute. So instead of my usual grab-and-go, I let them get me ready. A stop at the porta-potty and I was on to the run!!

Goal? 02:00
Race: 02:52

RUN

Unfortunately, I would need to visit the next two porta-potties as well. And then comes the more embarrassing part. I was passed while I was in the porta-potty and didn’t know it. So then I spent the next few miles not aware I wasn’t winning anymore. Ignorance really is bliss.

Still winning! (But not for long.)

Still winning! (But not for long.)

It was around mile 5 when the second-place girl in my age group passed me. Then it was like a domino fall … one after another passing me.

I was really struggling because every time I tried to pick up my pace, I got really lightheaded. I thought it might be a lack of calories, so I’d stuff my face with food. Little did I know that wasn’t the issue at all.

Running my race, doing all I can.

Running my race, doing all I can.

At Special Needs, the bite had returned to the air, but was bearable. I slipped on my neon pink arm warmers and passed on my long-sleeved running shirt. Big mistake.

Still fighting, but in a lot of pain.

Still fighting, but in a lot of pain.

I made it to the end of lap one, approximately sixteen miles, and was really hurting. I basically begged the crowd to help me out and keep me moving with their cheering. By the time I got to mile 19/20, I was in really rough shape. I made another potty stop and ate some more food. I was so close to passing out. Another racer handed me some potato chips and I tried to eat them, but they dribbled out of my mouth. A couple of spectators asked if I was okay, and I slurred, “No.” I was barely moving as I hung my head so incredibly low.

Moving so slow, I was starting to get so cold. Achingly cold. The feeling was so miserable and isolating. Then I saw Julie V. and I’m sure she could see the agony on my face. She asked me what I needed and just like Rose in the film “Titanic,” I shivered, “I’m so cold.”

I asked if she could get me a space blanket. I’m not sure if that was breaking the “outside help” rule, but she grabbed one from the next aid station and gave it to me. I was so unbelievably thankful. It felt like a lifesaver at the time, and was certainly, at the very least, a race saver.

Shortly after, I saw my friend Colin, who was rocking his first IM, passing me by. And then the wave of nausea washed over me. In front of the aid station at mile 21, the most spectator-friendly corner of the entire race, I wretched violently. Once, twice, … six ab-crushing times.

It hurt, but I started to feel better. I started to jog again. One spectator cheered, “You’re a warrior!” But my shortness of breath continued to limit my pace.

With my space blanket wrapped around me, I swished my way back to the Village. All the runners running the other direction had the required headlamps on. Although it was twilight, I was spared the headlamp requirement because I was so close to the finish.

At the last aid station, I ditched the space blanket. I “ran” one freezing cold mile to the finish chute. Hands raised toward Heaven, I crossed the finish line. I was so thankful to God for bringing me home as a newly-minted 3-time Ironman.

Finished!!

Finished!!

Goal? 4:00:00
Race: 5:15:02

Total time: 12:54:07, 19th AG

POST RACE

I was immediately whisked away to the med tent. My oxygen levels and body temperature were so low, they wrapped me up in blankets and heat packs. They didn’t have an oxygen tank/mask, so they gave me an inhaler treatment to help me breathe better. The med tent volunteers are truly angels. Once I felt well enough to get up, Kevin and I picked up my things and headed toward our cabin.

I called my coach while watching the race a block away from our accommodations. My heart went out to those still out there in 42 degrees, making their way through the foggy, dark woods with their headlamps. Those are the real warriors.

All in all, it wasn’t the result I trained for, but I am so proud of how I rode and the fight I had to finish. My journey to Kona continues. The light may be further away on the horizon, but it’s brighter than ever!

Now, it’s time to get my foot checked out, rest, recover, enjoy some college football, run the NYC Marathon, and get checked out for possible exercise-induced asthma.

Big shout-out to the companies and organizations who provide amazing products helped get me to the finish line: 2XU, Felt, Clif, Brooks, and Moving Comfort.

I could literally thank every person in my life, but I have to thank my amazing husband, my savvy coach, my supportive parents and in-laws, understanding co-workers, the incredible staff at Speedy Reedy, those who cheered and supported me on race day, and the crazy-awesome triathlon community—namely my fabulous TriBabes!!

Onward!

Sincere thanks ... and yes, I draw like a six-year old.

Sincere thanks … and yes, I draw like a six-year old.

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3 Responses to Ironman Lake Tahoe: IM Winter Edition

  1. heather says:

    carly,
    what a super tough day you fought through! so proud of you girl!!!

  2. Great job on a tough day! I have exercise-induced asthma and have figured out various things about handling it – write me an email if you want to consult more on this…

  3. carlsincharge says:

    Jenny! Yes, please! I am not even sure what kind of doctor I need to go see. My cough is still pretty phlemy.

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