The day before, the area saw high wind gusts, 2 to 3 foot waves at the swim beach, rain, high’s in the 50’s and snow at the end of the day. The outlook for a full 140.6 mile race or having the race at all was not confidence inspiring. Athletes scrambled to buy cold weather gear at local shops and the Ironman store on site at Squaw Valley to prepare for freezing temperatures at the swim start and highs only reaching 60 degrees.
As dawn approached and athletes started flowing to the swim start and first transition area, they scraped ice off of their bikes, layered up and prepared for the full 140.6 mile race.
Organizers were satisfied with the conditions, and the full race was a go.
At midnight, the finish line was closed down as over 500 registered athletes didn’t even start the race, and of the starters, more than 20 percent did not finish the race. Epic doesn’t begin to describe the race course and conditions for this first Ironman in California since 2001.
I was lucky enough to make it to the start line and cross the finish line. While this was my first Ironman distance event, I have raced several half Ironman distance events and several other various distance triathlons. From my experience, below is my review of the event and organization.
Ironman branded races are not cheap. They are pretty much the same price across the board at $675 for 2013 events. Prices are going up for 2014. This is pretty steep, and racers could choose to race non-Ironman events and pay a lot less. But, those athletes will miss out on the atmosphere and admiration that come from racing an Ironman triathlon.
Ironman has this process down to a science. Athletes show up, sign waivers, get their bibs and swim caps, get their timing chip and their athlete goodie bag. Then, they are deposited in the mobile Ironman store to spend a fortune.
The main issue is location. If athletes did not want to spend the money to stay at Squaw Valley resort, the host lodging site, they had to stay in Truckee or in Tahoe City area along Lake Tahoe. Athletes could have to drive 15 to 20 miles just to get from where they were staying to check-in, go to the athlete dinner and drop off run gear bags. If not planned out well, then athletes might have spent a lot of time driving back and forth for logistical items.
Web Site / Instructions / Course Info
Ironman used to have specific web addresses for each event. Nowadays it’s www.ironman.com/ your event name here. Hashtag generic. But, each site is uniform in it’s appearance and location of event materials. It makes going from one event to another to find important race information easy and accessible.
Ironman athlete guides are typically sent out 3 to 4 weeks before the race, but Lake Tahoe barely made it out two weeks before the event. There are probably good reasons as to the lateness of the guide, but that makes for 2700 nervous triathletes not knowing event specifics.
Lake Tahoe had a Facebook page that was updated on a semi-regular basis. As the race approached, they did release important updates and answered some questions from postings of athletes. Overall it was more for PR than race day information from our perspective.
Ironman Lake Tahoe did also utilize their email list in a functional fashion, keeping athletes informed of important race information and updated web site changes.
Through the year, some of the course maps changed, as one could imagine, it’s hard to make a 112 mile bike route a year out and keep is the same with changes in road conditions and construction.
Overall the communication was adequate to reach athletes and spectators and get them the information they needed to be successful on race day.
Location / Parking / Access
Race directors had buses running from the finish line area to the swim start, 15 miles away. Athletes with no ride back to the start for their car could have shown up extremely early to drop their car off at the finish line and had a way to get back to the start.
Parking was ample at Squaw Valley with no snow for skiers to take over the parking lot. Parking at the swim start was minimal at best. Those with lodging close to the swim start could walk to the start and have no issues. But, parking at the actual start area probably was not a realistic option for participants.
The parking for bike check-in the day before the race at the swim start was horrible. Athletes basically shut down a lane of traffic on a main street in King’s Beach with few other options for parking around the beach. Triathletes were walking in street lanes, blocking traffic, parking in active street lanes and in general not respecting the hosts of this event by snarling traffic.
Everywhere you looked, there were port-a-potties stuffed in every corner. Wait times at peak were around 10 minutes at worst case. There was no want for more at the swim start and first transition area. At every bike and run aid station, there were 3 to 4 port-a-potties and that was every 10 miles on the bike and every 1 mile on the run.
If you couldn’t hold it to make it to a port-a-potty, you really needed to go.
The Actual Course
Race directors made that bike course plain mean. There was more than 7500 feet of elevation gain on the two loop bike course to test athlete resolve before they hit the relatively level marathon course.
The swim course was on the pristine Lake Tahoe with water so clear, you could see the bottom at 90 feet. The problem was that they could not control the weather and hitting a swim in 60 degree water and exiting into 30 degree air temperature is not optimal. That’s what you get with Lake Tahoe in September. Another key point for the swim was the rolling start. Instead of the historical mass start, athletes lines up by ability and ran through the start arch across the timing mat. That reduced the physical beating from a mass start, but it threw some athletes off at the finish. Yes, the finish line is closed at midnight, but technically athletes only have 17 hours to finish the course, not the amount of time from the clock start to midnight. The official clock started at 6:40 A.M. for age groupers, so those that started at that time had until 11:40 P.M. to finish. That’s something to remember for those at rolling start Ironman races in the future. If a triathlete started at 6:52 A.M., then they had until 11:52 P.M. to finish.
The bike course has some rough pavement sections at times, which was maybe 1 percent of the course and crossed some wooden bridges in Northstar. The wooden bridges were not much of an issue as athletes merely needed to slow down to cross safely.
There were parts of the bike course through the Tahoe Lake beach communities that were open to traffic and cycling was contained to the bike lane on the side of the road. This situation made passing slower riders a challenge and somewhat of a safety issue.
The descents on parts of the bike course saw athletes crashing at points and there were a handful of ambulances keeping busy on the course.
The run course took place on the scenic Truckee River pedestrian path from Squaw Valley. While the spectacular views of nature may have been inspiring, the path became treacherous at nightfall even with athletes wearing head lights. The narrow path made passing groups of slower athletes a challenge, and when approaching a group, even with lights, it was difficult to spot arms and legs and avoid collisions from oncoming runners on the out-and-back course. In daylight, it was great, and nightfall, it was a challenge.
The course also took runners along highway 89 that wasn’t really meant for pedestrian access. Cones were placed to divide runners from highway traffic, but passing runners and navigating runner congestion was made difficult with the constrictive running lanes. At times it was dangerous as runners would have to run in the active car lanes to pass slower athletes. It wasn’t ideally a safe running section.
Race Day Instructions
The announcer kept in constant contact with racers and spectators. The speakers were appropriately turned up and facing the athletes and start area so you could hear and understand the directions from most anywhere around the start area.
Volunteers were excellent and knowledgeable enough to relay important race information to athletes and spectators. Rarely did a race representative say, “I don’t know” to any question. If they did not know, they got you to someone that did.
The finish line is where it’s at for Ironman races. Spectators lining the chutes, Mike Rielly calling out your name as an Ironman, volunteers catching you at the finish line and more food and tents than you can shake a stick at to go and collect yourself after 140.6 miles.
The run course is comprised of two out and back loops, where the first loop was around 17 miles and the second loop was around 9. The tortuous part of the first loop turnaround is that you pass the final line chute to turn back on to the course. Nothing can be more deflating than realizing you have another 9 miles to go.
As athletes entered into the finish chute, the roaring crowd and high intensity spotlights in runners’ faces can be overwhelming. The whole day comes down to the minutes running through the chute and across the line. The timing arch over the finish line signals the end of a journey for a lot of athletes.
The catchers are the volunteers that line up with warming blankets and help guide weary athletes through the finish area. They provided food, drinks, cookies, chocolate milk and pretty much anything they had on the course. The massage tent was massive, but athletes were looking at 30 minutes or more waiting time.
All in all, the finish area was large, relaxing and low keyed. It was a great place for athletes to collect their thoughts and let what has transpired for the day to sink in.
This was the first time for the Ironman Lake Tahoe event location. Ironman has been putting on events for 35 years, so this was not their first rodeo. But, this was a new challenging area of the country. They had to deal with altitude, varying weather conditions and a lot of anxious athletes.
From reports of many Ironman race veterans, the production and support side from WTC matched or exceeded the levels from other events. The Ironman brand did not appear to cut any corners and put on the best event they know how.
Any event can be picked apart at the detailed level with enough searching. Every event has it’s downfalls, but Ironman Lake Tahoe appeared to be a success in event management.
Now, it may not have been a success in the eyes of the 500 athletes that opted not to start the race and the 20 percent of starters that did not finish, but those are conditions that WTC cannot control.
For those considering racing Ironman Lake Tahoe in 2014, they can expect a top notch ran event. They can also expect wild weather and a tough bike course.