Breathless in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. If you have been, you know exactly how pristine this alpine lake is. If you have not been, and you have not ever Google’d this magnificent destination are, stop what you are doing and Google it right now. Lake Tahoe is so clear, crisp, blue, and breathtakingly beautiful. Oh, did I mention that there are some fit fabulous people here as well? Activities in Lake Tahoe include swimming, boating, paddle boarding, cycling, running, walking, shopping, eating, and drinking. What’s not to love about this place?
In September 2013, you could imagine my excitement, after initial shock and panic, when I put my hat in the ring to compete in the full distance Ironman Lake Tahoe Triathlon race. What’s not to be excited about? It’s a race combining the disciplines of swim, bike, and run. Starting before the sun rises and swim 2.4 miles, transition as quickly as you can into your cycling gear to bike 112 miles. Then, after warming up on the bike for that nice distance, transition as quickly as you can into your run gear for a mere 26.2 mile marathon run. Simple as that! All this in my backyard to train and race! Why not do this amazing race in a breathtaking venue. Lake Tahoe!!
Training for this type of race is a journey in and of itself. Endurance is defined throughout your training. What workouts will be done, frequency and intensity of workouts are strategic, nutrition and hydration strategies are developed and tested, and time management takes on new meaning. This is overwhelming at times and is the beginning of testing your fortitude, focus, discipline, and patience.
But let me step back a bit in time but shortly after I paid for my race (freaked out and doubted every moment of that decision). I had already committed and paid for Napa Valley Marathon for March 2014. I had never run a marathon at this point and was already feeling pretty overwhelmed with logging in mileage for this race. I was feeling pretty stoked with the way my racing calendar was filling up. Only one, well maybe two, things I must focus on until Napa…I had to teach myself how to swim and then ride. Of course I know how to swim, vacation kind of swim. The kind of swim that usually is accompanied with a beverage of choice! I could also ride a bike…a mountain bike with no clip-in pedals. So, I had the basics down, right? Nope.
At one morning team swim practice, I was asked to swim free style. This is a basic swim style that requires the swimmer to swim, rotating arms in a circular motion, up and over the shoulder and back into the water to propel forward while kicking and maintaining form. Oh yes, and breathing…you must be able to exhale while your face is in the water, turn your head and gasp, I mean inhale your next breath. The length of the lane is 25 meters. I could not make it half-way across before I felt panic, stress, sinking, and drinking some pool water. I knew I had work to do.I asked one of my coaches what I can possibly do to get better fast and his response was “Spend a lot of time in the water.” What? That’s too easy. He further explained that it is normal to not feel ‘natural’ in the water. To help alleviate this natural stress, you have to teach the body to become comfortable with the process and the feel of the water. How do you do that? Swim…A LOT!! I spent 6 days a week for almost 3 months straight going for a swim at the gym’s indoor pool.
Training on the bike was similar. I bought a TT (triathlon) bike with aero bars, a snazzy saddle, and a compact body frame. She’s a beauty. I rode a lot! Indoor on a trainer and outdoor on some beautiful routes. I rode with my team, with my friends, at lunch time at work, and many solo trips. I have learned that I truly love riding. It is very empowering! I thought running was raw power and it is; however, riding on a bike that you are clipped in on the pedals, you become one with the bike and your legs are the engine. Raw power! Fun!
So now, I have worked on my swim and bike. I know how to run. Training is going well. That is what I thought until I had some medical procedures done as a follow-up to some blood work where my thyroid decided to ping outside of some normal levels. I had an enlarged thyroid, known as a goiter. I had it for a while. I remember as a child hearing that I had a large thyroid as doctors palpitated for swollen glands and such during exams. No big deal apparently throughout my childhood and adulthood. That is until December 2013 when my levels pinged the attention of my new primary care doctor. A few referrals, blood tests, scans, and ultrasounds later, it is determined that I have a naughty thyroid that must be removed. The thyroid was harboring some nodules that were identified as “suspicious”. When that word is tossed around in layman’s terms, we all can guess that this means it could be cancer. I was scheduled for surgery for a thyroidectomy and lymph node dissection. I chose to schedule this surgery 2 days after my marathon. What a wonderful time to do this right? Right after a kick-ass race and I need to recover from race day…might as well throw in a surgery and get some true rest and relaxation. The surgery would take me out of Ironman training for a few weeks. Not ideal, but it was necessary.
The surgery proved to be the best decision made because they did find papillary carcinoma that appeared to be defined to only the thyroid and one lymph node. Not as bad as it sounds but it is still devastating to hear such a harsh cold diagnosis. I won’t go into all the details of the diagnosis and such because to be honest, I am not defined by a label or disease. I knew I had to recover properly to get back to quality training. I also knew that further treatment was in my future. I had to plan treatments around training and racing because I had a few more races that were added along the way. What better way to train for a full distance triathlon then to sign up for a sprint triathlon, even better, a half Ironman distance (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run). Makes sense, right? Of course it does. But now I have to squeeze in recover from surgery, treatments, dietary restrictions required for said treatments that were not conducive to fueling properly for training, and then of course race day.
I made my way through all the races on my calendar with several added in under the label of “training races” which all served purpose for the big A race…Ironman Lake Tahoe! It was approaching showtime.
September 19, 2014: I checked in to the Expo at Squaw Valley Resort for the IMLT athlete check-in. So many badass triathletes all in one place! Amazing and inspiring. We each had a story and a purpose and I know we all trained very hard to get to this day, this weekend. But we all had that unsettled feeling in our guts. It wasn’t race jitters only, it was the threat of the race being cancelled due to a wild fire that was started a week prior. The fire was at over 87, 000+ acres burning and growing. High winds, plush forests, homes and structures lost, injuries, exhausted resources, and extreme drought conditions make this fire a monster.
Athlete check-in was completed. I attended the mandatory meeting where very important rules, expectations, and strategies were shared by Ironman staff. Great info to know! I was ready to race.
September 20, 2014: This is the day that bikes are required to be checked in and our gear bags dropped off in the respective transition areas. I felt like I was planning for a wedding and this was the day before the wedding. Dropping off the gear and bike was fun for me because it is my first Ironman. There was much to take in, so much to learn outside of training. I completely enjoy things like this. I made some friends in the process. Saw the excitement in the eyes of the volunteers. Very exciting. At the same time, we are concerned as we see the smoke entering back into the area. It was just like in the movies where you see an ominous cloud rolling in quietly from the mountain tops crawling down the sides into the valley. Dramatic?? No, it really did look like that. It was kind of cool but scary. Would we race tomorrow? According to race officials, we were still a go as winds were predicted to blow east clearing things up for race day and the day after. We kept our eyes on the updates. We are still a go for race day.
My wonderful husband, Sherpa extraordinaire, and I had to go back home and pack up to get up to the condo that we are sharing with our teammates who are also racing. A lake condo filled with triathletes ready for race day! I’m sure you already can guess that some shenanigans were had. But the details and specifics are confidential. Off to bed we go uncertain if the smoke will blow back out. As we begin to slumber, we can still smell and taste the smoke. It’s rolling back in. AGAIN.
September 21, 2014: SHOWTIME! No more trainings, practices, nutrition trials, and gear collecting. This is it. Race Day. Today I will be an Ironman. Now that sounded arrogant I suppose but I trained very hard for this day. With all the set backs and restarts, I trained hard and knew that I had the strength and fortitude to finish the race. Now it was time to show my fellow triathletes on the course what I had. Would I place on the podium? I am in a competitive age group so most likely not the first time out. Would I qualify for a covenanted Kona spot? Even more confident that I wouldn’t my first time out with all other factors being equal. I’ve learned to never say never so I can’t say I would NEVER potentially qualify but I was kind of clear on my skills and abilities. I like to keep my first race modest and set a decent baseline.
Sherpa and I head down to the start (T1) where the swim start will take place and then we transition to the bike. We filled up the hydration bottles, counted the fuel on the bike, threw a few more things in the bike gear bag, and headed back to the bike to put on my wet suit.
The temperatures were great! Compared to the inaugural race in 2013, it was a heat wave. It was around 55* with no wind. There was a slight smoke in the air but not chewable. We were still uncertain if the race would be a go but we would have heard by now if the race was cancelled, right? It was 6:25 and time to put on the wet suit. If you have never seen a triathlete put on a wet suit, you have missed out! I would describe it as a combination of skill, coordination, isometric exercises, and pure luck! This is my A race, I really did not want to make a fool of myself (as I usually do) while suiting up. I focused, put one foot in, pulled up the leg roll, then the other foot, pulled that leg roll up…pull, twist, and pull over should bib straps…now for the top, repeat process…and BOOM! Everything in place, pure skill…just kidding, really it was pure luck. Sherpa was highly impressed! He mentioned that I looked like a pro.
It is 6:30am. Time to go to the water and warm up. Lake Tahoe is known for her beauty and clarity. She is also known for her frigid water temperatures. She can be very cold even in the heat of summer. So you could imagine that I was a bit nervous getting in to “warm up” for the swim. As I entered up to my ankles, I smiled and thought the temperature was perfect! I slowly made my way deeper into the water, looking at the sky line watching the morning change from dark to dusk. I could see the Sierras now and knew that after the start of the race what a beautiful sunrise we would have for our swim. I was ready! Let’s get this race going!! I can do this.
I was just about ready to take the “plunk”, yes that’s an official term…to get my face and head acclimated to the water and get a few strokes in when I heard the announcer call all athletes attention. I will spare you the long drawn out details of the 1-2 minute announcement but I will say that I heard these words the loudest “the race has been cancelled”. CANCELLED.
I stood in the water waist deep in shock. I was truly waiting for the “we are just kidding” part of the announcement but it never came. They were not only serious, they were ordering all athletes and unofficial support on the water to get out of the water. As I walked in shock to find my husband, I saw all my fellow badass athletes for some who would fall to their knees in tears to those that screamed descriptive profanity. We were all shocked and in pain. We were breathless in Tahoe.
Athletes were ordered out of the water but advised that they could get their bikes and gear bags and bring it with them or they would be shuttled back to T2 in Squaw where the run transition would have taken place. Additionally, we would be able to pick up our finisher shirts, hat, and medal. Seriously? This is not real, it can’t be happening.
Dazed still we make our way back to T1 where we were now corralled and instructed to remove our timing chips. The athlete wears the device around the ankle and as you progress throughout the course, where you either step over, ride over, or run over mats that register your time and place on the course. This is all set up and matched to the athlete during check-in. To take away this critical tracking device was feeling the pain of the shattering heart break for the first time. It was like a 1-2-3-KNOCKOUT punch sequence. 1-announce the cancellation, 2-tell us to pick up our bikes and gear, 3-take our timing chip, and the KO is hearing that we can go pick up our “finisher” medals.
Like zombies we wadded through herds of athletes still in wet suits and caps to get to my bike. Man, she looked so pretty and ready to go. She was ready to kill it on the course. Sadly, we did not have our day to shine. Feels like we were stood up at the alter on our wedding day.
The walk to the car was filled with theories and opinions on whether the right call was made by race officials. As we tried sorting through our feelings we pass others doing the same, surely the stages of grief have begun. In a sloppy fashion, we load all the gear and bike back in the car and head off to T2, where the finish line is, to pick up my run gear and finisher swag. This is going to be a weird painful drive.
We had to take an alternate route back to T2 as the course was still “coned” for the race. Driving back down the mountain you could see the smoke sitting along the trees gripping like frayed cotton along the hillside. As we approached the town of Truckee, the situation becomes abundantly clear. The sky is full with dense smoke and visibility is less than a half of a mile. Hazardous conditions.
The drive into Squaw was tough with a lot of stop and go traffic littered with athletes riding their bikes. Since Squaw Valley is a resort, many athletes booked rooms there and have been staying there days prior to the race. Some athletes did not have a ride back to the finish line to pick up their gear, so they had to ride. Some protested and raced the course without support. I get it. I felt the same pain and frustrations; however, I would not want to compromise my lungs short term or long term. They did what they felt they had to do. Understandable.
The air quality was extremely dangerous at Squaw that volunteers were wearing masks. Athletes were covering faces with scarves and buffs. The air seemed chewable. As I made my way through the clutter of bags, I reclaimed my run gear and special needs bag. I did a great job making sure it was tightened up and my clothes were still dry after the rain that passed through! I was proud of my self for that, but I digress.
On the way out, I was handed my finisher shirt, finisher hat, and finisher medal. Seems inappropriate somehow that I did not complete 140.6 of extreme endurance to claim my prize. I didn’t feel worthy.
We made our way to the finish line where many were taking photos of what would have been, victory crossing the line. There were no crowds, no announcing the infamous four words “(athlete’s name) You are an Ironman!!”,only the sound of volunteers tearing down the rails and staging area.
The drive back to the condo was uneventful. The group had decided to start immediate therapeutic measures. We made a huge breakfast, served beverages, and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a great time to share our feelings and plan the rest of the day. We decided to all head home where we admittedly would lick our wounds and start our mourning process in silence and alone. We understood what we each were going through but we knew we had to have our own time. It is time to start healing.
As I write this post-race report for a race that never was, I have cried, self reflected, and experienced most of the stages of grief. The World Triathlon Corporation has graciously offered entry into several venues to help those who couldn’t race IMLT. I attempted to get in to the Arizona venue; however, it was snatched up quickly. Logistically and financially I cannot explore the other options. I did use my credit and applied it toward Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015!! The rest of 2015 is penciled in on my mental checklist. I will let you know what I decide to do from here.
What I can tell you is that I have only just begun! I have only started to define myself as an athlete and I went through such a transformation during an extremely challenging time of my life that would sideline many and rightfully so with no shame. It was difficult. I have learned so much about myself with what I can accomplish when I set my sights on a goal. Ironman Strong!
As I close this long recap of my journey to the epic Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014, I would like to state for the record and with all my heart and soul, that I DID EARN THAT finisher shirt, hat, and medal. I earned it, just didn’t have a chance to show my fellow athletes on the course. I will look at my medal with pride and excitement to know that I made it to the start line and was ready to race. I had no doubts. I consider IMLT 2014 the #bestdressrehearsalever!!