I drove a combined 16 hours to and from Lake Tahoe to experience the likely weather conditions for the inaugural 2013 Ironman on September 22.
Was it worth it for only about five hours of training?
If you’re one of the lucky folks who signed up for Ironman Lake Tahoe before it sold out, you won’t regret that choice. Your lungs, however, may protest as they yearn for air at 6,000-plus feet in the Sierra Nevada.
First, a full disclosure: I did not get to ride the entire bike course (part of it is situated in a gated community) nor did I finish a full run loop on the Truckee River bike path. But I traversed enough terrain to offer some perspective that I hope can help my fellow IM Lake Tahoe racers prepare a little better.
Even though you’ll be sharing with 2,500 of your new best friends on race day, I am confident that the lake swim at King’s Beach may ultimately rank as your all-time favorite. It is certainly my favorite after swimming in the calm, comfortably cool and crystal clear water. The air temperature around 7 in the morning hovered near or just over 50 degrees. Yet the water felt at least 10 degrees warmer, negating my need for a neoprene cap. The surrounding scenery is every bit as pretty as Ironman Coeur d’Alene, but without the worries about shivering and cramping in the icy water. Perfect! Better still, the beach is not rocky, you can see to the bottom several hundred yards out and it’s incredibly easy to spot feet in front of you to draft. The water level is knee-high or less for about 50 yards from the shore, so stronger swimmers may have to decide whether to fight for position at the front and run straight into the water or even dolphin kick. The one drawback is that for those not used to racing at elevation, you will probably feel a little more winded from exerting that kind of effort. I tried it out myself and it took a few minutes of swimming to finally catch my breath after sprinting as far as I could into the lake. The swim will be two loops with an exit and re-entry, so I recommend taking some extra time practicing doing that quickly during open-water training sessions.
After reviewing the data from my Garmin 910x, my coach surmised that this could be a faster bike course than Ironman Canada, Ironman Mont Tremblant and even Ironman 70.3 Boulder. Knowing that we’ll climb Brockway Summit twice, an approximately 1,200 feet ascent over nearly four miles to an elevation of 7,300 feet, I have my doubts but hope he’s right. There will be about 6,000 feet of total climbing on the Ironman Lake Tahoe course, which feels closer to 8,000 feet for those of us not used to training at elevation. The Brockway Summit grade fluctuates between 6 and 11-plus percent, so keep that in mind when you’re practicing those hill repeat intervals. And the part of the course that is not open to the public features more climbing.
Fortunately, much of the beginning of the course is flat or downhill on fresh pavement with little wind. It wasn’t until riding on Highway 89 towards Truckee that I noticed a headwind fighting against what would have otherwise been a downhill rocket ride. I’m currently testing a pair of ENVE 6.7 clincher road wheels, and they performed admirably in the wind on the course, except for the twisty descent from Brockway Summit towards the end of the course loop. If you’re uncomfortable feeling like your bike is shaky from cross-wind gusts, I would consider avoiding deeper-dish wheels.
Weather-wise, the temperature warmed up fast throughout the ride. Around 9 a.m. it was in the low-mid 60s and by the early afternoon I was wishing I hadn’t worn a long-sleeved jersey as the mercury tickled 80 degrees. I’m now planning to wear a tri kit with light arm warmers I can easily remove as the day goes on.
Were it not for the elevation, the Ironman Lake Tahoe marathon route would probably rank among the faster Ironman courses. Again, I didn’t run the entire loop, but of the six-plus miles from the Squaw Valley Resort down the bike path along the Truckee River, most of it was flat. There are a couple mild grades around the first 3-4 miles, but nothing that should feel too disruptive to your pacing. What may be a distraction though is the scenery. While some racers have vented on message boards at the marathon being turned into a two-loop course instead of a picturesque trip along the lake, there’s still plenty of beauty to go around. Picture a river so still that the reflection of the pine trees in the water could pass for the sky if you were doing a handstand. It’s mesmerizing. So much so that you might barely notice what appears to be a lengthy false flat section on miles 5-6. I remember checking my pace with my friends, wondering why we seemed to be going so slow despite our heart rates steadily climbing into the tempo zone. Our suspicion was confirmed on the trip back to the resort and the relief of a steady descent, which you’ll need climbing back on the main road to the resort for the finish. Fortunately, that uphill portion is very short, but it may take its toll by the end of the race.
I ran in the morning, so I can’t offer an accurate assessment of what the temperature will be late in the afternoon on the course. That said, there’s plenty of shade along the route, and I noticed at sunset that the chill sets in fairly quick. I plan to pack a long sleeve shirt in my special needs bag just to be safe.
My biggest takeaway from the run itself was that my heart rate didn’t accelerate that much more than from being at sea level, where I typically train. Sure, my resting heart rate was almost 20 beats per minute higher at certain points of the trip. But during the run, even when I accelerated for a few mile-long bursts, I wasn’t any more winded than I’d normally be after a hard run. For that reason alone, the trip was extremely beneficial.
When my friends and I weren’t training, we were checking out where to stay and eat. Squaw Valley Lodge and its shopping village were the highlight. Unfortunately, the lodge itself is already booked – as is most everything in the Lake Tahoe area by now (check VRBO.com for any lingering deals). If you can find lodging, I recommend staying in Squaw Valley itself as there will likely be shuttle service from there to the Ironman swim start and the race ends in Squaw. Plus you’ll be closer to Fireside Pizza Co, which is in the lodge complex and makes carb-loading a sheer joy. The portions are generous, the pizza is outstanding and the beers are varied. Closer to Kings Beach, we enjoyed Las Panchitas Mexican restaurant, which is across the street from the lake. The fajitas were solid.
I’ve been second-guessing the wisdom behind signing up for Ironman Lake Tahoe when I don’t live at or train often at elevation. But, after experiencing the course – it’s beauty, the weather, the elevation, and a few of the restaurants – I’m downright excited. The altitude will be a factor, but the swim and scenery alone should make Ironman Lake Tahoe an athlete and family favorite for many years to come.