Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014, The Journey of One Girl Towards an Undeniable Finish Line
Lake Tahoe is notorious for having been one of the most challenging Ironman courses in North America and beyond… 1) for the fact that it’s extremely unpredictable as far as weather and conditions are concerned and 2) because it’s situated at 6-7,000 feet of elevation with over 6700 feet of elevation gain throughout the bike course. Needless to say, as a girl from New Orleans, I was terrified of this race for the greater part of a year!
When I arrived in Tahoe, I vividly remember walking over to pick up my bike box at the airport and by the time I had pulled it to the front door, I was out of breath. Great! I figured I was in for a real treat once I had to do actual physical activity. I spent the first day acclimating to my new environment and doing absolutely nothing. It was concerning from day one, when I learned of 2 nearby forest fires, one only about 10 miles away, that were producing smoke that would fill Lake Tahoe and the entire surrounding valley for the coming week. Each day, I tolerated the smoke as it came and was smart about when to call it quits. After all, I was saving myself for race day.
The morning of the race, I woke up to smoke filling the inside of our hotel room and knew that things weren’t looking good. We proceeded to get everything together as normal and took the long shuttle bus ride to race start. When we got there, music was blaring, volunteers were everywhere and it looked like your typical Ironman event: ready to rock and roll! The air surrounding the lake was clear and the water was still, much different than any of the days I had practiced in this “lake” with its 5-foot waves and surfers riding them. Everything was looking great to start the race. We were lined up on King’s Beach, toes in the water, waiting to begin our individual journeys.
The race was literally cancelled about 5 minutes prior to the start, out of safety concerns for athletes, volunteers and the general public. I understand and respect Ironman’s decision to cancel that day, however devastating it may have been to the 1900+ athletes that had traveled from all over the world to be there and made unbelievable personal sacrifices in order to get to that starting line. I’ve never seen so many grown men crying in one place before. It was terrible! I too, sniffled for all of about 5 seconds. Just then, I got that feeling when you just “know” and told myself, “I’m doing it.” Now don’t go thinking I was trying to go against WTC rulings or trying to prove a point to anybody. I wasn’t. I had been dealing with this smoke for the past week and had been smart about not training in it when it got bad. I was saving myself for this one day and I hadn’t come all the way to Lake Tahoe to vacation. I wasn’t going home without a fight. In true ER nurse fashion, I strapped my N-95 mask on and began my journey.
Because of the layout of Lake Tahoe and the mountains, I had a few logistical issues with the flow of my race. I swam in the middle of my bike ride, which is a bit of a change from the usual race day flow. But all in all, the day was extremely pleasant. No pressure, just me and the road and this mission I had set out to accomplish. It’s funny, everyone is so shocked that someone would go out and do this with no crowds and no support. But guess what? That’s what we do every day in training! I don’t always need a man on a microphone (I love you, Mike Reilly!!!) to tell me I’m an Ironman (although I would later get that anyway). Training for these things is the real journey… the every day, silent, long hours that go into even getting to that starting line. So this part was no big deal. I was merely earning the medal that they had already handed out to me (yes, this was the only race I have ever done where I got the medal first and then finished!)
Despite wearing an N-95 mask under my helmet for over 6 hours, the bike ride was really nice. Elevation was not an issue for me, and the hills, well, I had prepared myself way better than I thought! I only stopped breathing (ok, I’m being dramatic) twice on 2 of the bigger climbs and the scenery is SO AMAZING that you almost forget you’re doing work. The smoke got progressively better throughout the course of the day and by the time I was on the run, I didn’t need the mask at all.
The marathon was a special experience. By this time, I was aware that there were a few others out on the course and we had already formed a special bond through waves and cheers. Their people became my people and I found myself with random strangers checking on me well into the night. One thing I learned about running a marathon on a mountain is that it is PITCH BLACK. Talk about not being able to see your hand in front of your face! I even had a light on my race belt, but it was still incredibly difficult to navigate the run path in this environment. Towards the second half of the run, I found myself doing loops around our hotel (yay) so that I could see where I was going. This is about the equivalent of running on a treadmill for me, so that part was not very exciting, but I had to get the miles in. About 5 miles from the finish, I decided to detour up the mountain a bit to where the finish line would have been. To my surprise, I was greeted by bright lights, music and about 20 screaming people. I jokingly said, “Wait, I’m not done!” A “guy named Matt,” now on board as a good friend and one of the best Ironman cheerleaders I know), was there leading the group. He started running with me and asked how many miles I had left. I told him 5, and he said, “Great, we’ll be here waiting for you.” I told him they did NOT have to do that and asked about what family members or friends they had come here to support. He responded, “You. We’ve been watching you all day. We came back here for YOU!” WHAT?!?!?! I couldn’t believe these strangers were getting crazy at almost midnight on a dark abandoned mountain for ME…So I continued to run for almost the next hour with a renewed sense of excitement for my once “virtual”, now very much real Ironman Lake Tahoe finish line.
When I did come in for the finish, I had my very own announcer complete with microphone and loudspeaker, refreshments, an unofficial bedazzled heart necklace and a 1999 Ironman New Zealand bag that one of my new friends had scratched out and scribbled “Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014” in its place. These people were hugging and kissing me like I had known them my entire life. They took pictures and videos and did everything in their power to make the culmination of that initially very disappointing day an incredibly amazing finish! I formed a special bond with them in that moment that has now grown beyond Lake Tahoe. These are my kind of people; these are friendships that will forever remind me that our triathlon community is truly amazing.
As if it couldn’t get any better, two months following the event, on November 14th, my wildest dream came true. Ironman announced a handful of members of the Ironman Lake Tahoe community who had shown up, checked in and signed up for another race in 2015, that would receive the “golden ticket” to race in the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii... and MY name was on that list! I knew that day in Lake Tahoe was special for many personal reasons, but as it turns out, the decision I made to follow my dreams resulted in the ultimate reward. This was Ironman #4 of 9 for me, but definitely the most important and special one of the bunch. I did it for ME. I did it because it’s in my blood and it’s what I had come to do. I’m proud to be the only known female member of the “Unofficial 6” that finished Ironman Lake Tahoe that day. I learned that if you really want to achieve something, be smart, be safe and go out and get it! I’m glad I did.
Never give up,
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