||Inaugural IM Tahoe Race Report
Death Before DNF: A First Timer’s account of IM Tahoe
aka: The 16 Hour battle versus the cold winds of winter
So here it is, my race report. I’ve never actually written one before, but this event was so much to process I decided that getting my thoughts down would help bring closure to an event that has been apart of my life for the better part of 12 months. (For the non Tri-geeks out there, DNF stands for “DID NOT FINISH,” a situation many triathletes consider worse than death.)
3AM. My body woke up like it never has before. The day was finally here; if I played my cards right at the end of the day I would hear Mike Reilly say, “ROBERT YATES, you are an IRONMAN.” There was no bit of tiredness in my body, only anxious energy.
I ate my normal pre race breakfast: a chocolate peanut butter pro bar (~400 calories), 20 ounces of coconut water (~100 calories), a banana and a mocha Clif shot. I washed everything down with about a cup of lemon-lime Scratch Labs.
I threw on some thermal running tights, and top, a sweatshirt over that and topped it off with a beanie. In my mind this was dressing warm, I would soon find out that wasn’t the case.
I was out the door at 4AM with my gracious wife and father-in-law driving me to Kings Beach, the location of the swim start. Ash and her Dad with back to the hotel, for sleep and to prep Ali for the long day of watching Daddy face Tahoe and the elements. By 4:30AM I was waiting at the gates to get in, not all the volunteers had made it yet, so the race directors were not letting athletes into the transition area yet. During this downtime I was able to appreciate what real cold it. The temperature at that point was 32 – 35 degrees; my LA body was chilled down to the bone.
A little later I found Jason off of one of the first transport buses from Squaw Valley, the location of T2 and the finish line. The worse part (up to this point) was getting body marked. Everyone had to undress his or her layers in the freezing air to get marked. Once this over, it was time to go over to transition.
Once the volunteers let us into the transition area, everyone went to do the final prep and check of their bikes. The previous day it had rained and snowed, so most people had covered their bike handles and bike seats with trash bags to keep them dry. For some reason, only the pro’s were allowed to cover their drive trains. I pity anyone who did not cover their seats, because if the did not, the seats were FROSTED OVER. As it was, I put my bento box on my bike before I turned it in; all of my Clif Blocks were frozen solid. Thinking they would thaw out later I got in line with Jason to have a bike tech pump my tires. After getting my tires inflated and re-lubing my chain and derailleur with Jason, we were able to mercifully enter a heated rec center to stay warm.
If the rec center there wasn’t much to do except hydrate, potty and talk to other athletes. Jason and I ended up talking to three first time Ironman triathletes from Minnesota. Besides the accents, a couple of things stood out about these three. First, they had completed in several triathlons but had NEVER SWAM IN THE OCEAN, only lakes. This blew my mind as they asked questions about stingrays and sharks. I take for granted sometimes the benefits of living in SoCal. Next, the two girls of the group had written on each of their hands in Sharpie, “DEATH before DNF.” This motto would stick with me for the rest of the day.
With about 15 minutes before the pro’s ran into the lack at 6:30AM, Jason and I suited up, dropped off our morning clothes and headed to the lake.
I had debated all of the previous day on whether to wear a full, or sleeveless wetsuit. I had practiced all season in a sleeveless suit with much success. Additionally, due to travel timing and a wind advisory on the Saturday before the race, I was unable to get into the lake before race morning. Not wanting to DNF due to cold before the race, I opted to wear the full suit. This turned out to be a great idea, because though the sun was beginning to come up, it was still FREEZING outside. It was so cold; everyone was EXCITED about running into the shallow part of the lake where the water was below 60. The only thing worse than the cold was the sand. The sand was arguably colder than the air temperature seeping precious heat out of your feet. I did some warm up of swimming and then sat on my bottom with only my head exposed waiting for the pro’s to take off.
Before I move to the race itself, I have to take a minute to describe the beauty of Lake Tahoe. The water is unbelievably crystal clear. The clarity of the water allowed you to see 70 plus feet.
At 6:30AM, with the sun rising over the snow-capped mountains, and with steam coming off the lake, the pro’s were off, first the men, then the women. The way IM Tahoe worked was age groupers seeded themselves near signs that predicted their swim times. At this point I had lost Jason, the warm up would be the last I saw of my friend until the run. I seeded myself at the back of the 1:21 – 1:30 finish sign. I saw no incentive to pushing myself on the swim and decided I would take it easy, hopefully leaving gas in the tank for the rest of the day.
As I the athletes in front of me started moving, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s Can’t Hold Us starting blasting on the loud speakers. Energy coursed through me, the cold stopped bothering me and I tried to visualize my race one final time as I entered the water at around 6:45AM.
The first 200 yards or of the beach are too shallow to dolphin dive, so everyone is reduced to wading until the water suddenly drops to waist level. Once the water hit my waist I dove and began to swim. The beauty of the swim roll out was I was able to start my swim without fighting, punching or kicking. I eased into my stroke, found someone to draft off of and started to eat away at the 2.4M swim.
Minus getting clobbered by a pro on their second loop around the course, my swim went flawless. I used all the skills I had been working on during the Pur Pak swims, sighting, drafting and controlled breathing. I know I was not trying to blow out the swim, but I found the effects of the altitude on the swim to be over stated. I never felt out of breath, actually, because the lake was so clear and I could see everyone around me, I was actually able to switch to a every 4 stroke breathing pattern instead of my normal every 2 strokes. Additionally, once you were maybe 300 yards from shore, the water was actually in the mid 60’s, much like the water at Tower 26 this season. On the second loop I was actually afraid I was going to over heat in the full wetsuit.
I finished the second loop and ran towards to swim finish arch. I finished right on target.
Race time: 1:29:39
Pace: ~2:21 /100m
Little did I know that the swim would be the last time anything would go according to plan. I stepped out of the water and began my battle with the cold. Immediately upon exciting the water and hitting the sand the cold hit you, and it hit hard. By the time I make it up to hill to transition I was frozen. I was so cold I was disoriented. I wandered to the big bag pickup and a volunteer looked at my swim cap then pointed to my bag. I started hobbling towards the changing tent and 3 volunteer asked, “wet suit strip?” I nodded yes; I knew I was too cold to get the wetsuit off myself. The volunteers lifted me up, laid me out horizontally and within a few seconds had my wetsuit off and folded up for me. Wearing nothing but speedo’s I ran into the changing tent.
The changing tent looked like a Roman Bath house, except everyone looked frozen and disoriented. I waited for a seat to open up then sat down. Even though the tent was heated I still felt like a Popsicle and was still disoriented. Good bless the volunteers though. A volunteer dumped out my bike bag, placed the wetsuit in it and LITERALLY dressed me. The only thing the volunteer didn’t do was put chamois butter on me, everything else you could think of, he did. This was a godsend as I was still out of it due to the shock of the cold. I exited the changing tent with chattering teeth even though I was wearing all of my winter gear: a thermal beanie, 2 pairs of cycling gloves, cold weather jersey, cold weather bib, thermal vest, thermal arm warmers and wool socks.
With my teeth chattering uncontrollably, I took off to attack the bike course.
T1: SWIM-TO-BIKE – 21:00
I would like to think that the bike is a strength of mine, with all of the work I have put in during the past 12 months, but on race day this was not the case.
I was frozen and feared the start of hypothermia. I could not feel my feet, let alone my toes and the feeling in my hands ended where my fingers began. I knew what this meant. My body was diverting warm blood from my extremities back to my core. This was bad. I couldn’t manipulate my fingers, meaning I couldn’t eat, and could barely drink while riding. I looked at my bike computer and though my perceived rate of exertion was high, I was barely spinning at 14 mph. At least my teeth had stopped chattering. I pulled over and ate a Bonk Breaker and some shot bloks. My nutrition plan called for me to eat about 2200 calories on the bike, excluding liquid calories, this was a bad start. I got back on my bike and started to battle not only the course, but also the dark place in your mind that whispers to you to quit.
Unfortunately, for about the first 40 miles I was not able to force the darkness out of my mind. Dark thoughts filled my head. I imagined the disappointed looks of Ashley, her parents and of Jason. Visions of Ashley telling Alistair, “Your Daddy quit because he got cold, he’s a bigger baby than you.” What would that make me? I prepared for a year then couldn’t finish? The thought of not finishing physically pained my body. You would think such thoughts would ENCOURAGE you not to quit. That was not the case. I came close several times to quitting, but something in my heart wouldn’t let me DNF. Those same thoughts, disappointed faces and visions of Ali began to become fuel. I told myself to keep swimming, and I did. If I was going to DNF, I was not going to be from quitting.
Next thing you know I am at the beginning of a long serious of climbs. These climbs were legit, long grueling climbs with spikes of 10-12% grades multiple times over the climb. A very Tour de France style course area, there are steep pitches and a ton of switchbacks scattered across the course. After making through the first series of climb of Martis Camp I was finally able to take my vest off for the first time but the cold had already taken its toll. The first 41 miles took me roughly three hours, doing the math it wasn’t hard to see that I was already in a deep hole. To make matters worse, after descending from the first round of tough climbs from the Martis Camp, I was then treated to a grueling climb of Brockway Summit at an elevation of 7,179 feet. This climb on the first time around already looked like a death march. People were zig zagging up the hill and there were people that were already walking their bikes up the hill, ON THE FIRST OF TWO LAPS.
I put myself in my lowest gear and slowly made it up the hill. Under normal circumstances, an LA like temperature, not having swam before, etc., I don’t believe the climbs would have been that challenging, scaling Brockway is not scaling MT. Baldy or Cloudburst Summit – but these weren’t normal conditions. After getting to the top of the hill athletes were treated to a steep, fast downhill on a newly paved road. The first time round down the hill I exercised caution and keep my downhill speed around 39-40 mph. After reaching the bottom of the hill I returned to King’s Beach to start the loop all over again.
Better fed and much warmer, mentally and physically the second loop went much better for me; however, I never reached the groove I found on so many of the grueling training rides I did with Jason this past year, my second wind or extra gear never kicked in. Though I felt much better, I knew I was not riding like I trained. I “quickly” found myself back to scaling up Brockway. At this point I was just focusing on staying positive and wasn’t paying attention to timing or cut-offs. At the top of Brockway I spoke to a volunteer director and she told me I beat the second cutoff by around 10 minutes. I started doing the math and realized that based on the pace I had averaged all day, to make the over bike cutoff I was going to have to pedal like my life depended on it. I thought of the three Minnesotans Jason and I met earlier in the day. Death before DNF, I get it now. I decided at that point that if I were to DNF on the bike it was because I was getting scrapped off the rode. I have never been a fearless descender like some of my training partners, who I am convinced would easily hit mid – low 50’s on the Brockway decent, but I decided I needed to make up as much time as possible to make the cutoff and I would kill myself if I missed it by a minute or two that could have been made up during the descent. I drank the last 5 Hour Energy I had on me, a double espresso Clif Shot, got on my drops, and flew down the hill. Unlike the previous trip downhill I didn’t break and was right below 50 mph the entire time. I made it back to Kings Beach and pedaled back to Sqauw Valley like I was a triplet of Belleville.
Powered by a ton of caffeine and a healthy fear of failure, I made it back to Squaw Valley. This was the first time I would see Ali, Ash and my in-laws. Words cannot describe how uplifting it was to see them, in the cold, with smiling faces, cheering me on. I made the bike cutoff with roughly 4 minutes to spare. With the swim and bike done, only the marathon stood in my way.
TOTAL: 112 miles
SPLIT TIME: 8:26:04
PACE: 13.38 mph
Compared to T1, T2 was a breeze. I was mostly excited to be off the bike. Once I entered the changing tent I was shocked to see how many other athlete’s Run Bags were still waiting to be collected. It appeared I wasn’t the only person having a bad day. After an uneventful T2 where I actually dressed myself, I popped my second to last 5 Hr energy and headed out onto the course.
T2: Bike To Run – 14:26
My marathon training I used for the LA Marathon was the Hanson Method. In a nutshell a huge component of their training method is that you are always running, especially on your long and tempo runs, on fatigued legs. So, knowing how my body dealt with that, I knew if I kept my heart rate under 140, I would be good to go.
The run course consisted of one large loop of 18 miles and then the balance in the second, shorter loop. We would run along the Truckee River after a short steep climb and a longer, also decent climb, out to Truckee then back to town. On the second shorter loop I would still have to do both climbs. After such a hilly bike, I was fired up to have to do more climbing, really fired up.
Mile after mile the pace I was able to keep while staying under my target HR became worse and worse until I settled it in around 11:30 a mile. Factoring in the fact that I walked through aid stations to eat and walked up hills, my over pace would end up being much slower. I would never finish though if I had not drank coke and ate a handful of chips and pretzels at each aid station. At this point in the day, after 8 hours of gels and shot bloks, my body was not open to me eating them any more.
The sun began to set a few miles into my run dropping the temperature. I took my Brooks winter vest and running gloves out of my belt and continued a run that would only get colder. (If anyone is looking for a new belt, I got a Salomon Advanced Skin S-LAB belt that I am pretty obsessed with) When I was around mile 6 I finally saw Jason who was around mile 12. He looked a little worse for the wear but I was happy to know he was still trucking and hadn’t DNF’d. Historically, when I do longer races with Jason I tend to be a bad luck charm; the two previous 70.3’s we did together Jason suffered a broken derailleur and on the other a busted spoke that forced him to DNF. So I was pretty happy to see him. We started triathlons together, learned to freestyle swim together, became cyclists together, after he broke his foot and I broke my ankle, re-learned to run together – it would have crushed me if we could not become Ironmen together.
The run was uneventful outside that fact that the longer I ran the colder it was became. Even with my gloves, vest and thermal base layer, the cold was back trying to break me down. Around mile 10 shortly before the run special needs, the circulation in my hands was becoming compromised and it was becoming harder and harder to hold my running bottle. I stashed the bottle in my belt and made my way to special needs. My special needs bag contained only one thing, a red bull. Having killed all of my 5 hour energies and not being able to stomach any clif shots, the red bull was my last opportunity to supercharge myself. I would end up sipping on the can for the next 6 miles.
The end of mile 17 would bring me back through the Village where I was able to get my spirits raised by Ash and the family again. I would also here Mike Reilly telling others the words I so desperately wanted to hear. On the way out of town I would start to zone out, and not in a good way. My average pace was slowly starting to creep up and the dark places started expanding in my mind again. Though mathematically, I had enough time to power walk the remaining 8.2 miles, I periodically wondered if I could even manage that. Around this time I found my marathon angel, Russ Trice. I had never met Russ before; at the time I didn’t even know he was LATri. I don’t remember who said what to whom, if I asked or he invited me, but we decided to pace off one another. It may sound trivial, but Russ became the human metronome I needed to stay on beat. We decided to walk aid stations and walk up hills on this, the longest “short” loop in my running history.
Russ and I chit chatted, which helped take our minds off the now freezing air temps, the two final climbs we had to do and the fact that our bodies’ were utterly exhausted. However, slowly but surely we were chopping the remaining miles down until there will only three. WE WERE HEADED BACK TO TOWN. We could see the lights of the finish line through the night mists; I knew we were almost home.
On the way back Russ said something that stuck with me. He explained to me in my zoned out state, that being out all day was hard on the fans too, and that we owed it to the people in the village to finish strong, to run the final bit to the finish line. I agreed, I didn’t know how I was going to get the energy to pick it up once we got back to the village but I would try.
We were finally at the village, and as Russ predicted, a wave of energy filled me and I ran faster than I had for several hours through the village. As I turned the corner and saw Jason and his wife, bundled up and cheering me on. As I made my way down the finisher chute something unexpected that I could not control happened, I started crying. I started crying tears of pure joy, pure satisfaction, of pure accomplishment. I walked across the finish line as I heard Mike Reilly say, “Robert Yates from Beverly Hills, a first timer, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.”
I crossed the finish and a volunteer gave me a moon blanket and my medal, I turned, waited for Russ to cross and gave him a huge hug.
I did it, I was an IRONMAN.
RUN TOTAL – 5:16:36
PACE – 12:05 mph
RACE TIME: 15:47:45