This is Not a Race Report: Lake Tahoe Triathlon

This is not a race report because there was no race.

This has been sitting in my drafts, in varying stages of done-ness, since the day after we got back. It’s funny trying to figure out what to say about a race that didn’t happen. But in some ways, I still did what I went to Tahoe to do, which was ride up a giant hill on Highway 89 to prove that I could and celebrate with some of the best friends a girl could ask for. Victory?

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We got our first inkling that something was wrong the Friday before the race, via an email from the race organizers announcing that all of Friday and Saturday’s events had been canceled. Wildfires more than a hundred miles away had sent massive amounts of smoke toward Lake Tahoe, and the smoke was now sitting there, dragging the air quality into the unhealthy and potentially dangerous realm. There was hope for Sunday, the email said; the winds could pick up and blow the smoke away, and projections looked positive. They’d let us know on Saturday at noon.

The email came just minutes before Emily and Diana got to San Francisco. Frustrating timing, but it’s not like anything else would have been better: the flights were booked, the Airbnb was paid for, and the girls’ weekend was long anticipated. One way or another, we were going to Tahoe. The next morning, we set off driving, nervously checking email as the noon deadline approached. We got the final word somewhere near Davis: nasty air, no race*.

The organizers promised a party — but we were a little late for that, finding one tray of quinoa salad and a few sad veggie burgers pieces of chicken left in their trays. We scavenged for what might well have been the final free beers, got our goody bags (goggles, cute T-shirts), and wandered down to the lake.

“Well,” said Diana, looking at the deep blue water, “I’m definitely going to be swimming in that.”

That statement set the tone. No, we weren’t going to race. We weren’t going to get a medal. And we weren’t going to get our highly anticipated relay finish photo, the planning of which might have involved purple clothing and the cross-country transportation of a Northwestern porch flag. But we could still swim, bike, and run in Tahoe, as much as the smoky air would let us.

That first afternoon, Diana and I swam a mile in the lake — crystal-blue, totally clear, the biggest bathtub I’ve ever been in. We were staying on the west side of the lake, about halfway between north and south, and when we started out, the smoke rendered the mountains on the eastern shore as little more than hazy outlines. But over the course of our swim, the wind picked up, the smoke blew on, and we were rewarded with clearer views. I could have stayed in that lake for hours, but there were tater tots to eat.

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Instead of rushing around in the wee hours doing race prep, Sunday was low-key. We walked to a bakery, wandered around the lake, and hung out in a sporting goods store instead of using any actual sporting goods. (Bought nothing but tried on Hokas for the first time. Capsule review: Intrigued by the Bondi B’s, hated the other model I tried, felt like a circus clown.) Dinner was salads and sandwiches, with a dessert of Pepperidge Farm cookies, gossip, and Boggle. Not the day we expected but a great one nonetheless.

I’d decided to wait until Monday to ride, hoping for less smoke and less traffic. There was a winding bike path heading north from our rental house all the way to Tahoe City, which I knew would eventually connect to the wide-shouldered segment of Highway 89 near Truckee. But I didn’t want to ride north. I wanted to go south on 89, along the race course and up the hill I’d been training for. I wasn’t sure what riding 89 would be like, but I knew the hill came early, and I at least wanted to give it a good shot. If that was all I was comfortable doing, I could turn around and ride north instead.

Before starting, nervous:

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I biked about a mile from our cabin to 89 and had another two or so of bike path to start. The path was narrow — technically two-way, but I’m not sure how — and I got stuck behind a texting dude for a bit. My relief at losing him when the bike path ended greatly drowned out my fear at suddenly being on a state highway with no shoulder to speak of. The road would have been open during the race — but I think a few hundred other cyclists around me would have helped me feel safer, whether deservedly so or not.

The first bit of the course was quiet, though, with only a handful of cars passing by and one other cyclist heading the other direction. I was on a part of 89 that sits a bit inland from the lake, so I’m not sure if I would have had a view even without the smoke — but with the smoke, I couldn’t see anything beyond the trees lining both sides of the road. They were spectacular trees, though.

Around six miles into my ride, I hit the hill. Pretty quickly, I was in my lowest gear and cranking away. Up, up, up. Around a curve and up. Like Alpine Dam, but with longer stretches between the curves and pines instead of redwoods. The same advice applied, though: Eyes front. Don’t look for the top.

I wish I could say it felt easy. That all my training had clearly paid off, and that I sailed through that 2-mile chunk at 4.7% average grade like it was the little speedbump I cruise up and over on the way home from the ocean. But that would be lies: It was rough. I was working, pushing, breathing hard — some combination of the smoke, the altitude, and the fact that the climb was just f’ing hard. I never hit a stretch that I thought I couldn’t do, and I knew from the tenths of miles that somehow kept clicking off on the Garmin that I was making progress. But it was not fast, and it was not pretty. No style points on that climb.

The downhill that followed was even more of a mess. I was heading toward a couple of major parks and roadside viewing areas, so traffic had picked up, as had the wind. I’m sure I didn’t actually descend as slowly as I’d climbed, but it felt like that. I hope I would have felt safer in race conditions, and a little bit more capable of going downhill without squeezing the brakes so hard, but who knows? I passed some beautiful things I couldn’t look at because I was so focused on the road, and crossed a wild little section with lots of wind and no trees or guardrails where I first thought “I’m done,” and then kept going and ended up in this crazy U-turn-y descent, where I made it through one of the (apparently — I looked it up later) two zig-zags before saying “Nope, I’m really done” and pulling over to a campsite where I could safely unclip and turn around.

The climb back up through that U-turn included the steepest stretch of road I encountered on the whole ride, but once I crested that hill, it was smooth sailing all the way back. This surprised me; I thought I’d have to do a climb similar to the initial one again, just heading the other direction. But I’d misread the map, and I had just one little hill on the return before a flat-to-downhill ride back to the park. There were a couple of scenic overlooks on the way, and as one of the benefits of this non-race, I stopped near Emerald Bay to take it in.

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Back in January, on my birthday, in a hotel room in Dallas, I took a hard look at the Tahoe course for the first time, and I wrote this to Emily and Diana:

To be honest, I’m less than 100% sure that I could do the Tahoe bike course (I’ve yet to climb anything nearly as hard as the biggest climb here — and that’s at sea level!). But, it’s only January, so anything is possible by August. … I guess what I’m saying is that the hills make me want to throw up in my mouth a little but what the hell, in the spirit of OWNING IT during my 32nd year on this planet, I’m in!

In the end, I rode 23 miles — all but about a mile of the course, whatever mile would have come after those sketchy downhill switchbacks — and climbed 2200 feet. It took a little under 1:50, and if I’d raced exactly like I rode the course that day, it would have been my slowest Olympic-distance bike leg by far, as well as my toughest course. (Some might consider Wildflower a tougher Olympic course, but the altitude and the nature of these hills made this one harder for me, and the total gain is about the same on both.) But I’m so proud of what I did. I’m glad I didn’t chicken out, and I’m glad I rode smart — to my edge but not beyond it. And I’m glad I was able to pick up my race shirt, because it has the Highway 89 logo on the back and it makes me smile to think that I rode that on my own.

We spent the rest of our trip in Squaw Valley, passing on the $30+ trip up a mountain in a gondola for lawn games (cornhole, croquet) and Olympic rings-spotting. No, it wasn’t a race. But we still got a weekend outside, an adventure together, and plenty of stories to tell. Who needs a medal when we can have all of that?

And … who wants to bike around Tahoe and/or swim across it? Because now I would like to do both, ideally in a year with no forest fires.

{*And a note about that. My personal, highly unscientific opinion is that canceling the race was the right call. The smoke smell, “feel,” and haze were the worst in the morning on both days we spent in the area, and while I didn’t have any noticeable problems breathing on the ride that wouldn’t/couldn’t have been caused by altitude alone, I was coughing more than normal for a couple of hours after. I know having to cancel a race puts organizers in a tough spot; there’s a lot of money spent that they can’t recover. That said, I think Big Blue Adventure could have done a bit more than they did, at least initially. We ended up with an offer for 50% off registration for any of their events next year, but the initial offer was 25% off the same event only. Bike the West, which had a trans-Tahoe ride the next weekend, transferred registrations to next year’s event for free for any participant who wasn’t comfortable riding in the conditions — even though that event was held. I don’t know their financial situation, and the note specifies that their contract required producing the event no matter what, but I think that’s an impressive response, while Big Blue Adventure’s was more along the lines of adequate.}

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2 thoughts on “This is Not a Race Report: Lake Tahoe Triathlon

  1. Diana says:

    Ok, so I was all I’M IN! to the swim across Lake Tahoe in 2014 before I read two items: one must be a registered Master’s swimmer (ugh, extra $$), and no wetsuits allowed in water temps of 55-60 degrees. Training for that might be tough for a beach chick like me 🙂 But nonetheless, the relay sounds badass and a whole lotta fun.

    I got my bike fit (temporarily), my sit bones measured, and a new saddle ordered: http://www.specialized.com/us/en/ftb/saddles/roadtriathlon-saddles/romin-evo-comp-gel
    I need to order that ride glide, and I think we’ll finally be in good shape. My Lexa’s got some super fun new handlebar tape that will um, stand out in transition.

    My reaction to the paltry offer of 50% off the next Big Blue registration was to sign up for a local oceanfront sprint this coming weekend. I don’t care about my time, I haven’t been swimming or biking really since our trip, but I do want to have a good race experience and cross a finish line! It was sooooo great to see you!!!

    • kimretta says:

      Whoa, I somehow missed the no-wetsuit requirement. I have some friends who did that swim a few years ago, so I’ll have to ask them how cold it actually felt!

      I might end up registering for a master’s team for the next year. TBD. I think I have to swim with faster people to get faster, and short of flying you out here full-time to pull me along, master’s might be my best chance!

      Have fun this weekend! Miss you!

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