Athletes prepare for Sunday’s challenging Ironman Lake Tahoe | SierraSun.com

Athletes prepare for Sunday’s challenging Ironman Lake Tahoe

Sylas Wright
swright@sierrasun.com

They could be watching football from their couches. Instead, thousands of extreme triathletes will punish themselves for an entire day Sunday for the reward of completing one of the world's toughest races — Ironman Lake Tahoe.

The race returns after a successful, albeit chilly, inaugural event in 2013, when an overnight storm capped the surrounding mountains with snow and left frigid temperatures for the 6:30 a.m. swim start.

"Oh my gosh, it was cold," Truckee's Kara LaPoint said after last year's race start, which she overcame to capture the overall women's age-group title. "It was definitely a different scene than most Ironmans. But it was actually really beautiful when we started the swim, because we could see the snow on the mountains and all the steam coming off the water. It was really picturesque."

There are no early-season snowstorms in the forecast this year. There is, however, a major wildfire near Pollock Pines that has spewed smoke into the Lake Tahoe Basin since Sunday, and has Ironman officials on high alert.

Keats McGonical, operations manager for Ironman, said officials are optimistic smoke from the King Fire will begin blowing west, away from Lake Tahoe, before Sunday's race.

"At this point, everyone is comfortable moving ahead with the event as planned," McGonical said Thursday, not long after breaking from a meeting with various agencies, including Calfire, the California Highway Patrol and Placer County Sheriff's Office. "If conditions change before the event we will adjust accordingly."

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The fire burning west of South Lake Tahoe is growing rapidly in size, and will likely breach 100,000 acres this weekend.

"The safety of athletes and spectators is of course paramount to (Ironman)," Andy Chapman, chief marketing officer for the North Lake Tahoe Chamber/CVB/Resort Association, said this week. "But there is absolutely no indication or thoughts about any kind of cancellations for Sunday's race, nor would there be until race day."

'VERY DIFFICULT COURSE'

Athletes could use all the air they can get. With the entire course situated near or above 6,000 feet in elevation, Ironman Lake Tahoe is arguably the most difficult Ironman on the planet.

It starts with a 2.4-mile swim off the shore of Kings Beach. Athletes then face a daunting 112-mile bike ride with more than 8,000 feet of climbing — a double loop through Tahoe City and Truckee and over Brockway Summit. The race ends with a 26.2-mile (marathon) run along the Truckee River.

Last year's overall winner, Ironman pro Chris McDonald of Australia, needed just under nine hours (8:55:14) to complete the course, while the average participant is lucky to finish in 12 to 14 hours. LaPoint finished in 11:03:01.

"It was a very, very difficult course," McDonald said after last year's win. "Biking over Brockway Summit the second time was incredibly hard. There were just so many factors — from the altitude to the cold morning to the course, Lake Tahoe was awesome."

Fellow Ironman pro Joe Gambles called the course "incredible" after finishing third overall, about seven minutes behind McDonald.

"I've done (Ironman) Wisconsin, which is actually one of the hardest ones, and it was a breeze compared to today," he said after the race. "I hurt today."

'LOVE THE CHALLENGE'

Despite the inevitable pain they will endure, some 3,000 athletes are expected to compete in the Ironman Lake Tahoe or Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe, a half-distance Ironman that takes place the same day and on the same course.

Not surprisingly, many of the participants call Tahoe home. Their reasons vary for their willful participation in such a demanding event.

"It felt like the right time to challenge/torture myself this way," said Robert Wright of Kings Beach.

"I just love the challenge and to compete against other strong athletes," said Donatas Ereminas of Truckee.

"It wasn't really my decision," said Judy Anderson of Carnelian Bay, "my husband Chris signed me up as a Christmas present."

Kevin Murnane of Tahoe City was motivated by his wife, who completed the race last year.

"I got to see her go through the process of training, injury, healing and then doing great on race day. It was inspiring," the 44-year-old said. "Last year's event was on our wedding anniversary and we thought about doing it together. But with two kids we decided that she would do the first year, and I would do this year. That way we could support each other's training and one of us could relax. I really enjoy swimming, riding and running, and what an opportunity to take on a big challenge in our backyard."

Sierra Sun Managing Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to this report.