Athletes set to race inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe triathlon

Sylas Wright

Triathletes hit the water at the start of the 2010 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. North Lake Tahoe will host California's first full-distance Ironman triathlon since 2001 this Sunday.
Larry Rosa / |

About the time many Tahoe residents assume a comfy football-watching position Sunday morning, some 2,600 triathletes will be thawing out along on a 112-mile bike course, having already tackled a chilling, 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe.

And they’ll be just getting started.

The North Lake Tahoe area is gearing up to host California’s first full-distance Ironman triathlon since 2001 — Ironman Lake Tahoe — which begins in Kings Beach in the wee hours of Sunday morning and wraps up 17 hours later in the Village at Squaw Valley.

It’s kind of a big deal. The race, which sold out all 2,600 entries in 19 hours, has drawn thousands of visitors to the area, providing a significant economic boost in a typically slow time of year. Athletes from 45 states and 14 countries will be represented.

“I think in a lot of ways it’s the perfect venue for us,” Keats McGonigal, race director for Ironman Lake Tahoe, said about the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee area, which has a contract to host the event for three years, with a two-year extension.

“It’s a destination area where people like to come to visit or race. And the spectacular beauty that we’re able to showcase kind of sets it apart. Then, obviously, having Squaw Valley and the atmosphere that we’re going to be able to create at the finish line is going to be a highlight for this event, for sure.”

Like all Ironman events, it won’t be easy. Keats said the Ironman Lake Tahoe course is the highest in elevation among the 12 full-distance Ironman races in North America, ranging from about 6,200 feet at lake level to 7,200 feet atop Brockway Summit.

“Obviously the altitude poses an increased challenge for the athletes, and this course does have some good hills on the bike course that are certainly going to be a challenge,” Keats said.

After climbing out of the water at Kings Beach, fresh off a 2.4-mile swim around a rectangular course, athletes will take to their bikes for the next 112 miles. The bike course, which is circled twice, is a giant loop from Kings Beach through Tahoe City, along the Truckee river and through downtown Truckee, over Brockway Summit and back down through Kings Beach, past Tahoe City again to Squaw Valley. The race ends with a marathon-distance run, 26.2 miles, from Squaw to Tahoe City and back.

Athletes must hit cutoff times on each leg — two hours, 20 minutes in for the swim; 10 hours, 30 minutes after the official start for the bike; and 17 hours total. The first wave of racers starts at 6:30 a.m.

With 50 qualifying slots for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii up for grabs — not to mention a $75,000 professional prize purse — Ironman Lake Tahoe has drawn some of the world’s top pros and age-group participants alike. Big-name pros include Australians Joe Gambles and Chris McDonald, Terenzo Bozzone of New Zealand, Angela Naeth of Canada, and Americans Dede Griesbauer and Jessica Jacobs, among others. All are past Ironman champions.

Along with the stacked pro contingent, more than 20 athletes from the Lake Tahoe and Truckee area are signed up, including 70-year-old Jim Meskimen of Truckee, who competed in the inaugural World’s Toughest Triathlon in 1983 and has completed three Ironman events in three different countries.

Rob Kronkhyte, 57, of Tahoe City also secured himself an entry amid the registration rush. Sunday’s race will mark his third Ironman triathlon. He said he’s as prepared as he’s going to be, having trained on the course “too many times” already. Nevertheless, the reality of covering 140.6 miles in a day remains daunting.

“I am a little anxious, yeah, but I’m ready. I’m a little concerned about the weather, but so is everybody,” said Kronkhyte, as the National Weather Service is forecasting a chance of showers Saturday and temperatures in the upper 30s in Kings Beach Sunday morning. Sunday’s high is 59 degrees. “The temperature is supposed to be cold on Saturday, and there’s a chance of snow on the peaks, which can be crazy scary for swimming.”

Kronkhyte said he’s shooting for 13 hours, allowing himself an hour and 20 minutes on the swim, six hours for the double bike loop, and four and a half hours for the run.

Truckee husband-wife duo Sherwick and Jami Min, meanwhile, will enter the race together, as they have in more than a dozen other Ironman triathlons over the past decade-plus. Both said they feel confident entering the race, particularly after all the hard training they’ve poured into it.

“Actually, not really,” Jami said when asked if she was nervous. “Yes because I haven’t done an Ironman since 2011. But no because we spent so much recon on the course. And we’ve also experienced a variety of weather this year while training, from hot to cold to windy, so we’re equipped and ready to go, no matter what.”

“It varies by day,” Sherwick said of his anxiousness. “But besides the training and all that stuff, mentally I think we’ll be some of the few people out there that will just be enjoying the whole day — because we know this area, and we love the course. We’re going to enjoy every minute of it.”

Sherwick said he thinks he can match his personal record of 9 hours, 52 minutes, which he recorded on an Ironman Austria course that he compared to Ironman Lake Tahoe. Jami is shooting for her own personal record, which is 10 hours, 23 minutes.

“In all honesty, I feel like there’s no reason why I couldn’t have a personal record here, even though everyone else has been saying to expect to be a half-hour slower,” Sherwick said. “I feel like this course is very well suited to us.”

No matter how much time elapses, both Mins said they plan to celebrate their finishes with a pint of Guinness in hand. In fact, a celebratory libation was a common answer among the local participants — right up there with sleep.

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