You might get what you after….
-Talking Heads, Burning Down the House
In the build up to Ironman Lake Tahoe I had a fantasy: cold, brutal conditions. I don’t necessarily enjoy cold, brutal conditions,however, it seems to affect me less than other people. Coming from a nordic ski background, conditions that require wind-proof underwear are right in my wheelhouse! When I visualized racing Tahoe, in my mind’s eye, I saw snow and cold. But when I went to Tahoe to do some reconnaissance prior to the race – it was the opposite, it was sunny and warm. The funny thing is that even after visiting the race venue in beautiful conditions, I continued to visualize horrible weather. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
About 10-days prior to the race, forecast models began showing a possible cold trough moving through the Sierras bringing cold and moisture. I was making final high-altitude preparations in Mammoth Lakes, CA with fellow pro-triathlete, Matt Russell, and we were absolutely fixated on our smartphones hitting refresh on our weather apps every few hours looking for changes to the forecast models. Matt and I would “high-five” every time we saw the temperatures dip lower and lower. I was particularly excited about the prospect of a cancelled or shortened swim at Ironman Tahoe because that would suit my strengths as a bike-runner. How low would the temperatures go?
As Team Taddonio assembled in Squaw Valley the Thursday before the race, it became clear the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe was going to be held under very interesting conditions. Forecasts were showing for 25-30mph winds the day before the race bringing rain, then snow to higher elevations while water and air temperatures dropped. Woohoo!!! Cancelled swim for sure, right!? As I sat in the pro meeting on Friday, I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the good news. Blah, blah, blah. Drafting rules, course descriptions, blah, blah. Okay, when are they going to announce the cancelled swim? I waited and waited, and the news never came. Keats McDonagal, the race director, seemed to blow off the notion of a cancelled swim. Air temps in the low 30s, water temps around 60 – it’s GAME ON, no cancelled swim.
Are you kidding me! Who does this guy think he is, I thought. Is he a doctor, no! Surely some higher up at World Triathlon Deathstar Corporation would catch wind of these conditions and put a stop to the swim. In reality, I knew that I could survive these conditions just fine, but I was hoping that I could drum up enough faux frenzy on social media to elicit some type of favorable response from the race directors. I posted pictures of the snow, graphs of the dramatically falling water temperature, and everything short of hoaxing an attack from the Abominable Snowman to try to drum up as big as a reaction as I could. But I felt that once I saw the falling water temperatures from UC Davis’ remote observatory on Tahoe City pier, I figured that the water temperatures were falling fast enough that, by default, they would have to shorten or cancel the swim. 52 degrees is the safety cut-off, and water temps had dropped in Tahoe City from 63 to 57 in less than 24-hours. Surely they would fall another 5 degrees the night before the race as air temperatures dropped into the 30s. Well, there is a problem with my calculation – Tahoe City is about 12 miles west of the race start at King’s Beach, and the water temperatures were holding in the 60s there.
When I woke up to frost covering the cars in our neighborhood in Squaw Valley on race morning, I almost went back to bed. Why bother going to the race start on time? No doubt the swim will be cancelled and the race delayed. There was frost on the road for crying out loud! Not safe to race! I leisurely had my race-morning coffee to kick start my GI tract into action and began my ritual of trying to cram about 1000kcal of nutrition into my body that has been used to fasting for the past several months in an attempt to lose weight.
Team Taddonio (my wife and parents), loaded up our car and began the 30 minute drive to King’s Beach. Unfortunately, traffic was backed up considerably and the drive ended up taking about 75 minutes. No big deal, I thought. Why rush to get to the start if they are going to have to delay the start anyway, right? We pulled up to the race site and I jumped out of the car but a cop began screaming at my wife driving the car to move and she drove away before I could unload my gear and nutrition bag from the back of the car. I turned around to see the pro bike rack with nobody in sight at the transition racks. It was empty. On the loudspeakers I hear the echoing words of Mike Reilley, “we are going to allow our pro athletes in the water now…..”
My brazen cocksureness about a delayed start had doomed me! This was like the nightmare you have in which you miss the start gun! I still had to pump up my bike tires, set up my shoes and helmet, load my nutrition on the bike(that was stuck somewhere in the trunk of my wife’s car), go to the port-o-potty, put on my wetsuit, and try to warm up….. All in about 10 minutes! And I still had no idea where my wife drove off to with my bottles full of my Infinit nutrition. I am so screwed, I yelled out loud.
I began yelling and delegating to race volunteers like a genuine prima donna. I NEED HELP! I AM GOING TO MISS THE START! PLEASE HELP ME. Soon I had a team of volunteers around me. Tires were getting pumped. Bike was getting loaded. Cloths were coming off. Wetsuit was going on. I heard my dad screaming over the crowd holding my bag of bottles in the distance. I sprinted over the fence line, grabbed the bag, and loaded up the bike and special needs bags as quickly as I could. “5 minutes until our pro start,” I hear Mike Reilly say on the load speaker. Then I realize in horror that I have to go to the bathroom. Not #1, but #2….. My wetsuit is already on. Noooo! I can’t go #2 in my wetsuit!!! I strip off the top of my wetsuit and sprint back to the dedicated pro port-o-potties. I swing open the door to the first port-o-potty only to have a mid-aged woman sitting on the toilet looking at me awkwardly. “What are you doing! These toilets are for pros,” I yelled. Through the closed door I hear “pros are already in the water!”
I swing open the door of the 2nd port-o-potty only to have a older gentleman scream from inside and pull the door shut. What is wrong with these people!? Why weren’t they locking their doors!!!! Aaaarrgh, I have to go to the bathroom!
Business was attended to – quickly. I threw my wetsuit top on and began jumping fences trying to make a direct Beeline to the race start. 1st fence. 2nd fence. 3rd fence. I hear volunteers yelling at me from behind. Sorry folks, Mr Primadonna has a race to start!
I literally made it to the start line 90-seconds before the start. No stretch cords. No warm up. No stretching. No drills. Just frozen feet in the frost covered sand. The gun goes off and we hurl ourselves into the water.
1hr 1min later my tardy body comes dolphin diving out of the fog covered lake. “10 minutes to the race leader,” I hear someone yell from the crowd. The words meant nothing to me as I starred in awe of the snow covered peaks reaching into the sky above the swim finish banner. My mind snapped back to the reality of the situation when my feet touched the frozen sand. Run!!!!
Transition #1 was the epitome of a shit show. I had meticulously planned my T1 to include a quick change into dry, warm, very aerodynamic clothing. Volunteers emptied the my bike gear bag as I stripped naked desperately trying to dry myself. Again, I go into prima donna mode. I had volunteers putting my socks on, my Santini base layers on, and attempting to pull on my skintight full aero suit. This is where things slowed down. Santini had sent me a special edition full time-trial suit designed for the Australian Olympic Cycling team. The sucker is skin tight and in practice it took me about 60 seconds to put on by myself. However, with frozen skin and partially numb hands, my fingers felt like lobster pincers trying to put the suit on. The sleeves were stuck on my wrists and it took 3 volunteers to peel the suit onto my body. 7 minutes later, I exit the transition tent, awkwardly running in cycling shoes stuffed with toe-warmers and covered with shoe covers. Clap, clap, clap, my shoes numbly pounded the pavement as I eventually got to my lonely bike on the transition rack. “I can’t believe they didn’t cancel the swim,” I thought to my self…..
Time to punch my time clock and go to work….
The bike was extremely tough. Cold, large climbs, frozen nutrition, dodging age-groupers, mechanical issues….Blah, Blah, Blah. I turned the biggest gear I possibly could often pushing my 53×11 on all of flat and false-flat sections. My solid nutrition of Bonk Breaker Bars and Clif Bloks were frozen hard and most of the ride I looked like chipmunk with food wadded up in my cheek trying to defrost the food enough to swallow.
I was able to catch a lot of pros going into T2 and I came into the tent followed immediately by Ironman Champion Matt Russell, World Duathlon Champion Rob Woestenborghs, and AJ Baucco. I was desperate to be the first of us out of the transition tent for a psychological advantage and I decided against putting on my Tri Top and simply left on my Santini base layers. Sorry sponsors -except Santini. Furthermore, my socks were soaking wet and I decided to risk running in them rather that wasting another 30 seconds putting on dry socks. I got out of the transition tent before the guys I came in with and was in 10th place. 2 minutes before I was in 13th place. Progress…
My feet and calves were numb from the cold bike ride and from my experience, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. Better to feel nothing than pain.
By mile 10, I had stopped 4 times to go #2 (sorry for bathroom statistics), and I began to hear foot strikes behind me. I refused to look back and I injected a little bit of pace to make the catch a little more difficult for my pursuer. The foot strikes continued behind me and eventually I saw Matt Russell pull along side of me. I was relieved that Matt was alone and we still had a gap to other runners behind us. I figured at that point that Matt was going to beat me and I told him I would pace him as long as I could. We caught Matt Lieto just before the first turn around at mile 11. Between miles 11 and 13 was a subtle downhill grade which allowed me to pickup my pace. I was struggling a bit on the uphills, but I was really able to turn up the speed on the downhills and get my turn over going. I had decided in the week before the race to run in Saucony Cortana 3 training shoes rather than my usual racing flats. I decided the extra 3oz of weight per shoe would cost me initially, however, after mile 13 my legs would feel fresher and allow me to run harder on the downhills. It worked. By mile 13 I couldn’t no longer hear Matt Russell’s footsteps behind me and I refused to look back to see how close he was. I still thought at that point that Matt would beat me so I figured I would have to run into 7th place, so if I Matt caught me I’d still finish “in the money” in 8th place.
Head down, keep running. I picked up special needs at mile 13 and took on some nutrition that was recently new to me – pure glucose. Glucose is the sugar used directly into your body and is one of the quickest carbohydrates to raise blood sugar. The fuel went to work quickly as I paced my way back into Squaw Valley.
Team Taddonio was cheering hard on the false flat incline back up to the 2nd lap and I was getting splits to the guys ahead of me and it sounded like they were struggling. My stomach issues from the first half of the race were behind me, my feet felt fresh, the glucose was hitting me, and the cheering was getting my mojo going in the right direction. I passed 8th place heading into the second lap. “I am in the money,” I thought. Let’s keep it going and see how much more I can make.
I began running the downhills with fervor running the a net downhill 5k segement between miles 19 and 22 in 16:40… That was my 5k PR from my senior year in cross country. I caught 7th place and 6th place in that stretch and tried to hit them with as an abrupt fast pace as possible to deliver a message that I wasn’t going to be collecting stragglers.
On the last downhill section at mile 23, I saw Matt Russell and he yelled encouragement that Romain Guillaume was less than a minute ahead of me and I could catch him. I was feeding off any encouragement I could and decided that this was going to have to be my finishing kick. Work this downhill section as hard as you can, bridge the gap, and if there was anything left I would have to hit Romain with everything I had. Just was we transitioned off the downhill onto the last 2-mile gradual uphill section, I bridged the gap to Romain and decided to collect myself about 5 seconds behind him. Just far enough where he couldn’t hear me, and long enough to collect myself for one last effort. I heard my mom screaming in the distance and I decided this was it. Hit it!
I went past Romain and for a brief moment he realized I was a pro and he matched my pace. I surged again and went clear into the Team Taddonio cheering section. I was breathing hard and this was the moment in which the altitude training paid off. I was running sub 6:30 pace on this uphill section. If I was breathing hard, Romain had to be suffering. I refused to look back. I imagined that Romain was just seconds behind me and I needed a gap in the last mile. Coming into Squaw Valley, I gave into the pressure and glanced over my shoulder. Void. Romain was gone. I was going finish in 5th place.
I tried to enjoy the final meters as much as I could into Squaw Valley, but emotionally I was about to break down. Every sacrifice I made, my wife made, my family made, paid off. There were no handouts, no gifts, no freebies, no cancelled swim. I had worked for it. It was finished…
I crossed the finish line sat in the first available chair and began weeping. Volunteers thought I was sick or injured, but I was just overcome by the emotion of realizing a dream.
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight, wait ’till the party’s over
Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
(photos coming soon….)