IMLT – Race Report Part 2 – Swim

I HAD a plan to raise $10,000 for some awesome organizations by Sept. 22, 2013 – the day I RACED in Ironman Lake Tahoe. Thanks to you, we’ve reached both of those goals. I am now officially an Ironman, and we raised $11,052! The winners of our last fundraising activity will be notified soon.

For the next few blog posts, I’ll be giving the race report for the inaugural edition of Ironman Lake Tahoe. I started with the Prologue, today is the Swim, and I’ll follow up with the Bike, Run, and Epilogue posts over the next several days. Patience, grasshopper.

Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013 – Race Report Part 2 – Swim

We left off the Prologue with a bit of a personal shock: Katy Perry gave me a solid dose of morning motivation.

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar

The Kings Beach area was an absolute zoo, so we wove our way through neighborhood streets, found a decent place to park, grabbed my gear, and began the hike to the swim start and T1 area. It was dark, freezing cold, and there were thousands of us all headed to the same place. I was getting into my mental pre-race place, with that darn song echoing through my head… “Eye of the tiger… fighter… I am a champion… you’re gonna hear me ROAR!

I flashed my blue Ironman wristband, peeled off the layers so the volunteers could write my numbers and age on my arms and calf – kind of funny, because I would be wearing arm and calf sleeves all day and they would never show… but rules are rules.

Next stop: finish prepping the bike. I went to take off the plastic bags I had put on the handlebars and seat yesterday to keep them dry – recall the monsoon that hit when I checked in the bike the previous day. Taking them off was an, um, interesting prospect as they were completely frozen solid. Seriously. Literally frozen to the bike. After breaking them off the bike I gave the chain a thorough lubing, added the water bottles filled with Skratch Labs hydration, and filled up my front aero bottle with a steaming hot Zipfizz concoction – I was thinking it would be nice to have a warm beverage the first several miles of what promised to be a bitter cold bike ride.

After the bike was ready to rock, I headed over to the bike gear bags, removed the placeholder rock from the bag, and inserted the bag containing my cycling gear. The only thing left to do: take off the warm clothes and put on the wetsuit. That was a quick process, and then we all began the mass migration toward the lake shore for the race start – still wearing my fleece-lined slippers and sipping on coconut water.

Just me and a couple thousand of my closest friends for the day trying to stay warm and not psych ourselves out looking over the 2-loop swim course.

Just me and a couple thousand of my closest friends for the day trying to stay warm and not psych ourselves out looking over the 2-loop swim course.

I thought I was going to be nervous… but it was too cold to be worried about the swim at this point; I was more worried about not losing a toe to the cold! And the snow staring at us from the mountains, not that far above us at all, though quite beautiful, was an omnipresent reminder of just how cold a day we were in for…

At 6:30am the canon BOOMED to signal the start for the pro men – they sprinted out into the water and began their rapid domination of the swim course. Nobody came running back out, and they seemed to be doing just fine. We all were going to be just fine in that water… and in a strange turn of circumstance we were all very eager to get out there as the water was MUCH warmer than the air. I gave up my warm slippers and hydration, made the final decision on goggle selection (it was still quite dark, so the light blue lenses would serve me better than the dark tint), and began the waiting game. Standing in the freezing cold sand.

No nerves for the swim this race. We were calm, cold, and ready to start our loooong day in the cold.

No nerves for the swim this race. We were calm, cold, and ready to start our loooong day in the cold.

The pro women started at 6:35am, a quick singing of the national anthem followed, and then we mere mortals, the age group athletes, had our chance! The race was originally supposed to be a mass start – the gun goes and all 2,700-ish would race into the water at once in a chaotic mass. Due to the anxiety many triathletes have regarding the swim (myself included) they’ve begun what they call the ‘SwimSmart Initiative‘ for several Ironman races. In most short-course and 70.3 races the race begins with wave starts every few minutes based on your age group. At Lake Tahoe they opted to use a rolling, self-seeding start. You queued yourself up based on your anticipated swim time (volunteers were holding signs with general time brackets) – I hung out near the back of the 1:20:00 to 1:30:00 swim group – and at 6:40am we all began our migration toward and into the water.

I arrived at the timing mat near the water edge at about 6:50am – which means my times for the day would be 10 minutes after the start of the age group competition, and 20 minutes after the male pros. My race time had officially begun, and we all began our steady march into the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe.

As the sun poked over the mountains, a steady mist began to rise off the lake. Near the shore it was nearly impossible to see 10 feet in front of you, let alone see the swim buoys… so the best we could do was swim along with everybody else, spot every several strokes and watch for a buoy that was certain to emerge from the mist at some point, and adjust where required.

A beautiful morning at the lake. The early morning mist would start off looking benign... but would later become a soupy mess as the sun came up.

A beautiful morning at the lake. The early morning mist would start off looking benign… but would later become a soupy mess as the sun came up.

Due to the rains the previous day and the cold temperatures, the water nearest the shore was a bit chilly. As we swam farther out into the lake, though, the temperatures began to warm up and became quite comfortable. Not a bathtub by any stretch, but certainly better than standing on 32 degree sand!

I tried to get into an early groove. Slow and steady… breathe from the right side… spot for the buoys every 4 breaths… Eye of the tiger… fighter… I am a champion… you’re gonna hear me ROAR…

But a couple hundred yards into the swim I couldn’t catch my breath. The suit wasn’t constricting my chest. I wasn’t swimming too fast. I wasn’t having the usual anxiety attack in the early part of the swim. What was going on? I stopped, looked around, tried to recompose myself, took a couple of breaststrokes and sidestrokes, and resumed swimming. But it happened another 50 yards or so later. Repeat the process every 50 to 100 yards. This was not a great start… not a great start at all… At one point I grabbed onto the kayak of a course volunteer to gather myself.

The Ironman Lake Tahoe swim course. Swim out about 1/2 mile, turn left and swim a couple hundred yards, swim back about 1/2 a mile toward shore... take a left turn and repeat. 2.4 miles of swimming crystal clear waters.

The Ironman Lake Tahoe swim course. Swim out about 1/2 mile, turn left and swim a couple hundred yards, swim back about 1/2 a mile toward shore… take a left turn and repeat. 2.4 miles of swimming crystal clear waters.

As I neared the first turn a swim safety raft was anchored. I grabbed hold and stopped for a second to gather myself once again, and loosened up the velcro fastener at the neck of my wetsuit. Suddenly I could breathe and catch my breath! Dammit! I thought I had fastened it loosely enough while on shore! I started swimming again with ease… a moderated pace at first, and then accelerating as I made my way around the first turn. The swim went from being incredibly difficult and something I was just going to work through… into being a lot of fun!

I rounded the second turn and fell into a solid groove. I was feeling great!

Eye of the tiger… fighter… I am a champion… you’re gonna hear me ROAR…

I started passing other swimmers by the droves. I fought off a swimmer that was angling toward the middle of the swim course and cutting a bunch of us off – come on, dude, spot every once in a while! – and resumed my swim after a quick curse. After a few minutes the mist started to build back up, the water temperature dropped, and the bottom of Lake Tahoe could be seen through the crystal clear waters – yep, shore was approaching and the end of lap 1 was near! I made the left turn at the buoy… and the water was shallow enough to stand up! Nice! I took a second to stand up and look around. The crowd on shore was cheering loudly, cowbells and airhorns echoing off the water. Yeah. This was pretty stinking awesome!

Most of the swimmers opted to take advantage of the shallow water and walk the 100 yards or so along the front stretch; I kept on swimming and darted by them all. It might be nice to walk, but it was slower and used up more energy that I would like to keep in reserve for later in the day. One more left turn and I was headed back toward the middle of the lake.

Lap 2 was fantastic. No angst, no drama, I made it around without stopping or pausing. In fact, I was gaining speed around the course as my confidence was building. Even louder now it coursed through my head:

Eye of the tiger… fighter… I am a champion… you’re gonna hear me ROAR…

And before I knew it, the shore was emerging through the mist and I was done with the swim. I jumped up out of the water, unzipped my wetsuit, ripped my goggles and caps (yes, I double-capped to keep my head warm) off my head and left them in my arm sleeve as I pulled the top of the wetsuit off inside out, running through the timing mat and toward the transition.

Hey, that's me crossing the timing mat as I exit the water! Hellooooo T1!!!

Hey, that’s me crossing the timing mat as I exit the water! Hellooooo T1!!! Time to get down to business!

Boy was it cold!

And boy did I feel like ROARING! I felt good. Damn good.

But, wow, so COLD.

Did I mention that it was cold!?

My targeted swim time was between 1:20:00 and 1:30:00. Even with that horrible first 1/2 mile I turned in a far better time than planned. A solid 1:19:32!

I ran into the transition area, a volunteer told me to sit down as I was taking off the wetsuit – she meant business, so I followed her direction. I sat on the cold asphalt, and she ripped that suit off me in 2 seconds flat. I jumped up, she handed me my suit, and I was off and running. I snagged my bike gear bag, flung the wetsuit over my shoulder, and headed for the changing tent…

And then the race took an unexpected twist. Something insane that I had never expected to encounter…

The story continues, and the twist revealed, in the next blog post: IMLT – Race Report Part 3 – Bike

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