I think my fingers have finally thawed enough to write a recap of my experience volunteering at the inaugural IRONMAN Lake Tahoe last week. The triathlon section of the interwebz is already abuzz with war stories and post-mortem analysis, but hopefully I can offer a new perspective on the events that transpired in Lake Tahoe on September 22, 2013.
But first, a little backstory… When WTC announced the new IMLT event last year, I was really excited and prepared to sign up for my first full ironman. Fortunately, registration didn’t start until a few days after the initial announcement and had a chance to reflect on my past struggles at altitude…. Swimming a slow 100 yards in Boulder made my lungs burn (FYI, Boulder is ~1,000 ft LOWER than Tahoe)… So I decided to keep that $700 entry fee in my pocket. Many of my friends and teammates did decide to take on the challenge so I planned to support and spectate on race day. It wasn’t long before I found out that the Silicon Valley Tri Club would be manning several of the volunteer positions; body marking, T1 gear bags, and run aid station #1. I immediately signed up to volunteer for body marking and T1 so I could do my part in the morning and have the rest of the day to spectate. When an email came out that the run aid station was still understaffed a few weeks before the race, I signed on to work the 6pm – midnight shift. I knew it was going to be a long and tiring day, but it couldn’t be as hard as racing from 7am until midnight, right?
Now let’s fast-forward to race weekend…
I crammed all my gear and winter wardrobe in the back of my friend’s car and we started the drive to Tahoe. Our first stop was Squaw Valley to meet up with another friend, check out the expo, get some free ART, and people watch. The sun was shining, but the wind was blowing hard. The tents were blown over every few minutes so we abandoned our original plan to ride that afternoon.
After an outrageously expensive lunch at at Rocker ($18 dollars for a tiny scoop of quinoa and a few mushy carrots), we headed to Kings Beach to check in at Hostel Tahoe, our digs for the weekend. The 4am wake-up call took its toll on us, so we set up my hammock on a couple redwoods at the hostel and relaxed for a bit. An afternoon swim was out of the question because the high winds made the lake extremely choppy. I settled on a slow 3.5 mile run for my Friday workout.
The weather on Saturday was even worse than Friday. It was cold, windy, rainy, and eventually snowed. We managed to sneak in a short ride to the beach in the morning on a pair of cruisers we borrowed from the hostel. Kings Beach was a CF because racers were checking their bikes in at T1. The path we were riding on dead-ended at one of the T1 entrances and I joked that we were checking in our beach cruisers. Apparently, the volunteer didn’t realize I was kidding because she started to usher us into transition. Then we rode back to the hostel to bum around until the volunteer meeting in the afternoon. Said meeting was in a cold, flooded tent at Squaw. It seemed pretty disorganized and it was difficult to hear our instructions, but was thankfully brief. We headed back to the hostel to warm up and mingle with the rest of the SVTC crew.
Sunday – Race day!
My alarm went off at 4am, I donned a million layers of clothing, grabbed some food, and walked down to the beach to mark some ironbodies. The temperature was in the 30s and the racers weren’t so keen to strip down for me to mark them, especially since they would be covered up all day anyway. I tried to work as quickly as possible, sacrificing legibility for speed so they could get covered up again. We finished up in time to watch the swim start. The view was breathtaking – the sun rising over snowcapped mountains and an ominous mist rising off the surface of the lake.
Once the swimmers were underway, I headed to T1 to prepare for the upcoming chaos. I saw a bunch of people that called it a day after the first lap of the swim. Perhaps the altitude was too much. Then the pros started streaming in… They were easy to direct because all their bags were lined up in one place. Shit got really crazy once the age-groupers started coming in. Almost everyone was disoriented and shivering. The tiny women seemed to suffer the most. Most of my friends had no idea who I was when I called them by name as I helped them find their bags. I didn’t get to witness the scene in the mens changing tents, but I have read many accounts that compared it to a Roman bathhouse. Some ladies were in particularly bad shape so I helped them walk over to the wetsuit strippers and then to the changing tent. Eventually, the incoming traffic thinned out and then the final swimmers came in. I was in the warming tent while a DNFer was using my phone to call his support crew when the lifeguards came in. They were frozen from spending 3 hours out on the lake. I don’t know how they did it, but big props to them! I went back to the hostel to thaw and take a power nap before my next volunteer shift.
Despite being a looped course, IMLT is not very convenient for spectators. The swim and T1 are in Kings Beach but T2 and the run course are over in squaw valley. Normally, it takes 25-30 minutes to drive between the two locations, but the direct route is along the bike course so the road was closed in that direction. There were shuttles running from Kings Beach to Squaw, but nothing to bring us back after the race so we had to drive ourselves. The drive was essentially the bike course in reverse, which was a big detour and we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic… for 2 hours. But, it did allow us to see and cheer many of our friends as they were grinding their way up the Brockway climb. For a while, we were dorks and blasted Britney Spears’ Work Bitch from the car and shouted, “you wanna be an IRONMAN, you better work bitch!” (my apologies to the cars that were stuck around us :)).
We finally arrived at Squaw Valley, snagged the last parking spot, and made a mad dash to the finish chute in time to catch the top female pros coming through. Then I grabbed some quinoa and salad at the volunteer area before walking to run aid station #1 to get to work. We were positioned a mile from the start/finish of each loop so we were the final stop before the racers crossed the finish line. One of our club members is a DJ and created an awesome playlist to pump up the racers and volunteers. The temperature was already starting to drop when I started my shift so the warm chicken broth was highly requested when the racers came through. It was miserably cold once the sun set. I was shivering in my 500 layers of winter clothes, I can’t imagine what it was like for the people that were only wearing skimpy tri kits, especially during their walk breaks. Eventually, the traffic through the aid station thinned out as many had already finished and we went into cheerleader mode, cranking up the music and cheering as loud as we could for the racers that were approaching the end of a very long day. Some people looked miserable, others looked ecstatic, but everyone expressed their gratitude for efforts. It was so rewarding to play a small part in helping them finish such a tough effing race.
To everyone that dared to start this race, I applaud you. Thanks for showing me the true meaning of HTFU!
Who signed up to race IMLT in 2014?