Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013

The unofficial slogan of roller coaster designers is “fear minus death equals fun”. I have that printed on my Road ID around my wrist so I can see it every day. Seeing it and living it are often two different things, which is why I was curled into a fetal position shaking in terror the night before the hardest race of my life.

I had known I wanted to train and race for another Ironman soon after finishing Ironman Arizona in 2009. The years following that race were filled with a lot of major life milestones including the death of my father shortly after the race, the year of grief that followed where workouts were simply ways of getting out of my head for a spell. I was signed up for Ironman Arizona 2011 but when we discovered my wife was pregnant and due for the same weekend I withdrew, and our daughter’s birth and first year became all consuming. When Ironman Lake Tahoe was announced for September 2013 and our daughter was clearly thriving in her growth my wife encouraged me to take the leap and register. All I knew of the race was it would be at altitude, offered a “challenging” bike course, and most importantly was equidistant to Arizona for travel and planning purposes. What I didn’t know was that this race would become known as the toughest Ironman course in North America, if not the world.

I have never thought of myself as a good climber on the bike. I always get passed on ascents. Lake Tahoe is not only at altitude but the course was designed with several difficult ascents including a 1,000 foot climb straight up 3 miles to crest Brockway summit at 7200’ above sea level. I embraced this challenge as motivation to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to climb. I searched for coaches and chose Justin Trolle, one of 19 level 3 USAT coaches in America. He coaches elite triathletes and age group athletes out of Boulder, Colorado. I met him when I got my level 1 certification, he taught the class on periodization and planning and it is his template that many coaches use to create Yearly Training Plans. I wanted to be serious about my training since there were so many variables I did not know how to approach: altitude, elevation gain, and my time crunched schedule as husband, co-parent, and small business owner. When we spoke and talked about my goals and approach to training and racing I discovered that Justin was absolutely the right coach for me. We dovetailed in our social views and opinions and I trusted him implicitly for his depth and breadth of knowledge.

I began my training in May 2013, raced Boise 70.3 recovering from being sick and on antibiotics, on a brand new bike with less than 100 miles on it. Not having raced a half Ironman in more than two years my performance was underwhelming but it was still good to race a course that had been made harder with an increase in climbing and unexpected heat that cooked everyone. A month after Boise I was hit by a car doing hill repeats on the bike and lost another month of aero riding while I sorted out the insurance claim. I finally got my second new bike, a Specialized Shiv Pro, and had it built with Shimano di2 electronic shifting. I fell madly in love with my new ride and attacked my bike training with renewed enthusiasm. The Specialized Shiv is not a bike made to climb. It is a torpedo missile, launched in one direction and not very nimble. It was the right bike for my body and position so I willed it to work for me as I gutted it out going through Rancho Palos Verdes over and over again up and down hills. On the recommendation of my fitter, Steve at Bike Effect in Santa Monica, I had my trusted mechanic, Scott Eisiminger, build the bike with shorter crank arms (165’s), a compact crank set, and an 11/32 cassette to get any advantage I could in the gearing.

My main long ride was a 64 mile route with about 3400’ of overall climbing, including two ascents of about 1,000’ each. The first ascent were navigable switchbacks going up to Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, and then the upper residential area ending at the weather station, then back down the mountain and a climb over Hawthorne Blvd. One more technical descent and then a short climb through the PV golf course. While I didn’t get a lot faster on this route, it usually took me 4.5 hours, I was able to endure it more easily over time. About a month before the race I took a trip to Frazier Park and rode 54 miles with 6500’ of climbing, including a 20 mile beginning ascent up Mt Pinos topping off at 8,000’ elevation. On the way up Mt Abel the sky opened up with flash flooding and lightning and I turned around early (it was supposed to be an 80 mile ride), but I did suffer through a number of 12% grades and sustained 8% grades to know how my legs would feel after long punishment. I considered myself lucky to survive that training day, which added some confidence. My final long ride was an 80 mile shot up the coast with detours up Latigo to add some gain to my pain. Over the course of the summer I went from not being a very good climber to someone who could gut it out over distance without having to stop. This would be key to my success at IMLT.

As the date grew closer the chatter on the unofficial IMLT Facebook page grew as more people were posting their experience riding the course and noting that the closed section preceding the major ascent was still a big mystery. The fear was spreading, and as athletes entered their taper that displaced energy fed into the paranoia. I got sucked in.

The Ironman Lake Tahoe course is two loops at King’s Beach at 6200’ elevation in beautiful surroundings. Mile high peaks ring the lake and water temperatures are balmy low 60’s. The bike course heads west along the lakeshore, going over a short climb called Dollar Hill, then a long, relatively downhill roller route heading past Squaw Valley ski resort, and into the town of Truckee. Another short zig zag ascent to a narrow no-pass bike path, and then across the local highway to get to Maris Camp. This part of the course is closed to the public because it is a community of luxury homes in a private ski resort. On the bike course it was noted there would be a main ascent of nearly 1,000’ in there. That section culminates at the Ritz Carlton before a sharp, technical descent dumping out on the highway again only to climb 3 miles straight up to Brockway summit. After cresting the 7200’ peak it’s a screaming fast downhill back to King’s beach. Then you do that whole course a second time, and on the third loop after Dollar Hill (climb #7 if you’re counting), it’s a turn into Squaw Valley for two miles to get to the Olympic village and T2. The run heads back out the highway along a bike path and the Truckee river, and once the sun goes down you are in the pitch black for this distinctly not flat (but not hilly) run course. The first loop is about 17 miles and the second is shorter along the same route.

I was able to hit nearly every one of my workouts even as my workload increased and client demands took more and more time. My fear of not making it through the bike course grew. The course also featured rolling cutoff times within T1, throughout the bike, and the run, so a minimum pace was necessary. Suddenly, doing 54 miles at 6500’ in 5 hours looked like not fast enough. The Facebook group all agreed that a compact crankset and climbing cassette would be required for this course and I was already there. I worried that I hadn’t put in enough work, hadn’t gone long enough, hadn’t put in the monster workouts that defined my first Ironman race. The doubt and fear crept up my neck as the date grew near, and I chose to trust my coach and his plan. Dead Fucking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.

There is a lot of conflicting information about how to race at altitude if you live low. I heard everything from get there the day before the race and just suffer, that anything less than 3 weeks would be useless so don’t even bother, to the most likely which is everyone is different and reacts their own way. I got into south Lake Tahoe Tuesday before the race and stayed at a friend’s place at 7500’ elevation. My amazing planning wife rented us a condo near Kings Beach, just up the road from T1 and I checked in Wednesday to start running and swimming in short amounts during the taper. I hadn’t felt the effects of elevation on my Frazier Park ride that took me to 8,000’ and in those short workouts I didn’t experience the tightness of chest or gasping for air that some reported. In fact, I don’t recall feeling any of the effects of altitude – no headaches, shortness of breath, or power drop. I would go out for my run and see similar paces and heart rate to my sea level training. It was only going up the stairs of the condo I felt winded! My practice swim in the lake took 18 minutes to hit the furthest buoy, but those weren’t race buoys so it felt arbitrary.

My wife and her family (and thus my family) are spectacular race supporters. They cooked meals, cleaned up the condo, and created a space for me to focus my attention on the race. Lake Tahoe is mostly mediocre bar and grill food so we decided it was easier to just make meals at the condo. My in-laws had come out for Ironman Arizona and were wonderful supporters, chasing me around the course just to scream for six seconds of me as I whizzed by. Now that I have a daughter, they helped take care of her and my wife as I basically mentally checked out completely and either focused on my race, or neglected my basic responsibilities. Their love and support is incredible, and I’m privileged to have them.

I drove the bike course when I first got to town and several times after just because the location only has one main road, and getting to the race expo and such required traversing the bike course. I was concerned about Dollar Hill and Brockway and hadn’t thought much about Maris Camp. It wasn’t until Saturday when we had the chance to drive into Maris that I realized with horror that Dollar Hill barely even registered on the hill profile in the athlete’s guide. The massive two peaks on the profile were Maris and Brockway. I no longer had any confidence I would finish this course.

Friday’s mandatory athlete meeting brought the news that a large storm was expected on Saturday bringing even colder weather and athletes were strongly and repeatedly encouraged to dry off completely in T1 and change into dry, warm clothes in layers. It would be very cold and quite possibly under cloud cover all day. The storm arrived Saturday midday and both the rain and wind were furious. I dropped my bike off in T1 as bikes literally were falling off the racks in the wind, debris was blowing everywhere, and people were looking at each other in shock and awe. Those of us who listened to the warnings double bagged our gear to prevent soaking. I think I’ll do this from now on, no matter what. Just assume the worst.

Earlier in the day my wife had worked out my best and worst-case timing scenarios and I was starting to feel better. Based on my training, even under worst-case situations, I should be able to make the rolling cutoffs with time to spare. Saturday afternoon I drove the course again (bike drop in T1, follow the bike course to Squaw Village and the T2 bag drop), and continued around to Maris Camp with my mother-in-law along for the ride.

Maris Camp looked totally fucking insane. It is a relentless series of switchbacks going up forever. We weren’t allowed to see the entire course, either, and were told by a gatekeeper it was “nothing much, another ¾ of a mile, then done”. He was lying or uninformed. That last section kicked up in intensity, grade, and with less recovery periods. I was so distracted by the sheer amount of climbing in there I failed to see the series of wooden bridges that could kill a set of wheels. We got back to the condo and I curled into a fetal position, absolutely convinced I was going to die or fail the next day. My mother in law had wide eyes, shocked at what I was about to do the next day.

I did not sleep well that night. I obsessed over the bike map, terrified of what lay out there. I rose before the 4am alarm, got cleaned up and had my regular breakfast, and my wife gathered my bags and me and delivered me to T1. It took 10 minutes to thaw the car windshield of frost. It wasn’t just cold, it was frigid. 27 degrees on the beach. There was ice on the bike seats in T1. The mood in transition was friendly – with so many unknowns for this course it felt like we were all on an adventure together. “Did you see Maris? No? Uh oh.” Many people were dressed in neoprene caps and booties, but I knew I’d be ok once I got in the water. Upper 50’s or low 60’s was what I’d been swimming in all summer in the Pacific. But standing in T1 in freezing cold was painful. I got into my wetsuit quickly for warmth, put my socks on my hands, and decided to keep my shoes on until the last possible second. I could always get new shoes, new feet were harder to come by and I wasn’t ready to race in the challenged division yet. Finally, standing in the queue waiting to start I just peed the wetsuit to warm up.

IMLT featured a rolling start with athletes self-seeding themselves based on expected finish time. This avoids some of the close contact of the mass start that can cause problems for some people. Many Ironman athletes feel like the mass start is part of the tradition and shouldn’t be changed. My feeling is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong in a race and having someone punch you in the face or rip off your goggles by accident can ruin your race in the first 0.1 miles of a 140.6 mile race. If the rolling start gives people a better race, great, and leave the mass start for the Kona championships. Let those who are front of the pack and earned their slot fight it out.  I seeded myself in the 90 minute to 1:45 group as I expected my swim to take about 90 minutes based on training time trials. We started rolling in shortly after the pros and were in the water before 7am.

One of the messages I try and convey during coaching is that a triathlon is a long day, no matter what the distance. During swim training you don’t jump into the pool and hammer out 1000 meters at full speed. Don’t race that way. Do a warm-up on land or in the water if you can, and if you can’t, use the first few hundred meters to ease into the swim and increase pace. The seeded start allowed this to work well. It was too cold to go into the water and get out again so I mentally reminded myself of my own coaching advice. After crossing the mat I slipped into the lake and spent the first hundred meters gradually reaching out with my arms and opening my rotation. By the first buoy I was feeling good, not out of breath, and comfortable in my stroke. I hit the first turn at the far buoy and checked my watch – 18 minutes. That was interesting. Second turn was seven minutes later. Third turn at 41 minutes. Could I actually be doing better than expected? Second lap was nearly exactly the same. As I came in for the final leg I looked at my watch – 1:18 a hundred meters before the exit. I crossed the mat and checked my watch, I had just turned in a 1:20 swim, my fastest yet.

Transition was a total logistical disaster. Everyone else had apparently done a 1:20 swim and the changing tent was like a Roman spa. It was nearly impossible to get inside, and the flap for the women’s tent was wide open giving them no privacy. Once inside, the tent was too small by half for as many men were trying to do the full dry and outfit change required for the freezing cold outside. Some were just changing outside, if their shaking hands could do it. The rest of us tried to find a patch of space to work, get completely naked, dry, dressed in spandex, and a little warm. I managed to find a chair and do my thing, dropping my pants in front of a guy who was hunched over and eating a sandwich. I said, “sorry dude, you’re about to get some meat in your breakfast” and dropped pants. The guy in front of me had chipped a tooth and was wondering about his nutrition plan for the next few hours. Later we would find out the pro field took nearly 4 minutes for T1 while age group men typically took more than 20 minutes. It was nothing but cold cocks and wet socks in there.

My original plan was to wear a sleeveless tri top, CW-X compression tri shorts, SLS3 calf compression, and maybe arm warmers. I go sockless on the bike now, easier than trying to pull on socks over wet feet. For this race I purchased a black and red riding jacket with magnetic detachable sleeves. I tested it on a ride Friday and while it wasn’t perfect I felt it would be a good barrier against wind. Once I was riding my body heat would warm up the interior. I’ve never ridden with toe socks before, or any shoe covers for that matter. In T1 I put on my kit and arm warmers, gloves, as well as the “something new on race day” violating jacket. My legs were mostly bare and my feet naked. My feet were numb from the cold air after exiting the water. I wouldn’t regain feeling in my feet until mile 50 of the bike.

I grabbed my bike out of transition and immediately began drinking and eating. By that point I was 2 hours past my oatmeal, whey protein, and applesauce breakfast and an hour and a half into aerobic activity. At altitude I had been warned to drink significantly more than usual to adjust for the dehydration that comes with elevation above 5,000 feet. My nutrition plan was to drink at least one 24oz bottle of water with 2 Nuun tabs every hour, eat a Honey Stinger energy bar throughout the hour, and a Cliff bar every two hours to keep something solid and fatty in my gut. I also had a few Honey Stinger waffles on me in case I needed to bolster the intake if my gut could take it.

The ride through Kings Beach and Carnelian Bay is a series of easy rollers, relatively quick. There is a short hop into Carnelian Bay to the first aid station, then a U-turn and back onto the main lake roadway. I set myself at about 15% lower output than usual to be as conservative as possible on the first loop. All I could think about were the hills awaiting at Maris, and that I needed everything in my tank for the second time through. That first time through felt very long, but the first time going through a route always feels longer since it’s unexplored. Riding the course for the first time is very different from driving. It’s learning in Braille where every bump and shift in terrain is a physical experience. What takes a half second in a car, smoothed over by shocks and speed, is radically different when your legs have to do the work.

The first time up Dollar Hill took five minutes. I was pleasantly surprised! I used the downhill momentum to my advantage and spun a low gear. I drank and ate by the clock and appreciated the route as we passed Squaw Valley, mentally reminding myself I’d have to do that entire stretch twice more. Before long I had made the turn towards Truckee, and then a left turn to the bike path. This little ascent is brief but steep, and a turn onto a single file path where riders cannot pass. There is an aid station in a small parking lot, well stocked with dancing volunteers and portable bathrooms. I took this stop to relieve myself and also ate a banana. Back on the bike to arc around to the main highway again and mentally prepare for Maris.

People are arguing which is worse, Maris Camp or Brockway summit. I say that Maris the first time is the worst, followed by Brockway summit the second time around. With Maris, no one knew how far we’d be stuck in there or when the constant series of turns and climbs would end. The grades would vary from 4% in many places, easy, to a crushing 12% or 14% at times. Just when you think you’re at the top, the road turns to a roundabout and nope, up you go again. It just goes on and on and on. This is where having a compact front and proper gearing split the field. I spun as best I could, having been coached by Justin that cardiovascular output is easier to recover from than muscular strength output. That is, spinning a higher RPM up a hill is hard but easier to recover from than popping into a harder gear and muscling your way up out of the saddle. “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN” was in my head, my first coach’s words to me when it came to climbing. I watched others struggle with their gears and I stayed as upbeat as possible while spinning as much as I could. I had no interest in being first up the hill, I had nothing to prove and just wanted to feel fresh, but I still found myself moving up past folks.

I had been exceedingly frightened and doubtful in the days leading up to this race. The negative self talk was very hard to shut out. In large part this is because in a taper workouts are reduced in duration but with high intensity, so the body is stimulated without being able to climax. There is plenty of energy to put into negativity. Coach Gerry Rodriguez, a champion open water athlete and creator of the Tower 26 swim group, says not to let a negative thought live for more than 3 seconds. Any more than that and the wolf is in the door. For years I’ve worked on a positive mental attitude during racing. Usually it involves flipping the script. When I feel like I’m not a good climber I say to myself, “you are strong, you can climb hills all day. All day.” If you hear me saying “all day” it’s not a negative feeling of complaining. I’m telling myself to be present with where I am and imagine I can do what I am doing all day long.

My Ironman playlist is about 4GB in size, several hundred songs I have accumulated over the years that I enjoy. I had a real fear that all that programming would be erased by the earworms that are my daughter’s favorite music she insists on hearing every morning. We’ve worked hard to avoid kid music and she’s been raised on daddy’s Ironmax playlist. And yet, her requested favorites are cute singalong treacle.

Many times going up Maris I heard her favorite song, “Clean it up. Clean it up. No matter what you do, the cleanup’s up to you. Put it away, put it away, put your things away.” So I changed it. “Clean it up. Clean it up. No matter what you do, the cleanup’s up to you. Put it away, put it away, put this hill away.” And I did, one after another. I watched my heart rate, kept it under threshold, drank constantly, ate regularly, and when I was hurting so much I couldn’t focus I cheered on everyone around me. I would say, “don’t forget to drink!” as much to my fellow athletes as to myself. “Perfect circles!” Near the top I said, “I can see my house from here. And I live in LA!” If I could get a laugh I could feel better. We were all suffering, regardless of who was first. A good thing to remember when you’re passed by a pro, or anyone for that matter: they are suffering as hard as you are; they’re just going faster. No one had an easy time in Maris. This was the highest percentage of women at any Ironman, 28% of the field, and perhaps it’s because women tend to be better at climbing than men they signed up for a climbing intensive course. Women tend to be lighter, and since climbing is all about power output relative to weight, a light woman who can output good wattage is going to zip past a beefy dude who has to generate a lot more wattage to move his ass up that hill. However, women tend to be fearful on the descents and will lose their time advantage due to hesitation. When a woman passes you, know that she is cranking major watts and working hard. I am fine with being “chicked”, I have no ego in the moment, just a ton of respect for how committed they are and that they are working as hard, if not harder than I am. The riders from the San Francisco tri clubs were definitely passing the flatlanders, but not a single person seemed to be happy about mapping Maris.

I was riding tri spoke carbon race wheels on tubular tires. I had been warned not to ride the brakes because the carbon can heat up enough to explode the tubular. When I was shooting the downhill of Maris I pumped the brakes to avoid dying in a blowout, but also knew to use the time as recovery. There is a surprise right turn off Northstar Drive to go up Brockway summit, so it never feels like you’ve recovered fully from Maris. Maris to Brockway feels like one giant suffering, even though it is two 1,000’ ascents back to back. Brockway summit is 3 miles straight up, mostly at 8% and then ticking up to 12% at the very last stretch. I came over the crest and got into my aero position. We were warned not to “set any land speed records” on the downhill, but I have little fear on descents. Also, I was fucking tired of going slowly. I got into my tuck, pulled in my knees and let the Specialized Shiv do its job. I hit 41 mph easily without pedaling. No wobble, smooth, new pavement, light wind, and speed. It was glorious. I covered the brakes as I passed our condo’s street near King’s Beach, knowing I had less than a mile before the right turn. One of the benefits of electronic shifting is that you can change gears on the brake hoods, whereas traditionally time trial bikes only have gear shifters at the end of the aero bars. It’s dangerous to pop back and forth from the aero bars to the brakes since your center of gravity is pushed forward over the forks. TT bikes are not nimble dancers. They are meant to keep the rider in an aerodynamic position, preserving the legs for the run, and generally pointed in a straight line. With the di2 I could cover the brakes and change my gearing where I needed it to be for after the turn. The down side of the setup I was riding is that going 50 mph I couldn’t engage the pedals. There was no upper gear to use. At Ironman Arizona I was running an 11/27 cassette so on the flats I could really engage power at high speed. The trade in running a compact front and climbing gearing is that when you’re going fast downhill you just have to enjoy the coasting. There is no point in spinning 120 RPM on a downhill when you’re supposed to be recovering.

I regained feeling in my toes around mile 50. Dollar Hill took about 7 minutes the second time. The stretch from Dollar Hill to Truckee was perhaps my favorite section with a cool but not cold temperature and the topography mysteries had been revealed. I settled into aero and focused on spinning 85-90 RPM in a comfortable gear, drinking and eating, and preparing myself for the climbing ahead. When I found myself going 24 mph comfortably – because I could – I pulled myself back to conserve energy for Maris/Brockway. Another bit of advice I tell athletes is they have a limited number of matches in their matchbook on race day. They have to choose wisely when to burn them. Doing it in the first 100 meters of the swim is stupid. That’s a run sprint they won’t have later. For me, cranking 24 mph on the flat section of a notoriously hilly bike course is also stupid, especially in that I didn’t have a shot at winning. I needed every match in the book, so I dialed it back and stayed in my heart rate zone, drank, and ate.

Going back up to the bike path outside of Truckee the muscle on the inner line of my left leg began to twitch in the early signs of cramping. Not good. For the last year I had taken my own advice and finally did strength and conditioning in a TRX class twice a week. It’s not the major muscle groups that fail a triathlete, it’s the small, under developed complimentary muscles that give out. Neck muscles fatigue and the head collapses. The lower back, the inside thighs, the diaphragm. When these give out, it doesn’t matter if your quads can get you up that hill. You’re brought down by the agony of a thin strip of tissue cramping. I stopped at the aid station, guzzled an entire bottle of water and Nuun, reloaded all my water bottles, ate a banana (potassium!) and a handful of pretzels. I got back on the bike and increased my spin to 95 rpm to work out the kinks and took it easy heading back out to Maris. To my surprise, the second time through Maris felt fine. It was long, it was hard, but I didn’t cramp and just settled into a groove. At the aid station inside I stopped to use the bathroom (I still cannot pee on the bike) and saw a friend from the LA Tri Club. I gave him some encouraging words and also reminded him of the rolling cutoff times. After the first loop I was an hour ahead of the cutoff. By this time through Maris I had lost that lead and was only about 30 minutes ahead. This seemed to be a kick in the pants to my friend, and I took off quickly so as not to lose more time. I recovered on the downhills and turned onto the Brockway ascent. My leg began to cramp again and I was forced to pull over, massage the leg, drink as much as I could, then back on and up the hill. I began to cramp in my right popliteal muscle, the little bastard behind the knee. I’ve gotten this before and it’s very hard to get rid of, so I willed myself to spin easily and kept drinking. I needed more electrolytes but didn’t have any salt pills to take. I kept up the encouraging words to other riders, while we passed by traffic crawling in the other direction. No less than 10 people had “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from their cars. It was comical.

I bombed the downhill again, shot through Kings Beach, and prepped for Dollar. It was a struggle and I stopped once more to avoid a cramp, but I made it. I had stopped on the second loop for my special needs bag, which had chamois cream and some more food in it, but I skipped it the third time around. I just wanted to be done. At more than 7 hours on the bike I was nearing the cutoff and also was going to start sabotaging my run and thus my chances of finishing. I had to be on my feet before 5:30 to give myself time to finish the marathon. By mile 100 I was nauseated by all the sugar in the energy bars, Cliff bars, and waffles. If I had one more sugary thing I was going to lose it. Thankfully the Nuun tabs aren’t sweetened and I could still drink, but I knew that I was in trouble with my nutrition if I stopped eating. I put my head down and got to work pushing out the final dozen miles. I tried to drink, but my lips were dry and I felt gross. I came into Squaw Valley after over 8 hours on the bike on a steady diet of bar food. I was done eating my existing nutrition and needed a new strategy.

T2 went smoothly, I was able to get changed quickly and my legs felt pretty good. Finally off the bike all of the little aches and pains subsided. My lower back that had been aching on Brockway was fine, the inner leg was good. My body was relieved to be off the bike and running was a welcome change. I forced myself to eat a Honey Stinger gel and grabbed my water bottle. I ran out of T2 happy and thinking, for the first time, that I was going to finish this thing. I allowed myself to be happy for a moment, then closed it off and used the energy to push me into my run.

An Ironman run is a war of attrition. I have said many times I’d rather do an Ironman marathon than a standalone marathon any day. Ironman finishers understand this. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. But an Ironman run is more forgiving than a standalone. If you run a 4:30 marathon over and over again you’re just punishing yourself for nearly five hours. But if you can run a 4:30 off the bike in Ironman what you’ve done is run the marathon. A huge number of people walk the marathon in Ironman because they’ve cooked themselves on the bike. If you can run even a 9 minute pace you will pass hundreds of people. This is not an exaggeration. If you run a 9 minute pace in a standalone marathon you will be passed by people who have trained harder than you. My last marathon was two years prior when I wanted to go 3:30. I ran a 3:59 so I could say “I run a 3 and change marathon”. It was raining that day but the truth is I couldn’t maintain the pace I wanted on the back half. I am a 4 hour marathon runner and I hate running. But an Ironman run is a completely different animal for the age group athlete.

Everything about my coach’s plan worked. When we talked earlier in the week he said I’d be surprised how it came together on race day. I was concerned my longest run had been 2.5 hours and only fifteen or so miles. I hadn’t done the 100 mile ride and 10 mile runs off the bike from my past. I didn’t know if I could do the distance again. Justin’s plan, which worked flawlessly, was to build my ability to hold race pace for longer periods. When I hit the run I found I was able to hold a 9:30 pace without tripping over into breathlessness or a shutdown. I could feel the wolf was close, but it was up to me not to let it in. If I pushed the pace even a little I could feel its hot breath, the discomfort in the stomach, and the mental pressure to slow down. At mile 5 I was actually happy. I found another runner, Andrew, who was doing my same pace and we just kind of fell into chatting. Talking is a good way of not blowing up. If you can talk you’re probably aerobic. This was Andrew’s first Ironman, and though he had done some ultra marathons in the past, he was trying not to injure himself and just finish the run.

We ended up running nearly the entirety of the race together. We shared advice, talked about the course, how it compared to other races, but mostly it took our heads out of the suffering and kept us running with good form, in good heart rate zones, and prevented us from blowing up. We walked the aid stations and the bigger hills. At mile 18 we picked up another guy, Adam, who had done a few Ironmans, and he was grateful to have us to help pace him. Could I have gone faster? Perhaps. But I knew that I had the race in my hand and it was mine to lose. I got to see my family several times on the course and could smile at them as I passed. I got to see my friend who lived in the area twice, and he seemed like he enjoyed witnessing this crazy event. Andrew, Adam, and I were running in the dark with our headlamps on, passing dozens of people who were walking, hobbling, having miserable days. We would yell our thanks to the volunteers and encouragement to people who were having trouble. I knew it was going to be a 15+ hour finish but I didn’t care. I had more love for that course and everyone on it because we had all gone through the same crucible. Everyone was letting go of their time goals and just trying to cross that line.

I had to come up with an entirely different nutrition strategy. My pockets were filled with gels and bars I had no interest in eating. I switched to chicken broth and pretzels while drinking the Nuun water from my bottle. I was surprised to find it worked really well. I had a few moments of side stitch cramps but they appeared near aid stations and the reload of broth and salty pretzels seemed to work. Perhaps slowing the pace again was also key. Nevertheless, I wasn’t taken down by a side cramp as I’ve had happen in the past.

As we neared the finish I told Andrew he needed to go first, and he wanted to savor the finish chute. I was holding back because I wanted to run at full tilt, as I had done at Ironman Arizona. “Leave everything on that course” my first coach would say. Adam peeled off to see his wife before his finish, Andrew accelerated and I pulled back a bit to give him space in the chute. As I saw the lights from the village welcome me in, I pulled off the headlamp, dumped the unused nutrition from my pockets, and increased my pace.

I allowed all of the emotions I’d held back during the day to open up inside me. All the doubts and the fears, the leaps of faith, the deep appreciation for what everyone had done for me for in the building months, days, and hours It filled my heart and erased all the aches and pain. I was excited to see my wife, daughter, and her parents, who are truly also my parents. I knew my mom and friends all over were watching me online and I carried every bit of their hope for me to finish with me as I flew through the chute with the blinding lights on. I never heard Mike Reilly say my name and the words, “MAX MILLER YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

Because my heart already knew I was one.

In the following hours it would come out that this is now known as the toughest Ironman (WTC specific) in North America, if not the world. The elevation, the cold, the sheer insanity of the bike course, and the not-flat run course has put all others to shame. It had a DNF rate of 25% and a 10% DNS rate, as well as the slowest average time at more than 14 hours. My finish time of 15 hours and 40 minutes may have been “slow” but this race became much more about finishing at any cost. Anyone who raced Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013, finisher or not, knows just how hard it was. Going in blind to certain sections, freezing our asses off, and battling every mile, it was an epic day.

Now that it is over the GPS data is streaming in and the race reports are going up. It appears to be around 7500’ of climbing overall, and this data is going to be loaded into Computrainers and ride simulators around the world. Three days after the race it is still not sold out, which is unheard of for a California endurance race. The huge number of triathletes from San Diego to Northern California means the big M-dot races sell out in minutes. Arizona had been the closest Ironman to date and it sells out the very next morning after the race. The line snakes around the tent for people to register on site. Not so with IMLT. I will not be racing again next year because I want to focus on my family and my business. I will race shorter events to maintain fitness, but to do this race again would require as much if not more training than I did this year.

When I finished Ironman Arizona I felt incredible, I had unlocked a life achievement I never thought possible. But in the dark corner of my heart a tiny voice said, “yeah, but you did the easy one”. Ironman Lake Tahoe is by any objective measure NOT THE EASY ONE. The achievement feels genuine and I feel like an athlete, perhaps for the first time, without any modifiers. It took everything I have learned over the years to finish that course. Every motto, slogan, tip, trick, plan, experience, and ounce of energy. Everything I’ve learned from coaches and coaching, reading and doing, had to be used on that course.

I raced Ironman Arizona thinking of my father, with him spectating, with the underlying theme of lifestyle change. Ironically he died a few months after that race. Perhaps I raced Ironman Arizona to prove to everyone I was an athlete. I trained in a group, built a community, blogged about every moment, and it was a huge, public experience. For this race, I mostly worked alone, did my long rides by myself, clocked thousands of laps in the pool solo, and ran at night after my wife put the baby to bed, logging miles in the cool dark of the city.

Ironman Lake Tahoe proved to myself that I am an athlete.

Some thoughts on fear.

For two days I’ve been in Lake Tahoe getting ready for my second Ironman race, Ironman Lake Tahoe. It’s been nine months of focused training and I’ve done 99.99% of the workouts laid out for me by my coach. The few that I missed I either made up for or gave myself permission to slip a little due to the compounding pressures of life and work. Training benefits the mind as well as the body, those long workouts that built in intensity and duration create a platform on which to cap it on race day. Race day is One Hard Day but there were several Hard Days in the past that teased the edges of the unknown. And yet, even with that preparation, there is still fear.

I love doing things where I don’t know or can’t predict the outcome. Somewhere in the unknown is where discovery lives – discovery of self, experience, and sometimes even being able to plant a figurative flag in the ground to stake a claim. The love of the discovery is not enough to assuage the fear of the unknown. In training and preparation the fear subsides because there are practical tasks to be done. Yet there are times of quiet and calm where the fear creeps in up the neck. Wondering if I did not train hard enough on hard days, do that one massive thing that stretches me that much further than before.

For my first Ironman I did several training days that were designed to break my notions of the possible. Three miles of swimming. A hundred and thirty miles on the bike. A chest bursting pace half marathon. Even with those under my belt I was still venturing into the unknown on race day, putting it all together was new and there were many points in the race where I had to push through my ideas of what I was capable of to reach the other side.

For this race my plan was distinctly different, using a coach and a plan that emphasized sustaining race pace over longer distances, pushing my physical threshold higher and further without cooking my system and also respecting the new life I had with a toddler, wife, a demanding small business, and a new venture that was growing in time and responsibility. No one event is the same as the last. I have placed my trust in my coach and plan, and thus far it has worked. With three days to go in the quiet jittery place of the taper, my mind reaches out into the dark space of the unknown and with trembling fingers finds the fear.

The cashier at the Safeway, seeing all the athletes in line stocking up their rentals, said, “I hear they’re calling this the toughest one”. That has been the chatter on the message boards as well. Maybe that comment was supposed to make us feel better but it just let those frosty fingers of fear flick the back of my neck. She was making small talk, but it goes in the realm of things you cannot unhear. Giving fear any toehold is too much. Yet everything about the days leading up to a major event where the outcome is not guaranteed, the terrain new and uncharted, is a war against fear.

I have feared my own death since I was nine years old. Ironically, dying will likely be the easiest trip into the unknown I ever take. Dying is an act of surrender to the unknown; my actions are usually voluntary leaps into the void. When I have taken those leaps I am rewarded in the riches of discovery. When I hesitate or allow fear to hold me back I give it dominion over me, control, and it inhibits my growth. When my wife and I decided to have a child it was because we were able to allow the desire to be parents of a new person to overcome the fear of lack of resources – time, money, space – and the reward has been an amazing little girl who has reshaped our lives and reality. She challenges us every day in ways we could not have imagined, and has shown me aspects of myself I dared not face in the mirror. My tiny tyrant, whom I love above all things on earth, also fills me with new fears that I must push through to find uncharted territories. Right now, a dear friend sits in a hospice room with his dying father who is not expected to survive the day and will certainly pass. My thoughts drift to him, and I recall vividly my own father’s death just a few months after my Ironman race. Emotionally I link Ironman with death, and the permanent change that comes with touching mortality.

Driving the course, watching youtube videos of the course, pouring over maps, data, it both helps and scares. There are three distinct climbs on this course (the bike route is 2 1/3 loops, meaning we do Dollar Hill three times, Martin Camp and Brockway Summit twice), and Martin Camp is closed to the public until Saturday. Inside lies is the unknown. The temperature has been dropping steadily – 27 degrees this morning lakeside. I’m no longer able to handle the cold as well as I used to, maybe it’s that I am no longer fat, maybe it’s just age, or my ability to withstand cold has disappeared. My hope is my hands don’t shake too badly coming out of the water so I can get to my bike and get rolling quickly. The altitude hasn’t seemed to be a factor for me so far, but that has yet to be known until hours into a grueling course. Patience, experience, and control will be key elements for the day.

I do not journey alone on this path. I have the unyielding support of a partner, family, and friends who all want to see me succeed. Sometimes that helps, and sometimes it creates external pressure that is too much to think about. On Sunday, I will have to make conscious choices about how to think about the eyeballs watching me from afar.

The unknown is a dark abyss, a cliff high above the cloud layer, obfuscating what lies below. The noises that come from beneath are distorted, from up here it sounds like screaming, filling me with fear and disquietude, uncertainty and doubt. But I force myself to step off, leap into the unknown, and trust that when I break through the cloud bank and open my wings the sound I hear is the rush of wind as I take flight.

IMAZ 2009 Interview with Tim Bomba.

The day after my Ironman race, radio producer and fellow triathlete Tim Bomba found me at the athlete village and asked me a few questions about the race. Here is that interview.

Vineman 70.3 2011

My father would have been 67 years old on the day I finished Vineman. If he were alive he would have spent the weekend with friends and family enjoying wine country, food and drink, and celebrating. He would be beaming with pride and excitement not just for seeing me race, but because he’d know his son was going to become a father and he would soon be a grandfather.

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Ironman Arizona 2010

The sun rose just past six am over the east of Tempe Town lake. The man-made recreational body runs several miles long surrounded on both sides by manicured parks, a running path, with arcing bridges crisscrossing the water. I was positioned at the second to last buoy before the left turn turnaround for the 2010 Ironman Arizona race. As the desert sun’s not quite warming rays pierced through the chilly morning air I had time to reflect on the past year and what had brought me to sitting in a cold puddle of water in a kayak, hovering near a giant yellow buoy, with tears in my eyes.

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Your pain means nothing to me.

Pain is subjective. It is highly personal, different for every person. Hospitals have pain charts with number scales and facial expressions as indicators of pain for verbal and nonverbal patients. If you’re intubated (a breathing tube down your throat) you can’t speak. Though uncomfortable, you may or may not be medicated enough to experience pain. You will want a nonverbal pointing chart to tell your doctors to increase or change the meds. When people ask if getting tattoos hurt, I tell them no. Not really. But I know people who found getting their tattoos excruciating. Why? Pain is personal. It is this very subjectivity that confuses people when talking about sCAMs (Complimentary and Alternative Medicine). “Acupuncture took my pain away!” is a frequent anecdotal response. The data is clear – when done in a proper, double blinded study, acupuncture performs no better than placebo or sham acupuncture (twirling randomly placed toothpicks). Someone who practices acupuncture obviously doesn’t understand or care about modern medical practices (or more likely they willingly reject facts). If the practitioner believes in ancient magic (nonscientific), then they don’t necessarily understand or embrace germ theory (scientific). Why risk having them stick needles in your body if you get the same effect with toothpicks?

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Bio dad.

Sit down and write your bio. I’ve read many resumes and thrown out most of them. The people I’ve hired don’t necessarily have all of the paper requirements the job demands but all of their resumes showed that there was an interesting person beyond the page. I’d rather work with someone who is interesting and has a hungry mind than someone who can simply do a particular task really well. Maybe that is my liberal arts bias, maybe it’s that I’m perpetually looking for people who remind me of me. But when I turn the question inward I hobble myself by disallowing internal definitions of success.

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