TRUCKEE, Calif. — For all that has changed in the Lake Tahoe area the past three decades, its world-class summer racing scene really has not. Look no further than the Donner Lake Triathlon for a prime example.
“It's a classic, so it's hard to mess with,” said Todd Jackson, whose Kings Beach-based Seventh Wave Productions, owner of Big Blue Adventure, purchased the long-running triathlon in 2009.
Now in its 31st year, the Donner Lake Triathlon endures as one of the Tahoe area's staple summer races, drawing nearly a thousand participants each July. They come from near and far, from average Joes to whippet-like endurance athletes and triathlon specialists.
“I think it has a lot to do with the venue,” Jackson said, trying to explain why the triathlon — one of the oldest in the country — has thrived over the years. “It's a great venue, and the course is one-of-a-kind. A lot of triathlons are flat, or flatter. We have altitude plus climbing, and somewhat of a technical descent on the bike.
“So it's not your normal experience. And then I think with just the scenic value of it, it all combines to make it a classic course that people want to do.”
Indeed. The Donner Lake Triathlon has its share of devoted participants.
In recent years, Steven Sexton, a Team USA triathlete from Davis, Calif., has dominated the men's international-distance field, while Truckee's own Shannon Rahlves has done the same on the women's side. Michael Smith returns year after year from Southern California to defend his title in the sprint distance.
The event website includes race results and records dating back to 1999 (Sexton and Holly Nybo own the course records, of 2:06:04 and 2:24:51, respectively). But while the triathlon's roots dig much deeper, the early years are somewhat obscure. Even Jackson, who purchased the race from longtime owner A Change of Pace Foundation, was curious about the nascent years of the triathlon.
“I would love to know more about that stuff,” he said.
Luckily, the area's racing history is preserved in the archives of the Sierra Sun and Tahoe World newspapers, which documented the Donner Lake Triathlon's inaugural year, and every race thereafter.
The event debuted in 1982 — eight years after the first-ever triathlon in the country was held in San Diego. It attracted more than 300 participants and was produced by local resident Sherry Griswold-Reed.
The big news, according to the Sierra Sun article covering the event, was that then-Donner Lake resident Lyle Nelson, an Olympic biathlete who dominated area races in the early 1980s, did not win. “Now that's news,” it read.
Grant Boswell and Dean Harper, both from Reno, tied for the overall title with identical times of 1:32:30. Nelson won the men's over-30 title in a time of 1:35:41.
The finish times were significantly faster than they are now because the course was shorter in the early days. While the starting line at West End Beach was the same, the opening leg sent athletes on a half-mile, point-to-point swim to the boat launch, as opposed to the 0.9-mile loop used today. After emerging from the water, they ran the 6.89 miles around the lake, then finished with a 15-mile cycling leg up Old 40 to Donner Summit Lodge, where they turned around and finished in the Sugar Bowl parking lot.
Now, the biking portion — a 24.8-mile haul up Old 40 to Kingvale and back — follows the swim, and the race concludes with the run around the lake and a finish at West End Beach.
Co-director T.D. Short was quoted after the inaugural race.
“I think for it being the first time, it went really well. The majority of comments we received were positive,” Short said, adding that the only glitch was some confusion with the timing, which was resolved by Monday. “It was a really tough event to time because of the number of participants and the number of divisions involved. But all in all, it went really well.”
Participation increased to 350 by the second year as Ray Renati of Sunnyvale and Karen Banks of Sparks won individual titles. The top local finisher was Holly Beatie of Olympic Valley, who was third among women, while the Tahoe City team of Susan Blanfield, Steve Gregor and Mark Gregor won the relay category. The weekend also included a 10-kilometer running race.
Scott Miller of Auburn won from 1984 to 1986 as the Donner Lake Triathlon reached a high of 400 participants in 1985. Numbers waned in the following years, however, reaching a low point in 1988 before Griswold sold the event to A Change of Pace. The new ownership provided an immediate boost, with the 1989 race drawing more than 600 athletes. A Change of Pace also tweaked the course to its current state.
“I think it went just great and was a complete success. We had several comments that the event was more professional than it had been in the past,” said then-race coordinator Jennifer Cowden of A Change of Pace. “We thought of this year as a rebuilding year that we could get our feet wet. Next year we hope to improve the event even more.”
The Donner Lake Triathlon continued to grow throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s under A Change of Pace, which, after the race's only cancellation in 2008 due to heavy smoke in the area, sold it to Jackson in 2009 after two decades of ownership.
“We're thrilled to be a part of such an established and popular event,” Jackson said at the time of purchase. “The Donner Lake Triathlon isn't just a competition, it's a gathering for local and regional athletes, as well as the community.”
The Donner Lake Triathlon, which now includes a Kids Triathlon as part of the festivities, is as big a deal as ever. In the 30th edition of the race in 2011, it even attracted a world-class mixed martial arts fighter, Nick Diaz, and a former Major League Baseball player, Eric Byrnes.
“Well, I like Tahoe, and this is the best road race in Tahoe,” Diaz said after recording a respectable 36th-place finish, explaining why he's made the trip from his Stockton home “six or seven times” to compete in the Donner Lake Triathlon. “It keeps me in great shape. I'll be in great shape when I start training camp.”
Sexton, who captured the win for the fifth straight year in 2011, said with the demanding hill climbs and high elevation, which ranges from about 5,900 feet to over 7,000, the triathlon never gets any easier.
“It's tough,” he said. “You can't fake this race, with all the hills and the elevation. So it hurt. Always does.”
The 31st Annual Donner Lake Triathlon takes place Sunday, July 15, 7 a.m., at West End Beach.