NORTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — More than 2,600 triathletes splashed into the steely water of Lake Tahoe for a 2.4-mile swim early Sunday morning, shrouded in an eerie, uninviting mist and surrounded by freshly snow-capped peaks.
And that wasn’t even the cold part.
After completing her swim, Truckee’s Kara LaPoint climbed out of the water and was greeted by the frigid bite of air, lingering over the land from the previous day’s storm. She pushed on — wet, cold, determined — to discover that the plastic bags covering her bike seat and handlebars had frozen overnight.
“Oh my gosh, it was cold,” said LaPoint, who powered through the brisk morning to capture the overall women’s age-group title — a feat that earned her a spot in the Ironman World Championship and qualified her for a professional license.
“It was definitely a different scene than most Ironmans. But it was actually really beautiful when we started the swim, because we could see the snow on the mountains and all the steam coming off the water. It was really picturesque.”
So began the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe triathlon, which challenged athletes to the core with its bone-chilling start and demanding, high-elevation course. Despite its difficulties, however, the race drew praise from even the most beaten-down of participants.
“It was epic. I’ve raced four continents, and this might be my favorite race,” said Kevin Taddonio of Folsom, as he walked out of the finish chute on shaky legs. “It was difficult, but there was great crowd support, and this is just a perfect venue.”
“It was a very, very difficult course,” said Ironman pro Chris McDonald of Australia, who took the overall win in just under nine hours, 8:55:14. “Biking over Brockway Summit the second time was incredibly hard. There were just so many factors — from the altitude to the cold morning to the course, Lake Tahoe was awesome.”
Fellow Ironman pro Joe Gambles, an Australian who lives and trains out of Boulder, Colo., called the course “incredible” after finishing third overall, about seven minutes behind McDonald.
“I’ve done (Ironman) Wisconsin, which is actually one of the hardest ones, and it was a breeze compared to today,” he said. “I hurt today.”
They were far from the only ones to feel the pain. Ironman Lake Tahoe sold out all 2,600 entries within 19 hours, with participants from across the globe jumping at the opportunity to compete in California’s first full-distance Ironman since 2001.
The race began with the swim off the shore of Kings Beach. It then sent athletes on an arduous, 112-mile bike leg that made two and a half loops from Kings Beach through Tahoe City and Truckee, over 7,200-foot Brockway Summit and back around to Squaw Valley. It finished with a marathon run, 26.2 miles, from the Village at Squaw Valley to Tahoe City and back (with a shorter second lap).
Among the giant field of competitors were more than a dozen Lake Tahoe and Truckee residents, led by LaPoint’s standout performance. LaPoint, a regular top contender in the Tahoe race scene, posted a time of 11:03:01 to win both her 25-29 age group and the overall among amateur women. She hoisted her arms in the air upon reaching the finish, elated with her result, and relieved not to be running anymore.
“I definitely wanted to do well, and I knew I had some advantages being from here; it felt like I could be pretty strong. But I was definitely a little shocked to come across the line as the first amateur,” said LaPoint, who had completed four Ironman-distance races before Sunday. “You just never know in such a long race like that. So many things can happen. It’s all about what you do on race day, and I was fortunate to have things come together. So I’m psyched.”
Athletes agreed that the cold morning and the bike leg set the race apart from other Ironmans. Aside from the cold, the elevation taxed their lungs, as did the steep climbs over Brockway Summit and through Martis Camp, which is on private property and could not be trained prior to the race.
“It was very difficult, very steep,” Taddonio said of the Martis Camp stretch, which he said climbed a 10- to 12-percent grade up to Big Springs near Northstar.
“It was a brutal day,” said Jami Min of Truckee, who, as she’s done many times over the past decade, entered the race with her husband Sherwick. “Sherwick and I have done a lot of Ironmans, and this was probably the most difficult, even compared to Hawaii. It was just the temperatures were so cold, and we were not dressed well enough to keep our bodies warm. We had a lot of cramping and difficulty because of that.”
Sherwick even had ice form on his bare legs at the start of the bike.
“I couldn’t even drink on the bike because my mouth wasn’t working,” he said, adding that he was “humbled” by the race in spite of all his Ironman finishes, and local training. “In hindsight, we should have worn leg-warmers because our skin was exposed. Usually on the run I feel much better; that’s usually one of my strengths. But I just never came around.”
Sherwick, who said he’s “never been so sore,” finished 24th in his competitive 45-49 age group in a time of 11:46:10. Jami finished 10th in her 40-44 group, in 12:54:16.
“We’re both pretty happy and satisfied, because that was difficult,” Sherwick said.
Among other local finishers, Jason Collin of South Lake Tahoe finished 23rd in his 40-44 age group in a time of 11:40:12, Annica Bryan of Tahoe City was 14th in her 40-44 group in 13:00:40, Rob Kronkhyte of Tahoe City was 12th in his 55-59 group in 13:36:38, and 70-year-old Jim Meskimen of Truckee was first among the 70-74 men’s field in 13:55:10.
Rob Laurie of Incline Village finished in 12:40:06, which was good enough for 63rd place in his 45-49 age group, while Michael Chador finished in 13:58:54, Sarah Clement finished in 14:07:56, Rachel Crus in 14:30:40, Valli Murnane in 16:07:18, and Wendy Kronkhyte in 16:45:47. Former Major League Baseball player Eric Byrnes, who owns a second home in Martis Camp and has competed in the last few Donner Lake Triathlons, finished in 11:37:05.
Even with all its difficulties, most Ironman Lake Tahoe participants said they hope to return next year for another round of punishment.
“The most amazing part was just how many community members were out there cheering,” LaPoint said. “It was absolutely awesome hearing so many people cheering for myself and other racers. It was super motivating and made me really excited.”