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Marathon grows into small city of lake-loving runners

In six years the Lake Tahoe Marathon has grown from a puppy into an elephant.

When race director Les Wright started the event in 1996 he didn’t draw any more than a Reno minor league baseball team – 350 people.

Through savvy promotion, unique racing formats and pampering of competitors, Wright’s marathon weekend has increased eight-fold to 2,800 competitors.



A populace the size of Carlin, Nev., will compete in an ultramarathon, kids’ races, 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon Friday through Sunday.

“It’s healthy and stable,” Wright said. “We’re getting well-known.”




Naturally, Wright has used the beauty of Lake Tahoe to pull in runners from around the world. But as much as the scenery has enhanced the race, the altitude has been a detriment.

Runners can expect times 10-15 minutes slower as their bodies deal with the harsh realities of exercising at 6,000-7,000 feet above sea level. Besides the challenge of competing at high altitude, runners must climb 520 feet during two hilly sections of the course from Tahoe City to South Lake Tahoe.

Anyone who passes these tests is rewarded with downhill sections over the final six miles of the race.

“It takes a special person to come up and do this event,” Wright said. “It’s not a speed event … people come up here for the beauty of the race and all the nice things we have in Tahoe. We sell the area as well as the marathon.”

Tim Julian, last year’s fastest participant, didn’t brag about his time of 2 hours, 35 minutes when he went home to Bend, Ore.

“Most marathon courses are designed with the idea of being a fast course, but a marathon like this you throw that out the window because you’re not going to get a good time.

“It attracts a different mentality. More people are doing Tahoe because of the beauty and the love of the event. You can’t say you’re doing it for the the time, because that’s ridiculous. There are five other marathons on the West Coast this weekend that you could run 10-15 minutes faster.”

For Katie Gengler, the reigning marathon battle of the sexes champion, Lake Tahoe is a homecoming. She used to teach science at Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove before moving to San Luis Obispo and Mariposa, Calif.

“I like Les and how it’s organized,” said Gengler, who has won the women’s title twice and the half marathon title in 1997. “I usually do trail marathon, but this is my one exception, because I do like it.”

The women’s marathon contingent leaves Commons Beach in Tahoe City at 9:03 a.m. (men at 9:30 a.m.) for the 26.2-mile journey to Pope Beach in South Lake Tahoe. Marathon walkers hit the course at 7:30 a.m. 10K runners start their mostly downhill course at 9 a.m., while the half marathoners commence at 11:10 a.m.

New this year is the Tahoe Ultra 3-Day Stage Marathon, which enables the 25 participants to run the 72-mile circumference of Lake Tahoe, plus six miles in three days. These hardy runners will start on Friday and finish with the regular marathon competitors on Sunday.

“Everybody seems to be doing marathons. People are looking for a challenge and something different,” Wright said. “This is speed work for one of their 100-mile ultras.”

For runners looking for less of a challenge, a 5K run on Saturday at 9 a.m. is planned at Valhalla Historic Estates. A fee Kids’ Fun Run sponsored by the South Lake Tahoe Optimist Club will follow the 5K at 10:15 a.m. All kids receive a medal and lunch after they cross the finish line.

Runners can pick up their race packets and check out the latest gear at the Tahoe Sports & Fitness Expo on Friday and Saturday at the Embassy Suites.

Marathon race-day fees are $90; costs of other events vary.


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