Tahoe September 2014 - how an arsonist and the wind conspired


One of the principles of Ironman that you explicitly or implicitly buy into when you take part is that you finish what you start. I have been questioning this recently when I think about what has happened to me at Ironman Lake Tahoe in the last two years.

In a separate post I shared with you my experience at the 2013 race which involved snow, cold conditions, and a diversion off the course to get some warm clothes from my hotel. Despite these issues I overcame my additional problem of lack of fitness to collect my finishers medal and return home declaring success but with a desire to go back and perform better. So this year I returned to Squaw Valley, fitter, a year wiser, and with renewed hope that the weather would be fine so that I could turn in a satisfying result.

To add to this I had persuaded Raz and Andy, friends from Chicago, to join me in Tahoe with promises of beautiful scenery and a tough course to challenge their undoubted athletic prowess. They themselves persuaded family and other friends to come and join us....So we were all in on 2014 Ironman Lake Tahoe!

Not to worry, optimism will win the day!

The problems began as we came into land in Reno airport, about an hour's drive from Squaw Valley where the race is centered. We were in our final approach when a pungent smell of burning wood came apparent in the plane. It was so noticeable that we had a joke that the pilot was burning a wood fire because fuel was low...to add to that the landing was very bumpy with an extra hard landing. All was well....

However, when we got out of the plane and walked into the terminal the burning smell got worse and smoke was visible in the terminal building. There seemed to be no concern from our fellow passengers or locals...what was going on?

Google will have the answer....a quick search revealed all. There was a huge forest fire in the area. Well at least we were not going to burn to death in the terminal building. But wait...what about the race, I didn't fancy cycling and running in smoke? The Internet helps again, the organizers announced that race will be not be cancelled. The wind is blowing the smoke away from where we will be on the course on Sunday. All is well again!

We pick up our bags and car rentals and head down to Squaw Valley. We check in to the Plump Jack Inn, have a glass of wine, a snack, and retire to bed, minds starting to turn to how to deal with the hills on the bike course.

Blissful preparation

Friday and Saturday were spent happily preparing for the rigors of Sunday's event. A short swim in beautiful Lake Tahoe, warm up biking and running, and enjoying the local scenery and food - very relaxing.


On Saturday afternoon as we wandered in Squaw Valley, smoke started to blow in over the mountain top and into the valley. The wind had obviously changed direction. As day turned into evening the smoke became quite thick. What did this mean? There were no messages or indications from the organizers on the web site. All must be good right?


We enjoyed a sumptuous early dinner together, nerves and excitement starting to build. Another ironman day was coming, number nine for me....let's do it!

'Race day'

Up at 4am, I had my, standard Ironman breakfast - bagel with cream cheese, granola, coffee and a banana. The hotel served this with no extra cost or drama which makes such a difference. As a side note I would thoroughly recommend the Plump Jack Inn if you are ever in Squaw valley

As we left the hotel to get into the car we were greeted with the same thick smoke....no messages from anyone so we must be game on. There is so many challenges during an Ironman that this would just be another to deal with when the time came.

We drove down to the swim start, all smooth and on schedule. The day was much warmer than the year before. I was delighted that I would not lose feeling in my feet because of ice cold sand as I wait to get into the water to start swimming.

With 20 minutes to the start I put on my wetsuit and strolled down to the lake beach with Andy to have a final warm up swim and preparation. I enjoyed a gentle warm up swim with a beautiful sun coming up over the water. How am I going to do today...have I trained enough?...words from Ana, my wife, and Lesley, my coach, in my mind. Same questions, same answerS every race - you are what you are, just leave it all out there on the course.

Ready to go, I stand up in the water and start to walk back to the beach to get in line. The first thing I see is a guy with his head in his hands..it's a bit early for defeatism I think to myself. The person next to him looks really upset. 'What's going on...' I say. 'Did you not hear, they have cancelled the race!', 'Your joking right?...' I retort. Just then over a crackling microphone a voice comes over saying 'to repeat, due to unsafe conditions caused by the forest fire, the race is cancelled, please collect your bikes and return to Squaw Valley to pick up your running gear...' Unbelievable!

Another competitor next to me then proceeds to tell me his Ironman story, how he had begged a surgeon to fix his knee to get him back to training to be ready for the day. How could this happen he wonders aloud..he was almost in tears. I told him about my race experience the previous year...I said to him that at least his knee is fixed and he can come back again and to it next year! We hugged and promised to meet at the same point the year after if the race was on. What a weird sight, two blokes dressed in wetsuits, hugging in Lake Tahoe at 7am!

I went over to see the support crew. They had found out that the organizers had to cancel the race because of the smoke over the run and parts of the bike course, not the swim. It was a beautiful day over the lake but in the far distance you could see the smoke billowing over the valley.

It was over....

What next?

I grab a cup of coffee and we have a chat about what to do next. I felt that I wanted to do some sort of workout, if only to work off the huge dinner from the night before!

So we decided to do a swim and a cycle. They had left the buoys on the swim course and the kayakers were still out on the water. So, after one mile of swimming Andy and I got on our bikes and proceeded to cycle one loop of the tough bike course. Apart from the top of the tough second hill and thick smoke in Truckee, a small town on the route, it was a lot of fun.

On our way back to Squaw Valley, just over 50 miles into the bike we decided to stop and get some food. The support crew joined us in a great bar and restaurant where we decided to sample their famous Bloody Mary's!

We did not cycle any further.....


In my view WTC, the race organizers did the best job they could in difficult circumstances. They made the right call canceling the race. Even after cycling only 50 miles in quite good conditions my eyes were starting to burn and my throat was sore. I don't think a full 112 miles biking and a marathon would have done us any good at all.

On Monday afternoon we all got a mail offering us, amongst other things, a limited number of places in races in the following weeks and also $100 entry into the 2015 race.

We decided we will do it all over again...third time lucky and a great race for me next year then!