Photo © Skyler Mullings, AfterHours Productions
They say it takes a village.
Never have I understood that more than last Sunday, at the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe event.
Going in to IMLT, I had some pretty high goals. I was intent on winning my age group and qualifying for Ironman World Championships in Kona, and I was aiming for a top-three overall amateur finish. I believed that was attainable for me, given where my fitness was at and the preparation I’d done. I knew it was a big goal, but I am adamant that we can only expect ourselves to achieve greatness when we truly believe we can — and act on that belief and expectation.
That being said, the thought of taking the amateur win was certainly in the back of my mind, and while it stayed tucked away as a distant thought, it was present, and I didn’t try to squelch it. Instead, I let it be, even nurturing it now and again as the event approached. I kept my mind open to the possibility of winning — because, after all, anything really can happen (it’s not just an Ellie Goulding song) — so why not?! As the race got closer, and I felt more ready than ever, I kept that thought of victory close at hand, poised to bring itself to the forefront if the time was right.
And last Sunday, as I raced my heart out in front of the hometown crowd on terrain I call my own, that time came. I had the day I’d worked so hard to achieve; the day I’d prepared so well for; the day I’d been aiming toward and dreaming of for so long; and the day that, deep down, I knew I was ready for.
Everything came together, and after all the preparation, the execution was there too. I had one of the best races of my life, on a day when I wanted it perhaps more than ever.
And I had a village behind me.
Embracing, and Conquering, the Ironman Struggle
I wish I could say IMLT was a perfect race. I wish I could look back and see a day that came together beautifully and gracefully, defined only by elation. But it was not a perfect day. It was not without flaws, low points, or moments of weakness and uncertainty. In fact, at times I felt like it was down right ugly. And it hurt. A LOT!
It’s funny, because this was a big contrast to my last 140.6, at Vineman in July 2012, where I also had a great result, but felt fantastic throughout the day and enjoyed the whole experience. I remember feeling like I was smiling through almost the entire run that day. This was not the case last Sunday. But I still ran faster.
While IMLT was not the perfect day, what it was was one of those rare days when I could get past the imperfections, trudge on through the low moments, and pull myself up when I least expected it. And it was one of those rare days where — though far from perfect — my best was enough. It was enough to meet my expectations, and achieve something great. Most importantly, last Sunday was one of those rare days when I knew, with absolute certainty, I could not have given more of myself. On that particular day, that was the very best I could do. I gave it all I had. And you cannot ask for more than that.
Looking back on this day and my season so far, I realize that where I’ve grown most as an athlete is not in my abilities to feel stellar and remain strong throughout a race, but to find strength when it seems most elusive. I think that’s a tremendously important lesson, and I’m extremely grateful for the progress I’ve made in that respect. In Ironman especially, there will almost always be low moments, and learning how to push through and transform them into something positive is what ultimately defines our day, and allows some of us to rise to the top. It’s that necessary tenacity and determination for each of us to keep fighting through our own battles that makes up the spirit of Ironman. I think all of us who raced last Sunday, on a very challenging course and in extremely tough conditions, understand that now more than ever.
If you want all the nitty-gritty details, read on my friends… (but be warned, you’re in for a long one!)
One Very Stunning Swim – 1:06:39
Sunday morning greeted us with temperatures hovering around freezing. We were all bundled in layers of puffy coats, parkas, mittens and ski hats. When I got to my bike to pump the tires, the bags I’d covered my seat and handle bars with overnight had frozen, and my wheels were lined with ice. I reminded myself we were all facing the same conditions, and the additional challenge of cold temps could actually be a big advantage for me.
After much scrambling around trying to get things organized, go time came quickly. I got my wetsuit on and made my way to the 1:00-1:10 section of the swim lineup. The sand was freezing, and crunched under my feet like ice. With about three minutes to go, as I was doing some warmup exercises, I felt something hit the ground next to me. I was pretty much devastated to discover it was my Garmin. The band was completely broken, with no chance of a fix. I wavered between crying, having a panic attack, and laughing it off. Luckily, I (mostly) chose the latter. Guess I wasn’t meant to have a watch today! Wanting to have it for the run, I decided to stash it in my wetsuit to bring along, but I couldn’t see it.
Photo by Shannon Lankenau
The swim scene had to be one of the most beautiful of all time: freshly snow-capped peaks in the background, steam rising off a perfectly still lake, and the most incredible streams of light just starting to layer through. Absolutely stunning. There was such a sense of calm, even as we entered the water. With the new rolling start, the swim was much less chaotic than in the past, and with the exception of a few solid kicks to the face, I had a pretty clear path. I favor maintaining my personal space bubble over trying to draft in the masses, so I stayed off to the side a bit to find free water.
The course was great: well-marked and straight-forward. The water was clear, calm, and actually really warm! At 61 degrees it was pretty much double the air temperature, so it felt like a warm bath. Throughout the hour-and-change I swam, I got to watch every phase of the sun rise as I took my breaths. It was beautiful beyond words, and I felt so lucky to be a part of such a spectacular scene and special moment. All I could say to myself, again and again, was “This is SO cool!!!”
High five from mom! Photo by Shannon Lankenau
In general I felt smooth and strong. Of all parts of the race, I felt least prepared for the swim, but the distance went by much quicker than expected, and I was really pleased to see my time on the exit. It was right on par with the 1:05 I was shooting for. The day was off to a great start! Out of the water I got my first taste of the unbelievable community support I’d receive throughout the day, and I felt completely overjoyed. The entire swim exit and transition was lined with fans, and I heard my name from many directions. I was stoked to see some familiar faces, including my mom, who’d made her way to the front to give me a high-five. Awesome!!!
From there, it was on to the slowest transition ever (6:52)…
Like most competitors, I did a full change in the change tent. I’d packed a ton of clothing in my transition bag, but with the swim much more mild than I expected, I opted to go with less, and put on layers I could shed easily. I knew I’d warm up later and be hating life if I had too much on. I felt a little frantic in the change tent, but thanks to the help of some seriously fabulous volunteers, I got on what I needed and made my way toward the bike, stashing my band-less watch in my pocket on the way out.
The toughest bike leg in Ironman…? – 6:05:15
Photo by Ben Grasseschi
Not being able to see my watch on the bike was strange. I’m generally pretty religious about watching my miles per hour when racing, but in this case it was all by feel! At first I felt like I was flying blind, but then I actually started to really enjoy not being a slave to my watch and just ride as hard or as fast as I felt like! I started off quite fast, probably partly because I was freezing, partly because of the lack of speed/time reference, and partly because I knew I had some serious work to do after the swim. But I felt really good, and I got into a rhythm where I could tune out everything else around me, and just focus on keeping my pedals as smooth, strong and fast as possible. My face was frozen and my legs were nearly numb, but I put it out of my head.
Photo by Lefrak Photography
When we reached downtown Truckee, one of the businesses I work with, Bespoke [the most fantastic gift shop you'll ever come across!] had put up a huge sign for me and fellow local racer Sarah Clement. It was the first thing I saw coming into town, and I felt overwhelmed with gratitude! There were already many spectators in town, and I got plenty of cheers to give me some extra pep in my pedal. Heading out of town my friend Greg [owner of the most delicious coffee shop you'll ever come across, Coffeebar!] had gotten the memo about my broken watch, and told me the time of day. This confirmed I was indeed riding fast, but I felt strong and in control, so I pushed on. I knew I was taking some risk, but I also knew that was what I needed to do if I wanted to attain my goals. I needed to go big. If I failed in the process, then so be it, but I’d rather go down swinging than cross the line feeling like I could have left more out there.
Soon after, a friend gave me a split that I was in second. I knew I’d passed a lot of women on the ride so far, but I honestly wasn’t paying much attention. I figured that meant second in my age group, so I set my sights on moving up. Then it was on to the climbs, and while I’d ridden these several times and felt pretty confident, I have to say they felt harder than I expected in the race. By the time we hit Brockway, I felt really tired. This was probably my toughest moment on the ride, and I started to worry that I was running out of steam. I tried to stay focused on my spin and told myself I’d recover once I got over the top. I sang my IMLT theme song in my head, reminding myself to be brave — one of three mantras written on my hands and arms that day.
Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics
Near the summit I saw August and my family, who told me I was actually the second amateur. WHAT?! I was both surprised and elated, and it definitely gave me the kick in the butt I needed. My mom told me to “Stay calm,” which was great advice. At the top I was greeted by the smiling faces of Far West Nordic Ski Association at the aid station, who were among the many selfless people to spend their day volunteering. I was so happy to see them, and they gave me plenty of cheers over the top.
With one lap down, I got another time split from a friend, and was right on pace for the six-hour bike split I was hoping for. My legs were coming back, and I was excited to take down lap two. From that point forward, my mindset changed, and I was “in it to win it.” I was still taking risks, but there was no turning back now. I wanted this, and I was going to do everything I could to get it. I pushed on, finding rhythm again, but I didn’t quite have the speed of my first lap.
All smiles from these incredible volunteers. Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics
Just after we went through downtown Truckee again, another woman came by me. She was assertive in her pass, leaving me behind. I had no idea where any other women were at that point, and was sort of waiting for more to come by, but no one did. The climbs only got harder the second time around, but ironically I felt better. My legs seemed to have just a little more to give. After another amazing greeting from the Far West crew at Brockway Summit #2, I knew I had less than an hour left on the bike, so I tried to bring it home strong. Before I knew it, I’d hit T2 at the Village at Squaw, as the third amateur woman, after a 6:05 bike split that I was very pleased with.
Photo © Skyler Mullings, AfterHours Productions
Run: The Moment of Truth – 3:41:24
I could not believe the crowds gathered at Squaw, cheering me in. Amazing!! Thanks to more help from the incredible volunteers, I was into the tent and out much more swiftly than T1 (2:51). Onto the run, I was surprised how good my legs felt right away. Usually it takes me a few miles to get going, but this time they were ready to run! The first mile pretty much wrapped through the village and parking lot, and I felt like a super hero running through the crowds. I saw so many friendly faces, and many unfamiliar faces. But it seemed like every one of them was behind me, rooting me on. Once again I felt consumed by gratitude, and thought I might burst with pride for my amazing community!
Photo by Lefrak Photgraphy
By mile 3, I moved into second amateur. The gal I passed was running strong, and I sort of questioned myself as I ran by her so quickly. But I reminded myself that today was about going big — and fulfilling my dreams, and continued to push. Wrapping around Squaw Creek Resort was hilly and tougher than expected, but seeing family and friends gave me another big boost. I got a split there that I was five minutes down from first, but had already gained some time. I took that in, but really didn’t focus on it, more concerned with my own efforts at that point. I knew there was a long way to go. Once we got onto the river path at about mile 5, things got a bit lonely, and I started to hit some low points. It was a long, monotonous way out to the turnaround at mile 10.5, and I can’t say I enjoyed it much.
For the next several miles, I was in my own world, consumed by my own struggle, and sort of oblivious to what was happening around me. My mind went through a cycle of different thoughts, letting the negative creep in, and then working hard to push them out. I started to question why in the world I was putting myself through this, and told myself I’d never do another Ironman again! Psyche! Then I sang “Brave” over and over again in my head, and found a few other motivating songs to mix in. From that point on, it really became a mental battle. I felt like I was starting to fade. I had my watch in my hand but wasn’t too concerned about monitoring my pace. I channeled all my energy into staying mentally focused and upbeat. I went through a lot of ups and downs with how my body was feeling, and was trying different things at every aid station to try and trick my body into feeling better. It seemed like each time a hit a low point I thought there was no coming out of, I someow managed to bounce back for a bit, before hitting another slump and repeating the cycle. I seriously questioned whether I’d make it to the finish. But I kept trucking along, knowing if I slowed down too much or walked, that would be the end for me. I had to stay on autopilot and just keep moving. I couldn’t back down.
Getting a split from mom! Photo copyright Mark Nadell
Heading back into Squaw I was pretty much miserable. I thought I might pass out, fall over, and never get up. But I told myself to just keep going, and focused on finding a light. Then I saw August again, and he told me my deficit was down to 2.5 minutes. WHAT?!?! I was shocked. I hadn’t even thought about the deficit, or the idea of winning, since my last split. I couldn’t believe it was still within reach. He told me, “Kara, you can win this!” But I felt like I couldn’t even think about that. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. I focused on keeping my pace, and getting through one mile at a time. I felt like that was all I could do. If I moved into the lead, then so be it, but I knew I was already giving everything I had, so there was no more to do but keep running.
Coming into the village the second time was even more incredible than the first. I saw more familiar faces, and got even more cheers. I could feel how genuinely everyone wanted me to succeed that day. It was a huge motivator, and I told myself not to give up just yet. This definitely helped me pick up the pace the next few miles, and by the time we hit Squaw Creek again I was just one minute down. I literally shrugged off the split. All I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other and not stopping. Then it was down to 30 seconds, and for the first time since she passed me on the bike, I could see the leader. I forced myself to change my mindset, and realized how much I actually wanted that win. Until that moment, I think part of me had been settling, telling myself that finishing second amateur would be awesome, and I was satisfied where I was. But I found my grit again, and decided I was not going to settle. Yes, second place was awesome, but first place, here in my hometown, was a dream come true!
Photo by Lefrak Photography
I moved into the lead just after mile 20 and never once looked back, and from that point on it was pretty much a combination of misery, pain and total insecurity mixed with a whole lot of immeasurable, desperate desire. I was exhausted. I was empty. I felt weak. It was hard for me to keep fuel down at that point. I was running on sheer will and determination — and a whole lot of help from my village. I ran through every positive motto I could in my head, and thrived off of the cheers and support from my friends, family and other spectators. I thought about all the people I knew following online and sending energy from afar, and I took it all in. I was hurting so bad, but I wanted to cross that line — in the lead — even more. I told myself that I simply could not give in at that point; it was just not an option. Head down, one foot in front of the other, one mile at a time.
Even as I saw how excited my friends and family were, I literally could not muster a smile in return — a rarity for me. It was all I had just to keep moving forward. I never felt secure about my position, even when I reached mile 25. I knew anything could happen at any moment, especially with my body facing such complete exhaustion. August called to me to enjoy the moment, but I was literally too tired, and too unsure, to really do that. By then I could only focus on ticking away one minute at a time. Only when I reached the village again did I feel sure I’d make it to the finish line, and I did everything I could to kick it in, not knowing how my finishing time might be impacted by the rolling start.
The final charge. Photo by Lefrak Photography
Just about there! Photo by Lefrak Photography
Annnd across the line! Photo by Lefrak Photography
I crossed the line to a full super-hero hometown reception, and in disbelief. I was elated, but so utterly exhausted I couldn’t really take it all in. I was grateful to be greeted by friends and family at the finish, but I was pretty quickly ushered into the medical tent, where I spent the next half-hour shivering and trying to find the energy to stand up on my own again. Once I got out of there, live timing splits confirmed that I had indeed taken the overall amateur win by just over two minutes, with a 3:41:24 run split and a total time of 11:03:01 — a little short of my goal of 10:50, but given the difficulty of the day as a whole, I was very pleased. Among the pros, I was 10th woman overall. Most importantly, I knew that, despite the imperfections, I’d left it all out there. On this day, I could do no better.
A Heartfelt Thank You
I still can’t really believe what a special day Ironman Lake Tahoe turned out to be. It is one I will never, ever forget, and will forever be grateful for. I am so very humbled by the overwhelming support I received, from near and far. I can only hope every one of the many people who played a part in getting me to that finish line know just how much they impacted my day, and how truly grateful I am. Thank you, to each and every one of you — my family and friends, my tremendous sponsors and supporters, the spectators and volunteers, my fellow competitors, my incredible course photographers, race organizers, and the entire Tahoe community — for being a part of my “village,” and pushing me to reach my potential.
Now I am faced with some decisions. While I qualified for Kona by winning my age group, I also qualified for my professional license by winning the overall amateur race. Ultimately, I have to choose one or the other… but I’ve got some time to decide, and I will certainly keep everyone posted on that process. Next up for me, it’s back to the dirt for the Xterra World Championship in Maui, where I’ll be racing for an age group world title. It will be hard to top the amazing day I experienced at Ironman Lake Tahoe, but I’m sure going to try my hardest! If you’re interested in helping to support my efforts to get to Maui, please visit my donation page. Every little bit helps. And as they say, it truly takes a village. Thank you!!
Celebrating post-race with just a small part of my tremendous support team! Photo © Mark Nadell, MacBeth Graphics
**Click here to listen to my post-race interview with 101.5 FM, Truckee-Tahoe Radio**
**To view more IMLT photos by MacBeth Graphics, click here**
**To view more IMLT photos by Lefrak Photography, click here**