Three Times The Challenge…Nearly
Fire Ends Ironman Challenge…For Now
I should be writing this as a newly anointed Ironman, a member of a group of insane individuals who think nothing of putting themselves through a day of hell with a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and topped off with a marathon for good measure. Alas, in spite of being as prepared as it is possible to be, it ultimately came down to an idiot with a match to bring the whole dream crashing down. Or should that be, somewhat ironically, extinguished?!
As the race approached training reduced in overall volume and intensity but in a bid to better prepare for the high altitude of Lake Tahoe, and the even higher parts of the bike course, I worked with the team over at Talise Fitness, Madinat to make use of their altitude room. This meant that I was able to train on both the turbo trainer and treadmill at the equivalent of 3500 metres above sea level, significantly higher than any part of the Ironman course I would be racing. Although the evidence I could find questioned the real physiological impact of such training on truly enhancing performance at real altitude, the psychological boost of knowing that I had experienced more than I would be facing in the real race, and that I was easily able to cope and even excel made all the difference and more than justified the exercise. I came to really enjoy the routine of arriving at the Madinat, greeting the friendly valet team, before receiving puzzled looks from hotel guests as I wheeled my road bike over to Talise, where I signed in, becoming known as “that Chris Queen!” before diving into the low oxygen atmosphere of the room where I’d remain for the session, in the company of my own thoughts and the various artists of MTV. I was genuinely saddened when my sessions had run their course and it was time to bid farewell to the team, and know that I would no longer be able to start or end my days making use of the luxurious facilities on offer.
The Final Countdown
The final week is incredibly nerve-wracking before any big race, especially one for which so much preparation has been poured into. As such, it is normal to become somewhat anxious and even paranoid about anything that could pose a risk to your race. People getting ill at work, to reports of possible Icelandic volcanic eruptions, to simple traffic near misses – a regular, normal occurrence in Dubai – they all serve to heighten the sense of countdown as you will the date that you finally board the plane for the race closer. In addition, it seemed as though every patient I saw that last week was excessively aggressive, with a dog bite and a cat mauling to add to the pre-race trials. Needless to say I survived this anxious period, upping my vitamin C intake and being even more eagle eyed on the roads than usual. The fact that packing nearly killed me is normal. I loathe packing for any trip and when the luggage also includes a race-ready bike to be dismantled, wrapped and packed, then my stress levels do tend to peak. I think for future races I shall incorporate ‘packing training’ into my programme!
Flight day finally arrived and the issue of how to lug my considerably sized bike box to the airport was solved by a good friend of mine who sacrificed sleep to ensure I made it to the airport for stupid o’clock. Check-in was anything but simple, initially due to the fact that I was acting as a chaperone for two rescue Salukis who were being relocated to new homes in the US by a local rescue group. The real drama, however, was when the friendly check-in assistant asked me if I had applied to “Esther.” “Sorry, who?” was my swift, puzzled response. “Who is Esther?!” Apparently a special visa known as an ESTA is required for entry into the US, something that I had completely overlooked in preparing for my trip. Visions of missing my flight, homeless dogs and the entire IronVet challenge crashing down in an instant formed in my mind and my response was to hastily enquire, with clear panic in my voice, whether I was able to apply for this visa now, as in right now?! Thankfully it was possible, although I had only fifty minutes in which to do it and had to somehow get access to the website. With my phone choosing the worst possible time to ignore any available internet connections I desperately wracked my brains for options, ultimately plumping to inconvenience the same friend yet again in the same morning. Thanks to her exceptionally good humour, speedy typing and credit card I had my application in, confirmation back and clearance to enter the US within thirty minutes. Phew!
With disaster averted we rejoined the check-in queue, by now significantly longer, and were soon ushered through ahead of others due to the fact that our particular flight was due to leave soon. It should have been plain sailing from there but we chose the new team member who also happened to have a clear dislike of dogs and no idea of what to do about checking them in. Further delay and by now some very anxious foot-tapping and thoughts again of missed flights and ruined trips. In the true spirit of the morning so far, however, we were finally checked in, bike, bags and dogs whisked away and I raced through security and on to my gate.
The US of A
A good fifteen hours, two and a half movies, some passable food and even less convincing amounts of sleep later and we touched down in California, where I collected the two dogs, looking relatively relaxed after what I suspect was a way more stressful trip than mine, and ventured out to meet the contacts for the pooches, leaving them to their new homes as I went off in search of a car. Fast forward 30 minutes and with my new Jeep fully loaded, Tahoe programmed in and a sense of real excitement, headed off over the Bay bridge, leaving downtown San Francisco behind, as Oakland and then Berkeley beckoned. One major issue with the bay area, I soon discovered, was the traffic. So much traffic! The first two hours of the trip were simply spent in crawling traffic, meaning that the chances of making it to Tahoe in daylight were zero, and with jet lag very much setting in I made the executive decision to stop for the night, before then making a super early start for the mountains.
Fire & Arsonists
I had heard reports shortly before leaving Dubai of issues with wildfires in Northern California, and one in particular that was raging a short distance away from Tahoe and that was apparently threatening the race itself. The facts became clearer as I neared Tahoe, with thick smoke present, being blown into the area by prevailing winds, and shrouding the entire region in thick, noxious smoke for the past few days. The day I actually arrived the winds had settled and it was relatively clear for the first two days, although it was still clear that the air was not what it should be, and the ever present smell of barbecue was evident. Still, if things stayed as they were then the race would still be able to proceed. Wildfires are unfortunately a difficult fact of life for those living in Northern California, with conditions this year apparently even worse due to the very dry summer, but the fact is that the fire affecting Tahoe was set intentionally. The idiot in question is, at the time of writing, in prison and deservedly so, with the disruption, damage, danger and loss at so many levels being staggeringly huge.
Sign In & Final Preparations
Once I was settled into my super sweet home for the week – a three bedroom alpine chalet with views out over Lake Tahoe, towards the Eastern shoreline and Nevada – it was time to head on over to Squaw Valley, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics and the site of the bike to run transition and finishing chute for the race. As I drove along the valley to the actual village it was clear to see why Ironman had chosen this particular site for the finish – breathtaking beauty and a truly stunning backdrop, an outstanding display on this particular day without the smoke to obscure the views. If conditions stayed clear then the finish promised to be a truly spectacular experience.
The first stop was the bike wheel hire stand, where my wheels were swapped over to a pair of Zipps – 404 on the front and 808 on the rear – which if anything did give my bike a race-ready makeover and helped to really get me into a race frame of mind. Registering was a straightforward affair and with my race number secured, chip, swim cap and various transition and special needs bags in hand, I was able to really start mentally and physically preparing for the challenge ahead.
It is one thing reading about and viewing a race course online, either in race documentation or on You Tube, but to see it and experience it first hand is the true test. The swim stage of this particular race was to be a 2 lap loop in the cool, crystal clear waters of the lake, just off King’s Beach, a gently sloping and popular public swimming area a few kilometres up the shore from Tahoe City, a beautiful little town nestled on the shore of the lake and my base for the week. Once out of the water, the bike leg of the race was to be a two and a third loop route initially heading along the shore to Tahoe City, before snaking along Olympic Valley, past Squaw Valley and over to the town of Truckee, a small town nestled within the valley and framed by the Truckee river, the only outflow from the mighty Lake Tahoe. Once through the town, the cycle route opens up onto a beautiful plain with the imposing climb of Brockway, with the alpine village of Northstar as the first target, rising in both a majestic and intimidating fashion ahead. The long, steady climb to the summit of Brockway, at an elevation of 7,200 feet (a vertical climb from the shoreline of 1000 feet), would really have tested the climbing stamina of athletes before the reward of several kilometres of exhilarating descent to return to Kings Beach and the start of the next loop. Once athletes had summited Brockway twice, the third loop was to take them left at Squaw Valley and into transition for the final big test of the day: the marathon. Running out of Squaw and out towards Tahoe City along the bike path tracing the Truckee river, athletes were to complete two laps, turning on the outskirts of town, keeping eyes peeled for the plethora of wildlife species for whom the area is home, including bears and coyotes. With the sun setting (assuming that the finish was in sight within the twelve to thirteen hour range) the finish line would have come into sight, the towering peaks overlooking Squaw Valley being the backdrop to a truly memorable and epic feat. The Ironman Lake Tahoe course is revered for being one of the toughest on the circuit, and with good reason. If the high altitude doesn’t sap the energy of athletes then the two loops up and over Brockway is sure to test anyone’s endurance before the run. Anyone completing this race can truly claim bragging rights and feel worthy of the title ‘Ironman.’
The Drama Climaxes
I arrived in Tahoe on Friday, with the race scheduled for the Sunday. According to locals and athletes who had been present since early in the week, the preceding two days had been truly awful, with thick smoke shrouding the entire area, making visibility atrocious and breathing laboured and unpleasant. Racing in anything close to such conditions would have been an impossibility. It was with a deep sense of relief and renewed optimism then that the winds shifted direction on Friday and Saturday, keeping the smoke at bay and offering a glimpse of what could have been, albeit with a lingering scent of charred wood still clinging stubborning to the air. Still, if the smell of barbecue was the most we had to contend with on race day then we could certainly live with that; anything as long as the race went ahead as planned.
I took the opportunity in the two days leading up to the race to test out the still waters of the lake, bracing myself for what I had been assuming for the past year would be truly icy and biting conditions. I was, therefore, very pleasantly surprised to discover that far from being freezing, the water was refreshingly cool, almost unbelievably clean and crystal clear, allowing a rapid appreciation of how precipitously the shoreline suddenly drops to incredible depths. I followed a short swim past moored boats and a packed shoreline restaurant with a relaxed and pleasant run along part of the bike path that circumnavigates the entire lake, appreciating the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and mentally recapping the past year of preparation that had brought me from a mere idea and a dream to be physically present in Northern California about to put myself through the single day for which so much had been invested.
It was with a sense of sudden foreboding then that we felt another shift in the wind and, much like a dementor scene from Harry Potter, the hazy smoke started its creeping reinvasion of the area. With kit prepared, bike in transition and special needs bags sitting ready and waiting to be dropped off in the morning, I enjoyed a pre-race dinner with a visiting friend, all the while quietly praying to Mother Nature to shift the winds once more and allow the race to proceed. It looked less and less likely that this was to be the case, however, as I woke several times during the night, both due to normal pre-race nerves but also due to smoke which had managed to pervade even my room. The race organisers had announced that they would be making their decision on whether the race would be staged by Saturday evening so with no word to the contrary it appeared as though we were still set to test ourselves as Ironmen. Waking up on race morning and driving to Squaw Valley, from where we were all scheduled to catch buses to the swim start, it seemed even worse than anyone had imagined, with choking smoke enveloping the entire valley. Still, no one was even contemplating not racing and, again, with no official announcement to suggest otherwise we all bristled with excited energy as we chatted en route to Kings Beach and the start of the day.
I felt surprisingly calm during the final couple of hours, safe in the knowledge I think of having fully prepared my kit, including a very well stocked nutrition stockpile and special needs provisions that had been curated with the trusted advice of both my coach and friend, a seasoned long distance runner and champion in her discipline. Aware of the fact that there was no more athletic training to do I simply switched my thoughts to executing my plan for each stage, focusing on each individual discipline in turn and reminding myself that no matter what was to happen, this day was above all else a fun experience and one to be cherished, pain and all. As such, I stepped out onto the beach, goggles in hand, with a sudden surge of real genuine excitement at hearing the starting pistol….
…then disaster. The race, it was announced, had been called off. Cancelled. The reason given was, as anticipated, the unhealthy levels of smoke in the air making the conditions hazardous to human health. In spite of hearing the words and knowing at gut level that the decision was the only sensible one to be made, the sense of disbelief was palpable. So much so that most of us, myself included, simply ambled back towards transition almost expecting a second announcement to be made telling us that a terrible error had been made and that the race was to go ahead after all. No such follow-up came and so as quickly as excitement had peaked, a crushing sense of anticlimax washed through the crowd. We had come as close to starting the race as was possible, with some athletes already in the water and the pros literally under starter’s orders, and yet it had been snatched away. That was it. Our race was over before it had started and a year of preparation, it suddenly seemed, had amounted to nothing. Some athletes, whether through a sense of not wishing to accept that which had been stated or, more likely, on account of needing an immediate outlet for the caffeine induced energy about to burst out of them, completed the swim course and I later saw people out on bikes and running, in spite of the choking smoke that gradually crept as far as Tahoe City itself. In hindsight I wish I had at least dived in and completed even one lap of the swim loop, but in my sense of numb disbelief I simply did what most did and collected my things before boarding the buses for a return to Squaw Valley, by then almost invisible on account of the noxious smoke blown in from King County. A return trip with my bike to take back the wheels, an expensive 24 hours of mere decoration as it transpired, and I turned my back on Squaw Valley for the last time during my trip, left to wonder what if and contemplate whether or not I would be returning the next year to legitimately claim my finishers medal. Talking of medals, the ones that we were due to receive at the finish were left out for us to pick up, an exercise that had carried a sad sense of fraud about it. I collected one, more out of simply following the herd than actually wanting one, and even now I look at it with a deep sense of sadness, anger and disentitlement at being in possession of it. Why had Ironman even made them available?! It seemed wrong that there were two thousand medals out there, awarded for a race that was never staged and owned now by people for whom they simply serve as painful reminders of a shattered dream.
As everyone came to terms with the reality that the selfish actions of one single grown man with an unhealthy obsession with fire had ultimately led to not only the cancellation of the biggest event in our collective calendars, but had also decimated local peoples’ lives, thoughts turned to the response of the WTC, the owners of the Ironman brand, and what they would do about the cancellation. I, like most other athletes I had spoken with, naturally assumed that the most obvious and likely reaction of the organisers would be to automatically guarantee each and every one of us free entry to the following year’s race. Alternatively, offering the option to register for another race, especially those that were being staged shortly, seemed obvious, especially considering that everyone in Tahoe was fit, race ready and raring to go. It had been suggested to me that I could look at the options of either entering Ironman Malaysia, due to run the next weekend, or, staying in the US, Ironman Chattanooga, Tennessee. I did look into both options, the former being ruled out first and foremost on account of the obscenely expensive cost of flights from the US, but I had already told myself that I still wanted to race Tahoe, meaning that a focus on the upcoming half distance races I had already booked and then resuming training for 2015 was my preferred course of action.
Disappointed then is what I would describe my feelings at seeing the response of the WTC to the cancellation of our race. We were indeed being given the option of either registering for next year’s Tahoe race or a select alternative race (available slots dependent) but there would be a charge of $100 for the pleasure. A charge?! I am not naive and realise that there would have been costs associated with organising and staging the race even though it was subsequently cancelled but I also firmly believe that an organisation the size of the WTC will a) have insurance in place to hedge against the chance, even remote as it is, of a cancellation, and b) consider the potential goodwill it would generate in the face of such universal disappointment by making a grand gesture of the kind that waiving any sort of fee would clearly have created. The fact that they decided to impose a charge, even a relatively low charge of $100, suggests a misunderstanding of their market. The very fact that the fee was relatively low further suggests to me that they could easily have extended a generous branch to their athletes, especially given how profitable the brand is overall. I, like many others who turned up eager to race this year, have subsequently paid the requisite fee (including an additional credit card handling fee, to add a small insult to injury) and thus registered for next year’s race, something that I expect Ironman knew we would ultimately do, such is the strength of the desire to complete a target race. I have been in touch with them, have had my say and in the end have coughed up the readies, so the focus is now on moving on and preparing for next year’s race. With ice the first year and now fire this year, it will be interesting to see what happens next. My sincere hopes are for a calm Mother Nature, a wet winter and ultimately an epic race two years in the making!
The Final Days Stateside
With the race cancelled, there was at least the silver lining of being able to enjoy an unexpected breakfast with my friend, Alicia, who had made the trip up from San Francisco for the previous day but would not have been able to stay for the race. It did seem, on reflection, as though the entire project had been carrying bad omens from the start, with the first stroke of bad luck being that a good friend of mine, who had been due to travel up from San Diego with his girlfriend to spend the week in Tahoe with me, was taken suddenly very ill and was thus unable to travel. As such, I was set to finish the race solo and then spend the rest of the week on my todd, in hindsight not the best experience. Secondly there was the fire. Seriously! What were the chances of there being one deranged idiot choosing to set a fire in that exact area of California at that exact time of the year, and for the winds to then be in that specific direction meaning that smoke was to blow in?!
The rest of the week went by relatively swiftly and in spite of still having fun, as determined as I was to not let the race fiasco totally ruin my trip, including an epic morning wake boarding and wake surfing on a perfectly flat lake, the smoke remained and did certainly hinder much in the way of serious activity, including an aborted attempt to ride the Ironman cycle route. I drove it instead and was soon glad I called time on the attempt, with thick smoke across the Truckee valley. I also decided to call short my entire trip, as I had initially been due to spend three weeks in the US. Due to various factors, the race being the final one, I decided to rather save my holiday, with the intention of regrouping and focusing on a repeat attempt next year. A brief stop in San Francisco, where the air was noticeably fresher, and it was back on a plane, barely a full week after I initially arrived. Certainly hadn’t seen that one coming! Life has a weird way of testing each and every one of us and it seemed that I was to be tested this year, with this and subsequent trials yet to be thrown my way being life’s apparent plan for me. Roll on 2015 is all I can say
If you would like to continue following the training and racing exploits of Chris as he prepares for his new challenge of racing Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015, then you can do so via the website www.ironvet.net or via the Facebook page, Ironvet 2014. Similarly, if you would like to donate to the WVS and support Chris’ chosen charity in this challenge, then you can do so at www.justgiving.com/ironvet.