By Tim Hauserman · Photos by Matt Palmer
Ironman Village | Village at Squaw Valley
Sept. 19-21 | 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sept. 22 | 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
IronKids Fun Run | Village at Squaw Valley
Sept. 20 | 9 a.m.
Ironman Lake Tahoe
Sept. 21 | 6:30 a.m. start-midnight cutoff
2.4-mile swim | Kings Beach
112-mile bike race
Sept. 21 | 7:55 a.m. start
1.2-mile swim | Kings Beach
56-mile bike race
Ironman Awards | Village at Squaw Valley
Sept. 22 | 10 a.m.
In our special Ironman edition, The Weekly brings spectators closer to the experience of this incredible event by profiling a number of local athletes’ Ironman experiences and expectations.
Kara LaPoint was last year’s best local finisher and top women amateur. Her results enabled her to turn pro, and The Weekly talked with her about how that has impacted her life. Dawn Gaffney competed in last year’s Ironman, but was forced to withdraw in the middle after she suffered from what was later determined to be a stroke. Her story is both heartbreaking and uplifting. And, we profile three other Tahoe competitors, whose goals are simple – do his or her best and finish the race.
The second annual Lake Tahoe Ironman is set for Sept. 21. It begins in the brisk waters of Lake Tahoe in Kings Beach and ends at the edge of the mountains in Olympic Valley, touching all of the communities of North Lake Tahoe along the route.
In addition to the grueling 140.6-mile traditional course, this year a Half Ironman has been added (Ironman 70.3), enabling more athletes to experience and complete the course. The Half Ironman event will follow the same course, except a shorter swim, just one lap on the bike, and a shorter run along the Truckee River.
Our Lake Tahoe Ironman has quickly developed a reputation in the Ironman world.
“With over 8,000 feet of climbing on the bike course, added to the normal challenges of 2.4-mile swim and marathon run, Ironman Lake Tahoe is arguably the world’s toughest course. Do all of that at 6,000 feet of altitude, and join a select group of Ironman finishers,” touts the Ironman Web site.
Yep, we like to keep things fun here.
There are 50 qualifying slots for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. As well, there are 30 slots for the Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe to the 2015 Ironman 70.3 World Championships.
The 2,700 Ironman racers, while training or competing in the race, will spend an average of five and a half nights in the region. An additional 3,000 volunteers, and between 8,000 and 10,000 friends and supporters of the racers, are estimated to line the course on race day.
The impact of the race on North Tahoe and Truckee is huge. In fact, North Lake Tahoe Resort Association Chief Marketing Officer Andy Chapman says that the 2014 Ironman Lake Tahoe will bring an estimated $8 to $10 million into the community.
Ironman Lake Tahoe is an economic powerhouse to a great extent because many who come to participate consider it a destination race. Whether they are training here during the beautiful days of July and August, or relaxing after the event, Lake Tahoe Ironman racers love having the excuse to spend more time enjoying the region.
IronKids Fun Run
The IronKids fun run offers young athletes the opportunity to feel the excitement of competition while enjoying the outdoors and promoting healthy living. IronKids takes place on Sept. 20 at 9 p.m. in the Village at Squaw Valley with categories for ages 3 to 15 years. The Fun Run includes quarter-mile, half-mile and 1-mile courses.
Register at the Expo on Sept. 19 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Village, or on the day of the event starting at 7 a.m. at the IronKids starting line in the Village. The cost is $15 per child. For more information, visit ironkids.com.
While the race has a tremendous positive impact on the community, race day does bring potential traffic headaches. There are road closures, and partial road closures throughout the region at various times of day. It is important for anyone who will be in North Tahoe or Truckee on Sept. 21 to have a clear understanding of whether they can get somewhere and how.
One of those adjustments will be that the riders when they come into Tahoe City will now take a right turn onto Grove Street, and then head along Fairway Drive back to Highway 89, bypassing downtown Tahoe City.
Every mailbox holder in the region will receive detailed information on road closures, and up-to-date information is available at ironman.com.
Best places to watch
Viewing Party | 9 a.m.-2 p.m. | Downtown Truckee
Music, Jumbotron viewing, beer garden, activities & specials
Donner Pass Road closed from High to Bridge streets
The Swim | Kings Beach Recreation Area Park
Athletes will enter the swim from Kings Beach Recreation Area and the Transition is in the parking lot next to the beach. Walk or ride your bike to town, park at Kings Beach Elementary School off Steelhead Avenue.
The Bike | Kings Beach to Tahoe City to Truckee
Spectators have a number of great places to watch athletes on the bike course making two loops from Kings Beach to Tahoe City to Truckee along Highways 28, 89 and 267.
Kings Beach | Hot corner at Highways 267 and 28 where athletes will be passing three times, and along Highway 28 from the swim transition. Along Highway 267 for two passes through Kings Beach.
Tahoe City | The bike course detours around downtown at Grove Street and along Fairway Drive and turns onto Highway 89 north with both corners offering great viewing for three passes.
Olympic Valley | Athletes will pass three times near the entrance to Olympic Valley under the Olympic flame.
Truckee | Viewing Party in downtown along Donner Pass Road, where it will be closed in the historic district for the bike race. Enjoy live music, activities for kids and adults, a live feed of the swim, bike and run transitions on the Jumbotron, a beer garden, and dining and drink specials throughout downtown from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Donner Pass Road will be closed from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. from High to Bridge streets. The first pro athletes are expected to start coming through downtown Truckee around 8 a.m., with the final athlete coming through around 2:30. Cowbells to cheer on the athletes will be for sale in the California Welcome Center in the Depot. Visit truckee.com or historictruckee.com.
Northstar | This bike course detours off Hwy. 267 up Northstar Drive to make two passes through the Village at Northstar where there will be lots of great spots for viewing.
The Run | Olympic Valley to Tahoe City
The run course has a number of great spots to catch athletes multiple times along the Truckee River from Olympic Valley to the outskirts of Tahoe City. The Village at Squaw Valley will be an ideal location, close to the finish line, with food, music, the Ironman Village expo, and athletes making multiple passes in the area before finishing. Easy parking also makes this an ideal location to spend the day. The hot corner under the Olympic flame will be a location where athletes can be cheered on three times on the bike, and four times on the run.
Locals take on the mental challenge of Ironman
Kevin Murnane and Rachel Crus should have known better. Rachel took on last year’s Lake Tahoe Ironman, and Kevin watched as his wife, Valli, went through the grueling training before going out and competing in her Lake Tahoe Ironman, the day after a snowstorm. But, they, in what is surely part of the Ironman mystique, are doing it anyway. To see how far they can push the envelope. To see what their bodies and minds can accomplish. To see whether they can complete the challenging task of becoming a Lake Tahoe Ironman, considered by many to be the toughest Ironman of all.
The second annual Lake Tahoe Ironman happens on Sept. 21. The athletes begin with a brisk swim in Lake Tahoe from the shore of Kings Beach. Hopefully, it will not snow during the event this year and the temperatures will be bearable. Then, they emerge to attempt to conquer the Double Triangle. It’s a 112-mile bike ride, which includes two laps of a course that takes competitors from Kings Beach to Tahoe City then Truckee and then around various challenging hills in the Northstar area before conquering the big climb up Brockway Summit and the big descent to Kings Beach. Once all that riding is complete, it’s time for a fun run along the bike trail between Squaw Valley and Tahoe City, which organizers somehow turn into a marathon.
To recap what the athletes are in for: a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe, a 112-mile bike ride with a ton of climbing, and then run a 26.2-mile marathon.
The super athletes who press on to glory with either victory or remarkably impressive times in events like the Ironman are inspiring. Equally inspiring are those regular folks with busy lives that somehow get up the gumption to go out there and compete in an event that is pretty damn hard. Take Murnane for example.
“My goal is just to finish. It is the first event I’ve signed up for that finishing is in doubt.”
In the winter, Kevin Murnane manages Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, and in the summer he runs the bike rental operations at Tahoe XC. These are both pretty all-encompassing jobs, but that’s not all. He has two active and involved kids that are always being driven here or there to be a part of some activity. So, in other words, he doesn’t have a lot of time to train. And, yet, he must surely be driven to train, because he will have to hear about it for the rest of his life if he doesn’t best his wife’s, Valli, time from last year.
Why is he doing it?
“I do a lot of races just for fun, this one seemed like a big challenge,” Murnane says. “After seeing my wife doing it, I know the training that is required. My goal is just to finish. It is the first event I’ve signed up for that finishing is in doubt. I’ve never ridden that far, or swam that far.”
Once the first Lake Tahoe Ironman was announced last year, Kevin and Valli were going to do it together. “But with the kids and training it is too hard for both to do it at the same time, so I said she should do it the first year,” Kevin says.
How does he fit in the training?
“I’m an early riser. I will run at 5:30, or swim at 6,” he says.
Then, he tries to work in longer rides and runs on days off, and has challenged himself to a few grueling events like the Death Ride, which includes riding over four major mountain passes.
“I was amazed by the energy behind the town and all the people that came out to support the race last year.”
Rachel Crus completed her Lake Tahoe Ironman last year, and is back for more. Fortunately, she has a much easier schedule then Kevin; she only has three kids to take care of while her husband runs a busy landscaping business. Oh yeah, and she has to run her law practice. Sure, what the hell. Go do another Ironman.
“I was amazed by the energy behind the town and all the people that came out to support the race last year,” Crus says of competing again. “I want to be a part of that again. Also, I had some obstacles during the race, I want another chance to resolve those.”
While scheduling the time to train for Ironman is a challenge she says she needs it.
“It is important to have a goal for myself outside of my kids’ world. Without Ironman, I wouldn’t push myself to get out as much as I do.”
“For first-timers, it’s really about getting across the line. The mental part is as difficult as the physical.”
Two years ago, Bob Wright from Kings Beach spent 11 months riding a bike across 22 countries on a tandem with his 10-year-old daughter on the back.
“On our longest day, we rode 130 miles. We averaged between 80 and 120 miles per day. Day after day, with 95-degree heat and high humidity. You get used to it,” he says.
When he returned to America, he wanted to take advantage of the superb physical condition he had developed, so he signed up for the inaugural Lake Tahoe Ironman. Then, he got injured from over training and missed last year’s event. So, this year, he signed up again.
“I’m smarter now,” he says. “I trained gently all winter and planned to have all summer to get ready. And, then I got a crazy sinus infection that kept me from training. I recovered enough to do the World’s Toughest Half Triathlon in Auburn. It was flipping hard, I thought there is no way I could double that,” Bob says.
Now, he is feeling better, listening to his body. Taking days off and easing back into condition, but worried that his body won’t be ready by Sept. 21. One option is to change to the Half Ironman, he says.
“I’m interested if seeing if I can do a full. But, to put it together is a major family decision. The time requirements are so intense. For first-timers, it’s really about getting across the line. The mental part is as difficult as the physical.”
For most of the local Tahoe athletes competing in the Lake Tahoe Ironman, it’s about committing oneself to an incredibly challenging goal, which requires up to a year of training. And, then, somehow, someway, on that one day, getting across the line.
Kara LaPoint: Tahoe’s best Ironman athlete
Kara LaPoint competes during the marathon leg of Ironman Lake Tahoe. | Photo: Harry LeFrak
For Truckee-native Kara LaPoint, her incredible, first-place finish among amateur women in the inaugural Lake Tahoe Ironman last year was a turning point for her career.
The Ironman also was one of her best athletic experiences, she said, as she felt the love and support from all of her Tahoe friends, especially that great group of young athletes that compose the North Tahoe High School cross-country ski team that she coaches.
Since the Lake Tahoe Ironman, our local hero has been on a challenging but rewarding athletic path. Her winning amateur performance allowed LaPoint to make the decision to become a pro athlete (although she isn’t able to compete in this year’s Ironman Lake Tahoe). It didn’t take her long to discover that the leap from amateur to pro is a mighty big leap.
Making the leap to pro
“I’ve had a really good season,” LaPoint says. “But you need to have so much of a different perspective when you turn pro. The level is so much higher. I’ve moved from consistently doing well, to being the little fish in the big pond.”
While she has performed competitively in the XTERRA events she competed in this year (which include off-road mountain biking and trail running, as opposed to the regular triathlon events with biking and running on pavement), she says it doesn’t compare.
The Ironman events are “so competitive, there are such fantastic women racers, I’m just fighting to not be in the very back,” said LaPoint.
She has embraced the competition, however.
“I like to be really challenged. To be among people who are better then me. It’s a quest to keep improving,” she says.
She had a choice last year after her top result in the Lake Tahoe Ironman of making the jump to pro or staying as an amateur. If she stayed amateur, she could have been rewarded by having the opportunity to regularly make it to the top of the heap in the amateur division, but she liked the idea of pushing herself, of taking on a difficult goal by racing with the pros. She says that she thrives when people force her to really up her game.
While LaPoint pushes herself to catch up with the competition in the pro ranks in the national races, she’s garnered tremendous success this past year in the few local races she competed in. She won the XTERRA Tahoe City event, and took first place twice in Granite Bay, in The Folsom International Triathlon and the TBF Racing Tri for Real.
She’s also moving up the ranks quickly in XTERRA events, taking a seventh-place finish in the Western Championship in Las Vegas and a seventh in the Southeast Championship in Alabama. Her best result in the road triathlon circuit was in the Vineman, in the Sonoma County wine country, a full, Ironman-length race where she made the podium, finishing in third place.
One major disappointment for LaPoint is that she will not get to repeat the experience of racing in this year’s Ironman. Unfortunately, on the same weekend as the Lake Tahoe Ironman, the XTERRA National Championship happens in Ogden, Utah. LaPoint currently sits in ninth place in the National Rankings and the event is the culmination of her XTERRA season, and her chance to race into the top 10 in the national rankings. She plans on getting back to the Lake Tahoe Ironman as soon as she can.
Kara LaPoint | Photo: August Teague
Future in the pros
LaPoint says that she is excited about her future in the pros. At 27-years-old, she is the youngest women pro in the circuit. Endurance women athletes often don’t reach their peak until the mid-30s, with many top athletes in their early 40s.
She has a Half Ironman-length event in early October and then it is on to the XTERRA World Championships in Maui late in the month. She is focusing on her long-term goals of building her experience and slowly lowering her times and ticking her way toward the top of the pack.
Being a up and coming, but not quite there yet, pro triathlete is a financial challenge; Kara is sponsored by the LUNA Chix Team.
“They have been great. I really couldn’t have done it without them,” she says.
But the LUNA sponsorship doesn’t cover all the costs of traveling and competing in the events. So, she pairs together a series of part-time jobs that she can do between competitions, such as a sales rep in the outdoor industry and freelance writing.
“My goal is to be a contender in the future,” she says.
Once an athlete reaches the top of the sport, prize money and sponsorships can make a major contribution to his or her income. The most money to be won is in the Ironman and Half-Ironman events. Of course, that also is where the competition is fiercest. But, hey, Kara likes to take on a challenge and anybody who has seen how determined she is to be successful, wouldn’t bet against her.
The dawn of a new Dawn
At the inaugural Lake Tahoe Ironman last year, Tahoe locals were out volunteering and cheering on their friends turned heroes as they made the epic physical and psychological journey of becoming an Ironman. An event that boggles the mind: Stage one is an icy, 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe. Stage two begins with the racers emerging from the water shaking from the cold, getting on a bike and riding 112 miles, including two grueling climbs over Brockway Summit, and then, running a marathon.
As the volunteers handed out water bottles or helped the hypothermic find blankets, we cheered and looked for friends. We’d catch brief glimpses as they rode past, or later, get a better look as they slowly ran along the bike trail. In the hubbub, it’s easy to miss someone, and one we missed was 42-year-old local Dawn Gaffney. We didn’t see her, until that evening. Well, actually then we only saw her picture on Facebook, wearing a hospital gown and a pouting face. She never made it to the finish line.
Dawn starts the 112-mile bike course during the 2013 competition | Courtesy Dawn Gaffney
Training for Ironman
Dawn grew up in Oregon as a swimmer, and completed her first triathlon at the age of 13, and while she didn’t complete another until the age of 30, for many years she’d wanted to do an Ironman. When the Lake Tahoe Ironman became a reality, she jumped at the chance to compete on her home turf. She’s always been athletic, but now with two young boys and a job at Squaw Valley, she needed a powerful motivator to stay in top shape.
She trained hard for the Lake Tahoe Ironman for six months, sometimes in friendly competition with her friend, Tahoe attorney Rachel Crus.
“I felt good before the race,” Dawn said. “I knew I could do the distance, but I was a little nervous. There are always the unknown factors.”
She ran, biked and swam as much as she could leading up to the event. It required a great deal of time management, and a supportive husband, Scott Gaffney. She would get up early in the morning and swim at sunrise from the pier at the bottom of Grove Street in Tahoe City to the Tahoe Tavern pier. She would bike to work every day from her home in Tahoe City to Squaw Valley. And, then, on the weekends, there would be long runs, rides or swims, or perhaps all three.
Awaiting a diagnosis after having to pull out of competition during the 2013 Ironman | Courtesy Dawn Gaffney
‘I need help’
On that cold morning last September, Dawn joined the throng of potential Ironmen along the shore in Kings Beach. While the air was cold, the water was warmer.
“I was fine during the entire swim. There was fog, and I never saw the buoys, but just followed the people,” she said.
She emerged from the water next to her friend Rachel, both surprised and happy to be exiting at the same time. After that was the challenge of getting out of the freezing cold wet suit and onto her bike.
“I was all fired up. Everybody was cheering me on. I cruised up Dollar Hill and there were more friends at the top of the hill. I was excited,” Dawn says.
She roared down Dollar Hill and into Tahoe City, and then found herself starting to swerve on her bike.
“I was wondering what was going on. I was dizzy, trying to focus, and then felt really queasy. I pulled over and stopped, and put my head down on my bars. A spectator asked if I was OK, and I said, ‘I need help.’ I couldn’t lift my bike, they had to help me. Then, I instantly got this massive headache.” She stops the description and laughs, “I watched Rachel go by, and that was a bummer.”
Diagnosing the cause
The headache would not go away. She borrowed a phone and called Scott, who was with her brother-in-law Robb Gaffney, a doctor, stuck on the top of Highway 267. They were waiting to cheer on Dawn, and now unable to move to help her because the road was closed for the racers.
Robb called an ambulance and when the paramedics arrived they couldn’t determine what was wrong. The Gaffney’s also made a series of phone calls to round up a group of friends, who came to Tahoe City to be with Dawn.
“Having the friends with her was very helpful, since they were able to watch her in real time and help the emergency personnel and Dawn make good decisions,” Robb said.
Since the paramedics were not able to figure out what was wrong, Dawn said that she thought “I will get back on my bike. … I just fell over, unable to stand, so they put me back in the ambulance and I went to the hospital.”
With her Ironman tracker still attached to her body, those who were following Dawn’s progress on the computer could note that she was setting a new speed record for the ride between Tahoe City and Truckee in the back of the ambulance.
At the hospital, they did a CAT scan and found nothing wrong, so she went home. But, even the Vicodin they were giving her was not putting a dent into the power of the headache. And, the emotional trauma of having to give up on this goal that she had worked so hard for, was nearly as devastating.
The next morning, she was having trouble seeing and still had the headache, so Robb urged her to get back to the hospital, to conduct a different set of tests that would hopefully figure out the problem.
“We were concerned that something might be getting worse,” Robb said. “The whole day of the race and evening we were on the phone with other physicians trying to determine what was the problem.”
A painful spinal tap and an MRI was performed and found nothing. Then, they did a MRI with a contrast test and discovered evidence of a vertebral artery dissection; a type of stroke that is not caused by a blood clot like most strokes. She was quickly put in an ambulance and spent the next three days in Reno in treatment.
While it was horrible timing for Dawn that she was unable to complete her race, it also was lucky that the stroke happened when it did. If it had happened in the middle of the swim or during the fastest part of a downhill, her prognosis would have been much worse.
What cannot be determined is what caused the stroke. While there are several causes for the type of stroke Dawn suffered from, including blunt trauma, a spontaneous occurrence without any known reason is fairly common. While vertebral artery dissections only account for 2 percent of all strokes, they account for up to a quarter of strokes in the young and middle aged, with the average age for a woman to encounter it being between 34- and 44-years-old.
One of the reasons Dawn agreed to meet with me and tell her story was to increase the awareness of the illness. It is easily misdiagnosed because medical professionals do not expect to see a young, healthy person have a stroke.
Dawn finishes the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe during the 2013 Ironman Lake Tahoe | Courtesy Dawn Gaffney
Looking forward to Ironman
When her friends heard what had happened, they quickly posted hundreds of messages of support on Facebook. But, being Tahoe, many of those messages encouraged her to get right back on the horse, and compete again as soon as possible. Her doctor, however, had other ideas. He strongly encouraged her to take it easy.
Dawn laughs now remembering her doctor saying, “I know people like you. The type that push themselves to the limit. You know, Tahoe people. People for whom it is tough to realize that sometimes enduring the pain and pushing on is not the cure.”
“It was hard knowing I wouldn’t be able to race for awhile, now it is even getting harder,” she says. “I am really lucky. I get to come back and do it again. I didn’t have to learn again how to walk.”
“I freak out when I feel a headache, or I get the normal dizziness when I get up too fast,” she says. “When I was on the bike the other day, I thought, ‘what happens right now if I have a stroke and fall over.’ ”
This past winter, she began with some cross-country skiing, and is now slowly starting to run again. Recently, she took her first slow ride up to the top of Brockway Summit.
“I’m anxious to get going, it’s been enjoyable all the extra time I’ve had with the kids this year, but I want to do Ironman again in 2015.”
Good luck, Dawn. We will be pulling for you.
Ironman Lake Tahoe Course
The Swim | 2.4 miles
Swim Course |Kings Beach State Recreation Area
Start – 6:30 a.m.
Cutoff time – 2 hours 20 minutes after last athlete starts
The Ironman course begins with a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe from the Kings Beach State Recreation Area. When the racers emerge from the chilly water (averaging between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit), they will transition to the bikes on the beach and begin the ride.
The Bike | 112 miles
Bike Course | Kings Beach State Recreation Area
Start – 7:30-9:30 a.m.
Finish – Squaw Valley
21/3 loops | Kings Beach to Tahoe City to Truckee and back
Cutoff time – 5:30 p.m.
Racers head to Tahoe City on Highway 28 detouring around downtown along the backside of Tahoe City, and turn on to Highway 89 north following the Truckee River into Truckee, where the course loops through the downtown area, before heading to Highway 267.
The riders veer off Highway 267 to take a tour of Northstar, before conquering the grueling climb to the top of Brockway Summit. Next up is the thrilling downhill into Kings Beach, and time for another complete lap back to Kings Beach, followed by one more leg from Kings Beach through Tahoe City to begin the run in Olympic Valley.
The Run | 26.2 Miles
Run Course | Squaw Valley
Start – 12:00 p.m.
Finish – Village at Squaw Valley
Truckee River Trail | Squaw Valley to Tahoe City
2:30-3 p.m. – Top finishers complete Ironman
Cutoff time – Midnight
From Olympic Valley, the runners head toward Tahoe City on the Truckee River bike path for a relatively flat run. At the bike bridge just before entering Tahoe City, runners turn around and run back to Olympic Valley. The second lap heads back along the bike trail with the turnaround before Alpine Meadows Road for the final push to the finish in the Village at Squaw Valley.