As my first race after moving to the US, I was really looking forward to the Lake Tahoe Triple marathon for several reasons. The main ones were that it's one of the most beautiful places imaginable and the location of my wedding in 2010. So I was hoping it would live up to the expectations from photos and from what friends and family had told me about it.
Amy and I were not disappointed and the wedding venue is spectacular (one of my better ideas). We were also lucky to arrive during a heat wave at the end of September, with record highs on several days around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). This made the lake look perfect, as the photos show, with amazing backdrops of the surrounding mountains and bright, blue sky. Over the three days of the race I'd get to see the entire 72 miles around the lake, with a 6.8 mile overlap to make up the distance. It straddles the border of California and Nevada so I'd get to run in two different states.
I wasn't sure how my legs would feel having only had two weeks to recover from the Transalpine race. Even though I'd tried to 'jog' through that rather than destroying my legs, there's no way to escape the constant climbs and punishing descents so I knew my legs would have a slight hangover. On the plus side, I expected a benefit from a week of altitude training. It didn't quite work out like that.
After a couple of days of relaxing at the lake with my parents, I had the triple marathon expo and a briefing pasta party on the Thursday night. Most people were new to the race and almost everyone seemed to come from far away, with many from outside the US. Bart Yasso, of Runners World, gave a speech, as did a couple of past winners. The winners were describing the course for the three marathons and I realised that there would be a few more hills than I expected.
Although I'd just come from a race where the average climb per day was 7,000ft (2,200m), that had been off-road and I hadn't been trying to keep up 3-hour marathon pace. So the 800ft+ (250m) hills would be an added obstacle. As they described it, day one starts at 6,900ft and has a steep drop down to lake level at 6,200ft with a climb to over 7,000ft at the end and some undulation in-between. Not too bad, but difficult to follow up with two more similar days. The general feeling was that day two is the easiest as it started downhill then followed the lake with just a couple of climbs to 6,500ft in the second half.
Day three would be the hardest, and not just because of the preceding two days. But it was the main event as it also included a lot of single-day marathoners, a half and a 10k, while the other days only has a handful of single-dayer marathoners. In fact, the number of combinations of races is large as runners can pick and choose, although the main choices are:
3x marathons (Fri-Sun)
1x marathon (any day, but Sunday is by far the largest event)
2x marathons (Fri-Sat) with a 72 miler round the entire lake on the Sunday
'Just' the 72 miler
A half/10k/kid's run on the Sunday
There are also kayaking and bike races which can be included in the mix. That meant there were a lot of racing tourists in town, mainly staying in South Lake Tahoe, like we did.
The one other point which I found out about at the pasta party is the unclosed roads for the first two days. Normally that wouldn't matter too much, but with a lot of sharp twists and a major 2-lane highway around almost all the lake, that meant getting dangerously close to the traffic. We were told to always run on the left so we could see the approaching traffic and that we may occasionally have to jump over the barriers to avoid trucks...except the barriers sometimes had near vertical drops on the other side of them. It left a few people a little nervous, to say the least. But the main feeling with the runners was anticipation and excitement.
On the Friday morning there were less than a hundred runners lined up at the start, all wrapped up warmly due to the temperatures being just over freezing at 7am (for a 7:15am start). I knew two runners from the UK 100 Marathon Club, Jack Brooks and Roger Biggs (Basher and Dasher, as they refer to themselves). We were told it would get hotter by the afternoon and be back up to the record temperatures, but I was expecting it to be under 70 degrees Fahrenheit even when I finished, around 10:15am, if all went to plan.
One of the things I love most about ultras (and I count multi-days like this as a type of ultra) is the tactics involved. It's easy to get caught up and start racing immediately, or at least push too hard. However, it all comes down to who can sustain the best pace later in the race so too much effort early on will severely harm the latter stages.
With this in mind, plus a slight nauseous feeling, I tried to pace myself...except I also wanted to win so I needed to see how good the competition was. The slightly mad race director started us with his shotgun and with a downhill to start with, I found myself running with two other guys at about 5:30min/miles. Oops...
After a couple of miles I got a sense that they weren't lunatics going off way too fast and that they knew what they were doing. We reached just above lake level after about three miles and I left them go into the distance, reasoning that I could only run my own race and that their pace was way too quick. However, on the flat they had slowed down to a more reasonable speed, but well below 3-hour marathon pace. I also had some stomach issues which caused me to stop for a 'comfort break', before getting going again.
So after just a short time I found myself running completely alone on the side of the road. I'd expected it to all be road, but found that there was a section of a few miles of walking trails, just next to the road. I didn't mind, except that I'd arranged to meet Amy and my parents at seven miles, which was on the road at a junction. This gave them a bit of a lie-in before seeing me and allowed me to dump my warm clothes and gloves with them. Luckily, the route took me back to the road at least a mile before I saw them. They'd expected to see me in first so were surprised by the two ahead of me and thought I must be struggling. I wasn't at that point but had some issues ahead of me later that day.
The next time I saw them was at halfway, right outside our hotel in South Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately this wasn't part of the course, as I only found out later. I thought we were meant to stick to the main road round the lake, but just before the hotel there was a turn left to get a little closer to the lake and see the start of the kayaking race, then rejoin right after the hotel. I only found this out later on as I'd not been looking for chalk arrows on the road to divert me from the only bit of the course I actually knew...or thought I knew. It was under a half mile which I cut off, but it did surprise me that I could see second place again after the hotel.
I was feeling ill by this point and wasn't sure why. I didn't think it could be altitude since I've run many times at higher altitudes with no effect, but this must have been the cause. It dragged me down through the rest of the race and I struggled to keep below 7min/miles. Then the big climb towards the end left me walking sections. I really wasn't able to enjoy the course, scenery or the sensation of running and just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.
It didn't help that it got hotter and hotter or that the 3 water stations on the course were so far apart. It was lucky I had my support crew, but they were only stopping where they could on the highway, so it was more than the every two miles I'd hoped for. Dehydration was also adding to my general fatigue, so when I saw the turn into the parking lot for the finish I couldn't wait to eat and drink. I finished in 3h04m, eight minutes ahead of fourth and behind Lynyrd Skynrod's stunning 2h43m and Blue Benadum's 3h00m.
I was certainly right to not stick with Lynyrd as he was aiming for the world record of 8h11m for the triple, which had been set three years earlier at Tahoe by a South African Comrades gold medallist and 2h18m marathoner. So there was some hot competition this year - normally 3h04m would have been enough to be leading. On the was back I sat in the lake to help my legs recover, but even then I was feeling sick.
That afternoon I was wrecked and worse than I've ever been after a race. I couldn't hold conversation and had no appetite, feeling like I was in a waking coma. I tried to stay awake so I could get a decent night's sleep, but eventually went for a 90-minute nap as I couldn't stay awake. I'd felt like dropping out during the second 13 miles of the first day, but was glad that I was still in with a shot of the podium.
I had no idea how the second marathon would go or whether I would feel worse with the altitude. It started at the highest point on the course, at 7,100ft, but had another steep downhill for the first few miles before levelling out to a relatively easy stage.
On the start, I noticed Blue and Lynyrd looked very fresh so decided I needed to push Blue for second to make the race interesting. If I was too ill, I was too ill, but I wanted to see whether my body had recovered from the previous day.
I set off in a pack of Lynyrd, Blue and the guy who was fourth the day before, Rudy. We sailed through at a 6min/mile pace and I was getting worried that Rudy was a better runner than I'd given him credit for and that third may be a struggle.
I was in second on my own and just behind Lynyrd at seven miles when my stomach forced another stop. I thought I'd gone clear of the other two but they had been just behind and immediately overtook, which was demoralising. The morning had been a little warmer and the race had started at 7:45am to fit in better with the bike race on that day. So the temperature was a comfy 50-ish and only got to the mid-60s by the 10:30. That meant I wouldn't have as much of a problem with heat. The water stations were almost non-existent again and this time my team only caught me up at 15 miles, so I'd had to carry my own water until that point. My entourage had grown to include Ron and Barb, Amy's Dad and his new wife, who had arrived the day before. So now I felt like I had a big cheering team along the way.
I stayed in fourth for most of the morning, just able to see Blue and Rudy ahead. Around 17 miles I hit a wall, but it was just a normal marathon wall so I kept telling myself it would go away and it didn't matter if I dropped off the pace slightly, as long as I kept running. During this section I had great views of the lake and saw my support crew several times. It always cheered me up and Amy's shouts could probably be heard on the other side of the lake.
By 20 miles I was feeling fine again, so I knew the altitude sickness had evaporated after a good night's rest. My trusty gels perked me up too, and I could soon see the two guys ahead of me. In fact, I found that I was rapidly catching them and that I'd speeded up considerably. So around 23 miles I overtook and Rudy looked very tired while Blue looked pretty comfortable. With that thought in my head I didn't dare to drop any pace in case he could stick with me or overtake.
The last miles included a hill of around 300ft. Not much but enough to cause issues after almost 50 miles of running overall. I had to walk briefly but as soon as I heard Blue behind me I got jogging again and enjoyed the gentle downhill through the tree-lined road. I was enjoying it at this point, as I should be in a race. I had a brief bout of fatigue as I approached Tahoe City, where the race finished, but was feeling much stronger than the day before.
It didn't help that the race director had told me at the finish of day one that day two was purposefully about a mile long to fit in with convenient spots to start and finish. As long as it was definitely longer than 26.2 miles it would count for the world record, but an extra mile seemed harsh. So as I approached the end and my team's cheers got louder (they could see I was going well and wanted me to keep my position), I ran through Tahoe City and expected my Garmin to go on to 27.2 miles. As it was only at 26.2 miles and there were cones going on to the beach, I assumed that meant a section off the main road. But there seemed to be a lot of people and many were cheering as if it was the end. I had to ask three times if it was the finish before I believed them, but I was relieved as hell. I only took a minute out of Blue, but several more out of Rudy. Lynyrd managed 2h52m, so won comfortably but was off record pace. He looked rough and said he'd not had the best race.
The atmosphere was fun and there were beers at the end again (I'd not been slightly interested in the on day one), but I decided to wait til the very finish to celebrate. I'd reduced the deficit on Blue to a bit over three minutes so felt like I was in with a shot on day three. I also wanted to beat him by at least another four minutes to make up for the half mile I missed out. So that left around eight minutes as my target to beat him by...a tall order.
Most runners went over to the lake to sit in the water and aid recovery of the legs. It was a bit cold, but generally pleasant. Then I ate with my family as my post-race appetite was back to normal. By early afternoon we were ready for the 33 mile drive back to South Lake Tahoe and I was much more awake to enjoy the afternoon.
That left the final day and there was a real race on for second. It started later, at 8am, but the shuttle bus only got me in 15 minutes before that and the extra runners meant very large toilet queues. Most people therefore didn't get their final preparations in before the gun. There were more like 500 runners at this start and it felt like a much bigger event. There was an area at the start reserved for 'elites', which meant the top few in the triple and anyone expecting to place in the marathon. They even had a singer for the US national anthem, which seems to be the standard at any non-tiny US race. Race Director Les started us with his shotgun again, and we were off down a narrow walking path by the beach for the first 100m.
There were a few contenders for the final marathon stage and I expected there to be several guys below three hours. My body was a bit tired but I felt better than at the starts on the other days due to no altitude sickness nor stomach issues. So I wanted to finish strongly, which meant sticking to 3-hour marathon pace for as long as possible. Given this was the 'hardest' day, the first half was surprisingly flat and easy, hugging the lake tightly. The roads were closed to northbound traffic (we were going southbound) so we didn't have to hug the verge and dodge trucks.
After a mile I found that the leaders from the marathon and triple were all just about together and not going too quickly. The lead cyclist took us down a side road, but it went steeply downhill to the water and was the wrong way. A few of the group (those who had done it before) ignored this and kept going, but some of us went down then had to climb back up. So this just about reversed the lead group. For several miles the top four triple guys stayed in a pack and the top two single-dayers were ahead and almost out of sight.
I had my 'elite' (i.e. just Amy) support group this time as she'd gotten up early to drive round most of the lake so she could basically drive next to me for most of the race. Neither my parents, nor her Dad, are early risers so they were driving to the finish instead, allowing for a lie-in. It was very helpful to have Amy just there almost the whole way and she took so many photos and cheered for the runners so much that I'm surprised she didn't lose her voice.
As I was feeling good, I kept up enough pace to drop Blue after about six miles. That left about 20 in which I'd need to take eight minutes out of him. Ahead were Rudy (just) and Lynyrd, plus a couple of single-dayers.
The water stations were much bigger, better stocked and more boisterous, with locals trying to put on a show at each one and entertain the runners/walkers. We'd found out on day two that the 72-miler had been cancelled due to permit issues but the entrants for that event were still out on the course on a 'fun run', in no way affiliated with the organisers (of course). I passed a couple of guys from that race, which had started at 10pm the previous evening. It was very cool to have them as part of the whole event and I couldn't have imagined on day one to have kept going around the whole lake...although the altitude sickness played a large part in that. Very inspiring to see them out, even without official recognition.
Just after halfway the hills started. The sun was out and it was heating up nicely so it made for very pleasant running conditions. I caught Rudy and set my sights on the remaining 12-13 miles, with the aim of not losing too much time on the climbs. This worked fine until about 15/16 miles, when the big climb started, from 6,200ft to 6,850ft in about a mile and a half. There are signs at every 100ft of vertical ascent, starting with 'Welcome to Hell'. As it goes up these signs certainly bring a smile to a runner's face as he/she forces themselves uphill. After a couple of signs it starts mentioning purgatory then near the top it says '100ft to heaven'. A good touch, but I mainly focused on not walking. I had a brief walk to take on a gel before powering up the hill (at a breakneck 9min/mile pace).
At the top I caught one of the single-day marathoners who had overtaken me earlier. Then I knew it was only nine miles to go and only one significant climb was left - the one to Inspiration Point where the first stage had started. It seemed like a lot more than two days since that start, but it felt good to be completing a lap of the lake.
There was some undulation and incredible views of the lake below and of Emerald Bay, then a drop down to 6,500ft followed by an immediate climb back up to over 6,800ft. Just six miles to go and all the hard work out the way. I was on a runner's high with the endorphins going crazy. I was flying and managing to enjoy the running, the view and the closeness of the finish. Amy was stopping every couple of hundred metres to cheer and take photos. She gave me updates on the guys in front and I'd made it into third on the day, with just Lightning Lynryd ahead and Sean Meissner in the lead, a 4-time winner of the triple and last years winner in the 72 miler.
As the downhill from day one started, I stepped up a gear to catch Lynryd. I'd had updates from Amy that he was 90 seconds ahead at the bottom of the climb, then just 40 seconds at the top. So it was worth trying to race him for once. I could just see him and it inspired me to push on to the finish. But by the bottom of the hill I hadn't caught up any more time and there were just three miles left. I knew he was much faster than me, but the previous two stages had taken a lot out of him to try to get that world record.
As the last few miles switched back on the the forest paths I'd run on in stage one, I lost sight of him. But then I saw him again with about two miles to go and I was slightly closer. I could tell I was catching, but would there be enough time? I was almost 30 minutes behind him overall, so overtaking him would be purely for pride, but I knew that anything which made me go faster woudl improve my chances of getting second overall in the triple. I didn't know where Blue was but just had to push on.
Then with a mile to go I was about ten seconds behind Lynyrd and he suddenly stopped to put on long pants from his support crew. It seemed strange as it would have been a close race, but this handed me enough time to get second overall that day, in 3h02m, just four minutes off Sean and his fresh legs. Lynyrd was less than a minute behind. We chatted and drank a lot of juice/sports drink and water. I thanked him for giving me the last day, as I'm sure he could have put in a decent sprint for a mile. And congratulated his impressive overall time of 8h39m.
My family were there and enjoyed the excitement of the race day. My Dad even said he wanted to get into a few races locally, back in Northampton, and he's never shown interest in that before. Seems this running thing is infectious as well as addictive.
Blue came in in 3h16m with Rudy and we all went to the lake to chill out post race before heading to the bbq on the beach. The prize giving happened not too much later and there were a lot of trophies, but all for age categories. Meant that about 100 people got a trophy but there wasn't anything for 2nd overall in the triple. Instead I had to make do with 1st 25-29 in the day three marathon (instead of 2nd overall which is a more normal prize?!).
It was a great race, with some flaws in the organisation which didn't spoil the event one bit. A great course, although the roads on some sections were a little nerve-wracking. And it helped that we had a heat-wave to make the afternoons more fun. The weather turned straight afterwards and there was even snow within a week, so the timing worked out very well.
It also coincided with Killian Journet's attempt at the Tahoe Rim Trail record of 45 hours for 165 miles of the peaks around the lake. He managed 38 hours and continues to smash every record he goes for, often records held by ultra legends. I think the triple was a bit short for him...