KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Thousands of triathletes from California to Australia woke up in the wee hours of Sunday morning prepared after months of training to swim, bike and run 140.6 miles.
They left in collective disappointment after hardly getting their feet wet.
About two minutes before the 6:30 a.m. start of the second annual Ironman Lake Tahoe, officials announced that the race was canceled due to unhealthy air quality caused by a wildfire in the Tahoe-Truckee area.
“At first everybody around me thought it was as joke,” said Katie Lockwood of Truckee, who was preparing to wade into the shallows for her swim-wave start when the news reached her ears. “We thought they were just kind of setting us up to be disappointed and then they’d say, ‘Have a great race.’ So we all just kind of stood there for awhile, and then it sunk in.
“Most of the people around me were crying. It was tough.”
Keats McGonigal, operations manager for Ironman, said officials were hopeful that smoke from the massive King Fire burning west of Lake Tahoe would remain at bay through Sunday, as forecasted.
Despite favorable wind conditions, however, smoke from the 80,000-plus-acre wildfire spilled into the greater Tahoe Basin on Saturday night and into Sunday, creating hazardous levels of particulate matter in the air that were deemed unsafe for athletes and the public by Placer County officials.
Ironman triathlons consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
“We waited till the last minute to get the most up-to-date information, but it wasn’t changing,” McGonigal said. “Obviously everybody was very disappointed, including our staff and volunteers. The mood around the venue was very somber, because they put so much time and energy into making this happen.”
‘MY HEART SUNK’
Like Lockwood, Kevin Murnane of Tahoe City said the announcement came as a surprise to him and the other athletes who thought they were minutes away from starting the race.
“I was in the water. I was knee deep, just about to warm up, standing next to a guy from Massachusetts,” Murnane said. “We just looked at each other when we heard the announcement. It was kind of surreal. It was just like, ‘Wow, that’s it. We’re done.’ It was crazy.”
Tahoma resident Anna Mae Flynn, like Lockwood and Murnane, was set to compete in her first-ever Ironman triathlon. She said she jumped in the water and was splashing around as the announcement sounded over the crowd of athletes and supporters.
“I came out of the water and people were making sighs and walking out, and I had to ask what was going on. I was like, ‘Yeah right, we’re in the water.’ But everyone was packing up their stuff and leaving,” she said. “I was pretty shocked. My heart sunk and I just had this sick feeling. You’ve prepared yourself so long to do it, and then it’s gone.”
McGonigal said Ironmans have been shortened due to weather or other unforeseen factors in the past, but to his knowledge, an event has never been canceled in its entirety.
He said Ironman is offering the 3,000 or so athletes who were registered for Sunday’s race a chance to compete in one of several Ironman events in 2014 for a reduced entry fee of $100. The normal entry fee is $700.
“They put in the time and training, and they want to get something done, so we’re going to give them a whole list of options of other races around the world that they can get into,” said McGonigal, adding that many competitors have already chosen to race the Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga in Tennessee on Sept. 28.
Many of those who were slated to compete in the Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe — a half-distance Ironman that also was set to take place Sunday — will instead race the Ironman 70.3 Silverman at Lake Mead, Nev., on Oct. 5, McGonigal said.
Other options include competing in the 2015 Ironman Lake Tahoe for the reduced rate of $100, or competing in another Ironman event in 2015 for 50 percent off the full rate.
‘IT IS WHAT IT IS’
While some athletes were unhappy about not receiving a full refund or full race credit, Murnane, who’s general manager of Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, said he understands Ironman’s reasoning.
“Like most events, the typical agreement when you sign up for a race is that there are no refunds if the race is canceled,” said Murnane, who added that he is leaning toward racing the 2015 Ironman Lake Tahoe. “We’ve canceled races here at Tahoe Cross Country — although we charge far less for an event — but there’s always a risk that things will happen. The event organizer has to invest quite a bit to put it on, and their money is already spent. I didn’t expect a refund, even from a company their size.”
Said Lockwood: “It sucks, but we did sign a waver saying that they weren’t responsible for unforeseen acts of God, or however it was stated. So I think they’re trying to make it as right as they can for us. I think if you were to ask me yesterday, my opinion would have been a whole lot different. But now that I’ve calmed down, it is what it is. I guess it just means that I’ll be that much more ready next year.”
Flynn said she feels frustrated about having to pay for another event. While she plans to compete in the 2015 Ironman Lake Tahoe, she said having to pay another $100 to enter after already paying $700 leaves “a bad taste” in her mouth.
“It’s a shame that they are so money focused,” she said. “I would be out on the streets if I tried to enter into another one of their races this year given their time frame. It’s roughly 1,500 dollars round trip to fly to a race location in Northern America, plus bike shipment and a place to stay adds up big time and is definitely not worth it. And jeez, we have to fork out an additional $100 to enter Ironman Tahoe next year.”
STILL THE SPIRIT
Despite the race cancelation and the unhealthy air quality, some entrants decided to complete the entire course anyway on Sunday.
“That was really inspirational,” Flynn said. “They put in the effort, so they just timed themselves and did the whole course.”
Bob Wright of Kings Beach, who was set to compete in his first full-distance Ironman, has a different idea. He said as soon as the smoke clears up, he plans to put on his own unofficial Ironman race on the same course.
“We’re going to do it for sure,” he said. “It’s easy for us (Tahoe locals). We can just put some water out on the course and get some friends to guide us on paddleboards and stuff. There are probably at least a dozen locals who are interested. We might call it the ‘Do-over Man’ or ‘Mulligan Man.’
Wright said those who are interested may contact him at email@example.com.