Race Report: Donner Lake Half-Ironman 70.3 distance event (July 25, 2015)

Overall Results: 32/122 Overall | Age Group (AG): 8/22

Swim: 18/127 Overall, 2/22 AG
Bike: 47/127 Overall, 13/22 AG
Run: 19/127 Overall, 4/22 AG


It’s been nearly a year since my knee surgery in September. For a couple of months following surgery, I didn’t think I’d ever return to race form. When my friend Kim (more on her below) registered for the race as her first triathlon, I felt compelled to do the race with her. Of course I couldn’t just do the Olympic distance race. I had to push myself to the Half-Ironman distance because, well, why not? I knew the elevation changes and altitude would be a big challenge and my training would require some rigor and discipline. When I registered back in March, it had been nearly two years since my last triathlon (Ironman Asia Pacific) and it was time for me to get back to it.


For all of the years I’ve been in Northern California and all of the times I’ve been to the Lake Tahoe area, I never spent a moment at Donner Lake. The race is long storied in the area as a wonderful race, well-organized, and a big challenge for any triathlete. Couple that with a reason to head to Tahoe for a weekend with the family, and it all came together as the decision to make.


This was undoubtedly by “A” race of the year. I’ve consistently finished under six hours for 1/2 Ironman distances, ranging from 5:20 on an easier course and 5:50 on more difficult courses. With this my first long distance triathlon in more than two years and considering the difficulty of the course, I had these time goals:

  • Sub-6:00 – Minimum goal. Anything over six hours would have felt slow regardless of the course.
  • Sub 5:45 – Push goal. I thought with three good segments I could get there.
  • Sub 5:30 – Stretch goal. This would be close a hitting my 5:20 PR which would be ridiculous considering the altitude, course, and training. But heh, why not?

* Note: The run course was posted as 13.63 miles, a 1/2 mile longer than the standard 13.1 mile course.

2015-07-24 18.12.22

Now on to the race report…


Glorious. I took time on Saturday to swim a couple hundred yards to feel the water and temperature. The water was downright perfect – just a little chilly in the middle of the day on Saturday. On Sunday morning with the air temperature in the high 40s/low 50s, the 65 degree lake water felt like a warm bath.

There were several race start waves, and I was in the first group. The course was a simple triangle. Swim out to the right, make a left turn, swim to the next buoy across the lake, turn left again and then back to the beach. I picked a rock face way above the first buoy to use for sighting, the race started and I was off.

At the Tri for Real about two months ago, I started way to quickly and I had just introduced a new swimming stroke at the time which led to a frustrating swim time. Today, my big focus was to begin with long, slow, smooth strokes and I succeeded. There were about 50 competitors in my wave start so there was plenty of space to spread out, though somehow I found myself tucked between two other racers after a few minutes. This seemed a little ridiculous to me so I pulled up my stroke, let them move forward, then guided myself to the left and found open space.

After the first buoy, I pulled up again to sight for the next buoy and took a few  breast strokes. It was a good way to stretch out my chest, gain my breath and think about swimming strong the rest of the way.

I found a really nice rhythm between the first and second buoy, and focused on rotating my body and alternating my swim stroke pushes. I let my right arm lead for a while, then switched to my left. It felt like I had the entire lake to myself. I saw orange caps ahead and behind me and the ones behind me seem to be falling back further and further. I felt strong, hit the second buoy and headed for shore.

The finishing gate looked close, almost like I could touch it. I kept with my pace and continued stroking until my knuckles dragged on the bottom then headed to T1.

Swim time: 32:08

Swim-to-Bike Transition (T1):

It’s always a welcome site to see lots and lots of bikes in transition. A fellow that racked near me who was racing the Olympic Distance was still in transition. He even said – “Good job, mate. Solid swim.” Made me feel good.

Meh. Again I was a little slow, taking more than three minutes when I should have taken less than two. I dallied a little and also knew that I wanted to get everything right before heading out for a 3+ hour march on the bike through the hills. I loaded up and out I went.

T1 Time: 3:14


I thought of the 56 mile bike course in six segments –

  1. The climb from Donner Lake to Donner Summit (3.8 miles)
  2. Donner Summit to the first turnaround at Cisco Grove (12 miles)
  3. Cisco Grove up to second turnaround at Sugar Bowl (12 miles)
  4. Back down to Cisco Grove (12 miles)
  5. Cisco Grove back up again to Sugar Bowl and Donner Summit (12 miles)
  6. Donner Summit back to the transition area (3.8 miles)

T1 to Donner Summit: I didn’t find this climb bad at all. It was long and persistent but I found it very consistent in terms of grade. I just kept spinning along and monitoring my heart rate. I knew exactly where I was on the climb because it was the first 3.8 miles of the course so I could knock off a mile here, reach a visual milestone there, and in about 25 minutes, I was at the top and ready for a long rapid descent down to the first turnaround near Cisco Grove.

Donner Summit to Cisco Grove turnaround #1: The grade was steeper than I expected and all was great when I looked down at one point and saw I was speeding at 43 mph and going faster. Even the level parts and small rises were nice to ride through to stretch out my legs.

Cisco Grove to Sugar Bowl (turnaround #2): The first 4-5 miles were a distinct incline, but I was still able to stay down in an aero position from time to time, and when I hit a steeper hill and I just locked in and spun.

That all changed on the climb out in the section from Kingvale exit to the turnaround point at Sugar Bowl. I felt like this is where the journey began for me.  I fond the this section to be somewhere between brutal and soul-crushing. After a long slow climb from Kingvale to the Soda Springs exit, I felt like I was nearly to the turnaround point, even though I knew I still had three miles to go. It didn’t seem that hilly on the way down or even on Saturday’s drive, yet every turn introduced another hill and another small climb ahead. Probably 5-6 in all. This was mentally rough. I hit the turnaround hoping for an aide station and there wasn’t one there. Bummer. Good news was that I only had 25 minutes back down to the next turnaround and access to an aide station 4 miles after that. Bad news was that was still 45 minutes from now. I had drink mix but no water.

At the turnaround, I pulled over to pee in the parking lot. That would have been a good spot for a port-a-john. I just didn’t feel like dealing with it while descending and also felt like I could use a little break. It cost me a minute or two, but I also think it saved me mentally a little bit.

Sugar Bowl to Cisco Grove (turnaround #3): I just focused on resting my legs and getting ready to head back up the climb in about 20-25 minutes.  One more climb and I was done. Knowing what was ahead of me for the final climb sucked most of the fun out of the descent, but not all, because hey, I hit 40-45 again and you have to try pretty hard to not have fun with that.

Cisco Grove (turnaround #4) to Donner Summit: Now that I knew what was ahead, I focused on milestones – getting from Cisco Grove back to the crossover under the freeway – from the freeway to the Kingvale exit – from Kingvale to Soda Springs exit – from the Soda Springs exit to Donner Summit.

I felt like the second time up the hill from Cisco Grove was easier mentally. Might be that I knew the course now or that I knew this was my last climb and it would all be over in under an hour. Hitting Kingvale and knowing the climb ahead to Soda Springs, I spotted a small landmark like a sign or a bend and then counted pedal strokes in groups of one hundred – “one, two, three…” When I reached “100,” I let myself look up and find the next marker. Sometimes I got to 60 or 80 and looked. This gave me sometime to focus on other than the hill and the climb.

Donner Summit to T2: A 1100’ descent in less than four miles. Mostly I covered my brakes on the hairpin turns and just relaxed. I didn’t want to think about making up time as much as resting my legs and getting to the bottom of the mountain without flying off the edge of the cliff. Definitely the most scenic descent I’ve ever done.

I did my full stop-foot down-tap the box and then headed over to transition. I heard Benjamin yell – “Daddy!” and saw Lena and Benjamin sitting on the ground waiting for me. That was very energizing to see them combined with knowing the bike course was behind me.

Bike Time: 3:25:08

Bike-to-Run Transition (T2):

This was a combination of elation and a quick reality check of how I felt physically. While my legs felt tired, I was excited to get to the run course, especially for the first three miles to set a solid pace that would dictate the rest of the race. I did a pit stop, made sure I had everything – race bib, nutrition, sun screen applied, take salt pills, adjust race bib with running belt, then I headed out. Again my transition time was slow and I wasted a minute or two more, but again I needed to make sure I was all there before heading out for the last segment.

T2 Time: 3:54


Coming out of transition, I saw Lena and Benjamin again, gave them both a kiss and off I went.

I wanted to start strong and set a good pace, knowing that the first mile was critical to how I would fare the rest of the run. I was expecting at least an 8:30 pace for the entirety of the run course, and with the first three miles being flat, I knew I needed to put some time in the bank. After I got a rhythm going, I looked down and saw I was at 0.40 miles and running a 7:52 pace. Perfect, if not even a little fast. This was my steady state, so I pulled back just a little but definitely kept at a 8:00 pace or just under.

I rode the run course on Friday afternoon, and after the first three miles, the course meandered through campgrounds, boat launch area, and then to the other side of Donner Lake. The first hill greeted me around mile 4. It was the biggest hill on the course and I’m glad that I took time to scope it out on Friday. I all but decided that I would walk the hill, and I stuck to that plan as soon as it started to incline – a fast walk with arms swinging, and again counting steps – “One, two, three…” I got to about 150 when I hit the first peak and then I jogged a few steps before the second rise to get up and over. I walked again, then found the aide station, caught my breathe and started chugging along again. I took a couple of salt pills and then definitely helped me with some lift.

The rest of the run course was a series of smaller hills and undulations. Up and down without any flat sections for the next 2-3 miles until reaching finishing area. I spotted the ropes that lead back through the transition area and right past the finishing gate to begin the second lap around the lake. Lena, Benjamin, Kim and Josh were all there waiting for me. I gave them all high-fives awhile keeping stride and glanced to my left to see the race clock. 4:59:20. I was at exactly five hours with about 6.5 miles to go on the run.

This was the first time I saw a race clock and I started doing the math, using 7 miles as my baseline. At a 9:00 mile, I’d be just over six hours, and an 8 minute mile, I’d be just under. At an 8:30 mile, I’d be right on six hours. While I knew I could push hard for the last 1-2 miles with a strong finish, I also knew that my legs were tired and my quads were burning. An 8:30 mile might be a lot to ask if I burned out, so I treated the second lap like the first – get in a good first three miles, bank some time for the back side of the course where I knew I’d need to walk a hill or two.

I hit my stride again and saw I was running roughly an 8:00 to 8:12 pace, so if I could hold this through the first three miles, that would afford me a 9:00 pace for the final 3-4 miles in the worst case.

I hit the three mile mark and headed through the trail, through the campgrounds and boat docks, up a small rise and to the big hill. I tried to eat a few bites of a Clif Bar and couldn’t get myself to swallow. I spit it out and just focused on my liquid nutrition.

That segment of the course felt like the transition from “the run” to “the final stretch.” Once over the big hill, I knew I was home free – just focus on a steady pace and then push hard for the last mile and I could finish under six hours. I made sure to run the tangents, and it always baffles me why more competitors fail to do this. In fact my final run distance displayed as 13.3 miles on my Garmin, instead of the 13.6 advertised.

I pushed within reason, rounded the final bend, saw the ropes, and crossed the finished line just after the clock flipped to 5:55:00. Done.

Final Time: 5:55:02


What I did well:

  • Swim – I relaxed and found a rhythm and my time showed it. I had the 4th-best swim time in my Age Group (AG).
  • Bike – I stayed patient and while I knew I was getting passed (again and again and again…). I stayed within myself instead of trying to “race” other competitors.
  • Run – This was rock solid. I had the 2nd-best run time in my age group (2/22), which is damn good.
  • Nutrition – I’m very happy with my nutrition plan and execution throughout the day. I was plenty fueled for the ride and used my salt pills consistently. I had my running belt for the run, which I was VERY happy to have for the calories vs what was available in the aide stations.
  • I hit my race time goal of sub-6:00.

What I’d do differently:

  • More hills in training. I focused on base miles and consistency in March, April, and May. It wasn’t until June that I started hitting any hills of significance for training, and even then they were modest as compared to the race course. More repeats on Cardiac and a few more sessions on Mix Canyon.
  • Road bike vs Tri Bike – I’m still undecided on this one. I chose to ride George (my Tri Bike) instead of Pedro (my road bike) because it handles better on turns and downhills, and achieves more speed on the flats and downhills. Though I do wonder the trade-off between having a road bike for the climbs, and if I could have shaved a few minutes off my bike time. I ultimately made the decision to ride George because I felt more confident ride George than Pedro, and that’s a big thing mentally in any race.
  • Practice my transition – My transitions just plain suck. I’m slow because I like to collect myself and make sure I have everything. The latter is the problem. I need to get to a point that I’m not thinking at all. The transition should be mechanical.


To Lena, my darling wife – That you for your support on my endurance endeavors. We decided on this race way back in March, knowing that the timing was just a month away from your deadlines at school. It wasn’t just the weekend away, it was all of your support on Saturday and Sunday mornings so I could work in my swims, rides, and runs to prepare for race day. A thousand thank yous to you my love.

To Benjamin – You are a champ. You were great all weekend and I was so happy to have time with you on Saturday as we drive the bike course together. Throwing rocks in the river and wading knee deep in the cold water is my favorite.

To Kim B. – Choosing Donner as your first triathlon is crazy and awesome. By registering, you got me motivated to take on this race challenge and I appreciate the kick in the tail.

To the race organizers – Solid job guys. From the registration process through to the finish, you had your stuff together. I’m sure no one appreciates the work and logistics that go into organizing these events, and I’m particularly grateful that you pushed the race distance to include a 70.3 distance this year. This was a true challenge and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to compete in such an event.

To the random people along the bike course. It was lonely out there on the bike course, and seeing the same people in the same places down and up and down and up the mountain was very calming. Thanks for spending your day watching everyone and cheering us on.


What was great:

  • Plenty of support pre-race from the check-in to transition set up on race day.
  • The swim course took you out to the right so that the sun was never in your face. Very smart.
  • The markings on the downhill portions of the bike course. I could see the orange paint well and it was appreciated to avoid a spill.
  • Run aide stations. They were numerous and always ready with water.

How to improve:

  • Port-a-john at the turnarounds, or at least at the Sugar Bowl turnaround for the half-iron competitors.
  • Place an aide station at the Sugar Bowl turnaround, even if it’s just water bottles. The most recent aide station towards the bottom of the hill was 45-60 minutes ago for most competitors, then there’s another 20-30 minutes of downhill and a turnaround and another 4 miles back up the hill before you hit the aide station again. That’s a long time to go without a chance to refill your water bottle.
  • Run aide stations: You promised cola at the run aide stations and there wasn’t any. I was depending on the cola pop for the second lap and you let me done. Ultimately, this was a good lesson in deepening on yourself and only yourself for nutrition.
  • A bag drop-off area would be nice.
  • Have a race clock visible coming out of the water and in the transition area. My first view of the race clock was after my first run lap. Just would be good to know where you are in parts of the race as you go in and out of transition.

6 responses to “Race Report: Donner Lake Half-Ironman 70.3 distance event (July 25, 2015)

  1. Congratulations! Looks like a great overall race. I didn’t see any commentary on the altitude mask 🙂

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