In late September, I found myself in Lake Tahoe, Calif., preparing to swim, bike and run 140.6 miles in, I hoped, about 14 hours.
That was my plan at the Ironman Lake Tahoe ultimate triathlon challenge anyway. I could only imagine the questions friends and patrons of my Fort Worth restaurants would have later about a chef who spends so much time chasing this dream and putting his body through this kind of punishment.
People often ask me why I run, and I usually tell them it started with a simple desire to lose weight and get healthier, but it quickly turned into something more. It didn’t take long for me to catch “the bug” and get competitive; then I tried a sprint-distance triathlon and got hooked. However, even this is just part of the answer.
When I train, I often find myself deep inside my own thoughts. Running actually becomes a spiritual time of reflection and relaxation — which seems an oxymoron when you think about it. But despite the pounding the body takes, the end result is that this is where I get my stress out. Often, my thoughts veer toward those who can no longer run themselves.
Friends and family members who have passed on or have been injured become my mental companions on the trail, and I find that the most truthful answer for why I do this is that “I run for those who no longer can.” I’ve got a list of people whose names are written on my shoes, and I dedicated this race to them. I think of them while I run, draw strength from their stories and dedicate my efforts to their memories.
So, when I race, I do it knowing that I’m in good company.
They were with me during my Ironman Lake Tahoe journey, and they’ll be with me still as I prepare for events like Fort Worth’s Cowtown Challenge in February and others in years to come.
The day before the race, I intended to log some practice time in the water, on the bike and on foot just to get the blood flowing and clear my mind. I drove out to King’s Beach to swim, but found 3-foot whitecaps on the water as it began to rain — and rained all day.
Well, not all day. By 5 p.m., the driving rain had turned to snow.
I tried to relax in the hotel gym and sat in the sauna just to get the sweat going. A race official sitting nearby predicted that with snow on the ground and these conditions, the possibility of a race was “iffy at best.” Any ice on the road could cause a cancellation, and wind similar to what we’d seen that day would force them to take out the swim portion.
My hopes for a good night’s sleep seemed similarly grim. Weather reports said the rain would end by midnight and winds were supposed to die down, but one big problem remained: a predicted temperature of 28 degrees.
My blaring alarm at 3 a.m. indicated it was time for a banana and a quick energy bar on the way to the starting line. At the start, I went to check on my bike and found a nice layer of ice on the seat.
I loaded it down with Gatorade, GU packs and energy bars, then headed over to the bike techs for a last-minute tire fill, but we had to eyeball the pressure since the gauge seemed frozen and wouldn’t read properly.
It was time for the wetsuit, but inside the changing tent, the heat wasn’t turned on yet, so I found the propane tank and turned the heater on myself. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission when it’s 28 degrees, right?
Shivery start and spectacular sunrise
Dressed for success in my wetsuit, neoprene cap, booties, goggles and earplugs, I walked onto the beach at 6:15 a.m. and, in the first light of dawn, saw a breathtaking, but troublesome, view of the lake covered in fog.
The national anthem played as we all stood, shivering. Then I felt my first wave of panic; I realized I’d forgotten to put on my timing chip. Quickly, I found some officials and got a replacement chip; crisis averted.
The cannon boomed and the crowd whooped as the pros bounded into the water at full speed (causing me to think they were fools for starting at such a fast pace). I joined a massive line of racers entering the water, and my Ironman Lake Tahoe race was underway.
The 60-degree water was a warm welcome. I started my swim at a slow and comfortable pace, but the crowded conditions made it hard to get into a rhythm. Within 50 yards, I’d been kicked in the face hard enough to fill my goggles with water, and I had to flip onto my back to clear them.
Swimmers struggled to see the marker buoys in the thick fog and relied on lifeguards atop paddleboards to point us in the right direction. The water was so perfectly clear, it was like swimming in Evian. But at every corner, we’d all bunch up again, brutally banging body parts together. Of course, I wasn’t swimming in the Cottonman; this was the Ironman.
Once I finished the first lap, the field started to clear and I found a little open water. By the second lap, it was smooth sailing: faster pace, feeling great. When a pack of what seemed like dolphins swam by at an incredible speed, I realized those pros might not be fools after all; they were really just that good.
After I made the final turn toward the beach, the sun appeared directly to my right. Every breath on that side gave me a bigger glimpse of its emergence over snow-capped peaks, and I knew I hadn’t seen anything quite so beautiful in my life. The lake turned an intense light blue, as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the bottom with such clarity that I didn’t even need to sight the buoys anymore.
Juices flowing, hitting some speed, I felt pumped. The finish line came in no time and, just like that, I had one-third of this beast in the bag.
One hour and 22 minutes. First 2.4 miles complete.
Only 138.2 left.
Time for a ride — maybe
Unfortunately, the frigid run from the lake to the changing tent did a lot to slow that surge of momentum: The cold set right back in, and my fingers and feet went instantly numb.
Grabbing my bag of bike gear, I headed straight for the heated tent to find what might have been a Turkish prison scene. Wall-to-wall nude dudes, no place to sit, no space to change and full-on chaos at every turn. I finally commandeered about one square foot of space on the asphalt and tried to peel off the wetsuit — a process that usually takes me 5 to 8 minutes. With frozen fingers and the crowds, it was much slower going. Eventually, I managed to put on every bit of bike gear I’d packed: shoes, shoe covers, shorts, jersey, vest, jacket, gloves, glove covers, fleece hat, helmet and glasses. It was time to get rolling.
Outside, the sun was out, and I grabbed my bike and started on a gorgeous ride along the shoreline toward the mountains. My smile didn’t last long, though, as my back tire exploded at mile 3.6. The sound was so loud, spectators ducked, thinking it might be a gunshot.
I jammed on the brakes, pulled to the side and got out my repair kit. All for naught, it turned out. The tube had popped and the tire had ripped, and I wasn’t carrying a spare tire. Panic time!
Shouting to a course volunteer to flag down a “sag wagon” (support vehicle) for me, I stood among the spectators, which also gave me a chance to warm up. But I was helpless, and time was ticking. Hundreds of other riders whizzed past and I remained stuck, stuck, stuck.
Finally, a sag truck pulled up, but it was the wrong guy. He thought I was quitting and needed a ride back to camp. I explained that I needed the bike-tech folks; I wasn’t quitting the race.
After a radio call for help and another unhappy wait, the bike-tech guy showed up and sold me a new tire. With more than 45 minutes of precious time lost, I was back on the road.
On a roll, but it’s all a blur
My seven-hour bike goal was no longer attainable, but it wasn’t time to think too hard about that. The first 25 miles went by in a blur, then the course turned to the secret hills of the Martis neighborhood, a gated community we weren’t allowed to preview, rumored to have some vicious inclines.
Rumors proved true. On one steep four-mile climb, I found myself in the lowest possible gear, cranking it out at 5 mph as I spied the top within 100 yards. It was a false summit, of course, and up to the right was an endless string of riders taking on switchback after switchback. This long, slow crank had only just begun.
The good thing here was that, for the first time all day, I actually started to feel warm and even broke a sweat. The final summit appeared after immense effort, and as we rolled past a ski gondola let-off point, hit an intense downhill. Soon, I’d hit 45 mph and was tapping the brakes to keep the speed from getting out of hand.
Once again, our windy descent brought a chill, but it was exhilarating, too.
Leg cramps and downhills
Miles melted away as the descent zipped down and around corners at blinding speeds. One of the pros passed me like I was standing still while I was spinning 35 mph: he was on his second lap already. Legs somewhat rested, no longer breathing too hard, I geared up for the second, longer-but-not-quite-as-steep incline. In my lowest gear, standing up, cranking it out slowly but surely, I was barely aware of anything except that my legs — full of lactic acid — were burning as another pro lapped me. He was literally standing up, sprinting up this monster hill at 15 mph. What a beast!
Others had hopped off and were walking their bikes by now; there was no way they’d make the cutoff times doing that, but at least they were still in the race at this point. More burning, a rest stop at the summit for a handful of bananas, a one-minute stop to walk off the pain and stretch my back, and it was back to the fun downhills. OK, so that was the bike course, except that we had to loop around 20 miles and do it all over again. Yep. Same brutal inclines.
The final ride through the town of Truckee was inspiring, to say the least. The entire town was cheering; the streets were packed to the gills; cowbells and car horns cheered us on. The cramps in my calves didn’t count for much when a crowd like this showed up.
Twelve miles later, we arrived back in Squaw Valley and the second transition area, where we dismounted. Volunteers whisked away the bikes and handed out our bike-to-run bags. Walking on shaky legs to the changing tent, I found a chair and got the bike gear off and the running gear on. Jacket. Gloves. The whole bit. I knew it was only going to get colder.
I had 114.4 miles in the bag, which meant only 26.2 miles to go.
Confusion, and lost momentum
Exiting the tent, I realized that I’d never run a full marathon before. This was going to be tough, but then again, it’s not called the Paperman; it’s the Ironman.
I walked most of the first mile to get my legs back underneath me. Still a little shaky, I saw my wife, Melinda, cheering as we headed through the village of Squaw Valley. That was incredibly encouraging; I hadn’t seen a familiar face since midnight the night before.
“Just a marathon to go. You’re doing great,” she said. Her confidence made it sound plausible, so I started visualizing the finish. A mile later, it was time to pick it up to a light jog.
The feet, ankles and hips were holding, and I took a quick look down at the names written on my shoes. I felt that familiar sense of their energy moving with me.
Around mile four, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea what my time was. I never checked the big clock and had no clue how I was pacing, except that I’d made all the cutoffs so far. I’d heard mutterings that tons of people had been pulled from the course, not making the cutoffs, and there were way more people than expected in the “Did Not Finish” column already. I tried to estimate my times in my head: maybe an hour-and-a-half or two on the swim; a transition and then eight hours on the bike plus that 45-minute breakdown; maybe another 15 minutes in this last transition?
Panic set in with the worry that I might be in danger of missing the overall cutoff time of 17 hours. I knew I had to hustle; problem was, my body didn’t have any hustle left. I was already running on reserves, and it was getting colder.
Losing momentum, not able to eat anything, feeling like a finish was in jeopardy — this part was a struggle. Although the route was less intense than the bike leg, there wasn’t a flat spot to be had, and my legs were more zapped than I thought.
Running the downs and power-walking the ups as best as I could, my pace was 11- to 12-minute miles at best, maybe even 13 on the rough spots, and my lungs were having a tough time in this altitude. For the first time since my bike broke down, I felt my chances of finishing were slipping away.
Transition to Night
On mile seven, I started keeping pace with someone who was checking his watch, so I asked how our time was doing. This guy, Matt, had started his watch at the beginning of the day and had one continuous clock rolling — exactly the info that I needed — and, it turns out, my worries had been unfounded. We still had almost seven hours to complete the marathon. Heck, I could walk the whole thing if I had to and still make it, I thought.
We struck up a conversation and wound up pacing each other for the rest of the race — keeping an eye on our time, calculating what we needed to maintain in order to achieve a solid finish with plenty of cushion. My comfort level evened out at that point, and I knew I shouldn’t have any more surprises.
On about mile 14, darkness fell fast and brought the cold with it. It was in the upper 30s again, but luckily, I was just a mile and a half away from my special-needs bag that contained a heavier shirt. I desperately needed that warm shirt.
This was the phase where I knew hypothermia could set in. I couldn’t afford to stop moving anymore. No stops, just slowdowns at the water stations from here on out. The next water station offered hot chicken broth, which I downed immediately. It hit the spot, and made it feel like finally something was in my stomach again. I drank about 12 cups more, at least one at every station, as the night poured on.
Since our running path was not lit, headlamps were handed out in the darkness, and this strange, almost dizzying line of bouncing lights set the scene for the rest of the course. We were sent out and back on several different loops, so runners were constantly coming back toward us, and every time we hit a turnaround, we’d see those lights behind us.
As time went on, we realized we were looking at a lot of lights on runners who wouldn’t make the cut and whose night would be cut off before they could finish. That was a hard scene to watch, knowing how far they had come.
One athlete stood out all day in my mind. A firefighter took his entire set of gear with him in a backpack on his bike. Wearing only a pair of flip-flops on his feet, he’d put on the suit, jacket, boots, helmet and air tank, then hit the run course fully decked out. At every turn, I could see him falling farther behind. I heard later that they pulled him at mile 19, and it was sad news. I was really rooting for that guy.
The last loop
At mile 18, Ironman pulled a stunt that is either the best or worst trick in racing: It ran us right by the finish line, with a little sign telling finishers to stay right and last-loop runners to stay left. The finish was only 30 yards away down the most intensely lit and spectator-packed street possible. The announcer called in the finishers one at a time with full hype, and it was a painful tease when you still had eight miles to go.
At this point, the cold was inescapable: nothing for it but to settle into a nice even pace for that last big out-and-back loop. Leaving the village was disheartening, and I joined the endless string of bobbing headlights disappearing into the vast distance through a dark, wooded trail. We passed directly under my hotel room for the fourth time and right past the resort’s huge fog-covered heated pool. It was another cruel tease.
Moments earlier, I’d spotted Melinda in the crowd and had just enough time to blow her a kiss and tell her “eight miles to go.” I hoped she might be able to wait it out at a toasty restaurant and warm up with a nice glass of red. She certainly deserved it for tolerating all this craziness.
The turnaround seemed too far to be right, and the mile markers seemed like they were getting farther apart. My tortured ankles weren’t doing too well, and the shooting pains were hard to ignore. My calves had started cramping again, too, but I knew I could run through it. With four miles to go, I could taste sweet success.
The names on my shoes would help get me through: I was running in the company of angels.
On the final approach to Squaw Valley, an intensely cold fog began to roll off the rivers and ponds along the trail, and the bobbing headlights looked eerie in the cold thickness. Finally we turned the last big corner toward the village. The 25-mile marker sign came into view as we made our final turn, and Matt and I high-fived. We were going to make it with over an hour of cushion.
We were both in pain — his Achilles’ tendons were in trouble — but I wouldn’t let him slow down at this point. This hadn’t been the Balsawoodman, it was the Ironman. We were supposed to hurt.
Trading that bib for a blanket
We rounded the last corner and witnessed an incredible sight. Like a bat signal, a massive light projection of the Ironman logo, that famous M-dot, was cast upon the mountains above the finish line. I’d seen it before, but at this point, the significance went bone-deep, and the roar of the crowd sounded like we were at the Super Bowl.
That last half-mile serpentined through the village, through streets lined with frozen-yet-still-screaming fans, and all the physical pain fell into the background. I was ecstatic to be able to turn right at the fork and enter the intense zone where the crescendo of crowd noise and bright lights was almost unbearable.
I heard Mike Riley’s unmistakable voice announce my name: “Bib 220, from Fort Worth, Texas: here comes Jon Bonnell, 43 years old, a father, a chef and now — YOU ARE an IRONMAN!!!”
Just before I reached the finish line, I found Melinda, kissed her and told her I loved her. I high-fived every hand in sight as I traveled the last few yards and went under the archway. A volunteer wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and handed me a finishers’ medal and T-shirt.
Soon after, Melinda and I were sitting in a nearby restaurant having a cold beer and hot pizza. I knew it was time to recover, and that it would take a while. My real life had been impatiently awaiting my attention and I was anxious to return to it.
But I’d made it: 140.6 miles — DONE!
Reflecting on the experience
After the fact, I was told that the 2013 Ironman Lake Tahoe was the most difficult course Ironman had ever set up. It had the highest number and percentage of “DNF” participants ever recorded — out of 2,800 athletes signed up, only about 1,700 finished the race.
When I heard that close to 1,100 hopefuls hadn’t crossed the finish line, I felt tremendous sympathy for them. I knew they had entered with the same hopes and dreams that I had, but encountered challenges and obstacles they could not overcome. I assume they’ll go on to set new goals and have other adventures.
The name Ironman Lake Tahoe represents myriad emotions and physical challenges that I suspect I’ll never duplicate. It was a sensory jumble of highs and lows, pain and triumph — the most difficult, intense, challenging, rewarding and beautiful experience of my life.
The moment I crossed the finish line will be a memory I’ll savor forever.