Ironman deems Tahoe conditions too risky for its triathlons

A view of Lake Tahoe from Echo Lake near the Tahoe Rim Trail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.
A view of Lake Tahoe from Echo Lake near the Tahoe Rim Trail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Ironman triathlon held twice at Lake Tahoe has been discontinued due to what organizers are calling “adverse environmental and weather conditions.”

The most recent Ironman Lake Tahoe – a grueling event in which contestants swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles over rugged Sierra terrain – took place Sunday at Kings Beach near Northstar California resort. The announcement that the race would be the last of its kind came Tuesday, to the surprise and disappointment of many competitors.

Ironman is a large organization that hosts hundreds of triathlon events worldwide. Besides the full Ironman distance, the company puts on the Ironman 70.3, which covers half the usual distance, Iron Girl and Iron Kids.

“Athletes, volunteers and fans ... after careful consideration, Ironman and Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe will not be extended,” the company wrote on its Ironman Lake Tahoe Facebook page. “Despite having a wonderful host community, adverse environmental and weather conditions have made the races challenging to operate.”

A separate statement on the Ironman website does not mention the environmental and weather factors.

On Facebook, commenters speculated whether the decision was a reaction to the frequency of wildfires and unpredictable air conditions in the Tahoe region. The event was canceled in 2014 due to wildfire smoke following the King fire, disappointing competitors who trained for months for the event. Many were also angered by the financial hit that year, including a registration fee upwards of $600 and costs for travel and lodging.

The race had been held in Tahoe once before that, on a snowy day in 2013 and was said to be among the most challenging of Ironman competitions due to the steep gradients, elevation and cold conditions. The website RunTri determined after the race that the average finish time of 14 hours, 6 minutes was a record high and that it was easily the toughest of its ranked Ironman races.

JT Thompson, tourism director for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, said his organization had a three-year contract with Ironman organizers, who chose not to renew after it expired this year. Ironman declined to provide more information about its decision Wednesday.

“It was a great opportunity for us to bring (Ironman) in initially,” he said. “But with the climate challenges, as well as the atmospheric challenges that they saw for the past two years, it hurt them business-wise. Those are things we can’t control as a destination.”

The inaugural Tahoe Ironman in 2013 attracted 2,748 entrants for the full Ironman competition, according to race results. But interest fell sharply the next year, with 1,755 signing up for the full race that was canceled. Interest fell yet again this year to 1,420 entrants for the complete Ironman distance.

Still, the event brought in millions during the time it was held in Tahoe, and put the region on the map for endurance training and human-powered sports, Thompson added. There are more than a dozen marathons, swimming competitions, obstacle courses and paddleboard events held around Lake Tahoe each year.

“We can take an existing event that we have out here and we can highlight that even more because we had the Ironman here, and it was considered one of the toughest Ironmans in the world,” Thompson said.

Carroll Wills, a 58-year-old Elk Grove resident who competed in the Ironman Tahoe event last weekend, said competitors called this year’s competition the “Goldilocks” race because at last it was not too hot or too cold.

In 2014, Wills, who works as a spokesman for California Professional Firefighters, served at an aid station before the race was canceled. Inhaling smoky air, especially at high elevation and while competing in a taxing endurance event, is nothing to take lightly, Wills said.

“I remember driving up in the dark and smelling the smoke,” he said. “When the sun came up, you could just see this brown haze over the valley. It was disappointing for the people who had trained for a long time for it, but it was the right call.”

This year a notice was sent to competitors a week before the event warning that the Butte fire could pose a health hazard during the race, but organizers ultimately went on with the event.

Wills did not know why Ironman shied away from the scenic location, but surmised it was a business decision swayed by the recurring risk of cancellation due to fires. The event has been scheduled each year for late September in the thick of wildfire season.

“I suppose they felt as though the challenges and uncertainties offset the benefits of what really was a beautiful venue,” he said. “It’s disappointing, but I’m not giving back my medal.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola