Athletes prepare for the swim portion of the triathlon. (©Andrew Loehman/Ironman Lake Tahoe)
When he started the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey in 2005, Eric Lerude registered 36 teams for a total of 400 runners. In 2014, the 178-mile relay race sold out at 250 teams and 3,000 enthusiastic competitors.
Todd Jackson founded the Tahoe Big Blue Adventure Race in 2002 at Lake Tahoe. His Big Blue Adventure Company now produces more than 20 different races in and around the lake. “We are focused on human-powered sports,” he said. “We’ve grown from that one adventure race to on-road triathlons, off-road triathlons and producing a 5k race and a 50k trail run.”
The racing spirit is firmly entrenched here. In addition to Jackson and Lerude’s events, the region hosts the Ironman Lake Tahoe and Xterra off-road triathlons, the enormously popular Tough Mudder endurance contest, the Western States 100, Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs and a host of up-and-coming sports that are on the forefront of the human-powered trend. Events like the O’Neill Tahoe SUP Race Series and the Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival on the North Shore and the Race the Lake of the Sky on the South Shore are signing up throngs of stand-up paddle racers as soon as the registrations open.
So, what’s going on here? Why the dash to work up a sweat in the Reno and Lake Tahoe region? “It has a lot to do with the venue,” Jackson told Truckee’s Sierra Sun in reference to his Donner Lake Triathlon. “The course is one-of-a-kind. A lot of triathlons are flat, or flatter. We have altitude plus climbing and somewhat of a technical descent on the bike.” Lerude agrees. “We have a beautiful region that we can show off through a relay run.”
Indeed, the stunning alpine expanses are a natural draw. The chronology of the current competitive fire has a fuse that dates back to the 1960 Winter Olympics that were played out at Squaw Valley. Those were the first games televised in the United States, and they introduced the world en masse to this special place.
Today, Reno and Tahoe both aggressively promote the respective athletic opportunities that can be pursued here. On any given weekend, people from around the country descend to compete in events like the NCVA Far Western National Qualifier Tournament, the Junior Pan American Weightlifting Championships, the USA Team Handball Club National Championships and the U.S. National Alpine Championships.
“The product offering that we have up here and our positioning of doing things in the outdoors really works well with the human-powered sports initiative,” said Andy Chapman of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. “It starts with the traditional skiing and hiking, and it has expanded to [stand-up] paddle boarding, Ironman, much more focus on mountain biking and road biking races—things like that.”
Lerude is proud of the palpable effect the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey has had on non-racers. “We’ve turned a lot of couch potatoes into runners,” he said. There’s an infectious quality to competing. It’s something that takes hold gradually. A non-runner or non-competitor idly watches a foot-racer cross the finish line or a pack of road cyclists whir by in a blur. Curiosity piqued, they’ll start paying closer attention to the event. Then they’ll want to be involved.
What’s the next step? Jackson and Lerude concur: volunteer.
“We’ve seen it again, again and again,” Lerude said. “They volunteer at first. And now they’re runners, and they’ve adopted a lifestyle of fitness and outdoor activity. That has been really rewarding.”
Jackson even offers his volunteers Big Blue Bucks that can be redeemed for future event registrations. “Volunteer first to get a taste,” he recommends. “You’ll get a sense of the vibe. It’ll build your confidence. And then come back and try it.”
There is a definite community aspect to competing. You’re sharing a passion with like-minded individuals, whether the sport is a newfound discovery or one you’ve been pursuing for years.
“It’s something that brings people together,” Chris Brackett, founder of the Race the Lake of the Sky event and owner of South Tahoe Standup Paddle, said of the sport. “Whether you’re a grandma, young person or an elite athlete, you can just stand out there and paddle. You’re having fun and you’re in beautiful Lake Tahoe.”
For those competing in the Odyssey, there’s a shared camaraderie. A team works together to complete the 178-mile course, which is divided into 12 legs over a 24-hour stretch.
Each racer runs for about five miles at a time, with the team vans following and carrying the other runners to the next checkpoint. The finish is different than that of an individual race, Lerude said. “It’s 12 people, a celebration.”
As you’re enjoying your time in this inspiring, scenic territory, don’t be surprised if you find yourself amid a throng of fellow spectators. And just maybe, you’ll feel a connection and be motivated to move from onlooker to participant.