The Lake Tahoe region has become a mecca for those who want to spend large sums of money to endure an incredible amount of suffering. To finish the Lake Tahoe Ironman, athletes swim 2.4 miles in the chilly waters of Tahoe, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon. In the Tough Mudder at Northstar, competitors run through water filled with ice, tunnel through mud, and try to sneak by a phalanx of wires dishing out electric shocks. The Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race through the wilderness from Squaw Valley to Auburn, has runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before reaching the finish line. Throughout the summer, locally owned Big Blue Adventures hosts a series of runs, paddleboard events, and triathlons.

Big athletic events are big business at Lake Tahoe. The economic impact of these events on Tahoe/Truckee is substantial. When Ironman was held in Tahoe in 2013, it garnered between $8 to $10 million for the local economy, according to Incline Village/Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau Executive Director Andy Chapman. Last year, the event was cancelled due to smoke from the King Fire, but most of the positive economic benefits had already been accrued by race day due to training and overnight stays.

Boosting the Economy

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In a study conducted by Colorado-based RRC Associates on the economic impact of the 2014 Boulder Ironman, it found a total boost of $6.37 million to the region. The study found that 40 percent of the racers came to Boulder during the months before the event, spending an average of 3.2 nights in the area. At race time, the average participant spent an additional 5.1 days in the region. While a similar study has not been done in Tahoe, North Lake Tahoe Resort Association Executive Director Sandy Evans Hall said that Tahoe’s economic impact figures would be even higher since our community produced only a handful of Ironman racers while Boulder had 10 percent of its racers come from the city itself, thus more racers were spending nights here. Also, many Tahoe Ironman racers come from sea level and need extra training time acclimating to the high altitude.

“The last two years have seen an extremely positive economic impact for the local economy from Ironman Lake Tahoe,” said Ironman Operations Manager Keats McGonigal. “Each year over 2,000 athletes have traveled to the area for the event. On average, each athlete brings three to four other friends and family with them. In addition to race week, many athletes travel to the area through the summer to train on the course, so there is significant repeat business.”

While the big boys of adventure trips bring in the crowds, Kings Beach-based Big Blue Adventures has a number of smaller races that attract as many athletes as the larger races overall.

“We are a local business, hiring local people,” said Big Blue Adventures Owner Todd Jackson. “We are paying for the services, buying T-shirts, paying for the permits. All that money goes into our community.”

More than 7,000 athletes a year attend Big Blue events, which include the Donner Lake Triathlon, Thunderbird Paddling Festival, Lake Tahoe Mountain Bike Race, and the signature Big Blue Adventure Race. Only 30 percent of the Big Blue event participants are local, with the remaining coming from out of town, according to Jackson.

“These folks are good people to come to Tahoe,” Jackson said. “They understand who we are as a community. They are not just coming up one time, but multiple times per year. Many become second homeowners.”

One type of business that benefits from these events is the local bike shops.

“Ironman has a tremendous impact on our business. We assemble and dissemble bikes that are shipped here for the event,” said John Percy, co-owner of Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City.

Even some unlikely businesses benefit from athletic competitions.

“I definitely noticed Ironman stretched out my summer waxing services through the fall,” said Mia Cimarrusti, owner of PURE Skin Facial and Wax Studio in Tahoe City. 

Other Impacts

Some locals, however, express frustration with the events.

“You don’t really get business from them. My regular clientele doesn’t want to be here then. It’s a big bust … I get zero from any of the races. It is so frustrating,” said a massage therapist from Tahoe City who wished to remain anonymous.

However, Truckee resident Jeff Schloss said the event is a big boost to the community. He has participated in several Ironman events in other communities, and tried to do last year’s Lake Tahoe Ironman before it was cancelled.

“Tahoe is an incredible venue for this race. There is no better place to swim, bike, and run,” said Schloss, noting that triathletes spend a lot of money.

“They go out to restaurants. They rent housing. And they end up going into the sports shops to buy the clothes they forgot to bring.”

There are also new events scheduled for Tahoe this year. There is a half Ironman, which will run concurrent with the original one, drawing a number of additional participants. The Spartan World Championship Race, an event similar to Tough Mudder, will come to Squaw Valley Oct. 3 and 4, and a USAA cycling event scheduled for June 24 to 28 will attract more than 1,300 athletes. Tahoe also hosted two women’s Amgen Tour of California races in May.

“These events are good for the off-season; the strategy is to extend the shoulder season,” Chapman said.

Author

  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman latest book is “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” published in 2022. He also wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published in 2020. His other books include “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." Tim has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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