8 months ago I signed up for the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. At the time, the race was more of an abstraction than a reality. While I had most of the details of the race, I didn’t know what it would really entail. I had chosen this race as my first Ironman distance race because I wanted it to be a memorable event that would never fade from my mind. I believe I have achieved that.
I headed out with most of my support crew for Alaska on the Tuesday afternoon before the race and arrived around midnight in Anchorage. This included Rebekah, Timothy, Sarah, and myself. Mike was to arrive about 24 hours later on a later flight. While this team was my “official” support crew for the race, my mother and her friend Kim had already arrived in town for a vacation and to watch the race.
That Wednesday, Timothy and I decided to scope out a bit of the course and went for an easy run followed by the first half of the mountain section of the run. The weather and scenery were absolutely breath-taking as we climbed, and we took it easy to save energy for Saturday. When we got to the top, I got to meet the Race Director, Aaron Palaian, who did a phenomenal job of setting up this race and communicating all of the necessary details to the athletes. I have never seen the amount of hype and build-up around a race and Aaron handled any hiccup to perfection. After talking with Aaron, a member of the film crew helping promote the race asked me if they could get some interviews and footage of me throughout the race. Since I was apparently one of the favorites to win the race, they thought it could make a good story. I was excited to have the opportunity to help promote the event, but suddenly the pressure to perform got a lot higher!
Thursday morning, I took my bike out for a spin to check out some of the course and to make sure that the bike was operating properly, especially since this was my first time completely rebuilding my own bike after flying with it. Everything went smoothly and the scenery on Seward Highway and Portage Glacier Road was beautiful. It was like Being in another world. There is a reason that Seward Highway is touted as being one of the most scenic drives in the world, and 90% of the bike course is on it. Snow topped mountains, deep blue lakes, and the occasional glacier are the norm on the course, not to mention that the shoulders had just been cleaned with plenty of space to ride separately from traffic. After some breakfast, Mike joined me for an easy run on the course which would be my last workout leading up to the race. The rest of the day included a wildlife tour in Resurrection Bay (where the race swim is located) and an interview with the film crew before returning to the chalet to sleep.
Friday was a short day that included packet pick-up and the athlete meeting in the cold and rain in Seward. The weather had definitely changed from being almost warm the past couple days, to now being in the low-50’s with occasional showers. It would be a toss up as to how the weather would behave on race day. We stayed in a place just a couple blocks from the first transition area on Friday night. As expected, I didn’t sleep well with the pre-race nerves and the sun being up late into the night. Eventually, 1 am rolled around and it was time to get up.
After setting up transition and getting my wetsuit on, I got on the bus that would take us to the swim start at Miller’s Landing, 2.6 miles away. We ended up having a lot of time waiting at Miller’s Landing before our start at 4:30. The atmosphere was ominous with many clouds hanging low in the sky covering the views of the mountains all around us. While the sun was supposed to be coming up soon, it was still dark as clouds blocked most of the sky. There had been little to no rain yet that morning, but that threatened to change at any moment.
After some final words and the National Anthem, it was time to enter the water. (swim start images taken by Scott Flathouse Photography) We were told that the water was anywhere from 55-57 degrees for the swim, not including the section near a waterfall where it drops to 49 or below for a short period. Walking in wasn’t too bad until I went to put my face in the water. I knew this would likely be the bad part and I was right. While swimming out to the start area, I attempted to force my face into the water multiple times, but despite having covered my face in Vaseline, I still had a panic reflex. The start came quickly as they soon announced a 10-second countdown. And just like that, the race began.
I started, but I soon felt as if I had forgotten how to swim. I was able to keep my face down for most of the beginning section, but my muscles just would not do what I told them. After maybe 5 minutes of struggling, I finally found a bit of a rhythm and was able to swim somewhat steady for maybe the next 15-20 minutes. I was occasionally around people, but it was pretty much every man for themselves. As the swim wore on my body continued to get colder and colder as I lost heat and water started to enter my wetsuit. As this happened my muscles continued to remember how to swim appropriately. My hands and feet were frozen, my neck and jaw were stiff and locked with the cold, and every breath sent a panic into my brain as my face re-entered the water. I wanted it to end, but the only way that could happen would be if I admitted defeat and asked for the assistance of a nearby kayaker. Shortly after those thoughts began to enter my mind, a swimmer only 10 meters in front of me stopped at a kayak and pulled out of the race. I understood exactly what she had gone through, and I fought to make sure that wasn’t me soon. I continued to push on refusing to have come this far to quit a race I had come so far to do, with so many people rooting for me.
Occasionally I felt the need to stop to regain composure by doing some breast stroke, but every time I did my muscles would seize and only get worse. Eventually, the light at the end of the swim (literally a spotlight from the top of a firetruck ladder) and I spotted the buoy marking the swim exit ramp. As I made it to the ramp, I tripped trying to get up until a volunteer grabbed me. Mike and Timothy soon got to me and pulled my arms around their shoulders helping to carry me up to the sidewalk.
I ran a bit in the wetsuit on the way to transition before taking it off so I could make a quick bathroom stop. I was shaking uncontrollably upon exiting the bathroom and as I made my way to my spot in transition. My body still felt extremely cold and I was having difficulty speaking. Timothy helped me get my cycling gear on, though it took much longer than it typically would have since my body would not do what I was attempting to tell it to do. Despite my coldness and shaking, I knew the best way for me to start the warming process was to get on the bike and start producing heat. I scared a lot of people (including myself) when getting on the bike, but was able to slowly get moving.
Over the next few miles, I progressively started to get a bit warmer as I headed through the wet streets of Seward. As I warmed and stopped shaking, I was able to get down into my aero position and start executing the plan that I had set out for myself. My plan for the ride was to pace myself using my power meter and to stay conservative at anywhere between 240-250 watts. The first half of the course had pretty much all of the climbing, so I allowed myself to go a bit harder to gain some time and continue to raise my core temperature. By mile 5 I had already settled into a good rhythm and was regularly passing other athletes. My first planned nutrition stop was at mile 43.5 where I would meet with my support crew who would be ready waiting for me. I pulled into the pull off there, and we traded out my bottles and gels while Rebekah gave me a rice cake to eat while I started off riding again.
My support crew would continue to leap frog past me a few times throughout the course, but my next planned stop wasn’t until mile 93 of the ride. I threw trash at them occasionally and somewhere around miles 60-70, they informed me that I was gaining serious time on the leader, fellow Pro Andrew Fast. This was confirmed by the film crew that would occasionally ride next to me to get some footage (which was amazing), but I continued to stick to the plan so I wouldn’t blow myself up for later. I was feeling super confident as everything was just seeming to click as I bombed down all the descents and made quick work of the flats and uphills. Once we hit the out-and-back section on Portage Glacier Road at mile 80, my deficit to Andrew was under 2 minutes. There was a strong headwind on the out section, but as I turned back the wind helped bring my speed way up. The film crew told me later that in that flat section they were driving about 35mph just to keep up.
I caught Andrew just before the end of Portage Glacier Road. It didn’t last long since it was now time for my second (and last) nutrition stop at mile 93. Within a mile or so after the stop, I re-caught Andrew and was nearly hit by a large black truck with someone yelling “GET OFF THE ROAD!” It was a bit disturbing, but being in the lead of my first Full distance race made up for any negative thoughts. I rode steadily for the remaining miles of the bike trying to keep good speed with the tailwind still at my back a bit. I finally saw transition at just over 111 miles into the ride and dismounted my bike after about 4 hours and 42 minutes of riding, and closing a gap of over 25 minutes to take the lead.
To be continued…here!