By Nicole Odell
About a year ago as I was out crewing at the Badwater 135 race, I was contacted by a friend of mine who wanted to race the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon.
What’s an Extreme Triathlon? It’s a triathlon that is somewhere around the iron-distance (doesn’t have to be exact) and on conditions much more challenging than your typical triathlon. The Norseman in Norway is probably the most well-known. There is a growing demand for these kinds of races. Alaska has challenging conditions so why not give it a shot?! The 2017 Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon was to start in Resurrection Bay in Seward and finishing in Girdwood (just outside Anchorage) on Mt. Alyeska.
I agreed to be crew captain for Kris a year before the actual event. And on July 15, 2017, the first ever Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon took place.
Kris’ crew consisted of his good friend Sonya, an ironman athlete and friend Audrey, and myself. We all flew out from Denver to Anchorage on Wednesday, July 12th. On our flight was another friend of ours from Colorado Springs, Sean, and his two sons.
Day 1: Wednesday. Sonya, Kris, and I carpooled to DIA, took the light rail in (that was easy!), grabbed some breakfast and got on the flight. 5.5hrs later we were in Anchorage. First stop was food and the recommended hot spot was Moose’s Tooth for pizza and beer. It did not disappoint! Then we made the 2ish hour drive down to Seward, checked into the AirBnB, went for a walk, grabbed a drink at the Seward Alehouse, and just relaxed. We were staying downtown and near the race venue, so everything was in walking distance.
Cool thing: It is a little neat to be going to a bar at almost 10pm but it is still light outside!
Day 2: Thursday. We didn’t have a lot to do today except for basic prep like grocery shopping. Kris got his bike and gear from the Cycle Chauffeur service and went for an easy ride and run. Audrey and I each had our own runs to do, and we explored some of Seward and the historic Iditarod trail/bike path along the water and highway. The mountains along the bay make for phenomenal views!
In the afternoon Kris and the crew got checked in for the race, and walked around Seward a little more. Kris isn’t new to iron-distance racing so he had his routines and we just let him take care of what he needed to do, helping as needed. I also found out today that friends of mine I hadn’t seen in a few years were here so I found them to say hi as they were checking in. It’s a small world!
Kris had an evening massage so we had a home-cooked meal of his choosing (lasagna) for dinner afterwards, then just had another relaxing evening before bed.
Day 3: Friday. The race had a 5-6:30 am practice swim set up so the athletes could experience the cold water in a monitored environment. Audrey and I slept in to make sure we were rested for our support duties, and Kris and Sonya went down with Sean. The day was low-key and filled with event prep, making sure we had what we needed, knew the course, Kris’ needs, approximate time lines, and crew responsibilities. The athlete meeting was in the afternoon near the swim exit/T1 location. The weather had turned from sunny and in the 70s to a drizzly 50 (what we were sort of expecting the whole time). The race director, who lives in Texas, not Alaska, explained the race and the key rules. Because the athletes are allowed support in specific areas, it was important to know when this was allowed. Our team had been reading the race manual so we were prepared.
Cool thing about this race: Craig “Crowie” Alexander was in town to be support for one of his athletes, and Tim and Nicole DeBoom were also here as Tim was involved with some of the race planning.
The next day was going to be an early one so we had dinner, made the last minute preparations, and went to bed around 8:30pm. The alarm was set for 2:30am the next day for the crew, earlier for Kris.
Day 4. Saturday. Race day! Kris had his morning routine planned and was up, probably before 2am. We rolled out of bed around 2:30, got dressed and walked the 5 minutes with Kris to the transition. As crew captain, I was allowed in transition to help him get set up (which was easy – it was raining so he put his bike on the rack and left everything in his bag, and then put on his wetsuit.)
It was dark-ish out, temperatures were in the mid-50s and there was a light rain and the bay was encased in fog. A perfect start to an extreme race! The vibe was relatively calm, probably because a lot of these athletes are iron-distance veterans and also knew they were signing up for a challenging experience.
At 3:30am the busses took the athletes to the start at Miller’s Landing. They were to start at 4:30am with the 2.6 mile swim up the coast. After the athletes left, we walked back to the cottage. We had at least 2.5 hours before Kris would be exiting the water so we used the time to rest a little more, have breakfast and coffee, change into our event day clothes, and finish packing. We decided to head down a little earlier than planned to watch more of the athletes coming out of the water.
We saw the first swimmers coming in along the coast. It was crazy foggy and all they really had to sight on for most of the swim was a light on a fireboat ladder about 2 miles from the start. The water temps were in the mid-50s for most of it, but a solid stretch was cooled by a glacier melt waterfall and was around 48-49 degrees. All athletes were in neoprene caps, many full to cover the chin as well, most had neoprene booties, and many opted for gloves as well, though quite a few didn’t.
Each athlete could have support crew assist them out of the water into T1, but only one (designated with wrist band and event crew shirt) was allowed into T1. Audrey was in a wetsuit to help in the water if needed, and I was in the crew shirt. We were looking for him to swim in, but caught him just after he stood up on the ramp. We hustled over and went to assist him, not knowing what shape he’d be in.
Some athletes were so cold they could barely walk and were assisted into T1 by their crew. Others could walk and were just accompanied by their support. And a minority, Kris included, were able to run. Once we were on the solid (rocky ground) just past the ramp, he started running. Not a jog, a run! Audrey and I were behind him. Kris did have a good swim and came in as expected.
I helped him find his bike in transition and the first thing was to help him get out of the wetsuit, get relatively dry and then dressed for the bike. It was still overcast and misting a bit with temperatures still in that mid-50s. While I was there to help him change, he was pretty functional. (Athletes were allowed to change in transition. A few were not modest at all!) He started shivering a bit more the longer he’d been out of the water, so he wanted to get going, but we took the time to make sure he was all set with everything he needed. In just under 20 minutes, he was on his way, with our friend Sean right behind him.
Bike: 111 miles from Seward to Girdwood.
The support rules were that the athletes could start getting crew support at around mile 30, so we had a little time. We cheered on a few other participants and then headed back to the cottage to finish packing up and head north to the first stop where Kris wanted us to be, about mile 32.
Kris is a seasoned ironman triathlete and had a nutrition and hydration plan figured out. We were just planning on bottle and gear swaps. Along the highway there were designated pull-outs we could use, so we planned ahead of time which ones we would be at. The roads were pretty wet initially, but as we got further north they became drier. They dealt with some wind, but nothing like it could have been. Kris was able to maintain his typical ironman pace.
Kris was doing just fine at the designated stops. We’d get there about 20 minutes before he’d arrive, do the bottle swap, take a few pictures, and then he was on his way.
MM32: Pretty lake, and reminder that there are a ton of mosquitos here.
MM48: We learned Sonya didn’t like dogs, the people with the dogs were smoking pot, the sun was finally coming out and we could see blue skies. Kris had a flat between this stop and the next, but he got it fixed himself. We pulled into a side road shortly after we saw him to make sure he was getting along in a reasonable amount of time, where another athlete with a flat stopped. He obviously knew what he was doing, but was just moving so slow, I offered to give him a hand so he could get going sooner. As I did a quick examination of his tire by running my fingers along the inside, I found a small bit of wire that would have been a disaster for tube number two if it hadn’t been caught. We were able to remove it and get him on his way. While we were helping this athlete, Kris rode by and was good to go. We’d meet him at the planned stop ahead.
MM68: Kris stopped to stretch a little, but was otherwise doing well. The crew was enjoying the Alaskan landscapes.
MM80 (mile ~93): Final stop to see Kris before mile 14 of the run. The wind was picking up and he was feeling it, but as usual doing well.
After this point, we couldn’t provide and support until he hit mile 14.5 on the run. Kris finished his ride, made it through T2 and started the steady run. His tracking wasn’t working as he had phone coverage issues (the race was using RaceJoy for live tracking) so we used Sean’s tracking to estimate where Kris was (a little ahead). We stopped at a small strip mall to get some additional snacks and then made our way to the Alyeska Resort Day Lodge parking lot, which is next to mile 14.5 and 20 on the run. Athletes could get support at 14.5 and also have someone run with them. At mile 20, where the mountain run started, athletes were required to have at least one support person with them for the last 7.5 miles, which was all on the mountain.
In addition to supporting Kris through the bike, I was the support person for another athlete from Colorado Springs, Nic Ponsor, owner of Criterium Bicycles. Audrey would support Kris from mile 14.5 until the finish.
I saw Nic at mile 14.5 so had an idea of when to be ready for when he’d get to mile 20. He came in around 3:40pm, grabbed a few additional things to take with him and we made sure we had the mandatory gear for the mountain. We were then on our way up the mountain.
The Mountain. This lives up to the extreme billing. While nothing was extremely technical in nature as we were mostly on roads and trails, some more narrow than others, including downhill mountain bike trails. But it was ridiculously steep! Nic was feeling a bit beat up, so we took that first section slow, and I just tried to make sure he was OK with fluids and nutrition. The sun was strong and there wasn’t much shade. It took us almost 40 minutes to go the first mile.
We were just going to knock out one mile at a time, though half-mile increments seemed more appropriate as intermediate achievements. The second mile took us about 36 minutes. We did stop a few times. Every so often I’d ask Nic some questions. Partially because I didn’t know him that well, and also to make sure he was doing OK.
We made it up to the first summit and started the descent. The views were phenomenal! Around 3 miles in there was an aid station where we grabbed more water and a few snacks. The course also went right by the finish area on this descent. Of course they would do that! Nic and I hustled down the mountain (he found some new energy at this point) and had some better mile splits. Mile 4 & 5 were at 16 and 15 minute paces. The downhill was also steep and probably beat me up the most! But Nic was feeling better, we had been out of the sun for a while due to clouds and shady areas, and he had a little more to drink and eat. And I think he just wanted to get done! (Nic is an iron-distance veteran so I know he’d been in the hurt box before.) Somewhere around mile 5, Anthony Beeson, another Colorado athlete, blew past us with his support crew. He was running a nice clip!
Mile 6 was 21 minutes, Mile 7 just under 33, and the last half-mile took us about 13 minutes. Those last 2.5 miles were up the steep north face of the mountain. It was a very nice trail, with a little mix of everything such as meadows, streams, rocks, steps, and switchbacks. At this point Nic was in front setting the pace. The last 2 miles definitely went a lot better than the first 2! This was a grind up the steep side of the mountain, but it was absolutely stunning, mosquito swams aside.
With about a quarter-mile to go, the spectators at the top (the tram stop/restaurant/viewing deck) could see the athletes. Nic’s wife and son were cheering, and that gave Nic an extra bit of motivation. He motored in front to cross the finish line. Finishing a minute behind Nic was James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy!
The mountain section was challenging on it’s own, so to tackle that AFTER a very cold 2.6 mile swim, 111 mile bike (about 4000 feet of gain) and a 20 mile run is incredible. It took all the finishers both physical and mental strength. This race is one to take seriously – train for the conditions and the extra tough finish. If you do, the incredible experience you will have will be unforgettable!
Kris and Sean both finished well. We got some food at the summit and then headed down on the tram to grab the boxed dinner from the resort, then head back to our AirBnBs to reflect on what these guys had just accomplished!
The Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon was a fantastic event, with clearly extreme conditions and absolutely gorgeous scenery. It is something all athletes who got to the starting line will never forget.
See full results here
21 registered (5 F, 16 M)
13 showed up to race (11M, 2 F)
9 finished (9M, 0F)