Alaska(Woah)Man: The Race

alaskaman photo

Photo by Eric Wynn

Jessica is an experienced ultra-triathlete (2016 UltraMan Florida winner, multiple time Ironman finisher, Escape from Alcatraz with NO WETSUIT finisher, marathoner, etc). Jessica is a member of Triathlon Club of San Diego, known for her strong swimming background and busy schedule as a married General Surgeon.  She invited me to join her in the inaugural AlaskaMan Extreme Triathlon as her support volunteer which is mandatory for the swim/bike aid and trail run pacer. My initial reaction… “Wait, you’re asking ME?? Why, how hard is this??”

2017 OVERALL EVENT STATISTICS

Total Registered: 307
Did Not Start (DNS): 108 (35%)
Started: 198 (65%)
Did Not Finish (DNF): 41 (20% of those that started)
Finished: 157 (80% of those that started)
Avg Male Finisher Age: 44    Avg
 Female Finisher Age: 39

MY RACE SUMMARY VIDEO MONTAGE (coming soon)

Open Course means the bay isn’t closed to boat traffic or wildlife. The roads aren’t closed to highway traffic or wildlife. The mountain trails aren’t closed to bears and wildlife. The race just provides lifeguards in the swim, few aid stations and flags along the run route on the mountain.  Timing is setup through the app RaceJoy, having no ankle chip or timing mats in this massive point to point journey. Instead each athlete has to carry her own cellphone, with internet reception and a backup battery. The RaceJoy app has useful features like tracking multiple athletes, sending push cheer noises to an athlete’s phone during the race, GPS, and an email to confirm a finish time.   This race is like Fear Factor meets Triathlon meets Tough Mudder, for the difficulty, conditions but mainly because of the time cut-offs. Checkout the Course Map & elevation gains 

Race Day Photography

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SWIM – 2.6 miles point to point.

Cut-off: 2h30m.

There are shuttles to Miller’s Landing at 3:30am for the 4:30am Swim start.  One wave, in-water start. Resurrection Bay never freezes solid, which is a popular boat channel for fishermen and tourists with an average depth of 500 ft, although with the glacier run off the water in peak summer was between mid 40s-low 50s.  The Seward Firefighters shined a bright light for swimmers to know the path because Resurrection Bay is too deep & current is too strong for swim buoys until the shore.  That’s right, no swim buoys.  This photo is race morning with the THICK fog; thankfully they were swimming straight along the mountain shore.  She was a torpedo through the water in a 1:21 swim, and could not feel her legs at the Swim In. Your personal volunteer has to be there to basically carry the athlete to T1, take off the wet clothes, change into dry trikit & get her ready for the bike.  I did not find her at the Swim In, thankfully another support person helped her into T1 and I took over in there. I helped another athlete as well to even out my karma.  Swimmers that were in the water after 6am when the fishing boats go out had to deal with lots of chop, I overheard some athletes saying they vomited multiple times during the swim.

Mentality Tip from Jess: When she arrives at the open water, she puts on her wetsuit, goggles, and walks directly in.  On race day she waits until literally the last minute to do so, for this reason: performance is mental. Get in your gear, get in the water, then analyze, and make adjustments if needed. She does not get dressed then stare at the water to allow anxiety or fears to start making her doubt herself or the workout entirely.  She does not talk about it or ask what others are doing.  She keeps her warm fun towel and change of sweats waiting for when she’s done. We did a swim preview on Friday with Hello Kitty towel & here’s a shot of how the swimmers are numb shivering crawling out of Resurrection Bay on race day.

BIKE: 112 mile bike, 4,000+ ft of elevation gain, point to point from Seward almost to Anchorage. Cut-Off: 7h30m (15mph) The city of Seward pumped for the race power-washed the entire 100m bike route the week of the race; too bad it ended up raining hard on Friday to put debris back on it.  The Seward Highway is a one-lane arterial road, occasionally opens to 2-lanes to allow passing, with a shoulder of 2 ft in the good areas.  No drafting USAT rule was enforced, and there were very few options for passing considering the highway has semi-trucks, RVs, blind corners, and cars at 35-65mph.  There are a couple Stop Signs/lights from T1 until the highway, then no lights.  She knew the run would be the hardest portion for the legs so she decided to be steady, smart and conservative on the bike.   Strava Map Link

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Athlete support layout uses the mile marker signs on the Seward Highway, and any of the gravel or paved turn outs for bottle hand-off/food/bathroom that they decide to. The logistics of a driving/traveling aid station is very important and completely up to the athlete to coordinate herself with her support volunteer.  So much can go wrong in even just 10 miles, let alone 100+.  She told me to Leap Frog her: let her go ahead, wait 10-15 minutes then continue until I spot her again.  Drive another 10-15 mins, then park until she passes again.  This gem of this method is what helped me find her with a flat when there was no cellphone reception.  We borrowed a bike pump from other support vehicle, instead of chancing the CO2. She had it under control so I captured the scenery because she wasn’t able to appreciate it in the moment.  There were so many other support crews that drove 30 miles ahead of their athlete, and just waited.  There were areas without cell reception, so no news is NOT good news.  So many other athletes treated the pull outs like buffets, not carrying much on the bike, and trying to decide during the race what to eat from their cooler of snacks in the car.  This was where I noticed the biggest difference between an experienced athlete vs. an amateur.  I can see how that cut-off time starts getting really tight with carelessness.  Jess stayed focused and positive, at the pit-stops she’d ask me how her friends were doing so far. Even with her express flat repair due to a staple randomly, and having to stop for a Moose in the road >>> Bike Time: 6:29.

Mentality Tip from Jess:  Jess used CycleChalet which transported her ready built bike driving to Alaska, so she didn’t have to re-build her bike or stress about picking it up from T2 later. That service is extremely worthwhile in a point to point race like this.  Jess put on GatorSkin tires for this race, she had 1 spare tube on her and 2 in the car with me.  Jess took her bike out in the wet Friday weather to shakeout her nerves, practice riding on the tight highway shoulder and spotted a few issues on her bike in time to fix.  She ironed out the nutrition she will drink and eat in advance, that keeps her tummy happy, based on her training.  She unwrapped and put all her solid food in the bento box. She already knew whether she’d need water or calorie drink at which mile marker stop.  Do not stop on the bike route, pee on the bike.  She told me, one or multiple things will go wrong – problem solve and move forward.  She put her bike in the car with transition bag the night before.  Race morning was quiet, calm, prepped a quick breakfast and coffee and go.

RUN – 27 miles. 6,000ft elevation gain.

Cut-Off: 7h45m/Race Cut-Off: 10:45pm.     >> Strava Link

The run is not closed to wildlife so each athlete has to carry Bear Mace, Bear alert bell to announce your presence, first aid kit and of course the RaceJoy App with battery to track your time and for emergency.  The 1st half marathon from T2 at Steward Highway is on a paved bike path of rolling hills that leads to the base of a majestic Mt. Alyeska Ski Resort mountain.  Athletes must do the first half alone. The race requires each athlete to have a support runner for the last 7 miles of the course, which is the 2 loops up and down the mountain… where 4,000ft gain are in the last 7 miles at 20% grade.  I jumped in to run with her starting at mile 14 because I needed to make sure she was going to be mentally prepared for the last 7 miles of hell.

The 2nd half marathon, started at the base of Mt. Alyeska where many locals and support crews lined the street to cheer for all the athletes coming through.  The AlaskaMan arches signal the start of the hilly climb, and we took a picture at the top of the ski slope the first time. Then there was the “Devil’s Backbone” style descent at the top of this blog post that lead all the way down the mountain to climb back up again on the North Face. Here’s the “1st lap of the 2nd half marathon”:

The 2nd lap of the 2nd half marathon had even steeper sections that cut straight up the mountain. Many sections were so steep there were volunteer telling you which rocks people were grabbing to not slide down.  Jess started to doubt she would finish at the last 2 mile mark, which I agree are the most defeated you’ll feel in your entire life.  The finish line is audible but through the brush and rocks it’s not visible.  1 mile is the “Stairway to Heaven” which is the steepest flights of never-ending blocks of wood and rocks with chains to hold onto that leads to the 1 mile of “Dirty Dozen” switchbacks until the finish line peak.  The finish line is the lodge to get the gondola down.  We went through some dark times, but did not sit at all, a few stops to calm her shaking exhausted legs.  Run: 8:03 (1st part – 4:06, 2nd part – 3:56).

Jess’ finish time: 16H:17M.   8th Woman, 2nd Masters.  Incredible.

20170714_191428The special aspect of this adventure was that Jess shared it with a few other friends that she already knew from UltraMan Florida.  We all shared lodgings together, and got together at the AirBnB after the race to share how it all went down for their day.  The couple found each other on the final miles, and were able to cross the finish line together, within the cut off time!  WOW!   Since race cut off was almost 11pm, getting down the mountain on the gondola, cleaning out all the race stuff, showering, eating, it was closer to midnight.  The crew hung out talking drinking beers until 1:30am the following day so that we could toast at the being awake for 24 hours on the hardest day of their lives so far.

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Race Highlights

This race director (Aaron Palataine) is approachable and actively involved in the race preparations.  During the last year, he created a Facebook Group for everyone that was registered and support crew to discuss updates, concerns and course details.  He is there at the 5am pre-race swim to answer questions and analyze the vibe athletes are having.  He gives the pre-race briefing himself.  At the awards ceremony, after he announced the awards himself, he got the finishers together for a photo… and all the finishers asked him to be in the photo! While it was a sufferfest of a course, it was the labor of a passionate athlete that no one could deny did his job amazingly well — but no one hated him. Now that’s an impressive leader.

Pre-race briefing was held outside in the sprinkling rain because the city of Seward, Alaska didn’t have any venue that was big enough for 600 people.  The race director says, “If you can’t handle a little rain, you probably aren’t cut out for tomorrow.”  Aaron had a wildlife specialist from Anchorage come down to Seward to speak to the athletes about what to expect and what not to do.  The race director, Aaron says that the run portion “could have flags that would point runners to go either straight or turn, but he couldn’t guarantee as they were placed a day in advance and someone could’ve taken them out. Also, that there could have volunteers or not at the peaks.”  If you are navigation-ally challenged, like me, this is so scary to hear lolol  Thankfully we did not get lost.

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Post-race t-shirt distribution, photo and brunch

Finishers got this Ulu pizza cutting knife, a Finisher t-shirt & cool race photo with their new endurance family, and the most amazing huge brunch with FRESH Alaskan Salmon 2 ways: smoked and baked!

support and finishers

More about the brunch:

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