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Having done both Full Ironman races in the UK I was keen to do a race further afield. I loved Tri X Half at the end of the 2018 season. It was an amazing experience being more out in the wilderness for an event so I was keen to do a more ‘rugged’ type of race. The Xtri series caught my eye and a race in Alaska certainly stood out. My wife is originally from Tennessee but about 12 years ago moved to Alaska to work and has always spoken so fondly of the 4 years she spent there that I’ve always wanted to visit with her. When we realised the finish line of the race was in the resort she used to live/work in it seemed like fate was calling us back there so I put my name in the ballot…
Arriving in Alaska it was immediately clear that the event was every bit as Extreme as the billing. The terrain and scenery was stunning but something we didn’t expect was the weather. It was supposed to be high teens and quite likely to rain. Instead we had mid/high 20s and brilliant sunshine. On top of that the weather had created a number of wild fires, in fact one local headline the day before the race read ‘Alaska is Hot and on Fire’. One of these fires was close to the event route adding the additional complexity of smoke, as if the cold water, terrain and threat of apex predators wasn’t enough! The day before the event reality really set in at 6am there was a ‘social swim’ so we could see what the water felt like: cold (officially 10C which is unpleasant to say the least). Later in the afternoon was the pre-race briefing which included a tutorial and practice using bear spray as well as how to handle Moose encounters. After that my wife Jennifer who had the dubious pleasure of being required to run the last 10 miles with me went over to Alyeska, Girdwood where the run was going to be to wait for me to arrive the next day and I got on with final preparations with my parents who were there as support crew for the bike leg.
We met at the Sea Life centre in Seward with support crews to set up bikes etc. at about 3am then at 3:30am a school bus drove the competitors the 2 miles down the coast to Miller’s Landing ready for the 4:30am start. The wait over at the start was surreal. It was completely silent as the 67 athletes who made the start (out of 104 registered) contemplated what was ahead of them. There was a dim pre-dawn light and the air was heavy with smoke from the fire nearby only adding to the reflective atmosphere. At 4:15am one of the competitors gave a muted rendition of Star Spangled Banner and then we were immediately ushered into the water ready to start at 4:30am sharp. The water was frigid, if the adrenaline hadn’t woken you up by this point the water certainly did. After a brief few minutes treading water the race was started by a red flare shooting into the smoke laden sky. The first 500m of the swim were brutal. I set out quickly to try and get my body temperature up but the water was making my face sting and my breathing was short and sharp as I gasped getting used to the water. After that I settled into a rhythm, face numb now, out of the crowd of athletes as we began to space out, I just focussed on the distant lights of Seward sea life centre being sure not to stray too far from the coastline. For a brief moment I got a chance to enjoy the stunning scenery as I relaxed, the mountains came into view and I could see a sea otter bobbing along beside me.
About half-way through the swim it started to get tough, after 30mins in that water body temperature starts to drop and there was also a patch of smoke clinging to the water like a thick morning fog that made breathing difficult. I slowed a little to re-gather myself, shortly after the waterfall, caused by glacial run-off, at the swim exit began to come into view and I knew I was on the home stretch. The final few hundred meters of the swim seemed to last forever. Already cold and tired the water temperature dropped rapidly to 5C or less as we got close to the waterfall. Finally I reached the shore and feeling pretty dizzy and disoriented I was helped to my feet and then my father grabbed me to help guide me back towards T1 to get my bike. I was 19th out of the water with a swim time of 1 hour 1 minute and 54 seconds, which is good for me as the swim is my weakest leg and I’d been targeting a time of about an hour. Recovering my balance it was short run to T1 and I was getting excited for the bike now. It was an 8 minute and 32 second turn around time in T1 as I drank some hot coffee to get myself warmed up, got out of my wetsuit and put on some extra layers for the bike. By the time I left transition I was 12th so gained a few handy places with a quick turnaround.
The bike was a 113 mile point to point cycle from Seward to Alyeska Ski resort in Girdwood with 4,635ft of climbing. I’d driven the route in reverse a couple of days before as we made our way down to Seward from Anchorage so my parents and I had already established our stopping points to swap out bottles and nutrition and I had a chance to get a feel for the course. There was plenty of climbing in the first 70 miles, nothing steep but some long dragging tempo climbs. There is only really one road so getting lost wasn’t an issue but it did mean we were cycling on the shoulder of a road that would start to get busier as the day got later so there was some extra motivation to get it done!
It felt good to be out on the bike after the swim and fortunately the air temperature began to rise so I wasn’t too cold, although the shivering made the first couple of miles interesting! Once I got out of Seward I settled into my familiar TT position and pretty soon a couple of riders came into view up the long straight road ahead which gave me some targets. As we approached the first hill I began to catch the guys in front and still feeling good I pressed on. By the time I crested the first hill at about 12 miles I had clear road ahead and took plenty of time to appreciate the spectacular scenery the bike was going to offer from here on in. The Seward Highway is nestled into the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula and for the next 100 miles I was going to be treated to the stunning views of the terrain that Alaska is famous for. The first 40miles flew by and I met up with my parents at our first rest stop to get some fresh water and some food. Knowing I was on a good pace I felt pretty competitive at this point and didn’t stop for long. I may have given my support team a bit of a hard time for not having everything ready at the first stop (I’d apologise the next day). The next 40 miles is always tough in these events you’re in no-man’s land, the excitement of the start has worn off and it’s a long way to the finish. This is also where you could really tell there was smoke in the air as my lungs started burning a bit more than usual. Head-down, crack-on. Fortunately I had a couple more targets to chase down and the scenery turned up to 11 as the road rounded the Turnagain Arm I was distracted from the suffering in my legs by the mountains on my right and the mud-flats of the famous inlet on my left. I had pencilled in some stops between mile 40 and 80 just in case but didn’t need any of them so met up with my support again at mile 80 and took on board my final supplies including bear spray which was mandatory for the last section of the bike as we turned off the highway and into a forest path. As I cycled into Girdwood it was time to mentally prepare for the run which is what this really sets this race apart. At the end of the cycle I was in 5th place overall after the 3rd quickest bike leg in the field with a bike time of 5:26:29, which I’m absolutely delighted with.
In T2 I felt like I may have overcooked it slightly on the bike as legs were a bit like jelly but after a three and a half minute turnaround as I grabbed my backpack with plenty of water and bear spray I set out onto the ridiculously hard run course. The run is always what had stood out to me about this race, 27.2 miles with 6,400ft of climbing including ascending two different faces of Mt. Alyeska in the last 10 miles. It was always going to be hard but with air temperature at 27C and the sun out it was quite a lot harder than I expected. The run was split into two sections. The first 17 miles I was out on my own in the woods with rolling terrain including the dusty Crow Creek Road, a ‘hand tram’ gorge crossing, and the relentless Nordic Loop. The final 10 miles I had to have a partner to run with for safety reasons due to the remoteness of the course. As I set out on the first section I actually felt surprisingly good and had to make sure I wasn’t pushing too hard as I knew the terrain coming up was about to get much harder. Then I hit Crow Creek Road and reality set in. From that point on there was no flat sections on the run at all, it was constantly up and down and all at a decent gradient 5%-10%. Fortunately I caught sight of the leading woman on Crow Creek Road and that helped drag me up the hill as I caught her by the first feed stop at mile 8. Then down into the woods to cross the gorge where I jumped into the hand tram and a couple of hikers helped me pull myself across the rope operated river crossing. Shortly after I was into the Nordic Loop. People had warned me about this. It was a 10km out-and-back section that is used for cross-country skiing in the winter, as a result it is essentially a series of short sharp hills designed to hurt. It felt like a crucible as there was little relief from the sun beating down from overhead on the rocky ground. I went deep here. Every part of my body was screaming at me to stop. These are the moments in endurance racing where you learn to grit your teeth, strengthen your resolve, and embrace the suffering. Getting out of the Nordic Loop felt like escaping from a torture chamber. There was then a couple of miles of descent to the foot of the mountain where I needed to pick up Jennifer. At the end of the 17 miles I was in 4th, gaining one place with a time of 3:07:28.
At this stage I was delighted. My time and position to this point was ahead of my expectations. I knew I was miles inside the cut-off so the only thing that would stop me finishing was an injury or a bear attack. I also knew I’d be able to enjoy the experience of covering the last 10 miles with Jennifer as I was unlikely to be right at me limit. Then as soon as we got going I was in for a shock. I knew Jennifer had been training hard but she blasted up the first ascent. Too proud to ask her to slow down I just silently tucked in behind her and let her drag me up the mountain a relentless 4km at an average of about 15%. Standing on the top of the mountain that first time looking out over seven glaciers was unforgettable. Then it was time to descend. The descent was tricky. There were some big sections of steep downhill on loose rocky ground and so we made the decision to go down very cautiously as Jennifer had never run anything like that and it wasn’t worth risking injury and not being able to finish. We made it to the foot of the mountain intact but then it was a quick loop round to the North side of the mountain. We’d been warned about this and it lived up to its billing. Again about 4km but this time the last 2km was over 20% with a section of steps called the stairway to heaven and then a series of 12 switchbacks. This was hard and Jennifer hadn’t eaten anything on the route yet. We were probably 3 hours in and still had a way to go so we had to stop for a while as I convinced her to eat some haribo. Recovered we set off again into the never ending switchbacks that just didn’t’ seem to be getting us closer to the top of the Mountain. Finally we made it and then all that stood between us and the finish line was the same 4km of descent we had already done. We were passed by a group of three athletes on this final descent but at this point I didn’t care. I’d achieved my goals, we were going to finish, and I was so proud of Jennifer for completing this section with me. As we got to the bottom and the resort came into view we broke into a light jog for the final few hundred meters and crossed the line to embrace the 6 members of Jennifer’s family who’d made the trip up from Tennessee and my parents. The final section of the run took us 4 hours 27 minutes and we finished 7th overall (6th male). Relieved, exhilarated, jubilant we had plenty of time to cheer on the other finishers who would still be coming home for another 5 hours.
It was a race that exceeded my expectations in every way. It was harder than I expected, I achieved more than could ever have asked for, I enjoyed it but most importantly the sense of pride and achievement is unparalleled in anything sporting I’ve ever done.
ABOUT MIKE: I live in Eton, UK and work for Mars Wrigley in Slough selling Chocolate to Tesco. Triathlon has brought me so much balance to my life. It helps me de-stress from work, it keeps me healthy (I literally work at a chocolate factory), it gives me a huge goal and motivation that is intensely personal, and it stretches me and pushes me to new limits. I couldn't do any of it without the unerring support of my wife though..