Race Report :: Jennifer Sheasley

RACE REPORT DISCLAIMER: Race reports are provided by athletes and are not edited for content.

 

Several people have asked for a rundown of this crazy race that I did, so I figured I would write a race report to share my experience! It’s a common practice to write race recaps after triathlons since so much happens during a race and there’s a lot to remember and learn from. However, I only started my long-distance triathlon journey recently, so this is my first attempt. Hopefully it’s worth the read!

Race Preparation

I trained really hard for this race. I was incredibly fortunate to work with Coach Heather Helzer of Turnagain Training who structured an individualized workout plan for me. She has several Ironmans and many years of racing experience under her belt, so I learned a lot and the plan she gave me was awesome! I trained 6 days per week, 3-6 hours each day, alternating between the three sports. I raced a half Ironman in Haines City, Florida on April 14th and placed 5th in my age group! That was a nice surprise and helped give me some confidence. Maybe I am alright at this...

Lead-up

We drove to Seward on Thursday June 27, 2 days before the race. I wanted to pick up my bib on the early side and be ready for the 6:15am social swim on Friday morning. I packed extra of everything, so the car was full with all of my gear and my bike, but I actually used most of it throughout the race (or my support crew did!) and I was grateful that I didn’t forget anything. The drive was hot and smoky, but I knew that worrying about the weather wouldn’t change anything, so I didn’t think about that too much. At the bib pickup, we had to show our helmet, our backpack for the run containing bear spray, a first aid kit, a whistle, and a compass, and have several waivers signed before we were given our bibs. Finally having my packet of race bibs, stickers, and swim cap in my hand made this thing feel very real!

The Friday morning social swim was great! It was fun to see the other athletes and get a feel for the water. I have a nice wetsuit that I got secondhand (the facebook group Tri n’ Sell it is awesome for finding good used gear!) so my body wasn’t cold, and I had good booties, gloves, and a neoprene cap too. I had also gotten in cold water several times over the last few weeks so I was fairly well-adapted to the cold. The only thing that got cold was my face. Even though I had put some vaseline on it, it felt like needles! I had a bit of a brain freeze headache for a few minutes, but I adjusted fairly quickly and got swimming. My coach had told me to swim only 800m, but I didn’t want to get out after I finished! I loved the cold! I followed the plan though, and dragged myself out :) Afterwards, we warmed up and then returned to our airbnb and went back to sleep since I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much the coming night anyway.

The race briefing was at 3pm on Friday. We sat in the grass near T1 (the area for the transition between the swim and the bike) and the race director, Aaron, talked about the progression of the race, rules, etc. There was a short wildlife talk and bear spray demonstration at the end, too. We then went back and I sorted all of my gear into labeled bags for pre-swim, swim, T1, bike, extra bike gear for the car, T2a (bike to run trainstion), the first half of the run (the “flatter” part), T2b (transition to the mountain), the second mountain half of the run, and post-race. It was a lot, but my absolutely wonderful partner and support captain Ilana helped keep me organized. I finished the night by cleaning my bike chain, and then put myself to bed at 10pm. I only slept from about 11pm to 12:30am because I was too nervous to sleep!

I got up at 1:30am to shower, eat, and head towards the T1 setup. Ilana and my mom helped me put out my bike and gear for the transition. I put on my wetsuit halfway, ate a Clif bar, and then got onto the bus that took us to the swim start. Support wasn’t allowed to come with us because the road was narrow and the race officials didn’t want it to get clogged, so we were on our own! It was hard to say goodbye to Ilana and my mom, but there was a neat sense of camaraderie between the athletes during the 15min bus ride. Some athletes were talkative, but I was one of the quieter ones.

The Swim (1.9 miles)

I was strangely not nervous for this! Since I had been in the water before, I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble with the cutoff time, and the swim is a short leg compared to the other two. I had my last pre-race energy Clif bloks and asked another athlete to zip up my suit. I waited until about 3 minutes before the gun went off to get in the water so that I would have time to acclimate but I wouldn’t be waiting too long and start losing lots of body heat before I even started. The first 500m seemed to take awhile, but then I found a groove and my pace got a little faster. I still stayed slow and steady for the swim though. I could have gone faster, but I wasn’t worried about the cutoff, so I wanted to conserve as much energy as possible for later. My strokes felt strong, I didn’t have any OWS panic (the term for the anxiety that sometimes hits when you realize you’re in a massive body of unpredictable water), I didn’t get off my sight line (thanks to the 2 bright fog lights in the distance at the swim exit), I didn’t have any issues with the tide, and I actually enjoyed it! The smoke was a bit challenging for me during this leg though, my lungs struggled more than they usually do during a swim. I was glad the swim was first because I got out of the water with 30 minutes to spare, and that buffer gave me more confidence on the bike.

Time: 1 hour 17 minutes.

T1:

Ilana met me getting out of the water and we jogged to the transition area while I took off my cap, goggles, earplugs, and the top half of my wetsuit. I used an old graduation gown to change under, had some chicken noodle soup, had a tub of hot water for my feet, and didn’t rush. I wasn’t actually cold! I sat in my chair to get my shoes and reflective suspenders on. Ilana was incredible helping me get changed quickly, turning on my phone, GPS, and bike lights, giving me sunscreen, etc.

Time: About 15 minutes.

The Bike (113.5 miles)

I was actually the most concerned for this leg because the cutoff times were strict: we had to maintain an average speed of 15 mph, and there were cutoffs every 2 hours/30 miles if we weren’t meeting this standard. The cutoffs are for safety as the road gets busier in the day, but they still made me nervous. I didn’t have any issues at all though! This leg was pretty awesome. I followed the same tactic for my bike that I had used on the swim: taking it steady and easy-ish since I wasn’t close to the cutoff and that way I could save my legs in case I needed to push hard later. Having wiggle room made it much easier mentally. Being familiar with the course helped a lot too; since I’ve driven this road hundreds of times and biked it several times I knew where the hills were. Jason, the husband of one of my Turnagain Training teammates, Debbie, had also lent me an awesome bike computer, so I could see statistics of my speed and time and a map of the coming elevation. 

I made a potentially questionable decision to race on a bike I acquired only a month before the race. Like my wetsuit, it was a pretty nice bike that I got secondhand! It had some massive advantages over my previous bike: it was built for triathlon with Di2 electronic shifting integrated on the aero bars and base bars and a variety of other aerodynamic elements that helped me go a lot faster. I was also one of a smaller number athletes who didn’t have any mechanical or flat tire issues!! I watched the ground like a hawk to make sure I didn’t run over anything, and I think my recently replaced tires helped too. My arms got sore in aero position pretty quickly because of the long swim before. But my legs managed really well with just some expected glute/hamstring fatigue, nothing major since I didn’t have to push super hard. My only real body issue on the bike was that I discovered anything with even a tiny bit of carbonation is bad for my tummy. My first bottle of hydration was a Nuun fizzy-ish drink that threw my stomach off for most of the ride. I still pushed through and ate and drank a lot because I knew I needed to stay ahead in nutrition for the run, but it was hard. 

The hills going our direction weren’t bad and I didn’t notice much headwind, though some other racers disagreed. The only part of the bike I disliked was the pathway from Bird Creek to Girdwood at the end because we weren’t allowed to be in aero! It made sense for safety, but it slowed me way down, and I know that pathway really well and can pop out of aero quickly if need be, so I was bummed we had to stay up the whole time. Besides the smoke, the weather for the bike ended up being perfect: There was no rain, it wasn’t too hot since it was still early, and there wasn’t much wind! The smoke didn’t seem to bother me much during the ride, but the day after the race my throat was a little sore.

The best part of the bike for me was getting to see my support so frequently! We could have our support car stop at any points between mile 30 and 85 to replenish hydration and nutrition and help handle issues. I met with my support 4 times; miles 31.9, 51.5, 68, and 78.5. I was preferring real food and ate things like pickles, hard boiled eggs, pretzels, turkey sandwich, and potato chips, refilled my hydration bottles, boosted morale, then took off again. Ilana and Christin were amazing on this leg, they had an awesome neon pink sign they held up to indicate to me that they were stopped, they were super fast at handing me snacks and helping me replenish my supplies, and they leap-frogged me to cheer several times between the stops. I’ve never smiled so much on a ride this long!

Time: 7 hours 7 minutes.

T2a

I was glad to get off the bike. My legs felt surprisingly fine! I sat in the camp chair my support had set up and they helped me change shoes and get some food. Eggs, turkey slices, pretzels. Again, Ilana and Christin were absolutely fantastic, handing me everything I needed and making sure I didn’t forget anything. I changed quickly to a different tri suit and then Michelle (my first half support runner) and I were off!

Time: About 15 minutes.

The Run - Part I (17.5 miles)

This. Was. So. Hard. The first 4 miles were good, we went down the bike path along the Alyeska highway and back and I was able to hold a decent steady pace. Then we got to Crow Creek road. It was slightly uphill, the bugs were bad, the sun was hot, and I started to lose some motivation and worry about cutoff times (I really didn’t need to, but I was struggling). This was a really tough point in the race for me, but my support runner, Michelle Richards, was absolutely amazing and helped pull me through. I was so looking forward to the aid station at mile 7.5, excited for bananas, cookies, cold Powerade, and ice for my tri suit. Unfortunately, they had none of those things, which threw me off a bit since that’s what we were told would likely be there. I grabbed a small cup of what was supposedly flat Coke. The sugar tasted great, but it wasn’t flat and my stomach, which had finally recovered after the bike, was thrown off for the rest of the race. That all hit me hard mentally and I struggled quite a bit for the next few miles. I was frustrated because I had to walk a lot even though Winner Creek is a super nice/soft trail that I like to run normally. I felt like I was doing poorly, my stomach was nauseous, and I was grumpy. I gradually returned to a more positive outlook by the second lap of the Nordic Loop when Michelle reminded me that I still had tons of time to do both mountain climbs later, I didn’t need to worry. We also passed a lot of people on the second lap and I was excited that all the long runs I had done through the hilly ski trails at Kincaid were paying off. I was tired though, so I walked a lot of the up hills and some of the flats, and then jogged the other flats and downs. I started feeling stronger for the last few miles and was able to run a little faster which was nice. Coming into transition was great, I finally felt like I was going to make it to the finish!

Time: 4 hours 30 minutes

T2b

Similar to the last one. Sat in my chair, ate as much real food as I could, switched shoes, grabbed hiking poles, and took off again! This time with my awesome, long-time teammate and friend, Tatyana Benko. We did gymnastics and cross-country running together in high school and she’s one of my favorite hiking buddies :)

Time: About 15 minutes.

The Run - Part II (10 miles)

My first trip up the mountain was great. I knew the trail well, kept a steady pace without stopping much, and passed a lot of others. The hiking poles helped a ton because I never train with them so the climbing felt a lot easier than usual. Also, my second support runner, the wonderful Tatyana, was awesome at keeping me distracted! About halfway up, I ran into Shannon Titzel! She did Alaskaman the inaugural year in 2017 and gave me tons of help when I first committed to the race a year ago. She was excited to see me since the tracker hadn’t been working, so she didn’t know how I was doing. I was so excited to see a familiar face too! She gave me a bag of ice for the front of my tri suit which was amazing. I ate a snickers but that was the last food I forced down because I did nooooot want to eat and I thought I might be close enough to the finish to be ok. I kept drinking water and Powerade though, and I did have food in case I bonked. I trucked right on up the mountain, occasionally uttering a few expletives about how high we had to hike for this first lap- all the way to the top of chair 6, way above the tram! On the way down, we saw some more of my support; Christin, Angelica, and my mom. It was great to see them! Chatted for a moment, grabbed some more ice and Powerade at the tram aid station, then kept heading down. The downhill was disheartening because I can typically run down easily, but I was tired and still trying to save my legs, so we walked and it took longer than I am used to.

When I got to the bottom, Ilana, Angelica, and Christin were there! I was relieved to see them. Aaron (race director) and Kevin (race official) were also there and asked if I wanted to do the low route, which meant my last 4 miles would be flatter, instead of taking the second trip up the mountain. This option still counted as a finish, but low route finishers would get a white shirt while high route would get an orange shirt. Aaron and Kevin recommended I do the low route because several athletes and support had already been taken off the mountain from exhaustion, and the heat and smoke made for very much less than ideal conditions. They really wanted all of us to stay safe. But I didn’t come all this way to not do the full thing! Plus, I was still 37 minutes before the high route cutoff, I had done the North Face trail a week before and knew it wasn’t too long, and I knew my dad would have told me to go for it. I looked at Ilana for confirmation, wanting another more objective opinion. She seemed to think I could do it too. So I did! 

The first half of the climb was fine, the second half was bad. I psyched myself out about being able to finish the high route because if I didn’t complete this route I would DNF. In reality, I had plenty of time and I didn’t need to worry at all; my legs were still working great and I was close. But Kevin and Aaron’s concern was all I could think about and I was also feeling really sleepy and I just wanted to be done so badly. This was the other mentally hard part of the race for me. Thank goodness for my incredible support! Tatyana gave me water from her pack, played music, kept talking to keep me distracted, helped me stay calm about the timing, and listened patiently to my perpetual complaining about being tired. Somehow, I managed to power through the “Dirty Dozen” switchbacks at the top of North Face, and then we were going down!! That took forever again and I was frustrated, but we were close enough that I knew I was going to finish. Ilana climbed up to run the last quarter mile down with us, and she and Tatyana ran through the finish with me. The announcer mentioned how young I was while I finished and Shannon got a video! I DID IT!! I got the orange shirt!! And now I’m the youngest finisher in race history!

Time: 4 hours 15 minutes

Some of my favorite sound bites

As I was leaving for my second climb up the mountain:

Race Director: “If ski patrol sees you on the mountain, just make sure that you’re smiling, don’t look like you’re in pain!”

Me: “I have a habit of smiling during things like this...”

RD: “You’re sick!”



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Coming down from my second lap up the mountain:

Race Official: “Is this your first finish?”

Me: “Yep!”

RO: “Congrats, you’re an elite now!”

At the finish:

Announcer: “24 years old! That seems like a ridiculous age to be finishing an Extreme Alaskaman, but Jennifer Sheasley doing exactly that tonight!” 

(24 is my racing age since that’s the age I will be on 12/31/2019)

Overall

-This was amazing. I told my friends and family that I only wanted to do one of these extreme triathlons and then I would be done, and most of them just laughed, knowing I would change my mind. I was sure I wouldn’t, but they were all right... I’ve already started looking at another one… But first, medical school!

-I think that overall, I could have fairly easily shaved up an hour off my time if I had been pushing harder. But since I wasn’t going for time, only a safe finish, I opted to stay conservative, and I was able to avoid any big issues. I also planned to race Mt. Marathon 5 days after to maintain my spot in that race, so I didn’t want to totally destroy my legs. 

-I was proud that I did really well consuming salt and hydration throughout the entire race. This helped me keep it together while facing the heat and smoke on the mountain when a lot of other athletes and support were struggling.

Overall Time: 17 hours 45 minutes

Lessons for the next big tri/anyone who does this race in the future:

-Tapering made me not want to sleep at all the week before, and my average amount of sleep was way too low. Melatonin or something would be helpful during the week before and the night before so I can be more well-rested!

-No more fizzy drinks when racing ever!

-I wish that I had used hiking poles during the first half of the run too. They would have been so helpful on the Nordic loop, and if they are lightweight, they are not hard for me or my support to carry on the downhill. For the mountain, I actually used the poles on the downhill as well to take some of the weight off of my legs.

-More bug spray!

-Have more real food! I had zero appetite for Cliff bars and bloks, which is what I used a lot during training, and I had a lot of those on hand. I ended up eating some bars during the bike, but I fueled up the most during transitions when my support had some of my real food.

HUGE thank you’s to the following

-My dad. A year ago when I told him I wanted to do this race, he didn’t look at me like I was crazy, he simply said, “Alright! What’s the plan?” His encouragement has kept me going for my whole life.

-Shannon Titzel! She gave me tons of advice about the race and training, and she was also one of the first people to say, “You can do it!” when I started dreaming about doing this crazy thing.

-My fantastic coach, Heather Helzer, of Turnagain Training. She created the training plan I used and gave me lots of advice for long-distance races.

-The ever-amazing Ilana who helped me through all the transitions and made sure everything went smoothly. I could not have done this race without her.

-Michelle Richards, who braved the heat and smoke and ran the first 17.5 miles of the marathon with me and pulled me through some tougher moments.

-Tatyana Benko, who had endless supportive energy going up the mountain and is a major reason I finished!

-My mom for her fantastic animal-themed cheering and reminders of important things (like bug spray).

-Christin, who was there ALL day supporting through the bike and run and helping Ilana keep me upright at the bike refills.

-Angelica for her amazing cheering, humor, and post-race support!


ABOUT JENNIFER:I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska and I have always loved running around in the mountains. I was also a competitive gymnast and nordic skier growing up. Alaskaman was my first Ironman-distance triathlon (I'm only 23), and I am looking forward to doing more! I love the variety that multisport allows. I will be starting medical school this fall.

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