For those that have competed in triathlons, the idea of competing in a full-length Ironman is a whole different beast on its own. Swim 2.4 miles. Bicycle 112 miles. Then, run a marathon.
In Alaska, it’s only natural to do everything bigger, since the 49th state is by far the largest among the 50.
Welcome the inaugaural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon, set to debut this weekend on the Kenai Peninsula. In an event as punishing as any in the world, simply due to its sheer length and brutality, the Alaskaman is bringing an international field of athletes to tame the Last Frontier.
A full field of 315 athletes are expected to make southcentral Alaska their playground when they wade into the cold waters of Resurrection Bay near Seward early Saturday morning in anticipation of the blaring horn that will begin the trek.
Race director Aaron Palaian said racers can expect a grueling race, but not an impossible one.
“I don’t know how many will finish,” Palaian said. “I don’t think it’ll be too easy for anyone, but it will be too hard for others.”
The mammoth race begins with a 2.6-mile swim from Lowell Point just south of Seward to the shores that outline the picturesque harbor town, then continues with a brisk 112-mile bike route that follows along the Seward Highway, taking riders through the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, before finishing with a 27-mile run that includes sections up Mount Alyeska in Girdwood, adding over 5,000 feet of elevation to the course.
A race director by profession, Palaian has spent much of the last 11 years coordinating triathlon events living in Houston, Texas. The native Michigan man said he has organized over 100 triathlon events in the U.S. over the last decade, including one of the largest youth triathlons that hosted around 1,250 kids, but the idea for the Alaskaman came from a foreign land.
After training up to compete in the popular Norseman Extreme Triathlon in Norway, Palaian had a minor epiphany as the Norwegian race directors pointed out a trivia tidbit to the field of competitors.
“They said for all our USA friends, keep in mind we’re at the same altitude as Anchorage, Alaska,” Palaian recounted. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a race like this in the U.S.?’ There should be more of these.
“I thought Alaska is the most extreme place to pick.”
With a seemingly never-ending supply of daylight — the Kenai Peninsula is currently getting over 18 hours of daylight — the time to run an extreme triathlon in one of the world’s wildest places seemed right.
“I wanted to go somewhere where the sun doesn’t set,” Palaian said.
Palaian said he spent a few months last year attempting to gain approval, which turned out to be a fruitless venture. After a six-month lull, Palaian said he found some new hope after a friend steered him over to the right people that could help him.
After getting his request approved, Palaian then came up to scout out the right course for the race, which was around the same time he opened registration.
“It sold out in 2 1/2 days with 310 people,” he said.
Palaian said that he hopes to see the race’s popularity take off, not only to keep the theme of wild Alaskan races relevant, but also to stimulate the local economies with the influx of Outside competitors.
“I’ve discovered that after the first year, locals are usually very supportive (of events),” he said, pointing out other extreme triathlons on the international stage, such as the Norseman in Norway, the Swissman in Switzerland and the Celtman in Scotland. The inaugural Alaskaman joins that glamorous list on the Extreme Triathlon World Tour.
While the majority of the entered racers are Outside competitors, the race will still feature some local flare. The peninsula entrants include 44-year-old Eric Thomason, 39-year-old Heather Moon and 51-year-old Jeff McDonald, all from Kenai, as well as 48-year-old Katie Ostrom of Homer.
Thomason said he has partnered with Moon and McDonald in preparation for the big race, which he entered as a next step in his progression towards his fitness goals. As Saturday approaches, he said the reason why he entered is still a bit unclear.
“I keep asking myself that question,” he said with a laugh.
More than a decade ago, Thomason became involved with the local running community in Alaska and ran three marathons, while completing “probably a dozen half-marathons.”
But when a commercial fishing job with Snug Harbor Seafoods beckoned him to the peninsula in 2011, his training came to a stop, leading to weight gain. A six-year break ensued in which Thomason’s excuses not to run became routine due to his career.
Finally, Thomason decided to make some lifestyle changes and picked up where he left off. The Kenai resident began running again and in fall of 2016, ran the Kenai River Marathon, his fourth lifetime marathon.
Since his reentrance to the running world, Thomason’s goals have taken off. He signed up to be on the waiting list for the Alaskaman last September, which was announced in November.
“I just kind of got bored with running marathons and wanted to do a triathlon, maybe an Ironman,” he said. “This Alaskaman came up, and I said there we go, here’s a triathlon in my backyard.”
Thomason said his training logs, which resemble those of McDonald, included a 3 a.m. wakeup call, 90 to 120 minutes on the bike, and a secondary daily workout that includes a swim or run. Thomason said he averages 20 hours a week training, including 250 miles of biking and 30 miles of running, along with 7,000 to 10,000 yards of swimming.
The race begins in waters that are expected to be 55 degrees Fahrenheit or less, where extremities could go numb, and probably will. On the Alaskaman website, a description of the race explains that “once your body acclimates, there will be some numbness in your hands and face, making it much more tolerable.”
“I’m not worried about the cold,” Thomason said. “I’ve swam at 42 degrees.
“It’s gonna be a jacuzzi when I get in it.”
Once racers reach land at the waterfront in Seward, it is on to the bicycle portion.
“I’m going to eat as much as I can on the bike,” Thomason said. “It’ll be Goo (energy gel) and Clif bars.”
The bike portion runs from Seward to Bird Point, located about halfway between Girdwood and Anchorage along Turnagain Arm. Once racers dismount their bikes, they will run from Bird Point to Girdwood, where the route takes them on the local nordic ski trails at the base of the Alyeska Ski Resort.
The first 20 miles of the run gains 1,250 feet, but the final seven miles takes racers on a grueling climb up the Alyeska Resort bowl, traverses the side of the bowl and whips back down the steep runs, where they then turn back up to ascend the famed North Face en route to the finish line at the top of the Tram line.
In all, the full course stretches out for 141.6 miles with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain.
Thomason said he will have his wife, Michelle, helping him with support at various checkpoints along the way, and will then join him for the final 12.5 miles of the run.
“I just want to finish,” Thomason said. “I’m hoping to do it within 16 hours, and I think I’ll do better than that, but I want to just finish.”
Palaian echoed Thomason in saying that as wild as the race sounds, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s only crazy to people that don’t dream that they can do it,” Palaian said.