Kenai racer Jeff McDonald cycles up the Seward Highway in the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon race in July 2017. (Photo provided by Jeff McDonald)

Kenai racer Jeff McDonald cycles up the Seward Highway in the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon race in July 2017. (Photo provided by Jeff McDonald)

Alaskaman returns for 2nd running

A 142-mile sufferfest last summer just wasn’t enough for some.

For some of the diehard athletes that raced in last July’s inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon held on the Kenai Peninsula, 142 miles left them craving more.

Put Kenai’s Jeff McDonald and Eric Thomason — a.k.a. “ISWE” — on that list.

ISWE, or International Society of Weakness Elimination, is the unofficial club name for the group of athletes that romp around the central peninsula racking up miles on running shoes and bikes, and they’ve ridden the good vibes to the tune of another go in the Alaskaman race.

“Most people probably think we’re crazy, and we probably are a little crazy, but we all relate,” Thomason said Thursday while gearing up for the big event.

McDonald, 52, and Thomason, 45, are among the few that are returning for a second go at the quintessentially Alaska enduro, which begins Saturday morning in the waters of Resurrection Bay near Seward.

The two Kenai triathletes participated last year in the inaugural Alaskaman, which got its origins from similar extreme triathlon events like the popular Norseman in Norway, the Swissman in Switzerland and the Celtman in Scotland, all of which reach the Ironman distance of 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles cycling and 26.2 miles running.

Last year, Houston race director Aaron Palaian brought the ultrarunning triathlon craze to the 49th state with the inaugural Alaskaman,

The event was limited to 320 competitors, and 40 competitors, or 20 percent of the field, failed to finish.

This year boasts a current entry list of 227 racers, with 33 states and 21 countries represented.

The slightly changed Alaskaman course will measure 141.8 miles. It starts with a 2.6-mile swim near Seward, where athletes will make the plunge at 4:45 a.m. Saturday into 50-degree waters, and continues with a 113-mile bike segment that gains 4,635 feet from Seward to Bird Point on Turnagain Arm. The cycling portion will double back on itself briefly to finish in Girdwood, where a 26.2-mile marathon awaits competitors.

The run takes racers on the Winner Creek trail in Girdwood, then finishes with a climb up Mt. Alyeska, gaining 7,000 feet along the way. In total, racers will gain 11,635 feet of elevation throughout the entire race.

This year, McDonald and Thomason are back to try it again with ISWE supporting them.

“All joking aside, we mean don’t be a wimp,” McDonald said in explaining the team name. “We’re not putting other people down, we’re just using it to push each other.”

The team even ordered unique racing jerseys for Alaskaman that feature a stylized lettering and a design that reads “ISWE” on the back on a background of red.

It’s a common sight to see the duo routinely encouraging each other and other athletes on the mobile training app Strava with calls of “DWTW,” or Down With The Weak. ISWE currently has seven members listed on Strava’s team feature.

“It’s about our own weaknesses and getting better at getting rid of them,” Thomason explained. “Jeff is the wizard behind that.”

Homer’s Michael McGuire and Seward’s Jesse Osborn will be joining McDonald and Thomason as peninsula representatives in this weekend’s Alaskaman. Neither McGuire or Osborn raced it last year.

Another Homer athlete, Mariners cross-country coach Annie Ridgely, was originally on the entry list, but will now be providing support by pacing another runner on the marathon section.

Thomason said the experience of last year has him feeling much more confident about his race this weekend, and that’s part of what prompted him to return.

“It’s too easy to say it’s grueling,” he said. “But there’s something very exciting about getting in the water and knowing there’s this big long road in front of you and knowing you can do it and seeing how far you can push yourself.

“That’s exciting for me.”

Thomason was 127th overall in last year’s Alaskaman with a time of 17 hours, 34 minutes, 29 seconds. The 2017 victories went to Andy Fast of Salt Lake City, Utah, who won in a time of 11:18:29, while the women’s win went to Elkhorn, Nebraska, racer Morgan Chaffin in a time of 12:47:50.

McDonald was highest local finisher in 64th overall in 15:55:42, and both he and Thomason are targeting faster times this year.

“Last year I was nervous,” Thomason said. “This year I’m not. I know I can do it. I want to get faster, I want to get better.

“It’s like a drug, once you do it, you want to keep coming back.”

Heather Moon gave the peninsula some bragging rights last year with the fastest women’s climb up Alyeska, making the double run up and down the mountain in 2:30:20 to grab the Queen of the Mountain title for the race. Moon finished 10th among women with a time of 16:30:07.

Moon is not racing this year, but said she plans to run with McDonald for the marathon portion of the event.

“She offered to do it and it was a no-brainer,” McDonald said.

Thomason said he will be receiving race support from Dave Gardner, a friend of his from Texas that competed in last year’s race.

The Kenai trio of Moon, McDonald and Thomason, along with former Nikiski resident Jason Moore, have teamed up with ISWE this year to reach their goals, routinely making triple summit attempts up the 2,800-foot Skyline trail near Cooper Landing and making day rides down to Anchor Point and beyond, a 120-mile jaunt.

“That’s become our new favorite,” McDonald said of the long ride down the Sterling Highway.

Thomason has already gone over 5,000 miles on his bike this year, while McDonald has put on over 3,300 miles himself.

“We’re a team,” Thomason said. “It’s me, Jeff, Heather and Jason. We have our group things where we get together and run.”

McDonald said the support that each member provides for the others has helped him improve his fitness this year, giving him a chance to beat his 2017 Alaskaman time, but he is also wary of Thomason.

“He’s upping his game, so I guess I have to,” McDonald said. “He’s made leaps and bounds this year. I think it’s going to be really close.”

Thomason said he has dropped around 30 pounds of body weight since last year, and has tweaked his nutritional and resting habits to match his training.

Another tweak for Thomason will come during the race. Instead of consuming quick-energy foods over the course of the bike segment like last year, Thomason said he plans to go solo with UCAN, a slow-burning “super starch” that provides a steady amount of long-lasting energy for endurance athletes.

“I’m going to go carb free in the race, until I hit the mountain,” he said. “Last year I bonked on the mountain.”

He said he still plans to get his sugar before the end.

“I was sugared up last year,” he said.

Thomason is in the midst of a two-year athletic rejuvenation after he made a life decision to get back to running following a six-year sabbatical from training. The Kenai resident left his old job at Snug Harbor Seafoods and works now at Patch Star welding in Kenai, working 40 hour weeks, which allows him to train appropriately.

“It’s been a lot better,” he said. “Before I got back into it, I was drinking and stuff, and just that lifestyle. … I’m just a lot happier and my wife’s a lot happier.”

After getting back into the swing of things, Thomason made his first big appearance in a race at the 2016 Kenai River marathon, and has since become a regular in racking up the miles and feats of endurance.

Thomason said he feels most confident in his cycling abilities, while McDonald said the swim will likely be his strength.

“Last year I hammered the hills,” Thomason said. “I can bomb down the hills and not worry about crashing.”

McDonald said he hopes to knock a half hour off hit 2017 time, and also move into the top half of the finishing results, but a lot of that will depend on the winds that breeze through the Kenai mountains on the cycling portion.

“On this course, how the wind blows on the bike is a huge determinant to how fast you’ll go,” McDonald said. “If there’s a big headwind on Turnagain, you’re not going to go that fast.”

McDonald has three Ironman-length endurance events on his resume — one in the Alaskaman and two Ironman New Zealand races. He was able to cut 1 hour, 20 minutes, off his New Zealand Ironman time this March, so he hopes that his improved fitness will translate into a fast race at the Alaskaman.

“It’s not a run-of-the-mill run,” he said. “Your legs are still sore but you still have a marathon in front of you.”

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