An already tough Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon got even tougher this year, and Kenai’s Jeff McDonald, 52, and Eric Thomason, 45, were ready.
In the second year of the Saturday event, which measures about 142 miles, the run course changed and both McDonald and Thomason said the change made the event a lot tougher.
Last year, McDonald finished 65th overall in 15 hours, 55 minutes and 42 seconds. This year, McDonald had the eerily similar time of 15:55:29, but saw his placement jump to 38th overall.
“My time was almost exactly the same, shockingly the same,” McDonald said. “My goal was to improve by a half an hour, but I couldn’t do it because the course had changed.”
Thomason made a big improvement despite the change. Last year, he took 128th in 17:34:29. This year, he got all the way up to 66th in 16:55:16. There were 228 registered for the event, with 152 making it to the starting line. Of those, 23 did not finish.
“I’m actually pretty happy. The only thing I’ve been thinking all day is I want a rematch. I want to beat my time and I want to beat all of those guys in front of me,” Thomason said of his friends in the race. “My muscles just gave out at the end.”
The course involves a 2.6-mile swim in Resurrection Bay, a 113-mile bike with 4,635 feet of elevation from Seward to Bird Point and back to Girdwood, and a 26.2-mile run with 7,000 feet of elevation.
It was the run that changed this year and made things tougher.
Last year, the run involved the Bird to Gird Trail, a trip up Mount Alyeska, down Mount Alyeska and back up Mount Alyeska.
“Last year, a large chunk of the run was the Bird to Gird Trail,” McDonald said. “It does have some elevation, it’s not like it’s totally cush, but it was nothing like that Nordic ski loop.”
This year’s run involved a climb on Crow Creek Road, a jaunt on the Winner Creek Trail, the Nordic Loop and then two trips up and down Mount Alyeska.
“When I got to the Nordic Loop, it was hell,” Thomason said. “It was the toughest run I’ve ever done. When I got to an uphill, I’d have to power hike it. I couldn’t run anymore. And the downhill was starting to hurt worse than the uphill.”
McDonald said the hilly loop would have been fun on fresh legs, but nobody had fresh legs.
“We trained for the mountain,” McDonald said. “Everybody in my group and I were saying, ‘We want to get through this Nordic Loop and to the mountain.’”
McDonald said taking the second trip down the mountain on totally spent quads also made things tough. Thomason’s legs were so spent he went down some of the mountain backwards.
“Everyone is in the same boat, I’m not complaining,” McDonald said. “It was just a harder race than last year.”
With a heavy season of training behind him, Thomason went out hard. He finished the swim in 1:33:20, almost 30 minutes better than last year. He even beat McDonald by a little over a minute.
“When I got out of the water, I was like, ‘Where’s Jeff?’” Thomason said. “He was one minute behind me and I wasn’t expecting that. I came out of the water pumped.”
Thomason carried that energy to his strong suit, the bike, and finished that in 5:53:38, compared to 6:20:51 from last year. McDonald did the bike in 6:37:39. He said his wife, Dana, was with him on the bike ride and did a great job.
“When I was riding my bike into Girdwood, I saw him on the first part of the run and I thought he was looking great and I’m never going to catch this guy,” McDonald said of Thomason. “He’s on fire.”
When Thomason hopped off the bike, he was in 15th place and a crew of supporters from the peninsula was there to let him know it.
“It was cool being in 15th place,” Thomason said. “Everybody there was all excited and pumped up.”
McDonald was playing out a more conservative strategy because he was weary of the run.
“I kept my pulse in the 130s on the bike,” McDonald said. “If I went much into the 140s, I backed off. Eric averaged about 150.”
Thomason said that as soon as he started tapering a few weeks before the race, his heart rate was high. So when he was at about 150 on the bike and 160 on the run, it didn’t concern him much.
What did get him on the run were digestion issues and tired leg muscles. He suspects the digestion problems came from mixing ibuprofen with Coke. The tired leg muscles he can’t wait to fix.
“As soon as I heal up, I’m going to start strength training,” Thomason said. “I’ve got to fix my weaknesses.”
When McDonald passed Thomason going down the mountain, Thomason was going backwards because it hurt so bad to go down forward.
Heather Moon and a couple of her friends were doing the run with McDonald. Thomason was doing the run with Dave Gardner, a friend from Texas who finished the Alaskaman last year.
Jason Moore, another member of a training group consisting of Thomason, McDonald and Moon, finished 35th in 15:44:06. Moore now lives in Anchorage but used to live in Nikiski. Homer’s Michael McGuire was 42nd in 16:04:26.
McDonald and Thomason are not ready to commit to a third Alaskaman next year.
“There’s a lot of races in the world, and I may want to do another one at that time of the year,” McDonald said.
Thomason said he is mindful of how much 20-hour training weeks can impact his wife, Michelle.
“I can’t say I’m positive I’m doing it,” he said. “I have to make sure it’s OK with the wife and all that stuff. I want to. I’m leaning that way.”
While swimming in frigid Resurrection Bay and running on trails with bears — there was a brown bear ahead of Thomason on Mount Alyeska this year — get the headlines, both McDonald and Thomason said the real thing that scares them is the bike ride.
“The bike ride on that incredibly busy and lethal stretch of road just worries me,” McDonald said.
Thomason agreed: “It’s not the swim or the bears on the mountain where somebody is going to get hurt. Somebody is probably going to get hurt on the bike. There’s guys going 20-plus on the bike and they don’t want to stop.”
Thomason said he had a scary moment in Moose Pass where a recreational vehicle turned right in front of him. He had to pop out left and cross the double yellow line in order to avoid a collision.
McDonald said drivers, and especially professional truckers, are courteous on training rides.
“But all it takes is one kid texting and that’s it,” he said.
But both don’t want to give the impression they don’t appreciate the opportunity to participate in such a cool event in their backyards.
“It’s a phenomenal setting — all of it is,” McDonald said. “The ride is a beautiful ride. If you were to take a video of that whole ride, you could have made postcards of every other frame.”