The “Extreme” moniker in the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon did not disappoint in its inaugural year, and neither did Kenai’s Heather Moon.
Moon was one of three Kenai racers that staked their claim to the Alaskaman lore July 15 on the Kenai Peninsula. Joined by training partners Jeff McDonald and Eric Thomason in the brutal event, Moon came back from a broken foot just three months before the race to set the fastest climb of the day by female racers, taking the “Queen of the Mountain” crown with flying colors.
“I was very happy to start, very very happy to finish, and very very very happy to get the fast mountain time,” Moon said.
Moon finished 10th among women and 82nd overall with a time of 16 hours, 30 minutes, 7 seconds, over the 142-mile Alaskaman course, the first of its kind held in Alaska. Race officials timed two separate climbs up adjacent slopes on Mount Alyeska that accounted for the final seven miles of the 27-mile run, and Moon conquered the mountain portion in 2:30:20.
McDonald finished highest among locals in 64th overall in 15:55:42, while Thomason was 127th overall with a time of 17:34:29.
Joining the craze of extreme triathlon races made popular by international events such as the Norseman, the Celtman and the Swissman, the Alaskaman was dreamed up and directed by Houston-based race director Aaron Palaian, who estimates his resume to include over 100 triathlon events.
The course consisted of a 2.6-mile swim in the cold waters of Resurrection Bay near Seward, a 112-mile bicycle jaunt from Seward to Bird Point on Turnagain Arm and finished with a quaint 27-mile run capped by two climbs of Mount Alyeska in Girdwood that added an additional 5,000 feet of elevation, ending at the Tram terminal that stands guard over the daunting North Face side of the mountain.
Moon’s record time on the mountain came after a remarkable recovery from an injury that in most cases, should have limited her to just the swim.
To put her feat in perspective, 41 competitors, or 20 percent of a presumably healthy starting field, failed to reach the finish at all.
“Honestly, for her to even finish shows a tremendous amount of guts,” McDonald said. “And to pull off the fastest mountain time, given her relative break from training, it says a lot.”
“I was really amazed,” added Thomason. “Just blown away what she did there. If I missed two months of training, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”
Just three months before the grueling race, Moon took a stumble while dismounting her bike and broke bones in two of her toes, putting Moon on an eight-week break from training and effectively ending her hopes of starting the race.
However, about three weeks out, Moon began having second thoughts.
“I filed for the insurance claim, got the (registration) check back, but then thought let’s see what happens if I start,” she said. “I voided the check … All the pressure was off once I decided to do it.”
McDonald, a 3:26 marathon runner, said his entry into the race began with Moon’s insistence.
“I got an email forwarded to me from my wife who got it from Heather,” McDonald said. “I thought, ‘Are you crazy? I’m not going to do that, I’m 51 years old, leave it to the youngsters.’
“But once you press the button on the payment key, you got to make good on it.”
On race day, a field of 198 competitors, ranging from homegrown talent to international contenders, waded into the chilly waves lapping the shore of Lowell Point near Seward just before 4:30 a.m. as the light of the new day was brightening the landscape.
McDonald said in training swims, the trio slowly found a way to cope with the water temperature, which can leave an athlete in a bad spot if they aren’t accustomed to the cold.
“The first time Heather and I went out in the fall, my feet were white,” he said. “I couldn’t feel them.”
McDonald, Moon and Thomason were well-prepared for the cold, having trained in advance with a multitude of simulation swims. Before the race, Thomason predicted the swim portion of the race would feel like “a jacuzzi when I get in it.”
Most swimmers fought a strong current in the closing stages of the swim as the tide shifted directions in Resurrection Bay. All three Kenai athletes said they were battling waves throughout the final hour.
The rush to get out of the water — McDonald finished the swim at 1:36, Moon did it in 1:46 and Thomason in 2:03 — led to a whole new challenge. The bike portion would allow for a few rest opportunities on downhills, which were far and few between early on.
Thomason touted the fastest bike leg of the three Kenai athletes with a 6:20 split, while McDonald followed behind in 6:33 and Moon completed her bike leg in eight hours flat. Thomason said he caught a glimpse of McDonald at the bike-to-run transition area, where both men took on fluids and food to keep their energy levels up.
“It made the whole race a hundred times better having (friends) do the race,” Thomason admitted.
Moon finished up her bike course, which put her in position to charge to the end. An avid runner and mountain climber, Moon said the final 27 miles on foot may have seemed easy on paper, especially after 112 miles of cycling, but they were anything but.
“When I was coming up this long and gradual incline, I saw my family and support crew and just became emotional,” she said. “They meant that much to me.”
Thomason said he found himself having to take brief walking breaks on the run, but he wasn’t the only racer struggling.
“I saw one guy laying on side of the road with cramps,” he said. “I just did not want to be that guy.”
McDonald had his wife Dana as his support crew, and said the hot weather during the run made the help all the more sweeter.
“I took in 24 ounces of Roctane,” he said, referring to a replenishing drink mix.”It was brutal. I did not complain about the coldness of the water, but I will complain about the heat.”
Thomason said his support captain, wife Michelle, helped him pull through a challenging section of the mountain, when he felt like his energy levels were running low.
“I started climbing the mountain, and I kind of bonked,” Thomason recounted. “I started getting a little dizzy, I was sweating, and I started eating as much as I can.
“I ate a big bag of Snickers, three or four waffles and two power bars, and five minutes later, I felt good.”
McDonald said his mountain boost came from chugging a pair of Coca-Cola’s, a drink he typically avoids in his daily life.
Moon said when she began the climb, she felt her strength returning to her thanks to the help of her support crew, which consisted of friends Justine Reese, Kevin Doyle and mother Sharon Dripps. Moon said her crew made sure she had the proper nutrition and hydration throughout the day.
“The whole time I felt really good,” Moon said. “It felt easy, it was fun.
“By that point, I had gotten through the swim, the bike and 14 miles of the run, and I was on the homestretch. I was going to tear it up.”
Her time of the “Queen of the Mountain” record also stands above the rest for another reason. Moon ran the fastest climb up and down and back up Alyeska just 11 days after finishing 92nd in the women’s Mt. Marathon race, in which she summited with the 76th-quickest time in 54:36.
As the trio each crossed the finish line on top of Alyeska, their goals had been realized and the challenge had been conquered.
“With each subsequent endeavor it becomes that much harder because of the accumulative fatigue,” McDonald said. “Part of those endurance events is putting it together for one event, where you have to budget your energy. You have to disciplined.”
So, the big question remains. What is the future of this race?
“I see it gaining popularity,” Moon opined. “I see it taking on something like Mount Marathon, but even bigger than Mount Marathon. It’s a dream vacation for some people.”
Perhaps not a vacation for locals, but for Lower 48ers and international extreme triathlon seekers?
“A marathon isn’t enough for some people anymore,” Thomason said. “An Ironman isn’t enough. They want more and they crave more.
“They should at least give it a shot.”
McDonald said for an inaugural event, the race organizers pulled off a very successful event, from the kayak support crew keeping track of swimmers in the water, to the course markers, to the media crew following the action.
“I have a feeling this thing is going to be a major Alaskan institution,” he said.