There are the obvious challenges that come with trying to complete a grueling ultra marathon race like Alaskaman, an event that combines a 2-mile swim, a 113-mile bike and a 27.5-mile run into one epic day.
Add to the mix a record-breaking heat wave and wildfire smoke, and there’s just no getting around how tough an athlete must be to make it to the finish line.
Those were the challenges athletes faced June 29 in the third annual Alaskaman, a brutally difficult “Extreme” triathlon that treats racers to the best of the state’s natural scenery and rugged terrain.
The brainchild of Houston, Texas, race director Aaron Palaian, the event has featured in its three years a mix of local triathletes from around the state to international racers from around the world.
The Alaskaman is a take on the global trend of extreme triathlons, which include the popular Norseman in Norway, Celtman in Scotland and Swissman in Switzerland.
This year’s Alaskaman saw a handful of peninsula triathletes make big moves. Leading the way was Kenai’s Eric Thomason, who finished eighth overall, seventh among men, in a time of 14 hours, 53 minutes, 9 seconds, a performance that sliced a whopping 2 hours, 2 minutes, off his previous best time from 2018.
Andrew Fast of Salt Lake City, Utah, won the ultra marathon event 11:13:13. It was the second time Fast won the Alaskaman after picking up the victory in the inaugural running in 2017, and beat runner-up Chris Hauth of Corte Madera, California, to the finish by over 28 minutes.
The women’s Alaskaman title went to Christine Ligocki of Seattle, Washington, who won with a time of 14:08:49. Women’s runner-up Morgan Chaffin of Elkhorn, Nebraska, finished 45 minutes behind Ligocki.
Behind Thomason followed a handful of peninsula athletes — Kenai’s Jeff McDonald was 18th among overall men in a time of 16:19:38, and 30-year-old Kenai athlete Dwayne Meganack was 22nd among men in a time of 16:44:40.
In the women’s race, Soldotna’s Nicole Schmitt, 27, finished sixth out of 19 women in a time of 17:39:36.
The run leg was divided into two separate lengths, the “upper” course and the “lower” course, the latter of which cuts off much of the high-elevation climbing portion of the run leg. If an athlete could not make the mile 23 cutoff point by 9 p.m. and be in the top 65% of the running order, they were required to take the lower course.
Among those that finished the lower run route, Kenai’s Sam Satathite, 42, was the highest finishing racer among 18 to win in a time of 17:11:33.
Thomason attributed his huge PR — a massive improvement over last year’s time of 16:55:16 — to relentless training before the race and improved hydration and nutrition during the event.
“I set a goal of wanting to get into the 15-hour range, and I just set my pace on the run,” Thomason said. “Everything went pretty good on the bike … I just had a plan.”
To prepare for the mammoth test of endurance, Thomason spent hours on the bike and on the trails, including a handful of training days climbing Skyline trail multiple times. On one such occasion, Thomason summited Skyline five times, amounting to over 13,800 feet of elevation in one day.
The cycling preparation also included days when Thomason would ride down the Sterling Highway, sometimes to Ninilchik and back.
In contrast to two previous runnings of Alaskaman, Thomason said he changed up his hydration and nourishment plans before the race in order to give his body exactly what it needed to keep chugging along.
“As far as nutrition goes, I switched completely,” he said.
That included beet juice shots, which he heard about from his training partner McDonald, and pickle juice.
“(The beet juice) helps lower my heart rate, because the nitric oxide helps loosen the blood vessels,” he explained. “I had one little cramp during the bike leg, so I asked my team to give me some pickle juice, and I was sipping that.”
Thomason’s support team, which was a requirement to have, included his 24-year-old son Jeff for the first two legs and his wife Michelle on the run leg.
In addition to the odd choice of in-race nutrition secrets, Thomason said he resorted to a few other energy foods like Skratch, which is a hydration liquid formula designed specifically for endurance athletes, GU energy, which comes in a gel form, as well as cookies and Pop Tarts.
The epic day of racing begins early with a 4:30 a.m. plunge into the brisk waters of Resurrection Bay in Seward.
Thomason said he finished the swim leg in 64 minutes, and when he pulled himself out of the water, noticed his Kenai buddy McDonald directly in front of him.
“I ran up to him, he saw me, and we raced for our bikes,” Thomason said. “I said, ‘See ya later!’ and took off.”
Confident in his cycling ability, Thomason said he was able to just focus on the road and his heart rate as he put a gap on McDonald. With hundreds of miles of cycling under his belt in training this summer, Thomason said he felt like he was in a different class this time around, compared to 2017 and 2018.
“This time around, I wasn’t racing those guys,” he said. “I just wanted to run my own race.”
Keeping a smooth pace, Thomason completed the bike leg in 5:59:19, then transitioned to the run leg, which he completed in 7:33:17. Not only does the run leg measure a grueling 27.5 miles, but it also challenges racers with over 6,500 feet of elevation, mostly on the slopes of the Alyeska Ski Resort.
On the run, Thomason said he spotted McDonald again on a loop of the Winner Creek nordic trails near Alyeska, and was met with a challenge.
“He said, ‘ET I’m coming for you!’,” Thomason recounted. “I got on the mountain, I grabbed as much as I could in cold drinks, I was guzzling them down. I went up the mountain and every spot of cold water I found, I jumped in to cool off.”
Before the real climbing began, Thomason said he was aiming for a 12:45 mile pace for the first 17 miles. After meeting his goal there, he said a 17:45 pace on the mountain was the next target.
He managed to average a mile pace in the 16-minute range, about a minute faster per mile than he had hoped for, and it was enough to seal a successful day. At the finish, Thomason, 46, was told he was the Masters champion of the race, giving him an added feather in his cap.
“I thought a top-20 was overreaching then, but with the race numbers coming down, maybe there was less competition,” he said. “I think the heat affected others more, but I had the tactical advantage from training on the mountains.”
The initial entry list of Alaskaman was a reported 107 total racers, down from 228 last year and 307 in the inaugural running in 2017.
Thomason said his next race to tackle is the 50-mile Resurrection Pass Ultra trail run from Cooper Landing to Hope on Aug. 10, adding that his drive to train and race in Alaskaman was due to a desire to improve, but now that he’s overachieved, a return to Alaskaman may be in doubt.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said. “I feel like it took away that drive. I was searching for something else, and I like having that goal and drive in reaching for something.”
Thomason’s training partner McDonald, 53, finished second among peninsula men and 18th overall among men, but his time of 16:19:38 was slower than year’s past, in which he set nearly duplicate times of 15:55:42 and 15:55:29.
McDonald said the heat made for a tough run leg, particularly for a 10-mile stretch in the middle.
“The smoke didn’t really bother me, but the heat was definitely tough,” McDonald said. “My pace was pretty slow.”
Not only did McDonald finish out the bruising race, but he spent his recovery time out in the Wrangell Mountains on a four-day cycling adventure with a few friends and family. McDonald said his week riding around McCarthy and Kennicott included trips out to the Nizina River and Root Glacier, so a 142.5-mile race was like nothing, right?
“I felt a little winded going up hills,” McDonald said with a chuckle.
Like Thomason, McDonald put in a slew of training hours and miles, racking up about 450 miles and over 40,000 feet of elevation in both his running and cycling training in the month of June.
With his wife, Dana, supporting his swim and bike legs, and friend Shelby Dykstra helping on the run leg, McDonald said he was set for a good day.
“My wife made fun of my nutrition plan, which was mostly black licorice,” McDonald said. “I backed off on the caffeine, but the licorice is a ton of carbohydrates, so I ate a ton on the bike.”
McDonald said a solid swim leg in “glass”-like waters set up for a smooth bike leg, where he focused on maintaining a 130-beat-per-minute heart rate.
Once he transitioned to the run, though, he was feeling the fatigue.
“The problem is by the time you get to the run, you’ve probably burnt five to six thousand calories,” he said. “It’s hard to get enough food in, mostly because it doesn’t appeal to you. I was forcing myself to eat in the last third of the race.”
McDonald also survived a tumble as he was negotiating the Winner Creek trail.
“It was the first time I got the wind knocked out of me since I was a little kid,” McDonald said. “It hurt like heck two days later, but not during the race.
“My left arm looked ripped and all swollen.”
McDonald said after emerging from the cooler forested area of the nordic trails into the baking sun, he was faced with the North Face switchbacks on Alyeska, but was able to get through without breaking down and finish his third straight Alaskan.
With the declining numbers and three finishes under his belt, McDonald said he is semi-retiring from Alaskaman competition until further notice. He said the remote nature of Alaska could be a reason for the dramatic decrease in numbers this year, as international triathletes who have ticked off Alaskaman on their bucket list don’t care to make the trip of thousands of miles or more.
“There are a lot of races out there in the world,” he said. “It’s just a question of priorities.”