The inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon lived up to the hype. The swim was beautiful and cold, the ride was fast and treacherous, and the run was mind and body-bendingly difficult. It was everything I dreamed of and more. The best part of the experience is that I lived through it to tell the tale. Honestly going into it, I was not positive of such a positive outcome; bears, moose, hypothermia, etc., were all realistic concerns, but I made it back to cushy California with all of my limbs attached and a custom Ulu knife to show for my efforts.
The day was long, but it went by in a flash, and after a few days away from it, I think I am ready to share how it all went down.
I set my alarm for 1:45A, but I didn’t need to, because I woke up on my own at 1:43A. I was excited, happy, nervous, and above all else ready to tackle the day. I was in the best physical shape I’d ever been in going into a race, so even though I knew there would be very tough moments throughout the day, I had faith I could handle all of it.
One of the fun parts about this race was that our support team was really imbedded in it, and since my sister Sarah was my team Captain, and had seen me naked plenty of times in our lifetime, I chose her to the be the one to help me get changed into my dry Smash-Dimond race kit after emerging from the frosty waters of Resurrection Bay in T1, (Transition). It is rare that a non-racer is allowed in the transition area, so it was cool for Sarah to see up close what all of us athletes go through prepping for the swim and ride.
It was early and raining, but I climbed into my wetsuit seamlessly and was soon on my way toward the buses to sweep us off to the start at Miller’s Landing. I met a fellow racer just as we stepped onto the buses that I had been chatting with online for months, Brent from Houston, so it was great to start the day with a fated connection. Also, it was quite memorable to watch the locals and supporters cheer and clap for us as we drove away, that was a first. Yet, everything about this race as a “first”. It would be the first swim, ride, run, and every other occurrence in-between for all of us.
While rolling along those long 2.6 miles down the road to our starting line, I felt proud that I chose to sign up and show up for this race. I could feel it in my bones that it was going to be a very memorable day.
I found Mary and Dan quickly at Miller’s Landing, which was a relief. I am usually Han Solo for these events, so it was a treat to share this unique morning with them. I felt prepared for the cold water as I was wearing a neoprene cap, ear plugs, booties, and was prepped with a tub of Vaseline to cover my exposed extremities. I chose not to wear gloves because I tested them during our practice swim, and the added warmth did not justify the additional drag. However, my nerves jolted me out of sync and I put on the Vaseline before I put on my goggles. Bad idea. I learned the hard way while stepping into the water and pulling the goggles over my head that I had Vaseline gunk spread all over my goggles. I couldn’t see a thing. Miraculously, we were sighting off of 3x bright lights the fire department set up for us in T1, so I just needed to swim towards the light.
It was a stupid mistake, but there was no time to panic, just manage the new situation and start swimming.
I have made HUGE gains in my swim fitness over the last six months, and I was really looking forward to testing them out in my first long-course race in a year. Unfortunately, I stopped at least ten times to pull my goggles up to see where I was, and treaded water while getting my bearings. Thankfully, I was never off course, and even though I couldn’t see clearly, I knew when I was swimming, I was swimming well. Even though I was never warm, I kept my cool in the chilly waters. (55F in most spots, and a section where it dropped down to 40ish F when we passed the glacier run-off). In essence, I was comfortable the whole time.
Sadly, I developed a cramp in my left calve during one of my treading water sighting sessions that haunted me the entire day.
When I emerged from the water onto the rickety old fishing dock I locked eyes with Sarah right away, and was in her arms and running toward T1 in no time. My face was paralyzed from the frigid waters which made talking a challenge, but thankfully since I mumble in the best of circumstances, Sarah was able to understand my incoherent ramblings just fine. I had about 10% dexterity in my hands, so Sarah really earned her keep by stripping me down and then suiting me up for the long bike ride ahead.
It took a whopping twenty-two minutes to get me sorted and ready to go, a lifetime of a transition time for any other triathlon, but again, Alaskaman is unique.
It was raining for the first forty-five minutes of the bike ride, but the rain and wetness did not bother me too much, because after nearly two weeks apart, I was reunited with my Dimond bike, Simone, and she was carrying me with precision and power like the tall, black, machine she is.
Nevertheless, I needed to pick up the slack, so I pedaled hard to both warm up, and emerge from the fray of other racers, but the first hour was a slog. Finally, about twenty miles into the course, and outside of Seward, my legs woke up and I started to pick up speed and pick people off.
I told Sarah and Eric to meet me in-between miles 30 – 40, then 50 – 60, and lastly 70 – 80 to refuel. They were spot on every time. I was taking in about 300 calories per hour, but between the cold weather and my consistent effort on an honest course, I was searing through my energy stores making it nearly impossible to replenish the calories I was burning. Therefore, I was not surprised at around mile 105, nearly finished, and after noticing on my Garmin that I had burned 7,000 calories, I started to bonk.
I slowed down my pace a bit and gobbled down another gel just before pulling into T2, (the bike to run transition area), hoping that would set me up to cover the first few miles of the run on solid footing.
Nothing about my footing on the run was solid.
Again, I took more time than usual switching over my set up from bike to run because I needed to put on a hydration pack, plug in my phone to the portable charging port, and put on compression socks. The sock choice was not a vanity decision. Indeed, I wanted to run in the socks, but now that my left calve was locked up in a vice, I needed to run in the socks.
To say out loud that I was freaked out about what was going on with my leg does not come close to the panic and sadness I was feeling. I have been incredibly fortunate that I have never had any injuries from all of my running over the years, and I take pride in the strength of my legs, so to experience this pain was new and scary.
I was able to run about a 8:30 – 9:00min. pace for a mile or so, but then around mile three I started to feel flush and weak, so I stopped to stretch my calf and pound some calories. I ate two gels and a Picky Bar, plus I took a few swigs of the BASE salt they gave us at check in, and reasoned with my mind, body and heart that I was not really hurt, just very tight from the early morning cold-water cramp. I simply needed to manage the pain and keep going. So, I settled on a more realistic 9:30min. mi. pace, and continued on down the path chipping off one mile at a time.
As I neared mile 14.5, the spot where I would see Eric and Sarah again, (plus a slew of spectators), I started to feel good and was ready to go to work.
Miles 14.5 – 20.5 set us on an out and back through the Nordic loop that is used for cross-country skiing in the winter. We were allowed to bring one of our support pacers with us, and I was thrilled to find Eric shorted up and ready to run. He had a bottle of Scratch nutrition, a handful of gels, and a lively, hilarious attitude at the ready to take on our jaunt through the woods.
This was a wonderful part of the day. Even though I crunched my calve a bit more on the steep, short hills, making the pain sharp and relentless, I picked up my pace, passed a couple of women, and with Eric at my side my spirits soared. When we finished our loop at the base of Mt. Alyeska, Eric passed the baton to Sarah and we quickly took off to bulldoze the last seven miles on the mountain.
Imagine standing in front of a four-story dirt wall, then pick up your knee, stretch out your leg, and start to climb. That is what the first hill felt like, a dirt wall.
My bum leg was hurting, but stretching it out for these long pulls was much more pleasurable than running, so I was perfectly happy to be on the hike of my life. I aimed to focus on utilizing every other muscle in my leg, quads, glutes, and hamstrings to take the stress off of my calve. More importantly, I tried not to dwell on it, and just kept moving forward.
Sarah and I were both in great moods laughing and trucking up the climbs of the first ascent high-fiving each other and the outstanding volunteers who cheered us on along the way. When we made it to the top, I truly felt like I was on top of the world. The scenery was breath-taking. It reminded me that the reason I signed up for this race over a year ago was for an excuse to explore Alaska. Something pulled at this California girl to go seek adventure in Alaska, and suddenly there I was standing on top of one of its most majestic peaks staring and smiling at the amazing view. All I had left was to run down to the bottom, and then hike back up it to the finish line.
Yep, we had to climb to the top of the mountain twice.
Over the next downhill section I noticed the insole of my left shoe bunched up, so I decided to stop and fix it in front of the next aid station. While sitting on the ground tying up my shoe I overheard the aid station volunteers say, “She’s in front of Shannon.” I popped up quickly and gave the Sarah the “high” sign that I was willing to run as fast as I could down the sheer mountain face in order to gain more room between me and this “Shannon” woman behind me.
My calve was tight and throbbing, but I inched down that mountain as fast I could. It wasn’t fast enough. As soon as I relaxed and assumed I had third place locked up, a runner came barreling past my left shoulder and shot ahead of me like an eight-year old city girl bouldering for the first time. That grown up eight-year old was Shannon.
If you had put your ear to my chest at that moment, you would have heard my heart break. I was devastated. I was also embarrassed and angry that once again I had fallen off the podium in an important race, and that Sarah witnessed it all. However, the fact was with my strained leg I just couldn’t move any faster, and bless her, Shannon was crushing it. Good for her.
Still, we kept going and soon enough were back on level ground behind the resort where I was able, or did out of will and defiance, open up my stride and ran the 150 yards or so to the start of the second climb up the mountain. The path started off wide and windy, and briefly hope crept into my exhausted mind and I thought this climb would be easier than the first one. Nope. We were quickly thrust onto a narrow path surrounded by deep brush that shot nearly straight up. I was annoyed, but I could see the finish line, and I knew all that lay in front of it was over a thousand steps of pain and frustration, but I would reach it. I would cross it.
Sarah is turning 37 next week, which means she is ten months younger than me, which makes it tricky to be biological sisters. We are not, we are step-sisters. However, I never include that word when describing her because we are sisters in every sense of the word except the formality of blood, genes, etc.
We have known each other nearly our entire lives, and have endured many difficult challenges, and the fact is I chose Sarah to be with me on that mountain for the exact reason that occurred in that moment. I could let my guard down in front of her, be upset, cuss and swear, and she would still keep me going. She didn’t whimper along with me, she told me she was proud of me, but that we had to keep going, and the quicker I climbed the steep stairs and switchbacks up the mountain, it would all be over.
Thank you, Sarah.
As I neared the top of the climb, I could see Shannon about one hundred yards in front of me. With the jaunty, twisty terrain between us, it would be nearly impossible to catch her, but I was on the hunt. Then I heard the race announcer say her name as she was approaching the finish line, “From Anchorage, Shannon…”
“Ha!” I laughed out loud after finding out she was a local, and most likely had some experience on the mountain. On the other hand, this long-legged SoCal girl did not. I was instantly awash with pride that I had even hung close to her, and was able to smile and enjoy the last surge to the finish line.
When I crossed the finish line I lost my mind. I was so happy to be done. I was cooked, in pain, and euphoric that I could halt the never-ending forward progress. It was over. I made it.
I am one of 156 overall finishers of the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. I wish the day played out differently, but no triathlon is ever perfect. Every race is a taunting canvas anxious to teach us a lesson or, two, and I learned more than that. I learned my body is strong, but not invincible, but my mind and heart is stronger than any muscle in my body, and will always carry me across the finish line.
Thank you Alaska, our race director, Aaron Palaian, my teammates and fellow finishers, Mary Knott and Dan Beaver, and most of all, thank you Sarah Fox and Eric Hill for supporting me on this great adventure.