With the 2020/2021 race deferrals I already had a pretty full calendar of races with Ironman St George in May, Wales in September and California in October, but when Ironman announced the inaugural Ironman Alaska and posted photos like this, who could resist?
A medal and t-shirt just for making it there, with the bike?
Juneau is one of the more unique race destinations that I’ve been to since there are no roads in and out, all travel is by air or sea. Yes, you could argue that I can’t drive from California to Wales either…. Logistics planning started a year in advance with a hotel, car and flight reservations, which was a good thing , since as the months passed there was mild to medium panic growing in the IM Alaska Facebook group as the five hotels (six maybe?) were all sold out and rental cars, fahgettaboudit. “The locals will come through” was the rallying cry, and to be fair this is exactly what ultimately happened with the Juneauites offering homes and vehicles for rent as the race got closer, although this would have been a little harrowing for someone who likes to be at the airport 3 hours before a domestic flight leaves. International flights? I have turned up more times than I care to remember and the check-in desks are not even open yet.
As luck would have it, we were in Juneau in early July on a cruise so I took the opportunity to check out Auke Lake, the swim venue, and the Glacier Highway bike course. The lake was 75F on the day I was there, up from 57F just a couple of weeks ago. Driving the bike course I was wondering where the 5,400ft of climbing was, but it’s deceptive when you’re driving and not relying on leg power. There was indeed that amount of climbing hidden in the beautiful rolling hills.
The week before we were traveling to Juneau, Alaska Airlines sent this gem…
This triggered another storm in the Facebook group, and some personal angst. I would be able to get there but the bike, eh possibly not. Apparently Alaska Airlines had been communicating with Ironman but not getting very far so they decided to put the message out directly to us. Thus, the scrambling began to look for alternatives as we’d missed the cutoff for using the Ironman bike shipping service. FedEx was one option, and a friend jumped in to action to figure out if this was feasible (thanks Will!), and it turns out that FedEx use Alaska Airlines rather than flying themselves. A few athletes that went this route did not get their bikes in time and had them stuck in Anchorage, a place that I too would find myself “stuck”. The local support showed up again with Ken Hill, owner of the local bike shop Juneau Bike Doctor, offering to receive any bikes that would arrive ahead of its athlete. There were many more tales of Ken’s help fixing bikes, picking up folks from the airport and other acts of kindness, and other local folks were extremely generous with their offers of help in various forms.
My alternate plan was to move my flight from the Wednesday before the race to the Monday before, as I am extremely fortunate to be able to pretty much work from anywhere.
The best laid plans, and all that.
So, on Monday evening I boarded the 6pm Alaska Airlines flight from Oakland to Seattle where I’d pick up the connection to Juneau. Easy peasy. I had put an Apple AirTag in the bike bag to track where it was and this would ultimately end up providing all kinds of entertainment/stress as the travel adventures unfolded. Oakland to Seattle was uneventful and then I boarded the slightly delayed Juneau flight. I was pretty happy with a 30 minute delay as I thought it would give more time for my bike to make it off the Oakland flight…. I sat on the plane getting ready to depart thinking “You’re a genius! Moving your flight up to Monday and avoiding the travel woes was a brilliant move!….”, when they announced, twenty minutes later, that the flight crew were out of flying hours but an incoming flight crew would be coming once they parked their plane. Forty minutes later they canceled the flight and told us to head to another terminal to get rebooked and make overnight hotel accommodation plans.
Being an “athlete” I scurried off the plane, across the terminal, down the stairs, got on the train to the next terminal and arrived at the rebooking like in the top ten passengers from my flight. Unfortunately another 200 people from other flights were already in line and I could see the rebooking desk as a small speck on the horizon. This was 11pm Monday. I called Alaska customer services and there were no flights for the next day but a connection through Anchorage that was departing at 11:10pm. After an assurance that my bike would be routed to Juneau, with some irony, I abandoned it and my luggage in Seattle and walked on the plane to Anchorage.
Alaska is a pretty big place….
As I took my seat I discovered how big with the news that this was a 3 hour and 15 minute flight and would land in Anchorage at 2:15am, with a one hour time change involved.
After an uneventful flight I landed in Anchorage and was amazed at how busy the airport was at this time of morning – not really with flights but with the number of people. It looked like every available bench and floor space was occupied with slumbering humans.
The first of many, many, many checks on the bike showed that she was still in Seattle.
After a few hours of caffeinating and working on one of the few benches not occupied by a sleeping form, it was time to board for the 2 hour 15 minute flight to Juneau. We took off and I managed to actually see Anchorage and the surrounding area for the first time.
About 10 minutes in to the flight there was a scream behind me and an elderly passenger had suffered a cardiac arrest. Thankfully there were two Nurse Practitioners onboard who spent a good 10 minutes resuscitating him and we turned back for Anchorage. The paramedics came and took the gentleman away and we off-boarded to wait for a replacement crew of flight attendants, as our original crew were relieved due to the trauma. I spent a couple of hours drinking more coffee and chatting with the NPs and the pilot. It was the shortest flight in his 21 year career and a lesson for the co-pilot who was undergoing training.
A replacement crew showed up about three hours later and we were off again. Hopefully this would be the end of the travel shenanigans….
But no, the travel gods had one more little surprise to play. As we approached Juneau airport and were almost about to touch down, the plane jigged to the right, as if we were not quite lined up with the runway and were making an adjustment, and then the pilot (I’m guessing not the “trainee”) hit the throttles and we climbed for an aborted take off.
FINALLY, I landed in Juneau at 2pm Tuesday, some 22 hours after leaving home, and only 15 hours later than planned. I quietly hoped that the universe was not trying to keep me away from Juneau to avoid being a bear snack on Sunday.
Juneau is a one conveyor-belt airport, and as I came down the escalator to the baggage claim area, this beauty was just coming off the Seattle flight that landed before us.
I truly felt like I deserved a t-shirt and a medal just for getting to Juneau, with my bike.
Alaska Airlines were brilliant through all of this. Their communication was excellent, they issued credits for the inconveniences and, most importantly, they delivered the bike. Super friendly staff too.
I love Juneau
I had the rest of Tuesday to assemble the bike and head out to dinner. Lorraine was due to arrive later that night but given my experiences, I was a little skeptical. Since it was still a few days away from the race I risked an Indian meal and enjoyed watching folks scurrying around in the rain, satisfied that all the woes must now be behind me.
Lorraine did indeed make it, albeit a little late, and on Wednesday we did some touristing around downtown Juneau.
Is it a glay-see-er or gla-she-er?
Apparently it’s both, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. Very confusing.
Not much happening on Thursday we decided to take a trip out past the high school to Mendenhall Glacier (pronounce it as you will). Wow. These photos do not do it justice.
After taking in the breathtaking scenery we headed up to Ironman Village, located at a high school to register and snag the all important swag before all the smaller sizes disappear. I got to meet Mike Reilly, the Voice of Ironman, and get a signed copy of his most excellent book.
After the athlete briefing and learning how to deal with a bear encounter – the primary advice being “Let me bear know that you are a human”. It was unclear whether this meant a formal introduction, but pretty clear that there would be no handshake or fist bump involved. After that, we headed back to Juneau for some more eating and sightseeing. Lorraine wanted the excellent crab leg that she had when we were here on the cruise, but when we got to the Hangar, we were too late.
Shakedown – riding the course, not falling for one of the cruise ship jeweler sales….
After registration, and a quick bike check by Cycle Alaska, it was time to head out on a quick recce of the first 15 miles of the course, which did not disappoint.
On Friday morning I was up and about early, one of the joys of working east coast hours from the west coast, and I headed out for a practice swim. To my surprise, and joy, the lake had cooled from 76F a few weeks earlier to a pleasant 57F – a temperature that I am more than used to from swimming in the San Francisco bay.
After the swim, yes, back to downtown for lunch and some relaxation, and then packing the myriad of colored bags used in the race.
Friday night was the opening ceremony, and something I have never attended before. I am glad I did and we learned a little about the local culture and the various indigenous peoples, including the Tlingit, who welcomed us with dance and music.
Being parted from my bike for a second anxious time….
Saturday was a flurry of activity with the bike having to be staged at transition, where you come out of the swim and get on the bike, plus the bags containing my bike gear and run gear had to be dropped off. Not knowing quite what conditions to expect on Sunday, the bags contained a few options, mostly leaning towards the cold and wet spectrum of attire.
Staging was a bit more complicated than the usual race because you had to park at the high school and take a bus to the race venue a couple of miles away. The bike was supposed to follow on the truck behind, but that was not the case. We hung around the transition area for an hour with no sign of the bike so we headed on the bus back to the school to find that the bike was still there. The volunteers were loading bikes from left to right from the rack and not getting to the far right where my bike and others that were racked 2 hours ago were still sitting there. I had to rely on the volunteers getting my bike racked, a nerve w-racking thought.
After not dropping off the bike, it was back to downtown Juneau, for crab leg attempt #2, which also turned out to be a bust.
After the St George DNF, I was hoping for cooler weather, and Alaska delivered, and then some.
I was thinking that the risk of dehydration was pretty low, drowning on the bike perhaps a more pressing concern.
I had the usual race day morning routine, up at 3am for a breakfast of bagel and lashings of cream cheese and getting dressed, which in this case included getting in to my wetsuit as it was cold and forecast to rain, not withstanding that I forgot to bring any warm pants. Lorraine kindly drove me to the drop off point and I headed to transition to see if my bike was there, which it was. I added my nutrition to the bike and to the run bags, as leaving it there the night before would have been an invitation for a bear picnic/feast.
For those of you that are curious, my nutrition for the day consisted of 7 bottles of “race fuel” (Precision Fuel and Hydration’s 30g fuel mix), with 3 servings per bottle which gave me 380 calories per bottle, 1500mg of sodium and 90g of carbs. The goal was 1 bottle per hour with some added water from the aid stations. On the “run”, it would be 5 PFH’s 90g carb gels, 1 per hour, plus their salt capsules. This totaled about 5,500 calories, about as much as the milkshake I had for breakfast a few days ago.
I wasn’t sure how the maple and bacon milkshake would be, but it was most excellent, then again, anything is improved with the addition of bacon.
The race was scheduled to start at 6am, given that it gets light super early, so there was not too much time hanging around. The water temperature in the morning was 56F so they cut the swim distance from 2.4 miles down to 1.2 miles for safety reasons. After an amazing rendition of the national anthem by two singers, the cannon went off and we started shuffling to the swim start.
(c) Bruce Abel, Facebook
I poured a bottle of cold water down my wetsuit to help with the shock and allow the water to start warming up before my “natural heating” system kicked in, and for good measure consumed a caffeine gel for some extra calories.
The cold water to the face was pretty refreshing, and then it was off to the first of many, many buoys. At one point I though I was hallucinating, but no, the Tlingit folks were out on their canoe keeping us all safe.
I exited the swim after 46 minutes, which is about my average pace, and then started the loooonnngggg trek to transition.
Given that the forecast was for some pretty heavy rain, I decided on a full outfit change, and at least start the bike ride dry. I grabbed my bike bag and entered a tiny change tent that was packed with, well, balls mostly. After waiting for a spot to open up that would put me out of the way of other men’s tackle, I unpacked my bag only to find that my shoes and socks were wet from the overnight downpour, despite being double-bagged. So much for starting out dry.
After an incredibly long first transition (T1) of 25 minutes (!), I finally got out on the bike. The support from the locals was great and would get better and better as the day progressed.
The bike was two loops of an out and back on the Glacier Highway for a total of 112 miles and 5,400ft of climbing. The first 15 miles were great and then I started having “feelings” in my stomach. When the road changed from super smooth asphalt to bumpy chipseal, things did not improve and I joined a long line of fellow sufferers at the mile 30 porta-potty. The stop, queuing and a subsequent stop added 28 minutes to my ride!
The course was just amazing and the downpours, in my opinion, just added to the overall ambience. There were folks sitting at the end of their driveways, under canopies, cheering for hours and hours as we all shot by looking like drowned rats. All was going great until I had a flat tire at mile 106. I had been fortunate as many, many riders had flat tires all along the course.
After 7 hours and 50 minutes, not forgetting the 45 seconds, I peeled the bike off my bum, handed it to a volunteer and shuffled to change for the run.
After a not-so-speedy 17 minute change of clothing, which mostly included peeling off soaking wet bike gear and forgetting that I had arm-warmers on, which roll up and become like mini-handcuffs. I put on wet running shoes and socks but at least my hat was dry, at least until the first of the downpours that would occur on the run.
The route started with a flat run out to the main road and then downhill along the main road with a view of the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance. After a few miles we turned left through another neighborhood and then up a steep hill, past an active shooting range, downhill to a turnaround point, through the arch of pom-pom waving cheerleaders, and then back to where we turned left. The support along this section of the route was amazing, with people out for hours in the rain cheering us on.
We crossed the road through another neighborhood with more supporters and then a fun jaunt through a forest, accompanied by folks on bicycles with bear bells for….well…you know…
(c) Unknown, IM Alaska Facebook group
I didn’t see any wildlife, or get a chance to introduce myself, but the folks here saw one crossing the trail. You can just see it crossing left to right in the background.
After the lovely forest there was a lap of the high school running track, some more weaving through an open space and then following the road uphill and back down to Auke Lake and more uphill back to transition. It’s always cruel to get to the end of the finish chute and then have to veer left to do another 13.1 miles before you can enjoy the luxurious carpeted finish. After changing in to (briefly) dry socks at the end of the first loop I took off on another wet loop and kept the blisters at bay until about mile 20.
It was getting late and dark, but still the local support was out in force. Wales was magical for the support and the people of Juneau were a very close second in their support of all those competing.
Coming back through the high school a second time I was walking and a group of supporters put the Rocky theme tune on. How can you not run to that? Well, at least until I was out of sight….
After what seemed, and actually was, an age, I finally got back to the start of the finish chute. I learned from my early races that this is the special moment. I didn’t want to run down it and save 30 seconds, i wanted to savor the moment and enjoy the incredible atmosphere that the crowd was creating. Mike Reilly called me an Ironman as I crossed the finish line at 15 hours, 31 minutes and 3 seconds and it was all I could do not to cry. I WAS an Ironman. After two consecutive DNFs, I WAS an Ironman after all.
My lovely sherpa had been volunteering at timing for a few hours so my medal was placed around my neck by Lorraine, which added to the special moment. I was utterly trashed, yet overjoyed.
Here’s an overview of what the whole ride and run looked like
The final score
The total time was 15:31, broken down as:
Transition 1 25:02
Transition 2 16:54
I consumed somewhere in the region of 5,500 calories and burned a total of 7,300 calories.
Never again, again…..?
In my previous races I have had some pretty dark moments from about 18 miles in to the marathon, but at Ironman Alaska, this was not the case. I loved the course, the rain, the local support and the whole experience. Actually having a nutrition plan devised with TriDot coach Jeff Raines ensured that I had the energy to finish and it was just my own lack of run volume in the past few months that resulted in my longest marathon to date.
This race was so amazing I didn’t even have to think twice about coming back in 2023.
Thanks to my wife Lorraine for all her support and help. She was so impressed with the event and the people that she has signed up for her very first Ironman at Alaska in 2023. Welcome to the madness.
Thanks to the team at TriDot for their amazing personalized training plan that makes all this possible, and in particular to Coach Jeff Raines for all the help this year. Also thanks to the folks in Team Raines who were cheering me on from their team meet in Texas and the athletes on the Fxck Cancer Endurance Team.
Thanks to my tri friends Diana, Kathryn and Brian for the support, training company and encouragement/persuasion to enter more races, and to Nelson at Encina Bikes for looking after my trusty steed.
Next up is Ironman Wales on September 11th, where I’ll be looking to get that DNF
monkey dragon off my back and earn my t-shirt.
Thanks for reading and remember that anything is possible. Also, fxck cancer, and for my new reader, here’s that story
If you’re at all entertained by these antics, or not, please feel free to donate to a cause that is very dear to me, F*cking Cancer