Ironman Alaska Race Report
Ironman Alaska was an amazing experience and I just couldn’t be happier about having been a part of this inaugural event! Overall, I am very happy with my day even though it wasn’t a perfect race. I had a flat on the bike and wrestled with tummy issues for about 5ish miles of the run. The road conditions were safe but slow, with some very rough tarmac for about a third of the bike course, and then of course were the constant hills. It was a great reminder to stay focused on the inputs and allow the outputs to come on their own.
This report is focused on my day on the course. I created a separate write-up on logistics that I recommend reading if you’re thinking about registering for this race yourself.
Auke lake is cold. Ironman had pulled 10 years of data on water temperatures in this lake at this time of year and found an average in the mid-60s. Auke Lake is spring fed–it’s not the ocean. The lake temperature had been 58.5 degrees on the Thursday before the race. Then an “atmospheric river” came through for the next two days, dropping a lot of rain…and the lake temps to 56. With the morning air temperature in the low 50s, Ironman shortened the swim to one lap (1.2 miles)–making the final announcement 10 mins before the start. That meant a 630 start rather than 600. I went with double-cap but no booties (because I didn’t want to lose time from drag).
There was no opportunity to warm up in the water so hitting the cold for the first time at the race start was…very cold! I’ve swum in similar temperatures but not usually with such low air temps. The first 200 meters were take-your-breath-away cold. I focused on the exhale and kept my breathing under control. While I was getting adjusted to the temperatures, I found myself drifting a bit off course but nothing major. Aside from my goggles fogging from the cold, the rest of the swim was generally uneventful.
By about 400-500 meters, it just felt cold but no longer debilitating. Once I was warmed up, I felt I could have gone around for another lap, but for the folks who might be flirting with the cutoff, it would have been a long time of exposure. Ironman made the right call by shortening the swim. I was initially disappointed, but ultimately, it didn’t really make any difference to my race.
The run from the water to T1 is long–at least ⅓ mile–maybe ½–and all uphill. Because my plan was to do full changes in each transition, I swam in a swimsuit under my wetsuit. Coming out of the water, I hadn’t lost much feeling in my fingers and toes. There was carpet about halfway up than asphalt. It got a little painful on the feet, but not too bad or for too long. The change tent was heated–amazing! I dried off and made a complete change–the whole thing took about 17 minutes. What a crazy transition time!
Out of transition, you ride a long driveway out of the campus than a short, steep downhill to the traffic circle and to the right. These were the only turns on the course (aside from the same coming back and the three u-turns at the out-and-backs). Next to nothing on this course is flat. You are always climbing or descending but none of it is super long or very steep. There was a tailwind heading north–the direction we were headed on the way out. The wind typically blows south to north like this. Around mile 18 on a descent, I rolled my back wheel over a rock in the bike lane and flatted. In general, this part of the course was in very good shape with good pavement and a wide bike lane. I changed the flat but found that my spare had a bad valve so it barely took air. I changed it again after removing and replacing the bad valve (I had an extra because 2 is 1, 1 is none…). Neutral support arrived during the second change and I handed them my wheel to pump up once I got the tire seated. They took my trash and put the wheel on–off I went. It looks like I lost about 8-9 minutes total, and now I was further back with a lot more racer traffic. About a mile or so after restarting, I hit the start of the 10-mile-long chipseal segment. This is no ordinary chip seal–it rattles your teeth for 20 miles (because it’s out-and-back) each lap. I found it tough to get a strong rhythm with the rough road and up/down but at least there was a tailwind to the turnaround. I made the turnaround at mile 30 then continued on the rough road up and down into the wind and onto the mile 56 turnarounds. Coming off the rough pavement around mile 40 feels good and the next 16 to the turnaround feel relatively fast, despite the headwind.
By the time I was back to the turnaround (around the ferry pier), I had ridden back up enough that I didn’t have a lot of other athletes around me. I was feeling strong as I headed out onto the second lap with the wind at my back again. I was careful to monitor my watts and was proud of my discipline not to override. The 20 miles of chip seal sucked again on the second lap but were the same for everyone. The return trip felt relatively easy and I was happy with my effort overall–the legs felt solid. That last climb up to campus was steep but pretty short.
It was generally overcast and misty/drizzly throughout the ride. We did see our shadows for a couple of minutes at one point, but I’d estimate about two hours total of real rain on the bike and the rest was drizzle/mist. I opted for a pair of rose-tinted shooting glasses that I bought at a local outdoor store by my hotel the day before instead of a tinted visor or sunglasses. That was definitely the right call.
For T2, I left my shoes clipped in as I came off the bike and ran in my socks. I handed the bike to a volunteer, grabbed my bag, and then into the change tent again. My outer layers were pretty wet, but the base layer did its job. I made another full change, this time into run shorts and a tech shirt. I wore a vest for warmth and left my arm warmers on. I opted to wear a hydration vest with my rain jacket inside for easy access.
For the first time ever for me at a full-distance race, I felt like a million bucks as I came out of transition. Of course, the big crowds are inspiring and I saw my family here too. I had to be very deliberate about holding my pace to something reasonable and sustainable. The first few miles of the course rolls a bit and then you hit the biggest climb of the day around mile 4 on the out-and-back section. It’s only a little more than a half mile that includes a pretty steep section that’s maybe 400 meters or so. I focused on being efficient and didn’t overrun it, then felt solid coming back down. The first lap went by quickly. I walked about half of the aid stations and made one bathroom stop, but otherwise felt really good about how my run was progressing.
I opted to carry all of my own nutrition in my vest so I stopped at the aid station by the swim start (just shy of halfway) to refill bottles/add Infinit powder. I wasn’t stopped for long, but when I restarted, I could feel a slight crampy pain in my stomach. Because I hadn’t felt that at all prior to stopping, I figured it was muscular and that it would work itself out as I kept running.
I saw my family as I went by transition for the second lap. My wife let me know I was sitting in the 12th position and would catch a couple of people at the same pace on lap two. I was quite surprised by my position and was feeling good but decided to hold pace–not to push it until I figured out what was going on with my tummy. Around mile 15, it had become clear that the issue wasn’t muscular and I backed off a little. I was now walking every aid station to try to give it a chance to settle. As I hit the big hill again, this time at 17, I decided to walk it both to conserve energy and try to settle the tummy. By the top of the hill, it became a dash for the porta-potty. After a relatively short but unsuccessful stop, I headed back out but could only run in spurts with lots of walking mixed in each time my tummy came around. Of course, it was pouring rain at this point too. I only had 9 miles to go so I knew I would get in, but was upset that my race was looking like it would end with a whimper.
The next 4 miles were jog/walk and porta-potty stops at every aid station. I finally made a good “deposit” at the mile 21 aid station and came out feeling pretty good. I tentatively ran the next mile and then felt confident that I was back in business from there. My last 4 miles weren’t my fastest–my legs were definitely feeling the day–but they weren’t too far off my early pace and I was passing people constantly. I pushed the last uphill mile as hard as I could (which was 10+ pace, but that’s what was left in the tank) and then slowed down to find my family and enjoy the finish chute. I had only dropped one spot in the end, finishing 13th in my age group.
This race is not for everyone, but it’s an amazing experience for the right athlete. I wanted a cool-weather race and knew that rain likely came along with that bargain. I expected the limited options of a small, relatively remote location. I knew that this would be expensive, logistics would be a little tricky, and lodging wouldn’t be plush. It was everything I expected plus so much more with the amazing support of the local community. I absolutely loved everything about Juneau and highly recommend this race!
D3 Coach Dave Sheanin is looking forward to another Ironman in 10 years. For now though, this was his ‘last ironman’.