This is the inaugural year of Ironman Alaska, being held in the capital Juneau. This would be my third Ironman of 2022 (after Texas and St George) and my 21st overall. I’ve never been to Alaska so was excited to be traveling somewhere new. Leading up to the event there had been some stress from participants related to lodging (some limited hotel space but in the end many locals rented out rooms or entire homes) and bike transport (I used TriBike Transport which was awesome as always) but I think it worked out well for nearly everyone.
As it turned out there was another stress, temperature, specifically of the swim :). As we got closer the weather reports were getting worse. Lots of talk of cold temperatures and something called an “atmospheric river” which conjured up visions of solid walls of water falling from the sky but the locals said “we call that rain”. The real concern was the swim was looking like it could be close to 55 degrees with even colder air temperatures.
I had planned to use my sleeveless wetsuit with the extra arm sleeves like for St George however that was 63 degrees. I panicked so on the Tuesday before leaving I rented a sleeved wetsuit from PlayTri and also had an O’Neil thermal shirt. Obviously hugely breaking the “nothing new on race day” but worth it. I already had thermal booties, extra under cap and silicon ear plugs. I had to get an XXL as when I tried on the XL at the store the seam on the arm ripped 😦 They were very nice about it and only commented “you are not built for triathlon and you are not built for our wetsuits”. I also bought a Gore-Tex very light jacket and gloves for the bike and potentially the run.
I flew out on Thursday (for the Sunday event) using Alaska Air which I’d never flown before but they were AWESOME. The food was great, pancakes with sausage at breakfast and a great chicken sandwich at lunch. The view as we approached Juneau was amazing and as we were landing it felt like the mountains were right next to you.
I’d arranged for a car to pick me up from the airport and they were kind enough to quickly take me to the athlete village which was at the high school so I could check-in, collect my race packet, chip and backpack before heading downtown (about 10 miles South) where I was staying at the Baranof hotel. It was in the car where I learnt that Juneau had a temperate rainforest which is why it rained so much there. I also learnt it was in 4 different climate systems which is why you never know what the weather is actually going to be. What it was predicting as I arrived on Thursday was heavy rain (the atmospheric river) for Friday and Saturday and maybe into Sunday. The water temperature for the swim was around 60 but was dropping.
The hotel was basic but clean. Everyone was very friendly which would continue for the entire trip. The locals were amazing. The nicest and most welcoming people you will ever meet. The room was very small but quiet. It didn’t have a fridge which was a disappointment and the reception said they didn’t have any. No chocolate milk for John. I headed to the grocery store which was only 1/2 mile walk away. Grabbed water, sports drinks and a few other things. On the walk back I grabbed a cheeseburger from a street truck, had a little wander around the local stores (where weed was very popular) and back to the room where I went to sleep at 6pm. Remember Juneau is 3 hours behind Texas and I wanted to try and stay as close to Texas time as I could.
Slept great. Got up about 2am and went down to the little gym. Did some running and biking then lifted what weights they had then went for a little walk outside and took a picture of the scenery which was great. During the day there was about 3 big cruise ships where the people would tour Juneau for the day.
I had nothing to really do on Friday since I’d already checked in at registration and bike and bag drop off was Saturday (since a Sunday race). All I wanted to do was go to transition to check my bike had arrived safely. The start, T1, T2 and finish were all at the University campus next to Auke lake which was away from the athlete village (which was unusual) however IRONMAN were running shuttles every 15 minutes from downtown both to the athlete village and then to the transition. This was very well run and I barely ever had to wait. I grabbed the shuttle to transition which dropped you off at the end of a very long road. From the shuttle drop off it was 1/2 mile to the actual transition area. It was raining but I handled it like a champ (not). This would not be the last time I would be in the rain.
My bigger concern was doing this walk AFTER the IRONMAN on Sunday but oh well. Got to the transition. TriBike Transport had my bike, I quickly peddled it around to test the brakes (which barely worked in the rain) and could change gear then gave it back to them (since I had no way of getting it back downtown). I then walked down to the swim start (which was about 1/3 mile walk downhill which clearly meant would be 1/3 mile uphill after the swim to transition). Many people were doing test swims and most were saying “It’s cold when you get in but after 100 yards really not bad”. My preparation consisted of putting my hand in the water at the edge and going “brrrrr”. I also stuck my head under the cold shower in the hotel for about 3 seconds but decided that sucked and why punish myself multiple times. I’d just suffer on the day. 🙂 I figured with my long sleeve wetsuit, thermal shirt under I’d be fine. I walked back up to transition then back to the shuttle where a shuttle was waiting and back to downtown.
For lunch I went to Salt where I had amazing French Onion Soup then cheeseburger and fries. Not my normal diet pre IRONMAN but my options were limited and I could find no where to get pasta. Back to the hotel where I did a little bit of work, recorded my weekly Azure update while sitting on the bed as my room had no usable desk then Dominos pizza for dinner. Then to sleep at 5pm which was glorious.
Didn’t wake up till about 4am which was just fantastic as I knew I’d get little sleep for the next 2 nights. I went for a little walk then packed my bike and run transition bags. It was looking very likely the swim would be around 55 and was going to be raining for most of the day. My focus was on finishing the event and didn’t really care about transition times. I therefore was going to wear swim trunks under the wetsuit, I would then change into tri shorts and bike shirt and then at the run would change again into run shorts, thermal long sleeve shirt, fresh socks. I packed my transition bags accordingly. My bike bag also had my gore-Tex rain jacket and gloves and planned to continue the gore-Tex jacket onto the run as well. No food was allowed in the bags overnight as they would attract Yogi and Boo Boo so the food would be added the next morning where we would have access to bike and bags.
I walked to the shuttle, headed to transition, got my bike from TriBike transport (which was soaking wet), put my bike stickers on (forgot a towel so was not great) and dropped everything off. As usual I wrote my number on all my transition bags in addition to the sticker which was especially critical as most likely the stickers would be falling off with the non-stop rain.
After dropping everything off I walked back to the shuttle for downtown. Then Salt again for onion soup and cheeseburger (yes, still terrible as pre IRONMAN food but still limited options), watched some movies then Domino’s pizza again for dinner. Went to sleep at 6. I planned to get up at 2am and leave the room at 4am however I woke up about 11pm and never really went back to sleep.
Shuttles were due to start at 4:15 to transition which opened at 4:30 but I left the room at 3:50 and when I got to the shuttle stop at 4 the shuttles were already there and I got to transition at 4:20 ish. The little 5 minute walk and then time to get ready for the planned 6am start.
Pumped my tires up to 90 PSI based on the expected wet roads. Put some drinks on my bike and added nutrition to my bike and run bags. The transition tent was open so I went in and boy was it heated. Must have been 110 degrees. I put on my booties and wetsuit (I was already wearing swimming trunks and thermal shirt). I walked down to the swim start where I put in my silicon ear plugs, double cap and put Vaseline on my face and hands as I had read that while it would rinse off it would lessen any initial cold water shock. There was also talk of pouring water down the suit before entering but didn’t do that. They were obviously very concerned about people panicking in the cold as they kept announcing “take your time starting”, “exhale as you first put head in the water”.
At around 5:45 Mike Reilly made an announcement “This is an important announcement for the athletes. The water temperature is the coldest measured all week, 56 degrees, and with guidance from our governing body the swim will be a single loop of 1.2 miles. We will start at 6:30 instead of 6:00 and total time available for the Ironman will be 15:50”. Not going to lie, I was pretty relieved as I had been very concerned about the cold. Some around were disappointed but most seemed to agree it was the right call. After the event I heard the volunteers state that the last 1/3 of the people getting out would never have made another lap.
The 15:50 adjusted total time was because the swim normally has 2:20 to complete so when halved you remove 1:10 from the normal 17 hours. Later on they actually changed their minds and the time allowed was the full 17 hours which caused a fair amount of confusion. I’m assuming they extended it because the transition times were so long because of the cold and rain and didn’t want a DNF of 50%.
At the delayed 6:30 they started to get people into the water. They let in 2 people every 5 seconds. That is very spread out compared to the regular 4-5 every 3 seconds. I think this was to give people more time to adjust to the cold and not feel pressured. Also it was a fairly small amount of participants giving them more flexibility. Out of the 914 that checked in only 832 actually started the swim. A typical IRONMAN may easily have 1,500 or more.
People self seeded based on their estimated swim time. I got in the 1:30 group. As I entered the water I quickly got my face in and yes it was cold, but honestly not that bad. My body never got cold for the entire swim and even my face and hands were fine. I was slow, took me 49 minutes compared to my normal 45 based on 90 minute full. I swam a very different line than normal. I did start out on the outside but somehow I found myself quickly on the inside of the buoys (yes I was that idiot that swam across everyone) and quickly had to adjust but I then just swam directly between the buoys which made sighting very easy. The visibility above water was great, under water you couldn’t see much however the water tasted like bottled water but I was careful not to drink much knowing that many in front of me had peed in it! The swim was very easy. A few people bumped into me but less than normal and was no biggy at all. The second half of the swim felt very fast and ended in no time. I think I would have been OK if it had been the normal 2 loops given I didn’t feel cold at all after the 1 loop but who knows. Could have gone down hill and I also had the thermal shirt etc so many would have been in a worse position.
Then the about 1/3 mile run uphill to transition. I didn’t take my wetsuit off at water edge, instead stayed in it to avoid getting cold during the hike to transition. The tent was PACKED but still very warm and I was pretty slow, I think total was 23 minutes which included the hike and then just getting the wetsuit off, getting dressed in bike kit then grabbing bike and heading out. The bike was two loops along the highway.
I think it started to rain nearly straight away as I got on the bike. Lucky I had purchased a gore-Tex rain jacket and gloves which were awesome. The rain didn’t cause many problems as the route was completely straight with only the turnaround for the two loops meaning minimal braking or turning. That part was great. The course itself was tough. It was never flat. It was up or down. About 1/3 of each loop was this chip seal road which made it tougher. Couple with rain and wind made for a tough bike ride. You often shared the road with cars that while considerate was a little close at times.
At about mile 25 I felt like I was sinking and soon was nearly kneeing myself in the face. Yep, saddle had fallen down. I just had it serviced so thanks a lot for that 🙂 I stopped and about 5 minutes later had raised it and off I went but had not raised it enough so shortly after stopped again and had to move it. Also my left shoe was having trouble clipping in which was causing issues and snapped out a few times. Time for new cleats on my shoes I think! Had to stop to pee a bunch of times (no clue what is going on) but overall I found the ride fine. There were a lot of false flats/declines but really didn’t find the ride particularly hard. It was hard to maintain power as was always up or down but my normalized power was around 217 I think. The rain made it a little miserable and you were really focusing on the road so I missed a lot of the amazing scenery. The aid stations were always well stocked and the volunteers were fantastic. Off the charts energy from everyone.
6:43:17 was my bike time which I was happy with given the toughness of the course and the mechanical issues. My bike was just caked in mud. They had cloths in transition but could do little against the muck all over my legs 🙂 Into completely dry kit and put my jacket back on (but not the gloves). As soon as I started running I had a pretty bad pain in my quad making me limp. I quickly applied some deep heat (had 2 little sachets with me) and after a few minutes it went away. My plan was to jog the downhills and some flat but walk the uphills. I figured this would nicely mix up running and walking but that was not the case. This run course was some kind of mystical MC Escher course and it seemed like you were always going downhill or flat so i was always jogging. This was of course impossible.
After a couple of miles I came across another runner doing the same as me, Matthew, and we ran together for much of the first 16 miles which was great to have someone to talk to. It rained on and off for the entire run. When it stopped running I would take off the jacket and tie round my waist.
The run was two loops and 2 of those miles each loop were through an enchanted forest which was beautiful. There was not aid during that portion but it warned you ahead of time so you could grab extra drink etc. There was even a rainbow at one point during the run. I think Mike Reilly was at the end of it.
After running much of the first 16 miles I walk/jogged the next 10. In the end my run time was just under 5:45 and was happy with that. Like the bike course the run had great aid support and had equally awesome volunteers.
Mike Reilly was there to call me over the line and I even gave him a fist bump as I crossed the line. The medal was huge and awesome and then they gave you your finisher shirt and hat. My total time was 13:51:48 and it felt great to finish. I came in the top half of my division, gender and overall but I never care that much about that. I felt I gave a good effort and am proud of the accomplishment. They had pizza and other food available. I grabbed my morning clothes bag, my gear bags and bike. I dropped the bike at TriBike then took the long walk to the shuttle where one was waiting, to downtown, walk to hotel then into the shower to try and clean off the dirt caked all over me. Had a bagel for dinner as nothing else was open and a bunch of protein bars.
As usual I couldn’t sleep. I think I drifted off around 1:30 and was woken up by my alarm at 2am as a taxi was picking me up at 3am for my 5:20 flight home!
In the end 725 finished out of the 839 who actually started. Which is a pretty normal DNF rate I think. If they had not halved the swim and not increased the time available to 17 hours likely would have been much lower number of finishers which would not have looked good for the inaugural event. I know some people are grumbling about the change to 17 hours not being clear mid way through but ultimately the “standard” time would have been 15:50 given the shortened swim so anything above that would be a bonus that should not be relied upon.
Overall it was an amazing event. Juneau is a small town but it really got behind the event and I really can’t think of an IRONMAN I have done that had better support. Huge congrats to the entire team, volunteers and town. Thank you for having us!