Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ironman Alaska

Ironman #10 was humbling. It was by far my slowest, coming in at 12:23, even with the swim shortened to 1.2 miles. For reference, I finished Ironman Canada (Whistler) in 11:19, with food poisoning and about 3k extra feet of climbing on the bike course. 

This is the first year that Ironman attempted to hold a race in Juneau and there was a lot of anticipation around the logistics of the event. The race was capped at 1500 participants due to Juneau's limited capacity to host a large number of people. Accommodations were hard to come by and cars were limited since you can only arrive to Juneau by air or by sea. There are no roads in or out. 

When we landed in Juneau late Wednesday evening, waiting for us at the airport was a small group of local women who had anticipated our arrival and were ready to give us rides to wherever we needed to go. Also waiting at the airport was the local "Bike Doctor" who must have serviced hundreds of our bikes, including picking bikes up from the airport that people had shipped there. When a group of us recognized him at the airport, he joked that he had to have wider doors put in at his house to accommodate how big his head had gotten due to his recent fame. Numerous locals had joined the Ironman Alaska Facebook group in order to post what they could each offer to us and respond to requests from athletes who were in need of equipment, transport, or anything else. Through the end of the race, the locals kept up the communication with us, thanking us for coming to their town and for inspiring them. 

At the welcome ceremony, a few of the town leaders (all women) spoke of the hospitality that we had come to know so well in such a short time. When there are no roads into or out of your town, you learn to rely on each other in ways that you don't have to anywhere else. There is community here like I've never witnessed before, including the respect for the Tlingit tribe, which has occupied this land for over 10,000 years. That night at the welcome ceremony, the tribe performed some of their ceremonial dances for us, welcomed us generously to their homeland, and taught us the word for Ironman in their native language:  

Tlingit for "Ironman"

Tlingit artwork and way of life can be found all throughout Juneau, enriching this town in unimaginable ways. While it's impossible to take back the injustices that were enacted upon indigenous communities, what we do need is a template for how to move forward. Perhaps it lives here.

The Welcome Ceremony

I went for a practice swim in Auke Lake on Friday morning. It was surprisingly cold at 58 degrees but I never lost my breath and regained feeling in my feet not too long after I got out. I felt confident that my body would successfully handle the cold on race day. 

Juneau is located in a rainforest and one of the things that tends to happen quite regularly in rainforests is precipitation. But since it's Ironman, we had a special "atmospheric river" that was scheduled to roll in just in time for the race, adding to the typical amount of rainfall. I was calm heading into this one though. The energy of the land and the Alaskan people was bigger than any pre race anxiety I might have had otherwise. 


Right before the race was about to start, Mike Reilly announced that due to the water temperature being lower than we had seen all week (56 degrees), the swim would be shortened to 1.2 miles. Of all the last minute race adjustments I've dealt with through my Ironman journey, I've gotten to the point where I don't mind any of them as long as the race isn't canceled. I had absolutely zero feelings, positive or negative, about the shortened course until the minute I hit the water and lost my breath. I did my best to stay calm, worked through those initial involuntary gasps, and tried to settle into a rhythm. But about halfway out to the first turn buoy I could feel my core temperature dropping and I started feeling a little panicky. I tried kicking harder to warm myself up but I couldn't communicate to the lower half of my body. For a second, it crossed my mind that this might be dangerous enough to pull myself from the race, but I obviously wasn't going to do that so I put my head back in the water and focused on one stroke at a time until I was out. 

T1: Once I got to land, I noticed that my calves had seized up on me, making it quite difficult to run the long transition into the change tent. Once I got there, I took my sweet ass time sitting in front of the heater doing a full change before heading onto the bike. I shoved hand-warmers into my toe covers, opted for the rain jacket over the vest and took off. 


We had driven the bike course a few days before the race and although there were no big climbs, I could tell it was going to be slow. There was something about the constantly rolling hills combined with the chip-seal road surface that made it impossible to gain any momentum. 

My typical Ironman state of being is something akin to childlike joy combined with psychotic mania but the swim had shifted me temporarily into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When I let out a spontaneous giggle around mile 9, I knew I was back. 

The bike course was stunning. For a day when I had to be on my bike for longer than I have in any other Ironman, at least the scenery was nice to look at. It was windy and rained on and off for most of the ride. I followed my nutrition plan, being sure to take in enough carbs to keep my energy up in the cold. Even though I adjusted my fluid intake down a notch once I started peeing every 5-10 miles or so, I knew that my body was compensating for the fact that I couldn't sweat enough fluid. I've been here before. I added salt, drank very little, and kept up my carb intake for the remainder of the ride but I knew my sodium balance was off. Unfortunately there's not much else I can do when it's that cold and I already lose such a small amount of fluid and a high concentration of sodium. 

That bike course though... 

T2: I wasn't quite as slow in T2 as I was in T1 but I certainly wasn't fast. I had the sweetest teenage girl helping me with my run gear, who kept listing all of the things she could do for me or get for me, telling me that it was her whole job to make my day easier. By the time I was ready to head out of the change tent, it had spontaneously started pouring again and one of the volunteers was so upset about it for us. She said, "I am SO sorry, you have already been through so much today!" I did my best to calm her down, tell her it was all ok and that this was just part of racing. Then I headed out into the downpour. 


As soon as I started running, the familiar light-headed, dizzy, nauseous feelings confirmed what I knew was happening on the bike: early signs of hyponatremia. Fortunately, I know how to keep myself safe when this happens now. The downside is that while I try to keep up with my carb intake, while increasing salt and decreasing fluid, my stomach has a hard time processing anything I put in without enough fluid to wash it down. I took in 2 gels in the first few miles and puked them up shortly after. I was still nauseous at this point so I kind of assumed that might happen, but I figured I'd give it a whirl anyway.  I held onto hope that I could turn this around. A marathon is a long time and I knew anything could happen. 

Around mile 11-13, I stopped feeling nauseous but I was intensely bloated. Anything I put into my body, including water, came right back up. At that point, I gave up on calories and proceeded with the rest of the marathon on nothing but coke, salt, and the occasional cup of water, continuing to barf those things back out along the way. 

My poor Iron-team (Ryan and Gina) gets so anxious when they think I'm not feeling well so I felt horrible when I had to throw up in front of them. I was hoping I could keep that concealed so that they would continue to have a fun day (since that's what I was doing). I saw the looks of concern on their faces so I yelled back at them that just because I was puking didn't mean we had to have a bad time! Ryan's race-day costumes always unfold in stages and so far I had only seen him wearing a yellow rain jacket so I was interested to see where this was going. 

I never succumbed to the fact that I was just going to have a slow race, I kept trying to turn it on - to see if I had any chance of life in my legs - all the way through the finish. I didn't, but that wasn't the point. I got to prove to myself that no matter what happens on race day, whether I'm executing well or not, I am actually fully in control of the experience I get to have. Holding too tightly to a fading goal or expectation robs you of the opportunity to trust the path that begins at your feet. 

Do I wish that all my Ironman's could be fast and free of obstacles? Not really. I think I would have quit by now if all I was doing was chasing speed. 

In this one I learned that it's not just about "controlling the controllables" and then being the hopeless victims of the things we can't control. That which we cannot control is where the magic lives. And it is the intentionality with which we leave space for the magic to flow through that makes all the difference. 

I thought I was coming here to experience and race in the Alaskan wilderness. I didn't know I was coming here to be immersed in and carried by community in a way that I've never experienced before. As I held up my end of the bargain, taking full ownership of my attitude and my experience, the space that I left open was filled with the spirit of the Alaskan people. After the race, they continued to graciously thank us for coming to their town, talked about how privileged they felt to come to their first Ironman, and invited us to please come back next year so that they could cheer for us again. When I say this race was humbling, this is what I'm talking about. It goes so far beyond the course or my personal execution. 

In the same way that we gaze up at the stars and find a sense of awe in how small we are, I think there's a little bit more to it. It is not our smallness that amazes us but our sense of knowing ourselves in a greater context. I'm grateful to have known myself in this one.

Here are some more pics from the day:

The greatest Iron-team around.

This pic doesn't do the run course even a little bit of justice.

Shout out to my bike computer which turned on, but then wouldn't start, turn back off, or go into lock mode. It just changed all of my settings throughout the bike course.  

When we got back to the hotel, these 2 dressed up in Hawaiian shirts and presented me with a lei and a flower crown to celebrate the fact that we're going to Kona in October (based on a previous race performance).  

No explanation needed here. Just 2 people doing what they love.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful, positive, and inspiring race report. Thanks, and big-time congrats, Laura.


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