It has been 26 years since I last visited Alaska. In 1991, I climbed Mount Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, which at an elevation of 20,310' or 6,190m, is the highest peak in North America and the third most isolated mountain on earth.
Now, older and supposedly wiser, I was here to take on the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. The start point was located in Seward and comprised a 4.2km swim in the cold glacial waters of Resurrection Bay, then an 180km bike leg with an elevation of 1200m finishing in Girdwood, followed by a 43km run leg with an elevation of 1800m whilst ascending Mount Alyeska twice.
Arriving in Seward reminded me of arriving in Eidfjord or Shieldaig, it was the end of the road, remote, different and isolated. I love this sort of environment, I thrive in it, it makes you feel alive, humble. Everything here challenges you. Our accommodation was rural, basic, but appropriate.
During race week, humour is a hugely important commodity and we certainly had that in spades; Big Brother could not have put together a better crowd. Chris Scott (CS) is one of those good guys, and I mean one of those really good guys, he made the week for me.
Trust me, life is just better knocking around with him.
In a concerted effort to bully our bodies into acclimatising to the painfully cold water, we swam every morning.
The only relief for CS and myself, was witnessing Luke Mathews overly animated and hilarious reaction to the icy water as he tentatively entered it, emitting a high pitched, chilling squeal whilst grimacing and cursing every tortured step into the murky depths of Resurrection Bay.
One of the strongest open water swimmers I know, Luke was first out of the water every time, heading up the beach for a hot coffee and targeting some unsuspecting victims to regale his heroic Kona stories to.
Race week went well for me. I felt good, confident and had trained hard for this one. This would be my first self-coached race, and allowed me to experiment, push harder, go beyond what I thought I could do and what I thought would be required. But, the swim was bothering me, I couldn't put my finger on it, somehow it was intimidating me almost scaring me. I needed a strategy, I wrestled with it for a few days, and then it hit me. I was really looking forward to the bike leg, even more so to the run, so this whole race now becomes a 4.2km swim. I'm going to swim as hard as I can for 4.2km; the rest is just going to be fun!
We assembled at Miller's Landing, the location for the start of the swim, at around 0400. It was bleak with a cold drizzling rain and an eerie mist rolling across the chilly 12 degrees C water. We could just pick out the lights of Seward in the distance. Aaron Palaian, the race director (RD) gave his final brief, and the proud Americans stood upright as their National Anthem was sung; I'm not normally one for flag waving, but this seemed right, fitting.
I set off hard, sighting was easy with a big white light 4.2km away in Seward to navigate towards. Slowly, the wetsuit started to kick in, I didn't get warm by any means, but my body started to tolerate it. I got on some feet for a while, but felt I could go past them so kicked and went on, slowly creeping towards the light that didn’t seem to be getting any closer to me.
There's a point on this swim where a glacial run-out pours into the bay and the water temperature significantly drops. We'd been warned about it, but I still wasn't prepared for the shock of hitting sub 8 degrees C water.
The tide was also due to turn 1 hour 11 minutes after the start, a significant event for us weaker swimmers; I was fatigued now, getting increasingly colder and battling through the last few hundred meters of this choppy defiant water. Finally, I turned left around the one and only buoy on the course and onto the old boat ramp. I tried to stand, wobbled and dropped to my knees again. My second attempt was more successful, a quick glimpse of my watch, 1:33, I'll take that; game on!
Luke grabbed me and said, "Let's go!" Perfect, no niceties, just how I'd asked him to be. This is where support is invaluable; I was cold, unsteady on my feet and struggling to function properly. Luke was straight into the routine that we had planned the day before. An attempt to generate warmth by sprinting into T1, then wetsuit off, towel me dry and warm kit on. Colleen offered me coffee, she knows me too well, the best hot coffee I've ever tasted.
This pair got me sorted and eventually I set off on my bike, still shivering but thinking I have made the best critical decision of this race, my support crew, Luke and Colleen.
I haven't known Luke Mathews all that long, and he only became a closer acquaintance of mine fairly recently. He is a civilian, who has been thrown in with a group of sharp-tongued, no-nonsense, unforgiving squaddies, but has quickly adapted, and now gives as good as he gets, in his own polite and boyishly charming manner. Luke can turn his hand to anything, could have chosen any career path I'm sure; he would have certainly been welcomed into the ranks back in my day. The coaching world is definitely a richer environment with him around and it's good to have someone you respect so much on your team.
Your support team cannot give you any assistance for the first 46km; I liked this, just you and the bike and time to get your head in the game. Still very cold, I peddled hard, but something didn't feel right, the front of my bike felt strange. Is my front wheel loose? Or was it the stem? I almost stopped to check it out before realising what the issue was - I was incredibly cold and shivering so violently that I was making the bike wobble!
As I approached the 46km point it felt good to see Luke and Colleen, along with Andy and Jo Edwards (CS's support).
Support is good during any race, but when they are physically supporting you with nutrition, clothing or mechanical issues, they really become an integral part of the race; invested in the whole experience. The stops were like clockwork, slick and efficient; empty bottles out, fresh bottles in, bananas, gels, energy bars and whatever else I needed.
Just as I was about to set off, I glimpsed CS pulling up behind me. I didn’t acknowledge him, but two thoughts went through my head; firstly, fantastic he'd conquered his swim demons and secondly shit, the next few hours are going to be tough... that boy can ride! I pushed hard on the bike making the early decision to go above my planned watts, it was a gamble, but I’d put in some big training runs and hoped that my legs would carry me well off the bike. Plus there was an annoying devil on my shoulder telling me, "Don't let CS pass you!"
I entered T2 with a sub 5:30 bike split and was taken aback slightly as I could only see, at the most, a dozen racked bikes! I dismissed it quickly, telling myself that Cycle Chauffeur must have already put some of the bikes in their trucks, in order to transport them away.
I quickly went through my bike to run transition routine, I had barely got my trainers on when CS appeared, racked his bike and took a seat next to me. We exchanged a few textbook triathlon one liners,
"Looking good mate."
"You've smashed the bike mate."
"Think I might have gone too hard mate."
Psychological warfare over, I needed to get moving!
The first 23km of the run was also self-supported and again I liked this, just you and your mind games. I was wearing my Salomon running vest, carrying water, coke, gels, bars and Skittles. I was good to go, 23km to Luke and I had set myself the goal of not stopping until I see him.
I overtook a guy within 50m of leaving T2, a good sign; I gave him a couple of words of encouragement and didn't look back.
After a couple of hundred meters, the track loops under the road and doubles back on itself; I looked across the road and could see CS just leaving T2, my coaching side subconsciously analysed his posture and gait; upright, leaning slightly forward, looking strong CS, nice!
I picked off another couple of runners; I wasn't looking at my watch and wasn't worried about the pace. I just needed to keep moving, 20km to Luke.
At around 6km, a guy passed me moving really well. " Great running mate, looking strong." A short time after this, another guy passed me. Am I slowing or are they just really strong? Just keep moving Chris, 17km to Luke.
The two guys had made around 600m on me, but now I seemed to be holding them at that, maybe even reeling them in? 10km to Luke.
Slowly but surely I closed them both down and eventually passed them as I turned left into Girdwood; a long straight 3km climb up to where I would meet Luke.
The promise of a reprieve once I got there was short lived. I received two simple words from him, the same two words I had heard from him over 7 hours ago.
The next 9km of the run was an out and back loop around a Nordic ski track. As we headed off, Luke said:
"That guy in front is in 8th, you're in 9th."
"Seriously?" Was all I could mutter, but now with a new spring in my step.
The Nordic loop wound its undulating way through a wooded area, I took the guy in 8th, saw 7th, he was in a real bad way, holding his support's hand and staggering badly. As I passed him Luke said:
"No matter how bad it gets mate, I'm not holding your hand!"
Still running well, I took the guy in 6th, and as we approached the turn-around we saw the guy in 5th coming in the other direction, Leonardo Mello from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He became a special target; as his support guy was Craig Alexander (Crowie).
With 5th position firmly in my sights, we made the turn and started to close the gap. A surreal moment and one, I am sure, I will never repeat; I'm in a triathlon and about to move into 5th place overall, overtake Crowie (3x Ironman World Champion & 2x 70.3 World Champion) and there are park rangers keeping an eye on a bear just off the track!
As we headed back into Girdwood, we had arranged to do a mini transition before heading up the mountain. Once again, Colleen and Luke were amazing, everything I required was laid out like a buffet and I even had a comfortable towel to sit on:
Trainers and socks off, fresh socks and trail running shoes on; coke, Red Bull, my vest was resupplied and I ate a banana. Time to go!
Luke and Andy Edwards had checked out the mountain stage a few days before, telling me that nobody can run that; it's just too steep. Every time they told me this I arrogantly said to myself, "I'm running it."
Reality hit home as I moved onto the 25% slope, it felt like running into a brick wall!
The mountain stage only accounts for about 5% of the total distance of the race, but I had probably focused 90% of my training towards it. This is where I hoped it would count.
I picked up a tip from Luke during Ironman South Africa. When he goes to sleep on the eve of the race, he has no further phone or social media interaction until post race. I liked that and thought that I’d try it. But, as I turned off my alarm at 0130 that morning, I accidentally glimpsed a message on the screen:
To a military man this simple word is definitive and unambiguous. This message was from a person that, like numerous other people around the world, I admire and look up to greatly, David Labouchere. David was a senior officer in the British Army, and this was no throwaway word of encouragement, this was an executive order.
“Roger that Zero Alpha.”
As I looked up, I could see a number of ski lifts and buildings scattered across the mountain and I asked Luke a rhetorical question:
"Which one are we going to?"
"The highest one, target acquired" he replied.
I smiled to myself, we had taught the civilian well.
This was going to be a tough couple of hours, with grades of 25-28% and very tired legs, I pushed on.
I was drawing on as much inspiration as I could now; only a few weeks ago I'd watched Hasan Itani refuse to quit on the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon and achieve his goal. Jimmy Tracy had just gone to his limits to produce a 1hr 20min PB at Roth. Colleen, my ultimate supporter, was now waiting for me at the top of this mountain and Luke was continually harassing me, driving me on with no sympathy.
I didn't want to let these guys down.
Having completed the first ascent and climbed to the highest point we were now descending; passing within touching distance of the finishing arch to our right.
As we descended Luke told me. "You know you're being 'chicked' don't you?"
"Yep" I replied. I had seen Morgan Chaffin, the leading and eventual winning female earlier in the race looking super strong and I hadn’t expected to catch her. But, as we rounded a bend she was there, moving quite slowly down the mountain, sadly she was struggling with the descent. It's easy to underestimate the difficulty of running downhill, most naturally concentrate on the uphill, but there is a skill and technique to descending efficiently. A skill I had worked on whilst running in the Hatta Mountains with the Dubai Desert Trail Runners.
I'm in 4th now, way beyond my wildest dreams!
The descent completed, we made good ground along a short, relatively flat section before turning back into the mountain for the final assault of the north face.
The final push was up a very steep slope of seemingly endless switchbacks; slowly the noise of the finishing line came into range. I didn't know it at the time, but Daniel Folmar, who finished 3rd overall was only just ahead of me. I subsequently found out that I had made over 23 minutes on him in the last 11km, but it wasn't enough to catch him as he had thrown down a seriously impressive bike split, allowing him the luxury of a 4 minute wait at the finish line for me.
Getting to that final switchback was such a fantastic feeling, the greatest moment I've ever had in any race. I zipped up my trisuit, climbed the final rise and crossed the line literally on top of the world.
The atmosphere at the finish line was amazing; I hugged Luke, hugged Colleen and then found a spot to collapse. Daniel came over and we shook hands, congratulated each other and chatted about our races; he is such a nice guy.
A good day's work, 4th overall, 1st masters in a time of 12:28:38 with a 5:11:48 run split, the 3rd fastest of the day.
Just when I thought that the day couldn't get any better, Jo Edwards told me that CS was close to finishing and he was in the top ten! A short while later, I had the absolute pleasure of watching him run up that last ramp and cross the finish line, 9th overall. True to his word, he didn’t let me out of his sights and had the race of his life. I know how hard he had worked for that, the day is now complete.
Alaskaman, July 15th, 2017