WHAT BEGAN AS A SIMPLE IDEA TURNED OUT TO BE AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY!
Once again I found myself at this place of saying yes to a crazy idea, technically my wife’s idea. One that involved long hours, lots of sweating, pushing the limits, thinking outside the box and what do you know, the ALASKAMAN. This race is awesomely EPIC. Come on, it is the Last Frontier people! I do not need to go into details about the race course because at this point, after all my social media posts, you should know it is one of the most challenging extreme triathlon on Earth, as well being logistically and financially a challenge to come to Alaska. (Thankfully, Alaska is my home!)
As if it wasn’t challenge enough, together with my family, we committed to once again join efforts with Team World Vision in providing clean water for the communities of Ethiopia. The goal was BIG: fundraising $1,000 for each year of my life for a total of $41,000. You heard right!!! Someone once said, dream and shoot for the stars; even if you come short, you can land on the moon! So as a family, we dreamed big!
After months and months of training and fundraising, after taking advantage of living close to the race course and having the ability to train in the Alaskan Mountains, after biking/running/hiking portions of the course, race day finally came with much anticipation. We made the commute to Seward from the Mat-Su Valley with no kids…what?! A miracle!!! (Yes, my awesome in-laws and our good friend Joelle helped us with the girls so that we could focus on the logistics before race day.) Rae and I truly enjoy the beautiful scenery of Alaska and we soaked it all in on the drive to Seward.
Twenty-four hours before race day begins my true race report.
There was a social swim, for all the athletes to test the water and get familiar with where this epic race will start the following crack of dawn morning! During our Facebook live at the social swim, a very generous someone committed to give the remaining amount needed to reach $41,000! That meant we reached our fundraising goal, thanks to the generosity of family, friends, our church community and complete strangers. We were speechless. It was surreal; we actually did it! It took the pressure off but wait, why stop there?! So we decided to keep going, keep helping more people, and we increased the fundraising goal to $54,000. I know, we are totally crazy!!
The remainder of the day involved mandatory meetings, prepping all my gear with my athlete number, organizing it according to transitions and worst case scenarios, lunch, post lunch, pre dinner, dinner, and going to bed as early as possible.
Saturday, July 21st: the day of the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon.
On race day, I had three main objectives:
- Finish the cold water swim without getting eaten by an Orca.
- Finish the hilly bike course while beating the time cut off and not getting killed by an 18-wheeler.
- Finish the run, crazy mountain hike portion and not die by falling off a cliff.
A bit dramatic perhaps! I don’t know if it was providence but my bib number was 123! (A good representation of my three objectives….or my three potential death situations!)
Race day began at midnight when I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. About 2:30 am (that’s the crack of dawn morning in case you didn’t catch that) Rae and I headed out to Transition One (T1) to check in my bike and get my area all set up for when I come out of the swim. We stayed overnight at Millers Landing where the start of the swim happens, and therefore were able to drive back to the start of the race instead of taking the “athletes only” bus. Once back from setting up T1, I took my time getting dressed and ready for the swim. Around 4:20 am I headed out of the camper and what a surprise, there were our friends Jess, Paul and Bella the dog! They walked with me to the start, said a short prayer for me, and after the national anthem and a few hugs, I walked towards the water.
Walking towards the water to the start of the Alaskaman was so surreal. So many months and months of preparation with endless early morning workouts, and here we were, minutes away from such an extreme race. I remember walking by a fellow racer, and noticing how emotional and panic-stricken their face looked. I took a few seconds and quietly prayed for comfort and strength for them.
The swim was an in-water start. Once I had walked out to where we would start in the water, I needed to readjust my goggles so I submerged myself in the cold water of Resurrection Bay. It was time. Time to focus and remember the reason why I was doing this: water for everyone in Ethiopia.
from the start of the race; the red glare is the reflection of the start flare going off
The scene is hard to describe with words. The sun had not yet come out. On one side of Resurrection Bay the mountains were covered with fog and there was some remaining snow on the alpine section, on the other side, a vast water met with more mountains covered with snow at a distance.
The gun went off and away we go. After about 10 strokes I noticed a guy walking next to me so I stood up. The tide was out and we were clearly swimming in some very shallow water. I walked for about 20 steps until the water was covering my chest, then began to swim again. Overall, the swim went pretty smooth. The water temperature was about 54F, calm and dark; I could not see my hands underwater. At times my face felt cold and I came to find out later that around the waterfall the temperature dropped to about 44F. That is cold my friends! As I was getting close to town (and closer to the boat docks), waves from the boats leaving the docks began to pick up in strength and consistency, making the swim more challenging. I felt dizzy a few times but was able to push through. Once I saw the swim exit, it simply became a matter of kicking harder to get the blood flowing faster in the legs and get the heart rate pumping.
Now, to be clear and keep the record straight, multiple swimmers either saw or touched seal lions and porpoises that were swimming around or underneath them; as well, many heard sonar like noises (most likely whales talking to each other!!) Just the thought makes me shudder.
I reached the swim exit and got out of the water, thanks to the help of volunteers. Then, there she was, my rock star, my lady, my biggest supporter, the love of my life, Rachel!!! We began the walk towards T1 and Rae started helping me get undressed; gloves off, cap off, etc. I remember feeling so good that I wanted to stretch my legs with a little run, so I went for it and ran all the way to T1. On the way, I saw my girls and our awesome friend Joelle, who helped so much this weekend. Once in T1, I had some warm chicken soup, a few sips of water, got dressed fairly quickly and to the bike I went.
getting ready for the bike in T1
The bike course was long, 114 miles with about 4,600 feet of elevation gain. Previous to race day, I had practiced on the actual course twice and both times there was a nasty head wind. Coming into race day, I was very concerned about this part of the race because of my few difficult training rides. If conditions were going to be like that, I was in for the longest, most difficult ride to date! Thankfully, the first portion of the bike did not have a head wind (whew), however, to keep things interesting and keep us cyclists from relaxing, it had a dense fog that made it a challenge to see what was ahead. To top it off, that weekend was opening day for salmon fishing. As you can imagine, there were lots of vehicles out on the road. So no nasty head wind, just dense fog you can’t see in and lots of vehicles on the road who can’t see the little Colombian riding his bicycle.
Starting out on the bike, the only part of my body that was cold were my toes and they quickly warmed up. For the first 10 miles, I decided to pedal easy and spotted my friend Donna at a distance. I wanted to stay behind her until I could tell she was doing good. Earlier in T1, I could tell the cold swim had taken its toll on her, yet as the good champion she is, she got on her bike despite the challenging water temp. We had met on the AKXTRI support Facebook page and, with her husband and our girls, we got together a few weeks before the race to go swimming in Portage Lake (by Portage Glacier, water temperature was in the low 40’s and giant pieces of glacier ice were our friends in the water). We also did the last 10 miles of the course in Alyeska, the mountain portion. Donna and Larry came from a warm state to do this race and getting some cold water practice was important. They also came to the valley to visit with our family and a few of our church locations. They are such wonderful people and we are so glad our paths crossed, thanks to the Alaskaman.
our new friend Donna, at the social swim
Around mile 35 the fog cleared out and the sun came out in full force. During one of my planned stops, mile 56, I peeled off my jacket and had only my triathlon kit. It was hot. My crew, led by my wife and included my dog Poncho, did a superb job all day long; every stop went according to plan. We nailed my hydration, nutrition and I kept my heart rate around 135 bpm up to that point. I felt good. The climbing portion of the bike went smooth as well and I am grateful I did not suffer any flats or bike issues. A short yet furious downhill portion was as scary as you can imagine with a very sandy road shoulder, side wind and cars passing inches away from you at high-speed. By the time I came to the last 40 miles of the bike the wind had picked up head on making it very hard to keep pace. I decided to ease up my pace to not waste too much energy, which probably cost me some time but I decided not to fight it (the wind) too much. With about a mile left to Transition Two (T2), I was changing gears when my chain came off. I had to stop to fix it but it wasn’t too bad; just a good reminder how quickly anything can change. Approaching T2 I could hear the crowds being so loud, and as I got closer and closer, I realized the loud crazy crowds were actually my friends and family that came in full force to support me! I saw so many Team World Vision jerseys, flags and just a whole lot of orange. It was so wonderful and refreshing to see and hear my friends; what a huge difference it made.
Rolling into T2, my run/mountain crew were ready to go. I had two guys ready to do the last 27.5 miles with me; a marathon and then some. Dr. Jimmy, a rockstar guy, also a ranked World Championship Spartan Man, wanted to join me for the whole 27.5 miles and so he did. T2 change over from bike to run went smooth and before long, Jimmy and I were headed out for the final portion of the Alaskaman: the run. The first 5 miles went smooth. We were averaging a 9 minute mile pace and running on asphalt. The sun was out making it probably the hottest day of the year so far, or at least it felt like it. By the time we reached the Nordic Loop, about 11 miles in after running a long gravel road, through a beautiful wooded path, and across the tram river crossing, my body started showing signs of exhaustion. That Nordic Loop was horrible; it truly felt uphill both directions on the loop. Jimmy encouraged me to walk the uphill and jog the downhills, so we did as did everyone else I saw. We came really close to a mamma moose and her calf on that loop. As well, my first issue with nutrition came up: I could not find my salt tablets in my vest (turns out they were just in a different pocket; maybe the 124 miles had something to do with me not finding them). So for about 14 miles I did not have any electrolyte intake and I paid for it very soon. My right hamstring was getting very tight so Jimmy gave me three options: drink vinegar, mustard or pickle juice. For real Jimmy? All options sounded horrible but if I had to choose, pickle juice was the winner. Jimmy called Rae and asked her to get some pickle juice ready before we headed up the mountain. After the Nordic Loop my legs came back and we were joined by Chet who was riding his bicycle by the Alyeska Resort. Chet is one of my awesome friends that showed up with his family to support me race day. Onward we ran to T2 with no issues.
Jimmy and myself about 7 miles into the run portion
Let me mention that at this point of the race, I had a good amount of time to spare; I had accumulated 45 minutes from the swim and 30 minutes from the bike, which put me over an hour ahead of schedule, a nice cushion. Why did having that extra time matter? Well, you see, less than a month from race day the race director informed us that they had decided to add another exciting part to the race: time cutoffs in order to finish the “upper course”. If you could beat those cut offs (which the swim, bike, and run all had), then, if you had made it this far, you were allowed to finish the upper mountain course for the awesome orange finisher jersey that every single competitor coveted. If you did not beat the cut offs, thankfully you were still able to finish the race on a “lower course”. So having some extra time mattered in my book.
getting ready in T2; 17.5 miles down, 10 miles to go up and down a mountain, twice
We arrived at T2 and I took my time, changing socks and eating some soup. My own personal Dr. Jimmy worked on my hamstring, while my other rock star mountain crew member, who would join us for the last 10 miles and who happens to have climbed Mt Denali multiple times (the tallest peak in North America), the formidable Sergeant Dave, worked on a blister developing on my left foot. My friend, fellow co-worker, and personal PA (just kidding) Mike, who showed up to support and help, and retrieved the disgusting pickle juice, talked with me about hydration and nutrition. This guy also drove over 200 miles to help us with our camper so that Rae could focus on the bike course without pulling it. What a rock star! After making sure I was hydrated (yes I drank the pickle juice) and had my mountain gear, we (Jimmy, Dave and myself) proceeded to have our vest/bags checked with all the mandatory items at the mountain check point.
Dr Jimmy and Sergeant Dave (I just like saying that!)
Before I go on I have to mention the amount of support I had all day, even into the late day. I am so grateful for each one of these guys that was there to support me race day and for everyone that came to cheer me on! I know everyone couldn’t stay but there were still so many that were still hanging out, supporting and cheering. What a memory!!! (I found out after the race that I had the largest and loudest cheer squad, so much that the race announcer took notice of the group, wondered what the deal was, which opened the door for our friend Joelle to share with him all about fundraising for clean water in Ethiopia!)
Reverend Physician Assistant Mike (he doesn’t really have people call him that)
The mountain is majestic. It is also in your face, freakish and hard. I felt really good all the way up, even though at that point my body already had over 133+ miles of effort on it. By the time we summited the first time (yes there is a first time AND a second time) we realized we were in excellent shape to finish the race in regulation time and able to take the upper route. The downhill was very challenging, more so than the uphill for my knees were tender. It is a steep incline and decent so either you commit or you come to a stop. On our way down, we came across a bear with two cubs. The Alyeska Resort employees were already there trying to move the animals away from our path with a pickup truck and were successful by the time we got close. At the bottom, right before the last check point before heading into the last ascent up the mountain, we were greeted by Rae, Esperanza, Dixie (our cheer station captain) and Joelle. I wasn’t expecting to see them there so it was a nice surprise before the final climb. After a short stop we were on our way, I think, with sixty minutes to spare before the cut off for the upper route. By this point, tracking time was all blurred and not registering. The second climb was challenging but again, I felt really good keeping a solid pace. I noticed we passed several people on both uphills. Reaching the top one final time with Jimmy and Dave was a spectacular feeling, coming this far and knowing there was less than 2 miles downhill to the very end.
I cried quietly several times, secretly of course, not out of pain but out of gratitude and sheer joy. I thanked God for this incredible journey, for the generosity of friends, family, even strangers who showed their support through giving financially, of their time and their talents. I found myself hearing the words, “well done my faithful servant”. I thought often on that final descent of all the children and families that will benefit from our team effort. It kept me going.
At times it was hard to jog the downhill but I knew I wanted to attack the last portion and reminded my body that the power of the mind is stronger. So we did, we ran for a bit. I believe we passed two athletes and their crew on our way to the finish line. You could hear my amazing cheer crew cheering so loud. The first person I saw was my mate Luke holding a Team World Vision flag. Coming around the bend I saw the Epperson’s, Nyreen’s, Samuelson’s, Galloway’s, Dixie, Sanchez’s, and Herlog’s all cheering us on! Before crossing the finish line, I stopped and gave a hug to both Jimmy and Dave. I honestly could not have asked for a better support crew on the mountain and I wanted to thank them for being there with me. I can’t know for certain but I felt like we had lots of people running with us to the finish line, including my kids and their friends. At the finish line I picked up Rose and made sure Velda was close to me and together, with several friends, we crossed the finish line!!! It was finished.
I had so many things I wanted to say, so much on my mind, but no words to express. I remember so clearly seeing my wife, my biggest supporter, my love. I hugged her and thanked her for all her sacrifices to make this possible. We had been on Facebook Live throughout the day and she told me about all the people who were tracking us all day as well as here at the finish; people from Alaska, around the States and all over the world. I took the time to greet as many people as I could; I wanted to thank them for coming. Everything happened so quickly.
thank you to EVERYONE who showed up race day to cheer, there are more not pictured
We did it! Hallelujah! At the end of the race there were no medals, no Kona spots, no award except the experience, and WHAT AN EXPERIENCE IT WAS!
Thank you to everyone who donated, supported, prayed, encouraged, checked in, followed the journey and were part of this epic adventure. When I think about the whole adventure, this is what comes to mind:
“”Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11 ESV
the race director asked all the finishers to sign his trailer
These memories will live forever in my mind but the most important thing and the one I am forever grateful for is that as a team we reached $50,400 for water projects in Ethiopia!! That means over 1,008 people who did not have access to clean water will now benefit from our efforts. That is better than the shiniest, biggest, most coveted medal anyone could ever receive!
top of the mountain the next morning
[Thank you to Josh O’Donnell Photography and AKXTRI for these amazing pictures!]