Featured, Outdoors, Sports

Alaskaman: How to Get 200 People in 54 Degree Water for 2+ Hours

by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
A spectator and an offshore Miller’s Landing boat both watch for the safety and progress of swimmers rounding the point in downtown Seward. Photo: Kelley Lane

This past Saturday, July 15th, Resurrection Bay lay cloaked in fog while nearly 200 swimmers made their way from Miller’s Landing to Seward’s Waterfront Park. These hearty athletes were participants in the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon, in its inaugural year. The course began with a 2.6 mile swim in Seward, followed by a 112 mile bike ride to Bird and a 27 mile run. The running course took runners from Bird back to Girdwood and then up and down Mount Alyeska- twice. 

The swimmers had brought their bikes to Waterfront Park earlier that morning, between 2:30 and 3:30 am, and then boarded shuttles to get out to Lowell Point. They were in the water and swimming by 4:30 am, starting from the boat launch ramp at Miller’s Landing. From there, they would cover a distance of 2.6 miles in 54 degree water, in order to return to their bikes and the enthusiasm of their spectators and their support teams. To ensure safety, swimmers were required to wear full wetsuits and bright orange swim caps with their race numbers emblazoned on them. They were, additionally, encouraged to wear insulated swim caps under the orange caps, and insulated swim booties. The bay was full of Miller’s Landing support boats and kayaks, spaced evenly over the swim course.

The Alaskaman race was the brainchild of Aaron Palaian, who regularly puts on endurance events in the Houston, Texas area. While racing the Norseman Triathlon event, he conceived of holding a similarly intense endurance race in Alaska and began doing his research. He first came to Seward only last summer, on the equivalent weekend of July, so that he could see for himself what traffic on the Seward Highway would be like for his race the coming year. Alaskans had told him that traffic would be crazy and he wanted to evaluate what that would mean for his race. He was grateful to find that what Alaskans consider crazy traffic was far less intense than what Houston experiences as rush hour twice every day.

A large crowd listening intently to Alaskaman race rules at the Friday afternoon race briefing held at Adams Street Pavilion. Photo: Kelley Lane

Participants in the event had been slowly trickling into Seward for the week prior to the race. The flow of world-class triathletes increased to a steady stream on Thursday afternoon, when packet pickup began at the Alaska Sea Life Center. Athletes checking in filled out paperwork, confirmed their identities and picked up their race bibs, bike and bike helmet stickers as well as vehicle support decals. The race is unique in that each participant was required to supply their own support team, including a vehicle to meet them along the bike section and a running pacer to accompany them on the final 7 mile double run of Mount Alyeska.

The night before the race, Palaian held a race briefing at the Adam’s Street Pavilion, to a crowd of hundreds, including athletes and their support teams. He explained all the finer details of the race and its logistics. He had brought along a speaker and microphone, which helped his calm and steady voice to be heard above the patter of steady rain. In his presentation, Palaian especially thanked Alaska Department of Transportation for their efficient response to race staff’s requests to clean the highway of gravel. “They did the whole race route in just one day,” he said, and crowd applause broke out, unsolicited. As the briefing continued, pit toilets were unloaded on the water side of the pavilion. Palaian talked about the variety of potential obstacles that participants might encounter, with special emphasis on wildlife, saying “If you have to wait for a train, or a bear or a moose – do that. You’re out here to have an experience.”

Swimmers walked about 400 meters to reach their bikes. Many participants were hypothermic and struggled to cover the distance. Photo: Kelley Lane

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On Saturday morning, swimmers began arriving at Seward’s Waterfront park just 75 minutes after getting in the water at Miller’s Landing, and continued streaming in for the next 75 minutes. Many of the swimmers came out of the water in various states of hypothermia. One hearty volunteer stayed in the water for the entire 90 minutes to assist swimmers as they came out of the water. He reached out his arms to them, sometimes needing to drag them onto their feet.

Once on land, the swimmers walked awkwardly and relied heavily on the physical support of their friends and family members. The last few swimmers did not make the 2.5 hour cut off for continuing the race. Some of them were permitted to continue the course, even though officially disqualified. Twelve participants were officially eliminated during the swim portion.

The swim to bike transition zone was located about 400 yards away, surrounding the Adams Street Pavilion. A table with hot coffee and gatorade was situated between the building and the numbered bike corrals. Family members and friends plied the frigid swimmers with warm foods and race gels and helped them pry themselves out of their wetsuits, swim caps and booties. Many of the swimmers had tears streaming down their cold, salty faces. Some of them were wracked by sobbing, both from relief and accomplishment.

City Manager Jim Hunt and his wife were on site taking photos. Hunt and the City of Seward had worked with Palaian as he planned the Alaskaman event. They both were eager to see things go well. The swim section was a new activity for Seward, as the town regularly hosts running and biking events. As the two men spoke, a participant was being cared for in the medical tent and other swimmers had been pulled from the water by the support boats. All the participants had been accounted for, though.

After the final swimmers came out of the water, one of the race volunteers approached Palaian. “When’s 2018, Aaron?” Palaian paused and then answered “I don’t know yet… let me get through today first.” The man responded “Make sure I get a spot for 2018!”

The 2018 Alaskaman race will be held on Saturday, July 21st. For more information and race results, please visit: http://www.akxtri.com

 

 

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