Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - On Sunday one of the hardest athletic events around the world will begin on the shores of Auke Lake in Juneau with a cannon blast that will signify the first official full IRONMAN race in Alaska.
And Juneau athletes have taken to the challenge.
Enduring sweat and pain and giving up family time, over 60 capital city triathletes signed up to complete 140.6 miles, taking on - in succession - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.
John Bursell, 58, has completed many endurance events, including over 20 IRONMAN races and qualified for and completed seven IRONMAN Kona World Championships, which Juneau’s IRONMAN Alaska is an age group qualifier for.
“I think this is a moderately challenging route,” Bursell said of the IRONMAN Alaska course. “Mostly the swim is easy, and going to be beautiful. The bike is hilly and with the chip seal, like 25 miles of new chip seal, that is going to add some resistance. It will be a little bit difficult but it won’t be the hardest IRONMAN course. However, it will be on the harder side of things.”
Jim Ustasiewski, 58, has completed 10 IRONMAN events, including in Arizona and IRONMAN Canada.
“In a way I feel like IRONMAN Alaska picked me,” he said. “I’ve been doing these full IRONMAN events for a while now. And I was kind of thinking that I was close to being done. You always have to travel thousands of miles to go someplace to do these and now that this was going to be here I can’t not do it. So I’m doing it.”
The swim course starts with a rolling start - athletes group together with those in their projected swim times. Previous IRONMAN mass starts took away from the athlete’s experience and hindered performance. Rolling starts allow equal opportunity. Each swimmer is given 2 1/2 hours to complete the swim after their race chip crosses the timing mat. The swim portion begins at the Auke Lake boat ramp and features two laps on a buoy course in the lake with a finish at the University of Alaska Southeast dock.
Athletes will have a short jog to the bike transition area. That jog, however, can be very difficult if the water is colder than anticipated. Swimmers’ hands will be numb, which will make stripping out of their wetsuits and into biking gear harder. Volunteer “strippers’’ will assist with wetsuit removal for many of the athletes coming out of the water.
Others like to remove their own gear, choosing to jog the roughly quarter of a mile in their wetsuit as a warm up for the next stage, the 112-mile bike.
Ustasiewski and Bursell noted the bike course will be daunting.
“Of course everybody right now is a little worried about the lake temperatures, it’s on the chilly side,” Ustasiewski said. “And that could affect us on race day for sure… but the thing that stands out to me is the bike course. There is no long super climb like in some races but there is just a continual up and down. There are only a few miles where it is flat and that’s significant because every time you go up hill your legs have to work harder. When your legs work harder your heart works harder and you are kind of tearing down the muscles in your legs, too. Usually what happens at these IRONMAN events is people have a hard time running because the bike wears their legs down, and I think that is going to happen here.”
The bike course leads out of UAS on Auke Lake Way, turns left onto Mendenhall Loop Road, veers right at the roundabout and heads north out Glacier Highway to roughly 2 1/2 miles past Echo Cove. Bikers then turn back south to near the Lena Loop ballfield before the ferry terminal for one lap, and repeat. On the second return they pass the ferry terminal, turn left at the roundabout to Mendenhall Loop Road and right at the second entrance to UAS at Auke Lake Way.
Racers then transition to the run.
The 26.2-mile run portion features Goat Hill, the Montana Creek gun range hill and another hill on Egan Drive coming back toward Auke Lake. The route involves two loops from UAS to Mendenhall Loop Road, Montana Creek Road and River Road that also hit the Kaxdiggwu Heen Dei Trail, Thunder Mountain High School track, Dimond Park, Industrial Boulevard, Glacier Highway and the UAS boat launch parking lot.
“Three main hills,” Bursell said. “Those hills are pretty manageable, except that one on Egan. I hate that thing.”
Weather makes the course a difficult IRONMAN.
“It may be a cold swim for most people,” Bursell said. “It will probably be cool and wet on the bike and so managing that on the bike is going to be the hard part I think.”
Athletes not used to cold wind and rain on the bike portion of an IRONMAN find it harder to focus on getting correct nutrition. Many don’t feel like eating and those that do can struggle with wet gloves to open nutrition packets or such.
“There is a tendency to not keep up with your nutrition,” Bursell noted. “That is going to be a challenge. Warming up from the swim and getting on a cold bike, with the wind chill of cycling, that will be hard for some people… and running after you bike 112 miles is always a difficult transition. Your muscles have to get used to working differently… the real challenge is not biking too hard so you can run…”
IRONMAN Alaska will have numerous aid and nutrition stations along the course, roughly 15 miles or less apart on the bike and run portions.
Over 90 other triathletes from other communities in Alaska also have dedicated hours in training to join the race that will total roughly 1,000 competitors.
Petersburg’s Tommy Thompson, 59, said he signed up for this IRONMAN because “it’s a ‘hometown’ race and with friends also competing it felt right. Triathlons are always better with your training partners and friends.”
Thompson has competed in at least five Olympic distance triathlons, seven 70.3s, two 140.6s and one Alaska Extreme Triathlon that included swimming in Resurrection Bay, biking from Seward to Girdwood and running up and down Mount Alyeska a few times. Juneau friends Bursell, Ustasiewski and Ryan Bischoff also did that event.
“I have been training 13 to 20 hours per week with one mandatory day off so it has been pretty full,” Thompson said. “I’m sure others have put in much more time but it’s what I could do to balance training, recovery and rest and the rest of life.”
Juneau’s Janice Sheufelt has won the Race Across America ultra-marathon cycling event - covering 3,000 miles from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, in under two weeks - not once but twice. First as part of a record-setting mixed duo and the second time solo.
“When IRONMAN Alaska was announced last August, the idea of a brand new, first-ever IRONMAN in Alaska was so exciting that I decided to sign up although I had never done any triathlon before,” Sheufelt said. “Learning to swim was very challenging and I Googled instructions for ‘learn how to swim for a triathlon,’ and the first step was ‘stand in the pool and put your face in the water!’ I have also been challenged by various running injuries and that hasn’t gone well at all so I’m planning to walk the whole IRONMAN marathon. But I should be able to do the bike segment! The training has been very eye opening, as doing the sports sequentially is very challenging from a fatigue and nutrition perspective. I’m just hoping to finish within the 17-hour time cutoff!”
Minnesota triathlete Randi Strunk, 40, is visually impaired. She has completed 10 triathlons and IRONMAN Alaska will be her third full distance IRONMAN.
“As a blind athlete I use a guide, one person throughout the whole race,” Strunk said. “In the swim portion we have a tether. It is really just a bungee cord we have wrapped around one of our thighs that connects us so we don’t swim away from each other. And then we do the bike portion on a tandem bike. And then for the run I have a tether that I just hold in my hand. And the guide will give me prompts for things like when to return on the swim course or when to turn on the swim course or she’ll tell me when she is shifting the bike, or on the run any turns or potholes or anything like that… my guide goes with whatever my pace is. As an athlete I dictate what that pace is. Obviously I have to find a guide who is faster than me on their worst day because I need them to still be able to talk and communicate, but really the blind athlete dictates the pace.”
Jennifer Gottschalk, 33, is an attorney for the IRONMAN organization. This will be her second full IRONMAN. The first was in Panama Beach, Florida. She completed three IRONMAN 70.3 triathlons in 2019 - in Ocean Side, California, and Denton, Michigan, where she qualified for the World Championships and competed in Nice, France - and another in 2020 at Panama Beach, Florida.
“It’s a bit different for me this year because I have a little one that was born nine months ago,” Gottschalk said. “So my training is not what it used to be.”
Gottschalk entered IRONMAN Alaska because her husband Devon, in healthcare construction, is originally from Naknek and the couple used to live in Palmer when son Maddox was born.
“He doesn’t compete in triathlons but he is the best sherpa I could ask for,” Gottschalk said of her husband. “I also chose to race IRONMAN Alaska because being one of the attorneys for IRONMAN I actually was able to draft the agreement with the hosts - the city of Juneau - and all that. When I knew we were going to do this event I just was like, ‘It’s back in Alaska where my husband is from, we lived there, an inaugural race for us, this is just calling to me, I have to do this race.’ When I crossed the finish line at my first full distance in 2019, instantly it became one of my top five moments of my life. It is so hard to explain how proud you feel about yourself, and all your hard work comes together. You get to just basically swim, bike and run that day in celebration of everything you did leading up to that day. I know it is probably going to be emotional in a different way this time because I didn’t expect it at the 70.3 earlier this year but I got emotional there and I think it was because knowing I was now doing it as a mom had a whole different feeling to it. I’m sure I’ll feel that extra this weekend now that I am doing the full distance. It is one of the coolest feelings ever.”
Gottschalk said her lawyer duties turn off when she puts the wetsuit on.
“But I can’t turn that part of my brain off,” she said. “All I see as I compete in our races is the sponsorship agreements as I run past course signage and activations… but for the most part it’s ‘Lawyer Jen Mode’ is off and ‘Athlete Jen Mode’ is on!”
Some athletes have deferred their entries to next year’s event, including Talkeetna’s Iditarod dog musher Dallas Seavey, 35, who said, “Unfortunately I won’t be making it to the race this year. Hope you all enjoy the race!”
Juneau’s Dan Robinson, 55, who has completed IRONMAN Arizona and multiple 70.3s, deferred his entry but will be on a paddle board volunteering.
“I just didn’t do the work to get ready because of a mix of laziness, lack of discipline and lack of humility,” Robinson said. “But I definitely wanted to support the race so deciding to volunteer was easy.”
And having volunteers and support cheers make the IRONMAN a community event.
“It’s a big relief to be finally done,” Ustasiewski said of crossing an IRONMAN finish line. “The hardest thing about these races is it just takes so long. You’re doing the same thing over and over and over again until you switch and do something else over and over and over again. It’s just grueling. You are not running as fast as you could run if you were just running, not as fast as you could bike if you were just biking or swimming… but just doing those things for those long distances, it is just an incredible feeling of accomplishment at the finish line.”
Said Bursell, “It has been really great to have been able to train on the course and to know every inch of it, especially the bike course, well. I think that is really valuable. And other than that it is just really cool to see all the other fellow IRONMAN athletes to be able to come and enjoy Juneau. It’s a beautiful place to visit, swim, and bike and run… It has been pretty cool to see how many people are interested in the event and know that it is going on and are wishing us luck and they are either going to go watch it or volunteer… the IRONMAN folks were really surprised with how much support they are getting from the community. It is often not like that.. so they are happy to be here.”
IRONMAN Alaska is an age group qualifier for the IRONMAN Kona World Championships. There are 45 Kona slots available. Each age group gets at least one slot. The rest of the slots are portioned according to how many participants are in each age group. Larger age groups get multiple slots, some smaller age groups just one.
Some participants have already qualified for Kona in other races this year.
Many locals, including Bursell, believe Justin Dorn is a favorite.
“He is in great shape,” Bursell said. “There are many world championship athletes in this event, some really fast people. I will be a ways back from the leaders. Justin will do great. He is in amazing shape. I’d like to see him up there duking it out with them…”
Justin Dorn, 39, has completed two half IRONMAN races, both in St. George, Utah, in 2021, one of which he qualified for world championship entry, the other was the world championship race. He has also completed a number of sprint and Olympic triathlon distances. His wife, Eliza, 38, is also competing.
“I have wanted to try a full IRONMAN distance for a while and when I found out this one was coming to Juneau I thought I wouldn’t get a better or more easily accessible opportunity,” Justin Dorn said. “Training has been a lot, especially with Eliza training as well. Lots of early morning, and help from our family to watch the kids while we train. IRONMAN is a pretty intimidating event. I’ve never biked that far and have only run one marathon, so to put them together, with a 2.4 mile swim before it all, is a lot. As my dad keeps reminding me, ‘To finish this is an accomplishment in itself.’”
Eliza Dorn said, “This is my first IRONMAN and I chose it because it is here in Juneau. I was just really excited for Juneau to have a race.”
She grew up in Haines and was exposed to the Kluane bike race, the Buckwheat Ski Classic and the Klondike Road Relay. She was a cross-country and track athlete in high school. She did her first mini triathlon in junior high, has done sprint triathlons and completed a half Ironman this summer. She has not run a marathon before.
“We figured a big race coming to Juneau we had to try it,” she said. “The training has been challenging. With both of us trying to train and our kids pretty young it just has meant a lot of waking up very early. Just prioritizing that over everything else. Luckily COVID kind of helped with that as well because there was just less social things to do and less traveling so it was kind of our COVID project…”
“I hope that people coming here are prepared for the weather,” she said. “Because that can really just throw a hitch in your plans if you are not prepared. If you are ready for it and you embrace it then it is just kind of another long day in the ran. But if you are not quite ready for it then the bike can feel really long and cold… I hope people are able to just take a pause and appreciate, kind of, just the incredibleness of racing in this place. I mean, it is pretty astounding that we have an IRONMAN here. The weather will be what it is, but it is not supposed to be easy, and if we are all doing it then it can’t be that crazy… I imagine at the end there will be, for me, a big sense of relief. It’s been a lot of training. Just even making it to the end. And just gratitude. We were able to train because we have the support of family and friends here… just a culmination of all those hours and all those people that help you get you across the line that day, hopefully I will feel all that.”
Above - Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl speaks at the announcement of IRONMAN Alaska on Auke Lake last August. Behind Worl are Travel Juneau President/CEO Liz Perry, Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon and IRONMAN Regional Director Dave Christen. (Klas Stolpe/KINY)
Mike Reilly, the 'Voice of IRONMAN' has announced endurance events for 40 years, calling the names of all race finishers in over 200 IRONMAN races. His book "Finding My Voice" and his podcast "Find Your Finish Line" can be found at MikeReilly.net.