Overcoming Challenges: Alaskaman — The Run (27 Miles)
July 15, 2017: I completed the inaugural Alaskaman, an extreme triathlon and the hardest single-day race of its kind. This race is so formidable that roughly half of the initial field of entrants never crossed the finish line. I spent a year in training to prepare for the race and as much as I learned about myself during that process, I discovered even more while completing the courses on race day. Finishing the Alaskaman taught me a great deal about overcoming challenges, and the lessons learned while struggling towards the finish line have changed my life in every way.
Before we get into the specific challenges of the running portion during Alaskaman, let’s talk about my experience with competitive running before going into the race. In my biased opinion, running is a lifesaving skill; you run when something lethal is chasing you. Even then, you only need to outrun one person, so what is the point of striving to become a fast runner? I became a competitive swimmer in part because I loathe running! Before training for this race, you were never going to find me ‘going for a run’; I would rather put bamboo shoots under my fingernails. My limited racing experience in competitive running included a few sprint triathlons, an intermediate distance triathlon, a couple of municipal relay appearances, and one disastrous half marathon in which I all but crawled during the last three miles. I must have forgotten how much I hate running during the fifteen minutes it took me to register for the race, and if I had known how much the run would challenge me I might not have signed up at all. Completing the Alaskaman was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and the obstacles presented by the run course nearly prevented me from seeing the finisher’s arch.
Transition zone two and the challenges of the run are the clearest to me out of everything I experienced on race day. I don’t know if it is because it was the last thing we conquered, or if it because it was so arduous, but every agonizing moment is still fresh in my mind. As I made the turn off the highway and prepared to dismount, the anticipation over whether I would be able to make my legs work was unbearable. They did what they were supposed to, however, even though I could not feel them, and I sat down hard in a move that was more accidental than intentional after getting my bike on the rack. Dust from the gravel parking lot was thick in the air and it coated the inside of my mouth which was already dry from so many miles of biking. After pulling my bike shoes off and lacing up my running shoes, I hobbled over to the final checkpoint before setting off on the run. There was a man standing at the edge of the parking lot with a spray bottle of bug dope and a spray bottle of sunscreen; he saved my life for spraying me down twice with sunscreen because I would have been burnt to a crispy critter otherwise, and the bug dope was a good idea too. Both stung the wicked wetsuit burns on my neck, but it would have been far worse to go without. Fortified with one last peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it was time to hit the road; the next 27 miles were brutal, and the challenges were many. First, there was the injury; six weeks before race day a dull, nagging pain in my left leg became an unbearable and constant presence. Second, there was the sheer distance of the race; it was fourteen miles farther than I had ever raced on foot in my life. Last, there was the unforgettable detail that the last seven miles of the race included a double summit of Mount Alyeska. Crossing the finish line after refusing to quit during the run, even when I wanted to, was perhaps the most lifechanging part of the whole Alaskaman experience.
My left leg has always given me trouble; from hip to ankle and for as long as I can remember it has never felt right. I cannot link it back to any specific events from my childhood that might have left it with a permanent injury, but it has nagged me for years. In the six weeks leading up to the race, what used to be a dull ache became a sharp and persistent presence that I could no longer ignore. A trip to the doctor that I dreaded and delayed for far too long confirmed that the injuries to the leg were many, and all of them were serious. Without going into all the details, let’s just say that my hip does not stay where it is supposed to, the tendons in my leg are too tight, my kneecap does not move or groove the way it should, and my ankle swells in protest because everything else above it is being stupid. My doctor did not say I should withdraw from the race, but she did mention it might make the run difficult; in hindsight, that was an understatement. Sometimes the leg bothered me during my rides too, so I was encouraged to arrive at the end of the bike without any discomfort. I was even more ecstatic when the first ten miles flew by with relatively little distress. After that, it was all downhill, and then it was uphill, and then some more downhill, and then some uphill again, and all of that was unbearable with a leg that was excruciating with every step. Come to think of it, that would have felt awful even if I was healthy. I learned several things about myself as I battled through the pain that would have been normal for that race, and the pain that was unique to my experience because my left leg was committing mutiny, and the most important thing I learned was that your body can handle far more than you think it can. I have been saying this on repeat since finishing the race, and I am sure the athletes I coach are tired of hearing it by now. It is so true though; when your body is screaming at you and begging you to give it up and preserve yourself, don’t listen. Your body can handle more than you think it can, and more than it thinks it can, and whatever it is you are holding out for will be worth it in the end.
Before training for a race like Alaskaman, you have a different perspective of what qualifies as a long way. Maybe five miles is a long way, or ten, or maybe even fifteen miles is a long way. If this is true for you, twenty-seven miles on foot is an insurmountable distance. I have never been one of those people who gets lost in the process of a workout either, even in something I love like swimming; when I run, I am painfully aware of every single tenth of a mile. Even so, the first handful of miles were uneventful, and I was surprised at how easily they flew by. But as the miles racked up, so too did the baggage that came with the passage of those miles. Miles one through ten earned me several impressive blisters that only got worse as the race wore on. Miles ten through fifteen saw the onset of dehydration and the first of many moments during the run where I cried just because there was no other way to deal with what I was feeling. Miles fifteen through twenty brought on the first stage of the delirium I had heard about that kicks your butt at some point during your first long triathlon, and miles twenty through twenty-seven were the miles that ate my sanity for breakfast. By the time I staggered across the finish line, I hardly knew myself. What I learned from the challenge of conquering an additional twenty-seven miles after racing more than a hundred miles already is this: life comes at you in stages, and each new stage is going to hit you with a plot twist that will leave you feeling unprepared. What the race taught me is that you can adapt on the spot in amazing ways when you find yourself under pressure, and if you just keep moving forward, you can figure it out as you go along. Don’t let the minutiae of the miles dragging on pin you down; look for the opportunities to give yourself a boost as the difficulties ebb and flow, and you will grow stronger with every step.
One week after Alaskaman, one of my dearest friends got married at a place called Crow Creek Mine, which is several miles up a winding road from the base of Mount Alyeska. To get to her wedding venue, I had to drive along the Alyeska Highway, staring right up at the mountain that broke me at least twice. Suddenly, I was overcome by a surge of emotion, and I could not help but think, “fuck you mountain.” I was so furious that I think I said it out loud, and I may have even pounded on the steering wheel a little bit. It was only one week out from race day: my feet were still covered in blisters, and walking up any flights of stairs was still something I had to give myself a pep talk to accomplish. Despite my lingering rage at the impossible difficulties presented by the last seven miles of the race and all the ways in which they destroyed me, I know in my heart that the strongest things must be broken down before they can be built back up into something more magnificent.
To start the mountain portion of the run, we had to pass a medical check at the bottom of the first ascent; I am glad they did not know to check my leg, because if they had they would not have let me finish. After that, I almost wished they had told me to stop. Ascent number one had no switchbacks, and it climbed to the highest point on the mountain you could reach without using climbing gear. Some portions were so steep that you would take five steps and stop to catch your breath for what felt like forever. All the way up, the trail was littered with the failing bodies of people who were suffering the same delirium, pain, and fatigue that I was. It was inspiring to see each one of them: even if they sat down, they always got back up again and kept going. More than once I found myself thinking that if they could do it then I could do it too. Reaching the top of the mountain the first time brought more tears then I can speak of, but the view from that vantage point was breathtaking.
Aside from the scenery, what is the best thing about hiking to the top of a tall mountain? It is the downhill, of course! But not during the Alaskaman. On legs that were already shot, the descent was as bad as the first ascent. Every step on my left leg was torture, and to judge from the experiences of those around me, it would have been awful even if I was otherwise healthy. We were running out of time as well with the finishers cutoff drawing closer with each passing minute. After coming all the way to the bottom of the mountain, nearly to the back door of the resort, it was time to turn around and go back up again, and I did not know if I could do it.
Our second ascent of the mountain took us up a portion of the terrain known as the North Face. Alyeska is a world class ski resort, and this part of the mountain is legendary for demolishing even the best skiers who attempt to tackle its trails. After having raced up it in the last two miles of the Alaskaman, I can say with surety that it is not any more forgiving to people who are on foot. Once the terrain started to get steep, I found myself fighting the urge to sit down and just stay there. Everything hurt, my balance was out the window, I was fighting to keep my eyes open, and the top of the mountain where the finisher’s arch waited was just so far away. Furthermore, there were railroad trestle stairs as high as my thighs and mosquitos as big as small birds to contend with. People began to drop like flies at this point in the race, and one person behind me on the trail even had a major medical emergency. But as the trees thinned out and the arch remained in my line of sight with each switchback, the dream of finishing the inaugural Alaskaman came to fruition; if I wasn’t so dehydrated at that point I know I would have cried my first happy tears of the day.
As I stumbled up the mountain, and down the mountain, and then back up the mountain, I remember asking my support runner repeatedly how much time we had left. I kept telling him, and anyone else that would listen, that I wanted to finish that race in the time limit so bad. Because of the injury and how it had challenged me in the running portion, I had eaten up almost all the lead afforded me by a stellar swim and a strong bike. I was running out of time, and after coming so far and through so much pain, I could not stand the thought of walking away without my name on the finisher’s list. My support runner is the most patient, wonderful person I have ever met in my entire life. Each time I asked how much time we had left, he would dutifully respond. I would tell him that I wanted to finish that race so bad, and he would tell me that he was more worried about my leg, and to just take it one step at a time and we would get there when we got there. Even when a massive mosquito flew up his nose and left me in an exhausted state of giggles for the remaining portion of the mountain, he was resolute and motivational. With his help I crossed the finish line before the race closed and stumbled into the arms of family and friends who had been with me throughout my year of training and we probably as happy to see me finish as I was to have gotten there. In the days after Alaskaman, I realized that the last ascent up Alyeska taught me the most valuable thing I learned from that race, and that is that if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen. No matter what challenges you face, you will figure out how to overcome them if the end goal is important to you. As I tripped and fell over one step after another on the inappropriately named portion of the North Face trail called “Stairway to Heaven”, there was nothing more important to me than finishing that race, and I know now that if I set my mind to a goal that is important to me, I will do anything in my power, and even some things that don’t seem to be in my power at all, to make my dreams come true.
My left leg is still in rehab from Alaskaman; some days are better than others, but for the most part it has begun to heal. Running is not an option right now, but as you can imagine I am not too heartbroken about that. At this point, I am happy to go on long, lazy walks with the dogs and limit my cardio to swimming and biking which thankfully don’t hurt much at all. Taking on this race with an injury taught me that my body is capable of more than I think it can handle, and that I should never underestimate my own strength. The sheer number of miles required to complete the last stage of the Alaskaman was daunting, but checking them off one at a time taught me to give myself little boosts of positive encouragement and motivation, and to keep from getting caught up in the minutia of the task at hand which always makes things seem more difficult than they are. Last, the double climb of Alyeska shattered all of me and threw the pieces into the wind. It took me weeks to find myself again after losing it all on that mountain, but to struggle under those conditions taught me that if you want something bad enough you will find a way. Even now when I look up at Mount Alyeska I am in awe of what I accomplished, and what so many other racers accomplished as well. We are all out of our minds, and I am so proud of every one of us; we are amazing.