Alex Whetman, suffering leg cramps and numb hands moments after winning the inaugural Ironman Alaska in Juneau on Sunday, found something sufficient to divert his attention a minute or so later while in the midst of explaining his victory to the surrounding cameras and voice recorders.
“That’s the third bald eagle I’ve ever seen,” he said, breaking off his recap of the race mid-sentence at the finish line at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Such unique elements, including Southeast Alaska Natives in canoes on Auke Lake as swimmers began the race at 6:30 a.m. and chanting with drums to welcome late-night finishers, helped more than 700 finishing participants to the first of three scheduled annual Ironman races in Juneau. Temperatures mostly in the 50s and intermittent rain also added an extra challenge to the racers swimming 1.2 miles (instead of 2.4, due to the lake’s 56-degree water), bicycling 112 miles and running 26.2 miles.
“As you can see we wanted you to have the full benefit of a rainforest,” Rosita Kaaháni Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, told participants reacting with laughter during a welcoming ceremony Friday night as heavy rain fell on Centennial Hall where they were gathered. She assured them “science today has recognized the health benefits of cold water immersion” as historically practiced by the tribes’ “strong men” for thousands of years and they also did plenty of running, although she conceded “our young men did not have bicycles.”
Whetman, a Salt Lake City resident participating in his fifth Iron Man, finished with a time of 9 hours, 11 minutes and 17 seconds, more than 12 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. Race officials said winners often finish the endurance race in about eight hours, but the cool day and uneven terrain made for a slow course.
The winner slowed to a walk as he neared the finish line and immediately collapsed upon crossing it with leg cramps, with his wife Kendall and a handful of racing officials immediately rushing up to offer what aid they could. A couple of minutes later he regained his feet and, during a brief interview with “Voice of the Ironman” Mike Reilly, said the most difficult part of the race was between mile 20 and 40 of the bicycling course, when his chilled hands were unable to squeeze his liquid bottles.
“It would have been so easy to just stop and quit,” Whetman said.
Things got a bit brighter as he progressed, seeing his first sunlight since Thursday from one of the bays he passed on the circuit he had to pedal twice. But he was feeling the chill again when he started the marathon.
“My hands stopped working,” he said during an interview after collecting his medal and finisher’s shirt. “The first mile my legs were like stumps.”
Whetman said despite the struggles that saw his per-mile pace slow considerably during the run “this is by far the best marathon I’ve ever run.” He said the bicycling portion is his strongest of the three events, so the chilly early-morning swim in Auke Lake seemed like it would be the most formidable challenge.
“Swimming is my weakness so the short swim played in my favor,” he said.
Soaking up Southeast’s spirit
Staging the Ironman in Juneau for the first time meant plenty of logistical challenges before the race such as some guest lodging being fully booked many months in advance, as well as impromptu arrangements during the race itself. But participants and officials in the event projected to generate $7 million in revenue generally offered warm and sunny praise for their encounters on and off the course.
“It’s a great crowd out there in the pouring rain,” said Liz Cullen of West Vancouver, who was the top woman’s finisher with a time of 10:23:03. “Juneau, you are an absolute blast.”
This is Cullen’s fourth Ironman, but the first in seven years and she said the unique first-time location was part of the allure. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest “this climate suits me better than some others,” she said.
The bumpy cycling course stretching from Auke Lake to “the end of the road” north of town (with racers required to pedal the route twice) was challenging, but she said the gentler curving marathon route and a strong start to the day helped her achieve a winning finish.
“I just executed really well early,” she said.
The fastest Juneau resident was Will Coleman, an engineer with the state of Alaska, with a time of 10:03:24, placing him 14th overall. A prolific cyclist whose many victories include the 13.2-mile Juneau Freewheelers Bicycle Club North Douglas Time Trial in June, he followed that up by winning his first triathlon ever at the Sourdough Triathlon in Fairbanks on July 16 as his “trial run” for Ironman.
Coleman said the biking portion of the race over familiar roads went well — and without feeling the chill many outsiders did — because “it’s kind of nice I knew where the trouble spots are.” But when a friend talked him into doing the race a year ago it meant starting to run long distances again, and “I started learning how to swim (competitively) in November.”
But his fastest finish among Juneau residents was marred by a couple of clouds, including another local getting announcer credit from Reilly as the first Juneauite to cross the finish line — which technically was true because starting times for racers were staggered and Coleman’s “rival” got off to an earlier start. The more painful setback was Coleman said he suffered what appears to be a stress fracture, which means while he might qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October due to his top-three finish in the 35-39 age group, he won’t be going there this fall.
“I intend to get there at some point,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”
The “first” local resident to cross the finish line was John Bursell, 58, a veteran of more than 20 Ironman races, with a time of 10:13:20. Bursell, a sports medicine doctor with more than 30 years of experience who has lived in Juneau with his family since 1996, said he wasn’t bothered by the cold and wet conditions on his home turf.
“Auke Lake is just a great swim,” he said. “The water’s clean…The water was cold at first, then got warmer toward the middle, and that’s how it’s been the past few days.”
Beyond that he said the biggest challenge might have been the collective energy from other racers.
“It was hard to keep things under control so I didn’t go fast,” he said. Still, compared to his other races he called his finish “a really good time for this course, I’m really happy with it.”
Bethany Collin with a time of 11:28:32 finishing as the top Juneau woman. Among other local racers, City Finance Director Jeff Rogers finished with a time of 14:22:22 and Juneau’s High Cadence Triathlon Team finished as the top club on the Triclub podium with 24,471 points. The team includes around 60 Juneau and Southeast Alaska athletes who participated in the triathlon on Sunday, led by four-time Ironman finisher and Juneau resident Jamie Bursell, whose husband John was the “first” local finisher (she was also who talked Coleman, the “real” local winner, into participating).
Endurance victories for volunteers
Also rising to the formidable challenge were about 1,400 volunteers sporting neon green shirts at points across the three legs of the course, cheering and handing necessities to race participants.
“You have to work hard to get one of these shirts, but it’s just time,” said Karen Lawter, a Juneau resident volunteering to collect tracking chips from finishing runners and quickly escorting them to recovery areas so they didn’t impede others crossing behind them.
Plenty of family and friends of racers offered their support, including a high percentage from elsewhere making the trip to share in a novel Last Frontier experience. For Rachel Gregstoot of Lafayette, Indiana, that meant volunteering to be a “wetsuit peeler” (all swimmers had to wear them since the water was below 60 degrees) while her husband began the race and then helping another participants from her hometown to a first aid tent when he emerged from the water with hypothermia.
Gregstoot said she was planning to compete herself until suffering a stress fracture in her foot and, while they keep vowing each Ironman race will be their last, she’s certain they will do more even if it’s not necessarily one of the two future races in Juneau.
“We look to travel all over,” she said. “We look to do places we haven’t been. Alaska was on our bucket list.”
Reilly, whose boisterous announcing voice rang out throughout the race in its own show of endurance, did his best to keep the crowd within hearing range lively.
“Do your part as Ironman spectators by going home with sore hands and sore throats,” he urged as Whetman got within several hundred yards of his victorious finish.
Numerous local notables also contributed in numerous ways. Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon and Travel Juneau President Liz Perry held up the victory ribbon for Whetman as he crossed the finish line. Those at the opening ceremony saw it begin with a 20-minute performance by the Has Du Eetíx’ X’aakeidíx Haa Sitee dance group, and the drummers at the finish line late into Saturday night added vibe to the mostly lively celebratory portion of the evening.
General registration for 2023 Ironman Alaska opens Aug. 15.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.