I met my first Ironman contestant four days before race day. He was shopping in Superbear. I spotted his bright blue and red backpack with the Ironman logo, welcomed him, and asked a few questions. He’d come from Las Vegas. Never been to Juneau. I met his son, another racer, from Portland outside the store. They inspired me to check out the Ironman Village, a temporary registration and merchandising venue, in Thunder Mountain High School.
I knew very little about the triathlon other than local publicity for over a year that Juneau would be the first Alaska Ironman destination. Not being an athlete, I didn’t think there was much involvement for me. I was definitively wrong about that assumption.
Now, weeks later, I am still buoyed from witnessing hundreds of dedicated, strong competitors swim, bike, and run for miles and hours. Watching them up close turned me from a wowed spectator to an enthusiastic supporter and proud host.
Logistics for the race focused on the University of Alaska Southeast campus as race headquarters. The UAS staff and TravelJuneau provided behind-the-scenes organizing. With Ironman guidance, the campus transformed into Auke Lake swimmers’ starts, finishes, and changing tents. This is where triathletes collected and returned their bikes, and swapped cycling shoes for running shoes. This is where they triumphed at the finish line, a red carpet channel through crowds of fiercely cheering supporters. I was among them, celebrating their huge achievements.
While my place was at the dawn lakeshore swim and later on campus for the bike exchange and at the finish line, other Juneauites had set up tents and tables at planned intervals along the course and at their driveways to support the competitors. Neighbors waved signs and offered bottled water and loud encouragement. Locals directed traffic to ensure safe riding and running. Tlingit dancers and drummers bracketed the last runners as they lifted up the triathletes with song and spirit after hours of solo effort.
Since the August 7 race, I have been following the participant discussions on the Ironman Alaska FaceBook page. Reading comments that started as worry about getting bikes shipped here in time for the race, concerns about local housing and transportation, and familiarizing the race course have morphed into ebullient praise for our community.
Competitors were boosted, cheered, assisted, fed, enchanted, enthused, and supported by Juneau’s beauty, kindness, tour opportunities, shops, restaurants, and community spirit. They praised us for taking good care of them. We bolstered their lagging energy as they biked a double loop out the road to cover 112 miles and ran twice through Mendenhall Valley and Montana Creek for a 26.2 mile marathon. These persevering athletes finished hours later under the inflatable Ironman arch at the UAS campus, and heard their names called with the tagline, “You are an Ironman!”
They left us feeling awed. They left us feeling excited. They left us inspired to fitness. They gave us a new guest demographic to host. They appreciated our help. They gave hundreds of Juneauites the chance to don neon green “volunteer” T-shirts and be of service to the participants and their families.
Ironman was more than an international sporting event held in Juneau. It was an exuberant celebration after being separated from each other during COVID. It broke the grip of fear, loss, and isolation that held us apart since March, 2020. Outside in the rain and wind that Sunday, we felt protected from sharing and receiving the virus. We reconnected with big smiles and happy voices. It was like the Fourth of July without beer and fireworks but with incredibly dedicated athletes to cheer.
In a town where “perseverance” has a strong history, these amazing athletes give the word new meaning. I look forward to seeing them next year!
For what they gave us, Juneau was definitely the big winner in Ironman.
• Laurie Ferguson Craig is a longtime Juneau artist and naturalist.