For most people, a 5-kilometer run is an accomplishment, a 15-kilometer bike is a day’s exercise and a 750-meter swim in pitch black, 52-degree water is simply a nightmare. For a group of 18 athletes who’ve been meeting at the University of Alaska Southeast biweekly, this is all in a day’s work.
For the past three weeks, Jamie Bursell has been running a camp preparing athletes for the Aug. 6 Aukeman Triathlon at Auke Lake. Bursell’s camp gathered for a two-event “block” on Tuesday, completing the swim and bike portions of the race as part of their dress rehearsals for the Aukeman.
Billed as a “sprint triathlon”, the Aukeman asks competitors to swim 750 meters in Auke Lake, bike 15 kilometers to the glacier and back and finish with a 5K run down Auke Lake Trail.
To the aerobic phobic, a triathlon resembles torture, but to Ironman triathlon competitor John Bursell, who played lifeguard at Tuesday’s practice, the allure is in the challenge.
“People do them for all different reasons. A lot of people just see it as a challenge to do a big event that takes a lot of training and is really hard, something you have to build yourself up to,” John Bursell said. “I was one of those kids who saw the Ironman triathlon on the ‘Wide World of Sports’ with all the drama and the early finishers collapsing on the finish line and I thought: One of these days, when I get older, I want to do something like that.”
For Melanie White, who emerged from Auke Lake before the rest of the camp, the swim is the hardest part. “It’s so congested and I don’t like that part. I love to swim but you can just get clobbered with so many people next to you and in front of you. I love swimming in the lake much better than the pool though.”
Safety on the lake is the most important factor, and Tuesday the group suited up with buoys and brightly colored swim caps, staying on the shore side of the swim markers. Jamie Bursell said that for most people, the swim is the “limiting factor” in the race. The characteristic darkness of Auke Lake doesn’t make it any easier, John Bursell added.
“Almost everybody I talk to says that when you first get into the lake and start swimming, you freak out a little bit because you can’t see what’s below you or around you. I felt the same way when I first started. I was cold, but after a while you get used to it,” he said.
The Bursells have a combined 18 years experience in triathlons. John, a local physician, has done 16 full and six half-distance Ironman triathlons (an Ironman race is of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile run); Jamie, a member of the city council, has competed in two full and more than a dozen half-distance Ironman triathlons. John qualified for the Hawaii-based Ironman World Championships Oct. 8.
Working yourself up to a full Ironman takes at least three years of dedication, Jamie Bursell said. A core group of Juneauites has reached that accomplishment and more are working their way up the ladder from sprint distance, to olympic distance (0.93-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike and a 6.2-mile run), half Ironman and full Ironman.
Jamie Bursell runs fall and spring triathlon camps both primarily indoors through her training company High Cadence Triathlon Training. Spring camps run twice a week from January to April while fall camps are October through December.
She says the Aukeman group has been particularly supportive and fun to work with.
“This is an awesome group of people who all have the same goal of improving their triathlon experience and that’s really what the camp is about, the experience. I encourage a lot of camaraderie,” Jamie Bursell said. “People that come into it make long-term friends and I encourage people to reach out and make connections. This group is really following that.”