ANCHORAGE — They ran like ducks through slush, leaped over a downed tree, and skied on scary glare ice. But when they finished Alaska’s first attempt at a winter triathlon, most of the racers said they had a blast.
Trail conditions were a challenge and turned Sunday’s TriFlake race into a competition with skiing and running, but no biking. Organizers checked out the wind-whipped cycling course early on race morning, decided ice and open water made it too dangerous, and dropped the bike segment.
So what was planned as the Alaska TriFlake Winter Triathlon didn’t have enough winter and wasn’t a triathlon.
No matter. Dozens of tough Alaska athletes turned out for the race on Hillside trails and all but a few powered through for a 5-kilometer ski leg, a 5-K run, then another 5-K ski. That’s more than nine miles in all.
“It totally worked,” race director Lisa Keller said afterward. “We were glad everybody was so flexible with the change in plans.”
The temperature at one point registered in the low 50s — warmer than the norm for the 9 a.m. start of the Gold Nugget Triathlon in May, organizers said.
Many were eager to do it again, especially with a bike leg.
The men’s winner was 21-year-old Will Ross, a former high school skier who says cycling is now his thing.
“It was so icy on the skis!” Ross said after crossing the finish line in 55 minutes, 47 seconds.
Just 24 seconds behind him was second-place finisher Jason Lamoreaux, 32, who said he felt the effort of the race in his shoulders from double poling on the ice and slush.
The two were neck and neck after the first ski loop, but Lamoreaux, with quick cinch laces on his running shoes, got a head start on the second leg.
“I just couldn’t tie my shoes,” Ross said. Still, he picked some good ones — old track spikes that he bought secondhand years ago — and passed the cleatless Lamoreaux on the running course. The two train together for summer triathlons, so it was all fun.
Women’s race winner Heather Best, 33 of Fairbanks, was the only competitor from outside the Anchorage area. She’s a top national winter triathlon racer and was on the U.S. relay team that won the world championship in Norway last year. She finished in just over an hour, five minutes, a couple of minutes ahead of second-place finisher Kristy DeYong.
In Sunday’s race, Best said she had to concentrate hard during the ski leg because of the icy trail, making it a mental workout.
The run was more of a cardio challenge, she said. Some runners described that leg like a steeplechase, with slush and the downed spruce to negotiate.
Keller and other triathlon enthusiasts have been talking about putting on a winter race for years. Summer triathlons, with swimming, running and biking, are wildly popular in Alaska.
An official winter triathlon features running, biking and skiing legs, all on snow. Earlier Alaska winter races included running, skiing and swimming, and so didn’t meet the USA Triathlon requirements.
The TriFlake started at Service High School, in the lower soccer field at the bottom of the sledding hill. The transitions between each leg were there, too, giving spectators plenty to watch. The racers started in a mass, running through the slosh to their skis.
The competition included individual racers who signed up for all three legs as well as teams of two or three racers.
In all, 18 women and girls finished the whole race, as did 17 men and boys. And at least a couple dozen more participated on nine teams.
The youngest racers were 12 and the oldest was 63. One celebrated her 50th birthday on the course.
Avid winter cyclists — including the top performers on Sunday — were disappointed they couldn’t race on their mountain bikes and fat tire bikes.
Janice Tower, a long distance cyclist, was supposed to do the bike leg Sunday and had to scramble to dig out her old skate skis for her relay team. She said the skiing was excruciating, constant poling.
But the event itself was terrific — festive and fun, she said.
Riding conditions were excellent as late as Saturday evening, said Bill Fleming, owner of Chain Reaction Cycles, one of the race co-sponsors along with Skinny Raven and Up and Running Event Management.
The chinook that blew over Southcentral Alaska on Saturday night changed everything.
On an early Sunday morning test ride, Fleming and Chain Reaction co-owner Jamie Stull — both expert cyclists — struggled near the course’s start on the icy Tour of Anchorage Trail. In another section, the snow was rotten, water-logged and impossible to ride on. Then Fleming fell into creek overflow. “That’s it!” he said.
He called Keller and advised her to call off the cycling leg.
Some skiers quit the race early, saying even the ski course was too dangerous. By the second ski loop, course conditions had improved with softer snow, Keller said. While many racers took spills, no one was seriously injured, she said.
She’s already thinking about next year. Anchorage, she said, is into winter triathlons.