“Well, it could be worse, it could rain”
I thought as I skidded into another soft rut on my 200-pound fat-tire bike. Just as visions of Marty Feldman and young Frankenstein crossed my mind, the freezing rain began, coating my glasses with ice. Now I can’t even see the next rut I’m going to fall into.
It was my day at my first winter triathlon.
I decided to give winter triathlon a try after seeing pictures from last year’s US National Winter Triathlon Championships held in Anchorage. Alaska. Compared to the usual “running faces” you see at most multi-sport events, these people were actually smiling while running, biking and skiing – there was even a guy in a tutu and another in shorts in the weather. 19 degrees! “How difficult can it be if people do it in Tutus? I thought. I have decided to give this year’s National Winter Triathlon Championships a chance.
Jason Lamoreaux and the Alaska Triathlon Club organize this race as the Tri-Flake Winter Triathlon, which has been held for several years in Kincaid Park outside of Anchorage – a world-class cross-country skiing venue. , with tons of extra races, single track and multi-use trails.
The format seemed tame: a six-kilometre race on packed snow, eight miles of fat-tire biking on groomed, single-track snow trails and ending with six kilometers of cross-country skiing. I’ve never ridden a fat bike on snow, and it’s been years since I’ve raced cross-country, but I kept coming back to the fact that people were smiling in these photos: that must be fun. Who needs to practice when people are smiling? When I told my friend, an avid Nordic skier, what I was doing, he asked, “How many people signed up? At the time, I said “only 85”. He said: Well, 85th place isn’t so bad!
Brenda and I arrived in Anchorage a few days before the race and settled into a lovely house just on the edge of Turnagain Arm. I hadn’t been back to Alaska since my climbing years and had forgotten how beautiful even Anchorage can be – 20 degree cold, with everything covered in snow. I had reserved a fat tire bike and a pair of classic ‘skin skis’. These skis are a variation of the old waxless fish scale skis and instead use a small strip of synthetic hair under the kicker. I consider myself a good classic skier, stuck in my habits and not wanting to switch to much faster skate skiing. Also, I wanted to try out these new skin-skis, and the store kindly allowed me to rent a brand new demo pair. We headed to Kincaid and I had a fun afternoon biking on hard packed snow and classic skiing on perfectly groomed ski trails. For my first time on a fat tire bike, it wasn’t too difficult – you just have to realize that you’ll be riding at an average race pace and going straight, no fast corners. “This is going to be a hoot” I thought as I settled in for the night.
Around 8:00 p.m. that night, a warm front moved into southeast Alaska and the temperature soared to 47 degrees, setting an all-time high for that date. Worse still, the rain followed the warm front and we woke up to puddles on the street and nothing but soft snow. Luckily the rain had stopped when we got to Kincaid, but the temps were still in the 40s. I ditched all my cold weather clothing plans, opting to go for a long sleeve bike jersey rather than a jersey. Shoes were another issue. On the advice of veteran winter triathlete Kevin Elmore, I had purchased a pair of Hoka Speedgoats – a high-top, waterproof running shoe with a lugged sole. Some people chose to use YakTrax cleats instead of their regular running shoes. Looking back, the choice of shoes was the only smart choice I made that day.
Jason had checked out the single track portion of the bike course and found it impassable, so he made a last minute change to take us two round trips along the multi-use trail. We lined up for the race and headed along the coastal path – a 160ft drop to the shore and back.
The ride wasn’t too bad – melting, but manageable. I wanted to make sure I didn’t re-injure a foot I had broken the year before, so I took my time. The ascent was a grunt! Towards the top a woman walked past me wearing a full leopard skin costume with cat ears and a Tutu – that’s what I wanted to see, now I’m smiling and having a good time!
That quickly changed when I grabbed my bike and rode away. The pretty, well-groomed multi-purpose trail from the day before? It became a series of melting ruts. Cross two ruts and let’s go! My bike became a game whose rut was going to be my enemy or my friend. Then the freezing rain started. Now I try to see the faded ruts through frozen glasses. Worse still, I realized I had too much air in my tires, so I was spinning in the slush. I finally stopped (one of many falls actually) and tried to let some air out, but the rain had already soaked into my gloves and I was dreading trying to take them off and put them back on. again – so I just spun forward.
The leopard girl was nowhere to be found. At the turn of the first lap, Brenda says “Are we still having fun?” before getting into the car. She’s a former scientist and definitely smarter than me.
In what felt like hours (in fact, the bike took me over an hour for 14K!), I entered the transition. I sat on my cardboard box, which quickly collapsed in the rain and took off my shoes. I swear if there was a coffee stand nearby, I would have gone for a mocha. I headed out onto the ski course, realizing about 100 yards out that I still had my helmet on! Luckily, the race people didn’t mind me giving it to a volunteer. Helmet (and ego) dropped, I looked forward to some nice groomed trails and fast skiing.
Funny thing, rain and snow don’t mix. The tracks had almost disappeared. Worse still, that rain had turned what was left of the snow on the tracks to ice. Those ski skins? They don’t work on ice. So I resorted to double voting most of the time. I had a brief rush of euphoria when I passed a person, but then he told me he was skiing on a broken ski. Well, it was short lived.
After two laps, I crossed the finish line. Have you ever gotten so far in a race that people are already picking up their transition gear and handing out rewards?
However, I look on the bright side: I lived, nothing broke (on me or the gear) and I returned to the rental shops before they closed. Jason and all of the Alaska Triathlon Club volunteers had a damn good race. Despite the weather, yes, everyone was smiling.
I will do this race again. I think we all need to go to races like this to try something completely different and outside of our comfort zones. Racing doesn’t always have to be serious, and sometimes you just have to stop worrying and have fun.
I’m already looking for a Tutu to wear next year!