There is a rainforest plant native to southeast Alaska called Devil’s Club or Devil’s Walking Stick. It really is an impressive plant, with huge shiny green leaves and a cone of bright red berries. It’s everywhere around Juneau, particularly as an understory plant under dense tree cover. Bears love the berries.
But turn over a leaf (carefully) or take a look at its stems — they are covered in sharp-as-hell thorns. Shiny leaves and pretty berries on top; hypodermic-sharp spines everywhere else. Its Latin name? oplopanax horridus.
The Devil’s Club became my spirit plant during Ironman Alaska. To me, it began to represent duplicity — the confident and the insecure; the delight and the pain; the kind and the cruel. Pretty on top, wicked below.
Ironman Alaska promised to be pretty on top. Mountains! Ocean! Glaciers! Whales, bears, and salmon! And with an average early-August high temperature of 68, it would be the rare Ironman that didn’t boast temps in the 80s and 90s. I signed up as soon as registration opened; it would be my third Ironman.
A Bumpy, Lumpy Road
Ironman encountered problems almost immediately as athletes tried to book hotels and Air BnBs after registering. I wrote about it here for Triathlon Magazine. More issues with rental cars, bike shipping, and cancelled flights compounded the problems. While I luckily did not have major logistical issues, I lived in fear that I would contract COVID in the weeks before the event and not be able to go at all. Of the 1500 athletes reportedly registered (Ironman does not disclose exact figures), nearly 500 deferred or cancelled. In the end, just 850 people showed up.
Meanwhile, I was struggling too. I moved from Brooklyn NY to Kansas in 2021 and found myself bereft of my beloved Prospect Park stomping ground and legions of triathlon and running friends. In Kansas, I was on my own, with few triathletes in my town, and even fewer female triathletes. Training partners were hard to find. Almost everyone exclusively rides gravel out here. I don’t have a problem training on my own, but 5 and 6-hour solo bike rides get very isolating,
And at age 52, I had experienced the hormone drop of menopause. Everything was harder. My run speed just got slower and slower; it was hard to run more than 3 or 4 miles without stopping to walk, even after months of training. My heart rate was through the roof. It was rough — definitely the most arduous train-up for an Ironman I’ve done yet. My confidence was in the toilet. To everyone else, I seemed like a “badass” triathlete. But to myself? I felt like a failure as my body continually betrayed me, held me back, slowed me down.
Hello, Atmospheric River
The bright spot in my training was looking forward to spending a week in Alaska with friends Devin and Roman from Brooklyn, who would also be doing the race and sharing the Air BnB. Miraculously, all of us arrived in Juneau with no flight headaches, and all of our gear made it too!
Triathletes become armchair meteorologists in the weeks leading up to an event. While the “historical” temperatures should have been around 68, they were not. And while the ‘average’ water temp in the lake for that time of year should have been in the mid-60s, it was not either.
The culprit? An ‘atmospheric river’ — a meteorologic term unknown to me. Basically, it was what New Yorkers would call a nor’easter — a storm system that parks itself on top of you and won’t budge. We all arrived on a Thursday. The rain began Friday morning, accompanied by 50-degree temperatures, and it just never let up until the following Monday. Because the weather looked so iffy, I had packed pretty much every piece of gear I owned and would have to make a race-day call on what to wear.
Devin, Roman and I went for a swim in the 58-degree lake on Friday. My mental strategy for cold swims (which worked with Alcatraz last year) is to swim without a wetsuit a couple of days beforehand. Then on race day, I’d feel warm and toasty in my wetsuit. Devin and I had a blast going ‘commando’ at the practice swim, and I overhead some people mention that we must be “locals.” The three of us swam out to the middle of the lake and just treaded water in the rain, marveling at the scenery and just appreciating being there. It was a delightful moment.
Amazingly, it was not raining first thing in the morning! My boyfriend Lalo got up with us at 3:30am to drive us to the race site. He would head back to the Air BnB then return with Devin’s wife Tara and daughter Aubrey later in the day.
We actually put on our wetsuits back at the Air BnB in order to stay warm. The air temperature was hovering at 49/50. As we made our way to Auke Lake and the swim start, it was announced that the swim distance was being chopped in half; the lake was colder than it had been all week, just 56, and race organizers were worried they would have hypothermic athletes on their hands.
So the swim would now be just 1.2 miles, and the 17-hour time cutoff for the race would be shortened to 15:50. (Remember that number.)
Devin and I entertained each other in the line to start (Roman started way up front), and we entered the water together after a quick final hug. I LOVED the swim. It was just beautiful, crisp and cold. After the initial shock of putting my face in the water, I quickly settled into a nice rhythm and progressed from buoy to buoy. The time flew by, and I was sad not to get to do a second loop. I did understand the race director’s decision, but still… I swam 1:51 minute/100 yards, which is pretty good for me. A solid swim!
Out of the water, we had a run uphill to get to transition.
Because of the cold, almost everyone had decided to change completely after the swim and put on warm, dry clothes, which made for a VERY crowded women’s changing tent. I dried off best I could, then layered tights, bibs, a thermal jersey, shoe covers and gloves before grabbing my bike — it took forever as there was hardly any room to move in the changing tent. 20 minutes later I was finally on my bike and headed “out the road” as the locals call it.
Fast Bike, Slow Bike
The bike course followed the only road heading north from Juneau, Glacier Highway, a two-lane road with a good-sized shoulder. After our treat of a dry start, the rain began to fall again just as I hit the bike course, a two-loop out and back.
The first 20 miles flew by, but with the rain, it was hard to appreciate the scenery; I needed to concentrate on the road. I know we crossed a couple of fast-flowing glacial rivers, and at times had views of Auke Bay. Along the road, rivulets of water coursed down the mountains, creating impromptu waterfalls. I was averaging 16-16.5 mph, which was right in line with my training given the hilly course, and what I had expected for the day. I had planned on 7 hours for the 112-mile ride.
At about mile 22, we hit the chip seal. I’d heard a rumor that the north end of the road had been recently repaved. Chip seal is a paving technique; basically, you lay down a thick layer of gravel, then apply a sealant on top. It is the WORST type of road for skinny-tire rider. My speed immediately dropped. I was putting out the same effort but riding 4-5 miles per hour slower. It was infuriating. Even the descents were slow. Another cyclist commented “This road is eating my watts!” and she was right. 15 miles later, we were finally back on real road, with another 20 miles to go before turning around and doing it all again.
The best part of the bike course for me was the first half of the second loop. The rain had let up just a bit, and we even saw a tiny bit of blue sky. It would not last for long, but that was a really pleasant 20 miles, and I was able to check out my surroundings, shout back at the many spectators cheering along the course, and shout out to Roman and Devin when I saw them coming the opposite direction. Roman definitely looked like he was in the top 10.
The Calculations Begin
I had not counted on the rain, the cold, and the chip seal, and my anticipated 7-hour bike was starting to look more and more like 8 hours. Had the swim not been shortened, we would have been allotted 10:30 to finish the bike and swim portions — at least that was my recollection. I had not even looked at the cutoff times prior to the race since I didn’t have any doubts about finishing the race in the time allowed. But now I was not so sure. If we had originally been given 10:30 but the swim was shortened, we now had 9:30 to finish the swim, transition and bike courses. I was going to be bumping right up against that time limit. But I never saw any sweep vehicles, so I assumed I was okay on time.
I finished the bike course in 7:59:50. Wow, what a tough day on the bike. My shoulders were completely knotted up — I could not move them. My feet were freezing and my fingers were non-functional. All of that was to be expected. On the way to the changing tent I saw Devin coming out to start his run — what? If I was seeing him just now, it meant he was not having a good day. We took a second for a quick hug and off he went.
In the changing tent, I took stock of everything that hurt: It was a lot. More than any other Ironman. My back and shoulders were screaming. My feet were icicles. My legs felt like iron. Changing out of my bike gear and into dry run gear was so hard. I wanted to quit. My feet were all pruny from being wet all day, and I knew I would get blisters soon. I felt awful. At the same time, I had expected to feel awful, and I knew that once I was out on the run course, I might feel better. That’s the thing about triathlon — at times you feel wonderful and at times you feel awful; neither lasts very long.
Run, Jog, Walk, Stagger, Shuffle
I saw Lalo and Tara at the start of the run and gave them a quick high five and “thanks for being here” and I starting running. My plan for the run was to walk the aid station and get as many calories into my mouth as I could for as long as my stomach could handle it. The first few miles were along roads with plenty of spectators and volunteers cheering you on. The only really hilly part was an out-and-back section of road that led up to a gun range — wow, was that disconcerting — hearing very close gunfire while you run.
The spectator support was amazing. It seemed that all of Juneau came out to cheer. They brought tents, food, their kids and their dogs. Several brought grills and fire pits. They made a day of it! It was really amazing and they were such a high point for me.
After about 8 miles of running on the side of roads, we finally entered the trail section — a paved trail through the rainforest that was the highlight of the run course. Devil’s Club was everywhere, huge and wet. The trees were impossibly tall and straight, with bits of cloudy daylight filtering through. It was quiet and magical. Another highlight was “the field” — an expanse of in-bloom fireweed, bright pink wildflowers. It was stunning. Then we were back on the road to start a second loop.
I actually felt pretty good — surprisingly good — for that first loop. I just kept up with my run/walk routine and was averaging 13 minutes per mile. I started again with the math. In order to make the time cutoff of 15:50, I would need to keep that pace for the entire run — I would not be able to just walk at any point. I could feel the blisters on the bottoms of my feet, but running hurt just as much as walking.
I stopped talking to spectators; I just could not use a single drop of energy on anything other than putting one foot in front of the other: walk, jog, walk, jog. When I hit the trail portion for the second time, the light had ebbed, and we were in the dark. I pulled out the headlamp I had stashed in my vest. I hit mile 20. Keep going, keep going, don’t think, just walk and jog, walk and jog.
It was around mile 20 that an Ironman staff person on a bicycle passed and said “oh, don’t worry. They’re leaving the finish line open to midnight.” But I didn’t know what that meant. Did it mean they extended the time cutoff? Or did it mean you could finish but would officially be disqualified? I couldn’t think about it — I just had to stick to my 15:50 and ignore everything else.
I don’t remember much of the finish. I remember seeing Lalo right at the start of the finisher chute, smiling, and I thought how lovely he is here. Midway down the chute I saw Devin, Roman, Tara, and Aubrey cheering and holding out their hands for high-fives. I hit the red carpet. I heard my name. I heard “10-year cancer survivor” and I heard ” You are an Ironman.”
Apparently, there was a double line of drummers dressed in native Alaskan tribal costumes. I didn’t even notice them. I was just focused on the time. I had to beat 15:50… I finished with thirty seconds to spare. I made it.
In the end, 850 people started the race. 718 finished. Another 40 missed the 15:50 cutoff but were allowed to finish (in the end, they did extend the cutoff time to 17 hours). Half of the women registered in my age group did not finish.
I’m still trying to decide if I had fun. It is an interesting thing to force your body to do things it absolutely does not want to do; to flip over the pretty leaf and face the thorns underneath — and not only face them, but to grasp them, feel the pain coursing through your body. It is, in the end, a moment of rapture.
The next two days were filled with a delightful whale-watching trip, eating huge plates of food, seeing a bear, doing some hiking, and otherwise enjoying lovely Juneau. Roman, in the end, finished 9th overall and secured his spot at the World Championship in Hawaii this October. Devin fought his own demons on the bike course and redeemed his day on the run.
And me? I didn’t quit. Jog. Walk. Jog. Walk. Anything to keep moving forward, past the devil and through the mental demons.