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My First Winter Triathlon and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slush

by Dave Lasorsa

Athlete on his bike in the snow at winter triathlon nationals

“Well, it could be worse, it could be raining”

I thought as I skidded into yet another mushy rut with my 200-pound fat tire bike. Just as visions of Marty Feldman and Young Frankenstein crossed my mind, the frozen rain started, coating my glasses with ice.  Now I can’t see even the next rut that I’m bound to fall into. 

This was my day in my first winter triathlon.

I decided to give winter triathlon a try after seeing pictures from last year’s USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon Nationals, held in Anchorage. Alaska. Compared to the usual stern “race-faces” you see in most multisport events, these people were actually smiling while running, biking and skiing – there was even a guy in a Tutu and another in shorts in 19-degree weather! “How hard can this be if people do it in Tutus?” I thought. I decided to give this year’s Winter Triathlon Nationals a shot.  

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 ski venue, with tons of additional running, single track and multi-use trails.  

The format seemed tame: six-kilometer run on packed snow, eight-miles of fat-tire biking on groomed and single-track snow trails and ending with six-kilometers of cross-country ski.  I have never been on a fat-tire bike on snow, and it has been years since I did any kind of cross-country ski racing, but I kept going back to the fact that people were smiling in those pictures: it must be fun. Who needs to train when people are smiling? When I told my friend, an avid Nordic skier, what I was doing, he asked “How many people had registered?  At the time, I said “only 85.”  He said, Well, 85th place is not that bad!”

Brenda and I arrived in Anchorage a couple of days before the race and settled into a cute house right on the shore of Turnagain Arm. I hadn’t been back to Alaska since my climbing years and I forgot how beautiful even Anchorage can be – a crisp, 20 degrees, with everything covered in snow.  I had reserved a fat-tire bike and a pair of classic “skin-skis.” These skis are a twist on the old fish-scale waxless skis and instead use a small strip of synthetic hair under the kicker. I consider myself a fair classic skier, stuck in my ways and not wanting to move into the far faster skate skiing. Plus, I wanted to try these new skin-skis, and the shop kindly allowed me to rent a brand-new demo pair. We headed to Kincaid and I enjoyed an afternoon of fun biking on hardpacked snow and classic skiing on perfectly groomed ski tracks. For my first time on a fat-tire bike, it wasn’t too hard – you just need to realize that you are going to bike at an average run pace and keep straight, no quick turns. “This is going to be a hoot” I thought as I settled in for the night.

Somewhere around 8:00 that night a warm front moved in to southeast Alaska and the temperature climbed to 47 degrees – setting an all-time high for that date. Worse, rain followed the warm front, and we awoke to puddles in the street and nothing but mushy snow. Luckily the rain had stopped when we arrived at Kincaid, but the temps were still in the 40’s. I ditched all my plans for cold-weather clothing, electing to go with a long-sleeved bike jersey over a singlet.  Footwear was a different issue. On the advice of veteran winter triathlete Kevin Elmore, I had bought a pair of Hoka Speedgoats – a waterproof, high-topped running shoe with lugged sole.  Some folks elected to go with YakTrax cleats over their regular running shoes.  In retrospect, the choice of footwear was the only smart choice I made that day. 

Jason had checked out the single-track portion of the bike course and found it to be impassable, so he made a last-minute change to just have us do two laps of out and back along the multi-use trail. We lined up for the run and headed out along the Coastal Trail – an elevation drop of 160 feet to the shoreline and back again. 

The run was not too bad – slushy, but manageable. I wanted to be sure I did not re-injure a foot I had broken the year before, so I took it slow.  The climb back was a grunt! Toward the top, a woman passed me wearing a complete leopard skin suit with cat ears and a Tutu – that is what I wanted to see, now I am smiling and having a good time!  

That quickly changed as I grabbed my bike and headed out. The nice, hardpacked multi-use trail from the day before? It became a series of slushy ruts. Get crossed on two ruts and down you go!  My biking became a game of which rut was going to be my enemy or friend. Then the freezing rain started. Now I am trying to see washed-out ruts through frozen glasses. Worse, I realized I had too much air in my tires, so I was just 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 dreaded trying to peel them off and pull them back on again – so I just spun onward.  

Leopard girl was nowhere to be seen.  At the turnaround of the first lap Brenda is saying “are we having fun yet?” before retreating to the car. She is a former scientist and definitely smarter than me. 

In what seemed like hours (actually the bike took me over an hour for 14K!), I entered the transition. I sat down on my cardboard box, which promptly collapsed from the rain and peeled off my shoes. I swear, if there was a nearby coffee stand, I would have walked over there for a mocha. I headed out on 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) ditched, I looked forward to some nice groomed tracks and some fast skiing. 

Funny thing – rain and snow don’t mix. The tracks were nearly gone. Worse, that rain had turned what snow was left in the tracks to ice. Those ski-skins? They don’t work on ice. So, I resorted to double-polling most of the way. I did have a brief surge of exhilaration when I actually passed one person – but then he told me he was skiing on a broken ski. Okay, that was short lived.  

After two laps, I came across the finish line. Have you ever been so far back in a race that people are already picking up their gear from the transition and they’re handing out awards?  

Still, I look on the bright side: I lived, nothing broke (on me or the gear) and I made it back to the rental shops before they closed.  Jason and all the volunteers of the Alaska Triathlon Club put on one heck of a good race. Despite the weather, yes, everyone was smiling.

I will do this race again. I think we all need to enter races like this to try something completely different and outside of our comfort zones. Racing should not always be serious, and sometimes you just need to stop worrying and enjoy the fun. 

I am already looking for a Tutu to wear next year!   

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