With a decade of race production experience under his belt, race director Aaron Palaian shares about the moment he decided to up the ante with Alaskaman Extreme.
Slowtwitch: Thanks for joining us. Less than 24 hours out from the race. Is their excitement in the Alaskan air?
Aaron Palaian: For sure. Myself and my Assistant RD, Tony Sapp, flew in to Anchorage last Monday, 12-days before the event, to be sure everything is in place. Everyone's excited to help us make this event a success. We have been overwhelmed by their kindness and willingness to help us make sure this event happens for these amazing athletes and we could not ask for a friendlier group of people to work with.
ST: You have produced running and triathlon events in Houston, Texas for a handful of years now. Where did the idea come from for Alaskaman?
AP: I've been producing endurance events in Houston for nearly a decade and surpassed the 100 mark earlier this year. Through the years I've always wanted to showcase a larger than life venue like Alaska. In 2015 I was lucky enough to be accepted as an athlete in the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. While at their athlete briefing, the organizers mentioned that their race took place at about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. That comment got me to thinking that the US deserved an extreme triathlon of grand proportions and what better place than the Last Frontier? Less than a year later we opened registration for Alaskaman.
ST: Did the race sell out?
AP: We limited it to 315 entries so it sold out quickly.
ST: Having raced both Norseman and Celtman previously, how will this course be in comparison to those races? What are the greatest challenges racers will face out there?
AP: All the Xtris are great. These events are all about the athlete, their support crew, and their friends and family coming together to help their loved one reach that finish line. They are an experience that takes triathlon back to its roots. They are simple, challenging, and bring the athlete closer to the world around them while pushing them past limits many never thought they could surpass. For me personally, Norseman was a once in a life time opportunity, the jump into those icy waters, the climb after climb on the bike and the never ending switchbacks on Zombie Hill are memories I'll have forever.
During Celtman the jellies were a bit of a surprise. You know they're there but they still seem to catch you a bit off guard. Regardless it makes for one cool swim! The bike course being about 12 miles longer than normal just made the 10 mountain run miles in the middle of their marathon that much harder. For this Houston flatlander, Celtman's mountain run was by far the hardest part of that race.
Our AlaskaMan distances are all longer than most normal long distance triathlons, we have 54 degree water (with many colder areas) with no visibility, our bike course is one of the most beautiful on earth but the valleys and mountains can create some extreme weather (wind, rain, cold), and our run course takes athletes through just about every terrain imaginable on their way to 6,000-plus feet of elevation gain, just on the run, with most of it coming in the last seven miles of the 27-plus miles of the run course, going up and down Mt. Alyeska two times over different faces. Heck, if the conditions are right it could even snow on top of the mountain.
ST: We recently saw the announcement of an XTri Series with Alaskaman being the US representative race. What does that entail?
AP: We are very excited and honored to be part of the XTri World Tour. As for the details, you'll have to wait and see. More details will be announced as the season progresses but that's all I can say for now. Visit XTri World Tour site and follow the series page on Facebook to stay up to date.
ST: How have you and the planning for Alaskaman been received by locals in the lead up to the race?
AP: At first they thought we were crazy. The water in Resurrection Bay is frigid and has zero visibility. Although people swim in it recreationally over short distances, swimming long distances is unheard of during an event. Once we laid out the entire event, the rules, and safety precautions we are taking, everyone became very excited, open, and beyond friendly. Concerning all our courses, I cannot say enough about the City of Seward, Miller's Landing, the SeaLife Center, City of Girdwood, Alyeska Resort, Anchorage, AKDOT, and the Forest Service. It's been an absolute pleasure to work with them all. We have never worked with people that want to see an event succeed this much. Alaska is a great place with some really great people. One-third of our registrants are from Alaska and local residents filled half our volunteer positions more than six months out. Grateful doesn't begin to describe how we feel.
ST: We heard you have some iconic triathlon stars playing various roles throughout race weekend. Can you tell us more about who all will be there and what they’ll be doing?
AP: I assume you’re talking about Tim DeBoom, the Iron Cowboy James Lawrence, and Celtman Race Director, Stuart McInnes. I've known Tim since 2010 and with his 2011 win at Norseman, it made total sense to have him involved. He's a great guy that really cares about the grass roots of the sport and having him on board brought us one step closer to accomplishing our goal in establishing Alaskaman as an iconic event in the triathlon world. Tim's lifelong experience in the sport is not only an asset to the event and athletes but an inspiration to guys like me that came up in the sport inspired by World Champions and Extreme Tri winners like Tim. He's a class act and we are lucky to have him. The Iron Cowboy, James Lawrence will be joining us as he competes in his third XTri in two months (previously completing Celtman and Swissman) yet further extending his legacy in the sport. We are so excited he will be racing. Stuart McInnes, race director of Celtman, is coming out to be part of our Inaugural year. We are honored to have him lend a hand this year and hope to further extend our friendship and relationship with the other XTris in the tour in the coming months and years.
ST: One of the last events you produced in Houston was a kids triathlon — the largest single day kids race in the US that took place inside a water park. Tell the truth, which race is more difficult from a logistical standpoint to produce. Which has been more fun?
AP: I cannot choose. Really I can't. That kids race is a blast, I mean who doesn't want to do a triathlon at a water park then have private use of it all day after? Typhoon Texas Kids Tri is a dream to put on for those youngsters, who only care about two things, fun and racing. Putting on a race like Alaskaman has been a dream for a decade. It's on an entirely different level. Inaugural years are always tough but we have planned this thing for 16 months and are ready for a great day for everyone on the 15th. They are both crazy fun in different ways but as for logistics Alaskaman is far more difficult.
ST: Are you recommending racers carry bear spray or any other ‘only in Alaska’ race rules?
AP: Because of recent attacks and sightings in Alaska we are supplying bear bells out of T2 for any athletes that would like to use them, just as more of an alert to wildlife that the athletes are around to hopefully avoid startling them. As for bear spray, we certainly recommend it very strongly to them, but are not making it mandatory. The trails we are using on the run are perhaps a little less prone to wildlife than the areas higher up in the mountains and those a bit more off the beaten path but that's the thing about Alaska, wildlife can really be anywhere at any time. Part of the extreme part of Alaska. The best thing we can do is educate athletes on the best ways to handle different situations that could arise, although still unlikely, and be smart keeping their calm if something comes up. We have counter measures in place and alternate courses in our back pocket if need be, but we are of course hoping for everything to go as planned and that everyone has a fun, safe event.
ST: Thanks for your time. We hope you’ll have a photographer who can share a gallery with us from race day!
AP: We have four photographers dedicated to properly documenting this event. We will also have a video documentary in the works and, of course, you know I'll be snapping pics all day. Thanks!
All photos provided by Photos By Aaron.