Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - What to wear, how to wear it, watching your heart rate, listening to your body, the ability to complete a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run, just not on the same day. These are all part of where triathletes should be at in their training for the IRONMAN Alaska on Aug. 7.
“I have 23 athletes right now and myself, so let’s make it 24,” triathlon trainer Jamie Bursell said. Bursell is a certified USA Triathlon and Ironman coach, and certified as a personal trainer and medical exercise specialist. Those she is currently training range from first-time triathletes to seasoned competitors like her and her husband, John Bursell, who is an elite Ironman competitor. Her 24-week High Cadence Triathlon Training program is at week 17 and participants are training up to 18 hours a week.
“It makes it much more interesting and it certainly fills the whole day full of thoughts and planning,” Bursell said of the training program. "I take it very personally for myself and I try to answer any questions and be as supportive as I can of each individual athlete. I am making it my life right now, through now and Aug. 7, and actually the week after because I have to help people recover as well…”
A full IRONMAN requires athletes to adapt to strict training and force their body to accept that adaptation without injury. It also requires an amount of gear new triathletes many not be accustomed to.
“That can be kind of overwhelming,” Bursell said. “There is just one thing after another… you have to be efficient, you have to be ready, and it is all part of a huge day…
Time does not stop in a triathlon for malfunctions of body or gear, or during the transitions between the three disciplines.
For example, the bike portion requires a reliable bike and knowledge of fixing mechanical issues or a flat tire on the fly.
Any misstep adds unwanted time and athletes can be pulled from the event if they do not hit cutoff times. Traditional cut-off times are two hours and 20 minutes for the swim, 10 hours and 30 minutes for the added bike cutoff and a maximum 17 hours with the added run finish. The race will start at 6 a.m. and IRONMAN Alaska is advertising a “Midnight Sun” race end, meaning the race course will close at midnight.
Race director Colleen McDonald noted in an email interview there will be cutoffs implemented on the courses where athletes “need to hit certain points in the time (intermediate cutoffs) and those will be included in the Athlete Guide that will be sent out prior to the race.”
Each athlete is allotted the same amount of time to complete the swim, bike and run course regardless of what time of day they enter the water. Triathletes should never do anything on race day unless they have done it in training, which includes trying a new gel or fuel, clipping bike shoes onto pedals for the first time or wearing a brand of running shoe for the first time. Being comfortable helps confidence.
“There is a lot of work people have to put into just meeting the cut-off time,” Bursell said. “I have a range of athletes in terms of experience and abilities. I have beginners, quite a few first-timers that are going to succeed on this course but with a lot of preparation and effort. And I also have mostly intermediate-level athletes and a few elite athletes. So it’s a challenge for every single person…”
Bursell noted there are days in training when even elite athletes question the process but they have the science of their training to persevere.
“There is a ton of science involved in this,” she said. “I am having people either monitor heart rate or power or both and that is super important in an endurance event that is going to take somebody maybe between 12 hours and 17 hours to complete, that is a long long day. So there are a multitude of factors that come into play, even emotions and the weather can change heart rate. If people can watch their heart rate and watch their power and monitor it at a lower endurance level then they can manage their body throughout an entire day. But if they go too hard or if they lag below they might not make it to the end…”
Physical and emotional challenges will be encountered. Swimming in a cold lake for two hours precedes riding a bike for 112 miles. Some may push the initial biking harder than they should, which would decrease their marathon run output.
The purpose of the training program is to gain just as much knowledge as physical strength to be able to keep from over-exertion and feeling like the race cannot be completed. Bursell noted that sometimes trainees say they cannot do it.
“There have been quite a few of those statements and from time to time when I am training throughout the year the thought crosses my mind, too…,” Bursell said. “But you have to put in the workouts, you have to put in the time and you have to have a mental tenacity to just do it, just get through it. The body gets stronger, the mind gets stronger and, bottom line, if the person believes they can do it than most likely they’ll be able to do it…”
At this point of their training the athletes should be able to do each of the three disciplines, according to Bursell, just not in the same day.
“A person should be able to swim 2.4 miles without much of a problem…,” Bursell said. “They should be able to ride 112 miles on a long ride… and they should be able to run, we don’t have the athletes run a full marathon because it is pretty hard on the body… the run portion takes the most exertion on the body and the body tires more easily on the run than it does swimming and on the bike. There is just less impact with those first two disciplines. So we don’t have the athletes run the total of the marathon before they actually do the marathon. When the day of the event comes then they are able to do it…”
Bursell said the athlete would run the event with a Zone 2 level exertion, meaning they could hold a conversation while racing.
“And some people even take walk breaks…,” Bursell said.
To get to the run, however, athletes must first get through an unfathomable, if you will, number of swimmers that will probably raise the water level of Auke Lake just by sheer number with three or four athletes entering the water every few seconds.
“It is going to be just a massive amount of people in Auke Lake that we have never ever seen before,” Bursell said. “It is going to be quite the sight to see… the start is really not that difficult if you are prepared for it…”
In the High Endurance Triathlon Training camp athletes swim in tight packs and learn to draft in the only discipline it is allowed, following the bubbles on the toes in the swimmer in front of them. Bursell said the motion of the water will be like “being in a washing machine… you will swallow water. You will get hit. You will get swam over… but we prepare for it…”
The 112-mile bike ride, aside from being a mileage animal, is made more difficult by weather. Bursell said a recent four-hour training ride last week featured rain, cold temperatures and wind.
“If conditions are like that on race day then that is going to be the most impactful part of the bike ride…” she said. “Our course is quite hilly but our hills are relatively short… I train my athletes to manage their energy on the hills and then rest on the downhills… you have to think of the whole day as one sport, swim, bike and run. It’s not like we are doing three separate sports. We are doing three separate disciplines and we have to think about the discipline that is coming ahead of us…”
Athletes will carry their own fuel on the bike portion plus IRONMAN provides aid stations every 15 miles.
Race volunteers are the only personnel allowed to help, or give aid to an athlete. Fans cannot provide support. An athlete can help another athlete only if that help does not hinder their own race. Athletes must do their own wardrobe changes, aside from volunteer help in certain items such as swim booties where an IRONMAN volunteer could have “bootie duty” and help remove those items.
“Once the race starts you have to be completely self-sufficient and rely on the volunteers only…” Bursell said. “In this race there are going to be people, volunteers who are assigned the duty of stripping the wet suits off of people… and they will also help you with your booties if you need help…”
At a recent workout at Auke Lake, athletes swam close to an hour and then worked on parking lot transitions - mounting their bikes and receiving water bottles while on the bike.
“Training is going pretty good,” athlete Bethany Gollin said. “Second full Ironman. Last one went very poorly. Hoping this one goes less poorly. I am strongest at running, which is last, so we’re hoping that the other two are strong enough that I can kind of run…”
Gollin said biking has been the hardest part of training with finding a bike that fits.
“Shout out to Ms. Melanie White for giving me a bike because mine didn’t fit,” she said.
Scott Gende noted his training took a tough turn in week 13 when he tested positive for COVID-19.
“So I am still kind of recovering from that,” he said. “I don’t really have a strong point in the race. I kind of feel like I suck in all three events so the whole idea is just to kind of put it all together on race day and see what happens. But being out here with the group really makes everything worthwhile and it goes a lot quicker and makes getting off the couch a lot easier…”
Gende said COVID-19 was one of the hardest parts of training, “that and being 52 years old. It is hard to get the engine started… this is my fourth full and for sure having COVID midway through the training has increased the fatigue, so trying to learn about rebuilding that through nutrition…”
Jamie Bursell has advised her athletes to avoid situations that could lead to catching COVID-19, especially with recent spikes in Juneau so close to the race.
Athlete Alec Nevalainen said the camp has helped him. He is new to Ironman.
“Just watching everyone else and relying on Jamie (Bursell) and John’s (Bursell) experience has helped a lot,” he said. “My strong point is running so I have a lot of catching up to do with swimming and biking… I have run a lot of marathons and I know what marathon pain feels like so I do have some confidence. But I don’t know what the third leg of an Ironman of marathon pain is so it is still new territory… The marathon is very humbling and this will be humbling as well. I’m not going in with any big time expectations. I think a lot of us here just want to complete the race…”
Isaiah Campos said he is an amateur Ironman trainee but feels “like my swimming has gotten very strong. I feel like that is my strong point. Definitely working on the bike… with coach Jamie and John I am really progressing so I’m really excited for this…”
Campos said the most difficult part of training has been the schedule “because I work so much. It is basically a part-time job on the side of a job… just trying to schedule everything between work and then getting in the bike rides and swims…”
Sara Raster said she never wanted to do a full Ironman “until I learned it was happening here and it was just too exciting to pass up. I thought, ‘I know that bike route, I know that run route, I know that lake.’ And it just seemed so much more accessible for me that way… the hardest part is how time consuming the training is. I have tremendous admiration for the people that do this consistently…”
Ken Platt said he just completed a half Ironman in Victoria, British Columbia, two weeks ago, “so I think I am ready for this one… I’m really good at biking. Running is pretty good except that’s the last thing you do so it’s the hardest…”
Charley Waters was noted by Jamie Bursell as one to watch in the race because of his attention to detail and improvement in training.
“My strong point is definitely running as I have a running background,” Waters said. “Weakest point is swimming. Overall I am feeling pretty good about the run and the bike but still a lot of room for improvement in the swim. I’m confident with everybody’s help I’ll get to where I want to be… the hardest part is juggling the volume of training with life, with work and life…”
Jeannette Lacey said the training has ramped up to longer than she has done in any sport “other than marathons. I have never ridden or swam this far so we are really getting up into those distances…”
Lacey said the mental process has been the most difficult part.
“Just being okay and knowing you can do it,” she said. “You stick with it and when you start to have doubts you just say, ‘I’m where I am at today and I’m just going to keep following this process. I don’t have to be ready to do an Ironman today. It’s not time to do an Ironman today.’ So I’m where I need to be and I’m just going to keep working at it. And some days are good and some days are not good and you just get up and you just keep going… you sacrifice a lot. Time doing anything else really. Like time with your friends or your family. It’s worth it because it is really like pushing yourself and seeing what you can do but I think the hardest part is being tired sacrificing the other things that you do in your life…”
For John Bursell, who is a veteran of multiple Ironman races, including the World Ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii, “the best part is that we have the home course to train on and it is the nicest course I have ever seen for an Ironman race… the hardest part for me is getting the long bike rides in and doing the extra stuff, like weight training and stretching and eating right… the real difficult thing for the amatuers is time management, getting the workouts in around the rest of your life…”
All the athletes noted the support that comes from family and friends to be able to train.
For John Bursell that family support is also his coach.
“That is good and bad,” he said. “I can’t get away with anything, which is both good and bad. And I’ve learned a long time ago to minimize conflict because she is really smart and a really good coach and I like to try and listen to what she says. But she is willing to accept my perspective as well so there is a give and take there.”
Jamie and John Bursell and High Cadence team member Corrie Weikle will be racing a half-Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on June 26 and Jamie will be racing a half-Ironman July 10 in Oregon.
(Check out the complete podcast interview on this story at KINY radio.com. Click the Menu tab on the far right and click on Alaska/Juneau Sports with Klas Stolpe)