Photo by Paloma Ayala
PATRICK HILLER competes in the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon July 15. He placed 15th overall, completing the event in 13:37:37.
On July 15, Patrick Hiller, 40, from the Columbia Gorge Tri Club and a resident of Hood River, participated in the first ever Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. It is labeled “The most challenging event of its kind in the United States.” The distances are similar to a full Ironman Triathlon, but the conditions are exceedingly challenging and the event has minimal support, with all athletes required to have their own support crew on the course.
The Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon is described on the event website as “an epic journey through the cold, crisp, clean waters of Resurrection Bay (2.6mi/4,185m swim), along the beautifully scenic and mountainous passages of the Seward Highway (112mi/180k bike), and up the extreme trails of Mount Alyeska over one of the hardest run courses in the sport (27mi/43.5k run).”
Despite those challenges, Hiller finished 15th overall out of the 198 people who started the race — only 157 finished. He finished the swim in 1 hour, 21 minutes, 21 seconds, swimming in water that was sometimes as cold as 48 degrees. Hiller completed the bike race, which had around 4,000 feet of elevation gain, in 5:33:09, and the run, which had around 6,000 feet of elevation gain in 6:17:18. His total time was 13:37:37.
Hiller shares thoughts on completing this athletic feat below. For more information on the event, go to akxtri.com.
— Sports Editor Ben Mitchell
Signing up for Alaskaman more than a year ago seemed like a stupid idea, one that only can happen if you have a support network around you. Without the full support of my family and the fantastic friends in the Columbia Gorge Tri Club, finishing this race would have not been possible. My wife, Paloma (Ayala), and son, Oliver, traveled with me. Her sister and family came from Seattle. And my friend, Rutger Engbersen, the Columbia Gorge Tri Club Directeur Sportif, got onto a plane to be my support crew and support runner up the mountain finish.
It was crazy to sit in school buses in rainy Alaska at 3:30 a.m. with 197 fellow athletes in wetsuits to be taken to the swim start a few miles away. It was still dark at the swim start. In the distance, we could see the lights of Seward, where the swim ended. The swim itself was incredibly cold, even though I had trained in the Columbia River all the way into November and as early as April. Toward the end of the swim, coming in around the corner to the exit, the tide started turning and there was a slight pull outward. At the swim exit, I was happy to see my support crew, the entire body shaking while getting dressed for the bike.
‘I would have been happy just finishing upright and in control of my bodily functions. I had to pinch myself when my placement was announced as I crossed the finish line.’
The 111-mile bike course was on Seward Highway, a major highway which was open to traffic. I’d never chose to ride there, but for a race like this, an exception was fine. It was incredibly scenic. Paloma and Rutger pulled out at several support stops, always ready to provide clothes, food, hydration and good vibes. I had, without a doubt, the best support crew on the course.
The run essentially had three parts: 12 miles of pretty nice running with not too much elevation gain (500 feet). Then two miles toward Alyeska and a six-mile out-and-back section into the Nordic ski area. Then, at mile 20, the hardest part of the day — up Alyeska above the tram station, back down and then back up via the North Face Trail: 4,750 feet of climbing over seven miles.
Shortly before mile 20, the entrance into the mountain, Rutger was waiting again and ready to join me. That was a mandatory requirement — all athletes need to have a support runner go up the mountain with them. After briefly hugging my son, whom I hadn’t seen all day, we entered the trail. It immediately went straight up. Rutger helped me through extreme nausea which slowed us down for about one hour and was my darkest hour of the race. The body refused to work with me, but I was not going to give up. By the time we got to the summit of the first climb (above the finish), I started feeling better again and I knew that I still had something to give. Rutger’s support definitely kept me in the race during that time. After descending all the way to the bottom again, we had to climb the 2.5-mile Northface up to the finish. The last half mile was a series of brutal switchbacks and the “Stairway to Heaven.” You could hear the finish, but still had all those switchbacks ahead of you. The last switchbacks were wonderful. People were sitting on the sides and cheering and any pain that I might have felt was gone. Finishing was truly epic.
An extreme triathlon is indeed extreme. You have to train very hard to show up for something like that. You have to plan. You have to race with a plan. Not every workout will be fun. You have to be willing to tell your body that the race is over at the finish line and not when the body throws all kinds of good arguments to drop out at you. Swimming in the cold, murky ocean water for more than an hour pushes your limits. You have to dig deeper than at any other point or race to finish that run on the mountain at the end of the day. You see the mountain from far away, you know you have to go up, and then back down, and then back up.
I can’t think of any better place to train for an event like this than in the Gorge and with my friends from the Columbia Gorge Tri Club. In addition to my family’s support, it’s such a privilege to play with my friends here and then show up at what is part of the world’s hardest triathlon series and finish in 15th place. I would have been happy just finishing upright and in control of my bodily functions. I had to pinch myself when my placement was announced as I crossed the finish line. Living in the biggest outdoor gym of the world helps preparing for a race like the Alaskaman Extreme Tri.