By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Mitch Linebarger had never run a marathon before, let alone a triathlon.
Yet there he was comfortably finishing the inaugural running of Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. Linebarger had been training for the July 15 race since its Feb. 4 sign up.
“I just wanted to accomplish something big for my 40th,” said the Girdwood local, “so I signed up the day before my 40th birthday.”
The triathlon began in Seward with a 2.6-mile swim in Resurrection Bay, a 112-mile bike ride from Seward to Bird Creek, and from there finished with a 27-mile run ending at the top of Alyeska’s tram in Girdwood.
Despite the magnitude of the physical accomplishment, Linebarger down plays it. He simply wanted to see if he could do it. He was not in the triathlon to compete, which shaped his perspective running the different parts of the race.
“All I wanted to do was finish it,” Linebarger said. “That was it. It wasn’t a competition for me. I’m not a competitive person.”
He trained for swimming in Summit Lake and a couple of lakes in Portage Valley. Ten days before the triathlon, Linebarger swam 2.6 miles in Summit Lake to gauge his time, which was 1:40. Bike training consisted of riding the Bird to Gird Bike Path twice a week or more and assorted longer rides, including once to Turnagain Pass.
His jobs also prepared him for the physical endurance. He has been a wildland firefighter for the past 15 years and he works for the U.S. Forest Service in the cabins program. The latter job requires him to regularly hike up to Crow Pass Cabin and Spencer Cabin as well as other places that require effort to reach. His work was part of his training. His experience as a firefighter factored in as well.
“Some days you’re working 16 hours a day and you’re hiking 10+ miles,” Linebarger said. “I come from a pretty physical background as far as work. It has really made me aware I can do it.”
He also added that he did think finishing the triathlon was exceptional.
“You never know,” Linebarger said. “Most people could do this. There were tons of folks that were definitely a lot older than I. They did it just fine.”
Linebarger felt mild stress before the race while thinking about it, particularly the swimming segment. He felt confident, but the changing tide and possible bad weather were a concern.
“Can I do this,” Linebarger said, “or am I going to swim too slowly or am I not going to beat the tide?”
He learned the answer to his concerns very early on the morning of race day.
“The swim was actually super calming,” Linebarger said. “The weather was perfect. There was no wind for the waves, which is good. I knew I had at least another hour and twenty minutes before the tide started switching. I wanted to get as far as possible before it started switching. The water wasn’t cold. It was actually warmer than the lakes, so that was nice. It was foggy. I really enjoyed the swim, which is hard to believe.”
Once the swim was underway, Linebarger figured out his breathing and where he was in the pack. He did not rush his swim and finished somewhere over 1:40. He just wanted to make the cut-off time. He relaxed in the transition area with his wife and support team and took the event in. He said the swim set the tone for the day and he was pretty relaxed after it.
Then Linebarger switched to the bike portion of the race, and trouble began. Issues with his bike computer got him off to a slow start, yet he had time to spare with the 2.5-hour cut-off time. He was looking to sustain his energy and finish.
Then the first of three flat tires struck. The first was easy to repair, but it took most of his carbon dioxide. Fifteen minutes later, Linebarger had another flat but didn’t have enough carbon dioxide in the little can to re-inflate the tire. From the Seward Highway/Sterling Highway junction, he started walking the bike up into Turnagain Pass. With no cell reception, he couldn’t contact his support team for help.
Linebarger eventually contacted his support team and received assistance inflating the tire. However, he was running short on time before the cut-off and needed to pick up the pace.
“I really started hustling,” Linebarger said, “and it actually felt really good. I felt strong on the bike, and I finally started pushing myself to where I really needed to be.”
On the third flat, he received inflation from his support team to get him peddling again. Delays from the three flats left Linebarger with little time to spare to reach Bird Creek, or so he thought. He increased his speed to a more urgent pace.
“In my mind,” Linebarger said, “I was thinking the cut-off for the bike was at two o’clock, and I hadn’t even made it to Bird yet. I was in Bird Flat, and I knew I had to hustle. I biked really hard into Bird. I got there at 2:02, thinking that was the cut-off, and I was already out of the race, but luckily it was three. I had some time to spare.”
After some rest, it was time to start running the final portion of the race, a 27-mile run from Bird Creek, through Girdwood and up Mt. Alyeska. The first 12 miles were on the Bird to Gird Bike Path before turning into Girdwood and heading to the 5K Nordic Ski Loop. Then the course took runners to the Daylodge for a medical check before completing the final 7 miles.
This section of the course took runners to Mt. Alyeska’s summit, back down to the base of the tram and back to the upper tram to finish. It’s a total of 4,750 feet of elevation gain in the last 7 miles, and runners are required to travel with a support partner.
On the way, Linebarger made a special stop near Birdhouse Loop and Alyeska Highway to greet a cheering crowd of supporters. His parents, family and friends gave him ice, cantaloupe and a beer. His wife Jessica Moore gave him a hug. He looked in good spirits, was making jokes and said he felt great at this point in the race.
“I would say that was one of the best parts of the race, just being with friends and family and having that support.”
Linebarger described his pace as jogging rather than running. He said he walked uphill to conserve energy and said the ascents of Mt. Alyeska were easy because the steep incline dictates a slower pace. He was excited to finish the race with a hike because he found a good pace and didn’t feel any pressure.
“The finish was awesome,” Linebarger said. “Coming up the North Face [Trail], I had tons of energy. I was excited to be done. My parents were up there. It was really exciting.”
He said he felt great after the race, even a few hours and a few days later.
“No super soreness,” Linebarger said. “I would describe it like a long day at work. You just trudge through it.”
Speaking a few days after the race, Linebarger is not sure if he will sign up for next year’s event.
“I couldn’t tell you at this point, not to say that I don’t want to do it,” Linebarger said. “I would love to do it. It’s a really expensive ordeal. That’s the hard part. It’s motivating. It feels good to accomplish something. If you want to do it, you can.”
What really stood out to Linebarger was the support he received to help him accomplish his goal.
“I had so much local support and friends and family,” Linebarger said. “It was an experience that really connected me to the community. I focused on it. I wore a t-shirt from Chugach Adventures to support them and felt good about that. I was able to talk about the energy of the race to other folks. It felt good to support the community in that way.”