Today, Katrina Olichwier is going to see what she is made of.
At 4:45 a.m. — 7:45 here — she and more than 200 others were expected to hit the chilly waters of Resurrection Bay, a bay on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, for a 2.6-mile swim.
Once the swim is complete, she will hop on her bike for a 113-mile ride through the Alaska wilderness, followed by a 26.2-mile run — all while carrying bear spray and wearing bear bells.
“They say this race isn’t about time,” she said of the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon, billed as 141.8 miles of pure triathlon in untamed wilderness from Seward to Girdwood. “It’s about finishing.
“My only goal is to finish and finish safely, and then to enjoy Alaska,” said Olichwier, a 28-year-old rural Chippewa Falls mother of two.
She has enlisted her older brothers, Phil and Paul Cigan, to make sure she does both,
but she signed Paul up to run the last 10 miles of the race with her — a requirement —
without his knowledge. Brother and sister have to finish. (”He trains for the Birkie,” she said, laughing. “He’ll be fine.”)
Family and friends can track her progress through the RaceJoy app — her bib number is 150 — and send songs, messages and cheers to her cellphone, which she must have with her during the bike and run portions of the race, to encourage her on.
“That’s going to be great because I’m not going to be going through towns with people holding signs (with words of encouragement) like I’m used to,” Olichwier said.
Her three main cheerleaders — husband, Jesse, son, Landon, 8, and daughter, Aspen, 6 — won’t be there, but she is counting on her brothers and other racers to get her through.
Les Welch, a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the Chippewa Valley Family YMCA in Chippewa Falls, will be one of those tracking Olichwier’s progress.
“It was something I knew she would do,” said Welch, who once trained Olichwier. “That’s the kind of person she is. She is all out.”
While Olichwier has participated in other triathlons, the Alaskaman is going to be challenging, said Welch, who has competed in more than 30 triathlons himself and hopes to participate in Alaskaman in the future.
The event includes swimming in 40- to 50-degree water in an open-ocean bay in full-length wet suits, booties and gloves; biking along the Seward Highway, where vehicular traffic will be traveling at speeds of 55 to 65 the majority of the time and riders have to carry repair tools, gear and first aid supplies; and running along mostly unpaved areas and up a mountain.
The bike course has a total of 4,635 feet and run course about 7,000 feet of elevation gain, and wildlife, including grizzly bears and moose, could pose challenges along both. The bay, where the swim course is, also has jellyfish and an apex predator, the orca, also known as a killer whale.
In 2017, 35 percent of the people who registered for the Alaskaman didn’t start, according to race statistics. Olichwier figured at least some changed their minds because of the extreme nature of the event. Of those that did start, 80 percent finished.
Olichwier, who signed up for the Alaskaman in October, is hoping to be among those who do this year, and she has set a goal of finishing in 15 to 17 hours.
“I feel like the hay is in the barn and neatly stacked,” she said, referring to the countless hours she has spent running, biking and swimming to train for the event.
Getting ready for the race also has required a lot of planning. Racers and their support crew (Paul and Phil) are responsible for the competitor’s hydration, nutrition and safety throughout the majority of the event.
For 2018, 228 people, including Olichwier, signed up for the Alaskaman. Of those, 18 percent are women, according to the race website. Participants are from 21 countries and 33 states. Olichwier is the only one from Wisconsin, but Chippewa Falls native Jason Verbracken, who now lives in California, is competing.
“The Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon is not for the faint of heart or ill-prepared,” according to the 2018 athlete guide. “This triathlon is extreme in every sense of the word. The distances are long, … and the weather and grade of climb on both the bike and run courses are enough to challenge even the most experienced, physically strong and mentally resilient athletes on the planet. … Take signing up for this event very, very seriously.”
‘I love competing’
Olichwier signed up for her first triathlon in 2015, and she competed in Ironman Wisconsin, a classic triathlon in the heart of downtown Madison, in 2016 and 2017.
“I love competing,” said Olichwier, a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. “I don’t do it for medals. Running, swimming and biking are my outlet.”
She promised her husband she wasn’t going to compete in another Ironman in 2018.
“This technically isn’t an Ironman,” she said of the Alaskaman, chuckling.
Having always wanted to go to Alaska, Olichwier pitched the trip to her brothers as their annual siblings’ vacation. Paul and Phil were in. The trio left Thursday, and while they made it to Anchorage safely after some delays, her bike, gear she has been purchasing for the past six months and luggage didn’t.
“Instantly, my gut said I’m out,” Olichwier said in a Facebook post Friday night.
However, the race director said he would ask around, and Olichwier sent out a Facebook message on the race site.
“Within hours, I (had) all the gear that I’d need,” she wrote. “I’ve met the kindest people within the last eight hours of being in Alaska. I’m appreciative beyond words can explain.”
Today, she is using all borrowed gear, including a bike, except for a brand new pair of shoes she purchased. But, that doesn’t matter. She is competing and getting to see Alaska.
“I’ve never felt, ‘Can I do this?’” she said. “I think I can, and I want to enjoy it.”
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