Juneau Hosts Alaska’s First Ironman Triathlon
Swim. Bike. Run.
Those three words encapsulate the Ironman triathlon, considered one of the most grueling single-day sports events in the world. The “epic race” tests the endurance of competitors, who attempt to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon, usually within a 17-hour time limit.
On August 7, the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) is hosting hundreds of competitors in Alaska’s first-ever full-distance Ironman triathlon.
“I think this is going to be a huge, positive impact on the community,” says Kara Tetley, destination marketing manager for Travel Juneau. “I think that being able to showcase Alaska is very, very cool for our community.”
The event is the first of three full Ironman triathlons to be held in Juneau over the next three years.
“Our intentions are to be in places for long periods of time, so we secure our relationships [with host cities] at three-year increments,” says Ironman Regional Director Dave Christen. “It’s hugely exciting. This is an opportunity for people to do something they’ve never done before.”
Race to the Capital
In 2022, fifty-one full Ironman triathlons are taking place around the world. When deciding where to race, Christen says athletes choose an event that will provide “a premier experience. They want to take their time, their energy, their family, and they want to create a memory.”
Race directors keep that in mind when scouting race locations, and Juneau fits the bill. Ironman officials considered various Alaska locations as potential host sites, but Christen says Juneau captured his attention.
“Juneau just kept coming back to me on a couple of fronts,” he says. “It’s the state capital. It’s a temperate rainforest. It has all the pieces that make Juneau special as a cruise ship destination. Once we got an eye on Juneau with what we thought would be possible there, we thought that was the right fit right off the bat.”
Christen reached out to Travel Juneau to gauge its interest in serving as an event partner. His initial pitch, sent via email, had them feeling more than a bit skeptical.
“Vicki Logan, our convention sales manager, thought, ‘Is this real?’” Tetley says with a laugh. “We don’t get a lot of these things.”
When they realized Christen was serious, Travel Juneau connected Christen with local officials, including the CBJ, Juneau Police Department, Capital City Fire/Rescue, and the US Coast Guard, to begin conversations about whether Juneau could accommodate not just the race but the large influx of visitors during the peak of cruise ship season.
The frigid water of Auke Lake, seen from Glacier Highway, where Ironman competitors start the day with a 2.4-mile swim, ending at the UAS campus.
“The discussions centered around: Is it going to be feasible? How is this going to look for housing, the course routes, [and] security? What is the impact going to be on businesses and residents?” Tetley says of the conversations, which occurred over nine months. “And they decided it was actually going to be a great thing.”
Though Juneau is not the smallest city to ever host a full Ironman, officials were cognizant of making sure the event didn’t overwhelm residents and businesses. The field size was kept strategically smaller; Ironman doesn’t release an exact participant count before race day, but Tetley says Travel Juneau expects visitor numbers similar to Celebration, the biennial festival of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures held in June. The course route was designed to avoid downtown tourist traffic and Mendenhall Glacier. Thunder Mountain High School in Mendenhall Valley is the site of Ironman Village, which serves as athlete central leading up to the race.
The triathlon starts with a swim at Auke Lake before competitors transition to the 112-mile bike ride, which is two loops along Glacier Highway. The 26.2-mile marathon takes competitors along Glacier Highway, Montana Creek Road, and portions of Mendenhall Loop Road, away from the glacier.
“We worked with CBJ to figure out what would be possible,” Christen says. “I think we picked the right number [of participants]. We’ve got an event that will basically stay away from all the cruise traffic and all of the cruise activities. Really, it was only going to work one way in Juneau, and if it wasn’t going to work, we would’ve figured that out right away.”
Designing the Ironman course was easy. The real challenge, like most things in Alaska, was making sure they had all the parts necessary to make it happen.
“We were booked up in less than 24 hours [after] the announcement… We even rented our own house out, and now we need to figure out where to stay. All good problems to have.”
Ironing Things Out
Race officials experienced firsthand Alaska’s reliance on the barge system for getting goods delivered, but Christen says thanks to connections Travel Juneau helped facilitate with local vendors and some modifications to normal business practices, even that wasn’t as big an obstacle as he anticipated.
“I thought it was going to be harder to get some things,” he says.
Housing the athletes and their families was another initial concern, especially given that they would be competing for bed space with independent travelers.
“Juneau has 1,200 hotel and regular bed and breakfast rooms,” says Craig Dahl, executive director of the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce. “Add to that the spouses who travel and a very large media entourage, [and] the number of people coming to the event quickly grows. The supply of rooms doesn’t meet the demand.”
From the staging area at Thunder Mountain High School, the marathon-length running leg follows part of Glacier Highway, passing by the starting area for the swimming stage in Auke Lake.
Jess Keeler, who owns Auke Lake Bed and Breakfast with her husband, experienced the demand immediately.
“We were booked up in less than 24 hours [after] the announcement,” she says. “I have had some cancellations, but they were rebooked before I could even call anyone back on my waitlist. We even rented our own house out, and now we need to figure out where to stay. All good problems to have.”
Tetley says Ironman officials reassured Travel Juneau that residents of host communities are typically excited to pitch in and help house competitors, whether that’s opening their homes or, like Keeler, renting their home and finding alternate accommodations for the duration of the event.
Part of the challenge too, she says, was the excitement of competitors unaccustomed to doing things on Alaska time.
“I think the challenge was the competitors, they kind of wanted a lot of this done right away, and in Juneau, we move a little slow,” she says. “But from what we’ve found, everything is rolling pretty smoothly at this point.”
A Multi-Million-Dollar Boost
As a community whose economy relies heavily on the travel industry, the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a blow to Juneau. Cruise ship dockings were at zero in 2020 and only 10 percent of normal in 2021, according to data from the Southeast Conference. Statewide, the Alaska Travel Industry Association reports that air travel to Alaska dropped 58 percent from 2019 to 2020.
The Ironman, then, provides a welcome boost to the capital city. Tetley says that while Travel Juneau will know more about the actual economic impact once the season is over, its conservative estimate is that Ironman will inject $4 million into Juneau’s economy.
Christen puts that estimate even higher. He says a regular, large-scale Ironman can bring anywhere from $10 million to $15 million. Even when scaled back for Juneau’s smaller field, he expects revenue in the range of $9 million to $10 million in each of the three years. And, unlike other host cities, he figures the city will “recoup all the economic impact. People can’t spend money anywhere else” because Juneau is geographically isolated.
Ironman makes a point of working with local vendors and suppliers to ensure that as much revenue as possible remains in the host community.
“We don’t ever want to be seen as a group that pops in with circus tents and then pops out,” Christen says. “We want to become a thread in the fabric that is Juneau.”
On the event side, there are operational costs, like permits and rental space, as well as costs to rent tents, porta-potties, and other equipment. Local restaurants and caterers provide food and other vendors provide race-related services.
For instance, Cycle Alaska is serving as tech support for the race. Co-owner John McConnochie says the event “is going to be a huge boost [for the store] in a lot of different ways.”
Cycle Alaska is tuning up bikes, both in-store and at Ironman Village, he says, at racers’ expense. They are also assembling and disassembling bikes and selling jerseys, caps, jackets, and other items.
“The day of the event, we’ll have a couple of people at the transition, and we’ll have three vehicles that will be on the road,” McConnochie says. “We’re going to have vehicles out with technicians, supplies, inner tubes, tires, chains, so we can do basic repairs.” Those costs, he says, are invoiced directly to Ironman.
The race itself isn’t the only source of revenue. Christen says the typical Ironman athlete is in town for four and a half days, and many bring their family to make it a vacation. For the Juneau race, he says officials are hearing that many competitors are planning to stay even longer, with some extending their visit beyond Juneau.
“The piece that’s interesting about Juneau is that people will extend their stay, they might even pop outside of Juneau,” Christen says. “This economic impact will hit not just Juneau, but the state in different ways. People will use this opportunity to go see different parts of the state.”
Discussions in the Ironman Alaska Facebook group bear that out.
“I call it a race-cation,” says Andy Reece of Orlando, Florida, who made plans to spend a week before and after the race in Juneau with his two children. This is Reece’s thirty-second Ironman and his kids, who are both adults now, often accompany him.
“Having an Ironman in Juneau was an incentive to visit,” he says. “It’s a fun opportunity to see someplace new.”
For Adrien Busekist, who is coming from Louisiana with her husband and two children, Juneau serves as a springboard to the rest of Alaska. “This race really only got scheduled because [my husband] knows a surefire way to get me to travel somewhere is to book a race,” she says. “My husband is plotting the itinerary and looking at the Fairbanks and Anchorage areas. He wants to see Denali. We want our kids to see a glacier before they no longer exist. But I’m unclear on what else.”
Alex Overmiller also plans to travel across the state. Formerly stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Overmiller, his wife, and two children are driving from North Carolina and exploring mainland Alaska before arriving in Juneau, where his parents are meeting them.
“We plan on driving up through Canada via the Alcan [and] will visit friends in Fairbanks and Anchorage prior to the race,” he says. “We will also likely make a trip down to Valdez for some fishing. We will take the ferry from Haines to Juneau for the race, and then ferry back out to Haines before driving back to Anchorage to end our trip.”
Ironman also awards grants to local nonprofits through its Ironman Foundation and is incorporating Alaska Native culture into the event, something Christen says happened organically.
“We’ve had the Sealaska Heritage Institute working alongside us to tell their story alongside our story,” he says. “Artist Crystal Worl [of Trickster Company] designed our logo. We have these tie-ins that made it special and beautiful and truly Juneau.”
That, he says, is what makes Ironman Alaska so unique.