Anchorage Daily News — The Gold Nugget Triathlon came equipped with space heaters, chemical hand warmers and fleece Sunday morning, and even those weren't enough to ward off goose bumps and chattering teeth.
In a race that will forever be remembered as the Cold Nugget Triathlon, Amber Stull defended her title to lead a field of about 1,500 girls and women who ignored harsh conditions -- temperatures in the 30s, ice on parts of the course -- to participate in Alaska's biggest triathlon.
"Look! My water's frozen!" second-place finisher Erin Beam said as she tried to drink from a water bottle at the finish line. "I feel so numb."
After swimming 500 yards in the steamy Bartlett High pool, triathletes headed outside to bike 12 miles and run 4.1 miles. The transition from the bike to the run, during which many changed shoes, proved particularly challenging.
"I couldn't feel to get my foot in my shoe," said Beam, 42.
The sun shone brightly -- a blessing after a Friday snowstorm that had some wondering if Sunday's race would even happen. But the mercury didn't respond until late in the morning, when temperatures crept into the 40s.
"The cold was brutal," said Stull, 35, who put on a puffy winter coat after she finished. "I couldn't feel anything from my hips down."
Stull triumphed in 1 hour, 12 minutes, 17.6 seconds, finishing more than two minutes ahead of Beam (1:14:21.2). Danelle Winn (1:14:46.7) placed third for the second straight year.
Stull trailed eight-time Gold Nugget champion Shannon Donley by more than a minute midway through the bike race when a flat tire ended Donley's race.
Donley's flat happened near Arctic Valley on a rocky stretch of pavement that has gotten rockier as winter yields to spring. She had just passed the turnaround point of the bike course when her tire blew.
"It's really bumpy," Donley said. "There's a lot of rocks and potholes, and there's only so much you can ride around."
Bill Fleming, a race volunteer driving ahead of the leaders, said Donley's lead was 75 seconds and growing when she went out of the race. He loaded Donley's bike into his SUV, and Stull recognized the bike as she cycled past.
"It distracted me," she said. "I was a little worried about her. I didn't know if she went down, if she was hypothermic, or if at the very least she had a mechanical (problem)."
At the time, Stull said, a couple of other racers were right with her. She cemented her victory during the run, meeting her goal of averaging 6:40 miles.
Beam was a happy runner-up, especially given the circumstances of her race.
"I took a spill at the (bike) turnaround," she said. "Then my chain came off and I thought, well, this is the year I'm not finishing."
But she persevered, as did so many others.
"Everyone earned some bragging rights today," said Jill McLeod, a member of the ConocoPhillips team. "What an amazing group of women we are to race in freezing temperatures. There are a whole lot of tough mamas in this state."
Morgan Lash, a 15-year-old freshman from Grace Christian, made it through the cold because she was used to it. On Saturday, Lash and the Grizzlies clinched a berth in the state high school soccer tournament by placing third in the region tournament in Soldotna, where they played in rain, wind and hail.
Annette Cartier, a racer in the 50-55 age group, made it through by covering her head and neck while leaving most of the rest of her flesh unprotected. Determined to save time by minimizing her transition times, Cartier wore her swimsuit and swim cap the entire race, adding only a wool gaiter once she got out of the pool. No tights, no sleeves, just a swimsuit, swim cap and gaiter.
For the mother-daughter team of Hollie and Lauren Beeby, the cold was just one of many things to deal with. The two were among more than 500 first-time triathletes in the race, so their whole day was an adventure.
Wearing matching fleece skirts, matching pink nail polish and identical hairdos featuring numerous braids and strings, they raced to Bartlett from Tikahtnu Commons, worried that they were late, only to learn they had time to spare.
Hollie, 33, said she tried unsuccessfully to get into the Gold Nugget for three straight years -- the race is so popular that the limit of 1,500 racers is reached the same day entries open, meaning many are turned away.
But Lauren, 11, got in this year through the race's lottery system. And because Lauren is a minor, Hollie was allowed into the race too.
"The two of us would go to the gym every night," Hollie said. "I lost 18 pounds in two months and this one," she said with a nod to Lauren, "toned all up."
The Beebys made a "vision board" and filled it with inspiring quotes and photos. Then they got matching T-shirts and put some of the quotes on them. Lauren, a fifth grader at Polaris K-12, pointed out one of her favorites: "Forget the glass slippers. This princess wears running shoes."
"Young girls need to be taught it's OK to explore how far your body can go," Hollie said. "I've learned so much about my daughter. She's much stronger than I ever thought.
"We're both stronger than we thought."
That's practically the mantra of the Gold Nugget Triathlon, a 30-year-old race beloved by veterans and newcomers for its warm, welcoming atmosphere and its just-do-it attitude. Sunday's race drew triathletes as old as 80 and as young as 9.
"I feel great pride to be a part of this," Hollie Beeby said. "No one's a snob here. On Facebook they all answer your questions, and none of them seem put off by our amateur ways.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
Gold Nugget Triathlon
1) Amber Stull 1:12:17.6; 2) Erin Beam 1:14:21.2; 3) Danelle Winn 1:14:46.7; 4) Laura Gardner 1:14:51.8; 5) Beth Zirbes 1:15:00.0; 6) Danielle Dalton 1:15:15.4; 7) Kinsey Loan 1:15:36.3; 8) Carrie Setian 1:16:31.4; 9) Jenny Kimball 1:16:57.8; 10) Natasha Bergt 1:17:04.3.