The Gold Nugget Triathlon has survived snow, cold, bears and moose.
But the beloved for-women-only race almost didn’t survive the new Muldoon interchange.
The complicated link between Muldoon Road and Glenn Highway nearly doomed the race, which on Sunday will celebrate its 36th edition with a new finish line about a mile away from the traditional finish line at Bartlett High.
“We actually contemplated having last year be the last Gold Nugget Triathlon,” said Lia Keller, the president of the race’s board of directors.
“It was very emotional. Diane Barnett, one of the race founders, said, ‘I don’t want the race to be so different that it loses how special it is.’ It took us a couple months of meetings for us to decide we can keep the best parts of the race.”
What they couldn’t keep was the finish line.
The race will still start at Bartlett, but Keller said the finish line was moved to Pena Park – across the highway from Bartlett -- because the Department of Transportation won’t let race organizers stop traffic to allow some 1,600 participants return to the Bartlett side of the Glenn Highway during the running portion of the triathlon.
While touted as a more efficient way to move vehicle traffic, the new interchange isn’t racer-friendly, Keller said.
“If you’re walking from one side to the other, you have to hit the crosswalk button something like six times,” she said. “It’s really good for the flow of cars but not for the flow of people. We’d have to make every racer stop at every crossing.”
Before the interchange was redesigned, the race used a tunnel to get racers across the highway and was allowed to stop one lane of traffic on the old Muldoon off-ramp to take them back to Bartlett.
This year’s race will end at Pena Park, which is part of Centennial Park and the site of several soccer fields. It’s on the south side of the Glenn Highway.
Bartlett, on the north side of the highway, is being called “Race Central” -- it’s where the race begins in the swimming pool, it’s where athletes transition from the swim to the bike, and it’s where athletes and spectators will find food vendors, photo booths, a bouncy house and other fun features, like a booth where, for a small fee, girls and women can get their hair braided before the race – a nice option on a windy day.
No parking will be allowed at Pena Park or Bartlett -- race officials suggest parking at Tikahtnu Commons or the old Sam’s Club -- so shuttle buses will run between the finish line and the high school.
Buses will run roughly every 15 minutes or so, although there is not set time table, Keller said. Racers, who need to return to Bartlett to retrieve their bikes and any gear left at the swim-to-bike transition. will get preference over spectators when it comes to filling the buses.
“We’re encouraging spectators to walk over,” Keller said. It’s about one mile if you’re walking from the high school to the finish line and shorter if you’re going from Sam’s Club to the finish line.
The new finish line means the race will be about half a mile shorter than usual – the 4.1-mile run is now 3.5 miles. The bike is still 12 miles and the swim is still 500 yards.
Keller said race organizers rejected other ideas to deal with life after the new interchange because they didn’t want to reduce the number of participants in an already limited field.
The Gold Nugget is one of Alaska’s most popular races, but entries are capped at 1,600 due to logistics – not many more bicycles can fit in the Bartlett parking lot, Keller said.
Moving the race to Chugiak, which happened in 2009 when the Bartlett pool was shut down, wasn’t an option because the pool there is smaller and can’t easily handle as many swimmers, Keller said.
Making the course longer may have produced options for getting back on the Bartlett side of the highway, but a longer course may have deterred participants who trained for a sprint triathlon.
“We even talked about starting people at two different pools,” Keller said.
“… This keeps the spirit of the race there.”
The oldest no-males-allowed triathlon in the country, the Gold Nugget Triathlon celebrates fitness, participation and sisterhood. It has encouraged scores of Alaska women and girls to learn how to swim, and it’s so popular that each year the race hits its limit of 1,600 participants minutes after online registration starts.
It’s a day-long event, with the first swimmers hitting the water at 9 a.m. and the last at 3 p.m. The top-seeded racers are the first ones in the pool, so the winner should cross the finish line sometime around 10 a.m.
A new champion will be crowned this year, because three-time defending champ Kinsey Laine moved out of state and won’t be back to defend her crown.
Also new this year: A “breastaurant” -- a 40-foot motorhome available to lactating mothers in the Bartlett parking lot from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sponsored by the Geneva Woods Birthing Center, it comes with power outlets for breast pumps and storage space in a refrigerator.