State #18: Alaska
The Mayor’s Marathon
State number 18 is in the books! Alaska was one of the most incredible places I’ve visited, and the marathon was one of the most challenging courses I’ve run. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit this breathtakingly beautiful state and run the Mayor’s Marathon. Warning: this post will be quite long as I’m sure I’ll go off on tangents about my overall experience in the last frontier.
The Mayor’s Marathon is a Saturday marathon, and it was the least amount of recovery time I’ve ever had between races of that magnitude. We flew into Anchorage on Tuesday, but the marathon wasn’t until Saturday. So, I did what anyone would do before a marathon in Alaska: headed to Seward and spent three days kayaking, hiking, eating fresh salmon, and enjoying the midnight sun until long past my usual bedtime. Since I pushed the pace in Vancouver USA the previous Sunday, I decided not to do any running before the marathon in Anchorage, but I stayed active all week long. Much to my surprise, I wasn’t as sore as I’d expected after Vancouver. Just a little tightness in my left calf, which subsided a few days later. The rigorous hiking trails we explored in the days leading up to the marathon kept my legs fresh. I intended to do a few shakeout miles on Friday, but we woke up and hiked to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park instead. It was several miles of hiking and equivalent to the distance I would have run, so I called it even.
With only six days between the two races, I felt like I was on auto pilot. The expo was on Thursday and Friday afternoon, so we arrived at the expo in the middle of Friday afternoon. It was located in downtown Anchorage at the Sheraton. At the expo, the only item runners received was their bib: no bag, no swag, no frills. I expected that, since it is a relatively small event in relation to most other races. I also knew that since it was their 40th anniversary, many of the resources were being used to throw a party at the finish line. Overall, it was a small expo with few vendors. One of the vendors was the local running store, the Skinny Raven. They were selling some shirts for the race so I purchased one. The actual shirts for the race were distributed at the finish line. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a small race and I really wanted something to commemorate running in Alaska.
We stayed at a hostel in downtown Anchorage called the Bent Prop Inn. They have two locations, downtown and midtown. We stayed downtown since the finish line for the race was right around the corner. Besides the fact that I felt badly about having to wake up earlier than my friends on race morning, this quite possibly could have been the best place I’ve ever stayed prior to a race simply for its amenities. Being as it was a hostel, I purchased all of my usual pre-race food items at a local grocery store and stored them in the huge communal kitchen. The hostel and the kitchen were clean and well-stocked with any cooking appliance or utensil imaginable. As long as you purchased your own food and cleaned up after yourself, you could use whatever resources the hostel provided.
The strangest part about being in Alaska at this time of year is experiencing the summer solstice. It’s the land of the midnight sun, and it truly doesn’t get dark. At all. Ever. Wake up at 2am and you’ll still see rays of sunlight reflecting off of the mountain tops, illuminating the whole state. It’s the most incredible experience. Before going to Alaska, I was slightly concerned that I’d have trouble sleeping. After acclimating to this strange phenomenon, I ended up being completely fine. By the eve of the marathon, I slept like a rock and woke up still not feeling like I had to run another marathon. I went through all of my race morning rituals: a quick shower, braided my hair, got dressed, and headed down to the kitchen to brew coffee. I made my usually Starbucks and had all my pre race foods: unsweetened vanilla almond milk for the coffee, Ezekiel bread and almond butter. I headed to the starting line feeling somewhat prepared.
The other bonus to staying at the Bent Prop’s downtown location was how easy it made getting to the race. The starting line for the marathon and half marathon are in different locations, but they end at the same place. For the marathon, the start was located further away, at Bartlett High School. You could drive there, but I’m not sure what the situation was for getting your car back after the race was over. However, they had a great solution: three locations in Anchorage for runners to grab a shuttle to the starting line. There were three locations, and three pickup times for each location. You could opt for 6:10am, 6:40am, or 7am. I chose 6:40: not too early, but early enough that I could either grab the 7am or have my friends to cart me up to the start if something went terribly wrong. Luckily, it everything went smoothly and the bus arrived right on time. It was a small race, so the bus was only half full. The stop I chose was only two blocks from the hostel. It was honestly one of the most pleasant and easy race mornings I’ve ever had.
At the starting line, there was a line of porta-potties (they call them “Rent-A-Cans” in Alaska) and vans lined up with tables and plastic bags for runners to check their gear. Runners found the table that corresponded with their bib number and were taken care of by a volunteer. In addition to the amenities outside, the high school was open with facilities for use inside. I sat inside for awhile, but it was excessively warm in the school so I ended up going outside.
At the start, they sang the national anthem and played the Alaska flag song. There was a gun start and we were off. Strangely enough, the first 5.5ish miles were on the actual highway. In Alaska, they have lots of paths and trails everyehere, including ones that run along the highway. Seems odd, but the views were breathtaking. As you left the school and emerged onto the highway, you were surrounded by endless views of snow capped mountains. It’s like that every time you walk out your door in Alaska, but being immersed in it while running truly gives you the opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking surroundings.
Around mile 6, we left the highway and headed to the back roads of Anchorage. The course began to change terrain and get much more challenging for a number of reasons. The first relay exchange was around this time, and so you were faced with people entering the race with fresh legs. Not much of an issue at mile 6, but it gets a little harder to watch as the relay exchanges occur during the later miles of the race. Runners are entering the course with fresh legs but you’re beginning to get more and more fatigued. It kind of messes with your head. It’s not their fault that you chose the marathon over the relay, but it doesn’t make watching them start their leg and fly by you any more fun.
The second challenge is around mile 6.25. The asphalt is gone and your running along an unpaved road. Most of the back roads in Alaska are like that. It’s not the normal cinders I was used to: it was large rocks, making it easy to lose your footing. For the first 11 miles, I held a sub-8 minute pace and felt surprisingly strong. Somewhere after that poing, I realized I wasn’t used to this type of surface and slowed down significantly. My ankles got tired quickly and I rolled them quite a few times. I was still on a high from my PR from the week before so I just relaxed and enjoyed the course. As we continued along the unpaved roads, I noticed some signs posted along the trees warning people not to go off the road and into the surrounding fields. There was unexploded ammunition in the areas surrounding the roads from World War II, so we were basically running through a mine field! I thought that was pretty cool.
At mile 13.5, the terrain changed again. The unpaved roads took you to a trail head that led you through the woods of bear country. It was only wide enough for runners to run single file, and it was also easy to lose your footing. Rocks, tree roots, and little steam crossings added to the challenge. It was the middle of the woods, and there was an older woman standing along the courses ringing a bear bell. I knew I was in bear country, but I was still a bit naive – until we happened upon some pretty fresh bear scat. I didn’t see any wildlife (at least, not in Anchorage) but I ran with a slightly different awareness from that point on. I met a woman after the race who finished about an hour and a half behind me, and she said she saw a moose around mile 13. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see any wildlife during the race, but I was able to see lots of it in the week after the marathon.
Lets not forget another significant challenge that needs to be addressed: the state bird of Alaska. THE MOSQUITO. Not really the state bird, but it should be. Whether you go to run the race or visit the state, it’s probably your biggest threat. They barely even respond to bug sprays and laugh in the face of DEET. I didn’t use bug spray before the race because I figured I’d sweat it all off, but that was a dumb move. I should have at least put up a little fight, because I can’t even count the number of bug bites I came home with.
Around mile 17, we were back on paved roads and heading towards the city. Out of the woods and back on the pavement brought back the breathtaking views of the mountain ranges. A few miles on the roads and we hit the paved trails through the city. Anchorage has paved foot paths for runners and bikers go on for miles. The trails wind through the entire city and pass though parks, under the main roads, and remain virtually unseen to the people on the streets of Anchorage. The trails end near the water, and it’s up a steep hill through some residential neighborhoods to the finish line at Delaney Park.
The course was extremely challenging, but absolutely enjoyable. My only complaint about the course was at it never went through the streets of downtown Anchorage, only on the pedestrian trails. I only spent a few days in the city, but the downtown area is really interesting. 5th and 6th street, where it crosses with G and H streets has a lot of character. Since we stayed on 6th and G, we were in the center of it all and had the chance to experience downtown Anchorage.
Post Race Party
It was difficult to sprint to the finish because it finished on the grass in Delaney Park. My legs were finally tired from the previous week’s PR, sightseeing, and the varied terrain so I met my ultimate goal, which was to finish the race in under four hours. I ran it in 3:54. I didn’t have any time expectations for this race, but when I’m not racing, injured or pacing someone I try to break four hours. Each race is special to me regardless of time, especially when it means I could cross a state off of my list.
As I approached the finish line, I had tears in my eyes. I feel like finishing a race in Alaska was a monumental step towards achieving my goal. I often worried that I’d knock the lower 48 states off my list but never have the opportunity to make it to Hawaii or Alaska. As a teacher, I can’t really visit those states in the winter. If I’m traveling that far, I want to spend time there before and after the race, which is not really an option during the school year. I realize I’m not even halfway towards my goal, but I’ve already knocked off one of the more difficult states to travel to. It wasn’t even just the fact that I made it to Alaska that overwhelmed me with emotion. It was everything that led me up to that point. Every race and state checked off my list before this one. The spring marathon season replayed through my mind. Being part of the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy, and being told I couldn’t run any of these marathons because of a “stress fracture”. Driving practically to Philadelphia to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and slowly easing back into running at the Shires of Vermont marathon. It was all to get me to this moment, and I’m so thankful that I could still participate and finish with a smile on my face.
For a small town race, the medals were pretty sweet. Its a large silver medallion, and the front has the logo for the marathon, and the back has a map of the state of Alaska on it. The half marathoners have the same medal but smaller, with a copper finish and “half marathon” engraved on the medal. The shirts were equally as cool. Full marathoners got long sleeved tech tees in a burnt orange color, and half marathoners got blue short sleeved tech tees. I actually really like getting my shirt at the end of the race. Some people don’t like that, but I think it adds to the excitement and thrill of finishing a marathon.
Retrieving gear bags was simple and well organized. Once I found my stuff, I headed to the food tent. The usual selection was available- fruit, breads, and electrolyte replenishment drinks. Alaska is home to lots of great breweries, so Midnight Sun Brewing Company was the one that supported the race. If you ran the race and were of age, you got a free beer. I’m fairly certain that there was a band, but we were ready for some solid food and a shower so we didn’t hang around much longer. It was sunny and beautiful, and a great day to be a runner.
There’s so much more to say about Alaska. I could go on about the hours spent on the ocean kayaking, and miles of trails we hiked, the wildlife, and running in Denali. I could talk about the food, the breweries, and whitewater rafting through canyons. It was an incredible experience, and an incredible marathon.