Saturday, July 22, 2006

Running in Alaska

I was in Alaska this month for a couple of weeks. Summer is Alaska has got to be the best time and place on this planet for running. Long days and many trails. Anchorage, which is in the south, gets about 20 hours of daylight. Technically, the sun rises around 4 a.m. and sets around midnight at this time of the year (mid June to mid maJuly). However, even those 3-4 hours without the sun are kind of like a twilight zone - you can see everything quite well. The city seems to be crawling with trails. Two minutes into a trail and you don't feel that you are in a city. What this all means is that you can go out for a great run whenever you feel like it, without having to worry about the need to carry little LED lights or about getting back before it turns dark.

From Anchorage, I hopped on to Seward, a port city about 120 miles south and the site of the second oldest race in the USA - the Mt. Marathon race. This 3.5 mile race is held every year on the 4th of July and this year was the 79th edition. It starts from the town (at the intersection of 4th and Jefferson) and goes about a half mile on the streets before hitting the base of Mt. Marathon. What follows next is just under 1.5 miles of unmaintained trails that seriously question your ability to persevere, while taking you up 3022 feet (from the 30 feet elevation at the start), with the average slope being 38 degrees and the maximum being 60 degrees. Far from a little hike in the woods. (Check out the caution notice in the picture.) The total race is about 3.5 miles and the record for the course is 43 min 23 sec, set in 1981. Getting into the race is next to impossible if you are a first-time aspirant. You can pay your $45 application and hope it gets selected in the lottery. Most likely, you will end up writing it off as a donation. If not, there's always the auction for 10 slots, which is held the day before the race. This year the highest winning bid was $1170. During the July 4th weekend, the town's population swells from about 2500 to about 30,000.

I didn't make the selection cut, and didn't feel the desire to shell out a thousand bucks, and so, instead I decided to run (more like a fast hike) up Mt. Marathon by myself, a couple of days before the actual race. I made my way up slowly, struggling to summon all my horsepower in order to lift my weight against gravity and a much more formidable entity - the slope of the mountain. Combine this with the slippery trail and you find yourself in situations where you are hiking all hunched up (think of an imaginary 50 lb backpack on your back) or just plainly on all fours like a bear, except much slower. Time passed by, almost in slow-motion, until, finally, I found myself at the top, looking down below at an amazing view of the entire bay below. It's a beautiful sight from the top well worth all the trouble. Coming down is equally challening. It took me just under an hour to do the whole thing from the base of the mountain. After the hike, I fueled myself at the Resurrection Art Coffee House, a cute little coffee shop at the intersection of 3rd and Jefferson, followed by lunch at a Greek restaurant - Apollo. Salmon pizza! One of the best I've ever had. Seward is a cute little town. Check it out.

Another place to get in some great running is Denali National Park - about 240 miles north of Anchorage. Here, the sun sets after midnight and is back up around 3:30 a.m. I had one of the most memorable runs ever - at 2 a.m. Beautiful, surreal twilight - like the kind you see in some of the movies. I went for a 3 mile run along the road, with not a soul in sight. The only moving entity I encountered was a fox with a rabbit in its mouth - early breakfast. Denali is beautiful - and that's an understatement.

Alaska is an absolute paradise for running. At least, in the summer. Winter might be a different story, but that's another topic for another day.

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