Kenai River (ultra)Marathon

Warning: this does not end well.

Having felt very confident about my performance a week prior at Equinox 50K, I decided to squeeze one more race into the condensed Alaska running season. In its 3rd year, the Kenai River Marathon is a popular among runners in the southeast area of the state since it is the last option before winter. Winter, of course, being October.

It was odd to be scrambling for a local hotel and registering at packet pick up since I usually plan months in advance, but the upside was that I didn’t have time to get nervous. Because this was a small event of only about 200, including 70 full marathoners, I met many fellow participants at the spaghetti feed and Race Director’s welcome the night prior. I don’t mind missing these types of events for big city races, but for small events they are a must- you really get a feel for the local community and the area you’ll experience on race day.

The race began at 9 am, allowing me to get a much needed night of rest after an 8 hour drive down. Lining up with familiar faces, we braced ourselves for 20 mph gusts of wind that accompanied the already chilly morning. Cold is fine, but running in heavy wind is just miserable. Thoughts of similar conditions at Las Vegas Marathon and Ocean Drive Marathon were stirring in my head when the gun went off…

The first few miles took us around the small town of Kenai in before transitioning to a paved bike path leading to Soldonta. We got a separate start from the half marathoners, so the pack thinned out very quickly. I ran the first 5 miles a bit too fast at about 7:30 minutes each. I took a deliberate walk break at the first relay exchange and settled into a steady 8:20 pace, which was comfortable over mostly flat terrain.

At the half marathon point, I was pleased to see Amanda announce a 1:42. I hadn’t really been keeping an eye on the clock and just assumed the wind had slowed me down more. At this pace, I was on target to beat my PR of 3:31, which I’m not sure I can even claim anymore as it was achieved 2 years ago. Despite having run the Equinox 50K last week, my body felt great and the time boosted my confidence. I wanted a new PR.

That's me behind hat man and his very loyal pacer
The course is described as “scenic” but with the exception of Chugach Mountain range views, left a little to be desired when compared with others in Alaska.  More important, fellow runners were full of “Great work!” and “Atta Girl!”s ; volunteers were equally enthusiastic. I appreciated the fresh legs of relay runners, who helped me stay on pace. At 2:38, I had reached mile 20 in the fastest time in my running life.

Okay, so the bike got annoying after awhile...

Coming back into town at mile 25, there was a busy road crossing where the Kenai police had been redirecting or stopping traffic for race participants. I crossed the road and thanked the Officer, who pointed me to turn left. Given the aforementioned small event and windy conditions, there had been relatively few course marshals and/or markers all day. I saw one runner in the distance and assumed the left turn put me in the right direction to finish.

When Amanda notified me of my mile split (in this case, totaling the 26th mile) and there was no sign of a finish line in sight, I began to worry I had gone the wrong way. Dude in front of me kept turning around, probably beginning to have similar fears but reinforced by the fact that someone was on the same path. In another half mile, a volunteer from an earlier aid station pulled over and told both of us what I had suspected but didn’t want to accept: we were off the course. Apparently after the busy road left turn, there was an immediate right that would go straight to the finish.

I had been holding an adrenaline filled sub 8 minute miles during this confusion, but lost all motivation when it sunk in that I’d have to retrace my steps for over a mile plus run the correct final 1.2 miles of the course. I slowed to a 9 minute pace and my body was not hearing any other requests. The other guy flew by me as if he had intended to run 29 miles in the first place. I felt angry, embarrassed, frustrated and desperate.

"Direction is more important than speed" - unknown 

Though it would have been a nice outlet, there was really nobody to blame. It was the police officer’s job to get me across the road safely and he did exactly that. The runner in front of me was not an official race pacer. I had seen a map and briefing of the course at the spaghetti feed the night prior. Even now, my most rational explanation is that this was my 27th marathon and it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Crossing the finish line in 3:54, I earned 5th female overall, 3rd in my age group, 8000 additional steps on my pedometer for our challenge at work, and a medal that looks cute on my dog.

I’m still angry.

Equinox 50K- Fairbanks, Alaska

Billed as the second toughest marathon course in North America, the Equinox is not a race intended for PRs. In fact, the suggestion is to add 30-45 minutes to your flat land marathon time in an effort to estimate a finish. Having already secured my Alaska marathon (BQ!) at Mayor's in Anchorage, I chose the 50K option and got excited about the challenge.  
Elevation Profile
 At 31.25 miles, a 50K qualifies as an ultra marathon. I’d need both hands to count the number of times I heard, “That’s not much more- only a few miles more than the 26.2 of a marathon. It can’t be THAT much harder”. Having completed the Dances with Dirt 50K, my response is: 1. look at terrain before comparing sheer number of miles 2. Try that statement without whimpering at mile 28!

Ready to Run!

The Equinox is relatively small by lower 48 standards, with 700ish total participants in relay, marathon, and ultra events; however, those numbers are big for Alaska. Fairbanks is a weather gamble in mid September; I’m told one year they had to cancel the race due to snow and ice! This year, we were blessed with comfortable temperatures beginning in the mid 50s and steadily climbing to low 60s. Leaves on the trees were beautiful shades of gold and orange- a perfect Fall day.

After pre-race instructions from the Race Director, we lined up to begin the race and attack the first of many hills- a humbling 200 foot climb on single track path that quickly led us to the woods. The University’s ski trails are known for roots and ruts but I felt confident having already done this portion of the course during group training runs offered by Running Club North. I was able to settle into a steady pace much more quickly than usual.

Great mile 8
I got a mental boost from seeing Trey at mile 9, which marked the beginning of the 1800 foot climb up to Ester Dome. As expected, everyone slowed substantially at this point but lucky for us it was a less challenging surface- combination of paved and dirt road. Because it stretches out over a 4 mile climb, this wasn’t exactly a hill one could pick up the pace and charge up. Often in ultras, runners will conserve energy by walking up hills (preserving for the distance- an opportunity cost thing); however, walking 4 miles isn’t exactly the brightest strategy either.

As a dissociation technique, I used my mp3 player to climb Ester Dome. Vehicles were not allowed at all on this area of the course; while logistically challenging for the relay runners, was great not having to dodge cars while heading up the hill “plugged in”. I was actually surprised to check in with Amanda (my Garmin) to see I was maintaining sub 10 minute miles during the climb- a much faster pace than originally expected. I don’t want to give the RD any ideas, but a similar ascent over roots and rocks would have been pure hell. This was at least manageable hell!

The accomplishment of reaching the 2300 foot summit of Ester Dome was short-lived. At mile 13, I lost the headphones in order to focus on the next 5 miles of rolling hills and two-way traffic over a rugged single track path. It was demoralizing to finally be headed downhill, carefully choosing footing among the rocks only to have to come to a stop, turn around and start climbing back up again. A redeeming factor was seeing the other runners during this “out and back” portion- many smiles, thumbs up, and words of encouragement were traded. I gave special props to the other green bib 50K participants.

Mean mile 16
I got another much needed boost from Trey just before mile 17, where I thought I had met certain death for a third of a mile. The infamous “chute” of the Equinox course basically spits you down a 1000 foot descent along a fire break over rocks and ruts- it was scary. Another runner warned me about the number this does on one’s stomach before I approached the fully stocked aid station about a mile earlier…unfortunately, not everyone got that memo. There were sizeable pools of vomit at the bottom of the chute.

Quads burning, I headed back into the woods to take advantage of the gradual downhill section through a beautiful Birch forest. Continuing over a 1200 foot descent, mile 20 left the trail and greeted the pavement. With the help of fresh-legged relay participants, I was able to pick up the pace to 7 minute miles and make up for some of the earlier lost time. I was aware of being sore, but the physical pain in my body seemed to be separate from my mind. <--I know how Mr. Miyagi that sounds, but it’s true!

At just over mile 25, the 50K participants split from the marathoners and followed campus ski trails for the remaining 6 miles. Despite the more technical terrain, I was still maintaining sub 8 minute miles until mile 27, when I tripped over a root and fell. This definitely shook my confidence and it took a few minutes to settle back into it. I was the gal on the course talking out loud to herself: “You’re okay. Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down. You’re okay”. Insane in the membrane.

Just as I was lulled into a sense of complacency with the gentle trails along the final miles, the Equinox threw in one final test: a short, yet steep hill to climb and descend before the finish line. Somehow, it seemed fitting for this challenge. 
Tough run, Comrade.

I survived the Equinox!
I crossed the line a full hour earlier than expected in 4:59, earned 4th female overall in the 50K, and finally have an answer for those who ask which has been my FAVORITE race. 

Mayor's Marathon- Anchorage, Alaska

I have wanted to do the Mayor’s Midnight Sun marathon since 2007, when my roommate at the time came back from Anchorage raving about the scenic course. In the same breath we announced our move to Fairbanks earlier this year, I also signed up for this race! I was seriously overdue to run a marathon, having done my last 7 months ago in Arkansas.

Training began in mid March, also known on Alaska thermometers as “high of 5 degrees”. Lots of treadmill running. After the final snowfall in late April, it began warming up and I had excellent weather and 20+ hours of daylight during the months following for high mileage and doubles. Feeling pretty good about my progress, I was thinking about the possibility of a Boston qualifying (BQ) time. Then I read some reviews of the race.

I doubt that too many people set PRs on this course…the top finisher took 2:36, so that’s not a course for a Boston qualifier…..don't try and do any sort of PR; maybe even quit looking at the watch…it is not a BQ sort of race…Brutal course!

Say WHHAAAAAAAT? As it turns out, this race is a hilly combination of narrow bike paths, single track trail, and 8 miles of gravel (or as the reviews put it: “loose, golf ball size gravel”, “big, ankle-biting rocks”, “FML terrain"). Okay, cool…I found a gravel road and trained on it.  It takes a considerable amount of time and money to travel from Fairbanks; my BQ needed to be in state- no excuses!  

After a beautiful drive through Denali and down to Anchorage, I enjoyed the low key expo and stayed at the host hotel. This is a huge Leukemia Society Team In Training (TNT) event so many in the hotel were with them. Each of these folks had committed to a very challenging fundraising goal; I enjoyed conversations with a lot of their first time marathoners, each with an interesting story about why they were there.

The race morning shuttle to the start of this point to point course was, to put it lightly, CHAOS. I chalked it up to everyone else being as nervous as I was about the forecasted rain, but the combination of the busses being slightly late and the aforementioned group feeling like they had to do everything 20 deep didn’t help. The only calm people? Locals and/or Marathon Maniacs. An unofficial prerequisite for living in Alaska is to be chill (seriously, this state has sucked the Type A right out of me!) and Maniacs have enough experience to be cool with whatever amount of time given beforehand. By the time we made it to Bartlett High School for the start, there was a lot of loud, accented yelling…I can tell you exactly where the Northeast TNT chapter was at all times.

With 5 minutes to spare, we lined up for the start with runners representing 48 states and 7 Canadian provinces. With only 1000 or so marathoners, started separately and an hour earlier from the half, the narrow bike path was not an issue. As my roommate had reported 3 years earlier, it was a remarkably beautiful course. Even with the light showers that began around mile 5, Mount Sustina was visible and wildflowers decorated the grass in bright purple and yellow. Weather was perfect- about 60 degrees. The first 7 miles went by swiftly in just under an hour, an average of 8 minutes per mile.

Miles 7-15 were run on the gravel “Tank Trail”, just outside Fort Richardson Army Post. The gravel was exactly as others had described but I felt at an advantage having trained on similar terrain. I knew I would slow and had paced myself to lose about 30 seconds per mile; unfortunately, paired with some pretty relentless uphill sections, 2 stream crossings, and a heavy downpour of rain I slowed to 8:45-9 minute miles. The Ultima sports drink provided on course did not help. Peee-youke.  

I wasn’t physically hurting but admittedly frustrated, thus hurting mentally earlier in the race than usual. The TNT support along the course was especially helpful at these times and they recognized the Maniac jerseys as much as their own purple. I was right on point for a BQ at the half marathon point with a time just under 1 hour 50 minutes. This was also the location for the first sensor mat, which makes sense for keeping track of runners but negates the purpose of having a chip. No sensor mat at the start = no chip time = wish I had started more toward the front!

Even though I was finally in a marathon that allowed headphones, my mp3 broke the week prior and my old backup was giving me issues the night before. This left me with an audio book on player that I purposely treated myself to in the second half: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw”. Yes, this is the third in a series and I had already been through the other two. Reading levels be darned, it helped charge me up and down the hills and I was holding onto a 8:20ish pace through mile 20, entering the Tony Knowles coastal trail at 2 hours 47 minutes. By this time, it had stopped raining and the hurt had “flipped”: physically, my quads were spent from the hills but mentally I felt great as a result of getting faster in the late miles. I continued to speed up, coming back to an average of 8 minute miles for the final 4.

The largest hill at Mayor’s comes at mile 25.5, connecting with the half marathon where there are a significant number of pack runners. In all my painful glory I charged up this hill, using the Jen Cox mantra “I didn’t train to WALK”. Apparently the halfers had the opposite strategy- as I sped up, they slowed. It looked like they barged in on a race by mistake during their Saturday walk. Instead of empowering me, I sort of felt like an ass. Sort of, but not enough to follow suit.

A lap around the track at West Anchorage High led me to the finish line, where I crossed at a Boston Qualifying time of 3:37:53- gun times only here in Alaska! I was 2nd in my 25-29 age group, beaten by a girl from…wait for it…North Carolina! I was also the 15th female of 384 and part of the small percentage that BQed; however, both stats are somewhat skewed given the higher than normal field of first time TNT runners. Nonetheless, my proudest finish and my 25th state in an effort to do all 50 plus DC.  Would definitely recommend Mayor's to other 50 staters looking for their AK. Pavel approved the medal, too.