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.