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.