The Last Frontier
Alaskans seem to embrace their long winters more than anywhere else I’ve seen in the north. Their affinity for crazy adventure races is a testament to their celebration of northern living. The state hosts a number of major international races, including the Iditarod Trail Invitational (1,000 miles), Mount Marathon and the Alaskaman Triathlon, which is regarded as the world’s toughest Ironman Triathlon.
Perhaps there is something about living in the “last frontier” that breeds these tough endurance athletes and ridiculous races in the most northern state.
I did get the sense that these people enjoyed the idea of being on the fringe and relished pushing the limits. Brody Hanson, a 25 mile cross country skier said he was using this race as training for the White Mountains 100 – another endurance race at the end of March.
During the pre-race meeting, Bobby Gillis informed everyone that the only aid station was at mile 14. Aid stations serve as refuges for racers to rest and stock up on nutrition before continuing on. They are also morale boosters; another box on your mental checklist to cross off before the finish line.
I avoid checking my GPS to see my mileage because I find this information can put you in a negative headspace and GPS’s can give false distances. I passed my fiancé, Gemma, who had been running ahead of me for much of the race.
Gemma looked back and said, “We’re at mile 15, did we somehow pass the Aid Station?”
“No way,” I replied confidently, but then began reflecting on the potential spots we actually could have missed a fork in the trail.
There were tracks from racers ahead of me, so at the very least, I knew we were on the right trail – or we were all on the wrong trail. I had just enough food to make it to the end, but not knowing what mile you’re at or if you’ve somehow missed an aid station can quickly eat away at a tired, low energy individual.
I decided to put my head down and accept that the aid station will come when it comes. Worrying about it would not help me get there any faster.
At last, after 16 miles, we stumbled into the aid station. I was elated to hear that we were indeed at mile 16 and that the remaining trail was primarily down hill. The aid crew greeted us with warm Gatorade, water, gels, chips and other sweet and salty snacks.
The crew was in great spirits and confirmed that the trail only gets better; though the fact that they’d all snowmobiled up there had not escaped me.
A few runners and skiers joined the aid station and shared the same elation I had minutes earlier; relieved that the infamous 14 mile aid station did indeed exist and that their GPS watches were not malfunctioning.
Finish & Warming Hut
The remaining course was a beautiful, winding trail through tightly packed groves of aspens. Light snow had begun to fall, giving the trail a fairytale-like feel. I put in some music to take my mind off the pain in my IT band and achilles and enjoyed the meander of the trail. At this point in the race, the choice of skis was really paying off. Every 20 minutes, I had to step aside to let a yahooing skier whip by me. First the ravens, now the skiers.
After a long, but beautiful seven hours on the trail, I passed the “one mile to go” marker.
I picked up the pace, ignored the pain and crossed the finish line to a 4-person crew and my fiancé, who had taken off ahead of me after the aid station.
The warming hut was filled with fellow racers who were enjoying a barbecue and sharing race stories by the wood stove.
For some, the trail had taken everything they had and now sat recovering by the fire, eating a burger. The atmosphere was welcoming and felt quintessentially Alaskan. It didn’t seem to matter who had won or what discipline you raced in, everyone had gone out to push themselves on the challenging course in difficult conditions.
This shared suffering is an experience that somehow bonds you with the other racers – it’s what makes endurance races so memorable and addictive.