Miles and miles: Alaska and
the Anchorage Marathon

The Kenai Peninsula
as seen across the Turnagain Arm
from the Seward Highway.

Thanks to Doug Rohde for giving me the photo album organizing software he wrote. Click on any image on this page to see a larger version, and then use your back button to get back here. (The navigational icons on the album pages don't go back to this page.)

It all started when my coworker Charles Kilby convinced me to join Team in Training, a Leukemia Society group that trains for athletic fundraising events in exotic locations such as Honolulu, Hawaii and Helena, Montana. For several years running they have organized an event around the annual Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. As I had dreamed of both running a marathon (inspired by Neil) and visiting Alaska (inspired by books), this event seemed like a masterfully efficient use of vacation time.

I signed up for Team in Training in March and began training for the marathon by adhering to a relaxed regimen for first-time marathoners who only aspire to finish the race alive. I soon realized that while my fitness goals were modest, it would be next to impossible for me to reach the $4100 fundraising minimum required by Team in Training for them to pay for the trip, so I signed up for the marathon as an independent runner and resolved to pay my own way to Alaska.

Hostel terrain

I landed at about 8 o'clock Alaska time last Wednesday (midnight my time; most of Alaska is one time zone west of US Pacific time.) It was bright and sunny out, and the pilot told us to expect it to stay that way for several more hours.

I spent one of those precious hours standing in line to get my rental car and then hurried to my hostel to check in. I chose a hostel because of the tight supply of hotel rooms in Anchorage during this time of the year. (I was able to reserve a Holiday Inn room for two nights before the Saturday marathon, but was on my own for the rest of the trip.)

But I came to wish that I had done away with the Holiday Inn altogether. Never having hostelled before, I found the experience very enlightening. At the Spenard Hostel, you pay $15 a night for the right to use a bunk bed in one of a few dorm rooms in the house. Everything is shared and based on mutual trust. (I must have seemed naive when I asked one of the "houseparents" for a key upon checking in, because I learned that they simply keep all the doors open 24/7.) So other than physical security, everything you could want from a hotel is there if you're comfortable with not having your bed made for you. Plus you can get food, bikes, and Internet access (yay!) for free or for a modest fee based on an honor system.

Charles and I outside the Spenard Hostel.

In return for all this, you're expected to do one household chore of some kind for every night that you stay. (In retrospect, I should have tried Adam's trick of cleaning the kitchen three times in rapid succession for my three chores.) And you're encouraged to walk the communal dog, Skeeter. It's kind of like home.

One of the biggest selling points are the other guests, some of whom seem sort of permanent, and many of whom are experts on having a good time in the area. When I first entered, a dozen or so people, young and old, were lying around the couches of the common rooms in a torpor. Initially it was kind of awkward because I felt pretty invisible. No one really seemed to know each other or have anything to do, except a handful of people in the "conversation room" who were chatting about when they worked together at Prudhoe Bay (way, way, way up north.) I eventually got myself invited to go with some of the residents who were planning to hang out at Chilkoot Charlie's, a popular lounge closeby.

Chilkoot Charlie's motto: We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.

Two hard rock bands were there, and they were surprisingly good. The group whose name I remember called themselves the Tall Cool Ones, and their style was somewhat rock-a-billy. After enough of that, I stepped outside to see the summer solstice, which was officially at 11:38pm that night. The sky was a gorgeous orangish bluish reddish purple. Naturally, my camera was out of battery power.

(I later learned that while summer solstice occurs on June 21 in the Lower 48, it can be earlier for Alaskans because of the time zone difference. Being the sort who likes to be technically correct about milestones, I was very glad I had chosen to come a day earlier than I originally planned.)

I stayed a little later than the other hostelers and walked back home at around 2am in the morning. I couldn't convince myself that it was night, as it seemed exactly like an overcast Boston day. Though the sun had officially set, it was more than light enough out to walk safely and comfortably. In fact I passed dozens of other fine Anchorage citizens who were stumbling home at that time too (although, granted, they seemed to have the excuse of drunkenness.) After getting lost a few times in my usual way, I arrived back at 3am and unwittingly smacked my head against the top of my bunk while searching for a foothold to get to the top bed that was reserved for me. One of the Prudhoe Bay guys was bunking below me and murmured something that I missed because of the throbbing pain in my forehead.

Along the Seward Highway (southbound from Anchorage)

My first full day started only about four hours later at 7am -- I was raring to go. I briefly drove around the perimeter of the city where I enjoyed the first of several mediocre, highly overpriced breakfasts with glacially slow service. (The entire service economy in Alaska seemed about 20% slower and 20% more expensive than what my readings had already steeled me for. But it felt fine, because the people ripping me off were at least that much friendlier than elsewhere.)

I then headed south down the Seward Highway, which connects Anchorage with Seward, a shipping and fishing village. My aim wasn't to get to Seward but to see a handful of sights reachable in a day trip.

The first half of the highway runs alongside the steep, rocky slopes of Chugach National Forest. Suspiciously, some sheep were perched on these slopes at precisely the mile marker my tour book predicted they'd appear. These so-called Dall sheep are adorable, but timid, so they stay far above the crowd of spectators that gather below to take their pictures. My cheap digital camera rendered the sheep as little white blips even on the highest zoom setting, but I hope you can get some sense of how cute they are.

Alaska Railroad parallels the Seward highway south of Anchorage.

Dall sheep.

Dall sheep, up close and pixelated.

Portage Glacier was my first major stop. (Click on that link to see some photos far better than mine.) A few miles from the highway there's a viewing area for this glacier that also serves as a visitor's center for the Chugach Forest.

I continued south down the highway, along Turnagain Pass to the top of the Kenai peninsula to an early gold rush discovery site. A slightly sozzled fisherman there insisted he take a picture of me [below right]. (When he learned that I was in the marathon he joked that he wouldn't be able to escape me were he to run away with my camera, but frankly I was so mad at the camera by then that I would have let him go.)

Otherworldly landscape of the Portage Glacier.

Standing near the confluence of Mills Creek and Canyon Creek on the Kenai Peninsula, a gold rush center.

Another place called Hope

I then decided to visit a town on the peninsula called Hope, where I spent much of the day. Hope is at the end of a 20 mile road that winds along Turnagain Arm from the Seward Highway, and so it was sufficiently far from Anchorage to satisfy my cheesy desire to see a remote Alaskan town.

I guess it had all of the elements I was hoping for. The first building I ran into was Tito's Discovery Cafe, where they had only root beer to drink (they were out of everything else.) The kid who waited tables there had just graduated from the high school down the road, a K12 with a total of 30 students. Everyone knows his name, he said. It made me happy to hear about his ambitions in life but sad to think that his plans would probably mean leaving Hope. What becomes of places like Hope when a whole generation feels the same way?

Down the road from this cafe was the Discovery Cafe's only competition, the Seaview Cafe [below left] situated in what I guess you could call downtown Hope. (I'm not disparaging Hope -- two cafes in a 200-person town is still two more than there are in 60,000-person Waltham, MA.)

The Seaview Cafe in
the center of Hope.

Hope Post Office
("Hope it gets there"?)

A solitary white horse across a little whitewater creek in Hope.

It was in the nearby convenience and gift store that I met the drunken proprietress, who called herself Dru. (I was told that the summer solstice has an inebriating effect on people on Alaska, but I think it's the alcohol.) She sipped some red liquid from a little dixie cup as she told me the stories behind her homemade postcards, one of which was related in a way that eludes me to how her son was almost cast in a movie role and her daughter's broken bike. I didn't understand, but I bought the postcards from her, which had this web address on them. (Warning: This page plays a MIDI rendition of Stairway to Heaven that gets increasingly irritating. But it does have a picture of Dru, which I neglected to take.)

Dru also gave me a walking map of the town and directions to get to the post office so that I could buy stamps for the cards. After navigating the dirt roads I was surprised to find a standalone post office building staffed with a highly professional postmaster tending to a few dozen P.O. boxes.

I mailed the postcards and went back to Dru's, where she gave me another of her favorite cards for free and exclaimed "How could I not!" when I wished her a good day. Is alcohol really a depressant?

The Chugatch Forest tells me it's the "Land of Many Uses" on my return trip. A bit defensive, if you ask me. It's not like it needs to be useful.

Back to Anchorage

All the signs call it a municipality, not a city. Half of Alaska lives there, and the other quarter million people like to say that Anchorage is "only half an hour's drive from Alaska". It was born as a construction campsite for the Alaskan Railroad not too terribly long ago, so it's fairly modern.

And that's nice, because it means that, unlike Boston for example, the city was designed from scratch to be accommodating to traffic. You can usually drive from one place to another without swearing at other people. Signage -- normally a pet peeve of mine -- is clear and crisp, even redundant. The flow of traffic is so polite and civilized that I felt like an aggressive driver.

Downtown Anchorage seen across the Knik Arm from Earthquake Park.

Downtown Anchorage. Flower baskets adorn most lampposts in the city during the summer.

Ship Creek, a popular weekend spot for Anchorage fishermen.

Of course, inner-city driving is not a big issue for Alaskans, because most of their destinations are elsewhere and there just aren't that many people. The radio stations have traffic reports, but they seemed a little like a big inside joke on the tourists.

On Friday, my coworker Charles arrived in town with his girlfriend Sondra, and we ate lunch downtown and planned out the touring we'd do together in the coming days. We seemed to temporarily forget that there was this little matter of 26.2 miles to run the next day.

Charles and Sondra enjoy filtering through those tourist brochures you get at hotels.

Charles, Sondra and I standing next to the Once in a Blue Moose shop in Anchorage.

Something is very Timothy Leary about this photo.

After a little slide show on the Northern Lights (which can only be seen for real during the winter when it's dark) and some touring of the downtown solstice fair, Sondra and Charles wanted to go shopping. Not in downtown Anchorage, mind you, but...well, it became clear that they really came to Alaska for the new Wal-Mart:

The Anchorage Wal-Mart.

I think the purpose was to get some Gatorade for all of us, and some batteries for my voracious camera, but an hour later we emerged from Wal-Mart with Charles and Sondra holding a lot more: a new camera, clothes, a lifetime supply of Gatorade, touristy gifts, candy, books, handbags, and for all I knew a home entertainment center and a washer/dryer.

I have to admit, I bought some gifts there too (the prices were so compelling!). And thinking that I'd benefit from a sleeveless shirt for the marathon, I also bought a ridiculous orange jersey for $4.45.

We argued a lot about Wal-Mart and whether it destroys charm. Sondra insisted that everyone benefits from Wal-Mart's presence in Anchorage. Consumers are happy to pay much lower prices, the city is happy to have the jobs, and Sam Walton, rest his soul, extends his empire to the 49th state. I think she even made the argument that the overpriced "mom and pop" shops that I like so much enjoy the competition. Indeed, when she went into a convenience store the next day asking for band-aids, the clerk advised Sondra to check Wal-Mart, the only place likely to sell them. (I am baffled -- there doesn't seem to be a single pharmacy in all of Anchorage outside of the Wal-Mart. Are people here that healthy?)

I guess the mom and pop shops compete by filling niche markets that Wal-Mart overlooks, like the fast food Mongolian Beef market, which is represented at several convenience marts:

A local Mongolian Beef joint.

Later that day, Charles and Sondra went off to their official Team in Training pre-marathon carbo loading dinner, and I went off to one that was sponsored by the city. Mine was held at the city's spiffy history museum. I was surprised to find on display there a photo of the check that was used to purchase Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars. Actually, I guess I was just surprised to find that the transaction was carried out with a check. What if it had bounced!

Landscaping alongside the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Marathon Day

A digital camera is a bad companion for a 26.2 mile run, especially an inferior digital camera. So I don't have too many pictures from Saturday, marathon day. It's too bad, because there was some spectacular scenery. The starting line was at a high school east of downtown and the finish line was at a high school west of downtown, but from the route map we appeared to be going through some very interesting terrain inside of a military reservation and a forest preserve.

I was very nervous as I stood with Charles and Sondra in my orange five dollar jersey, but I figured that no matter what happened it would be over soon, where "soon" was a function of how hard I tried.

Me in my ridiculous orange jersey, and Charles in royal purple.

Jared the Subway guy poses with an unknown runner.

The starting line. These guys beat the hell out of me in the marathon.

The Subway fast food chain was a sponsor, and Jared, the guy who lost a bazillion pounds eating Subway sandwiches, was signing autographs and posing for pictures near the starting line. (He apparently wasn't in the race, though.) Our marathon bibs even had coupons for free Subway subs attached, almost as though our route would take us past a franchise where the 3000 of us could stop in and chow down.

The marathon started out great for me. I passed people who were far more fit than me for the first 16 miles, averaging about 9.5 minutes per mile without any concern for the long term. The miles buzzed by carelessly, over bike paths, gravel trails, muddy tank paths, bridges. Past bodies of water of all sizes and breathtaking mountains. Through forests, parks, tunnels. It was quite hilly compared to my training, most of which was on the relatively flat Minuteman Bikeway west of Boston, but I wasn't concerned.

The 2000 or so officially registered Team in Training people were wearing their official purple jerseys, and they were getting selective cheers from the official Team in Training spectators. The Team in Training runners had their state of origin on their jerseys, so they were often referred to by their home state. I, on the other hand, was simply "Orange Guy" or "2083". "Go Orange Guy!" "Looking good, 2083!". These cheers came mostly from the Anchorage residents who I think were compensating for the Team in Training dominance.

I was very pleased with my performance. This, I later realized, was called "hubris", and it had all the tragic consequences. At mile 16, more runners started to pass me than vice versa, and by mile 18 it seemed like the whole world was passing me. My orange jersey might as well have been the slow-moving-vehicle sign that it looked like. I think I remember one spectator saying something to the effect of, "Why haven't we seen John yet? Surely he runs faster than Orange Guy."

I then realized that I was slowing down because my legs were in pain and my stride was restricted by the increasing tightness in, oh, what's the Latin word for all of one's lower body muscles collectively?

Why did I have to realize this then? And why couldn't I have ignored it?

But it got much, much worse. I don't even really know why. I had encountered a subdued version of the same pain in my longer training runs, but this particular instance of it was sending me a clear signal to give up. I think it was partly the unevenness of the gravel and dirt surfaces that I didn't prepare for in my training. But a simpler explanation is that I only trained once past 18 miles and I just wasn't ready for more; or that I started out too fast, despite all of the advice I'd heard to go out slow.

Paranoia set in. Songs came on my pocket radio specifically to belittle me, like "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to" and "You've lost that loving it's gone, gone gone..."

A good-natured spectator dressed in Elizabethan garb, perhaps an official volunteer, greeted the runners at mile 20 with cheerful taunts. To me, she said, and I remember the words precisely: "Thy steps flag. Seek succor at the rest stop just beyond yonder hill. Just six wee miles left!" She emphasized wee. I wanted to kill her. There are no "wee" miles, especially after mile 20.

After a water stop near mile 22 I stopped for almost ten minutes to stretch. The effect of stretching was the difference between night and day, which is to say, no difference at all. I finally decided that I would destroy myself if I tried to continue running, as I was at that point emitting audible, involuntary squeaks. Maybe controlling those thoughts and those squeaks is the very defining challenge of a successful marathon, but at that point "success" meant nothing to me. I was broken, and totally ready to embrace failure. For most of the remainder of the marathon I walked or trotted or limped.

But, and perhaps this is proof that it really was all mental: At mile 25 I asked the time from a spectator and learned that in 15 minutes I'd be over 5 hours. I was somehow able to get myself to run the rest of the way, and limped past the finish line only 11 minutes later with a total time of 4:56:15. (This was about the 35th percentile in my age/gender class, but I hear there's going to be a curve.)

Some military-looking volunteers stared at me pityingly while they removed the timing chip from my shoe. I probably said something like "quadristrings" when they asked me where it hurt. I was so dazed by the swirl of endorphins and pain signals that were battling each other in my brain that I walked around aimlessly for a half hour bumping into people in a weird elated amnesia.

I don't even remember when or where Charles and Sondra finished. (Actually, my forgetfulness here is part of an agreement we had before the race. He requires his sponsors to double their pledges if they want to find out his finishing time.)

I do remember later being hungry, and inhaling a reindeer sausage (yum!) that I bought from a profiteering food vendor at the finish line festival. I then promptly fell asleep on the grass.

Later that day Charles and Sondra snuck me into their Team in Training celebration party, where it amazed me to see runners dancing to the Electric Slide, among others, while we struggled to walk to our tables.

Along the Glenn Highway (northbound from Anchorage)

On my last day in Alaska we took a day trip up north together. Charles and Sondra and I had reasoned that the best thing we could do the day after a marathon was to sit in a cramped car for hours on end.

We passed through the towns of Palmer and then Wasilla, stopping to experience some local flavor at each town before doubling back from Wasilla to rejoin the Glenn Highway, which runs north from Anchorage.

Staggering distances on the Glenn Highway. And these aren't big towns. (Taken a mile north of Palmer.)

We did get out to see some nature, at one point even hiking a couple of miles in our enfeebled condition to see a falls [below, center]. The Glenn Highway offers scenery that easily rivals the Seward, as it runs along some fantastic gorges and rivers. One favorite lookout point [below right] was the most amazing scene in my whole trip, but my camera makes it look dreary. You can't really see the mountains in it that made the whole scene so majestic to me.

Mirror Lake, where I accidentally went adrift on a little wooden raft.

Thunderbird Falls, an easy hike from the highway.

A bleak view of the Eklutna gorge that would be stunning through the lens of any other camera.

The highlight of the trip was the Matanuska Glacier, our furthest venture north. For a little fee we were able to drive down a dusty trail to the glacier and hike onto its surface. On the face of it, standing on a lot of ice doesn't seem so novel, especially if you live in Boston. But when you're up there you get a sense that it's a living, breathing entity. And indeed it is moving, and you can watch it move drop by drop, imagining it shaping the landscape around you ever so slowly.

The Matanuska Glacier from afar.

Standing on top of it.

Water flows beneath the ice.

Watch your step.

On our trip back from Matanuska I lamented that I hadn't yet seen a moose. It wasn't much later that the traffic on the highway slowed to a standstill, with a dozen or more cars in front of mine. I wondered what could be the problem, since it was such an odd place for a traffic jam. I gasped when we rolled past an emergency truck carrying a big, bloodied, and very much non-living moose. A few carlengths later we saw an RV overturned and torn to shreds in the oncoming traffic lane. It wasn't clear where the passengers were -- there didn't seem to be an ambulance, but a crowd of people seemed to have the situation under control. (I'm hoping that the passengers were safely among the crowd of people, but I couldn't tell for sure.) It was horrifying to think that the moose could have had such an effect on so large a vehicle, but not implausible -- moose are enormous creatures, up to 10 feet tall and 1400 pounds -- and they cause fatal accidents all the time in Alaska and elsewhere up north.

At that point, shuddering to think of what it could do to a Ford Contour, I stopped hoping to see a moose. But we did, actually -- a live one, half an hour later. For the rest of the trip I had prepared myself mentally for a moose to spring out of the woods at any moment, but the one we saw had the decency to present itself about a quarter mile ahead of us. I stopped a good twenty feet in front of it and it darted into the woods before any of us could get a picture. But I was grateful that my parting moose imagery wasn't of the mangled beast behind us.

My flight left at 11:25pm on Sunday night and connected in Minneapolis at 9am the next day. The plane flew through daylight the entire time. When I arrived back on the east coast I checked my email (of course!) and found this message waiting from Stan, my training mentor and a true marathon runner:
Date: Mon, 25 Jun 2001 11:23:38 -0400
From: Stan Chen 

Hey Dooglus,

How did it go?  I see you finished in 4:56, just behind Jeanine Hearn,
a 48-year-old housewife from central Ohio.  Well, I'm sure you'll be
able to beat her next year.

Well, I'm not sure if this Jeanine really exists or not, but if so she doesn't have to worry about competition from me next year. I do plan to go back to Alaska, and to run another marathon, at some point, but it's unlikely I'll do both at the same time again. I mean, you know, I want to give the other runners a chance...