The 2015 Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon, which took place on Saturday, June 20, 2015, was probably the most unusual and exhilarating “traditional” race in which I’ve ever participated. After six marathons, 25 half marathons, and countless other running/fitness events, that’s really saying something. Plus it makes for a real “gotcha” of an opening sentence, and that’s half the battle right there, GI Joe notwithstanding.
So then, what exactly made this particular event so noteworthy? Was it the location in the far-flung reaches of North America? The relatively sparse number of participants, resulting in an open and non-crowded course? The numerous views of wilderness and wildlife afforded by the route? The combination of roads, gravel, trails, and hills? The weather and running conditions? Pretzels? Some guy named “Bill” who kept putting up strange yet endearing motivational posters throughout the race? Grilled cheese sandwiches??
Actually, I think that covers it. Goodnight folks! Here’s the vi– Oh pick up your jaw, I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that. We’ve developed a solid relationship over the years here at Hokeyblog, and when it comes to race reviews my job is to bring you both the noise and the funk. So let’s get cracking.
Let’s begin with a real simple question:
Even avoiding the existential answers to this conundrum (e.g. “Why not?”, “Because it’s there…”, etc.), this is an easy one. Any running geek worth their salt loves a good racecation, and the aptly motto’ed “The Last Frontier” made a fine choice for this Florida kid. I pretty much had to jump at the chance to run somewhere with real scenery: mountains, hills, trails, streams, cooler weather, less urban sprawl, wildlife… and what could provide that better than Alaska? Plus I was able to notch up another state in my ongoing, unofficial “Run 50 States or Something” quest, bringing my grand total up to … three. Well, four if you count Washington DC, and I was a stone’s throw from Virginia during that one.
And finally, our running club Friends In Training had scheduled this run as our annual destination trip, so the timing of it couldn’t have been better.
Which leads us into…
Training For Alaska
As mentioned earlier… I’m a Florida dude. South Florida, Fort Lauderdale to be specific, and here’s a list of things we really don’t have in Florida: 1) Normalcy, 2) Sanity, and 3) HILLS, the latter of which being the most critical element of our Alaska training. South Florida is as flat as a pancake and as steamy hot as a rain forest. We knew the race was going to incorporate a lot of hills, which meant one thing and one thing only: bridge repeats. I usually incorporate some bridge repeats as part of my long runs, but for this specific training we headed down to the Rickenbacker Causeway in Key Biscayne, and ran back-and-forth over the Powell Bridge for a distance between 10 and 21 miles. Dull as dirt? Maybe. But with the Intracoastal on one side and the wide expanse of Biscayne Bay on the other, you simply couldn’t beat the view:
To practice trail running (and maintain our incline fitness), we also made pit stops to Vista View Park in Davie, FL. There a former county landfill had been transformed into artificial hills, trails, and paths, providing ample practice to run on grass, gravel, and dirt while also traversing up and down these inclines. It takes a bit of training to maintain stride while remaining aware of and proactive with your footing. Especially as a trail-running newbie, you absolutely need to be aware of the terrain on which you’re running, and to be able to anticipate its make-up and how you want your feet to land. That means a lot more focus on the ground ahead of you. One rolled ankle can result in a really bad day. The Vista View training was definitely more beneficial than running up and down bridges for miles on end, but both ended up being essential as part of our race prep.
On top of all that training of course is the usual speedwork, tempo runs, flat long runs, cross-training, etc. Twenty-six-point-two miles is still a long way to run and a long time on your feet… anyway let’s flash forward to:
Travel and Touring Alaska
These will be a series of separate posts, as everything contained therein would be outside the scope of my race review. So keep checking back for our trip review and Alaska highlights posts. They’re coming. Promise!
We hopped a chartered bus to the race expo, taking place at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. Given the arena location, I wondered how big the expo was going to be. As it turns out, the answer was “not very”, but certainly big enough for what was needed. After gathering outside for some adorkable group pics…
… all that was left was to head inside and grab our race swag. Given that this was a smaller-sized race, there was barely anything of a wait, really. Just the usual walk up to the desk, show ID, and get your bib and race bag. Interesting to note that they were NOT handing out race shirts at the Expo. The shirts were FINISHER shirts, meaning you got yours after you crossed the Finish Line and not a single moment sooner. Nifty! You really had to earn your race shirt.
I should also take the time to discuss how there were actually four races taking place during the event: the Marathon, Half Marathon, 4-Miler, and Youth Cup. The Marathon offered a four-person relay option (each participant running 6.5 miles), whereas the Half Marathon had a Buddy option that allowed teams of two or even three runners to run the Half in legs. The Marathon and Half Marathon started in different locations, and ran on entirely different courses (save for the last mile, which everyone completed together).
Moving on now… after getting our bibs and race bags, we spent some time perusing the vendors. There really wasn’t anything all that out-of-the-ordinary there; just the essentials, really: gels, compression gear, socks, shirts, ear-buds, and local vendors and run clubs hawking their wares. I bought some Gu, walked the aisles, took some pics, and ended up killing time outside until it was time to take off for a day of putzing around downtown Anchorage.
Here are some bizarre expo highlights?
Dinner that night was at a local Italian eatery, using one of their banquet rooms to house our large gang of peeps. I won’t mention the name of the restaurant because the catered food was terrible, but it got the job done. Afterwards we made it back to the hotel — it was 8PM but looked and felt like, oh, let’s say 2:30 PM — and got ready for the next day with the usual assembling of the gear and flat runner. My alarm was set for 5AM and I was out and asleep by just before 10PM.
Rise and shine! I had shaved and showered the night before, so it didn’t take all that long to get ready to meet the gang out in the lobby at 5:45AM. This time around I was wearing a blue long-sleeved tech shirt, CW-X compression shorts in black and blue, blue CEP compression calf sleeves, a blue Halo headband, and a pair of Hoka One-One Rapa Nui 2 ATR shoes — not blue, but absolute uniformity is boring anyhow. But yes, Running Buddy Kristi and I were both wearing blue that day, for a gosh darned good reason that I won’t mention here. I also had a Fitletic belt to house my Gu gels, Hammer Endurolyte salt supplements, and clip-on Bluetooth speakers. My trusty Armpocket was there to hold my cell phone. On my left wrist was my super-cool Garmin 920XT uber-badass running-dork watch to track my progress and intervals. On my right wrist was my trusty Batman sweatband, a gift from my buddy Chris. And finally, a pair of cool blue running shades, because of course.
Here’s the usual pre-race hotel pic:
The marathoners and half-marathoners were going to different start locations and beginning their races at different times, so us Marathoners met at 5:45 to assemble, catch our bus, and pose for wonderful group pics like this one here:
After that silliness, we loaded up into our bus on the way to Bartlett High School, the start line for the Marathon. The race was scheduled to begin at 7:30 AM, and we arrived sometime around 6:30. It was a cloudy, cold morning, especially for us South Floridians — windy, a bit damp (but not rainy), and cool in the low/mid 50s. Absolutely PERFECT running weather, but enough to send us scurrying indoors while waiting for the race to begin. The school interior reminded me of that from The Breakfast Club, for some reason. It had that “feel”, ya know? I resisted the urge to run through the halls singing about wanting to be an Air Force Ranger. Life’s too short.
Here’s a collage of all the dorky pics we ended up taking while waiting:
And here’s our cool group shot:
Eventually we moseyed on down to the Start Line and got into position, ready to begin our adventure. It began with the presentation of the flags and a pre-recorded broadcast of Alaska’s Flag Song, sung by the late Mike McDonald. I wanted to record the entire ceremony, but I kept forgettin’.
Please someone somewhere tell me you got that…
Afterward we had a soulful rendition of the National Anthem — listen we might have been a stone’s throw from Sarah Palin’s Russian neighbors or Santa’s Slave Pens, but we were still in America goshdurnit! — and by just around 7:30 AM the countdown began and with some the fanfare of airhorns and cheering, we were off on our 26.2-mile adventure through the trails, streets, and wilderness of Anchorage, Alaska. The 2015 Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon was off and running!
Let’s begin, as always, with a look at our Marathon course, courtesy of my Garmin 920XT and Google Maps:
This scenic, wilderness-laden course took us across and over roads, trails, streams, and wildlife throughout Anchorage its surrounding parks and foothills! After leaving Bartlett High School, we headed north-east adjacent to the Glenn Highway, looping around at Mile 4 to the south-east. At around mile 5.5, the path took us south-east down Arctic Valley Road until we reached Oilwell Road. This dirt trail took us uphill and in a westward direction until we turned south at the Bulldog Trail, spending nearly 7 miles travelling through trails, woods, rolling hills, and wilderness. The grass trails turned back into pavement at Basher Drive and Campbell Airstrip Road, which led north out of the wilderness and parks, turning west onto East Tudor Road around roughly Mile 18. A series of turns onto Doctor Martin Luther King Jr Avenue, Campbell Creek Trail, and University Lake Trail had us turning west and north until we were moving throughout the scenic Goose Lake Park on the APU Trail. Mile 22 brought us westward on the Chester Creek Trail, past scenic homes, Davenport Fields, and the Chester Creek Greenbelt Park, depositing us at Westchester Lagoon and Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park at mile 25. From there it was a last-minute push up and down the local neighborhood streets before we finally reached the Finish Line at western edge of Delaney Park in downtown Anchorage.
WHEW! Even typing that made me a little winded…
Kristi and I set off at an even pace with 4:1 intervals, with absolutely zero expectations or hopes of running at a competitive pace. We were there to just enjoy the scenery and have fun, period. Certainly the weather was cooperating nicely. The race started at about 55 degrees with cool and light breezes, cloudy skies and overcast weather but with no rain, ensuring comfortable running conditions. Actually it felt perfect to me. There was no sun bearing down on us, the humidity level was perfect (cool Alaska humidity sure as heck beats steamy Florida humidity any day), and the lack of rain meant no muddy, slippery, unsafe conditions on the gravel, dirt, and trails.
The first four miles mostly took place on a paved trail adjacent to the Glenn Highway. Things were a little tight here but definitely manageable. We even made friendly conversation with lots of fellow runners, including a group of Marathon Maniacs from all over the country. It seemed that the race was a destination event for lots of people. One Maniac I spoke with was running his 96th marathon in his 48th state. My God. This was number 6 for me. I better get crackin’…
Our awesome buddy Greg, who ran the entire race snapping photos with his buttkickin’ SLR camera, was up ahead and managed to snatch this pic of Kristi and I as we passed Ship Creek:
We got a lot of cheers from spectators and volunteers alike, calling out to us with supportive cheers of “Go Blue Team!” This is gonna make Chicago in October all the more interesting 🙂
Right around mile 4 we looped around the D Street exit and began a south-west push to Arctic Valley Road. Surrounded by trees, hills, streams, and with mountain peaks in the background, I was surprised to find a golf course nestled back there, but it was one hell of a day to be outdoors. Disconcertingly, I also noticed I was starting feel my energy ebb a bit somewhere before Mile 6, which was more than a bit alarming. Thankfully the next hydration station, nestled just at about mile 6, was stocked with not only water and energy drinks, but also cupfuls of pretzels and orange slices. Talk about a second wind — the sudden ingestion of salt and fructose recharged my body instantly. Which was good, because the turn onto Oilwell Road was not only on dirt and gravel, but also entirely uphill. No problem. We had that covered. It barely felt like work.
I should mention that Miles 6 through 18 were almost entirely on dirt roads, gravel roads, wilderness grass trails, or on paved streets through almost completely automobile-free parklands. I had heard nightmare stories about the gravel and rocks as big as softballs, but we found the trails very reasonable to navigate and posed no more difficulty than anything we trained on. Actually, I think Vista View back in Davie, FL was a lot tougher on the system. Of course if it had been raining, it would have been one giant mud slop. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. We had fantastic running conditions.
Then out of nowhere we passed this strange, random collection of buildings in the middle of nowhere.
I haven’t the slightest…
My stomach had not been cooperating well over the previous few days, which meant several porto stops along the way. Since we were running in areas not immediately accessible to automobiles, this meant random porto units dropped off throughout the trails and forests. Let’s just say that, as a result of living with UC, I always run with a reasonable supply of flushable wipes and hand sanitizing gel. They came in handy and were needed, although most places we stopped were well stocked. For the places that weren’t… we were ready. Phew!
Meanwhile, I couldn’t get enough of running through the lush forested areas and parklands. We especially loved when the Bulldog Trail went from a dirt road to little more than a well-traveled wilderness trail. There was nothing but grass and dirt under our feet, in an expanse that could fit maybe two runners across, up and down and through the forest. It was heavenly. Kristi and I kept a sharp lookout for any wildlife we could see, but alas, our efforts were in vain. Other FIT buddies behind us were able to spot a moose and took a bunch of moose selfies. I’m more than a bit envious. But with scenery like this, I wasn’t complaining.
Here’s what the trail portion of the marathon looked like Now imagine scenery like this going on for somewhere along two miles. Pictures along can’t do it justice, but we’ll try:
I was a little sad leaving the wilderness trail portion of the race, because of its pristine beauty and serenity, but I also have to admit: the Mile 15 Hydration Station? It was like an oasis in the desert. After emerging from an area that provided plenty of isolation and personal space to run your own race, free from being crowded up by other runners, it started to feel a wee bit lonely out there. Plus we were in need of refreshment (and I needed yet another porto break). All of the sudden we were in the warm, waiting, inviting arms of Mile 15, surrounded by cheering spectators, first aid tents, cups filled with gummi bears, pretzels, and orange slices, music, and smiles. We stopped there for about 6 or 7 minutes before continuing. It was exactly what we needed to give us a boost of enthusiasm and motivation. Not that we were exactly *suffering* before — far from it — but a little mental (and physical) boost when you have around 11 miles to go goes a LONG way. Kudos to you guys from West High School who ran it… Go Eagles!
We continued north on Basher Drive through Far North Bicentennial Park. While we were on paved roads now, the area was almost entirely deserted of most vestiges of civilization. Only occasionally would we see a car or building, but the serenity continued onward. There was absolutely zero sense of crowding — while there were plenty of runners out, we had tons of space in which to spread out. By then we were listening to Rock Sugar and their Reimaginator album on Kristi’s wrist-mounted Bluetooth speaker (I had lost one of my speakers when the clasp snapped and it fell off somewhere) and let me tell you — that album RULES during long runs. Seriously. The perfect amalgamation of 80s metal and 80s pop. If you never thought ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ and ‘Voices Carry’ could mash together seamlessly, this is your album.
Back to the race… we made our merry way up Basher Drive until we reached ‘civilization’ again around Mile 18, turning west onto a paved trail at East Tudor Road. We ran adjacent to city streets for about the next two miles, but everything was still holding up nicely. The temperatures had barely increased; a local time-and-temperature sign informed us that we were roasting in the sweltering June mid-day temps of… 58 degrees. The horror. I think my favorite moment of the race occurred around Mile 19. There were a few cheering spectators out, including this kid who couldn’t have been a whisker past three years old. He was a tiny little guy, holding up a “Power Up” poster that looked to be bigger than he was. All I saw was an innocent little face, a very shortly-cropped haircut, a pair of ears he hadn’t quite grown into yet, and a set of eyes as big as saucers. When he saw me approaching, he slowly held his hand out from behind his poster for a high-five.
Well… for this, I had to play along.
I slowed my pace to a melodramatically comical “running crawl”, and in a tired, exasperated voice with a near-Shatnerian cadence, I cried out, “Can’t… Run… Anymore… I can’t make it… In desperate need… of… a Power Up… dying…” His mother giggled as he held out his hand even further, his eyes getting wider. “Not… gonna… make it… need Power Up…” I pretended I was about to keel over and pass out until I made my desperate way up to him, and we finally high-fived. Instantly my posture corrected, my running form came back into focus, and my speed picked up immediately. “BAM!!” I yelled out. “Just what I needed!!” I turned back to him as I sped off and called out, “Thanks, Little Awesome Dude!” His smile lit up his entire face. I can still picture it out now. Moments like that are worth ten times the race entry fee.
Miles 20 through 25 took place entirely on the University Lake and Chester Creek Trails, as we continued westbound towards the Finish. This portion took place almost entirely on paved roads through parklands and lush, scenic forested areas. This was just another one of many really beautiful running areas that populated the course. Mile 20 even had the American and Alaskan flags hanging from a wire, which made for a pretty goshdarn swell photo-op:
University Lake Park looked like a fine place to hike, explore, and enjoy at any time. Well shaded and serene, there were plenty of benches overlooking streams where I could see myself enjoying a some quiet, peaceful reading time. They even had “free library stations” throughout the park, where you could actually borrow books. I love small but memorable details like that. Next time.
It behooves me to mention that, given the course took you some seemingly remote areas without hide nor hair of civilization, course signs directed which way you were to run in case of a fork, crossroad, or intersection, be it a paved road or conflicting trails. I could see someone causing some mischief with those. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Also: someone named Bill had posted motivational posters throughout the entire course. I have no idea who this Bill person was. But some of these pics were downright (if often quizzically) amusing:
Somewhere around Mile 24 we passed a church, school, or some kind of civic rec center and they were having some massive outdoor barbecue. The sweet smells of grilled meat, peppers, and onions wafted onto the course. This was very cruel. I was beyond tempted to crash the party. You have no idea.
With sore legs and tired feet we made it to Mile 25, which took us to the lovely shores of Westchester Lagoon:
This was it! By the time the trail took us to Sullivan Park, we saw plenty of familiar faces, including several our FIT buddies who had completed the Half Marathon and were there to cheer us on. Boots was waiting with her camera and grabbed this pic of Kristi and I:
I got a hug and kiss from Boots, who then informed us of “The Hill”. Which hill you ask? Oh only the remaining mile of the Marathon, which predominantly went STRAIGHT UP. That’s right: steep hills at the end of a marathon. This was sadism of the highest order. Well what can you do? You take a deep breath and run up the damn hills to the Finish Line.
OK we walked up some of them…
We passed the Mile 26 marker on 9th Avenue, and with that we bolted straight up that last hill. As we reached the top, there we were: at the Finish Chute entering Delaney Park. The Finish Line was up ahead. With cheering spectators adorning both sides of the shoot, Kristi and I poured it on and crossed that Finish Line much more picturesquely than we could have possibly imagined:
Our total net time was 5:36:15 which was fine for a marathon we ran for enjoyment, pictures, and serenity, not for pace or time. What an adventure and experience it was for us. Absolutely amazing and totally enjoyable. Still feeling the high of elation, we grabbed a bottle of water, were knighted with our race medals, and then collected our prized Finisher race shirts (green, long-sleeved tech shirts).
Then we did what all race champions do: made a beeline for the Beer Tent. I was carded. It was awesome. Of course, I found out later they card EVERYBODY in Alaska, but you know what I’ll take it anyhow.
Here are a few Finish Area highlights:
The atmosphere was really festive and light in Delaney Park as we enjoyed our beers (the promised Blue Moons were a no-show, but they had a decent alternative whose name I can’t remember right now). Boots joined us afterward for a round, and soon we watched the rest of our band trickle in across the Finish Line. By the time everyone was accounted for, we posed for this awesome group shot:
I was a little chuffed when, after deciding it was time to grab our complimentary grilled cheese sandwiches, we found out that the vendor had already packed up and left for the day! NOT COOL! But there was plenty of freshly baked bread, cookies, fruit, and plenty of other eats for hungry-minded as we were. After all the food and beer had settled, it was already around 3 in the afternoon. We caught a cab at the western edge of the park and returned to our hotel. After that it was time for a quick change and then the celebratory beers at the hotel hot tub!
So in conclusion, I have to admit that the 2015 Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon was a rousing success, not only for me but for pretty much everyone in our group who made the trek up from South Florida for this event. Although three thousand runners converged upon Anchorage for the event weekend, only 778 of us ran the Marathon, making it a relatively small race. But it was well organized, well supported, and took you through some really stunning scenery at what felt like the edge of the world. Awesome. Would I run this race again? I’m already planning it out in my head. This time, though, I’m bringing my own grilled cheese sandwiches. Just in case. Listen, if you’re heading out into the wild, you gotta be prepared right? Here’s the video: