Monday, June 23, 2014

The 2014 Midnight Sun Marathon (or My Alaskan Walking Trip)

Just before leaving for Alaska, I received in the mail my 1st and 2nd place age-group awards for Buffalo and Raleigh Marathon. Admittedly, I was fairly confident that I'd be getting another one in Alaska. In fact, I actually changed my flight home to ensure that I would have enough time to stick around for awards ceremony. I am REALLY glad I did change the flight time but not for that reason.  

I flew into Fairbanks, arriving a little after midnight to a bright day. Yes, even at midnight there was plenty of sun that far north that close to summer solstice. I originally planned on exploring Fairbanks for the night and then sleeping while riding the train to Denali, but I quickly realized that I was going to fade quite sooner than that. So instead, I booked a hotel near the train station and headed there. It was only two miles away so I planned on walking it but a kindly airport worker just finishing her shift stopped in her Mazda Miata and gave me a ride. Which was hilarious in itself with my three bags stacked high in front of me in this little clown car. If I had bags stacked to both my sides so I couldn't see in any direction, I wouldn't have missed much. No offense to Fairbanks, but other than offering a plethora of strip clubs and malls, I didn't see much there that would make me want to go back. I didn't make it out to Chena Hot Springs which I did hear was nice but I don't think that I'd go to Fairbanks again. Even on the train ride to Denali the first three hours of the trip was boringly flat and uneventful.

Typical scene along the ride. 
  As I neared Denali, the sights picked up quite a bit. The river got rougher and the mountains got bigger.  And the theme of my Denali portion of the trip began: walking. In addition to the miles that I hiked and ran, I probably walked 30+ miles over the course of time I was in Alaska. It started when I arrived in the train station thinking my front-country camp site would be fairly close but I ended up walking 2 miles to get to it. The bus station, camp store, visitor's center and train depot were all between 1 1/2 and 2 miles away. And after battling with both black flies and mosquitoes and realizing that I wasn't going to go to bed at 4pm, I decided to head out for a little hike. I walked another 2+miles to the visitor's center and decided upon the Mount Healy Overlook trail.
The start of some mountains

Note: The thing about Denali is that although it has about 6 million acres of wilderness, it only has a handful of trails in the entire park, mostly comprising of bike path-esque jaunts.

With that being said, I decided upon the trail that was described as the most challenging with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. While I would never do this in the Whites at home, I decided also that it would be a good idea to hike in jeans and a cotton T-shirt. Luckily, the weather held out but it's those kind of sleep deprived decisions that can lead to deadly consequences. I didn't make that mistake again. This hike was a really nice one and I'd recommend it to anyone staying in the front-country. I got to where the trail ended wanting more and just continued up hiking to Mount Healy's false summit another 1,000 feet higher. The actual summit still had quite a good amount of snow on it and I decided not to be that stupid and try to hike it. As it was the descent through loose shale and scree provided me with my first introduction to the challenges of hiking in Alaska.

Kinda reminded me of the Franconia Ridgeline

Where the trail ended

An fun descent

The next morning, I took the Savage river bus [Editor's note: A both cool and annoying feature of Denali is that they don't allow private vehicles into the actual National Park. This is great to avoid traffic jams and keep the environment healthy but does make accessing the park(without a plane) painstakingly slow]. I had decided to do the only other front(ish) country hike that was described as strenuous which was the Savage River Alpine Trail. Supposedly it gained around 2,000 feet as well. I only say supposedly because it seemed significantly easier than the Mt Healy hike the day before. The fact that I was wearing hearing gear and was hydrating probably helped as well. Either way, when I reached the apex of the hike, instead of continuing to follow it back to the road, I decided to hike further up and trace the ridge line which I could see would eventually return to the road. The ascending was really fun but I could tell that descending(like when climbing a tree) would be substantially more challenging. As it was. After three peaks, I decided it was time to get off the ridge and started my descent back down. It started with large rocks similarly to those we encountered at Katahdin. Soon thereafter it turned into that damned scree which had me cursing not only the current terrain but also Jon Krakauer and the entire state of Alaska. I finally opted for huge brush rather than the scree as I reasoned dying from a broken ankle and starving to death was  a far worse alternative to be mauled by a bear. Oh yeah, I'm not melodramatic AT ALL. As you can tell I didn't end up mauled or with a broken ankle and after many swear words and melodious curses I finally reached the road thinking that my day was finished. Apparently the bus system didn't think so though. Usually a bus will pass about every 15 minutes or so so I was thinking I'd shortly be able to jump on one and head back and soon be munching on a nice juicy cheeseburger. Just the thought of starving to death got me hungry. Instead, I ended up waiting over an hour and walking five road miles before finally getting picked up. I did run into a moose about 5 feet off the road but that didn't brighten my mood.
The best part of the descent

The start of the loose scree
More of the loose scree

My last mile in the woods was hopping river rock to river rock

Hello Mr. Moose

In fact, I was so annoyed with this day's hike that I wrote a whole blog while sitting at the Salmon Bake's bar that evening(which I walked another 2 miles each way to get to) [Editor's note: If going to Denali either a) rent a car or b) buy a bike but do not really on public transportation]. Suffice it to say the write-up was pretty negative. Luckily, I didn't have access to a computer so it stayed where it belonged: in my head. 

I struggled out of my tent the next morning very stiff and sore. I had booked a bus ride all the way to Eileson which was 66 miles into the park. I had looked at the topo map and it looked like there would be a cool hike that I could do if I made it out there. As I mentioned above, the negative about the park is that you had to ride a bus. I think if I did it again, I'd probably rent a bike instead and ride the road because the bus goes soooooo slow. Granted it was cool when we stopped for Grizzlies, caribou, and dall sheep, but ground squirrels? Really? I guess somewhere it the world there may be no squirrels but I think there were plenty of them at the campground that we didn't need to stop for photos along the way. A two hour trip(at most) ended up taking 4 hours which only made me stiffer and sorer by the time we got to Eileson. And this is the transition from the walking trip to the sitting trip. Nevertheless, the trip was made worth while just by the view that was afforded to me of Mt McKinley and the surrounding peaks. 

The hike up Mt Eileson also got me in a better mood and the return trip(another four hours) was far more enjoyable. 

Not the only selfie I took:)

The summit of Eileson
I only have a couple pictures from this day and the next because I lost my phone charger so I was trying to conserve batteries. I took a lot more pictures of the animals and McKinley both with my real camera that my sister let me borrow. Unfortunately, my technological capabilities are pretty much limited to using this blog so I haven't yet figured out how to now get those pictures from the camera to the computer. Kind of reminds me of Zoolander: 

The next morning, I packed up, walked another 4-6 miles to see a dog sled demonstration, have lunch and catch a bus ride to Anchorage. The mileage from Denali is 237 miles so should take about four hours(if you drive 5 miles under the speed limit) but our bus trip managed to make it a six hour trip which couldn't be used to sleep because of the near constant swerving into the rumble strip. This long ride did afford me the opportunity to get to know my bus mates who included a native Alaskan(the only one I met the whole trip), guys from California and New Zealand who had just summitted McKinley and a guy from Washington who spent the last week just roaming around and exploring. It was nice to see alternatives to the people who I encountered in the campground who pretty much just RV'd themselves from place to place, snapping a couple pictures and crossing off another sight from their lists. To me that's not experiencing a place and in all honesty their pictures are probably going to be no better than the ones you can find on the internet. I finally made it to the Anchorage airport where I picked up my rental car and drove(at or above the speed limit) down the Turnagain Arm to the town of Seward. You may have heard of Seward and his "folly". He was the guy who "overpaid" the Russians a few million dollars for all of Alaska. At the time Americans viewed it as a huge waste of public funds but soon thereafter gold and other minerals and then oil was discovered and it turned out to be not so bad. I wish all follies turned out that good. Maybe if you wait long enough they do. 

Anyway, if I were to do an Alaska trip again, I'd probably either dedicate myself to a full backcountry wilderness trip in Denali or avoid it altogether and stay in Anchorage and Seward. There so many awesome peaks and things to do so close that you would have to spend very little time in the car and instead be outside and enjoy your time. In addition to lots of good seafood, the town of Seward is home to Mt Marathon and Kenai Fjords National Park which was created to protect the Harding Icefield. Sidenote: The musician Jewel's grandfather was on the first expedition to cross the hundred's of miles of the icefield. 
My first introduction to Seward
In the time I was in Seward, I hiked Mt Marathon(which I find very impressive that people run up it), hiked to Exit Glacier and went on a cruise in Resurrection Bay. The best way I can describe Mt. Marathon is to envision the pitch and length of Tripyramid and then instead of having nice steady granite dump loose and wet gravel on it. I was backsliding the whole way up. When I got to Race Point(which wasn't the summit of the mountain just where the race heads back down) I decided I had had enough of the scree and opted for a different descent. However, my path ended up not being any better as I went through a good amount of scree anyway and just added pricker bushes and wet slippery grass to the equation. Again, luckily no broken ankles. Although it was a crazy hike, it was worth it for the views of the bay and it made having dinner in town far more enjoyable when I could look up at the mountain and know I had just climbed(albeit not conquered) it. 
Mt Marathon. Doesn't look like much until you realize you gain as much elevation as hiking up Lafayette
 I decided I had had enough ankle break risking hikes and decided to keep things calm so my next trip was to Exit Glacier which was named because it was where the expedition exited the icefield. If there is one thing that the camera couldn't capture was the sheer size of this thing. The pictures below do not do it justice especially when you realize that the thing from the top of it to where I was was 3,500 feet difference in elevation. Everything is just bigger in Alaska.
Exit Glacier from a distance
The hike to Exit Glacier

Another selfie- this time at the base of Exit Glacier
 If you're not yet aware of the new thought on carbohydrate loading but it should actually be occurring the day before the day before the race so your muscles can actually turn that glucose to muscle glycogen as well as top off all nutritional reserves. For that purpose(see I really am committed to training), I decided to schedule a Resurrection Bay cruise which happened to have an all-you-can eat Salmon dinner. I can tell you my reserves were certainly topped off after that. It was pretty windy and cold on the way out to the island where we had dinner but it seemed to actually warm up a bit on the way back and we were lucky enough to see Puffin(surprisingly small little birds), sea otters, porpoises, sea lions, bald eagles and humpback whales.
Boy it was cold 

The water spout of the humpback whale

It was a great last evening in Seward.
My campground at 1am-still pretty light out

My little hut at Miller's Landing

The next morning I headed up to Anchorage, did the marathon packet pick-up and then met up with my high-school friend Travis who has been living in Alaska for the last 15 years. If I were more care-free and adventurous, his is the life I'd emulate. He works for 2 months and then does some epic adventure until his funds run out and then works again. His cycle-toured across Europe multiple times, spent a good amount of time in Southeast Asia and has done first ascents of many peaks in Alaska. Most recently, he had someone fly him into McKinley's basecamp and he skied all the way home from there. So when he texted me asking if I were up for an adventure, I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into. Luckily, he could tell I didn't want to do anything too extreme as he just took for a rock climb. The climb wasn't very technical but it was a great way to see another view of Turnagain Arm and was a nice relaxing evening before the marathon.

Notice Travis gave me his helmet. Last time we climbed together, I didn't even get a harness but instead used a daisy chain. Age makes you kinder. haha

After the climb, we headed down to Girdwood which in addition to having the only ski area in the area had a gold mine which conveniently, Travis' friend caretakes for. We spent the evening lounging by the campfire.

The next morning, I awoke the least sore I had been all week, still thinking that I would be capable of running a fast marathon. Even at the start of the race, I speculatively looked around and figured a top five finish to be in my future. As the gun went off and I started running a felt a little fatigued but was in the top 5-10 runners. I went through the mile in 7:45 and just assumed that it was a long mile. The next one was 7:05, then 7:25 and as I kept going I realized, I was no longer in the top 5 or 10 but slowly fading further back in the pack. It was as if I was running in mud while everyone else had found a dry path. The fact was I was running in mud but so was everyone else so I know that wasn't the reason. I made it through the first 10 miles averaging 7:30's and feeling like I typically do at mile 20. Another mile later and I decided I would quit. To be fair, I was actually kind of hoping that I'd roll my ankle in one of the potholes along the way, be mauled by a bear or have severe stomach issues that I could use as an excuse. Whether fortunate or not, none of those occurred and I was just left with myself wondering what exactly was slowing me down. The trouble was there wasn't one thing doing it, more like everything. I just felt tired and spent and no longer wanted to be running. At the half marathon mark which I went through in 1:39, I really made a concerted effort to quit even asking an official how best I could get home. And he pointed me in the direction of the runners ahead of me. Apparently where I was there was only one way to get out of the woods and that was through them. And this is when the trip turned back to the walking trip: at mile 15, I did my first mile of walking only doing a 17 minute mile. I came across a bike medic at mile 17 who asked if I wanted aid to which I replied, yes in the form of a ride back my car. She laughed and then went on alone. Damn her! 

Let me tell you: 11 miles of walking takes a long time! Every once in a while I'd come across someone who'd be struggling and I'd motivate them to keep moving sometimes by offering words of encouragement and other times just by running alongside them until they got back into their rhythm at which point they'd go off and I'd resume my walk. It actually became quite fun seeing how many people I could make sure would beat me. I came across an Army guy who had calf cramps and I run alongside him for about 2 miles. They weren't fast miles but they were fun ones. I met several runners out here doing their first marathons. All in all although it took me nearly 3 hours to cover those last 13 miles, it was far more fun than the first 13 when I was concerned about time and placing. No awards for me and since I didn't go sub-three, I guess I'll have to come back and try it again;) Not such a bad thing. 

And now I'm done my marathon season until September when I'll be going out west with my dad and doing the Jackson Hole Marathon. 

Amber's in peak training mode now herself and is gearing up for her next race which will be the Lake Placid Ironman in July. She is going to crush it! 


  1. two summers ago, i drove from NH to Banff with my father. we stayed for about a week and I hope one day I will go back. (i flew home and he drove the Alaskan highway with a military convoy for 30 days) The Banff marathon was on Sunday, check out the updates/alerts

  2. Way to gut it out Dan. There is an old say. 12 minute miles hurt much more than 6 minute miles. If your used to running 6 minute miles and you find yourself running 12's you are in a whole lot of pain.

    1. Thanks Scotty! It certainly seemed to hurt much more;)