It took me 4 ½ years but I finally accomplished one of my major goals – to complete a marathon in all 50 states. After finishing the Mayor’s Marathon on Saturday, June 18th, I can now officially call myself a ’50 State Finisher.’ It was a real adventure. Just getting to Alaska from Florida required 3 flights each way through 4 time zones. It took an entire week after I returned before I could remember what day it was.
The story began on Thursday morning with the early morning drive to the Jacksonville Airport. Because of thunderstorms in Atlanta the night before, several flights to that destination had been canceled. Ours fortunately was still scheduled to leave on time. I was grateful for this since we had 2 connecting flights and tight time frames. After arriving in Atlanta without incident, we flew on to Minneapolis and grabbed a quick bite to eat, then made our way to the next plane, and found our seats for the 5 + hour flight to Anchorage. As we settled in and the boarding door was closed, the plane began to move down the runway and then stopped – suddenly. Oh, dear – passengers looked around wondering what happened. The captain said a light was not working properly and needed to be checked so we sat on the tarmac for about 15-20 minutes. Better safe than sorry, at least this was the last leg of our journey to AK. Light fixed, we took off, and continued on our journey. Our flight took us over the snow-capped Canadian Rockies, a breathlessly beautiful sight, replete with glaciers.
The first thing I noticed upon landing in Anchorage was how green everything was. I had associated Alaska with snow and cold and envisioned the land as barren and brown. Not so – there were trees, grass, flowers, just like in the lower 48. Temps were in the 50’switha cold wind every now and then, but it was a pleasant change from the 100 degrees we had been having in Florida.
We got our checked bags (we had packed for cold weather with jackets and sweaters) and then looked for a taxi to take us to the host hotel, the Sheraton. This hotel is just a couple of blocks from downtown in a quiet area (a cemetery is across the street) but close enough to town to be very convenient. Our friends, Karen and David from Arizona, were staying at the same hotel but it took us an entire day to find each other. Finally, on Friday afternoon, we made contact. But on Thursday night, Darcy and I deposited our bags in the room and began to explore. Since we hadn’t had a decent meal all day, that became our major concern. Naturally my husband had done his research and had a list of great places to eat. Over the next 4 days, we managed to try them all. Thursday evening it was Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse – I had a halibut burger (fish, yes!) and Darcy a Humpy burger and we both tried the local beers. The first of many excellent meals! After eating, it was about 11 pm eastern time and we wanted sleep! My only complaint about this hotel was the existence of a loud mechanical noise (like AC that never stops) that was disturbing to me. It turns out that this noise is louder on one wing of the hotel than the other and as soon as we could, we switched to a room on the other quieter wing – which was much better. In fact, we found the perfect room, #1307, and plan to ask for that room next year (yes, I am planning on doing this race again next year, perhaps followed by a cruise, if we can afford it).
The next morning, we went to packet pickup which was located right in the Sheraton. Timing device is a chip, the kind you attach to your shoe, but this chip did not have to be returned which was nice. Expo consisted of a few local merchants selling shirts, goos, children’s books about Alaska (with the author there to autography them), posters ($15, expensive, but attractive, so I broke down and got one). No tee shirt until after the race, but that’s okay with me.
For those readers keeping track of the restaurant reviews, we ate breakfast at Snow City Café. We had to wait about 45 minutes to get in; evidently this is THE place to eat breakfast in Anchorage and there were lots of tourists and marathoners in line. It was very good, worth the wait (unless you are absolutely famished). I had a fried egg sandwich and salmon fritters (had to get the fish in there somewhere). Next, we played tourist and wandered through the customary souvenir shops, visited an indoor mall, and stopped at a chocolate shop (the Chocolate Lounge) with unusual combinations of chocolate and spices and flavorings. I found a wonderful quilt shop called the Quilted Raven and bought some fabric designed by Alaskan artists. Then we visited the Anchorage Museum. It costs an admission ($12) to get in but we found the museum very worthwhile – lots to see about Alaskan history and people. We spent over an hour there and could have stayed even longer but I was getting tired and wanted to rest a bit – after all, the marathon was the next day and I was still feeling the effects of jet lag.
So, back to our room at the hotel. Just as I settled in for a nap, the phone rang; turns out it was my friend Karen. We were on the same floor different wing so we arranged to meet near the elevators and spent the rest of the day discussing our plans for the race while our husbands talked baseball. We first met when I was in Wisconsin for the Green Bay marathon several years ago. Since then, we’ve been to races in several states together; Alaska would be Karen’s 48th state and my 50th. Our husbands tolerate our marathon quests with a benevolent grace, taking photos of us at the start and finish of our races and making sure we have good repasts when we cross each finish line.
Now to the really important stuff – the race. There are really several races – a full, half, relay, and 5 miler. The half marathon and 5 miler begin an hour later than the marathon and relay and occupy a completely different course so there is no crowding and confusion. The marathon course is point-to-point with shuttle buses leaving from various hotels to take racers to the start. Of course, Karen and I made sure we got on the first bus, since we are both a little paranoid about getting to the start in plenty of time. The race doesn’t start until 8 am, and the buses begin leaving at 6:30 or a little earlier, so we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. I should say something here about daylight in June in Alaska. It does not get dark until about 11 pm every night and then it begins to get light around 4 am, with the result that there is very little darkness (no wonder the race is called the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon). It would be the perfect place to do a 24 hour race (at least for me) because there is so much daylight.
Something else to note about these races –there is a huge Team in Training component with TNT teams flying in from many states. Even on the flights over here, we noticed many purple shirts, and our hotel was filled with ‘grapes’ (as I have heard them referred to – those purple shirts again). These folks raise a lot of money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and that’s a good thing, plus their sheer numbers makes it much harder for back-of-the-packers like myself to get lost. That’s also a good thing.
The shuttle buses take marathoners to the start line at Bartlett High School which is OPEN for us to hunker down in to stay warm. It’s only in the mid-40’s outside but it feels colder because of a sharp wind, so it is good to be able to stay inside. Although there are plenty of portapotties outside, there are also real bathrooms in the school, another plus. About quarter to 8, we start to file outside and line up in front of the start line banner. No real corrals, but I position myself close to the back and get ready. Since Karen is a runner and usually finishes about 30-60 minutes ahead of me, we wish each other luck, and she moves further up towards the start. Someone sings what I am guessing is the Alaskan state song, followed by the Star Spangled Banner, there is a BOOM and we’re off.
As usual, I can’t remember particulars, just impressions. I’m so caught up in the moment that I try to just enjoy the feeling of movement and try to take in the unexpected lushness of the countryside. At first, we are on a road that is surrounded on each side by a chain link fence warning us not to enter – it seems it is part of an army or airforce base. The first 5-6 miles are on this road, and then we enter the infamous ‘tank ‘ trail – a wide gravelly path that has earned complaints from many previous runners (just take a look at some of the comments on Marathonguide.com). The gravel is hard to walk/run on, so I try to stay on paths that look worn down by ATVs. Wisely I had decided to wear my trail shoes. That helped a great deal, since the sturdy soles kept me from feeling the larger pieces of gravel which might have caused major problems with my healing blisters. The tank road and the following trail (dirt and rocks) encompasses miles 7-17. The rest of the race is bike path and city streets. The course is VERY well-marked, with big signs and arrows. We were warned about wild animals – moose and bear – but all I saw were some birds and – along the bike paths – some dogs with their owners. Not sure whether to be happy or sad about missing the wildlife – guess I’m relieved.
Just as I passed mile 7 to begin the challenging tank trail, I looked up and saw Karen a few feet in front of me. How could that be? She should have been at least 2-3 miles ahead of me by now. I caught up to her and asked if she were okay. It turns out that she was having MAJOR problems. Her neck and back were stiff and painful and she had to stop at one of the medical tents for some Biofreeze. I tried to continue my relatively brisk walking pace but she was having trouble walking so fast. She runs faster than me but I walk faster than she does. So, I made up my mind then and there that I would keep my eye on her and stay close to make sure she finished. I would walk ahead, turn around, check to see that she was still moving forward, she would run a bit to catch up with me, we would chat, then she would fall behind a bit, run to catch up – well, you get the idea.
Of course, continuing to walk forward while turning my head to look behind me is NOT a good idea, especially for someone prone to falling, like me. It was only a matter of time before I tripped and fell, scraping my knee (yes, I left some blood behind in Anchorage) and tearing my pants and jacket on some sharp rocks. Once I got over the indignity of falling so ungracefully, I was fine. I decided at that point that when I turned my head to check on Karen, I would STOP moving forward first. That slowed me down and altered my gait, but I definitely wanted to make sure that we BOTH finished this race.
It did get up to about 60 degrees but the wind was cold and I was glad to have a long-sleeved shirt on. Aid stations had water and Ultima and orange slices, and a few had banana pieces and red licorice and pretzels. Not many spectators but that did not detract from the beautiful scenery and the excitement of this race. I have to admit that as I passed each mile marker, I would think to myself, “Only so many miles left and I will be a 50 state finisher!” Pretty neat to think about.
Bottom line: Karen and I crossed the finish line together, chip time 6:11. Success!
Our husbands met us at the finish line; a young man handed me my medal (large, silver, with the state of Alaska on one side, and the race name and date on the other) and we got our finisher shirts, a banana, and a cup of water. Kind of disappointing that there was no real food or bottled water, especially since we had to wait over 30 minutes for a bus back to the hotel, but once we were on the bus, I was grateful to sit and rest. After a shower and brief nap, we were off for a post-race repast at the Glacier Brewhouse. Excellent food (I had the seafood chowder and a salmon sandwich – more fish) and my husband had the foresight to make a reservation ahead of time so we got seated right away.
and walked (slowly) through the local city market. Then rested some more. Red eye flight back (but we got upgraded – thank you, Delta!) and we arrived back in Jacksonville Monday evening. It was back to work as usual on Tuesday, but with a difference – now I am a 50 state finisher!