Mayor’s Marathon – Another Wonderful Time in Alaska (Anchorage, AK – June 23, 2012)

Warning – this report is longer than usual and is not just about the race!

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit our 49th state twice in two years. Last year my husband and I flew to Anchorage specifically so I could do the Mayor’s Marathon and thus complete my first circuit of the 50 states. We fell in love with the city of Anchorage (of course, the fact that we discovered several great restaurants like Humpy’s and the Glacier Brewhouse as well as stores like the Quilted Raven quilt shop probably had a great deal to do with it). However, our plans to take a cruise after last year’s race did not pan out. Both of us had to return to our jobs back in Florida and we couldn’t take the extra time off. Instead, we spent a long weekend with our friends from Arizona, David and Karen, who were also in Anchorage so Karen could complete her 48th state.

This year work was not an issue. Both of us are now retired so we had the time and, besides, we were about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in July so we decided to make this our retirement/anniversary cruise. I, however, did not want to visit a state or take a cruise without fitting in a race if I could manage it. How neat that the Mayor’s Marathon was to be held on the Saturday before the cruise! It worked out perfectly, although I had to do some fancy footwork in planning our trip, maneuvering airfares and hotel stays so everything would work out. This meant planning trips to and from Seattle from Florida, then Seattle to Anchorage and back to Seattle, then the cruise, a return to Seattle, and then home. Thanks to the very helpful customer service people at Alaska Airlines and Delta, everything worked out fine, but I do think I missed my calling as a travel agent.

Before we left, I had spent a week of intensive proofreading, editing, and indexing work on Scott Ludwig’s latest and soon-to-be-published new book, In It for the Long Run. My goal was to complete work on the book before I left for Alaska and I managed to make that deadline, so I could leave with a clear conscience.

We took 3 large and one small suitcase with us, plus a couple of shoulder bags. It was hard to predict the weather for 2 weeks in advance, and I had to make sure my racing clothes and shoes fit in the small rollerboard I would take with me on the planes. Since I knew there was a sizable portion of gravel and tank road on the marathon, I decided to wear my trail shoes. This had worked well last year and I was confident it would be a good idea again (it was). We left for the JAX airport early Thursday morning and flew to Atlanta and then on to Seattle. I was upgraded both times (thanks, Delta!) and had a nice lunch on the longer flight. We arrived in Seattle around 3 pm Pacific time, took the airport shuttle to the Embassy Suites, checked in, and then walked around looking for a place to have a quick meal. There were not many choices and it seemed like Wendy’s was the best we could do; in reality, it was not so bad. We both ate off the value menu and, since seniors were given free drinks, the entire meal cost us under $5. The young manager even came around to diners and offered us after-dinner mints, a nice touch. Afterwards, we walked back to our hotel and relaxed until the evening reception. We enjoy staying at Embassy Suites because the rooms really are suites, with a door in-between the two rooms, ensuring privacy and quiet (especially for early risers like myself who like to read and not awaken my sleeping husband). In addition, we usually partake of the snacks and drinks in the evening and the hot breakfast in the morning. The only unusual thing about our stay here on Thursday evening was the loud fire alarm that went off around 11 pm and then again 30 minutes later. The manager on duty assured us they were both false alarms, but since I had been sound asleep, I was definitely surprised.

We rose early and took the shuttle back to the airport so we could board our Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage. Because we were essentially making two separate and distinct trips, we had to lug our baggage with us everywhere we went. This turned out to be not a huge problem but we did have to juggle bags and stuff.

We arrived in Anchorage around 10:30 am and took a taxi to the Hilton downtown. Last year we had stayed at the Sheraton, the marathon’s host hotel, but this year the Sheraton required a 3 night stay and we were only in Anchorage for 2 nights. Although very pricey, the Hilton turned out to be a good choice; it was right in the heart of the city and convenient to restaurants, stores, and museums. Although we couldn’t check in right when we arrived, we left our bags with the concierge and headed over to the Expo at the Sheraton. I picked up my bib (with chip attached) and a goody bag. Shirts were to be given out after we crossed the finish line. There were a few local vendors and a table selling marathon stuff from previous years. I didn’t care for the poster this year; it pictured a growling sled dog and was quite scary. Last year the poster showed a Native Alaskan dancer and I found it to be colorful and attractive. I even had it dry mounted and hung on a wall in our living room.

After the Expo, we realized we were very hungry so we headed to Humpy’s for a yummy lunch. I kept my resolution to eat seafood at every possible meal and had a wonderful crabmeat sandwich. My husband and I shared a flight of beer samples and we each chose a favorite to drink with our meal. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at the Quilted Raven where I purchased some fabric and gifts and then at the chocolate shop next door where we each had a decadent bonbon. We also tried to figure out where the shuttle buses were to leave the next morning. Since this race begins at a local high school about 30 minutes from downtown, everyone either needs to ride the shuttles or drive to the start. The shuttles continue throughout the day because the finish line is at another school, also a half hour away but in a different direction.

It turns out the shuttle buses were the only things to run amiss during the entire race, but on Friday we thought we knew exactly where and when to catch the bus. On Saturday, however, after we walked to the 6th and G Street bus station, we were the only people there, even 10 minutes past the pick up time. That was very unusual, given that there are always early-birds like myself who want to be on the first bus. So we then walked to the Sheraton because the shuttles were supposed to stop there as well. Although nobody in the hotel knew about the schedule and none of the Team in Training coaches seemed to know about them either, we waited on the corner outside the hotel and – sure enough – a bus came by around 15 minutes later. Problem was – the bus was full – except for one seat. I was able to grab that lone seat since everyone else was traveling with friends.  I made it to the school in plenty of time.

The weather was fine for race day, in the low 60’s, clear and sunny, a bit warmer than usual for Anchorage but great for us Southerners. I wore my light jacket when the race started but quickly took it off and tied it around my waist for the duration. No mittens needed, although I was glad I had them for the rest of our stay in Alaska. We were allowed to stay inside the high school until the race began at 8 am. Around quarter to 8, I wandered outside and stood near the back of the crowd as people started to line up. Recordings of the Star-Spangled Banner and the Alaska state song came on over the loudspeaker and then we were off, right on the dot of 8.

My goal as usual was to complete the race in under 6 hours and to try to improve on last year’s result of 6:14. I had forgotten how difficult this race can be. The tank trail is composed of different sizes of rocks and pebbles that are very hard on the feet. I saw several runners wearing Vibram 5-fingers and other kinds of minimalist shoes and I could only imagine how difficult it was to run on a trail of rocks with those lightweight shoes. Ouch! It was hard enough wearing trail shoes. There is also a 2 mile section of trail with roots and rocks, another difficult portion, but the rest of the race is road. Last year I had tripped over a root on the trail, but this year I managed to stay upright. I was grateful for my trail shoes on the tank and trail sections, but they got a bit cumbersome and heavy once I was back on pavement. There are just a few hills but they are steep. I saw a red fox cross the road at mile 5 and a moose and some moose-lets at mile 22, standing by a stream. Around mile 15, I began to feel very tired but just kept moving forward as fast as I could manage; ‘relentless forward motion’ became my mantra.

I was happy to see the finish line at West High School; I managed to finish in 6:04 gun time, 6:03 chip. It also turns out I came in third in my age group but since I didn’t know that until I checked the results web page, I missed getting my award (the race director stated that awards will not be mailed). Still, it was a good achievement. The medal this year was similar to the one last year, large and heavy and silver. I also received my purple short sleeve tech finisher’s shirt and selected a couple of snacks from the bread, cookies, bananas, and water that was offered. We headed for the return shuttles and I settled, tired, into my seat, ready to get back to the hotel.

Downtown Anchorage was having several winter solstice festivals and as we walked to our hotel from the bus stop, we found music, booths with food and jewelry and crafts, and lots of people milling about. It would have been fun to check everything out but I was exhausted and could only think about getting back to our room for a shower and a nap. I awoke refreshed, if a bit sore, and we walked (slowly) to the Glacier Brewhouse where we had an excellent meal (I had a wonderful fish chowder and cod sandwich).

That is the race portion of this adventure. I would definitely recommend this marathon for 50 staters who need Alaska as a state. It is a very walker-friendly race; the finish line stays open for 8 ½ hours and there are plenty of signs marking the way and volunteers to help with directions. I could have used a couple more aid stations but that was probably because the weather turned out to be so warm and humid (it was in the 80’s at the finish). There were sections of the race, especially during the middle portion, where I was essentially ‘alone’ – at least, I could see no one in front of or behind me. But then I would turn a corner and there would be several groups of people ahead of me. I never worried about getting lost because of the good signage, but I was a tiny bit concerned that I might run into a moose or elk or bear. Of course, this was more my active imagination than reality . . . .

Our cruise began on Monday at the port of Seattle. It was our 21st Disney cruise and the ship was our favorite of the Disney fleet, the Wonder. We boarded early and headed straight for the Parrot Cay welcome aboard buffet where we filled up on a delectable array of entrees, salads, and desserts. We enjoyed just about every meal on this trip, and we were fortunate that our dinner time tablemates were 2 fun-loving couples, Steve and Sandy and Les and Kai; they really made our meals a delight.

Here are the highlights of our trip:
• Brunch (twice), high tea, and dinner at Palo, the special restaurant that features classic Northern Italian cuisine. These meals cost extra but were definitely worth the price.
• Disney caliber stage shows – excellent stories, dancing, and singing, as well as comedians, a juggler, and a ventriloquist. Disney certainly knows how to put on a production.
• Tracy Arm Fjord – part of the Tongass National Forest in the Inside Passage. We saw (from the ship) glaciers 7000 feet high, waterfalls, melting snowcaps, bald eagles, and lots of baby seals on small ice floes (the seals were safe here from predator killer whales). The water was glacial blue and everything looked beautiful and pristine
• Skagway – we had originally signed up for a glacier wilderness hike and rail adventure but the idea of spending 6-8 miles walking on ice was a turnoff to me. We changed our excursion to one called “Yukon Adventure.” This included a motor coach tour into Canada where we crossed over into the Yukon Territory, had lunch at Caribou Crossing (a touristy stop where we explored a wildlife museum, played with some sled dogs and puppies, and then drove on to Fraser, British Columbia).  At Fraser, we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad for our journey back to Skagway. The rail trip was my favorite part of this excursion. It is a historic narrow gauge railroad that had been built during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. It was now thoroughly modernized (with clean restrooms in each car) but the train still runs, climbing from sea level to almost 3000 feet, traveling on narrow bridges, and making cliff-hanging turns. It was an exciting trip!
• Juneau – this was our only rainy day. For most of the trip the weather was chilly, in the 40s and 50s, cloudy and windy, but it only rained in Juneau. Rain is called ‘Alaskan sunshine’ so I guess we were lucky only to have rain on one day. We boarded a boat in Auke Bay Harbor to go whale watching and we were lucky to see a number of humpback whales as well as seals. That lasted about an hour or two; we then boarded a bus that took us to the Mendenhall Glacier where we spent a hour or two looking at the glacier and walking on a trail that I hoped would allow us to safely meet some bears. The rain must have kept the bears away because the only wildlife I spotted was a porcupine up in a tree. Afterwards we went to a salmon bake, held outdoors (in the rain but under tents), kind of cheesy but definitely part of the local color. We returned to town with enough time left to browse in the shops. I found another quilt shop and spent some more $$
• Ketchikan – we were pleasantly surprised at how picturesque this little town was. Our visit included a breakfast (!) of Dungeness crab and a ride in a 6 seater floatplane. I was a little nervous about flying in such a small plane (even 747s make me queasy) but the ride was very smooth and it was great to view Ketchikan and the mountains and glaciers from the air. The flight turned out to be my favorite part of this excursion
• Victoria, BC – our final stop was in this pretty little town in Canada (and it was Canada Day, too – similar to our 4th of July). We arrived around 6 pm and only stayed until 11 pm so our stay here was way too short. We made the most of the brief visit by taking a motor coach tour of the city and having high tea at the Empress Hotel. My appetite was whetted and I am now making plans at some point to return to Victoria to do a marathon there.

Final thoughts on our cruise – it was a wonderful way to celebrate our retirement and 25th anniversary and a pleasant way to recover from the marathon. I slept a lot, ate a LOT, and enjoyed practically every minute of this trip.