You may wonder about the cooler temperatures of Alaska. Oh yes, it is quite chilly after the Okinawa summer. I trained with you all summer in the extreme heat, humidity and intense rays.
Arriving here on September 11th, I realized how under prepared I was for the cool. You know how hard it is to pack clothes for 50 degree when it is 89 degrees and 90% humidity. Until we had a chance to shop, I layered three tops and threw my sweatshirt on top and was still chilled.
After arriving in Fairbanks, we ran around doing important pre race things such as a hot stone massage and pedicure, Chinese food for lunch, and race bib pick up. We talked a bit with some other runners and read through the map. This year the ultra ran a new course that was 64Km. The new section was described as rooty and a bit of a climb. Pause for more foreshadowing...
The race course was intensely beautiful. All around Fairbanks, there are trails for every outdoor activity you can think of: running, biking, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, snow machining. Everywhere you look, you find birch trees that in mid September turn yellow with the fall season. Throw on the bright alaskan sunshine, which starts around 7AM and ends around 8:30PM and the whole path is a golden corridor.
On Saturday morning we got ourselves ready and headed down for the 8 AM start at 50 degrees. It is a combined marathon, marathon relay and ultra start and it was only around 1000 runners. What set each group of runners apart was the color of our bibs, marathon was pink, relay yellow and ultra blue.
The course was lovely, leading through gently rolling trails, nothing too extreme, yet. When we hit mile 8, right before we started climbing, my dad was waiting to cheer us all on. Having your own cheering section is a huge mental boost, isn't it?
At the top of Esther dome, I looked over all of Fairbanks all the way to the Alaskan mountain range, so far away. Breathtaking. You could see for hundreds of miles in every direction. The course took us back on trail that climbed and climbed. I had anticipated this climb as it has always been part of the race course. At the top, I caught wind of some awful odor (unfortunately not body odor) and down on my left was a rotting moose carcass that had seen better days a week or so ago.
This single track path, is an out and back so as we climbed, we saw the leaders running right by as we stepped off trail to let them fly by. Inspiring. Many runners would see my blue bib and yell, "Go Ultra!", which then became my mantra.
After we finished that portion of the course, it was mile 16 and we were presented with the next challenge, The Chute. It was very steep with large rocks and was complete quad crusher. At the bottom, we took a sharp left and came onto three miles of golden rolling trail. At the end of this was mile 19 and after a mile on unpaved road, the ultra (Go Ultra!) runners peeled off to the left while the marathoners and relay continued on to the end of the 26.2. So hard taking that left...
Soon, being undertrained for this race started to become more of a reality for me. My legs were feeling like cement logs and picking my feet over small trip hazards like roots and pebbles became a mental task I had to focus on constantly. If I let my mind wander in the least little bit, like about enjoying the beauty and serenity of the trail or what time it was, I would trip and stumble. One nice part of the race course was that every mile was marked. All I had to do was count one mile at a time til I saw 39.
Sure, just count to 39! Easy peasy!! Uh hunh, yah right.
The race ran back over the same part of the earlier trail until we got to the first drop bag area at mile 28. I grabbed a quick bite and moved onto the single track out and back. As I turned right, I looked ahead and almost broke down. In front of me the trail headed straight up for a mile plus. I said aloud, "you've got to be $h!tt!n me". For a moment I felt the wind knocked out of me but followed those in front of me and kept moving forward. I do not know how long it took me to complete this portion but mentally it took everything I had. As I came back out of the trail at mile 33, I dumped my pack into my drop bag and planned on finishing this race as soon as I could.
I had hoped the race would just finish on road. Instead I found myself looking down and yelling at myself to pick up my feet. I hit the last aid station at mile 37 manned by a few high school runners who happily told me the finish was just over two miles. Just two more miles. I replied that that was the worst news I had ever heard (drama much?!). My normal happy runner was nearly cramping, exhausted and wanted to be done, now. Two miles seemed undoable, as crazy as it sounds now.
I ran alone on the trail over the next two miles hoping I was going the right way. When you have run that far and are that completely pooped, seemingly easy tasks like following signs or easy directions are very challenging. Also, this thought remains at the back of your head that you don't want to face, what if I went the wrong way?
I kept running to the end of the trail, where we popped out back at the start line area. And there was my dad, Steph, Larry the Denali bus driver, who I had just met earlier in the week (at guess where- Denali!), and everyone they recruited cheering for me! It was what I needed to make a strong finish at 7 hours 40 something minutes seventh woman overall.