Last fall I ran an unexpected first marathon, in the sense that I wasn’t planning on racing until a week before and because I came out with the win. It’s a fond memory that will stay with me for a long time.
After road tripping across the west this past summer, running Headwaters, Pikes Peak Ascent, and many other great trails, I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska where my girlfriend Claire was working on her master’s thesis. I had visited earlier in the summer, but my second trip landed right in the middle of autumn, the aspen and birch yellowing against black spruce and blue skies. Besides aiming for graduation, Claire was getting ready for her first 26.2, the locally celebrated Equinox Marathon.
The race takes place on the weekend halfway between the extremes of summer light and winter darkness, a nontrivial fact of life in the far north. [Earlier in the summer I ran the Midnight Sun Run on the solstice, a party popular 10k that ends near midnight, the sky still disorienting with light]. As talk of the Equinox Marathon mounted among friends and around town, I debated whether to sign up. On one hand, I’d already done plenty of racing and wanted to support Claire in her first; on the other, I knew I would be itchy watching all those folks run past in what is a fairly iconic Alaskan event. The credit should go to Claire, because she ultimately convinced me that as an avid runner, this was something not to miss.
The Equinox is very different from traditional marathons, as it is a hybrid of trail, dirt roads, and pavement, challenging runners with significant elevation gain and loss. It is almost like a 26.2 mile cross country race given the wide variety of features. In its 51st year, it is one of the older marathons in the country and often considered one of the most challenging. While extreme races have now become commonplace, few have the tradition and history of the Equinox.
Officially it may have been the first day of fall, but the morning of the race seemed to usher in an early winter: 22 degrees at the start and no forecast above freezing by midday. Friends asked if I was going to wear tights and I brushed them off, saying I’d never done such a thing. But I was wondering in the moments before the gun. My warm up consisted of staying inside as long as possible and a few cursory stride outs. It’s a long race right?
The course starts on pavement in front of the university athletic building, and immediately heads up a steep grassy hill to the upper campus. Up the hill I spied multi-time local winner Matias Saari and quickly fell in behind. He was wearing tights. And carrying a water bottle. Hmmm.
The first mile covers pavement, grass, pavement, and bark trail, which is about how it goes, constantly changing. The field narrowed to about five of us in that span, and everyone seemed to know each other except me. There was some gentlemanly banter, Fairbanks folks catching up with Anchorage folks, and I felt like I was crashing a friendly Saturday morning long run. Finally Matias turned around and asked if I was who I was. I guess the race director had tipped off the presence of an outsider. Luckily the lead pack welcomed me in, or else it would have been an awkward few miles.
The pace stayed fairly pedestrian as the group of us moved through the trees, occasionally opening out onto a road for a short stretch. We chatted about other races, absent runners, and the cold but clear day. Was this a race or an outing!? I tried to stay smooth and efficient while taking mental notes, figuring the miles would creep up and someone could make a move at any time. In the first third the course starts to find some small elevation, rolling up and down over rooted trails. On each downhill, Matias would break away from the group, running with abandon over the rough footing only to slow and yoyo back to us on the uphill. I had watched him race an epic Mt. Marathon in Seward, AK earlier in the summer, and was starting to get nervous about what he could do on the 2000 ft descent off Ester Dome.
Shortly before the major climb, our lead group came into the third aid station at mile 8 something. I was determined to learn the art of aid station technique and do a better job of refueling than my mishaps at Pikes Peak where I fumbled drink cups and didn’t eat enough. My strategy was to take water/Gatorade at every station, plus 100 calories of Shot Bloks before stations 8, 15, and 22. I was also carrying a mini snickers as bonk backup. Having only practiced on a long run the week prior, I was pleasantly surprised I could put back the gummies without losing pace or place. Onward to the defining feature of the race: Ester Dome.
Winding through birch and aspen, the trail up Ester Dome is where the Equinox comes into its own. The pavement is gone, and so too is any disguise of your fitness. Uphill running does that. Our group was down to four, and after a mile it was three. I continued to tuck in behind Matias and another runner, knowing there was a lot of race left. And yet, what about that wild descent? Every foot gained must be lost, and I was unsure if I could keep up with these guys once the wheels started flying. If I could push the climb a little, probe for weak spots, maybe I could gain some kind of advantage, at least mentally. I didn’t need to wait long. As we got onto the gravel road to the summit and took our cups at mile 12, I found myself right at the front, even a step ahead. Without much planning or extra effort, I was in the lead. I glanced back, took stock of my pace, and decided I wasn’t going too hard….so go for it.
Before I could fixate on this new development, my eye caught something gleaming on the horizon. Denali rising! More than any other part of the race, this was my highlight, my earthly suspension. I must have had this huge grin on my face: rolling uphill, crisp skies and the snows 150 miles distant stoking my fire. Yeehaw! This was going to be a good day.
I reached halfway at the top of the Dome, but the course was only starting to show its features. The next four miles are an out and back section over rocky, rutted two-track that pitches up and down with a net loss of several hundred feet. While I’d run this section before, there had never been snow. Being at the front had advantages here, where there was no one else to careen into or previous footsteps to slick the path. I kept thinking Matias would surge past as I slowed enough to stay on my feet, but I made the turnaround holding the lead. Another aid station, another round of gummies and Gatorade. Check. When Matias came by, I figured I had 30 seconds, something, but not much. The course was stringing the field out now, runners came by in ones and twos the whole way back up. Near the top of the Dome (for the second time) I finally caught the first relay team, and pulled into the absolute lead. Denali and the Alaska Range were still shimmering as I reached the top of the chute, the steepest part of the course that sends you bombing back into the birch and towards town. I reached for a cup of water at the aid station only to have ice hit my lips—still quite cold mind you!
It was picking my way down the chute that the thought seriously crept into my head. I had been holding it at bay as long as possible, but after two hours it was knocking loud: could I actually win this? Sure you can dream, but if I could hold off everyone on the descent, I would have an honest to goodness shot. That’s about when the footsteps sounded. Well, we’ve got a race yet. They closed and I knew the…relay runner was going past. Whew. He asked if I wanted any pacing, I just told him to go as fast as he could and I’d try to hang on. We ran together through the woods, empty of fans, losing all our previous work at a much faster rate. Exiting back onto the dirt road near the 20 mile mark, there were positive cheers from a friend before I grabbed another cup and steeled myself for the last six miles.
Everyone has heard stories or experienced the struggle themselves: 20 miles might as well be halfway. I milked the final descent for what it was worth, and tried to change gears on the flats. Pre-race I had hoped to average 5:30s from here to the finish. By the last aid station at 23, I was finding out what the final miles feel like, barely making 6:00s, and spitting out most of my energy bloks. Word was I had several minutes in the bank, but I kept pushing because you never really trust the spectators. The last 5k is mostly level pavement followed by a soul searching ski trail climb and final pavement descent. At this point my calf started twitching, threatening to cramp. You can go from crushing it to holding on pretty fast. With a little over a mile to go the course record holder, local legend Stan Justice, was alternating his attention between me and his watch. He needn’t worry, I was not going for the record, nor could I have. I just wanted the finish line. Luckily, the final quarter mile was a relief; my calf would hold, my lead would hold, and the finish line was open. The mini snickers still in my pocket tasted like victory.
Things that happened in my exhausted/elated state: Matias came in second about seven minutes later, and he already seemed like a noble competitor and good friend. I rambled for who knows how long to the local reporter (who was I, where did I come from, this was your first marathon!?), making redundant general statements that would later make the paper. The race director confirmed I had indeed won and earned lifetime entry (if I want to return at age 80 there will be no questions asked). And a friend put up with my sluggishness and drove me back to the course to track down Claire.
We found her at the 20 mark, undoubtedly feeling the effects but still sporting a smile. I’m not sure when my hobbling alongside turned from encouraging to annoying, but at least for my sake I decided standing cheers would be enough. At one point as I shuffled back to the car a nearby woman asked how far I had made it before dropping out. You can imagine her then surprise! Claire ran tough over the final miles, though she was discouraging photos and mildly threatening us with a puke break. The pain would come to pass and she finished just off her goal time, in the process raising over $1500 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
The rest of the day was spent cheering more people across the line, recuperating with choc milk and pizza, and dealing with my growing local celebrity status. I bungled a few words to the awards audience and was then swept off to the Marlin, a fairly infamous Interior bar. Running stories flowed freely, and so did the drinks. Strangers handed me shots, and for a day I had won more than a race, but the town’s approval. Luckily Claire was there to show me the way home.
Three days later at pub trivia our group of friends had the best laugh of all. Final random question of the evening with team points on the line? Name the winners of the Equinox marathon.