Training

Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun

By Hal Higdon, Photographs by Justin Bonneau

CLIMBING OUT OF JUNEAU AIRPORT, our single-engine plane slid into a cloud bank barely a few hundred feet above the runway. Given that there were hills above us on both sides, I hoped our pilot knew his job. I glanced nervously at my wife Rose. But as we turned up the canal toward Skagway, the clouds parted and we found ourselves flying in clear sky above blue water rimmed with snow-tipped mountains.

I had come to Alaska to run the 17th annual Klondike Road Relay, a 110-mile running race that follows one of the routes taken by miners during the Gold Rush of 1898. The event begins in downtown Skagway on a Friday evening in mid-September and continues through the night across the White Pass, finishing Saturday morning beside the Yukon River in Whitehorse, Canada. Each relay team has ten members, running miscellaneous distances from about 6 to 16 miles. I was scheduled to run a 12-mile stage.

The Relay’s connection to history intrigued me. In 1896, gold was discovered in The Yukon, a Canadian province. Within the next several years, 100,000 prospective gold miners would rush through Alaska into Canada seeking their fortunes. These Gold Rushers mostly came to Skagway by ship, then made their way across the mountains by foot before building rafts to float down the Yukon River to the Klondike gold fields.

Success did not come easily. The Royal Canadian Mounties refused to let the Gold Rushers enter Canada unless they had a year’s worth of supplies. Only a few returned wealthy. Nevertheless, the Gold Rush Days offered an exciting era memorialized in novels by Jack London and in poetry by Robert W. Service.

Secret Tales

Ah, Robert W. Service. It was Service who symbolized Alaska for me. As a youth, I sometimes was required to memorize poetry. In our school, the girls, sweet things, usually chose: Yeats, Milton, Frost. I chose Service, who had penned The Cremation of Sam McGee. As we landed in Skagway, several still-remembered lines from that glorious poem buzzed in my ears:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic Trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold.

Certainly, there weren’t many things stranger than 148 teams, 1,434 individuals, rushing across a mountain pass, mostly in the darkness, bound not for gold, but for glory--and not much of that!

Despite my youthful memories, Alaska was one destination that had eluded me during my world travels. I had visited all 50 states except it and North Dakota. When an opportunity arose to join a team in the Klondike Road Relay, I quickly said yes.

Alaska cannot be conquered--or even visited--by the faint-hearted. Several years ago, my son Kevin took ten days to drive to Alaska with his family in a rented Recreational Vehicle. Cruises up the West Coast from ports in Washington and British Columbia take a week. We didn’t have that much time, so chose to fly into Juneau at the mouth of one of Alaska’s many canals (actually fjords). After the Relay, we planned a trip to Anchorage before heading home. (See: Sprinting To Denali.)

As Good As It Gets

Thursday night, Dawn Seto gathered our team at The Stowaway Cafe, near where the cruise ships dock in Skagway, a town with a year-round population of 806 that swells into the tens of thousands during the summer tourist season--at least when one of the cruise ships lands. Dawn, who works with Tourism North, served as our team leader. One of the traditions of road relays (such as Hood to Coast in Oregon, or River to River in Illinois) is quirky, team names, thus Dawn had dubbed us "As Good As It Gets," after the movie starring Jack Nicholson. Nicholson won an Oscar for his portrayal of a superstitious bachelor, who tip-toes through life trying to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. I hoped Dawn didn’t expect us to run the Relay not stepping on cracks in the highway. That might be difficult, given the fact that on a moonless night most of us would be running in the dark, our way illuminated only by the headlights of our team Recreational Vehicle. 

Thursday night, Dawn Seto gathered our team at The Stowaway Cafe, near where the cruise ships dock in Skagway, a town with a year-round population of 806 that swells into the tens of thousands during the summer tourist season--at least when one of the cruise ships lands. Dawn, who works with Tourism North, served as our team leader. One of the traditions of road relays (such as Hood to Coast in Oregon, or River to River in Illinois) is quirky, team names, thus Dawn had dubbed us "As Good As It Gets," after the movie starring Jack Nicholson. Nicholson won an Oscar for his portrayal of a superstitious bachelor, who tip-toes through life trying to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. I hoped Dawn didn’t expect us to run the Relay not stepping on cracks in the highway. That might be difficult, given the fact that on a moonless night most of us would be running in the dark, our way illuminated only by the headlights of our team Recreational Vehicle.

The Good As it Gets RV had been driven from Anchorage to Skagway (a distance of about 500 miles) by Craig Medred, outdoor editor for the Anchorage Daily News. Craig, sporting a grizzled beard, looked like he had just stepped out of a Robert W. Service poem. He would run the first 8.8-mile stage: flat at first, then tilting perilously upward as the road left Skagway and began its ascent through White Pass. Although the Relay allows for ten-person teams, we only had eight--meaning two of us would need to run double stages! Fortunately, that was not I. Coming off a hamstring injury, I managed to swap my planned 16-mile stage for the 12.3-mile stage originally assigned to Scott Douglas of Bethesda, Maryland, former editor for Running Times. Scott would also run a second stage. The extra mileage seemed to appeal to him as a challenge.

We stayed overnight at The White House, a pleasantly appointed (Teddy bears in the room) bed and breakfast, originally built in 1902 and restored recently after a fire. Friday morning offered several touring options. Several in the group chose to hike on the Chilkoot Trail, actually the preferred route of most Gold Rushers from 1898. Though the Chilkoot climbed higher than White Pass, it was shorter. Protecting my hamstring, I decided to ride the scenic White Pass & Yukon Railroad that parallels the relay route. The train chugs up the mountains to an elevation near 3,000 feet before returning tourists to their cruise ships.

Hanging off an outside platform, I beheld a scary sight. It was not merely that our narrow-gauge train threatened to tip off the side of the mountain, but that I could gaze across a valley and see how steep the road for the relay climbed. Tom Weede, a muscular editor from Men’s Fitness, had been assigned the second stage. At 5.8 miles, it was shortest of the ten relay stages, but also toughest. Like Scott, Tom had been assigned double duty. He also would run our final stage. 

Bears on the Road

At 6:00 PM, As Good As It Gets assembled in downtown Skagway for the start. Fifteen other teams would begin with us. The remaining relay teams would follow in half-hour intervals, culminating with the fastest group at midnight. We were in the first seed because of a slow predicted finish. (Dawn estimated our finish time at 17 hours when she filed our entry, guaranteeing us an early start.) I suspected that several in our group had been unduly pessimistic in estimating their abilities. This proved true, since Craig quickly moved to the front. He was in second place as he tagged Tom, who took the lead before yielding at the summit of White Pass (the border between Alaska and British Columbia) to Ginny Fay, a local runner from Juneau. Ginny’s stage of 7.6 miles was the easiest: not only short, but also downhill.

Not that Ginny had nothing to fear. As she waited in the exchange zone near a Canadian customs shack, one of the customs officers told us about a bear having been sighted further down the course. Ginny had told us to drive ahead, but now reconsidered: "Uhhh, maybe you better stay close."

No bears appeared and Ginny passed to Rick Ladzinski, a guide from Bozeman, Montana. Rick had flown into Skagway packing a fishing pole along with his running shoes. I liked his attitude. More hiker and skier than runner, he wasn’t going to be intimidated by running 13.3 miles. By now the sun had set. To illuminate his way, Rick wore a battery-powered light. Rick didn’t seem to be concerned when the team that had been dogging us, "Vroom Vroom," pushed us back again to second. Nor did it concern any of us in the RV either. We knew that faster teams would start still later and drop us deeper into the standings. We were still in second at Tutshi Lake as Rick passed to Stefani Ellen Jackenthal, a cyclist turned adventure runner from New York City.

Organizers had chosen the second weekend in September for their race date, despite the fact that had they waited two weekends, runners could utilize a full moon. In some previous years, the Aurora Borealis had lit the sky. But with that light spectacular a no-show, we ran in almost total darkness. Returning to Skagway in daylight two days later, I realized that this was the most scenic stretch of the road. Stefani, unfortunately, would miss the scenery. She pranced along the side of the road, the headlights of our RV barely piercing the darkness. Craig pulled the RV up beside her so Justin Bonneau, a photographer hired by Dawn to record our journey, could take pictures. With Justin’s flash popping continuously in her eyes, I wondered how soon Stefani would tell him to stop, but she seemed to revel in the attention. She would prove the best of our team, actually winning an award for being fastest among the female runners who ran stage five, 14 miles. 

Vroom Vroom

Despite Stefani’s heroic efforts, we remained second to Vroom Vroom as she tagged off to Scott at the border between British Columbia and The Yukon. Off in the distance, we spotted the van lighting the way for the Vroom Vroom runner. Running like a deer through the forest, Scott nibbled away at the lead, catching the other runner midway through the stage. The pair ran together for several miles, chatting, until Scott decided to move. The Vroom Vroom runner briefly tried to stay close, then drifted off to the rear. By the time Scott reached the town of Carcross and tagged Amy Coseo, Vroom Vroom was Doomed Doomed.

Alas, that’s when we discovered someone had left Scott’s warm-up gear lying on the road in the exchange zone. Amy, who works for Blue magazine in New York, was more skydiver, in-line skater and soccer player than runner--and in fact had never run a road race before. Given that she had predicted it would take 90 minutes to run her 8.8-mile stage, Craig said that we would have ample time to retrieve Scott’s gear and connect later with Amy. Since I was the next runner, I was less confident, but it was 3:00 in the morning and nobody was thinking too clearly. We turned around leaving a secondary van to light her way. Hindsight suggests I should have shifted to that van.

Until then, we had no contact with other teams in the Klondike Road Relay, but as we traced Scott’s 16-mile stage backwards, we finally saw our competition. Runners crowded the road, as did their accompanying vehicles. After retrieving Scott’s gear, we encountered a traffic jam that lasted until we reached Carcross again. Then traffic, both runner an vans, thinned. Only a handful of teams seemed to have a chance of beating us to Whitehorse.

Unfortunately, Amy proved most pessimistic in her prediction, finishing 20 minutes faster than expected. She was standing anxiously beside a group of officials when we appeared. I jumped out of the RV, but we were so far ahead that race officials had not yet manned the checkpoint. "You won’t get an official time," an official warned. I shrugged and set off into the night.

A Surreal Experience

Our team RV lit the road before me, an almost surreal experience. The asphalt road, besieged by wind and snow each winter, was rough, undulating, often canted to one side. The headlights cast dark mini-shadows, ugly gashes on the grayish asphalt. Even the slightest dip looked like a Moon crater into which I might disappear. The Jack Nicholson of As Good As It Gets, I knew, would not fare well on this highway.

Still, I liked it. On occasions when the road turned--meaning that for at least several seconds the headlights of the RV continued straight while I veered into semi-darkness--I felt abandoned. I had asked Rose to hand me fluids every two miles, and as we passed that distance, she leaned out the window and did so. She provided the comfort blanket linking me to reality. And also a vital check as to distance run.

As mile followed mile, the sky lightened. A motorcycle policeman appeared and asked me to move from the right to left side of the road. With darkness turning to dawn, I could see now, but I missed the contact with our RV. One advantage of running in the dark, I now discovered, was that you couldn’t see the hills. Now in the cold light of dawn and with about two miles to go in my stage, I looked forward and discovered a hill that seemed near vertical.

As my pace lagged, I feared being caught by Vroom Vroom. Glancing backwards, I saw no one in sight. This was a bad tactical error, since I suddenly lost all desire to run. I did more walking than running in the final two miles, yet (I learned later) still stretched our lead over our pursuers.

Scott and Tom completed our journey with stages of 11.1 and 11.9 miles. We stopped beside the Yukon River in Whitehorse with race officials still organizing the finishing area. Our time was 14:48:38, beating Dawn’s prediction by several hours. Though first to Whitehorse, As Good As It Gets lost to later starters, actually finishing 26th overall, sixth in our class. Vroom Vroom’s overall finish was 82nd, nearly two hours behind us. The time for the winning Pacific Roadrunners Wolfpack team was 10:18:58.

We paused for breakfast at the Loose Moose Cafe, then drove 35 miles to The Inn On The Lake, where we would stay overnight. Grabbing a beer, I headed for the outdoor hot tub and sat soaking and staring across Marsh Lake at mountains crossed by Gold Rushers a century before. I was exhausted not merely from my run, but from a night without sleep. Semi-conscious, lines from Robert W. Service’s famous poem buzzed in my ears:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see…

Queerer sights have been seen and stranger things done in the Midnight Sun than running the Klondike Road Relay. Unfortunately, Service no longer is around to memorialize them. Sitting and soaking and enjoying the view, I felt exhilarated after having run in my 49th state. Now if I can only find a race next summer in North Dakota!

For more information on the Klondike Road Relay, contact Sport Yukon, 4061 4th Avenue, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 1H1 (867-668-4236) or sportyk@klondike.com.

Hal Higdon, Senior Writer for Runner’s World, is author of the recently republished Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide.

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