Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Running in Alaska

This is a chronicle of my running adventures in Alaska during our September 2013 trip.


First Run in Anchorage

Bears! Bears? Here? Couldn't happen, could it? It hit me at 58 1/2 minutes into my planned two-hour run. Only a minute and a half before I would be turning back anyway. Why do these things always occur to me at precisely these times? 


Here's a grizzly Debbie and I spotted
from the car a couple days later
The run had begun innocently enough. I'd started off running north from our Anchorage hotel on A Street, towards downtown, until I hit the Chester Creek Trail. One of several all-purpose trails crisscrossing the city, this one's very nice. It's wooded, and alongside a nice creek. The path passes through tunnels and under bridges, so you hardly even know that you're in a city. There is even some lighting - which helps at 4:00 am.

The Chester Creek Trail took me west, past a large lake, and ended at the Coastal Trail. I turned left to go south. Now I was running along the shore, but things were just a little surreal.

There are wooded areas, but some homes and roads to my left, along with the water to my right. Except I never saw, heard or smelled any ocean. No ocean breeze. No crashing surf. I believe it's a very protected bay or inlet, and the tide was way out, such that the ocean was both close by and far away at the same time. It is quiet and mostly dark, although I could see fairly well with the lights of Anchorage behind me.

As I venture on, there are fewer and fewer houses and roads, and more and more woods to my left. At some point the trail veers away from the coast, and into the woods. Now, further away from the city lights, and in these deeper woods, the thought of bears popped into my head.

They wouldn't roam this close to Anchorage, would they? And they wouldn't be out in the dark, would they? Even if so, they surely wouldn't want to fool with some silly, solitary, skinny old runner traveling stupidly through these woods, would they?

This is how I manage to spook myself every time. Naturally I become more and more afraid, the more I think about it.

My fear isn't quite strong enough to override my plan to go 60 minutes before turning back. It occurs to me that these last ninety seconds of continuance in this outward direction, given that I'm already thinking about bears and other wind things in these woods, are the dumbest of all. But I'd planned to go an hour each way, and dad-gum it, I was gonna do it!

I come to a park - one of several along the way, and turn back. I pick up the pace; no doubt partially due to all this newfound adrenaline in my system. I find myself getting back so quickly that I even tack on a couple extra couple miles back on the Chester Creek Trail. It is still dark when I got back to the Springhill Suites, but the city has begun to wake up. For Debbie and me, it was time for breakfast.

I never did see any bears or even any wildlife of any kind during this run. Except in my mind.

I learn later on that Anchorage is one of the only cities in the world where human/grizzly encou ters have been documented.


Heavenly Healy Happenings

You might say I'm a little out of my element. I'm starting out for another run in the early morning darkness, this time from the Denali Lakeview Inn B&B in Healy. Yesterday's imaginary bear encounter had spooked me, but the Inn's posted notice about a grizzly sighting at the lake - which is all of about ten feet from or room's deck – has spooked me more.



Healy is ten miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Debbie and I had explored the park on our way up here yesterday, and we'd be doing more hiking there later today. It's a wonderful park, and it and the surrounding areas are burgeoning with bears. But we didn't see any. Perhaps they would reveal themselves to this goofy, lone runner.

Running in Healy with my
flashlight and bear spray
This time, I've got a flashlight, because it's so darn dark out here. I'm dressed fairly warm, since it's around 33 degrees. And did I mention that it’s snowing? Yes, snowing - on the 29th of September. But the real reason I'm out of my element is because of the bear spray. I cannot say that I've ever carried bear spray during a run before.

Since the can is about the size of an 8 ounce bottle of shampoo and sits in a holster-like pocket, I have to attach it to a belt in order to wear it, and the only belt I have is a leather one. It's all a bit awkward.

It's a mile and a quarter on deep, dark Otto Lake Road up to the highway. I run so slowly that it's almost like walking. It takes me fourteen minutes and change.

Now on the highway, I head south towards the park. I had thought that there would be lights, traffic, and other human activity here. There is nothing of the sort; it's nearly as dark and deserted as Otto Lake Road was. Eventually a few cars do go by at seventy miles an hour. The snow is still falling, but it's not sticking to the ground in these parts.

I know that I'm surrounded by the park's mountains. They're all around me - we saw them yesterday. But I can't see them at all due to the darkness and snow. It's actually pretty eerie.

I decide to go by the mile markers, so I do two of them and a bit more before turning back at three and a half miles and 37 1\2 minutes. Now I pick it up, finally doing sub-nine minute miles, based on the markers. I'm back to the B&B in only about 30 minutes, and it's already beginning to get a little light.

For the second straight run, there was no bear encounter.


Back in Anchorage

There are supposed to be northern lights in these parts, but I'm not seeing them. After a snowstorm changed our travel plans, I'm back in Anchorage earlier and for more time than expected. That's fine in several ways, including running, since this is such a runnable city. Back to the aurora borealis. The sky is completely clear for a change, and the stars are out. The bike trails I am running on - some of the same ones as before - go through the city, so there are city lights, but they also take me through some parks where I can see the stars better. Unfortunately - really, this time, considering the possible bears from previous runs - no aurora.

Now for my next run in Anchorage, I decide to do a faster run. 'Faster' being a relative term. It's fun to do these great trails, but most of my running here has been painfully slow; I'm simply not pushing myself. To exacerbate the problem, all this dining out is helping me to pack on the pounds. The best I can do is about eight-minute pace for the route back. Feels like seven. But I may as well call it a small victory and be happy with it.
The Coastal Trail in Anchorage

On yet another Anchorage run, light rain is falling, and it's 42 degrees. I usually don't like these kinds of conditions, but I am not bothered by them for this run. It's a run of exploration and discovery. Heading south on A/C streets for the first time, I'm trying to boldly go where no Brunstuckian has gone before - mostly I'm trying to find a different bike trail that's supposed to cross by here. Alas. I am not able to locate it. This turns out to be a slow, soggy slog of un-discovery. But I'm not totally devastated, for I've survived to run yet another day.

Now it's my last run in Anchorage; we're moving on to Homer later this morning. I'm heading north on the coastal trail, and the clouds, like everything else in Alaska, are awesome. They're hanging low around the buildings, and are glowing in hues of bright blue and orange. I figure that the lighting is due to reflections of the city lights. I continue north on the trail. I'm moving at a solid eight minute pace today, and get to the five-mile mark in under forty minutes. It took me forty-five minutes the other day. It helps to have someone chasing you. What is it with these Alaska runners? The other day I was moving really well at well under eight-minute pace, and a guy actually passed me up! Now I am squarely on the north side of downtown, with nothing much north of here. And there's still that  blue glow to the north. Could it be northern lights?


I never actually find out. I do some more miles up in that neck of the woods before turning back. I maintain the eight minute pace for fourteen miles - this is one of my best runs here in AK. I never find out about the northern lights.


Heavenly Homer - and the 'Race'

The Homer Spit is a narrow peninsula jutting out from Homer into Kachemak Bay. As Debbie and I drive out to the end of it, I figure that this would just have to be the course for my run tomorrow. That had become my plan... until Debbie picks up a just printed copy of the Homer News, which informs us that there's a half-marathon here in Homer this Saturday, the day after tomorrow, the day we'd planned on driving to our next stop, Seward. This changes everything.

The Homestead Trail where we hiked
one day, and where I ran the next
I'm running alone on the race course, but not as part of the race itself. The plan had been for Debbie to drop me off at the high school for the start of the half and pick me up at the finish, since the run was point to point. But now we'd learned that the race starts at 10; not 8:30 as stated in the paper. Check in began at 8:30. 10 would have been too late for me to start; we had wanted to get a reasonably early start on the drive to Seward. The race check-in lady had told me that I could run on the course anyway, since the trails were already marked.

The Homestead Trail
The trails lead up. Way up. It would have been a very tough half-marathon. I told Debbie that I'd meet her at the hotel in an hour or a bit more (I’d be doing less than thirteen), and we'd be on our way after that. Luckily, I'm in fairly familiar territory, since we had hiked these trails the day before. Even though the course is tough, it's a perfect day for running (about 40F, sunny, and no wind), the leaves and general scenery are smashing, and I'm having a great time.

I do eventually decide to turn back towards town, cutting back down closer to the Best Western where we're staying. I encounter a middle-school track, where I manage to get a tempo run in. It wasn't easy, but it felt good when I stopped. What an enjoyable and memorable run.


Stupendous Seward, and a Marathon of a Different Kind

I'm running scared once again. But to call this shuffling 'running' may be pushing it a bit. Like a complete idiot, I'm without my flashlight and my bear spray.

I am on the Mount Marathon race course. The road went uphill until it ended, and now I'm doing this shuffling on a dark, rocky, uphill trail. The Mount Marathon race is held July 4th, and it takes runners up, and back down this 3,000+ foot mountain, all in just 3.25 miles. Course record is 43 minutes.

I look up. Although there are tall, steep mountains all around, I can still view enough of the dark sky to see the brightest stars I've seen in years. And I'm really not all that far from town. What self-respecting aurora borealis wouldn't show itself in a sky like this? Alas, there are no northern lights this day. But I do indeed enjoy those stars.

Oh yeah. I'm supposed to be running. I'd actually come to a complete stop for a time, not even walking. I head back down into town in order to do some real running. I turn south to the end of the road on that end, but that gets dark and a bit scary too. Debbie and I would hike here on the coastal trail later in the day.

I finish my run in and around town. This was probably my slowest run during the trip. But no less memorable.

In fact, they were all memorable, every dang single last one of them. Where will this running stuff take me next?

To read more about this Alaska trip, including some exciting hikes, please click here.

To see all our Alaska photos, click here.


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