Marathons: Paul #38, Leah #28, State #22 : Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon 2014
21st June 2014, Anchorage, Alaska, USA
Finish Time (Paul) = 3:57:42
Finish Time (Leah) = 4:17:54
We always knew Alaska would be tough, following London we both took a 2 month break from running. My foot was becoming too painful and I knew if it was a stress fracture, it would need 6 – 8 weeks of no running to have a chance of healing. Leah had had issues with her ankle too, so it was best for us both. It was hard though, we had already entered 5 marathons for May (1 every weekend) which were non-refundable and aren’t cheap either. Each weekend we saw our money go to waste and in a couple of instances our non-refundable flights too. We had decided we weren’t going to miss Alaska as it was the chance of a lifetime and so we focused on that.
We arrived in Alaska on the Thursday, checked in to the Marriott who gave us a room with a fantastic view of the mountains, and made our way to the expo to pick up our race packs. The expo was pretty small and subdued compared to the usual ones and we were in and out in no time, leaving us some time to explore downtown Anchorage and also find some mosquito repellant for the marathon. Surprisingly this wasn’t as easy as we expected, in a place that has a mosquito problem!
In the evening we went over to Simon & Seafort’s, a restaurant with spectacular views over the sea. We both ordered salmon, which was freshly caught Copper River Sockeye. It was without a doubt the best salmon I’ve ever tasted.
The next day we had breakfast and met Ellie, our hiking guide for an organized mountain hike. An Australian guy named Mark was also in our group. We drove down to Chucagh State Park and hit the trails, avoiding the popular routes and heading into the mountains with no-one else around.
Ellie had her can of bear spray and she gave us a serious talk about what to do if we came across a bear or a moose. Which by the way, is basically stick together in a group and talk loudly (without screaming or sounding scared) and don’t run. If the bear started to act aggressively, we would “reassess”, although I’m not sure we ever found out what the reassessment options would be. Slowest in the group loses?
So we pushed on, on the lookout for bears and moose. The weather was perfect, bright sun and not a cloud in the blue sky. We hiked across bridges of rushing water and through rugged trails.
We got to a point where Ellie asked if we wanted to climb upwards or stay on the level we were, I wanted to climb upwards to get the best views and no-one else objected, so we started on what we didn’t realize would end up being a tough hike. Ultimately we climbed from sea level up to the top of a 4,000 foot mountain with only a few brief breaks, as we were on a time schedule.
The view from the top was stunning, with miles of untouched nature stretching as far as you could see on one side, snow covered mountains on another and downtown Anchorage towards another angle. It definitely made it worth it even though our calf muscles were killing.
After some pictures we started the trek back down which was even harder due to the loose gravel trails. This time it was the quad muscles that would take the brunt of the work, by the time we got down our legs were jelly!
We spent the rest of the day at Anchorage museum which was a great experience. It was filled with all kinds of genuine Eskimo items from clothing to tools to boats. There were a lot of recreations showing how they lived during different stages and how they caught and ate their food. It was fascinating how they would make their clothes out of various parts of the animals they caught for food, nothing would go to waste.
There was also a lot of information on the earthquake of 1964 which destroyed most of Anchorage. It is still the most powerful earthquake in US history and second strongest ever recorded in history. It lasted for 5 minutes, measuring in at 9.2 on the richter scale and the aftershocks lasted more than a year. Due to Alaska being between the Pacific and North American plates, there are actually earthquakes every day there, most of which go unnoticed by people. Alaska has more earthquakes each year than all the other US States combined.
That evening we went swimming to try to stretch our legs out a bit and got an early night. The morning of the marathon we woke up, opened the curtains and this is what we saw…
Compare: The morning we woke up for the hike
The same view we woke up to the next morning for the marathon:
The sky was full of clouds, it was pouring with rain and everywhere was soaking wet. (Note that although it was called the Midnight Sun Marathon it wasn’t run at midnight, it was just a reference to the fact that at this time in June the sun doesn’t set until midnight and then it rises again by 4am). We got on the shuttle bus to take us to the start and put on ponchos, waiting under shelter. We did some stretching and it was then that we realised our legs were already sore from the hike! Perhaps we had overestimated our abilities after a 2 month rest. As soon as we started we realised that our sheltering inside had just delayed the inevitable. There was a stream of water flowing across the road just a few seconds after the starting line which covered our shoes and completely soaked our feet. Another 4 hours of running to go. It was a shame also because the clouds were obscuring views of the mountains which you could tell would have been amazing.
Completely the opposite to usual, I had read nothing about the course but Leah had. A group of guys ran past us and said they were getting in some fast miles to have reserve time for the muddy trail, section. I knew there was a trail part but as we hadn’t expected rain we were running in our fast lightweight road shoes. We started to come across more stoney rough ground but it wasn’t too bad, and rather than being loose gravel it was just more stuck together which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I commented to Leah that this trail section wasn’t bad at all. She didn’t want to break my spirit but what I didn’t know was this wasn’t the trail!
It turned out the trail started around mile 5 and went all the way to mile 18. And by trail we’re talking running through Alaskan forest, with hills, through single-file stretches and over 3-plank wooden bridges to cross streams. Adding to that, it was soaking wet with huge puddles and sticky mud. Don’t get me wrong, it was great fun in terms of the experience and a world away from the usual city marathons but it was also very energy-sapping. We were trying to run on the side of the muddy trail but also had to watch out for the abundance of Devil’s Club, which we wouldn’t want to brush up against.
We got to half-way in 1 hour 59 minutes, which wasn’t promising at all for a sub 4, given that the second half is usually slower. If we ever wanted to have any hope of completing all 50 States in under 4 hours, the 2 you don’t want to have to repeat are Hawaii and Alaska (fantastic destinations but the most costly). I said to Leah that we would need to speed up to have a chance, but we were both struggling. Perhaps it was the 2 month rest, perhaps it was the previous day’s hike, perhaps it was the muddy wet course or a combination of them all.
After another 2 miles I suddenly found an extra gear of determination. Some days you’re lucky and you have it, some days you just can’t find it. Sometimes you’re a master of the mental battle and others the mental battle consumes you and the most you can do is try to numb it out with music. For me, it was a day I had the mental edge and I decided I hadn’t come all the way out to not run a sub-4 State for Alaska and I started flying off down the trail. I was hoping Leah would be able to keep up behind me too. I also decided I was losing too much body fluid keeping the poncho on, which obviously isn’t breathable at all, so I ripped it off and for a few seconds it felt really good. Then I realised how much it had been protecting me from the cold wind on wet skin! I only had a running vest on underneath. I started eating handfuls of pretzels at the aid stations to replace some lost salts.
I tried to make sure I didn’t lose sight of the enjoyment factor, as the rain had subsided and the views of mountain scenery had cleared up and were visible once more. Even though I was trying to power up the hills and fly back down the other side, whenever I checked my watch it would show that I was still only just going to make it in under 4. Once I got to mile 20 I kept re-calculating at every mile marker… “as long as I run each mile in under this time, I should still make it”. It was ultra painful and my legs were screaming but I pushed on. The worst part of all was mile 25. I got there and my watch was on 3:46, meaning 13 minutes to run 1.2 miles… could I do that? And then I found that this last 1.2 miles was entirely up hill to the finish line. So cruel!
It was while I was pushing up the hill that I started to think I might need medical attention when I finished. It’s not about the pain in your body at that point, I can deal with pain, it’s about your body having nothing left to give and yet you’re mentally still pushing it to go and there’s an empty feeling where you don’t know where the energy is coming from but you feel you might be borrowing it from somewhere you can’t replace.
I had put absolutely everything into the second half.
At 26 miles I felt the first feeling of relief that I probably would make it in time, my watch was on 3:55 but then again I also still couldn’t see the finish and was still running uphill. I ended up crossing the line in 3:57:42. It was hands down the hardest and most painful sub 4 I have ever run, even though it’s not the closest I’ve been to missing the time goal.
I stumbled off to recover, which for me means eating anything I can get my hands on and stretching out. I then waited for Leah who finished in 4:17:54 but most importantly, smiling through the pain.
Our only direct flight option back to Denver was a flight at midnight, flying overnight and landing in the morning. It would have been pretty miserable to do after the marathon so instead we had booked a late afternoon flight to Seattle. We landed there in the evening and after checking in at the hotel went for a night swim under the stars in the outdoor pool. The next day we continued on to Denver.
In the past we’ve managed to get up the following day and have been completely fine, after Alaska it was far from that. Following the marathon on Saturday it took both of us until Tuesday to even be able to fake a normal walk again and almost a week on our legs were still very painful.
I definitely think the lack of training hurt, but also looking at my finish statistics I think it was also a tough marathon. Even with a time that was very close to the 4 hour mark, I came in 198th out of 852 finishers, and within my male 30 – 34 age group I was 14th of 53. These are better results than I’ve had with a faster finishing time.
Above all though we both had an amazing time in Alaska and if I went back I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. The day before the marathon was our only chance to do the hike and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that for anything. I feel very lucky that we got to go, much like Hawaii it’s a State a lot of Americans would like to visit but the cost is just too high. We used flight miles and hotel points, which does make it easier to endure when I’m boarding my 100th flight of the year and remembering what positive experiences we can get out of having such an intense travel schedule.
Elevation Graph from my running watch:
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