On August 16th, I ran the Moose’s Tooth Marathon in Anchorage Alaska, which is one of the Big Wildlife Runs. They also have a 49K race and shorter distances. I was tempted to run the 49K, since it’s an unusual distance, but I stuck to the marathon so I could try for my second sub-4 marathon in Alaska.
This was my second Alaska marathon. In 2008, I ran the Mayor’s Marathon, which is also in Anchorage. I chose the Mayor’s Marathon for my first Alaska race because it’s in June, and that was better timing for the sightseeing we wanted to do on that trip. Since then, I’ve heard from friends that Moose’s Tooth has a more attractive course.
Last December, I ran my second marathon in Alabama. That gave me two or more marathons in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. At the time, I didn’t have any races scheduled in either of those states. I assumed I wouldn’t return to either Alaska or Hawaii until Deb and I both had time to take a long vacation.
As recently as February, I commented to a friend that Alaska and Hawaii were places where you didn’t just fly in, run a marathon, and fly home. Ironically, it was only about two weeks later that I booked a trip to do just that.
What changed? Well, I guess you could say the price was right. Because of a personal commitment, I couldn’t travel for the first two weeks of August. I really wanted to find a race for the third weekend of August. There aren’t many races in August, so I researched every possibility.
Seeing the Moose’s Tooth Marathon was that weekend, I priced flights to Anchorage and found them to be too expensive. Then I checked how many SkyMiles I would need to get a free flight with Delta. I could get a flight for 25,000 miles, but I had to make connections in Seattle, and the flight times really didn’t work for me. I could get non-stop flights with convenient times, but I would need to redeem 40,000 miles. Then I noticed that I could get first class seats on those same flights for 70,000 miles. That was tempting. Even flying non-stop, it’s a six hour flight, so the extra comfort is worth using 30,000 extra miles.
Next I researched hotels. The race starts and finishes downtown, which is also where the expo is held. There were downtown hotels offering discounted rates for the marathon, but those rooms were already booked. The regular rates for downtown hotels were expensive. I found a few discount hotels within walking distance of the race, but they were fully booked. Then I looked into how many HHonors points I would need to get a free room at the Hilton, which was within walking distance of the start, finish and expo. I had enough points for two nights.
So there you have it. I could get a free flight and a free hotel stay, but I could only stay two nights. My only expenses for this trip were my entry fee, a few restaurant meals and, taxi rides to and from the hotel. It may seem like a waste to fly all the way to Alaska and then fly home two days later, but the price was right.
I arrived around noon and took a cab from the airport. After checking in at Hilton, I walked a few blocks to Dena’i Convention Center to pick up my race packet. In the neighborhood around the hotel, there were a number of tourist shops and restaurants.
I didn’t sleep well Friday night, so I started getting tired in the afternoon. I was also getting hungry. I had a breakfast on the flight, but that was several hours earlier. There’s a three hour time difference between Minnesota and Alaska. Rather than try to adjust, I ate an early dinner and went to bed early.
I woke up at 4:00, rested in bed for another hour, and finally got up at 5:00. Because of the time difference, that felt like sleeping in. The race didn’t start until 9:00, so I had time to eat a real breakfast. Hilton had a breakfast buffet that started at 6:00. I had to be careful not to overindulge.
This was first race after a three week break. I did only minimal training, running 10 miles per week. I’m still not healthy, but my fitness has continued to erode. Going into this race, I really didn’t have any idea how fast I could run. My last several races have included ultras, trail marathons, an all-downhill road marathon and a triple with unusually hot weather. Since my injury, I haven’t run a road marathon with normal weather on a course that was neither unusually fast nor unusually difficult. The last time I did a “normal” marathon was in April.
Although I didn’t know how fast I could reasonably expect to run, I still went in with a time goal. I was going to break four hours if I still could. Alaska is one of three states where I had yet to run a second sub-4 marathon. The others are Utah and Hawaii. I lost an opportunity to get a second sub-4 in Utah when I had to skip the Ogden Marathon. I didn’t want to lose an opportunity in Alaska. I didn’t know if it was a realistic goal, but I had to try.
The temperature was in the upper 50s. I wasn’t sure if it would rain. Before the race I was seeing conflicting forecasts. I gambled that if it did rain, it would only be drizzle or a brief shower. I wore gloves and a waterproof hat, but I didn’t have a jacket.
The course consisted of two long out-and-back segments. After leaving the downtown area, we followed the Coastal trail south and west for about eight miles. After turning around, we followed the Coastal trail back to Westchester Lagoon. Next, we followed the Chester Creek Trail inland to the second turnaround at 19.5 miles. Then we returned to Westchester Lagoon, where we got back onto the Coastal trail to return downtown. The trails were paved, and they were wide enough for two way traffic.
As with my last few races, I had the top of my right thigh wrapped with an elastic bandage. As I started running, it was a little bit uncomfortable trying to run fast. I did my best to force myself into my pace. It helped that a good portion of the first mile was downhill.
My goal was to run nine minutes per mile. I ran the first mile in 8:08. That surprised me, since the pace didn’t feel at all tiring. Then I reminded myself that the first mile was downhill. After that, the course leveled off, but I continued running the same pace. Evidently, I haven’t lost as much fitness as I thought. It remained to be seen if that pace was sustainable for the whole race. I would have been content with anything under nine minutes, but the faster pace felt comfortable.
The early miles of the coastal trail were right alongside the harbor, giving us some good views. It was overcast, so we couldn’t see any mountains across the water. After a few miles, we moved away from the water’s edge. Then the trail became slightly rolling.
I was surprised by my four mile split. It was 35:57. Either I slowed by almost four minutes or that mile marker was badly misplaced. The five mile sign also seemed to be misplaced. Then my times at the next few mile markers were consistent with the first few. It seemed like I was still running just a little slower than eight minutes per mile, but I didn’t trust the mile markers.
At the start of the race, it was drizzling lightly. After about four miles, it turned into a light rain. I was glad I wore gloves. As long as it didn’t rain any harder, I would be OK.
I was expecting the first turnaround to come at about eight and a half miles. Instead, it was right at eight miles. Coming back, I continued to average just a little slower than eight minutes per mile.
At 10 miles, we returned to a section with rolling hills. On one of the downhills, I felt pain in my right groin. This wasn’t the vague soreness that has built up gradually in other races. It was a sharp pain, and it came on suddenly. I was forced to slow down to manage the pain.
After a while, another runner asked me if I had seen the 11 mile sign. I hadn’t, and I realized I should have seen it by now. I saw it about a minute later. It seemed like it was misplaced by about half a mile. Four minutes later, I saw the 13 mile sign. WTF? It was roughly where 12 should be. I wondered if pranksters were moving the mile signs.
I desperately needed mile signs I could depend on. I knew I was slowing substantially, but I couldn’t trust the mile markers to determine my pace. I’m old school. I rarely run with a Garmin watch. The next sign was 14, followed by 15. I never saw 12.
At 15 miles, we ran by the lagoon and turned onto the Chester Creek Trail. My 15 mile split was 1:56, but I had a hard time believing I was going that fast. After that, all the mile signs seemed to be evenly spaced. I was consistently taking 10 minutes to get from one to the next. At that pace, I would still beat four hours by a wide margin, but I was inclined to assume that the mile markers might be off by as much as a mile.
I heard other runners commenting about the mile markers being off. Then one runner asked me if I knew where the next turnaround was. I told her it was at 19 ½ miles. She didn’t trust the mile markers, so she wanted to have some other way of knowing how many miles were left. So did I.
Somewhere between 18 and 19 miles, I missed a turn. First I noticed that there weren’t any other runners around me. Then the trail crossed a road. There weren’t any trail markers of course marshals, so I went straight. Suddenly I was on a section of trail that was newly paved. The pavement was so fresh that the rain was beading up on the oily surface.
I reached another crossing. It was an intersecting trail. Again, there weren’t any markings or course marshals. Looking to my right, I saw a highway. Just across the highway, I could see runners through the trees. Was it possible that the course made a loop and we came back on the other side of the highway?
I went a bit farther and the trail ended at a road. There were no markers. I couldn’t see runners in any direction. Realizing I was definitely off course, I started to backtrack. As I reached the previous crossing, I saw two runners approaching from the opposite direction. I stopped and waited for them. They weren’t in the race. They didn’t know which way the course went, but they remember seeing other runners farther back.
I eventually found my way back to the course. It felt good to be surrounded by other runners again. When I reached the 19 mile sign, I was only five minutes slower than I originally expected. Losing five minutes wasn’t that bad. What was worse was realizing that other runners were now passing me left and right. After stopping briefly, my legs got stiff. Now I was running at a slower pace. I had to force myself to speed up.
The turnaround was indeed about halfway between 19 and 20 miles. That was reassuring. In my 20th mile, I slowed to 11 minutes, but then I picked up the pace again. The 21st mile was 10 minutes.
I saw a runner I knew and asked him how his Garmin compared to the mile markers. He said at the 21 mile sign his watch read 20.2 miles. That was discouraging. I still had a margin for error, but it wasn’t that large.
I worked harder to pick up my pace. I gradually clawed back a minute. More importantly, I only had a few miles to go.
Shortly before returning to Westchester Lagoon, I saw the 45K sign for the 49K race. The marathon and 49K race would finish the same way. If I could trust that sign, I had four kilometers to go. That about 2.5 miles. I still had a healthy margin.
I soon discovered that the last four kilometers of the 49K race were all marked. The signs for the marathon, half marathon and 49K all seemed consistent now. I was going to break four.
The last mile is uphill. I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. I had plenty of time. All I had to do was keep running. I could tell I was slowing down, but I eventually got to the finish. I crossed the line in 3:56:24.
I got my second sub4 for Alaska, but I paid a price. For the last 16 miles, I was running with pain. I didn’t know how much damage I might have done. I’m still not sure.
Post-race food included grilled cheese sandwiches and Great Harvest bread. After getting some food and retrieving my gear bag, I met some friends in the beer garden. I put on my warmup clothes, but I was still cold. It was still raining, and I was no longer generating any heat by moving.
After the race, everyone was talking about the marathon course being short. My suspicion was that the first turnaround was in the wrong place. That was later confirmed in a letter from the race organizers. While the official course was short, I ran some “bonus mileage” when I went off course, so I probably ran something close to the correct distance.
I stayed in the finish area longer that I should have. When I got back to the hotel, my hands were starting to turn numb. I had trouble unzipping my SpiBelt to get my room card.
Ideally, I should have taken an ice bath to minimize the soreness in my legs. I didn’t because I was already getting hypothermic. My first priority was to get warm. I ran warm water over my hands until the color returned. Then I took a hot bath. I did a little bit of stretching, but not as much as I usually do.
I’m still puzzled as to why my leg hurt so much during this race. Unlike my other recent races, I went into this one with three weeks rest. This race had a few small hills, but it was nothing like my last three races. Why did I have more problems with this race than I did with my last three races? My theory during the race was that my bandage lost its elasticity when it got wet. When I removed it, I discovered that only the outermost layer was wet. That theory didn’t hold water.
It’s easy to wrap a bandage too tight. I’ve done that in a few training runs. When I do, however, I can usually tell the moment I start running. I didn’t get that impression in the early miles of the race.
The only other thing I can think of is that it was my faster pace in the first 10 miles. Most of my recent running has been at a snail’s pace. I’ve been afraid to train or race at a normal pace. Maybe I was right to be afraid. On the other hand, I ran much faster at Revel Rockies, and didn’t have any discomfort during the long steep descent.
After getting cleaned up, I joined some friends who were having post-race beers at Humpy’s Ale House. Then I stayed for dinner. When I walked back from dinner, my legs felt much better than they did right after the race.
During the night, I found getting in and out of bed to be painful. The muscles that hurt, however were all in my left leg. That’s the leg that didn’t bother me at all during the race.
This morning I noticed an abrasion on the back of my right thigh. Evidently, the bandage was too tight. I’m still surprised that I didn’t notice that as soon as I started running. I feel much better today than I did yesterday. Only time will tell how my legs will feel over the next few days.
Even before this race, I was worried about getting through the rest of my race schedule. Eventually, I’ll take a long enough break to fully recover, but I’ve already committed to several races, and I’m determined to get through them. If I have to run them at a snail’s pace, so be it.
I’m on a countdown to my 300th marathon. This was number 283. I have 17 to go.