The Last Frontier

PinkHueMy flight landed at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday (June 15th) in Anchorage. The sun was setting, yet it was still daylight, or otherwise known as civil twilight, and the snow-peaked mountains glowed with a pink hue. I had arrived to run my 25th half-marathon in my 19th state.

I was tired after my flight, but the moment I was driving in my rental car, in the daylight, I re-awoke. I felt like I could have went out for a night on the town. When I arrived at the hotel close to 1 a.m., it seemed the other guests in the hotel lobby felt the same way. Alaska was like the casino that pumps oxygen in to keep the gamblers lively and awake unaware of the hours that have passed them by, except Alaska was pumping its visitors full of light essentially creating the same effect.

That night, well early that morning, I finally lay down at 1:30 a.m. I saw the light nosily pushing its way in on the sides of the metal blinds. But I was able to roll over and ignore the intrusion…for 4 ½ hours.

Then, I found myself wide awake at 6 a.m. I continued to turn back and forth in the queen-size bed forcing my eyes shut because I was tired, but the light did not relent. In fact, it was encouraged, so I conceded.

My three main goals for this new day, that never really ended or started but just sort of continued, were try this vegan, but still served meat, restaurant named Middle Way Café, get my race packet at the Alaska Airlines Center and go on an epic run.

I am happy to say I loved Middle Way Café. In fact, I have eaten breakfast there three times now. I am already a vegetarian, who still eats eggs and fish, but my doctor informed me I had a milk intolerance. So now I am essentially a vegan, who still eats eggs and fish. While there is no “category” for me, I guess if I haveNe to classify myself I would say I am a disgruntled milk intolerant, no meat eatin’ gal who loves farm fresh eggs and fresh fish. So my vegan breakfast burrito, with an egg added, was actually amazing, even though it was cheese free.

Next, I headed to the AAC (Alaska Airlines Center) to go to the race expo and pick up my race packet. Outside the AAC was a very large green blow-up seawolf head, which is the mascot for the University of Alaska Anchorage. In case you are wondering if you missed some new hybrid species of animal, you did not. The seawolf is a mythical creature that is part of the Alaskan culture. It is strong, generous and humble. I thought this seawolf was the perfect creature to embody for my race on Saturday. After watching a large group of exuberant runners take their picture with the large green blow-up seawolf head, I walked inside and briefly perused the expo and received my race bib as well.

The day was shaping up to be beautiful and productive. It was right at 60 degrees with clear skies and sunshine. I ended up asking a local runner, and worker, at Skinny Raven Sports where there were some non-road running paths. She was awesome, and told me 3 different areas to run, but she also warned me about black bears. Apparently they were quite active this time of year and of course Alaska was bear country. I heeded her warning and decided to run on a popular bike trail that followed the coast named Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

There were many places to pick up this trail, and I decided to begin my run at Point Woronzof Park and run towards Kincaid Park. Before I headed out on my run, I decided to Google what I should do if I should happen to encounter a black bear, and a moose for that matter. I have been obsessed with bears since I was a young child, so I already knew black bears were more shy and timid, but they are wild creatures and deserve respect as all animals do. In case I did encounter a bear, I was supposed to walk away from the bear without turning my back, make my presence known by calmly speaking to the bear and slowly wave my arms in the air. The one cardinal rule was never run from a black bear because it may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. This all seemed simple enough. Basically if I encountered a moose, I should give it space, and if it decided to charge I should try to get behind a tree. If I didn’t make it to a tree and it decided to stomp me, then I should curl up into a ball and protect my neck.

So after reading what I should do in case I encountered the different Alaskan wildlife, I took a brief walk down the road and picked up the trail. The weather was warm, the trail was inviting and the trees felt like old friends. I instantly felt comfortable and my legs were energized. If running through the woods wasn’t an enough of a reward, the view of the coast would periodically show itself through a break in the trees.

I was the only runner on the trail, but there were a lot of cyclists and people leisurely strolling along with cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. There were enough breaks in people though to where I was able to enjoy one-on-one time with the trail and the surroundings. I was only going to do a 3-mile run, but I didn’t want my run to end, so I thought a 4.50 mile run sounded better. I ran farther out, so I could also enjoy a nice walk back to my car to stop and sightsee a little more intently.

So when I was about 3.25 miles into my run I realized I hadn’t seen any other people in about 5 minutes. I was coming around a bend in the trail, and there ambling down the trail in front of me with his head down was a black bear. I instantly stopped running because I remembered the one cardinal rule of encountering a black bear: don’t run. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had so many emotions running through me. As I mentioned earlier, I have been obsessed with bears since I was a child. My parents had bought me an encyclopedia set (yes, pre-internet) when I was around 9 years old. I read and reread about all the different bears, moose and sharks and fish of the ocean. My mom and I would also go to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois every weekend. I spent hours watching the bears sleep, feed, fight, and roughhouse. So needless to say, the first emotion I felt was awe. I thought, “Holy shit!” I started smiling in disbelieve, but it also started to register that a bear was walking towards me because my thoughts went from “Holy shit” to “Oh shit!”

I started to walk backwards slowly, but I realized the bear still had not seen me. He was walking towards me faster than I could walk backwards. I know black bears don’t like to be surprised and that is what can cause them to react to a human. So I thought I better let the bear know I was there, but let me tell you it goes against your instincts. So when I first tried to alert the bear of my presence, I apparently wasn’t speaking loud enough, and I may have been using my library voice, because he never looked up. I realized I was going to have to be louder, so I started my one-sided dialogue again while I slowly waved my arms in the air, “Mister Bear?!” I called out. (The bear continued to follow the trail towards me with his head down). Shit, he still didn’t hear me. I cleared my throat, “Mister Bear?!” (Damn, I hoped this wasn’t a female bear, and now I offended her because I confused her gender). The bear finally looked up and made eye contact with me as his ears pointed upwards. Great, I finally got his attention…now what. As I continued to wave my arms slowly I calmly said, “Mister Bear. Hey, um, I need you to get off the trail please. Okay?” He stopped walking and looked at me just for a second more, and then he veered off the trail into the woods.

It was at that point I realized my heart was pounding like a war drum. My palms were damp, and my jaw had dropped open. I stood astonished for a few moments feeling my blood surging through me. I thought I better wait a few moments before I started running again, so I turned around and started to walk back in the direction of my car. It was then I started smiling again. I just had a beautiful and safe interaction with an animal I had loved and respected my whole life. It was just him and me there on that trail. I felt so thankful. I could not believe Mother Nature gifted me this present.

It took about 5 minutes before I started running again, but my smile never left my face.

Sacred Interaction

Race

My latest adventure had me on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona on May 26th to run my 24th half-marathon in my 18th state. I decided to run a trail race in Kaibab National Forest which overlooks the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This race consisted of a half-marathon, a 50K and a 50 miler.

Running is one of my biggest passions, and trail running is a seductive extension of that. The trail is like a snake charmer, and I am the snake. I am lured into a trance. It makes me think of something my belly dancing teacher once said when we were learning how to do sword balancing on our heads. She said, “The sword, or whatever you are performing with, is your dance partner. You essentially become one with it. You have to feel it and move with it. The moment you take your focus off your dance partner, the sword, it will fall.” That is exactly how I describe trail running: Nature and I commune as one. It is a sacred interaction. The moment I am not giving the trail my full devotion she lets me know. (I can’t count how many times I have tripped, fallen or skidded up or off a trail). Once I am connected to the trail, I move with her over rocks and roots; in stride, I leap over fallen branches and logs, I wind up and over hills, and hop-scotch over washed away trail sections. Even though trail running is more strenuous and tougher than road races, the reward is much greater for me; trail runs and races are always an adventure.

Even getting to the start of this race was an adventure. Once I was at Kaibab National Forest, I drove 28 miles of rocky, dusty road that twisted through a mixture of Douglas Fir, Aspen and Ponderosa trees. Walls of tan and red rocks were the backdrop, and Kaibab Squirrels were scrambling about with their stark silver tails waving behind.

Once I arrived at the start of the race, which took almost 90 minutes, it was an intimate affair. Between all three races there were 425 runners. Trail runners are a different breed of runners but in a good way. There is an aspect of loving and respecting nature, possessing a certain amount of grit, and mixing in a little bit of bad ass. Trail runners and races seem to be greener as well. Case in point was the bathrooms. There were two rows of 10 “bathrooms” back to back. They were tall, skinny camouflage tents with zippered doors. Upon entering the tents, there was a large yellow bucket with wooden panels over the sides of it and a toilet seat. Instead of the typical blue chemical filled port-a-porties, these bathrooms offered buckets of sawdust and a scooper to cover up one’s excrement. It seems funny to be discussing the bathrooms at a race, but if you are a runner you understand the pre and post-race importance of the bathroom. I loved that this race was thinking and acting in the environment’s best interest.

The three different race distances all started at different times. The 50 mile runners had started their race at 5 a.m., the 50K runners had started their race at 6 a.m., and the half-marathon runners started their race at 7 a.m. The excitement around the starting line rose as the race inched closer to the beginning. Even though the half-marathon started later it was still chilly, which was putting it mildly. Runners were huddled around fires absorbing any warmth they could, and the Ponderosa trees allowed the sunlight to filter through as well.

The race announcer called everyone over and started the countdown to the beginning of the race, and his voice echoed above the crowd, “Three, two, one, Go!” And the 190 half-marathon runners poured onto the trail. I knew from the start I would have to walk parts of this race. We started at about 7,000 feet of elevation and in the first 1.5 miles we would be gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation. This ascent began almost immediately after the start of the race. I hiked this first part as hard and as fast as I could keeping a steady pace, and so did many of the other runners. When the hill, or what seemed more like a mountain, peaked we were met with our first water station and check-in point. One of the things I really love about trail running is the aid stations. Unlike road races that have water stations almost every mile or two with plastic cups, trail races are much more limited due to the trail space, and there are typically more solid foods to eat as well. Since most trail races are green, they don’t offer cups either. You are expected to carry your own bottle and fill it up. At this first station, I checked in and my race bib was marked, and I refilled my water bottle and was able to begin running.

I remember when the first signs of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon began peeping through the trees. I shouted to the runner ahead of me, “Look to your left!” Then I felt a surge of energy and begin pushing ahead. Less than a ½ mile later the view of the Grand Canyon came into full view. All I could say was, “Holy Shit” which I did say aloud. It looked like a proud warrior with his chest puffed out. It was a rich shade of red, and it layered up like a tiered cake. I felt a deep sense of love and joy creeping up from my belly. I felt so grateful to be in this race, on this trail, in this moment. I heard a woman behind me exclaim to her friend, “Oh my God! I think I might cry! I saw the Grand Canyon before I turned 50! It is amazing!” I knew the exact feeling she was having.

After about a mile or so of a steep and slippery, yet rocky, downhill, I entered my meditative zone. My legs felt fresh and light; the trail was calling me to follow her. The trail gently rolled along for a few miles, and I ended up passing 10 people because I felt so damn good. The second check-in and water station was upon me which seemed so quick. I told the race volunteers I loved them because they had potatoes at the check-in station. Potatoes!! So when I am on long runs, the one food item I crave and actually dream of is mashed potatoes. So creamy, so buttery, so potatoe-y. So I happily grabbed a piece of boiled potato, made sure I checked in, and I filled up my water bottle and headed out.

The next section of the race was an out and back. The great thing was this section of the race was all downhill. I was able to coast and use different muscles in my legs. But what wasn’t so great was watching the people struggling coming up the hill I was now running down. I knew what lie ahead, but I stayed in the moment and enjoyed this part of the course.

At the end of the downhill was another steep climb which led to Crazy Jug Point. It was another lookout point, and it was a check-in station. The view just opened up and the vastness of the Grand Canyon could be seen. The red and tan layers of rocks spread out like a buffet. The base of the Kaibab National Forest was covered in green trees and reddish- orange dirt. I stood mesmerized just for a moment to take it in. The view, the air, the joy, the pride, the gratefulness. I said a silent thank-you to the Great Spirit and bowed my head. Then, I marked my bib with the red marker to show I had visited the check-in station, and I was on my way again.

Since this was the out and back section, runners were now headed in both directions, and all the different runners in each race had started to cross paths. The beauty of racing is the camaraderie. With every last runner I passed, we exchanged encouraging words, “Nice job! Keep going! You’re doing great! Good work! You got this!” Some people even offered heartfelt smiles and high-fives. There was a feeling of unity and understanding because we were all in this together. We were having the same shared experiences.

I knew the downhill I just enjoyed was turning into an uphill now. So I turned my run into a fast-paced hike again and just settled into my new pace. While the start of the race was cold and brisk, it was no longer the case. The sun seemingly laughed and was now showing how bright and hot she really could get. I had a hat on, but I pulled the hood of my running shirt up to protect my ears and neck. It actually trapped a nice breeze that flowed down my back.

The hill finally started to yield, and I was able to pick up my pace again. I ended up at the check-in station that I first checked in at before the out and back section of the race started which meant I had boiled potatoes waiting for me again. I made sure to check-in, fill up my water bottle and grabbed a potato. I started down the trail that would eventually lead me to the finish line.

A mountain biker who had unfortunately came out for a ride on this day was trapped among all the racers, but he offered me the best news I had heard all day, “This last part of the trail is all downhill.” I made him promise me he wasn’t lying, and he was convincing enough. So I trusted him, and luckily he was right.

My legs were tired and the day had turned hot, but this was a great section of trail. I had the whole trail to myself. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, and there was no one behind me either. I was left with my thoughts, the trail, the shade trees and the sunshine.

As I continued my journey down the trail, I started to see runners who had finished the race already and were walking back to their campsites scattered throughout the woods. They shared words of encouragement, “You are almost there! Nice work.” I picked up the tempo of my feet and started to push even harder. I heard another runner who had completed the race say, “You’re almost there; it’s right around the corner. Finish strong!” Just as the runner had stated, the trail suddenly opened and I could see the finish line and the race tents.

As my sweat dripped down and the trail dirt stuck to me, I was covered in proof of my accomplishment as I passed under the finish sign while my fellow runners clapped.