A uniquely Alaskan footrace
“I’m done with that forever!” I shouted into the sunlit yellow birch and aspen forest. After descending the fabled, steep chute section at mile 17 of the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, I felt elated and needed to announce my accomplishment to the trees.
At that point in the race, runners were spread out along the 26.2-mile course. Under a miraculously blue autumnal sky, the sparsely populated route felt serene. Gaining 3,200-plus feet of elevation, the Equinox is one of the most difficult races in the world. But you wouldn’t know it from local runners. Fairbanks competitors are extraordinarily humble, yet hardy people.
I am not one of those people. I count myself lucky to run a mile. I’d refused several alcoholic beverages along the route from encouraging volunteers at homemade aid stations nearing the top of Ester Dome.
“Need a beer?” someone asked as I jogged past.
“Need or want?” I responded, waving off the Coors Light and trying to play it off like I wasn’t gasping for air as I plodded uphill. “I’ll regret it if I take it but thank you!”
The Equinox draws runners from far and wide and retains the unique characteristics of a laid-back, community-based event coupled with a difficult world-class course that’s often held in challenging weather conditions.
Is there any other race that so neatly sums up life in Alaska?
For Fairbanksians, the Equinox seems to be something one might casually decide to do over the weekend. I observed a runner in Converse All-Stars. With a generous cut-off time of 10 hours, many participants choose to walk, hike, or intermittently run the race. There’s a true feeling of celebration and encouragement at each aid station.
I won’t mince words about the racecourse itself. It can be downright cruel. The beginning is a portent of things to come, kicking off with an immediate and too-steep-to-run (for me) uphill over a grassy slope. With onlookers cheering and watching, it’s tempting to start out too hard, but the real race is yet to come.
Following the usual packed start of a race, runners slowly fan out along a winding trail through boreal forest. Things really pick up at the start of Ester Dome, a 2,365-foot-tall feature that marks roughly the halfway point of the marathon. Part of the Ester Dome trail segment is a brutal out and back. As I was running down, down, down, I saw runners who were ahead of me working their way back up. I knew inevitably I would need to do the same.
Then, of course, there is the roll of the dice with interior Alaska weather in autumn. Some Equinox race days dawn clear, blue, and cool.
That’s ideal running weather. But it might also be 35 degrees and raining, which is a soggy, to-the-bone, unrelenting cold. At the top of Ester Dome, it could be snowing, sleeting, hailing, or an exciting mix of all three.
I pack layers in my running backpack and accept what I affectionately call “vitamin I” (Ibuprofen) from volunteers at the halfway mark.
At its heart, this 60-year-old, one-of-a-kind footrace endures because it’s a lot like Alaska itself. On the one hand, it’s punishing, and no reasonable human should actually opt in to the experience. Why burden yourself with a full marathon, which is already tough, while also piling on variable fall weather and a difficult course? Yet, as anyone who loves Alaska might tell you, it’s the payoff that counts. It’s the view of rich yellows and reds as far as the eye can see from the top of Ester Dome. It’s the clean, cool air. It’s knowing that the course is something a body can do, especially with support and camaraderie from a full community of people helping one another. It’s the absurdity and humor of it all, and the connection that comes from that. What a ridiculous and meaningful way to spend a Saturday, or a lifetime, in Alaska. Do sane people do this? Maybe not. Who cares? Cheers to us.
Alli Harvey writes and paints from her home base in Palmer. She is an accidental outdoors woman, cutthroat Scrabble player, and pop culture enthusiast.