Everything about Alaska is tough, and the state’s athletes are no exception. In this photo essay, we highlight five competitors in various sports who have overcome life’s challenges to succeed. All five exhibit the inspiration and grit of the landscape where they train, representing Alaska with the very best of their abilities. We honor them here with a glimpse into their accomplishments.
as told to Michelle Theall
Ann Penelope Spencer was born and raised in Anchorage into a family deeply steeped in the endurance community. However, at 14, she developed an eating disorder that would plague her throughout her athletic career and leave her struggling to reach her full potential. Spencer ski raced for years, then fell in love with running after spending six months in college racing in New Zealand. She was drawn to long competitions—the more miles the better. However, she also bought into the prevailing ideology that lighter was faster, and her eating disorder flared. She got smaller, and she got faster. People congratulated her on the results, until the fight with her body caught up to her.
At 22, Spencer got a stress fracture in her femur and was diagnosed with osteopenia. But she was determined not to quit. She spent the next year working hard to heal herself and fuel properly, and to shake off the voices in her head that wanted her to control her body. She set personal records, was second in Alaska’s Crow Pass Crossing, won The Rut in Montana, and went off to Scotland in 2019 to run the Glen Coe Skyline. Spencer admits that the Glen Coe event was the most fun she has ever had racing: 50 kilometers of technical terrain, steep vertical, and pouring rain—and she laughed her way through it. She wheeled her arms like a windmill on the downhills and chatted with the other racers. She placed second.
A chronic nerve injury, which the athlete sees as a wake-up call, told her that if she wanted to keep competing, she had to fix her relationship with her body. So she gained weight and got her life back. After 12 years of battling a disorder, which she maintains is all too prevalent in endurance sports, Spencer has fully recovered. After her injury heals, she promises to be back. She still has running dreams and an intense love for the mountains that can’t quite be quelled with a mountain bike.