As “America’s Last Frontier,” Alaska promises uncharted territory rife with adventure. For the state’s 735,000 residents, Alaska is simply home—but for outsiders, the region is a wild land that at once beckons and warns.
It was the appeal of the unknown (along with the promise of riches) that lured more than 100,000 dreamers up north during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Today, this same pull inspires 1,500 or so runners to follow the tracks of the prospectors every September.
In the Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay, teams of racers take on 110 miles that link the port village of Skagway, where turn-of-the-century stampeders started their journey, across the White Pass to the Canadian town of Whitehorse, a former mining campsite. While the journey might not have the same payday for runners as it did for lucky miners, it rewards its competitors in other ways—with fantastic scenery, stir-crazy camaraderie and a post-race party that carries the air of the last night on earth.
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The first unofficial leg of the Klondike Road Relay starts long before you lace up your running shoes. Getting to Skagway is a singular feat. There are a few ways to travel—none of them are easy, but that’s part of the appeal. When I headed to Alaska for the relay last fall, I flew two connections into Juneau. From there I’d stay the night then board a ferry to the start line the following morning.
My first day in Alaska, I got a taste of what makes this area so special. Feeling antsy from the flight, I decided to do a little shakeout run along the Perseverance Path a few blocks outside of the center of town. My plan was to finish a short jog. But within a few minutes of striding along the trail, I was sucked into its magical lushness. A light rain fell on the soft dirt that twisted through mining ruins, past gushing waterfalls and through craggy mountain passes.
The surroundings lent the dwarfing feeling that comes from standing in the ocean, but instead of the repeat lapping of waves, every turn held something new: a little bridge all to myself, a stream trickling down a black rock face, a patch of green moss- covered logs.
When I found myself 5 miles out (and just as far to run back), I knew I had to turn around, but the trail tempted me forward—just a little farther. I ran a few yards to the next turn and stopped in my tracks: two massive porcupines blocked the way. I paused to watch them loudly munch on the underbrush. When one turned and began to amble toward me, I sprinted away in terrified delight.
This moment came to signify something special about Alaska: The state serves up surprises if you’re willing to give yourself over to the journey. I kept this in mind when I discovered that the ferry to Skagway was actually an eight-hour ride. One runner’s long slog on a boat is another’s cruise through crystal waters and alongside glaciered peaks.
During the gold rush, Skagway stood as an entry point for prospectors with their sights set on the Yukon’s precious metal. Between 1897 and 1898 the village boomed from a population of 26 fur traders to 10,000 transients. The biggest business in town was booze and women. Dozens of brothels sprung up—but just one remains. Now a bar and restaurant, the Red Onion hosts waitresses who still wear bustiers and give tours of the illicit “cribs” upstairs.
On a drizzly Saturday in September, a crowd of runners stood outside the Onion’s doors, ready for a very different sort of adventure. As the sun began to set, the first legs of the Klondike Relay lined up in the center of town ready to take off at the sound of a steam engine. Our team watched our runner depart and then hopped into our RV to drive alongside her and settle in for a long, sweaty night.
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The relay’s distance is longer than four marathons, but each of 10 racers is assigned to a single leg, ranging anywhere from 5.6 to 16 miles long. As my 12-mile leg wasn’t scheduled until second to last (and I wouldn’t be running until the next morning), I offered to accompany our second runner on hers.
We set out together in the blue-black night after listening to our teammates share stories of bears that would be invisible to us in the darkness. The most daunting animal we encountered, however, was the massive hill that snaked along for 3-plus miles.
After climbing for nearly an hour, we reached the handoff and our fourth runner took over possession of the snap bracelet. Volunteers gathered with puffy jackets, snacks and glow sticks. It was 11 p.m. and the party was just getting started.
Since the majority of the miles are completed at night, runners miss the breathtaking views of jagged mountains and the aptly named Emerald Lake. But that’s what the drive back the next morning is for—you have to get back to Skagway somehow.
Instead, the mid-race scenery comes from inside the RV, which takes on the feeling of a moving camp-site, complete with sleepy storytelling, granola-bar meals and weary hikers (or in this case runners) returning one by one after a long, hard trek.
The beauty of the mobile home is that you can stay up all night thanks to the easy access of a coffee maker. Or if you’re tired like I was, you can curl up for a full seven hours of sleep. (In retrospect, not the best teammate move!) Warning: You will be woken up by the Canadian authorities and asked to deliver your passport when the vehicle makes its way across the border.
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When it was my turn to run, the sun was up and the day had already started to warm. By this time, the teams were strung out along the road, so I concentrated on little specks on the course and tried to reel them in until a person appeared. Despite my seven-hour sleep performance, my team stopped along the way to cheer me on as I strode down the street lined with lovely yellow trees.
Now giddy off adrenaline (and maybe some nips from their trailer’s fridge), all of the teams were becoming boisterous. A group of runners in sailor hats stuck their heads out the window of their RV to shout ahoys of encouragement. From a different vehicle, I heard a “woo-eee” and looked over to see a full moon pressed against a passenger window.
Many teams return to this event year after year, developing a collective persona that shows itself on their decorated vans or race-day costumes. With a bit of rain and a tough 10-plus miles, I was happy I didn’t opt for jean shorts or a red dress and heels like some of my competitors—and I was even more satisfied to see the finish-line chute where I’d hand off to our final leg.
Any good, hard effort should be rewarded. There’s a reason why marathons have beer gardens and long runs end with brunch. But runners from Alaska take this sort of celebration seriously.
Most teams finish in the afternoon, shower up, take a nap and grab a bite to eat, all before heading over to the post-race party. Hosted at the High Country Inn (which has the feeling of a rotary club), the event attracts not just the runners, but the entire town of Whitehorse. Plentiful beverages (no food is served) give runners a little liquid stamina to shake off their weary legs on the dance floor.
The party is as wild as the landscape, and when I woke up the next morning, I thought again of how this region has a special knack for delivering surprises—in this case the coat of glitter covering my cheeks and hair. Who can be sure of the origin of these sparkles? I chalked it up to that special magic in the Yukon—and felt satisfied I’d discovered a little gold after all.
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When’s the race?
Al-ask-her! Just kidding. It’s Sept. 11–12, 2015. Learn more at klondikeroadrelay.com.