Monday, August 29, 2016

Race Report: Anchorage Mayor's Half Marathon

12,500 miles.  That's all I had to use from my bank of Delta SkyMiles for my one way trip from New York City to Anchorage. Leaving on a Wednesday after work, I'd fly across the country to LAX (really nice flight - Delta Comfort+ passengers get a free sandwich, snacks, complimentary drinks, and a popsicle!), and then sit around for a 3 1/2 hour layover (yay, bar food at the airport) until my "red-eye" flight to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines that left just before midnight.  I'd arrive in Anchorage at 4:15 in the morning.  Perhaps that's why the flight only cost me 12,500 miles.

I decided to pony up some money on my return flight, also so that I could log the mileage that I'd be able to get from the long haul flight (which ended up being a little over 2,000 miles. Score.)  In my research, an Alaska vacation would also be pricey for accommodations and for a rental car, but I lucked out with what I was able to reserve.  For accommodations, I relied on trusty Airbnb and found a rental for a fantastically cheap $48 a night + service fees, coming to a mere $136 for three nights.  Compare this to a hotel room which would probably be that much (or even more) each night.  For my rental car, nothing was showing cheaper than $100 a day, which seemed to be the norm for car rentals in Alaska over the summer. I judiciously checked practically every day for any cheaper rental rates that popped up, and randomly in mid-May, Hotwire began to post a ridiculously cheap $12 a day rate with Thrifty, costing me just under $100 for the four days of rental.  It turned out to be an error on Thrifty's part, as they were posting it for $102. Only four reservations went through, and all four were able to keep the rental without any added cost - Thrifty corporate would eat the difference.  So I REALLY lucked out in that regard.

Thank you for having me, Kenai Peninsula!
Back to the actual travel weekend itself - so, I arrived at 4:15am in Anchorage, after sleeping practically the entire flight from LA to Anchorage. Upon landing, I headed straight to the car rental area, where only one company (Avis) was actually operating.  I knew the Thrifty counter wouldn't open til 6, so I put my suitcase right at the "front" of the line, while others began to line their things behind mine while sitting on the waiting area chairs within line of sight of the line.  I headed straight up to the counter when the attendant came, right at 6am, and got my car.  I headed out of the airport, blindly finding my way to a Starbucks (mind you, cell phone service in Alaska is absolutely atrocious for Sprint users, and you'll pretty much be using "extended area" roaming for the entire time you're there since Sprint shares towers with the local services, but doesn't have their own.  AT&T users, and I think Verizon users, too, are luckier...) I booked a noon boat cruise from Seward Harbor, which was a 2+ hour drive south on the Seward Highway, well known as one of America's most beautiful and scenic drives, and it most definitely did not disappoint!

After finding a nearby Starbucks (and a wifi signal so that I could get my phone to at least start Google Maps), I began on my trek down to Seward.  The drive down was absolutely beautiful.  Seriously, jaw-dropping doesn't properly describe the views.  Since I had roughly six hours to get down to Seward, I decided to make a couple stops along the way, keeping an eye on the clock with the amount of time I would allot at each place.  My friends Steve and Tammy spent a year in Anchorage after Steve had finished law school (he clerked for the Alaska Supreme Court) and before my trip provided me with a list of must-do's in Anchorage, so I tried to hit up everything he had suggested, which included a couple easy hikes en route to Seward.

Byron Glacier
At first, I stopped in the town of Girdwood to the Alyeska Resort, to see if I could go up their aerial tram to the top of the mountain, but found it to be closed upon getting there.  Mind you, it's 7:00 in the morning.  So I decided to see about doing that when on my way back into Anchorage. I decided to do one of the hikes that Steve and Tammy suggested - first up was driving about ten minutes off of the Seward Highway to hike the relatively easy mile-long Byron Glacier Trail.  Mind you, it's maybe 7:30 in the morning, so nobody is really out and about, but I was intent on doing the hike and checking out the glacier.  When I got to the parking lot at the trailhead, it was completely empty.  So I chanced it... likely a VERY stupid thing to do to go out and hike a mile long trail out in bear country on your own. Thankfully, I brought a whistle and a can of bear spray with me just in case... I decided to jog the trail a bit, and got to the end to the beautiful sight of Byron Glacier.  I spent a max 45 minutes out here before heading back.  While the weather was quite nice, temperate enough to not need my hoodie, I still wore it when I realized how HUMONGOUS the mosquitoes were.  There's actually a joke that in Alaska, the mosquito is the state bird.  FOR SERIOUS, they are gigantic.  Recommended purchases on a trip to Alaska is effective mosquito repellent - preferably, the oil version with high amounts of DEET (as close to 99% as possible!).  Thankfully, I didn't get bit on this little trek (or so it seemed), and I went off on my next excursion after returning to my car, heading to another glacier hike further south.

Alaska's mosquitoes... aka, the state bird.
At the edge of Exit Glacier
After a quick stop with the nice "Welcome to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula" sign (see above), I proceeded about an hour and a half further south, getting ever closer to Seward.  With roughly an hour and forty-five minutes to spare, I decided to make a stop at Exit Glacier.  This glacier is one of the most accessible valley glaciers in Alaska and is a visible indicator of climate change, as it has retreated several hundred feet over the last few years. Park scientists continue to monitor and record the glacier's accelerating recession. Exit Glacier was definitely a more touristy location, and being that it was already 10am, there was a decent amount of cars already parked in the parking lot.  I also encountered a bit of traffic on the way there, as there was construction occurring on the road heading to the Nature Center. With the option of doing a couple different short hikes in the area from the valley floor, I decided to do the half-mile long Glacier View trail, which met up with the slightly longer and moderately strenuous Edge of the Glacier trail hike that led up the the wall of blue ice at the edge of the glacier... but to make things a little more interesting and to complete it in the time allotted, I decided to jog it.

Views from the cruise!
There definitely were quite a few tourists at this hour of the day, so I did have to dodge several people moving casually up and down the trails.  And the hike up the trail was definitely more strenuous, which made the run back down a bit more cautious for me. I made it back (a two mile roundtrip hike this time) after seeing the beautiful view at the edge of the glacier (not so blue, in fact it was kinda grey and dirty...) and then headed back to my car to try to beat traffic leaving the area and make it to Seward in time for my cruise, which would leave promptly at noon.

Leaving Seward Harbor.  Those three dots in the water are otters!

The blow of a whale coming up the surface!

The many faces Denali,
the Golden Eagle!
I made it to Seward with enough time to spare, and boarded my boat along with other tourists, bound for the 4 1/2 hour long cruise that would make its way into Resurrection Bay, viewing glaciers and wildlife along the way, as well as a stop onto Fox Island, a remote island about twelve miles south of Seward in Resurrection Bay, where cruisers would be able to have a salmon buffet lunch, and observe a wildlife demonstration.  The biggest takeaway from this excursion was seeing as many as seven humpback whales coming to the surface the further we went out toward the ocean - the captain had even acknowledged that she hadn't seen this many out on a 4 1/2 hour cruise!  The views were absolutely magnificent, seeing the glaciers both along the bay and in the distance, many which have no road access to get to them; as well as the many birds that frequent the pristine wildlife sanctuary islands that dot the mouth of the bay.  The lunch was delicious, and it was accompanied by a demonstration by a volunteer who helped to raise a golden eagle named Denali, who was born with an injured wing, in captivity over the last few years.

Seriously, it's 10pm.  THE SUN IS UP.
Upon return from the cruise, I headed back to Anchorage, with a stop at Alyeska to check out the views from the aerial tram (thank goodness I came back; they have a reduced rate of $15 roundtrip if you take the tram after 7pm!). Heading up the 2,000 foot tram, one can see beautiful views of the Turnagain Arm, up to seven “hanging” glaciers and endless peaks deep into the Chugach Mountain range. I then headed back up to Anchorage and to my Airbnb to finally check in, and then went out for some dinner in the city's little "downtown" area.  I was exhausted by 10:30pm, after having been awake for over 18 hours; plus, the sun still being up at that hour began to mess with me!

Hank the Moose!
After a restful night's sleep, I woke up early in the morning to begin my day with a trip back into town and to get some delicious breakfast at the much lauded Snow City Cafe, right near the water.  It's a very popular spot, and had an hour long wait for a table, but with my watchful eye toward the counter, I got a spot in about 7 minutes.  I had a delicious "Ship Creek Benedict" - poached eggs, housemade smoked salmon cakes, toasted english muffin, housemade hollandaise, and diced red onion - along with several cups of local Kaladi Brothers coffee.  Afterward, I headed to the expo at the Alaska Airlines Center on the campus of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), home of the university's athletic department and programs, including UAA Seawolves basketball and volleyball teams.  It was cute little expo, much like other races', but unique with an added opportunity to ride "Hank the Moose" - a taxidermied moose that people can ride for photos.  Of course, I took advantage of that.

My 49th state... in THE 49th state!
Denali in the distance from Mt. Baldy
After the bib pickup, I decided to do the hike up Mount Baldy in the nearby town of Eagle River.  According to Steve, it was another one mile hike, but it gets really steep in sections.  And BOY did it ever.  At one point, I decided to stop because I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to get down because of potential slippage on the loose dirt and gravel.  However, it afforded some pretty amazing views of Anchorage, and because of how clear the day was, an awesome view of Denali, America's tallest mountain, in the distance about 130 miles away. After getting back down off the mountain (cautiously), I decided... hmm, why don't I drive in that direction!  The endpoint being the little town of Talkeetna, well known as the gateway to Denali National Park, and offering some beautiful views of the mountain range from the shore of the Talkeetna River.  Fun fact: the town of Talkeetna has an honorary mayor in Stubbs the Cat.  Like, a literal cat.  More about him here.

I don't see Russia at all.
To Talkeetna, it's about 100 miles, which will take two hours depending on traffic, which I definitely encountered through the city of Wasilla, well known as being the city where 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin served as mayor before becoming governor of Alaska.  And you know I made sure to get a photo with a Wasilla sign to try to look for Russia, since Palin notably said she "could see Russia from her house."  (No bueno, of course, since Russia is a mere 700 miles away.) After Wasilla, the road gets pretty monotonous and boring (save for the ever present mountains), with forest surrounding you pretty much the whole time.  At one point, there was a moose crossing the road, so yes, there is wildlife out there... but the monotonous road is like that for a good hour.  Notable, though, is that on the turn off on Talkeetna Spur Road is the Denali Brewing Company, which I did make a stop at on the way back!  Talkeetna is TINY; literally one street long downtown, but teeming with people who drove in or took the Alaska Railroad northwards from Anchorage, off to check out Denali National Park and Preserve and beyond.  I didn't spend too much time there as I wanted to get back to Anchorage in time for dinner.  So two hours up, and two hours back, I met up with my good friend De Moe, also in town to run the race which would notably be his 50th state in half marathons, and some of his running buddies, at the famous Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria.

Behold, Moose's Tooth's Avalanche Pizza.   Pepperoni,
Blackened Chicken, Bacon, Red Onions, Parsley,
Cheddar, Mozzarella, Provolone, and BBQ Sauce (but without the BBQ sauce)
The start line
It was, of course, another long day of driving, so I headed back to my Airbnb to catch some z's as the race - the main reason I was in town - was the next morning!  The following morning, I headed back into town to park my car at the Airbnb that De Moe and his friend Daniel were staying at, a few blocks away from Delaney Strip Park, where the start and finish of the race was. We met up with a few other friends, including my "Cali mom and dad" Mike and Jann Carlson, who had come into Anchorage fresh off of an Alaskan cruise.  At 9am, we were off!  And lo and behold, literally seconds after crossing the start mats, I see a woman to the right cheering runners on with a cute little corgi puppy at her feet.  Who knew I'd find a corgi in Alaska?!

An Alaskan corgi!!
Going over Westchester Lagoon
We started off down West 9th Avenue, then zigzagged down the streets heading to U Street and to Margaret Eagen Sullivan Park.  The road had a pretty strong downhill, dropping nearly 50 feet in elevation before reaching the park, which surrounded Westchester Lagoon.  The park is actually one of the most popular places for birdwatching in Anchorage, and we crossed bridges before running along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, known as one of the most beautiful coastal trails in the nation.  The 11 mile trail stretches from downtown to the chalet at Kincaid Park, but we would be running a portion of the trail; in fact, the trail itself would make up roughly 70% of the race course.

The early miles were a bit crowded, as the paved trail hugging the coast was narrow.  On one side was the water, on the other a mix of backyards of private homes and forest. We were told that there was a chance to see some wildlife along the route, most likely moose, which are ever present in and around Anchorage - on city streets as much as in parks. Approximately 1,500 live within the city limits alone.   About 2 1/4 miles into the race, the coastal trail goes into Earthquake Park.  In 1964, this 134-acre area was a neighborhood that slid into the ocean during the most powerful recorded earthquake in North American history, and the second most powerful recorded in world history. Known as the Good Friday Earthquake, it measured at a 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasted 4 minutes. Today, this tragic event is commemorated in Anchorage’s Earthquake Park, where visitors can find signs explaining the circumstances of the quake and its effect on the area.  The path took us through about a mile of the park before we exited onto W. Northern Lights Boulevard, making its way around the northern and western perimeter of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  After mile 5 (and where the name of the road changed to Point Woronzof Road), we ran for a mile southward with extensive views of the active airport runway with the beautiful mountains in the background.  And then came our turn at mile 6.

The Coastal Trail was super narrow at times!
Right up against the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet
Running on Point Woronzof Rd, alongside the Anchorage International Airport
Steep elevation drop on a jeep trail.
At mile 6, I had been forewarned about the jeep trail that we would end up having to run on.  Thankfully, the trail was a little over a half mile, but boy was it tough!  The elevation changed drastically as we ran over mostly single track dirt and grass trails, with one especially steep drop of 80 feet over 2/10 of a mile.  I emerged unscathed out of the trail and got onto the Coastal Trail again for the remaining 6.5 miles of the course back to Delaney Park Strip where the finish line was located.  Miles 7 through 9 proceeded northward and through Point Woronzof Park, a 191.7 acre municipal park.  At mile 8, we had a thrilling moose spotting along the course!  The trail as we returned back to Margaret Eagen Sullivan Park had some minor rolling hills, and by the time we emerged off of the trail and back onto the zigzag of roads heading back toward Delaney Park Strip, we were well within a mile left remaining in our run.  The last half mile was one of the toughest half miles I've ever run at the end of the race, as that strong downhill we experienced at the beginning of the race became an extremely difficult uphill!  We finally got back into the park, as we crossed P Street, making our way diagonally across the grass to the finish line.  I finished in a respectable 2:10:03, and marked off my 49th state of half marathons in THE 49th state!

The beautiful trails through the park

Official finisher photo from the race

Same corgi from this morning!
A fitting Victory Headstand with the mountains in the background.

De Moe crossing the finish line!
I got to see my friend De Moe finish his 50th state as he crossed the finish line a bit later, and we celebrated with post race drinks at the beer garden, while also running into some fellow 50 States, Marathon Maniac, and Half Fanatic members who had flown here from the Lower 48.  After getting back to De Moe and Daniel's Airbnb and taking a quick shower, I got myself back to downtown and joined in on a super fun Anchorage Brewery Tour, provided by Big Swig Tours.  It was a small tour, with only five of us - a group of four fun ladies from Iowa, a couple of them having finished the half marathon that morning. It was probably one of my most favorite parts of my quick trip to Anchorage; owner and "hoperator" Bryan Caenepeel is an excellent tourguide and has made valuable partnerships and connections with local breweries and bars to give visitors a fantastic opportunity to learn about beer, the beer-making process, and the beer culture (continuously growing in popularity) in Alaska

Enjoying the brewery tour!

From the ability to sample SEVERAL different types of beer, to the history lessons you get from Alaska's early years becoming a US State to today, you get to learn A LOT. We visited King Street Brewing Company and Midnight Sun Brewing Company, and then made our way to the quintessential Alaskan bar, Koot's (formerly known as Chilkoot Charlie's).  The long day ended back at my Airbnb where I immediately went to bed and woke up ten hours later to a rainy Anchorage day, spent taking in a few last spots in downtown Anchorage before my return flight home to New York, via Seattle.  And with that, 49 states were done!

What happens when you're several beers in.

Perfect shirt for Big Swig Tours!

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