Friday, May 3, 2019

Race Report: Anchorage RunFest Ultra 49K

I took a 3:30pm flight out of JFK after my early summer Friday, heading across the country to Seattle.  I had been really worried about the flight because of the unpredictable weather New York City has been having all summer, and while we left JFK close to an hour late, the built in "padding" that Delta puts into flights in and out of the NYC area got us into Seattle a little earlier than expected, allowing me more than enough time to enjoy the Sky Club at SeaTac.  Already while flying into Seattle, the skies were a bit hazy, brought about by the smoke from wildfires creeping into the area from British Columbia.  My flight from Seattle to Anchorage took off on time, and we landed at about 11:30pm; my new friends Chuck and Susan were providing me a place to stay over the weekend alongside my Chicagoan friend Gaby (who met Chuck in Las Vegas earlier this year) -- they even picked me up from the airport at the late hour!

The brand new Big Swig Tour Bus!
Thankfully with all my flights coming in on time, and my anticipation for that, I booked a tour the day before I arrived with Big Swig Tours, a company in Anchorage that provides several types of brewery tours for beer connoisseurs interested in the brews the Anchorage area has to offer. When I did the Anchorage Mayor's Half in 2016, I did their four hour tour taking me to three breweries in the Anchorage area plus infamous/quintessential Alaskan bar Chilkoot Charlies.  This time, I opted to do the "Hops on the Rail" tour, which would take 11 hours of my day - owner and "hoperator" Bryan Caenepeel would pick me up at 7:30am from a point in downtown Anchorage to take us to the railroad station, where we would embark on a three hour trip by train up to the town of Talkeetna, where Bryan would meet up with us again and chauffeur is in a brand new branded van before hitting up four breweries on our way back down to Anchorage. There were only three of us on this tour - me, along with a couple from New Jersey who had a day long stopover in Anchorage during their cruise.

The Alaska Range from Talkeetna
We arrived in Talkeetna, disembarking from the train and enjoying the beautiful view of the Talkeetna River - though it was a cloudy day, we could still see the the Alaska Range in the distance, with the top of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, hiding behind the clouds. After enjoying the views from the riverfront briefly (the tiny town's commercial center is centered around its single main street), it was time to hit up the breweries, so we drove out about 20 minutes down the road to Denali Brewing Company.  The company has always been based in Talkeetna, first opening on the town's small Main Street in 2009. Two years later, their brewery operations outgrew that location, so they opened up just outside of town to expand to the second largest beer-producer in the whole of Alaska (second to Alaskan Brewing based out of Juneau.)  Since opening, they've established other operations under the Denali Brewing Company umbrella, including Alaska Cider Works, Denali Spirits, and Alaska Meadery. It was a great first stop on the tour, enjoying samples of everything they had to offer!

Basket 'o Beers from Arkose
Next up, we had a bit of a drive through some 70 miles of highway, eventually arriving at Arkose Brewery in Palmer, Alaska.  I had a "basket o' beer" with samples of Ovis Belgian Style Golden Strong Ale, Mandarina Moose Grapefruit IPA, Green Chair Kolsch-Style Ale, Berry-Go-Round Strawberry Rhubarb Blonde Fruit Ale, Amber Earth Extra Special Bitter (ESB), and my personal favorite, some of their small-batch special Spicy Mango Amber Ale.  Arkose has been brewing since 2011, founded by husband and wife team Stephen and June Gerteisen: him, the self-proclaimed "mad scientist of beers," and her, the award winning logo and bottle designer.  Their beer portfolio is inspired not only by the majestic surroundings and thriving community, but also by the German heritage and Pacific Northwest roots of its founders spanning from California to the Last Frontier.

A flight from Bleeding Heart Brewery
Just up the road (literally), we next headed to Bleeding Heart Brewery, Alaska's smallest production brewery, located in a single roll down garage space. We had a sampler of four beers there - Kold Shoulder Kristallweizen, Valley Trash Dirty Blonde Ale, their signature Bleeding Heart Beet IPA, and the Grounds for Divorce Coffee Porter.  We sat outside next to a pasture where a few goats roamed, feet away from an electrified fence (!!); the winds started to blow in and make us a bit colder, so we repositioned ourselves next to the firepit before heading to our last stop, Odd Man Rush Brewing in Eagle River, located a half hour away.

The inventive cassette tape wall!
Odd Man Rush is a hockey-themed brewery, with an interior full of hockey-related memorabilia.  The bar is made in part from the old handrail that circled the ice at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center, a hockey arena in Eagle River. The old scoreboard from “The Mac,” as locals refer to the ice rink, hangs on one of the walls.  One of the cooler interior elements is a floor to ceiling wall treatment of cassette tapes glued in a bond pattern, which they crowdsourced by initially putting out a Facebook call for on their page, ending up receiving hundreds. Here, we had six more beers to sample: among them a blonde, IPA, Scottish Ale, and Hefeweizen. Of course, being our FOURTH brewery, the actual beers themselves began to blur together!  All in all, I counted having 23 samples of craft beer, plus tastes of vodka, gin, cider, and mead. I was pretty sloshed, but hey... it was carbloading at its finest!  I highly recommend doing this tour to get a taste of beautiful scenery and some delicious locally made beers... maybe not the day before a race, but hey, to each their own!

At the end of the tour, Bryan dropped us back off in downtown Anchorage, and I stopped into Haute Quarter Grill to meet up with a bunch of friends running the half the next morning getting together for a pre-race dinner. Among them was my good friend Dana from Florida, and after their planned dinner was over, we walked over to 49th State Brewing Company to find another group of friends who were also getting together for pre-race festivities. I met up with local Anchoragite Tina, who had kindly picked up some gels for me at the race expo (which I had forgotten to pack in my backpack), and she was nice enough to drive me back to Chuck and Susan's house where I met up with them for a late homemade spaghetti dinner.  The long day of drinking and fun plus the four hour time difference got me quite exhausted, and I had to wake up early for the race the next morning, so it was relatively early when I crashed and finally got to sleep.
The startline
The next morning, I was up early to get myself ready and to ride into the downtown with Chuck and Gaby.  Gaby would be running the full and Chuck the half. It was a balmy morning, 52°, but you could feel the saturation of humidity in the air.  It actually sprinkled a little prior about a half hour before we set off.  The Ultra Marathoners and Marathon Walkers began at 8am, with the marathon runners beginning an hour after us. It was a treat to be able to see Bart Yasso once again, who was announcing the start of the race and meeting George Rehmet, the Western Region Director of the Road Runners Club of America.  Just before the hour, I sang the national anthem at my 49th state for the small group of us doing the 8am start.
H Street, downtown Anchorage
After I sang the national anthem, the small group of us were off, running west down a closed down 6th Avenue, then making a right turn a block and a half later onto H Street.  From there, we ran three blocks north, before taking the steady downhill on Christiansen Drive toward 2nd Avenue.  We turned left onto 2nd Avenue, then immediately entered the trailhead of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail at the corner of 2nd and H.  We ran through the woodsy area surrounding the paved trail, blocked off from the industrial grounds of the rail depot past the trees, while following the curve of the trail, rolling hills and all, as it skirted the coastline of the Knik Arm.

Running on the coastal trail
Named after former governor of Alaska, Tony Knowles, the coastal trail is known as one of the most beautiful coastal trails in all of the United States; in all, the trail runs 11 miles from Downtown Anchorage to the chalet at Kincaid Park, and is by far the city's most popular trail.  I was familiar with this route as a large majority of the Anchorage Mayor's Half which I ran in 2016, took place on this nicely paved trail. Because of its location next to the coast, one can watch the tide come and go, changing the dense glacial silt of the mudflats constantly. Some of the trail sits directly behind people's homes.  For a few miles, I ran alongside my friend, fellow Black Sheeper Noah, as I kept up a rigid interval of 14 minutes run/1 minute walk over the first five miles. We passed through Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park about two miles in, passing by where we would be turning onto the Chester Creek Trailway a few hours later.  We brushed past Westchester Lagoon over a few low lying bridges and continued on our coastal trek around the edge of the city of Anchorage.

Entering Point Woronzof Park
The coast is dotted with several parks which the trail runs through, including Lynn Ary Park just before our 5K mark, but most notably Earthquake Park, a 134-acre park set in the woods where, in 1964, an entire neighborhood slid into the ocean during the 20th century's most powerful earthquake. Measured at a 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasting 4 minutes long, this tragic event is today commemorated in this scenic park, where we found signs explaining the circumstances of the quake and its effect on the area. Somewhere in the park, Noah continued on while I took one of my timed walk breaks. After running through the park, we found ourselves on the trail passing by the northern end of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, right at the edge of its north-south runway.  At this point, we were now 5.5 miles into our 30+ mile race, curving around into Point Woronzof Park, a 191.7-acre park created in 1994 as municipal dedicated parkland named by Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey, a participant in a 1794 around-the-world British expedition, who named the area after Russian ambassador Count Simon Romanovitch Woronzof.

Into the woods we go...
By about the 8.5 mile mark, we passed a bridge near the westernmost edge of the airport, a fair distance away from the edge of the east-west runway. This happened to also be the turnaround point for the marathon, and while some of those runners hadn't appeared yet having started an hour after us, they were sure to be coming through in droves as we came back from our turnaround point further up. The ultra course continued through the heavily forested area as it made its way into Kincaid Park, the rugged moraine at the southwestern tip of Anchorage that encompasses over 1,500 acres of vast woods. The race reached its hilliest point as we approached the uphill turnaround point at roughly the 10.5 mile point of our race, just a few hundred meters from the park's chalet. The clock said 1:47:29 as I rounded the cone. We then raced back the way we came, encountering marathoners at the aforementioned marathon turnaround point some two miles later - one of them for me being my friend Andy, just as he was coming toward the bridge.

Capturing some sights across the inlet
I felt quite strong in the first half of this race, clocking in a half marathon split of roughly 2:14.  Only once in the entirety of the first 13 miles did my pace go over 11 minutes per mile, which was good time for me, considering I had been carb loading with beer for pretty much the entire day prior, haha!  But as per usual, my pace slowed a bit after reaching that point.  I encountered a few other friends running the marathon as I made the run back; eventually, I'd reach the part of the trail open to the north-south runway of the airport once again (roughly 15.5 miles in), and now that it was midway through the morning, there was quite a bit more activity on the runway.  I even got to capture a FedEx plane taking off as it made its way out of Anchorage airspace (the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is a major cargo hub, in fact the fourth busiest in the world.)

Downtown in the distance heading back
The sun peeked out behind the overcast skies momentarily through my return along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, elevating the temperature just enough to wonder whether I should've put on some sunscreen that morning before the race.  Eventually, the skies began to cloud again, and it became somewhat inevitable that we'd experience precipitation at some point later that morning. We meandered back through Earthquake Park, and along the trail as it headed back in the direction of downtown Anchorage, reaching the Westchester Lagoon at mile 19 at roughly the 3:23 minute mark; a fairly decent 10:41 per mile average pace.  I was making very good headway, as we turned east past Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park to now continue along the Chester Creek Trail, a part of Anchorage I was now seeing for the first time.

Running the Chester Creek Trail
In the early parts of the Chester Creek Trail, I would encounter many of my friends doing the half marathon, as they were some two hours into their race. It was great to be able to see them, as well some of the marathoners who were heading back as well. The race directors had timed the starts conveniently that there would be ample opportunity to see many friends running different distances throughout the morning. The length of the Chester Creek Trail is roughly 4 miles long from Westchester Lagoon to Goose Lake, located behind the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University. It passes through the city's greenbelt and several parks, like Tikishla, Woodside, the Davenport Fields, and Valley of the Moon, the last of which was a cut off point marathoners needed to reach by 2:30pm, which I was well ahead of.
Crossing the pedestrian bridge over Northern Lights Boulevard
Seeing other runners on their way back
After crossing a pedestrian bridge over Northern Lights Boulevard, we would run an additional mile out on an adjacent trail within Goose Lake Park that ran somewhat parallel to the boulevard we just ran over; altogether it was five miles out that gradually climbed uphill some 170 feet over the length of this section.  At a point near the 24 mile mark, we would reach a turnaround point as we took the trail all the way back to Westchester Lagoon, and to the right turn in Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park. It was after I had reached the turnaround point that the overcast skies gave way to rain, and at first it was a comfortable drizzle that didn't hamper me terribly. By the time I reached Westchester Lagoon at mile 28 with only a couple miles left to go, did the rain turn steadier and into droplets that were fully drenching me.

1K left to go! I'm getting soaked.
If I were to stop at the 26.2 mile mark, I would've run a successful sub-5 marathon in around 4:54.  But since it was a 49K, I still had roughly 7K to go, pushing me to 30.44 miles altogether.  As the rain fell harder when I returned onto the Coastal Trail, I pushed as I made my way back into Downtown Anchorage, pretty sure I was good to finish under six hours altogether. I pushed, even through the section of painted wooden planks that were made much more slippery by the rain, just as I was exiting the trailhead on 2nd Avenue. Mile 29.5 was Christensen Hill, the downhill I so enjoyed at the beginning of the race, which I had to trudge up with less than one mile to go. I eventually got up it, and ran the last few blocks into the finish, completing my 49 kilometers in 5:49:13, enough to be 57th of the 83 ultra finishers. Another kilometer, and I probably would have a strong sub-6 50K to my name! Gaby and Chuck were there at the finish to cheer me in, thrilled to see me accomplish my 47th marathon state. Before driving back to Chuck's house for much needed showers and warmth, we stopped off at the Visitors' Center a few blocks away, where I had decided to get my headstand photo taken. That day, the three of us came away finishers of the Anchorage RunFest races... in the half, full, and ultra!

Victory Headstand!
Enjoying dinner at Simon and Seaforts
After an afternoon resting, Chuck, Susan, Gaby, and I headed out to Simon and Seaforts, an Anchorage landmark and restaurant with beautiful panoramic views overlooking Cook Inlet, Mount Susitna and the Alaska Range. Popular for their seafood and steaks, we had a fantastic celebration dinner with our hosts, not only eating a delicious meal of locally-raised produce, but amongst great company.  I went to bed quite content with my accomplishments of the day.

The Anchorage Museum!
As both Gaby and I had flights the following day (mine in the afternoon and Gaby's later that night), I requested Chuck to drive me back downtown the next morning so I could spend a few hours checking out the Anchorage Museum, a really impressive, well thought out and well-designed museum with an extensive exhibit on Alaskan history and art, and exhibits on the Native Alaskan tribes that have lived in this part of the world for generations.  It was among the sites my friend Steve had recommended I visit the first time I came to Anchorage in 2016, but didn't get a chance to do.  Afterward, Chuck, Susan, and Gaby picked me up before we headed to Local Burgerman Arctic Roadrunner, a 50+ year old Alaskan institution serving up some of the best burgers in the entire state. The homemade burgers are delicious and quite filling, but even more interesting is the quirky decor; photos and tidbits adorn the walls on every available space of everyday people who have left the rest of the world and made their homes in Alaska. Not your everyday burger joint!
Learning about Native Alaskan tribes at the Anchorage Museum
With a little more time before Chuck and Susan drove me to the airport, we made one more stop on this rainy afternoon - Midnight Sun Brewing Company!  Having come here before on the brewery tour during my last trip to Anchorage, we enjoyed one more beer before I headed to the airport, making my way back to Seattle and taking the red eye all the way back home to New York for work on Tuesday morning.  It was a quick weekend on the other side of the country, but one I filled to the brim with exciting adventures with lots of friends, old and new!

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