January 11 2018
A runner shares a personal essay documenting her years as "the runner" in rural South Dakota.
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.
Related: An Ultramarathon Through Iceland
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.