The Inaugural Denali 100K (AK)

Posted: May 10, 2022 in 50 States, 50+ Milers, RACE REPORTS
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Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
– Maya Angelou

In 1867, then-Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of 375 million acres of underpopulated land from Russia for $7.2 million, a seeming bargain at less than two cents per acre. The controversial deal, which came to be known as “Seward’s Folly,” made Alaska a United States territory, one that would go largely ignored by the American public until the Gold Rush of the 1890s revealed its wealth of natural resources.

Soon after its strategic importance became apparent during World War II, Alaska was granted statehood and admitted as the 49th state (230 days before Hawaii) on January 3, 1959. At one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States and twice the size of Texas, it immediately became the largest state in the Union. Unfortunately for Seward, who correctly predicted that Alaska would become a state, he wouldn’t live long enough to earn vindication for his alleged “mistake.”

The rest of us, though, would be forever in his debt.

Ask any runner, and they can almost certainly rattle off a short list of favorite races they’ve run. For marathoners, Boston is understandably near the top of that list. For travelers like me, races like Antarctica and Comrades spring to mind. How many runners, though, could go a step further and tell you about their dream race, that is, the race they’d love to run if only it existed? For me, that race would take place along the Denali Highway in Alaska.

Opened in 1957 and largely unpaved but for each end, the Denali Highway was until 1971 the only road with access to Denali National Park. The highway and park, of course, share the Athabascan name for the majestic centerpiece of the state. Soaring to 20,310 feet, Denali—known to most Americans as Mount McKinley until 2015, when its native name was officially restored—is the tallest mountain peak in the United States. On a clear day, admittedly a rarity, The Great One’s snow-capped summit is visible from the westernmost end of the highway.

Ever since Katie and I had driven all 135 miles of the Denali Highway on our first visit to Alaska in 2006, spotting two moose and a red fox on its backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty, I’d been itching to come back and do it again—preferably in a vehicle designed for the terrain, since our initial traverse had been made in a rented sedan and despite explicit warnings from the rental car company against driving the dusty, gravel-strewn road. As both my running and ultrarunning résumés grew (I ran my first marathon in 2010 and my first ultra in 2012), the Denali Highway transitioned in my mind from a place I’d like to drive to a race I’d like to run.

Fast forward to late 2019, and as I was updating our RaceRaves database, I happened to come across a brand-new race in July 2020 with a name that immediately intrigued me: the Denali 135. To clarify—the first half of the name intrigued me; the latter half dismayed me, since 135 miles (i.e. the entire length of the Denali Highway) was nearly 80 miles farther than I’d ever run. A bridge too far, even for an impressionable masochist like myself.

Not to be dissuaded so easily, I reached out to Denali 135 organizer Sean Tracy to ask whether he’d consider staging a shorter “fun run” along the Denali Highway (say, 50 miles or 100K) at the same time as the 135-miler. He responded that they had indeed considered the idea, though he wasn’t sure it would happen for the inaugural event. Happen it did, though, and three months later I discovered (thanks to regular refreshing of the Denali 135 website) that a 100K distance had been added to the mix. With a jolt of excitement and without a second thought I resolved to tackle my first-ever 100K, a distance I’d promised myself (and Katie) I’d only run if an extraordinary opportunity presented itself. And the opportunity to be among the first runners to race across the Denali Highway was undeniably that.

The Denali Highway makes other roads green with envy

For a while, though, it seemed as though my dream race may not happen, as a global pandemic brought the running industry to a standstill, forcing Sean to postpone the inaugural event to 2021—one more shitty circumstance in a year filled with shitty circumstances. Fortunately his resolve never wavered, and it wasn’t long before he secured a race date of Sunday June 20, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. Game on! In fact, I’d already jump-started my training several months earlier with a 50-mile run to celebrate my 50th birthday.

With the gradual rollout of remarkably effective COVID-19 vaccines in the first half of 2021, the running industry slowly emerged from its forced hibernation. Still, though, as I looked to revive my 50 States quest and find a suitable training run for Alaska, most races (with rare exceptions like the Windermere Marathon) continued to either cancel or postpone to the fall. My home state of California, for its part, wouldn’t officially allow “community events” including marathons until mid-June.

Adding to my pre-race challenges, with the arrival of June my training came to a complete standstill as Katie and I flew to Texas to help my mom transition home after a 3-week hospital stay and 3-week rehabilitative stint. Returning to California after ten stressful and sleep-deprived days, and with my head and body knocked off their 100K training track, I debated whether I should pull the plug on the inaugural race and start looking ahead to 2022 instead.

In the end, though, with my mom in good hands at home and her health seemingly stable for the moment, nothing short of a bone sticking through my skin was going to keep me from chasing my most significant running goal since Comrades 2018. Plus, I knew a getaway to my favorite state would clear my mind like nothing else could. And so, one week and several lethargic training runs later, our plane touched down in the Last Frontier.

Just another summer day in downtown Anchorage

Calm Before the Storm
With its 291,000 residents, Anchorage is the only city in Alaska with a population of greater than 50,000. It’s a beautiful, Bohemian coastal city boasting fresh air, mountain vistas, terrific brewpubs, and furry four-legged locals who like to make themselves at home in the middle of your marathon course. Like an old friend I’ll never take for granted, a welcome sense of ataraxia washed over me as we drove familiar streets we’d last navigated a decade earlier. And that evening, the summer sun welcomed us like the seasonal insomniac it is, its tireless light refusing to yield even as sunset came and went. Having rested during the winter months as dictated by Mother Nature, and with the summer solstice fast approaching, it would no longer be denied.

The next morning, we made our final preparations for the adventure ahead. We’d reserved a sturdy Jeep for the drive on the gravel Denali Highway, plus an oversize cooler large enough to keep ice frozen and refrigerated provisions cold for the next three days. Cooler in hand, we stopped by Fred Meyer to load up on supplies, since there’d be few if any opportunities to do so once we reached our destination. I planned my nutritional needs carefully, even going so far as to purchase my go-to drink—a Mango Dragonfruit Refresher—from the Starbucks inside Fred Meyer, which I stored on ice as a race day pick-me-up at the midway (50 km) point.

Finally, before leaving Anchorage in our rearview mirror, we secured the satellite phone we’d reserved as required of all crew members to enable communication with Race Director Sean (or anyone else) out in the remote wilderness where cell coverage would be minimal.

The Great One (Denali, right) viewed from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge

Driving in Alaska is a singular pleasure, as you’re never quite sure what you’ll see—moose, mountains, or simply miles of open road—when you glance out the window. True to form, our easy four-hour Friday drive from Anchorage to Cantwell (the origin point for the Denali Highway) was punctuated by glorious views of Denali itself, clouds draped around the Great One like a white feather boa, its snow-white summit rising above neighboring peaks to kiss a steel-gray sky.

Reaching Cantwell, we turned onto the Denali Highway and what would be our race course in reverse. Soon enough I noted a feature I’d not recalled from our previous crossing 15 years earlier—the highway rolls a lot.  Granted, this would be much better than running 62 flat miles, but I wasn’t sure how much my body would appreciate those hills in the back half of the race. Luckily altitude wouldn’t play a role here, as the course elevation tops out at roughly 3,000 ft.

Located at the midway point of the Denali Highway between Cantwell and Paxson, the Alpine Creek Lodge felt as remote as any place I’ve stayed in my travels. Constructed largely from wooden beams with a sturdy green roof, the two-story lodge itself sits on a short but steep hill overlooking the highway, providing a panoramic view of the surrounding wilderness from the gravel parking area. Behind the lodge, a pile of discarded caribou antlers reminded out-of-state guests they weren’t in Kansas anymore:

Inside, the lodge was as you may expect—quaint but comfortable with small, sparsely furnished rooms just large enough to hold a bed. Several such rooms opened out into the central dining and gathering area, which occupied most of the first floor and whose walls were decorated with maps, photographs, animal pelts and other Alaskan memorabilia. The only TV lived in the communal lounge by the front door, while a shared bathroom sat at each end of the gathering area. Meals, all of which were prepared in house, would be one of the highlights of our visit.

Overall, the Alpine Creek Lodge would be the perfect spot to chill out, step away from the outside world, and force my mind & body to decompress for a day before tackling the challenge of running 100 km. And the fact the race would start 50 yards from our room was an undeniable bonus.

Forced relaxation, of course, doesn’t come easy to someone whose mind is used to being plugged into the grid 24/7, and the day before the race (i.e. the final taper) was as restless as any I can remember. Normally I would have leapt at the chance to get outside and explore on foot, but now I’d come too far to risk twisting an ankle—or worse—on the rugged, uneven terrain. At the same time, Wi-Fi in the lodge was predictably slow and sporadic. And so I spent much of Saturday lost in my own thoughts, discussing the next day’s plan with Katie, and laying out supplies in preparation for race day. Finally, having done all I could do, I shut our window shades against the lingering light of the midnight sun and lay down for one last sleep, my over-rested body feeling like a cocked slingshot ready to fire.

Sweeping view from the Alpine Creek Lodge

Fortunately sleep came easier than expected, and on Sunday morning I awoke to the sounds of voices and bustling activity outside our door. We dressed and ate quickly before joining all the newly arrived runners and their crews gathering in preparation for the mandatory pre-race meeting at 1:00pm. Soon Race Director Sean stepped forward, a balding and energetic middle-aged fellow with an easy smile and appropriately Alaskan stubble. He introduced himself along with his partner/co-RD Holly and 10-year-old daughter Emilia, and then briefed us on rules and regulations for the day, most of which seemed straightforward.

When he’d concluded his intro, I asked a question I assumed was on everyone’s mind: given the race’s advertised distance of 100 km (62.2 miles) and the fact we sat roughly 67 miles east of the highway’s endpoint, how far could we realistically expect to run? We should be prepared to run as much as 68 miles, Sean told us, since he’d measured the course based on the 135-mile route and so couldn’t be sure of the 100 km distance.

His response reawakened the butterflies in my stomach, as I hearkened back to the overwhelming exhaustion I’d felt at the finish line of each of the two Comrades Marathons I’d run. Could I really complete another 12–14 miles? Not only that, but I’d set an “A” goal for myself to finish the 62+ mile journey in 13 hours. After a stressful ten days in Texas coupled with this unsettling news, I no longer knew what to expect. Quickly rejiggering my expectations, I set my sights on a more realistic goal of finishing shortly after sunrise at 3:40am, a total time of just under 14 hours.

As this news sank in and my mind recalibrated on the fly, the 11 runners and their crews diffused out of the lodge and down the hill to the front of the lodge for the 2:00pm start. After photos and farewells, Sean raised his rifle and—in true Alaskan style—fired skyward to signal the start of the inaugural Denali 100K. The 135-mile runners had set off from Paxson only eight hours earlier, and so mind and body willing, we’d be the first runners to cross the finish line at the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway.

Rifle at the ready, Sean gets set to start his inaugural event

Into the Wild (Start to 50 km)
Owing to a technical glitch with my SPOT tracker, I was the last runner to cross the start line, and I glanced up to see the backs of my fellow competitors already receding in the distance. The SPOT tracker would be used by Sean to follow our GPS coordinates and for automated timing, while also enabling us to send out an SOS signal with the press of a button if we ever felt we were in danger. For her part, Katie would have the satellite phone we’d rented in Anchorage in case she needed to communicate with Sean or anyone else.

This was all necessary, in part, because the Denali 100K would be a self-supported race, the first I’d ever run. This meant each runner was required to bring their own crew to support them throughout the race. Katie of course would be my crew; we’d arranged to meet every 10km (6.2 miles) for at least the first half of the race and then more frequently after that.

For nutrition, I’d be fueling with a combination of Perfect Snacks peanut butter bars and Tailwind Recovery drink along with baby food pouches, bananas, and my usual Maurten sports drink. And then there was the Mango Dragonfruit Refresher I’d purchased at the Starbucks in Anchorage two days earlier, which was still on ice and which would give me something to look forward to at the 50 km mark.

Don’t let the smile fool you, Katie ran her aid stations with military precision

As well stocked as our Jeep was, however, I knew how ugly my day would become and how quickly I’d crash and burn if I didn’t have the discipline to fuel at regular intervals, regardless of whether I felt I needed the calories. Because I’d learned the hard way that at distances like 100 km, by the time you feel hungry you’ve already put your body in a hole. And as sports nutritionist Sunny Blende likes to say, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.”

Race guidelines required us to carry hydration and 500 calories of nutrition on us at all times, but because I planned to meet Katie every 10 km (6.2 miles), I’d chosen to wear a lightweight Ultimate Direction hydration vest I’d won at the 2017 Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler. I’d be carrying one liter of water which, given the cool weather and Katie’s additional aid, I hoped would last me the duration of the race. I also carried several GUs (which I hoped I wouldn’t need) as well as toilet paper, just in case nature called out in the Alaska wilderness. We’d been instructed to dig a “cat hole” to cover up any bathroom activity, and besides, I knew the most sure-fire way to guarantee I’d need toilet paper would be to not carry any.

With my SPOT tracker now functioning properly, I set off down the dusty highway in the footsteps of my fellow runners, having given the rest of the pack a two-minute head start. Not that I cared—I was in no hurry, and we all had many miles to go before we’d sleep. Under billowy gray clouds that hung low in the sky, I tried to grasp the magnitude of my surroundings and of the task ahead. And at that moment, I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be.

The lucky 11 starters of the inaugural Denali 100K

My plan was to maintain a comfortable 10:00/mile pace for as long as possible, then recalibrate and go from there. I recalled from our drive two days earlier the many rolling hills between here and Cantwell, and though I knew the second half of the race would be more down than up, the precise contours escaped my memory.

Within half a mile I pulled alongside Jen, a nurse from Anchorage who told me she was trying to run a marathon in every state and that she used RaceRaves frequently to learn more about races (Sean had mentioned my affiliation at the pre-race meeting). Unlike me, she was not including ultramarathons among her totals, and so today—which would be state #33 for me who counts anything equal to or longer than a marathon—would be more of a fun run for her. We chatted for a couple of minutes, a nice way to start a long day, and then wished each other well as my own pace carried me ahead of her.

With every step I cleansed my lungs and my soul, inhaling Alaska and exhaling Los Angeles. Infinite shades of pristine green sculpted by time into woodlands, meadows and taiga stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted here and there by darkened, glassy lakes and sinuous streams. Green-bearded hills sporting seams of residual snow rose sporadically on both sides of the highway and in the distance, an immutable feature of the subalpine landscape seemingly stretching to the horizon.

As instructed, I’d worn a Buff around my neck for warmth and in case of dust clouds or swarming bugs. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly on this the longest day of the year, very few vehicles aside from crew members passed us on the highway, and so dust was never an issue. Bugs, on the other hand…

Wryly referred to by locals as the state bird, mosquitos are the one notable downside to summers in Alaska and particularly in mid-June when they’re most active. So you can imagine we runners were like slow-moving buffets for these aggressive bloodsuckers, one of which would occasionally fly into my ear or alight on my eyelid while I was running. Really, though, my only notable mosquito encounters took place at aid station stops when the critters would swarm. Katie, on the other hand, bore the brunt of their ire, as she apparently spent much of her spare time chasing down any that got trapped inside the Jeep with her. Luckily we’d both slathered ourselves in a highly effective picaridin-based lotion, which I credit for the fact that despite spending more than 12 hours out in the Alaskan wilderness, even a juicy pink treat like myself didn’t suffer a single bloodletting. So suck it, skeeters! (Or don’t, as it turns out…)

Mother Nature apparently had taken Sean’s rifle blast as her cue, and soon after we started a light drizzle began to fall off and on, keeping things cool but not uncomfortable. That comforting coolness lasted until mile 12, when a strong crosswind greeted us as we approached the Susitna River. Crossing the exposed bridge over the wide, calm river, I held my hat in place as angry gusts blew the cold rain sideways, transforming a moment I’d eagerly anticipated into a bitter “get me out of here” scenario.

Crossing the Susitna River, mile 12 (not seen: gusting rain)

Miles 10–25 were the most extended uphill section of the race, and by the time I reached Katie at the 30 km (18 miles) mark, it was clear no amount of stunning scenery would get me to the finish line if I didn’t slow down and rethink my strategy. If I kept pushing at this pace, I’d either implode by the midway point or slog miserably through the next 70 km, eyes on the ground and mind unable to appreciate one of the most beautiful settings on the planet. Which would obviously defeat the purpose of running this race in the first place.

Contributing to my discomfort, my right glute muscle had been barking at me for the past couple of hours. Luckily planning pays off, and I used the blue Orb (a bumpy, softball-sized sphere of hard plastic) we’d packed to try to roll out and relax my knotted muscle, with predictably painful results. Talk about a pain in the butt.

As I rested and regrouped, our intrepid race director drove by with Holly and Emilia. They were on their way to the finish line, and Sean leaned out the driver’s window to ask how we were doing. Despite feeling like I’d blown a tire and silently trying to summon a second wind, I managed a smile and lied about feeling great. I couldn’t imagine running another 50-ish miles in my current condition.

I appreciated the highway markers every 10 miles or so

But I certainly wasn’t about to claim a DNF (Did Not Finish) here in one of my favorite places on Earth—at least not yet. So I refueled appropriately with a peanut butter bar and sipped at a 5-hour Energy, the caffeine working its magic in short order. Then I did something I’d never done in a race before—I donned my headphones, hoping the distraction of an audiobook would help take my mind off my physical issues.

Unfortunately, The Sixth Extinction isn’t exactly escapism (though it is an important cautionary tale I’d recommend), and soon the voice in my ears lost its short-lived appeal. This, together with a renewed drizzle, prompted me to pocket my headphones. And at the 40 km (25 miles) mark, with the rain falling once again and a chill on my skin, I traded Katie the headphones for a pair of gloves whose warmth instantly brought me comfort.

I took turns leapfrogging fellow runners John from Anchorage, a fighter pilot who’d apparently run the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon the previous day (!), and Steven from Oregon, the most experienced runner in the field at age 62, until finally I passed each of them for good sometime before the 40 km mark, cheering them on as I did so. I didn’t envy John the rough patch(es) that inevitably lay ahead once the previous day’s marathon caught up to him, assuming it hadn’t already.

Taking the road less traveled, mile 25

After 40 km, I resolved to run the level stretches and downhills while hiking the uphills. This new game plan would enable me to run well while still taking the time to actually enjoy the day and maybe even finish this thing on two feet. This strategy shift, along with continued fueling, paid almost immediate dividends as I started to feel better both mentally and physically. The tightness in my glute calmed, my left ankle (which had recovered slowly from a nasty sprain months earlier) chirped only briefly, and my sore left Achilles quieted down. My body settled into a familiar groove, and I was able to fall back on my training and do what I’d come here to do—just run.

Psychologically this was a tough stretch—not far enough to see an end in sight, yet far enough to feel the mounting fatigue—and quietly I celebrated reaching the marathon distance before turning my focus to the midway point at 50 km, one serene step at a time.

Remembering my tendency to breathe more shallowly when I wear a pack, I reminded myself at regular intervals (and especially on the climbs) to breathe deeply and enjoying the ever-changing scenery, the hills with their veins of unmelted snow always visible in the distance.

The rain petered out, and despite the chill in the air I wouldn’t need my gloves again. My body temperature held steady in the comfortable range, a fact I attributed to the Buff around my neck and to the extra day of rest at the Alpine Creek Lodge. Because a well-rested body is a body that’s better able to thermoregulate in stressful situations.

Dark-ish Before the Dawn (51 km to the finish)
Passing the 50km mark with a fist pump, I joined Katie by the side of the road and rewarded myself with a sip from my stored Starbucks drink. This nicely complemented the peanut butter bars, which were getting tougher and tougher to chew. At future stops I’d opt to fuel as though I were a contestant in the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, partnering each bite with copious amounts of water to dissolve the food quickly and save myself the energy of chewing. Bloodthirsty mosquitos dive-bombed my head as I stood at rest, a reminder to reapply the repellent which so far had worked like a charm.

Miles 30–33 were more mental than physical as my mind set its sights on the 55 km mark. Assuming a total distance of 110 km (66–67 miles), I considered 55 km the de facto midway point of the race. And when I finally did pass 55 km, it was as if a switch suddenly flipped in my brain. Sure, I’d been running for more than six hours, and an even longer slog still lay ahead. But from now on I would be counting down the miles, and psychologically for me that was a huge lift—especially since my nutritional strategy was paying off, and I was feeling good.

Colorful flowers were in shorter supply than expected, though sunflowers (arnica), lupin and blue bells made occasional appearances, their eye-catching yellows and purples conspicuous against the seemingly endless expanse of browns and greens. Other than the infrequent comings and goings of slow-moving motorized vehicles, the road was largely quiet but for a small white bird (snow bunting, maybe?) that issued a loud and persistent tweep, tweep, tweep, which I chose to translate as bird speak for Go, Mike, go!

Though the course followed the Denali Highway on its westward trajectory, squint as I might I could not see Russia.

One of several creek crossings (over, not through), mile 37

Emerging from our 60km pitstop, my body greeted me with a new and unexpected ache—in my forearms of all places, presumably caused by their continuous swinging motion as I ran. This unusual heaviness would return after every subsequent aid station stop, and I imagined myself explaining to my non-running friends and family that I’d just run 100 km and boy, were my arms tired. Turns out ultrarunning is more of a full-body workout than you may think.

The steepest down/uphill combinations on the course were typically found at rivers and creeks where we’d run down to the water, cross a bridge, and then head back up the other side. Here I established a rhythm of running the downs and bridges before walking the ups, a routine that allowed me to maintain a surprisingly respectable running pace while giving my body time to recharge between running intervals.

Lost in my thoughts, I spent a lot of time—and I’d soon learn I wasn’t alone—imagining what the finish line would be like. Where was it located exactly? At the end of the highway? Maybe in the parking lot of the gas station & convenience store? What would finishing feel like? Would there be any pomp and circumstance?

More than anything, though, I wondered how far away the finish line actually was. I knew the distance from the start line at the Alpine Creek Lodge to the end of the highway was just over 66 miles, so that was the distance I’d settled on. Any more and I could presumably hang on, but 66 was the number I had engrained in my head. To be sure, Sean’s ambiguity as to the distance had been disconcerting, but I couldn’t let that affect my mindset now.

At the 70 km (43 miles) mark, I sipped again at the 5-hr Energy and asked Katie to start meeting me every 5 km (3.1 miles). And so, giving me a 20–30 minute head start out of each pitstop, she would follow and pass me on her way to our next meeting place. This worked well, not because I ever needed anything between stops but because, in my fatigue, simply knowing she was never far away was heartening. Or maybe that was simply the caffeine from the 5-hr Energy?

At 75 km, I did something else I’d never done during a race—on Katie’s recommendation, I downed a salt tablet just in case my body was lacking. I don’t sweat profusely, and as far as I could tell the tablet had no effect, but that placebo effect in itself was reassuring.

I first glimpsed Heidi ahead of me at around 70 km, though it took me another 15 km to catch up to her as we each joined our crews at the 85 km mark. She was all smiles but admitted, “I can’t stop thinking about this not being 100 km.”

A promising sign at mile 46

“I totally get it,” I responded. I’d been mulling this over myself and had reached a conclusion, which I hoped would raise her spirits. “But we can’t do anything about that. The finish line is the finish line, and you can’t change that. All you can do is control what you can control.” (Yes, this is the type of white-hot eloquence you can expect after I’ve run for 10½ hours.) Katie said that Heidi, despite always smiling, had mentioned earlier that she was angry about the distance discrepancy. And though “angry” may have been hyperbole (she was an ultrarunner after all, and used to this type of self-inflicted punishment), I could certainly appreciate her frustration.

By this time (12:30 am) the sun had set, and so with Katie’s help—always with Katie’s help—I donned my reflective vest, a mandatory piece of gear with blinking white lights on front and blinking red lights on back. Not that there would be much traffic along the Denali Highway and especially at this time, but safety first. Fortunately, the sun seemed to linger just out of view below the horizon, and so I wouldn’t need my headlamp in the inextinguishable glow of the Alaskan night. Darkness, it seemed, had found its kryptonite in this wild corner of the world.

Running on the Denali Highway presented a dichotomy now accentuated by the dusky light—of serene solitude on one hand and unnerving vulnerability on the other. Being alone and subject to the whims of nature will do that. I was acutely aware that a bear in particular could burst through the trees and startle me at any moment, leaving a soft and slow-footed human little recourse but to play dead or die trying. My big brain would be no match for a grizzly’s bigger claws. On I ran, that same big brain offering unsolicited reminders that one of the larger locals could pass within a few yards of me, effortlessly camouflaged by the tall brush and dim lighting, and I’d never know the difference. And I was grateful for the lingering glow of the midnight sun.

Caribou, a common sight in Denali National Park

Unlikely though a bear sighting was along the Denali Highway, it wouldn’t be unprecedented; in fact, Jen had reported seeing a grizzly in the middle of the highway on her previous day’s drive. But despite one close call (as reported by a passing motorist) when I just missed seeing a moose cow and her calf, on this day I’d come face to face with none of Alaska’s famed megafauna. No bears, no moose, no wolves, no foxes. Nonetheless, other runners and their crews would report sightings of two grizzly sows and a cub, six moose cows and two calves, four foxes, and three porcupines including a baby. All in a day’s work in The Last Frontier.

(Thanks to the cold, there are no snakes or lizards in Alaska. In fact, the state’s only reptiles are sea turtles.)

Approaching the 90 km mark, I was startled to hear distant voices off to my right, and it suddenly dawned on me why the dearth of large mammal sightings along this highway. Hunters. Sean would later confirm that animal sightings along the Denali Highway are relatively rare because it’s hunting territory, unlike Denali National Park where the animals seem to know they’re safe. Fortunately, I wore bright colors and calmed my mind with the feeble reminder that hunters weren’t supposed to fire across the road. Turns out Heidi, running behind me now, heard them fire a rifle as she passed, no doubt a nerve-wracking experience and especially for a woman running alone in near darkness.

Benefiting from the summer solstice, mile 56 (1:08am AKDT)

Sometime after mile 57 (92 km), I glanced at my wrist to check on distance and saw the “LOW BATTERY” message displayed on the face of my Garmin watch. Fantastic. I didn’t know when the message had appeared or how much longer I had, but this being my longest run ever, running out of battery had always been a concern. In fact, it was the reason I’d turned off all unnecessary sounds, lights, and alarms before the race. Now I just had to hope my Garmin (as well as my legs) could hold out for another 10-ish miles. At the very least, in the absence of knowing how much farther to the finish line, I wanted to reach the 100 km (mile 62.2) mark before my Garmin died to ensure I’d have an unofficial 100 km finish time to my credit.

In mile 59 I glanced to my left and stopped in my tracks, my exhaustion momentarily forgotten as I stood mesmerized by a beautifully clear lake, the snow-laced hills beyond reflected in its placid surface. This being the longest day of the year in Alaska meant that even at 1:45am, I could still see enough to appreciate (and photograph) the scene. In a day filled with memorable moments, this may have been my favorite:

“Only 10K left,” I assured myself somewhere around the 60-mile (97 km) mark, a best guesstimate given the lack of official mile markers on the course. Onward I ran, bolstered by my caloric intake and by my determination to earn an unofficial 100 km finish time before my Garmin died.

Cresting a hill, my brain scarcely registered the RV’s parked on either side of the road ahead of me. Approaching them in the dusky light, I was startled by a chorus of cheers coming from the RV to my right. Then I noticed Katie standing in the middle of the road. What the…? Annoyed, I signaled weakly to her, then to the Jeep parked in a pullout to my left. I was hoping my gesture communicated my urgency: Need to refuel quickly here, I’ve still got like 5 miles left. And I certainly didn’t need to be wasting time while Katie chatted with her fellow crew members.

That was when I glanced from Katie to the fellow with whom she was smiling and laughing, and recognition dawned on me as I heard Sean say “Congratulations!” I glanced again at Katie in bewilderment. “You’re done!” she responded to my obvious confusion. Done? As in, like, DONE done?

That’s some serious mile 58 energy (1:26am AKDT)

Turns out this wasn’t a summer solstice prank after all—I’d just crossed the least conspicuous finish line of my racing career. And I won’t even try to describe here my overwhelming sense of relief and euphoria in that moment; suffice it to say, if I could bottle and sell that feeling I’d make Elon Musk look like a pauper. Because the truth is, no amount of flowery verbiage could do it justice, and it’s a feeling best experienced for yourself.

The time was ~2:30am Alaska Daylight Time, some 12½ hours since we’d crossed the start line. I’d run a distance of 100.8 km or 62.5 miles, a remarkably precise course measurement on Sean’s part and especially considering all the uncertainty of the day. And where else, I thought, can you run 100 km without making a single turn?

Life is a Highway
Still trying to process the reality of having finished my first 100 km race so suddenly, I didn’t immediately think to throw my arms around Katie. Instead I glanced again at Sean, a wide smile on his tired face. His outstretched hand offered congratulations, and happily I reached out to shake it. Moments later, he ducked into his RV and reappeared with a platter of attractive keepsakes. These were the finisher awards, ivory-colored belt buckles made from shed moose antlers that he’d apparently sanded himself. Glancing at the platter, I was instantly in love. “You’ve earned one of these, take your pick,” he offered. And so I did.

Moments later, as a slight chill gripped my exhausted body, I turned and shuffled back down the road to greet Heidi. Recalling her clear frustration with the cryptic course distance, I wanted to give her a heads-up and to afford her the opportunity I’d not had—to appreciate and enjoy this home stretch knowing she’d reached the finish line.

Like my own response on hearing the news, her reaction to my words was one of stunned disbelief. Overcome by a maelstrom of emotions, she may have shed a few tears as she covered the final 100 yards of dusty highway to where Sean and her crew stood waiting to welcome her home. There I joined her for a heartfelt exchange of hugs and congratulations.

When the going got tough, Heidi got going

In the end, 10 of the 11 starters ended up finishing the inaugural Denali 100K, along with three runners who earned a 100K finish despite falling short at the 135-mile distance. The winning 100K time was a fleet-footed 9 hours, 26 minutes, with my own finish time of 12 hours, 33 minutes earning me a 6th place finish, 16 minutes ahead of Heidi and 100 minutes behind Jan, a Denali local who let out a joyful “YAY!” each time Katie cheered her on the course. Ours was that kind of group—appreciative of the opportunity and determined to enjoy every step.

More importantly than my middle-of-the-pack finish, I’d stopped the clock a comfortable 27 minutes ahead of my “A” goal of 13 hours.

Granted, this is the case in just about any 100K race, but the rolling nature of the Denali Highway in particular ensures that most runners—and especially first-time 100Kers—will need a run/hike strategy to finish comfortably and meet their time goals. At the same time, one of the more psychologically challenging aspects of any ultramarathon is striking the right balance between running just enough to maximize your training without crashing & burning, and hiking just enough to let yourself regroup without wasting time. Because the Greek poet Archilochus said it best, and it’s a lesson most of us learn the hard way: We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.

We exchanged farewells and, as the morning sun reawakened from its brief slumber, made the quiet drive 30 minutes north to the McKinley Creek Cabins, a rustic lodge located just up the road from the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway. Lying on the bed in our room trying to get comfortable after running for more than half the day, my aggrieved muscles reminded me that just because I was done with them didn’t mean they were done with me. As I drifted off to sleep, thoughts of the 135-mile runners still out on the course danced in my head, the tension in my legs ebbing and flowing as if to say, Don’t even think about it.

A lightly rested Sean dishes out props and accolades at the post-race awards dinner

That was Monday. On Tuesday we joined Sean, Holly, Emilia and fellow finishers at the outdoor gathering area of the McKinley Creek Cabins for the post-race awards dinner. There we compared notes while enjoying a buffet spread of grilled salmon, chili-lime tofu, coconut rice, salads, dessert and drinks. Sean said a few concluding words and presented a donation check to a very appreciative representative from the Denali Education Center. Even the sun emerged from the clouds to cast a bright, warm glow on the evening’s celebration as I basked in the afterglow of my own successful solstice.

Travel Alaska describes the 49th state as “a place of magnificence… it’s amazingly different, with more mountains than buildings, more wildlife than people and more glaciers than stop lights.” I couldn’t agree more. And for any runner seeking a destination race that promises an unfiltered and unforgettable experience in The Last Frontier, the Denali 100K is a Great One.

More so than anywhere else I’ve been, Alaska is a place you go to lose yourself, and it’s a place you go to find yourself. It’s my favorite state. And with a tip of the cap to former Secretary of State William H. Seward, it’s my favorite mistake.

Them’s the wild eyes of a 100 km finisher and the sleepless eyes of his conscientious crew

Mosquito Survival Tips: Summer in Alaska is essentially perfect, with one mighty exception in June and July: mosquitos. With that in mind, Katie and I used a highly effective picaridin-based lotion from Sawyer (purchased at REI) to repel the tiny vampires, which nevertheless would occasionally fly into my ear or alight on my eyelid. Most of my encounters took place during aid station stops when the critters would swarm. At any rate, thanks to our sage choice of repellent I didn’t suffer a single bloodletting during my nearly 13 hours of running in the wilderness. Katie reported similar results despite acting as unwitting Uber driver for many a mosquito along the Denali Highway. All in all, a glowing endorsement.

Gear Check: I wore Altra Superior trail shoes with gaiters, which worked well to grip loose spots on the crushed gravel of the Denali Highway while keeping stray pebbles out of my shoes. Likewise, my Injinji socks kept my feet comfortable while preventing blisters, though I was disappointed to find a hole in the left big toe after just 62 miles. My nutritional strategy included peanut butter Perfect Bars with honey (soft but not as gooey as standard peanut butter, so easier to eat), baby food pouches, and Tailwind Nutrition Recovery drink, a handy additional source of liquid protein throughout the day. And we stored it all in a vacuum-sealed Vibe Element 45 cooler that we rented from Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental in Anchorage.

Cow moose foraging roadside, spotted on the drive to Talkeetna

BOTTOM LINE: You never forget your first, and especially when your first happens to be 100 km (62.2 miles) in one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet. Held along the Denali Highway, a wild and mostly unpaved stretch of 135 miles I’d immediately fallen in love with during my first visit to Alaska 15 years earlier, the Denali 100K is a bucket-list, back-to-nature adventure created for the intrepid ultrarunner. Though theoretically speaking I’d long been intrigued by the 100K as a “triple digit” challenge, it would take a special opportunity to make me commit to the distance—and the inaugural Denali 100K was just what this doctor ordered. The day I first learned of the event, it was as though someone had read my mind.

Run on the summer solstice (meaning I finished at 2:30am AKDT under relatively bright skies), the race starts at the Alpine Creek Lodge near the midpoint of the iconic Denali Highway and finishes, without a single turn, near the highway’s endpoint in Cantwell. The largely unpaved highway opened in 1957 as the lone road leading to Denali National Park. (For true masochists, the race also offers a 135-mile distance that runs the full length of the highway.) The terrain is highly consistent crushed gravel that’s ideal for running. And though the Denali Highway wouldn’t be considered “hilly” per se by trail running standards (and the route is, in fact, a net downhill), it definitely rolls from start to finish. As my fatigue mounted, I was able to establish a time-efficient rhythm of speed-hiking the ups while running the downs and flats, a strategy that minimized my exhaustion in the second half.

The Denali 100K is an untamed dichotomy of tranquil solitude on the one hand and unnerving vulnerability on the other. Because when you say “Alaska,” most people envision vast wilderness and the megafauna that call it home. Though I didn’t see any large mammals myself on race day (not such a bad thing when you’re alone for 12+ hours on foot without bear spray), other runners and their crews reported sightings of two grizzly sows and a cub, six moose cows and two calves, four foxes, and three porcupines including a baby. And on the topic of safety: given the remote nature of the course and the lack of cell service along the Denali Highway, each runner carried a SPOT tracker equipped with an SOS button throughout the race, which was used to track our GPS coordinates. Likewise, every runner’s crew carried a satellite phone which enabled them, if needed, to contact Race Director Sean or anyone else during the race.

A note regarding the race name: on a clear day the stately snow-covered peak of Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the United States at 20,310 ft, is visible as you approach the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway. Clear days in Cantwell, however, are hit or miss to say the least, so if it’s a Denali sighting you crave (and what Alaskan visitor doesn’t?), I’d recommend you make the short-but-scenic detour to the village of Talkeetna on the drive to or from Anchorage. There, your best bet for seeing The Great One is from the viewing deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (see photo).

In essence, I can say without hyperbole that the Denali 100K is the reason I run, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. To call this a “race” almost doesn’t do the day justice—this is a soul-cleansing experience not only for veteran ultrarunners but for any lover of the outdoors who’s looking for the perfect inspiration to challenge themselves and tackle their first 100K. And it’s the ultimate destination race for an increasingly stressed-out world.

Resting & recuperating at the McKinley Creek Cabins

PRODUCTION: Race Director Sean Tracy, his partner and co-RD Holly, and their daughter Emilia (in whose young brain the idea for the Denali 100K originated) are amazing people who make an amazing team. Sean is a “big ideas” guy with the perfect temperament for a race director, while Holly is his detail-oriented right-hand woman who makes things happen. As with every event these past two years, the inaugural race (which was originally scheduled for July 2020) rode the emotional roller coaster of “yes, it will” and “no, it won’t,” and Sean did a terrific job of setting expectations and keeping us updated. For more background on the race and the man himself, I’d recommend you read “The Road to Denali” in the May/June 2021 issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. It lays out Sean’s story—including his becoming the first and only person to travel ~3,700 miles from Badwater to Denali Base Camp under his own power—and what compelled him to stage a 135-mile/100K foot race in the heart of wild Alaska. Most of all, I’d suggest you register to run the Denali 100K and discover for yourself why Sean and his family are exactly the type of thoughtful, caring and creative individuals you’ll be proud to call friends long after you cross his understated finish line.

Sean’s pre-race communication—which actually spanned 15 months from March 2020 when I first registered, to June 2021 when the race finally happened—was personable yet professional (much like Sean himself) and a treasure trove of useful information re: what to expect on race day and how to plan the rest of your Alaskan vacation. His enthusiastic yet comforting words reassured me that I wasn’t making an egregious error in judgment by jumping feet first into this inaugural event in one of the wildest places on earth. And he went out of his way to give credit to his runners and call out their accomplishments, including a heartfelt “get well” shout-out to one long-time ultrarunner who couldn’t join us this year after recent open-heart surgery. Sean’s was the rare pre-race communication I look forward to seeing in my Inbox.

Race weekend culminated in a beautiful evening and an excellent post-race buffet at the McKinley Creekside Cabins, our post-race accommodations located 15 minutes from the finish-line end of the Denali Highway. There we enjoyed grilled salmon, chili-lime tofu, coconut rice, plus salads, desserts and drinks while chatting and comparing notes with fellow finishers, and Sean presented a check to an appreciative representative from this year’s race beneficiary, the Denali Education Center. It was a fitting conclusion to an epic weekend.

Sean and Holly expended an enormous amount of effort to maximize their runners’ chances of success on race day. This included Sean running the entire 135-mile course himself during the initial planning stages because, as Holly told us, he won’t ask others to run a course unless he’s first run it himself. The end result is a testament to their dedication and their desire to give the ultrarunning community a special event. And it’s tough to say they didn’t succeed with flying colors—the Denali 100K is an event you won’t soon forget.

One important detail to note ahead of time: the Denali 100K is a self-supported, BYOC (Bring Your Own Crew) event. There are neither official aid stations nor so much as a convenience store along the remote route, and very few vehicles—aside from Sean or the other runners’ crews—drive the highway. So you’ll want to come prepared with your own crew and everything you need on race day. For this reason, Katie and I reserved a Jeep and an oversized cooler in Anchorage, then stopped for supplies before making the drive to Cantwell and the Alpine Creek Lodge where we stayed before the race. On that note, sports nutritionist Sunny Blende was spot-on when she said, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” Nailing my nutritional strategy was the single most important factor in keeping my performance consistent and reaching the finish line faster than I’d thought possible. If you’re going to run this or any other 100K, and assuming you’re trained up for the challenge, race-day nutrition is your key to success.

SWAG: Truth is, I doubt that anyone running 100K in wild Alaska does so for the swag. That said, I wear my Denali 100K finisher tee proudly, while the real keepsake is the finisher buckle made from shed moose antlers (i.e. bone) and hand-sanded by Sean himself. Adorned with the race’s namesake peak, the ivory beauty easily earns a spot in my top five favorite finisher awards and now hangs in my home from an Alaska lanyard purchased at a roadside souvenir store.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
June 20, 2021 (start time 2:00 pm; sunset 12:21am, sunrise 3:40 am)
62.49 miles in Matanuska-Susitna, Alaska (state 33 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 12:33:00 (first time running the Denali 100K), 12:01/mile
Avg Moving Pace: 11:27/mile
Finish place: 6 overall, 1/2 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 13 (9 men, 4 women), limited to 50 runners
Race weather: cool & cloudy (61°F) at the start, cooler & cloudy at the finish; light rain
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,918.6 ft gain, 3,599.1 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 2,180.0 ft, 3,127.2 ft

5 km splits for the inaugural Denali 100K
Comments
  1. Kimberly Harold says:

    WOW, what a clearly spiritual experience!  Thank you for sharing it so eloquently with us. My family visited Alaska in the early 80’s and you just made me want to return. I loved it then, but know that as my life has grown and changed, so would my appreciation of that magical place.   And the “picaridin-based lotion from Sawyer (purchased at REI)” is a GREAT tip.  Ava, Mikey and I get eaten alive…not sure why Danny & Connor don’t??   Hope your recovery is continuing, and look forward to the next race recap.   xoxo, Kimberly      

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