For the last several years I’ve been working on a goal of finishing a half marathon in all 50 states and a full marathon on every continent. In April I passed the halfway point for states with a race in Oklahoma City and decided that I wanted to find a place that I had never been to before to kick off the second half, so the timing of Mayor’s Midnight Sun Half Marathon in Anchorage Alaska couldn’t have been better. A friend of mine who I had done a few races with in the past was interested in doing this one as well, so we made our travel arrangements and put together a plan to meet up in Anchorage a couple days before the race so that we’d also have time to check out some of the local attractions and scenery in the area. The race is held on a Saturday morning during the Summer Solstice festival every year in Anchorage, so in addition to 24 hours of straight daylight, there’s always a lot going on both downtown and in the surrounding areas during rest of the weekend.
When I arrived in Anchorage, the weather was perfect – sunny, but with enough clouds to keep the sun from being unbearable and temperatures in the low 50s early and warming up to the high 60s later in the day. I went for a walk on the day before the race to loosen up my leg muscles and the conditions seemed so mild that I couldn’t help but think to myself that the race was going to be a cakewalk. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Later that evening, storm clouds started to roll in over the mountains to the south of downtown Anchorage and by 11:30 pm, there was a line of severe thunderstorms moving through the area. The thunder and lightning didn’t last very long, but the rain continued all night and well into the next morning. By the time the race started, my feet were already soaked from standing in wet grass at Delaney Park near the start line. The temperatures had also dropped significantly from the previous day as well. I’m not sure what the exact temperature was but to say it was in the low 40’s would be generous. A bunch of runners took shelter under an unoccupied tent in the park and we could all see each others’ breath when we talked to each other. Everyone was cold and wet right up until the gun went off to start the race. The first mile wasn’t much of a help because the beginning of the course is pretty much straight downhill, which is usually not a bad way to start a race but in this case, all the rain water had been streaming down the hill and forming large puddles at the bottom which were next to impossible to avoid. By the time I reached the first mile marker, any remaining spots on my shoes that hadn’t already been soaked before the race started were taken care of. By the third mile, the course started to go uphill fairly rapidly, which was challenging, but didn’t compare to mile 6, where not only was I running uphill at about a 7% grade for pretty much the entire mile, but the raindrops had gotten bigger and there were massive headwinds blowing the rain right at the runners which such force that after a while it started to feel like my face was being pelted repeatedly with handfuls of small pebbles instead of rain drops. The seventh mile was where things got even crazier. The course turned off of the paved roads that it had been following and onto a dirt trail that wound through a forest. On one hand, this was nice because the dense trees blocked the wind, but on the other hand, after soaking up rain water for the previous 10 hours, the dirt trails had turned to slippery mud and with all the steep hills that countless runners ended up sliding down on their backsides, the race began to feel more like a Tough Mudder than a half marathon. There were several points along this part of the course where people had to walk to keep from slipping and the pace had slowed to such a crawl that I think most of the other runners around me had pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that no PRs were going to be set on this particular day.
Just before the eighth mile marker, I did something that I will most likely never do during a race again: I stopped running to take a picture of a moose that was standing alongside the course watching the runners. A big crowd of people had gathered to take pictures until a runner who lived in the area and was familiar with the various physical cues given off by the local wildlife mentioned that everyone needed to be extremely careful since moose are not very friendly animals and that based on the way this one (which was a female) was standing, she looked to be extremely agitated and most likely had some babies close by that she was protecting. At that point, having finished taking my picture and not wanting to get stomped by an angry moose, I decided that it was probably best to move on.
The rest of the course was actually fairly easy and uneventful. Most of the final five miles were downhill and while there were a few windy spots, the wind wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been a couple miles earlier and the rain even started to let up. Not only that, but this particular part of the run was right next to the Cook Inlet coastline where we were treated to some breathtaking views of the Anchorage skyline and the surrounding mountains. I was even able to make up some of the time I lost in the first half of the race over the last few miles. The final mile was mostly uphill but at the top of the last (and steepest) hill was the finish line. I definitely felt like I earned my race medal in this race and the I can’t remember the last time a beer tasted as refreshing as the one I got after I crossed the finish line.
Now, if you’ve made it this far (and I’d like to thank you if you did), reading the last few paragraphs may have given you the impression that the combination of cold temperatures, hills, wind, rain, mud, and an encounter with an angry moose made this race an unenjoyable experience.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I loved every minute of this race and would even rank it in the top two or three that I’ve ever done. Here’s why: a while back I started to notice that when I think about the races I’ve done, the ones that really stand out in my mind also happen to be the ones that were the most physically challenging. I’ve done plenty of races with nice flat, easy courses and mild weather but other than maybe getting a PR here and there, I don’t really remember much else about the courses. The most challenging courses are the ones that show me what my body is capable of and remind me that as long as I stay focused and keep moving forward, I can eventually accomplish anything I set my mind to. Tough courses also remind me that it’s best to face challenges head on, no matter how daunting they may seem and they help to remind me of importance of being flexible and willing to make the necessary adjustments when conditions change. The most challenging races are also what I look back on when new challenges arise and I need to rely on my previous experiences to determine the best way to handle them.
I try to carry this same mindset over to the rest of my life as well – the world is constantly changing and throwing new challenges our way and while some days life may seem like a cakewalk, there are plenty of other days where we feel like we’re being pushed to our absolute limits. Having the confidence to know that we can eventually emerge from any tough situation successfully if we set our minds to it, remembering to stay focused on our goals but also being flexible enough to pivot when we need to and drawing on the lessons we learned in the past are all traits that bring long term success in our careers and personal lives as well.
With my current schedule and list of upcoming races, I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to do Mayor’s Half Marathon again, but whenever the opportunity presents itself, I will definitely jump at the chance.