To date I have run a full or half marathon in 44 of the 50 states. My most recent race was the Her Tern Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. My goals when I boarded the plane to Anchorage were simple. I wanted to complete the half marathon so I could check off Alaska and to see a real live moose (not a stuffed one or giant moose sculpture). In addition to enjoying a wonderful race, I discovered a fascinating place with a wealth of cultural sights, incredible scenery, and more natural phenomena than any place I have visited. Of all the race trips I have taken, this is one of the most memorable.
The Her Tern Half Marathon is an all female race with the exception of “One Lucky Guy” (selected from a handful of male applicants). This year’s winner was Bob who, with the encouragement of a female friend, started running 3 years ago to improve his health. He started out walking mostly but now is up to running 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and even two full marathons. Along the way, he has gotten others running too, including his sister and his daughter.
With only 530 women runners plus Bob, the One Lucky Guy, this was one of the smallest races I have done. For some people a small race isn’t very attractive but I enjoy races like this. Because it was small, there were things I would never see at a larger race. Every runner was given a reusable Baggu bag, coupons to use at Skinny Raven Sports (the race organizer) and the Her Tern boutique along with a race shirt. I saw lots of runners making good use of their coupons (because women love to shop!). The medal was a handmade finisher’s bracelet. At the end of the race, there were free race photos and free post-race massages. The post-race refreshments had women in mind: fruit; cookies and cupcakes (including gluten-free options); apple strudel; and for those of legal drinking age, mimosas in a rose garden served in a souvenir champagne glass. Although I never drink a beer after a race, I did enjoy my mimosa!
The thing that impressed me the most about this race is how supportive and encouraging it was for the women runners. It was apparent some of these women were running farther than they ever had. The course was out and back, mostly on the Chester Creek Trail. Along the course there were motivational messages written in chalk on the pavement. Since most runners have their eyes focused on the ground before them, we always saw the messages. A few of the water stops were manned by young men in tuxedos, cheering the women runners on.
The last half mile or so of the race was up “Happy Hill”. At that point in the race, a hill was the last thing I wanted to see. As I ran up it, I watched people coming down from the finish line and running alongside runners who were struggling, encouraging them to keep pushing. Over and over those cheerleaders came down to escort another runner up the hill. I have never seen that kind of support in any race. I have run several women-centric races including the Tinker Bell Half, Princess Half, and the Nike Women’s Half but the Her Tern Half Marathon was the best of them all.
Not only did I finish my Alaska race (Goal #1 – check!), along the race course there was a female moose with two calves. Two paramedics were standing nearby, keeping an eye on the mom in case she started moving towards the race course. I stopped to take a couple of photos of the moose but she was difficult to see among the bushes.
With the race out of the way, I could enjoy the other things Alaska has to offer visitors. I drove north to Eklutna, to see the spirit houses in the graveyard of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. Spirit houses are a unique burial custom that combines practices of both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dena’ina, an Athabascan people native to this area of Alaska for over 1,000 years. (Read more about the spirit houses in this NPR article.)
On my way back, I stopped at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, which provides information about Alaska’s 11 major cultural groups. There were interesting demonstrations of native art, dances and games as well as examples of the buildings and customs unique to each group. Docents representing each cultural group answered questions and explained the exhibits. I left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Native Alaskan cultures.
I was surprised to learn Anchorage is as far west as Hawaii and as far north as Helsinki, Finland. Because it is so far north, in the summer months there aren’t any hours where it is dark. They experience longer periods of civil twilight each day, where there is just enough sunlight that you don’t need artificial light to see outdoors. I didn’t need the headlights on my rental car at 11:00 PM. It didn’t get pitch black out while I was in Anchorage either. I understand now why black-out blinds were noted as one of the hotel room’s amenities.
Anchorage has beautiful parks as well as an 11-mile bike trail called the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. There were several places to rent bicycles for a ride along the trail. In the winter, the trail is used for cross-country skiing. I walked the trail where it passed through Kincaid Park. The park is over 1500 acres of birch, cottonwood, and spruce trees with an abundance of wildlife including moose, bears, fox, and many types of birds including eagles. Another trail took me to the north end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge where I walked down to the stoney beach. The views of Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains in the distance were breathtaking. I didn’t see any moose in Kincaid Park or at the wildlife refuge.
I visited Earthquake Park, a 134-acre park located in an area where an entire neighborhood slid into the sea during a 1964 earthquake, the worst to ever hit North America. The earthquake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasted over 4 minutes. There were fabulous views of the Knik Arm and Chugach Mountains. I saw plenty of mosquitos but no moose.
The final park I visited was Point Woronzof Park, located between the end of the runway at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the sea. There were sweeping views of Cook Inlet, a wide variety of birds, and the biggest treat of my whole trip – two moose, a young male and young female. These weren’t hiding in deep brush. I took several photos of them as airplanes flew overhead on their approach to the airport. (Goal #2 – check!) I had been told the best place to see a moose was at the airport. Those people were right.
I was disappointed I did not get to witness the Alaska bore tide in Turnagain Arm. A bore tide occurs in about 60 places around the world where a rush a seawater returns to a shallow and narrowing inlet from a broad bay. The one at Turnagain Arm can reach 6-10 feet tall and moves at speeds of 10-15 miles per hour. Sometimes surfers can be seen riding the tide in. I drove down to Beluga Point, a spot along the Seward Highway, where one can see beluga whales as well as watch the bore tide. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there at the right time to see the bore tide in action. I didn’t see any whales either.
Alaska is very different from any other place I have traveled on my Funatical Runner adventures. I will never forget finally seeing a moose but there was so much I didn’t get to see. I plan to visit Alaska again to watch the bore tide during one of the 4-5 days per month that it is the highest. I would love to see the beluga whales too. I want to see Denali’s peak from Anchorage or, better yet, visit the Denali National Park. If I go at the right time, I might even be able to see the Aurora Borealis (viewable from late August to early April). I can’t wait to go back!
I didn’t have time to visit Anchorage’s Gravity Hill. This isn’t really a natural phenomenon (more of an optical illusion) but it would be fun to see.