Destination Running: Top 12 Races in Alaska
Do you have a race in America’s 49th state on your bucket list? Whether it’s been a long-time dream or a spontaneous decision of convenience while visiting Alaska for business or a special event, Alaska offers locals and visitors alike a hefty growing list of running race options for the short and sweet summer months. Born and raised in Alaska, I devised this race bucket list years ago, and have tweaked it over time with continued race experience and consultation of many runner friends (Why 12? Because a top 10 doesn’t cut it for my favorite state!)
- “Most Festive Mountain Sprint”: Mount Marathon – July 4th, 2017
Often referred to as the “Olympics of Alaska,” every 4th of July thousands of spectators line Sewards’ streets for what is considered to be the oldest mountain race in the United States. Don’t be fooled by the name – this race is not a classic marathon distance, but covers 3.1 miles (shortest route) with approximately 3,000 feet elevation gain on an out and back course that starts and finishes in downtown Seward, a charming fishing community 2 hours from Anchorage. With an average slope of 34 degrees and the steepest slope at 60 degrees, this race is not for the faint of heart. Racers create duct tape gaiters to protect from the scree and often emerge from the bottom mountain chute with bloodied battle wounds. Costumes are encouraged, spectators and racers camp out for the entire 4th of July weekend, and the after-party is notoriously rowdy in this otherwise sleepy coastal town. The race is so popular that there’s a lottery system and auction to get a spot. In recent years, drones can be seen buzzing overhead during the race and mountain running icons like Kilian Jornet, Emelie Forsberg, and Yngvild Kaspersen have competed with locals to bring the race into the spotlight in the international mountain running scene.
- “Best Historic Race”: Equinox Marathon- Sept. 16th, 2017
It’s difficult to sum up the Equinox in one short paragraph, so I recommend you check out the great book on this Alaska classic race published in 2016 (see link below) by athlete Matias Saari. The race takes place during the autumnal equinox in Fairbanks, Alaska, which usually boasts gorgeous fall colors but can also mean snow! This unique course combines wide and single track trail terrain with pavement and gravel and a strenuous climb over Ester Dome. What began as a “trailblazing” event in 1963, an age when marathons were very rare, has become a lively collection of history and culture of a small town in Alaska which eventually hosted the world’s largest marathon for 3 years in a row.
Excellent book on the history of the Equinox: http://equinoxmarathonbook.com/
- “Best Summer Solstice Celebration”: Mayor’s Marathon – June 17, 2017
This race event has been a summer solstice tradition for more than 40 years. The Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon & Half Marathon attracts locals and visitors alike as one of Alaska’s premier road races. (Technically the marathon course covers a few miles of trails, too). In addition, a 4-person marathon relay, Coastal 5k and Buddy Half Marathon are available. The marathon course starts in the Chugach Mountain foothills in east Anchorage, winds around the scenic Chester Creek trail and ends downtown at Delaney Park. It’s a certified ASATF Boston Qualifying event and is also popular with the Team in Training program (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society). Don’t miss the post-race party on the park strip downtown!
- “Locals Favorite”: Lost Lake –date TBD, typically end of August
A locals’ favorite, the Lost Lake Race covers a breathtaking 16 mile U.S. Forest Service trail a few hours’ drive from Anchorage. As a major fundraiser for Cystic Fibrosis, the race began in 1992 and is now so popular that it sells out in mere minutes. (I was hesitant to draw attention to this one for that very reason!) The trail begins at Primrose campground, heads up a lush forested trail to a rocky lake-dotted section, and covers a ridge-line with stunning views before dropping down near Bear Creek just outside of the town of Seward. The total elevation gain is about 2,350 feet. The event hosts a fun post-race BBQ and unique prizes like Alaska Airlines tickets.
- “Best Backcountry Distance Race”: Crow Pass – date TBD, (July 23 in 2016)
Crow Pass, a race put on by the University of Alaska Anchorage, is not for the beginner to distance trail running, and it’s expected that you trial the course before race day. The course is a point-to-point trail from Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center, which is estimated to be between 22.5-27 miles long, depending on who you talk to. This unsupported race on an unmarked trail features a number of challenges including tricky terrain, potential bear and bee encounters, weather unpredictability and a thigh to waist-deep glacial river crossing. Racers gain approximately 3,888 feet and run near stunning backcountry glaciers before dropping down into the valley portion of the trail. If the mandatory pre-race meeting doesn’t scare you away, you’ll be rewarded with a Snickers bar at the finish line and some serious bragging rights as you recover!
- “Most Scenic Ultra”: Kesugi Ridge – June 24, 2017
Kesugi Ridge has a special place in my heart as it was my first trail ultra-marathon and remains one of my favorite trails of all time in my home state. The race is small in number of participants but unforgettable in every aspect. Racers experience a near constant change in terrain, from challenging climbs, creek crossings, snow running (depending on the time of year), rock navigating, forested single track, mud running, slippery planks and bridges, running over and around giant boulders, and spectacular views of stunning lakes and the paralleling Denali Range on a clear day. This 30-mile course runs from Little Coal Creek to Byers Lake trailhead, with one checkpoint at the halfway mark. The race finish at the campground includes a post-race comradery you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, with a BBQ and bonfire at your side as you recover. Historically this race occurs in the fall, but 2017’s race will be put on in June by new race director Matias Saari. 2017’s event will feature a new 15-mile race option in addition to the full traverse.
- “Best Race Festival”: Anchorage RunFest – August 19-20, 2017
The Anchorage RunFest is a vibrant community event each August that attracts runners from all over the world and shines with a race distance for everyone! The variety of road races starts with the Kids 2k and Anchorage Mile on Saturday and features a 5k, half marathon, full marathon, and 49k on Sunday. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can complete the “Back 2 Back Challenge” by racing the mile on Saturday and another race on Sunday. The health and fitness pre-race expo is awesome and don’t miss a chance to check out the movie, pasta feed and Jeff Galloway clinic on race week!
- “Best Winter Ultra”: Susitna 100 and Little Su 50k – February 18, 2017
This unique winter race offers 50k and 100 mile races for cross-country skiiers, fat-tire bikers and runners alike. The trail path crosses frozen rivers, lakes and woodland trails and often experiences below-zero temperatures on race day. Racers should be prepared with good course awareness, footwear adequate for running on snow and ice, and survival gear as there are minimal checkpoints.
- “Best Quad Trasher”: Matanuska Peak Challenge – August 5th, 2017
This is my favorite “hurts so good” race for a killer elevation gain workout, but be prepared for the 9,100 feet of vertical gain and the triple mountain summit course. The race climbs up Lazy Mountain (not sure who came up with the name, but it’s not accurate!), descends the backside over to Matanuska Peak (a more technical climb which includes some loose rocks and boulders), and then returns via another trip up and down Lazy Mountain, for a 14 mile total race course. Another self-supported race with a mandatory gear checklist, the majority of racers power-hike the course, but race winners continue to stun the field with incredible running performances.
- “Best Race in Alaska’s Capital City”: Nifty 50 – August 12, 2017
You’ll find 10k, 25k, 50k options in this mostly-trail race near Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. Expect a good amount of climbing on each course (over 5,000 feet for the 50k course) over stunningly beautiful trails including Perseverance, Granite Creek and Mount Roberts Trails.
- “Best Unsupported Ultra”: Resurrection Pass – date TBD, (last year was August 12-13, 2016)
If you’re looking for some serious trail mileage, I recommend the Resurrection Pass race that typically occurs in mid-August. The two race distances run between Hope and Cooper Landing, Alaska. The trail is a National Recreation Trail maintained by the US Forest Service, and historically was a route used by early gold miners. The hardy handful(s) of people who compete in this race should be prepared for a self-supported experience in a low-trafficked but incredible trail in bear country. (Let’s be honest, what mountain race in Alaska is not in bear country?!) The route has changed slightly a few times since it began, and the course records have been shattered in the last few years by local running legends Holly Brooks and Matias Saari (50 miler) and Shawn McTaggert and Dugan Greenwell (100 miler).
- “Best Relay”: Klondike Road Relay – typically Labor Day weekend in September
No bucket list on Alaska racing is complete without mention of the famous Klondike. This race starts in Skagway, Alaska and ends in Whitehorse, Canada. Most finishers of the 175 km (~ 109 mile) race compete as 4-10 person teams. The route commemorates the crossing of White Pass to the Yukon by Gold Rush Stampeders over 100 years ago. This boisterous event features motorhomes wildly decorated (there’s inevitably one pulling a hot tub!), team costumes, and a fun post-race dance party in Whitehorse.
It was a tough job to narrow my list down to the top 12, as Alaska hosts a number of incredible running races. I hope that this list aids you in planning your next running destination trip! I’ve completed 6 of these races and plan to knock the rest off the list by 2018! Anyone want to join me?