JUNEAU, Alaska — Get a couple runners together in Juneau this time of year and you’ll likely hear one question: Are you running the Klondike?
The 110-mile Klondike Trail of ‘98 International Road Relay commemorates the 1898 Gold Rush stampede to the Yukon and is known for its challenging terrain, picturesque scenery and party atmosphere once all 10 stages are run. The race starts Friday in Skagway with the slower teams taking off first. It finishes along the Yukon River on Saturday in Whitehorse, Canada.
Competitors run all night. Stages range from a distance of about 6 miles to about 16 miles, with the first two climbing from sea level to about 3,300 feet before descending. Weather can range from “beautiful starlit nights with displays of northern lights to cloudy, foggy, rainy, and sometimes snowy conditions,” according to the race guide.
Team members take turns running different legs of the relay race. Teams that run the race instead of walking can have up to 10 members, one for each stage of the race.
As of last week, nearly 150 teams were scheduled to compete, though the number is subject to change. Most teams were either from Alaska or the Yukon, Kevin Patterson, a spokesman for Sport Yukon, said by email. A record 161 teams were registered for the 1998 race marking the centennial of the Klondike Gold Rush, according to Sport Yukon.
This will be Rob Haight’s eighth Klondike. The Juneau doctor and self-described chubby, “slow but steady slogger” said his brother talked him into joining a team in 2003. Haight, 45, said he’s run consistently every year since 2007 and has a goal of completing all legs.
His team, comprised of a core group of runners and a few new ones each year, isn’t competitive — “We hear, more than see, the fast guys, like the Skinny Ravens, shoot past us in the darkness,” he said by email, referring to another team. But he enjoys the camaraderie and sees the race as a good excuse to hang out with his brother, Glenn, a teammate who, despite living in the same town, he doesn’t get to see very often.
“Riding in the support vehicle through the night and into the wee hours of Saturday, boosting a comrade, getting ready for your own 2-odd hours of pain, and recovering thereafter, are equally memorable,” he said. “The time hanging with teammates and other teams’ mates in Whitehorse after the race is a hoot.”
Juneau P.E. teacher Kelly McCormick, 41, said of all the races she’s done the Klondike is most fun because of the friendships made with other runners. Her all-women’s team, the Twisted Blistered Sisters, was formed with the intent of bringing on new runners and exposing them to the race. After this year, she will have run each of the 10 legs. She said if she does the race again, it will probably be with a different group that has a different focus, like a co-ed team or a walking team.
McCormick said running at night has been the most unique part of the race. Seeing the sun rise coming into Carcross was a moving experience.
The Klondike stands out to Merry Ellefson for that sense of communing with nature, in spite of the final leg that can be noisy and chaotic. She said it’s something she searches for in other races she competes in.
“I think there’s nothing to compare to running leg 6 or leg 5 or leg 7 or wherever you are and watching the sun come up on the brilliance of the trees in the Yukon,” she said. “I think the whole spiritual component for me has always been really important in terms of connectivity.”
Ellefson, a Juneau cross-country coach, is sitting the Klondike out this year out to travel with her team to a different race. She ran her first Klondike in 1991 and has won each leg she’s ever run. One year, she even ran two separate legs of the race for her team.
That year, “there was a foot of snow on the ground. I remember my eyes freezing shut at whatever time it was, 1 in the morning, and my van (full of her support team) next to me cheering me along. So I have a lot of great memories of the Klondike,” she said, making clear that that last comment was made sincerely and not sarcastically.