Klondike night runners tread a 'surreal' course

Race participants are kept in the dark for the first half of the event

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2003

The sky is dark, the air crisp.

All you can see is what the starlight reveals - if there are any stars visible through the clouds in the mountains above Skagway. All you can hear is your shoes hitting pavement, your run-quickened respiration, the wind through the scrub trees and water tumbling down rocky brooks.

Then a pair of headlights approaches, getting closer and closer until the car tops a rise and blinds you with a blast of halogen rays. But you don't mind, because the stillness, loneliness and tedium are broken by the encouraging cheers of your teammates that emanate from the passing vehicle.

It's a scene repeated over and over every year during the nighttime legs of the Klondike Trail of '98 International Road Relay. The 21st annual 10-stage, 110-mile race started last Friday in Skagway and ended at midday Saturday on the banks of the Yukon River in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. One-hundred twenty-one teams completed the event, which benefited from some of the best weather conditions in race history.

One of the many aspects that sets the Klondike Road Relay apart from other races is night running. Teams start at staggered times out of Skagway, but every team goes through six to eight hours of darkness over the first six legs - over the course's most desolate stretches. For most teams, daylight starts to filter across the sky as they reach Carcross, Yukon Territory.

Night-leg runners are required to wear reflectors, and race organizers encourage teams to drive alongside their runner during the hours of darkness. But there are still times - particularly around checkpoints - when the support vehicles must go ahead or stay behind - leaving runners alone in the darkness.

First-time Klondike runner Judy Ormond, who is from Milwaukee but was part of the Juneau-based Team Survivor Perseverance of cancer survivors and their supporters, was visiting Alaska for the first time when she came up for the race.

That led to some wild thoughts when she was running Leg 4 and the support vehicle had to go ahead.

"I kept imagining bears," Ormond said. "There were times when it was pitch-black, when I was all alone, and then the headlights of a car coming down the road would temporarily make me feel less alone.

"I loved listening to the waterfalls (and other sounds). It was very magical."

Many nighttime runners use headlamps to keep on the right track and avoid potholes.

"My headlamp helped a lot," said Juneau's Jim Ustasiewski, who ran the second leg for A Mighty Wind. "The slightest dent in the pavement could send you tumbling."

Bethany Bereman of Juneau said a headlamp - and any other light - creates a capsule focused on the white fog line painted on the road - with no sense of what lies all around.

"It was like this surreal experience," said Bereman, who ran Leg 3 for the Xtratufs. "You're just following the white glowing line, and you feel like you're floating."

Adding to the surreal atmosphere, the race course - the South Klondike Highway - is lined with road signs and snowplow guides that create a wild display of reflected light when hit by headlights.

Opinions vary among top runners about whether or not running in the dark is a good thing. For some, it makes it difficult to mete out their energy.

"I was thinking, this is the last time I'm doing a night run," Lady GUDivas first-leg runner Dawn Walsh said after her run. "It's hard at night for me to get a focus on the hills."

Walsh said her team did a good job of reporting back to her about the course topography.

Other runners said they appreciate being "in the dark" about what lies ahead.

"I like the fact that it's in the dark because you can't see the hills and let that demoralize you," said Juneau's George Johnson, who ran Leg 6 for Darwin's Tribe. "It allowed me to get in a zone and keep running."

Day or night, most runners said they're glad to run any leg to be a part of the unique race and enjoy the team camaraderie.

"This is rad - it's the coolest race I've ever had the chance to be a part of," said Juneau's Grace Danborn, who raced the dawn into Carcross on Leg 6 for The Kenyan National Team. "I love this leg because I started at night and watched it melt to daylight."

"There's no such thing as a bum leg in this race. Each leg is better than the last. ... I spent half my time thinking about how glad I was to be alive."

A race story and limited results ran in Sunday's Empire. Expanded results will be published next week.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.




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