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WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory - Call it a Klondike conversion.
Somewhere under a veil of aching muscles and sleep deprivation, amid the moonscape of White Pass or the sweeping vistas of the Yukon interior, many first-time runners in last weekend's Klondike Trail of '98 International Road Relay got hooked on the unique race.
Runners like Trevor Joyce, a fourth-year biology major at the University of Alaska Southeast, who ran the final leg of the 10-stage, 110-mile overnight race from Skagway to Whitehorse as a late injury fill-in on the UAS Waddling Whales Part Deux squad.
Joyce's leg was 12 miles, and he had not run that far since 10th grade. But as he descended to the banks of the Yukon River on Saturday, he momentarily turned his attention away from the pavement, from his aches and pains and from his successful quest to not let anyone pass him, and toward the view spread out before his feet.
"Coming down that hill into Miles Canyon, you're hurting and you want it to be over, but you look up and it's like, 'Wow, this is a pretty neat place,'" Joyce said.
Scott McArt of Anchorage, who completed the final leg for repeat champion Take No Prisoners, was another first-time Klondike runner. After spending all night crammed in a moving RV with his teammates, he got an hour of sleep before rolling out onto the road to run 12 miles - but said he'd definitely be back again.
"The scenery is unbelievable," McArt said. "It's neat to be able to run in a place like this. It's an experience more than a race."
The Klondike Road Relay begins with a staggered start Friday night in Skagway and ends midday Saturday in Whitehorse. It's a fund-raiser for Sport Yukon, an amateur sports association in the territory.
The influx of new talent is a natural progression for the Klondike which, after 22 years, has started to show its age - though the aged still manage to show up the rest of the field.
Four of the top seven teams this year were masters (age 40-over) squads, several of whom ran faster than last year. The Lady GUDivas masters women's team from Juneau broke its own race division record by more than 16 minutes.
Juneau's Smokin' Ole Geezers masters open team won its division and took fourth place overall this year, but finished well off the times it posted in the late 1990s. "Geezer" Jim Douglas - veteran of 21 Klondikes - said the times may be slower, but the team's spirit remains strong.
"Twelve years ago, we won this thing," he said. "We were young, running tough. Now all we get is older and slower.
"But when we put it together, we don't remember that we're 50, 60 years old. It's kind of like rooting for the Cubs - hope springs eternal that the Geezers will pull it out and smoke it again."
The second-place Vestigial Appendages team from Juneau, though not a masters team, has been turning in solid results since its formation 11 years ago.
Through the years team members have come and gone but, Appendages or not, they stick with the race.
Team captain Kim Rivera said she counted 30 Appendages alumni on other teams, and the team welcomed two new runners this year - Susie Burger of Juneau and Molly Hogan of Anchorage.
Burger, who took second place among women on Leg 7 - trailing the first-place runner by just four seconds over 8.8 miles - said the race had "awesome energy" that helped compensate for a lack of sleep while she ran the 8.8-mile leg.
Jennifer Chirco of Juneau ran Leg 5 for Permanently Funny, an rookie-laden offshoot of the longtime Juneau-based Permanent Fun team. In her first Klondike she made new friends, experienced camaraderie on the road and acquired a taste for running at night.
"It's nice to not be able to see the gigantic hills in front of you (and) I enjoyed the solitude," she said.
Now that she's a race veteran, Chirco said the daunting distances and tough terrain should not dissuade others from giving the relay a try.
"Don't let it intimidate you," she said. "People are out here to have fun - and it's a good excuse to have fun."
Top team results from the Klondike can be found in the sports section on Page B7 or online here. Expanded results, including times for all Southeast teams, will run in the Empire sports section later this month.