When she talks about running, Merry Ellefson's voice swells with emotion.
On Saturday, the 43-year-old coach of the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country team became what is believed to be the first person to win each stage of the Klondike Trail of '98 International Road Relay when she captured the 10th leg. She completed the leg in 1 hour, 17 minutes and 57 seconds.
The race spans the 108-mile distance between Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
The road to Whitehorse, however, isn't just a physical challenge to Ellefson.
"It's transformed my life, not just the running but the people I've met," Ellefson said. "When I first came to Alaska I lived in Skagway and I wasn't running then. ... The road from Skagway to Whitehorse meant it was the most beautiful road in the world to me. It's a pilgrimage of sorts."
Ellefson started her pilgrimages in 1991.
Since then, she's taken time off to have children and heal injuries, but the race has never left her mind or body. Ellefson has won every leg she has ever competed in.
This race, however, means more to her than just another opportunity to finish first.
"We have this gorgeous race outside our backyard and there's this convergence - my God, there must have been 400 people from Juneau there," Ellefson said. "It's like you see these people and you realize how great our community is. Everybody is running that race - I'm getting chills right now - is working as hard as me and has a story."
Competing with the Lady GuDivas, a group of devoted runners in their mid-40s, Ellefson ran not only with her team but with spirits.
Earlier this year, she visited the place in Switzerland where her brother, Lyndon, lost his life in July 1998.
She also ran the 10th leg with thoughts of her friend Heather Lende from Haines, who broke her pelvis in April when a truck ran over her.
"It's just been a real powerful year for me," Ellefson said. "The most important thing for me about winning the leg is the fact that it's equally important that I worked hard but this is an amazing running community. In nine races, I've never run on the same team twice."
For Ellefson, the 10th leg of the Klondike represents the connection of physical exertion with personal discovery and solitude. The leg starts with seven miles on the Alaska Highway, battling traffic and crosswinds.
After those seven miles, the leg turns into Miles Canyon and a haven of solitude. For this 312-mile stretch, there is quiet.
"You take this cut and no one is allowed there, so you have three and a half miles by yourself," Ellefson said. "And I'm a ponderer. I think about things like Heather, like my brother. It just gave me, in the wisp of a little tailwind, that 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to finish the Klondike.'"
Ellefson said Lende's daughter, J.J., was the first to hug her when she crossed the finish line.
Her team also shaved 25 minutes off the women's masters record in the process.
When Ellefson talks about running, her passion for the sport and the lifestyle pours out of her.
She talked about how inspired she felt when she watched the JDHS junior varsity cross country team battle through nerves before a race and how proud she felt about the hard work she put in during training.
Ellefson talked about the spirituality of running and the closeness of Juneau's running community. She talked about everything at once, and it all seemed connected.
For Ellefson, running seems spiritual and physical, bridging two realms together.
"It's this end of summer party that starts when you get on the ferry, say good-bye to summer, you run, you dance, you party, you come home and you had this great adventure," Ellefson said. "You met this great group of people. You forget about everything for three days. So it's an end of the summer thing and a whole other set of stories you accumulate for the winter."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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