Somewhere, in the tumultuous hills of adolescence and into the straight stretches of a middle-age adult, I lost my belief in heroes and all they represent. And then, in one 14-hour period along a highway in Canada, they came to life again. Some 42-odd teams of them, 10 members strong, boarding boats and planes and cars out of Juneau and heading for the 110-mile Klondike International Trail of '98 Road Relay to become part of over 135 teams and 1,250 runners.
Legs 1, 2 and 3
My "To P Or Not To P" teammate Zane Clark paces behind the window of the Skagway Parks Service office, waiting to start the first 8.80-mile leg. Teams began their quest at various times beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, based on their predicted race time.
At 11:30 p.m., Clark looks down at the wristband he wears in memory of his son and adjusts his watch. A plume of train engine smoke and an accompanying whistle send him out into the night. Our support troop, a van and a car, slowly follow behind, past jewelry stores and bar-revelers, as the cheers from starting-line fans echo in the distance.
Leg two will cover 5.6 miles into White Pass. Our runner, Paul DeSloover, makes sure I know conversions: 1 meter = 3.28 feet, 1 kilometer = 0.62 miles, 1 mile = 1.61 kilometers, 1 liter = 0.27 US gallons, and 1 Canadian beer = 2 US beers. A lot of extra training would be involved to finish the 110-mile long race.
"The science of beer is now thoroughly considered as a race supplement information tip," DeSloover said.
On the ferry to Skagway, race coordinator and Sport Yukon board member Marg White had encircled her arms in a diameter meant to be five yard square and said, "If you are running leg three you will see a lot of these potholes."
Enough said, I have leg three, commonly known as the "Princess leg" due to its lack of hills and slight decline over 7.8 miles into the U.S.-Canada border. One of my good friends from the team "Skinny Raven: Take No Prisoners" had warned me: "We always pass you guys on leg three. A 55-year old will pass you there."
I blast away at a 5:40 pace for mile one, than 5:30 for mile two before my body reminds me I haven't been training. Over the course of the run, Skinny Raven has to drop their runner to make up time and sends another to chase me down. This is the competitive side of the Klondike. At the finish chute I look to my side and watch as a blur goes past. He doesn't look 55; turns out he is leg-one runner Eric Strabel. I tell customs to check his passport but the customs agent wants his autograph.
Legs 4, 5 and 6
Leg four leaves Canada Customs on 13.10 miles of dark scenic fun, and begins to wind toward Tutshi Lake's leg five to the British Columbia-Yukon border. Then it will be 16 miles of leg six, with the golden glow of morning light.
“With four miles left I wanted to quit,” said runner Tristan Knutson-Lombardo of “Team8” from Douglas. “But my legs didn't.”
Knutson-Lombardo would speed along at 10.2 miles per hour, averaging 5:53 per mile over this morning’s stretch. At one point he stopped briefly to adjust his socks and shoes.
“This is only my third year running it,” “Team8” captain Blake Rider said. “But my mom ran it for years when I was growing up so I was always tagging along. Everything about the race is appealing. You really get that feeling of team camaraderie, everyone is so excited and the teams come from such a broad background. There are fast runners, slow runners, runners that run for causes or for companies… everyone is just having so much fun.”
Legs 7, 8 and 9
Carcross hosts the start of leg seven and 8.80 miles. The bright orange team vests of the JBDA ("Juneau Beer Drinking Association") team from Douglas now start to dull in normal sunlight, whereas car headlights had them as walking reflectors.
"My mother used to run the Kodiak Coat Company so we had a lot of fabric," Rosie Milligan commented. "She said since I was on a running team we should have vests... and matching head bands. So we won't get lost."
I watch our team namesakes (Dave Thomsen and Tom Thompson) tag and Tom checks his watch start and looks up the course. Not long afterward I drive a team car up to leg 10 to find my Skinny Ravens buddy and brag, but when I find him I notice their coach's son holding up a pace sign for him to target as he zips by. The sign says "5:05!" And he is smiling as he catches my eye. I return to team support mode.
Leg eight is one of the most feared 12.40-mile portions, largely due to the name Janeann Twelker from the "Slo Mo Sapiens" team. I watch as a young lad strains to keep his 20-yard lead in front of her, his face as it falls to 10, then five, and then he is roadkill. At some point on a Klondike Run, someone has been passed by Ms Twelker. One team, who wishes to remain nameless, purchased a trophy with a statuesque runner atop, bearing the inscription, "I beat Janeann on my leg" and a list of the proud deed-doers; the other side of the trophy bears the names of those who did not.
"The race is appealing because everyone wants to have a fitness goal. And it gives you a social group to train with and to celebrate with for your efforts at the end of the season," Twelker said. "We're a non-competitive team, we're in it for the fun and the personal goals. We lure runners into our team by promising them there will be good food at the banquet."
Leg nine, 11 miles, begins at Annie Lake Road. In and out among the runners, support vehicles accessorized like Mardi Gras floats carry whatever treats or encouragements are needed for each individual runner. "Lets Make Party" features a display of margarita glasses fastened on the roof and a large olive on the antennae. Team members use a white board to flash messages to their teammates and carry a life-size cutout of former teammate Jeff Herman, who was missing his first Klondike in five years.
"We don't pay attention to the overall time," LMP leg nine runner Laura Scholes said. "It's about the fun stuff and all that goes wrong... We had one runner who had to sub in for another runner after her leg, so she ran over 19 miles, then she had three margaritas and danced all night. I told her she was my hero."
Legs 10 and 11
Leg 10 begins at Carcross Corner and heads 12.10 miles to the Whitehorse finish line along the banks of the Yukon River. The pain of running is numbed by the sound of cheers and water rushing past as the runners dig for the finish.
"This is my eighteenth year," runner Paul Voelkers from "Slo Mo Sapiens" said. "I have to stop and add them up. It's fun, we make it a social thing and we do try hard."
Two Juneau teams watch intently as the race ends. "Fast Women...And We Run Too" will finally edge "Hard Women Are Good To Find" and get friendly bragging rights after being second for five straight years.
"We all run together all winter," FWAWRT captain Charity Platt said. "We celebrate all of our birthdays together, we do a lot more than running... we are sister teams. But it is nice to be the big sister this year. We got to experience something new this year at the Klondike."
The final runner to come in runs for cancer-cause team "Harriet's Harriers."
"It was good," Jodee Goldsberry said. "Our whole team sticks together and is supportive. The best part of the race is being with this group of girls."
I cross the lawn to head away to Leg 11 (the dance after the awards ceremony) and think back to Zane Clark's finish. After his first leg climb out of Skagway, he leaned against the concrete barriers for support. Teammates gathered round, race personnel offered water, and competitors gave praise.
"I am spent," Clark said. "I have nothing left. Well, maybe enough to give a cheer."
If ever I relished a handshake, it was the one he gave me at that moment. When a good man shakes your hand, you feel it into the soles of your running shoes. And if my name is ever mentioned in running circles, or in life, I hope I will be credited for being from Juneau... because that is where my heroes live..