Running with porcupines, snow and great athletes

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

There is something poetic about watching a good runner stride. Most runners change their gaits to match terrain, but good runners change the paths they are on to suit their stride. Each step remains seemingly effortless, as rocks, dips, hills, puddles, flora and fauna are traversed with the same ease and grace as a well-practiced orchestra. It's these same runners who seem to float an inch above the surface.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

My "runner friend" and I caught the first snow of the year on Perseverance Trail. We began with a slow, tentative warm up along the Flume Trail, well aware of the wet, wood-planked path through the trees.

He is a deceptive runner with a self-proclaimed non-runners build: short and powerfully built. Yet, in my opinion, his heart is the size of any Southeast Alaska mountain and his finely-tuned focus has helped him train for and complete multiple marathons.

Halfway up the trail we found ourselves among a series of jumbled tracks. As the snow deepened and the tracks lessened, he and I began pulling our knees higher and shortening our strides. But upon our retreat, we stumbled upon a new track. One that was made by a porcupine sauntering down the trail. His gait had left a mile of easy footing. Perhaps if he were just a pound or two heavier the width of his track would be ideal. Regardless, any motivation to keep going in snowy conditions is welcome.

Running is a world and runners a community of encouragement. Two runners passing me, Merry Ellefson and Bob Marshall, was my motivation to continue on a recent trail run. I learned the JDHS cross country team held honors (selected by coaches and peers) at an annual dinner. Some high schools decide to not compliment greatness, but choose instead to instill the notion that all on the team are valuable. The truth is, while team is important, there will always be some who stand out and deserve recognition. The top award given at the Bears' feed, the Lyndon Ellefson Spirit Award, named for the youth who died doing what he loved, went to four worthy runners: Zack Bursell, Jesse Miller, Leah Francis and Melissa Skan. These runners where chosen because they embody teamwork and show commitment to the sport. They show spirit.

Weeks ago I strapped a camera, as best I could, to my running attire and attempted to capture the essence and spirit of great runners while shooting an article on Geoff Roes by Outdoors editor Abby Lowell. Roes, one of the best ultrarunners in the world, could challenge for an Olympic marathon, if he chose to run such a pitiful distance, and sees his dream race of 100 miles in the mountains surrounding Juneau. They chose Perseverance, or seemingly it chose them, as their strides became comfortable, composed and in sync with the environment.

On any given Sunday, I find solace in the weekly gathering of multi-denominational, lycra-clad, shoe-branded preachers meeting to reaffirm their faith in the path to a healthy mental and physical lifestyle. No other soul is up at this hour, just our congregation of waffle-treaded enthusiasts. After three minutes of pavement I am shown a new path to the Flume Trail and am led up a slow climb to familiar trails in the Perseverance area. Each step is different, just as each Sunday sermon is different. Today we hear from the "book" of John Bursell, from the words of Tracy Rivera, the wisdom of Glenn Frick, the wit of Mr. Thibodeau and the laughter of Mr. and Mrs. Moritz. The group is peppered with great runners. Bursell is considered one of the best over-40 runners in the state and finished third in a recent New Zealand marathon. Frick has won his age group (70 and up) at a number of marathons and was going to run the entire Klondike Road Relay by himself but pulled out due to an injury caused by some equally incredible athletic endeavor. I don't know enough about biking or triathlons, but Rivera's name keeps appearing at the top of such results.

I'm an impostor here. I become a good runner when there is a fresh snow, about six to 12 inches, when I can jump and glide downhill as if floating on a cloud, when I can trudge slowly to the top of Perseverance Trail with the aid of a porcupine trailblazer and a friend with a mountain-sized heart.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at

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