The first one hundred yards of this race tell you all you really need to know. Standing in a field on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, runners look ahead from the starting line towards an imposing hill, looming in front of them like a wall. All but the strongest or most foolish of them realize that, for perhaps the first time in their running lives, they would be reduced to walking during the very first mile of a marathon. It’s a humbling moment, and it reveals a basic truth about the Equinox Marathon: a runner cannot impose his or her will on a race such as this; a runner can only do what the race will allow. If you’re the kind of runner who grins when you see the word “challenging” in a race course description, you’re gonna like this one.
For those of us in the “Lower 48,” Alaska is perhaps as much of a concept as it is a place. It’s a truly vast area – at 587,874 square miles, it is fully one third the size of the continuous United States, but it is populated by only about 670,000 people, which all together would not even constitute a city in the Lower 48.
The area that came to be known as Fairbanks is located roughly in the dead-center of the state. It had been already been occupied for thousands of years by native peoples when, in 1901, a E.T. Barnette steamed up the Tanana River with a 130-tons of goods. Gold was discovered the following year just 12 miles north of his camp. A boomtown quickly sprung up around Mr. Barnette, who became the first mayor of the town. Eventually, prospectors moved on to easier hunting grounds, and by 1920, Fairbanks’ population had shrunk to 1,000 people.
A few years later, the new railroads brought in big mining companies with more efficient excavation methods, and this second gold rush brought more lasting growth to the city. World War II also brought permanent military bases and new infrastructure. After oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Ocean in 1968, the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline brought another economic boom. In the 1990s, the city rebounded with a surge in the tourist trade and resurgent gold mining, and that economic surge is still being felt today. Today, some 30,000 people live there.
The Equinox is traditionally run in mid-September, which is a particularly good time to be in Fairbanks, since the weather is usually around 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Even so, it would not be unprecedented to have snow on race day. But it’s also the season for the aurora borealis, a natural phenomenon more commonly known as the northern lights, which fill the late summer Alaskan night with neon ribbons and curtains of red, green, and blue.
Fairbanks is defined by the 600-mile long Alaska Range, crowned by Mount McKinley, called Denali, meaning “the High One,” by the native Athabascan people and most Alaskans. At 20,320 feet — almost 4 miles high — McKinley is the tallest peak in North America, with a greater height from base to summit than even Mt. Everest. It is so massive that it actually generates its own weather patterns.
Fairbanks is a sprawling city, dominated by a modest downtown area, and by the University of Alaska campus. Local lodging is modest – mostly standard motel chains. The best bet is Billie’s Backpackers Hostel (www.AlaskaHostel.com; AKBillie@aol.com). Close-by to the University and the race start, Billie’s is a brightly colored house with dorm lodging, where you can borrow a bicycle, swap stories with Billie and the house guests, or walk up the street to a restaurant, an ice cream shop, or a local bookstore. It’s a steal, as long as you don’t mind sharing room with other travelers.
packet pick-up at a local restaurant features a very modest little expo, and a pasta dinner. When I ran it, the course elevation chart was printed on the long-sleeve technical shirt — an impressive sight.
The Equinox Marathon is easily on the list of the top ten toughest marathons in the United States. First run in 1963, the Equinox Marathon was originally popular with hikers, drawing over 1,000 trekkers in the late 1960s. Over the years, interest in hiking the course has waned, and today it is mostly a marathon for runners, who can only hope not to become hikers during the course of the race. The race begins at an elevation of 500 feet, but runners will climb up to 2,300 feet before they’re through, covering several major ascents and descents along the way. Runners are warned to add a half-hour to their flat-land marathon time.
The Equinox Marathon attracts a small field; there are usually no more than 350 people participating in the full marathon. On race morning, runenrs gather at the University of Alaska campus and begin the race with that short sprint to the UAF sledding and ski hill, and the first bit of walking. The course then settles down a little bit as runners follow a scenic loop around the university along heavily wooded running paths and ski trails, carpeted with fallen birch leaves. Runners continue past the university’s musk ox farm, where researchers study this unique arctic animal.
After emerging from the woods, runners begin their climb at mile 9. For the next 4 miles they scale 1,800 feet, but are finally rewarded – weather permitting – with spectacular views of Denali and the Alaskan Range.
The race continues along a difficult out-and-back route across hilltops and valleys to the turnaround at mile 14.9. On this stretch, runners must make their way along a rollercoaster dirt road, and then head up onto a narrow trail. Eventually, they find the turnaround, consisting of two volunteers manning a table. After retracing their steps back to the Dome, runners can grab some cookies and drinks from the aid station there before veering off the road and down The Chute, a short but precipitous quad-burning descent along a fire break. After that, it’s back into the woods. The final nine miles of the course is a trek through the forest, with some road running, as runners descend 1,200 feet on their way back to the UAF campus. But just as runners are lulled into a sense of complacency with the gentle trails along this final stretch, the Equinox marathon throws in one final, brutal challenge: a step hill to climb and descend in the final mile.
When I ran the race, the finish line consisted of a single roped-off chute set in a field, manned by a few volunteers, and surrounded by a dozen or so well-wishers. The reward was a small triangular patch, on which is embroidered “Equinox Marathon, 26 mi 385 yds, Running Club North.”
When I received it, it was as valuable to me as any finisher’s medal I’d earned.