News flash: vacations are not just about relaxing anymore. More travelers than ever are packing running shoes along with flip-flops or hiking boots in search of destination-themed events, and Alaska is no exception. With rosters swelling with out-of-town participants, Alaska's running clubs are taking note and responding to a call for unique terrain, themes, and even distances as fitness enthusiasts take to the streets and trails.
Alaskans love to stay fit, whether running remote trails or walking local neighborhoods, so the opportunity to share race routes with travelers provides an important link in the valuable resident-tourist relationship.
Destination races, particularly marathons and half-marathons, are a niche market for travel that has taken participants around the world. From desert to rainforest, race organizers recognize the economic and intrinsic impact their races have on runners and the communities serving them, leading to an almost festival-like atmosphere that starts well before race day and continues after the final runner has crossed the finish line.
In Alaska, where just about every occasion is an excuse to throw a party, destination races usually mean a bit of remote and rugged coupled with celebration for a safe transit over the river and through the woods. Try these 6 races of varying lengths and terrain styles, even planning your vacation around the cities in which they begin. It's a unique way to say you visited Alaska!
Anchorage Mayor's Marathon and Half-Marathon (June). Held around the time of summer solstice, the Mayor's Marathon is one of the state's oldest running events, bringing thousands to Anchorage at the height of summer's light. Partially on pavement but also featuring a 7-mile stretch of rocky trail along the boundaries of Joint-Base Elmendorf Richardson, this is a good event for first-time Alaska distance racers. The mood is festive, the scenery, spectacular, and who knows - you might see a moose or bear as you pace through the forest.
The event also features a half-marathon, team-half, 5k, and kids mile. Dirt, rocks, and pavement. Sanctioned Boston Qualifying event.
Anchorage RunFest (August). Formerly known as the Big Wild Life Runs as a nod to Anchorage's access to both urban and rural settings, RunFest has morphed into a huge weekend of running-themed fun in Alaska's largest city. Now sporting a 49k race, mile race, marathon, half-marathon, 5k, and highly-attended kids 2k, RunFest is the perfect destination event for the entire family. Kids will love the carnival after their race on Saturday, and marathon runners will appreciate a course that stretches throughout the city.
Pavement with slight deviations to soft tread pathways. Sanctioned Boston Qualifying event.
Equinox Marathon, Relay, and Ultra-Marathon (September). Looking for something truly hardcore? Fly north to Fairbanks in September and run the Equinox, where mettle will be tested to the limit. Well-known among trail racers as one tough race, the Equinox has been run in snow, rain, and brilliant fall sunshine in Interior Alaska and organizers pride themselves on never the same weather twice. The course follows dirt roads and trails from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to Ester Dome at elevation 2,323, then back to the campus in a breath-taking (literally) slog to the finish.
Feeling particularly fit? The Ultra-Marathon is 50k of mountain trails before the finish and is not for the faint of heart. Run since 1963, the Equinox is also a great race to watch, especially as mud-scattered participants stagger to the finish line with views of the Tanana Valley, covered in gold for fall. This race is NOT a Boston-Qualifying contest.
Lost Lake Run (August). Looking for true Alaskan trail running? The Lost Lake Run is not for novices and sells out registration spots every year. Set on a popular trail near the scenic Kenai Peninsula community of Seward, Lost Lake takes runners through mud, brush, narrow tread along a 15.75-mile course that ends at a crystal clear mountain lake at 2,100 feet in elevation. A benefit for Cystic Fibrosis research, the contest attracts teams and individuals giving their all for the sake of "catching one's breath." Runners should definitely plan for uneven terrain, difficult climbs, and the real possibility of bears, moose, and other creatures along the way.
Totem to Totem Half-Marathon (May). Traversing the roadways of Ketchikan and the beautiful Tongass Narrows, this half-marathon is a great way to explore "Alaska's First City" with your best foot forward. Beginning at Totem Bight State Historical Park and ending at Rotary Beach Park near Saxman Village, a community known for its striking totems, this contest is as much about history as it is running. Perfect for early-season travelers, this run often matches up with ferry schedules and airline arrivals.
Cruisers will enjoy watching participants as well, and applause is always appreciated.
Frank Maier Marathon and Douglas Half-Marathon (July). Start your race along the historic shoreline of Sandy Beach Park on Douglas Island, and end in the town of Juneau, taking in views of narrow Gastineau Channel and Mendenhall Glacier along the way. The sometimes-hilly highway is not overwhelming, however, and neither are temperatures in this rainforest climate, making this race a great option for those wanting to expand their distance running horizons. This is a Boston Marathon Qualifying event.