Take Off To the Great White North – Our Cruise to Run Alaska Vacation

All week long, I was awed with view after breathtaking view, just like this one of the glacier at Tracy Arm, near Juneau.

What an amazing adventure –  in a nutshell, Laura and I flew the length of North America, raced in Seattle, boarded a ship, disembarked at various ports to run in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, Alaska, and ultimately in Victoria, British Colombia.  Here’s how it all went down.  I apologize in advance for the longest blog post of all time.

Ketchikan, Alaska

The first race of The Cruise to Run took place in the quaint little Alaskan town of Ketchikan.

The Sapphire Princess docked on Tuesday morning and we disembarked.  Our little group of about 75 runners, including our resident celebs, Bart Yasso and Sarah Reinertsen, gathered on the docks before walking what our organizer, Jerry Friesen, had told us would be about 400 meters to the starting line.  When that walk turned out to be a solid mile, Bart ribbed Jerry mercilessly for the duration of the cruise.  Any time someone asked about a distance, Bart would joke, ‘It’s about a 400 meter walk’ and everybody would laugh.  I felt a little bad for Jerry – this is exactly the kind of thing that happens to me on a regular basis.  But he seemed okay with the ribbing so I laughed along.

After our 400 meter walk for a mile, Jerry and his wife, our co-host, Jody, assembled us at our little starting line while their local contact, a lady who I assume is a prominent member of the Ketchikan Running Club, gave us the rundown on the course.  While she spoke, I furtively glanced around and sized up the competition.  Although this crowd clearly loved running, hence the running cruise, I didn’t spot any obvious Jordan Kinley’s , Paul Mainwaring’s, or Jay Holder’s in the bunch.  In fact, I started entertaining notions of possibly winning the scheduled 5-mile race, although I did eye a couple of guys that looked to be my age or younger, and pretty fit.  Everyone else looked to be significantly older and/or something other than ‘elite’.  I believed I had a legitimate shot at winning this thing.

But I also wanted to make sure I enjoyed the incredible Alaskan scenery along the course.  I have a bad habit of missing beautiful landmarks in races because I’m such a competitive jerk that I get all focused on my watch, my pace, my competition, etc., until I run right by all the local beauty without even noticing it.

So surrounded by the beautiful, pristine Alaskan landscape, I made a mental note to make sure and take it all in during the race.  When the local lady told us about the bald eagle’s nest along the course, I listened carefully to her description of it’s locale so I could check it out along the way.  Nevertheless, I still wanted to win so after everyone finished giving us instructions and the race finally started, I immediately darted into the lead, and I led for longer than I have in any race since college.  About half a mile.  Then one of the guys that I had marked as a potential winner joined me up front.

I asked him, ‘What kind of time are you planning on running?’

“I don’t know.  I’ve never raced a 5-miler.” (Apparently, Canada took that whole metric system conversion thing more seriously than we did.)

“What races have  you run?  Like, what’s your 5K PR?”

“Oh, my PR was like 15 years ago.”

Come on dude, I just want to know if I should try and stay with you or back off.  I was not deterred – my line of questioning continued even though the fact that I was becoming winded and he wasn’t basically answered my question.

“So what kind of 5k time have you run recently?”

And finally a definitive answer, “Oh, I ran like 18-flat recently”.  Shit, there went my win.  I backed off.

I settled into a relatively comfortable 5-mile race pace and I started enjoying the landscape as the other guy (who I later learned was Jason Dunham, a Canadian high school teacher, track coach, and super-nice guy) sailed away into the proverbial sunset.  We were running on the coast and the backdrop of mountains surrounding the harbor was downright breathtaking.  I spotted the eagle’s nest, albeit sans eagles.  I checked out the apparently famous totem polls along the course.  And all the while, I held onto second place.

I actually paid attention to these totem poles along the course.

Then with less than a mile to go, some shirtless kid passed me.  He surged by me pretty definitively but I locked on in hopes of out kicking him later.  The leader was well out of sight at this point but I really had my heart set on at least second place.

As we neared the homestretch, I inched closer and closer to the kid.  He seemed to be fading a bit and I felt fine so I was pretty confident I could take him.  But I wasn’t sure where the turn-in to our little parking lot was and I knew that once we made the turn, there was only 20 or 30 meters to the finish.  I’d need to be directly behind him before the turn so I could kick by in the last few meters.

Then, right at the turn-in, the kid went straight.  He was a bandit, or as Peter Asciutto of Albemarle’s Vac & Dash so affectionately refers to non-paying racers, a ‘weasel’.  But hey, if nothing else, he had kept me honest – I was on cruise control before he passed me but afterwards I pressed the pace.  I turned in and finished second.

Chasing a bandit or weasel in Ketchikan...

The Ketchikan harbor complete with mountain backdrop

Bart Yasso in the Ketchikan race. I punched him for making me do all those 800 meter repeats over the last few years.

Me with the Ketchikan 5-mile winner, Jason Dunham. I'm not very good at winning but apparently I'm pretty good at picking out who will.

While we didn't see any eagles during the race, later in the day this bald guy swooped down directly in front of us.

While many of you might remember Sarah Reinertsen from the Kona Ironman Triathlon, I'm guessing that more of you will remember her from The Amazing Race.

Juneau

I was looking forward to this one as it was purported to be a nice, easy run, and god knows, I needed a nice, easy run after a hard, hilly 10K on Sunday and a hard, fast 5-mile race on Tuesday.

So on Wednesday, we disembarked and met Jerry’s Juneau contact, Tristan, who was clearly a friendly, affable guy who had taken time out of a normal-business-hours Wednesday to lead us along one of Juneau’s beautiful trails.  Tristan, with considerable charm, met us and offered his car as a bag-check station before kindly leading us on our run.

But I should have known something was afoot.  Because while a super-nice guy (I was noticing a trend – it seemed like everyone from the upper Northwest, Alaska and Canada, seemed super-nice), Tristan also turned out to be the king of understatement, the grandest anti-hyperbole runner of all time.  In retrospect, I should have been tipped off by the name of our course, ‘The Perseverance Trail’ but in my desperate desire for an easy jog, I missed all the warning signs.

Tristan told us that we’d need to head up a ‘little’ staircase which led to our trail.  Well, the little staircase turned out to be pretty steep.  Like Statue of Liberty steep.  And missing stairs here and there.  While jogging up, and up, and up, and stretching to leap gaps where stairs should have been, I became a little concerned for several of the other runners – at least one of which was 75-years-old, and another, while a very accomplished athlete, only had one leg.  Everyone seemed to be making pretty good progress when Tristan made it to the top and suddenly announced, ‘Oops.  Wrong staircase.’

Okay, I was a little upset, but not overly so.  It wasn’t the end of the world.  So we had to go back down and find the other staircase, not that big of a deal.  But then Tristan found what he deemed to be a better route, a little trail up through the woods.   He announced that instead of going all the way back down to search for the other staircase, we’d just take this little trail up.

While I had been a little concerned before, once we started up this trail, I became downright terrified for some in our party.  I was struggling up what turned out to be a very steep, very slippery, gravel/dirt/mud path.  The climb was considerable – I was having difficulty keeping my balance.  Did I mention I was one of the younger people in this crowd?  Did I mention that Sarah Reinertsen has a prosthetic leg, one that I’m pretty sure isn’t designed for a hash run up a slippery, muddy mountain?

Tristan got to the top, then a couple of the ‘younger’ guys and I did too.  Another guy and I found as close to firm footing near the top as we could and started reaching down to help pull our comrades up.  Eventually, miraculously, every one made it to the top of this hill without injury.  We were nearly ready to start our ‘easy’ run up Perseverance Trail.

So forgive me if I was a little less than trusting when Tristan then told us, ‘Okay, so we just head up the road, up this little hill, and it will lead us to the trail’.  When we came out of the woods and made our way onto the road, I encountered a hill and said in my best oh-so-very-laced-with-sarcasm voice, ‘Ah, this must be the little hill’ to which Tristan responded, ‘Yeah, it’s not as bad as it looks’:

The little, not-as-bad-as-it-looks, hill.

Please believe me when I tell you, this hill was every bit as bad as it looked.  Worse.  Because once you got to the top of what you can see in this photo, it switchbacked up even farther.  So much for my easy run.  And for some dumb reason, pride I guess, I was determined to stay with Tristan.

So Tristan, Jason (the Ketchikan 5-mile winner), Rob (a Canadian runner around my age and skill level), and I wound our way up the hill and finally onto the Perseverance Trail.  And soon I learned why it was named the Perseverance Trail.  Up, up, up we went.  After another mile or so, Rob and I wisely let Tristan and Jason, both younger guys, and, coincidentally, track coaches, go their merry way.  And my easy run became a mountain climb.  Here’s the elevation chart:

4 miles straight up...

The 4 miles up were tough.  The 4 miles down were pleasant.  I enjoyed the awe-inspiring scenic beauty, and I enjoyed it much more on the way down.  I even caught my breath enough to the point that Rob and I were able to have a nice, enjoyable chat.  It turns out he’s a low 3:20’s marathoner and has run Boston before.

Joan, a girl trailing a couple of minutes behind Rob and I, encountered a bear on the trail.  When putting the timeline together afterward, Rob and I determined that we must have just missed the bear.  Moments after we passed Joan on our way back down, the bear walked onto the path, thus preventing Joan from heading farther up the trail.  She snapped a pic – I’ll try and track down a copy and post it here.  The bear caused quite a commotion when it blocked the only way down the trail for many in our party.  At some point,  it moseyed back into the woods and they were able to finish their run.

Eventually, everyone made it back down.  Tristan made up for his incredible understatements by providing sports drinks and snacks galore and turning on the charm and friendliness.  I didn’t punch him or anything.  I was too tired and he really was a gracious host when not leading us up treacherous terrain.

Laura takes a break from her Juneau mountain climb to get a snapshot of the scenery.

Tristan, super-nice guy and the king of understatement, puts on the charm.

Laura and friends come down the not-as-bad-as-it-looks hill.

Skagway

On our way to our next port, things got really interesting.  The captain announced over the intercom that a whale was attached to our bow.  I’ll leave this story up to the real journalists (subsequently, our cruise line seems to have been found free of any wrongdoing, at least this time) – I’ll stick to writing about running.

In Skagway, we ran to another trail, one that led to the grave of a famous Alaskan outlaw, Soapy Smith,  apparently the Billy the Kid of Alaska.

This was a nice pleasant run.  I finally relaxed and enjoyed the Alaskan countryside.  Laura and I stopped to get a few pics:

I finally slowed down enough to enjoy the scenery in Skagway, Alaska.

The week in Alaska was like living in a postcard. Laura snapped this shot in Skagway.

Nothing eventful occurred on this run – just a relaxing jog through the Alaskan countryside.  Everybody soaked up the unbelievable scenery.

Victoria, British Columbia

Saturday night, our ship arrived in Victoria, British Columbia.  There we were met by Rob Reid, who apparently was a 2:12ish marathoner in his day and a 4-time winner of the Calgary marathon in the early 80’s, an incredibly nice (the trend continued) and humble guy who organized a little race for us. The plan was to run to the site of the Terri Fox memorial.  Terri was an inspirational Canadian who contracted cancer, had a leg amputated, then ran across the country to raise money for cancer research.  He ran over a marathon a day for something like 140 days before succumbing to the disease.   I overheard some of the Canadian runners say, ‘Canada doesn’t have a lot of national heroes but Terri’s one of them’.

This was a prediction race.  The winner wouldn’t be the first finisher but rather the person that most closely estimated their finish time.  On Monday, at our first meet and greet on the boat, we had all written down our predicted time for the 5K race which Jerry and Jody assured us was ‘flat as a pancake’.  I wrote down 19:49.

Rob and some local runners led us to a little bike trail along the coast.  We were not allowed to look at our watches and Bart collected nearly everyone’s time pieces.   But not ours – Laura and I convinced Jerry to let us keep ours on us.  One of the coolest things about the Garmin GPS watch is being able to upload maps of new places.  No way I was giving up my one race on non-American soil!  We promised not to peek so Bart and Jerry were cool with letting us carry ours.

The race started and I stuffed my watch in my pocket – it beat my leg mercilessly with every stride, so I took it out and just carried it in my hand, watch face inward to my palm.  I tried to stay with Jason which was stupid since he’s an 18-flattish 5Ker and I’m (usually) a barely-sub-20ish 5ker.  I ran out of breath quickly and backed off.  A local, older guy easily passed me and shortly thereafter, so did Rob (friend-from-the-Juneau-run Rob, not host-and-former-Calgary-marathon-winner Rob).  He asked me, ‘What was your prediction?’ and I told him so he said, ‘Take off!’  I couldn’t.  Maybe I was feeling the effects of cruise ship gluttony.  Maybe I went out too fast.  Maybe the 3 races in 1 week had taken their toll.  Maybe I just suck.  Whatever the case, 19:49 was not happening and I told Rob it wasn’t happening.  He cruised on past.

I finished in some horrifically slow time, 21:30sh.  But I didn’t mind – once again, the views along the course were breathtaking and it felt like a holy running shrine at the finish line at the foot of the Terri Fox memorial.  Laura and I had this picture taken with Bart and Sarah:

Profoundly inspirational to have our picture taken at the Terri Fox Memorial with Sarah. Bart was busy encouraging the runners that were still finishing.

Afterwards, we took a little cool down run over to Rob’s store, FrontRunners, an awesome running store, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.  I joked with Jordan yesterday that I had to travel all the way across the continent to find a store that carried most of his products.

Rob hooked us up.  There was a spread of food, including sushi and all manner of snack items.  But, of course, what made me happy was the keg of locally-brewed beer.  The keg lady and I entered into an unhealthy, enabling relationship.  She wanted the keg emptied by the end of the evening and I wanted to oblige her.  I stood close by all night and she made sure to hand me another shot-glass sized cup every time mine neared empty.  At one point, she said, ‘Hey, go buy one of those big running bottles and I’ll fill it up for you’.  I laughed and she said, ‘I’m serious’.  I almost did but I didn’t feel like lugging a water bottle back to the ship.

The night ended with our little awards ceremony.  Some guy nailed his predicted 5K time – he finished within 3 seconds of his guess.  Rob inducted Bart into the FrontRunners’ Walk of Fame – a really cool little feature of the store that honored various runners.  It was a great way to finish our cruise.

Rob inducts Bart into the Walk of Fame with a really sweet granite plaque.

Rob, in my mind, definitely won the MVP award for Best Local Running Host.

So that’s it, my unabridged (sorry – thanks for bearing with me) summary of our Cruise to Run Alaska experience.  It was a phenomenal, once-in-a- lifetime experience that I will never forget.

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One Response to “Take Off To the Great White North – Our Cruise to Run Alaska Vacation”

  1. JSK Says:

    great post. i liked the pics, especially the one of you in the Queens jacket. also, i’m glad you got to see some of my products in store even if it was up in canada. it sounds like an amazing trip.

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