The Equinox Bug hit me hard in 1985 when I moved from a small rural Yukon River village to the big city of Fairbanks. It was at running races that I met Corky Hebard, Stan Justice, Bob Murphy and several others who encouraged and inspired me to give the marathon a try. In the past 25 years I’ve participated about a dozen times and I must admit I enjoyed the ultra the most. For me it’s more a spiritual pilgrimage than a race…the awesome setting and transitional time of year; the camaraderie of runners regardless of ability or performance; several hundred participants starting in one chaotic bunch, panting and plodding up that steep sledding hill; catching your breath and finding a comfortable pace as you funnel into narrow forested trails. The Equinox has often been billed as one of the toughest marathons in North America. That may well be, yet regardless of the physical toughness of it, I think it’s got to be one of the most moving, inspirational marathons anywhere.
For me the Equinox is also one of the most humbling races I’ve run. I’ve made the mistake of going out too fast, only to have a sobering reckoning with reality at the base of Ester Dome. The steep downhills have also been tough on my ankles and knees. I love the uphill but the downhill really tears me up, so I typically take baby steps down. The power line along Gold Hill and on to the finish has always been a powerful time for me emotionally, especially with the ultra. I often move into an altered state, back and forth between bliss and pain. Most of all while running the Equinox, I’m filled with powerful memories of times with friends and family which always seems to pull me along through the tough parts like a bungee cord.
I suppose I’ve been training for the Equinox since I was four years old, though I didn’t realize it at the time. My mother had stories about me running barefoot as a young child in SE Texas in +100 degree heat for extended periods of time. She worried and took me to a child psychiatrist for an examination, fearful I was terribly deranged. As the story goes, the doctor returned me to my mother and said, “The boy likes to run. Let him run”. Bless his heart. The doctor was spot on. As a kid in school, I was easily distracted and couldn’t keep still. I loved sports but being quite small I was trampled. It soon became more clear that the thing I could do well, and really love was to run. It seemed the meditative, rhythmic pace and breathing calmed and comforted me. Running made me feel good about myself and the world. I found that running as part of a team made it all the more rewarding. And running the Equinox along with such a good-natured, extended family of runners–aided and cheered on by an even larger extended family of supporters–is about as good as it gets.
In the mid 80’s I was a very competitive runner but starting in 1987 I’ve been dealing with one major injury after another, unfortunately missing more Equinox Marathons than I’ve run. In the last 10 years I’ve felt blessed to be able to just enter the race, regardless of whether or not I’m able to finish it. Given the state of my knees, it’s not a sure thing if I’ll run another Equinox. But I’ve always realized, even as a little kid running barefoot in Texas, that running was a blissful, sacred thing and not to be taken for granted. This year I had another knee surgery the day before the Equinox. When I watched the seemingly endless stream of runners from the window by the bed I was so happy for them all, doing this incredible thing together on such a beautiful day.
In many places people run on busy roads but we’re really spoiled here in Fairbanks with such an incredible variety of trail systems on which to run, ski, bike, walk or snowshoe. Fairbanks also has a huge number of runners (and bikers, skiers, etc) for a small city its size. Most people are able to train on the Equinox course which is great. We learn our challenging places, our dark places, where we shine and where we hurt bad. And we make peace with the hills, knowing we play by their rules.
I’ve run several marathons and ultras in Hawai’i and unfortunately most are not run on terrain anywhere as diverse or pristine as the Equinox. Two exceptions are the Hilo-Volcano Ultra, starting at sea level and climbing to 4,200’ elevation, and the Volcano Wilderness Marathon which, like the Equinox, is largely off-road and quite diverse in terrain. But honestly, there’s something very special about the Equinox. Whether one’s an elite marathoner or a casual jogger/hiker, it’s an event which brings out the best in people regardless of how fast or far they go.
My advice to runners is pretty simple. As my old mentor Richard Frazier use to say: “Start off slow, then ease way back”. It’s easy to start too fast, then realize the tank’s half empty before the big climb begins. There’s more than enough time to make up at the end. Unfortunately, I’m very familiar with over training and running on legs that haven’t fully recovered, which makes it a bit of a slog. I guess I’d say that for me training begins the day after Equinox and continues to the start of the next race. Lots of hill work, cross training and hiking have helped me. And yoga has been a wonderful thing to incorporate… my wife, Susanne points out that I could always do much more of that.
As time passes I’m all the more in awe of the record times that individuals have set in this race. Susan Faulkner’s 3:18 and Stan Justice’s 2:41 are both phenomenal. Hot shot relay teams are hard pressed to beat these record times. And all the runners right on their heels shows what a historically talented community of runners we have right here in Fairbanks. It’s true in Fairbanks and it’s true almost anywhere you go: if you want to connect with engaged, happy, talented people, show up at a running event. The rest will be history.