On what turned out to be one of the rainiest days in Anchorage this year, my sister, Saree, and I braved rain, mud, and wind to finish the 2014 Mayor’s Half Marathon. Fun it was not, but lucrative it was--together we racked up plenty of unbudgeted misery points in a fitness contest with our relatives.
Last fall as our motivation to exercise waned, several of my family members, including me, two of my sisters, our cousin, and my sister’s daughter-in-law hatched a plan to create a game in which, based on an elaborate matrix of achievements, we would earn points toward a reward vacation. Each of us determined our own goals at the beginning and then dug in as the months ticked by.
When Saree and I struck out on the Mayor’s Half, she’d already earned points by competing in the Tour of Anchorage ski race, Gold Nugget and Eagle River Triathlons, Alaska Run for Women, Ski for Women, and the Bike for Women. I’d netted points for the Tour of Anchorage, two 5K runs in Valdez, and the Gold Nugget. Paige had brought home points for the Campus 5K in Pullman and a sprint tri in Lewiston, Idaho. Our cousin Gay and my niece-in-law, Emi, who both live in Texas, socked away points for running the Armadillo 5K and then Emi powered on to run several more 5Ks including the Blue Bonnet, Color Run, and Run for Zero in which she took a 3rd place finish. Along with all those points we were scoring, we all nabbed what we termed “misery points”. This term was coined by several of us a few years ago when we were training as a team to ride the 200-mile Fireweed bike race – the hours of riding in wind and rain and pedaling up long hills to build our leg muscles led to the concept of misery and discomfort being something worth acknowledging like badges of honor. For our 2014 fitness challenge, we assigned actual points to pain and agony and to date all of us had earned our share. Weather, hills, participating in events for the first time, competing in events alongside men (sorry guys, but you can be intimidating) all helped us ratchet up our points.
Early on, I knew that we had a good chance of bringing home some misery points from the Mayor’s Half Marathon. Not only was it the first time either Saree or I had done this event (cause for stress-related agony), but seven days before the event, rain was being forecasted for the solstice weekend. One evening after I had finished a training run, my husband, Matt brought his Mac over to show me the satellite image. “It’s going to be drenching rain,” he said almost gleefully. He is the original weather geek, so for him this was exciting news – for me, not so much.
As I flew over to Anchorage on Friday afternoon, the sun was shining. I looked out over Cook Inlet from my seat on the plane and could clearly see the Alaska Peninsula’s volcanic summits white against the horizon. It was a beautiful day across Southcentral Alaska. Yet, the forecast was still predicting bad weather for Saturday’s run. And, indeed, while Saree and I were enjoying dinner with our parents in Eagle River Friday night, the storm came in with alarming power lead by thunder, lightning, and pounding rain.
By Saturday morning, the thunder and lightning had dissipated, but the wind had increased and the skies poured rain—drenching rain. We headed to the start line after having waited in the car until the last possible moment and found a small crowd of runners huddled under an office building awning. We waited a few more minutes with this group, watching the cottonwood tree limbs billowing in the gale and listening to the Star Spangled Banner sung by a trio of men. When the mass of runners started to move, we eased away from our shelter and merged into the street.
There were 1800 runners in the Half Marathon, despite the weather conditions. We bobbed and jogged toward Turnagain Arm and the Coastal Trail, forming a rainbow-colored undulating ribbon. My fellow runners were dressed in typical running gear – jackets, headbands, t-shirts, some in shorts—and a surprising number wore Hefty garbage bags with cut-outs for their arms and neck. Saree and I, having grown up in Ketchikan, thus being experienced in the art of staying dry, were perplexed by this strategy. Wearing a garbage bag is like creating your own personal sauna – what moisture the bag keeps off you, it makes up for in the sweat it produces. Bizarrely, some runners wore their bags the entire 13.1 miles.
The streets were packed with runners for the entire first mile and it was several hundred yards down the Coastal Trail before we started to spread out and everyone settled into their pace for the long haul. I had run the half-marathon distance on a couple of occasions in the distant past, but in recent years mixed it up with swimming, cycling, and short-distance running. When I started planning my 2014 events, I penciled in the Mayor’s Marathon. I had looked at my calendar and the sixteen weeks prior to June 21st looked clear enough to give me time to train. I started out strong, but when I hit long-runs of 10 and 11 miles, my will to run 26.2 took a nose dive – way too much time pounding along on pavement to count as fun. I quickly adjusted my plan to the Half Marathon, which was fine except that it meant I’d have to make up for the point differential somehow. I needed misery points.
The rain pelted the herd of runners for three miles along the Coastal Trail, but the lining of shrubs and trees offered some protection from the wind. I warmed up nicely and was running along at my race pace comfortably on the mostly level path. My mind wandered: I pondered the garbage bags a bit more, enjoyed the misty view of the tidelands, became familiar with the men and women who were going to be in my pack – I identified them by their hair, their clothes, their strides. Then, we turned onto a long open road behind the Ted Stevens International Airport and left all form of protection behind. We now ran straight into a howling headwind and driving rain. I could barely hear the sound of the jets taking off to our left over the accursed storm. At mile 6, my forearms were numb even though I had pulled my hands into my sleeves and was shaking my arms out every few strides. I tucked my head down and kept running thinking the faster I ran the faster I’d get back to the Coastal Trail. About a mile later, I gratefully reached the water-station at the turning point. Volunteers dressed in full water-proofed-regalia stalwartly distributed plastic cups of water and Gatorade. There was no question that those volunteers were the heroes of the day – they had the absolute worst possible location and were as cheerful and helpful as anyone we passed. I thanked them adamantly as I turned into the forest – thrilled to be out of that wind. Misery points, I chanted, lots of misery points.
Yet, I wasn’t quite finished earning points. We were now on a cut-off trail that connected the paved road behind the airport to the Point Woronzof section of the Coast Trail. While it was protected from wind, it had received its fair share of rain and overnight had turned from what was presumably a pleasant dirt path into a mile-long mud chute. There was an immediate and nearly impenetrable bottleneck of runners slipping and sliding down the steep single track. Some people simply stood stunned at the top of the chute trying to calculate their first steps. Others tried to tiptoe down, arms circling like propellers to stay upright. Still others catapulted down the center, mud-be-damned. I took a deep breath and ran through a clump of people who were hesitating at the top, stayed to the margin where there was a modicum of grass for traction, slid like a snow-boarder down some of the steepest mud, and somehow stayed standing the entire way. At the bottom, I stamped my shoes to rid the the soles of clotted mud. Well, more misery points for me, I smiled.
The last half of the race was almost pleasant – save the fatigue that settled into my legs somewhere around mile 11. The rain let up, I dried out, and the wind relented. The clouds lifted and I saw fresh snow accumulated on the Chugach mountains. Runners were cheery. A woman with a beautifully consistent stride passed me and I kept pace with her for a mile. My mind wandered again, aimlessly.
Soon we rounded the corner at Westchester Lagoon and there was one more obstacle to reach the finish line – a solid uphill leading all the way into the corral. I was ready for one more challenge, so took the hill as strongly as I could muster, passed under the arch, and claimed my finisher’s medal.
I cooled down, stretched out, and then headed back to the car where I knew a fuzzy blanket, PBJ, hat, fleece pants, and dry socks waited. There, I could tally up my misery points.