My friend Jeremy (akworm) and I drove up in his truck and camper the day before. The plan was to park on campus (race start and finish is at University of Alaska) as close to the start as we could. We arrived in Fairbanks around 8:30 the night before just as it was getting dark and found the lot across the street from the start was completely empty so we found a dark corner to set up shop. This proved to be a great plan as we were literally across the street from both the start and the bib pickup the next morning, something we thoroughly took advantage of as we picked up on our bib packets race morning in PJ's with oatmeal in hand.
We woke up on Saturday to a brisk 34 degrees, or at least somewhere in that range. We got our packets, geared up, and then about 20 minutes before the race start we turned in our drop bags and then hung out in the crowd until the start.
Remember we were 2 people running the ultra out of a registered 39. Most people run the marathon, and this year there were about 650 of them, add that to the 150 relay teams, and you have about 750 people all involved in a mass start. Normally races accommodate for this and have a wider course for the first mile or so until things thin out, not so on this one! You barely get moving until you walk up a steep sledding hill and are met with a gate that is 10 feet wide, talk about a bottleneck!
After that first hill the race enters into a mix of pavement and single track. Weaving in and out of wooded areas, grass fields, bike trails, and walkways until you reach the base of Ester Dome, the largest climb of the course. This wasn't too bad, and was NOTHING like the 4 mile climb at mile 42 of the 50 miler! This climb was shorter, but about the same grade, and the view from the top was amazing! Once you reach the top of the hill you encounter some smaller climbs before some awesome fun descent on the back side.
The section at the top of Ester Dome is the marathon's only out and back and the first of 2 out and back sections for the ultra, so this is the first view we had of the rest of the field. Now remember there are marathoners, ultramarathoners, and relay participants all with different colored bibs. Ultra had green, relay had maroon, and marathon had black. So on the out and back section you can see which race a person is participating in, Jeremy and I took advantage of this and would cheer on our fellow ultra peeps. This worked well until we got a few strange looks from people with green bibs (ultra runners) and then also started to notice some ultra people really not looking well, a bad sign 15 miles into a 40 mile race! We would later find out that the race ran out of marathon bibs and were handing out ultra bibs for marathoners, so that made more sense.
The ultramarathon course turns off from the marathon course at about mile 20 and proceeds to head onto a dirt road for about 3 miles. This was the first experience of truly being on an ultra as seeing others runners at this point was rare. Jeremy and I continued to run together and chatted with a rookie ultra runner for a few minutes on the road section as we made our way down the course. The only part of the these 3 miles that was noteworthy was the large amount of junk cars off in the trees, and by large amount I mean somewhere around 30 cars. I guess this is where vehicles go to do die in Fairbanks.
Once leaving the road the ultra course connects back at approximately mile 8 of the marathon course but heading in the other direction. We continued to move along down the course until we reached the mile 28 aid station that contained our drop bags. We stuck to our plan for the drop point and within a few minutes were out of the checkpoint and heading off to tackle the 7 mile out and back section of the ultramarathon course. These 7 miles contained a section named "Death Gully", although I don't remember coming across anything that lived up to this name. Jeremy and I stuck together heading up the hill but started to separate as Jeremy was having trouble running down hills due to a soar knee. Despite the discomfort Jeremy showed his veteran running experience and stuck close to me all the way back to the now 35 mile aid station.
We left the aid station and headed off to cover the last 5 miles of the course. For the most part uneventful except I remember getting passed by another ultrarunner around mile 37 and that Jeremy helped drag me through the last few miles as I was really not wanting to run anymore. We both came across the finish line in 8:28, 26th and 27th place, last 2 across the finish line!
Back to my original point about training, this race was very different than the 50 miler I ran this summer, and that is due to training. I was hoping to get in under 8 hours and knew with training going under 7 hours was even possible. But going into the race both Jeremy and I decided to run together the entire day since we both knew we would not be competing at all but rather just to be out there enjoying the course and enjoying the day, which we certainly did.
Fist Pumps For Freedom!