Race Recap: One word: mosquitos, but we’ll get to that. Most people we talked to that had visited Alaska described Anchorage as flat, but we learned quickly that these rumors were false as we surged down a pretty decent hill inside of mile 1. As the course leveled out, it dumped us onto a very scenic bike path that ran parallel to Cook Inlet. Then without warning we were spitting out mosquitos. Literally, spitting out mosquitos. The swarms were so thick that we were forced to run with our mouths shut (imagine trying to run while holding your breath and you’ll have the idea). After passing mile 3 with still no course water stops in sight we decided to stop by the side of the road and take a swig from the water bottle I had decided to carry. Bad idea. The swarms of mosquitos almost sucked us dry in the 5 seconds we were stopped. Luckily, within the next mile we turned on to a service road near the airport and the worst of the mosquitos was behind us. Around mile 5 there was a pretty steep and winding climb, but the views of Mt. McKinley and the Denali mountain range in the distance were worth the price of admission. Around this time a fellow runner struck up a conversation with us and it really helped to distract us from what was quickly becoming a fairly tough race. After seeing a few planes take off and land as we continued onto the restricted airport road (I may not be selling it well, the back roads were really scenic and seeing the hustle and bustle of the airport up close was pretty cool). Just after the 10K mark (6.2 miles for you non-metric minded folks) the race turned off the roads and into the woods. Huh? The woods? As this detour was not on the course map we figured it was just a short hop, skip and jump to a road eagerly waiting for runners. Well, not quite. It was more like a mile plus of technical trail running (single file with tricky footing, steep ascents and even steeper descents). No complaints on the views of the forest they were great, but the unexpected trail adventure really sapped our energy. Eventually we found our way to an adjoining bike path and were headed back towards the city. We were both hurting, but Kristin was hurting a bit more and told me to go on. I protested but she insisted. This race was becoming a physical and mental battle. We ran the next few miles apart, but the funny thing was at every water station I would turn around and sure enough see Kristin about 30 seconds behind me. We’ve run together enough for me to know she needed some space, so I obliged until the last water station where I stopped for a nice long gulp and met up with Kristin to run the last mile together. To my surprise Kristin was super upbeat (she later told me it was because we were nearly done with the race), but I was happy to be running together. The final hill was tough, but we could taste the finish and we didn’t travel all that way not to complete our goal so we kicked with what we had left and finished smiling.
Highlight: When a race goes totally according to plan it’s easier to forget. When a race unexpectedly turns into a trail run and you don’t need a gel because you’ve ingested so many mosquitos it’s harder to forget.
Day 1 (Friday)
The flight to Anchorage is pretty long, so when we arrived we were hungry for a bite to eat. It may not have been November, but don’t tell that the day after Thanksgiving sandwich served up at Brown Bag. Freshly carved turkey and even fresher baked bread. The cranberry spread was interesting, we couldn’t quite put our finger on the spice, maybe nutmeg or cinnamon, but either way it reminded us of Thanksgiving.
Tip: If you split a sandwich they provide each person with homemade chips and a pickle slice for no additional charge!
We had a little time to kill so we decided to walk around downtown Anchorage for a bit. Kobuck’s was a cool little stop for us – not only did they have old fashioned donuts in their bakery, but this little store was chock full of knick-knacks and really interesting gifts. Definitely worth a stop as it doesn’t feel nearly as touristy as most shops in the downtown area.
After we got our race packets we breathed a huge sigh of relief – with this long of a flight we were a little nervous that a delay could cause havoc, but with packets safely in hand we decided to continue our exploration of Anchorage.
Tip: This race does NOT provide race-shirts at the expo. Instead, the race gives you a finisher shirt after you cross the finish line. We like the idea of a true finisher shirt, but it would have been nice for the expo to acknowledge why they didn’t have race shirts.
Come see the great and powerful Ulu, made right here in Alaska! Prior to arrival “Oh man, how can we resist? This is going to be epic.” Upon arrival “Meh. I’m ready to leave whenever you are.” Ulu’s are basically some weird looking chopping knife – kind of like the Miracle Blade of Alaska. Unless you are totally bored, or want to be totally bored, this is a pass.
For our pre-race dinner we went to the famous Humpy’s in downtown Anchorage. The weather was just warm enough that the patio seating made it comfortable. We both had the Health Nut (char-broiled halibut served on a bed of rice with a zesty cucumber/tomato salad) with a locally brewed Midnight Sun Sockeye Red Ale. The fish was incredibly fresh. Coming from Chicago, it’s amazing how fresh fish can really taste and we loved it. If the race wasn’t so early we might have just stuck around and had a few beers, there is a reason Humpy’s is a hot-spot, the food was great and the brews were plentiful.
After dinner we satisfied our sweet tooth with a scoop of green pistachio ice cream at Moose a ’la Moode. Excellent ice cream, as simple as that. The single scoop was enormous and more than enough for two people to split.
Day 2 (Saturday - Race Day)
Given the race and the Summer Solstice celebration, downtown Anchorage was a happening place and the local favorite Snow City Café was packed. The coffee was good, but the biscuits and gravy were only ok. The homemade biscuits were very good, if not outstanding, but the gravy was not as thick or peppery as traditional gravy, which made the meal a bit lacking. Kristin opted for the eggs and pancakes with fresh local maple syrup, which was quite good. The pancakes were airy and tasty and the $1 upcharge for the local syrup (vs. the Aunt Jemima) was an excellent decision and so good I nearly licked her plate clean. I would definitely give this place another chance, but I think I’d pass on anything with their sausage gravy.
After a nice hard run and a hearty breakfast we made the scenic drive down to Seward for a dinner boat cruise through the Kenai Fjords National Park. We were a little nervous about the quality of the all you can eat salmon and prime rib buffet, but we were pleasantly surprised and both really liked the fresh salmon. We were also a little apprehensive about a 4 hour cruise being too long, but given that it was the summer solstice it was light the entire time and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We spotted a variety of animals including a sea otter, sea lions, a humpback whale and more birds than I could count but the coolest creature was the puffin. Imagine a bird that gorged itself on pizza and beer and was too fat to fly so it hovers just over the water and eventually gives up flapping, that’s pretty much the puffin.
Tip: Some form of motion sickness medication could be a good idea – we took Dramamine and were fine, but luckily we had pretty calm waters.
Next up was a quick stop at Mt. Marathon to see the trail head for the famous July 4th race up a mountain. No doubt, these runners are mostly insane as the ascent is incredibly steep and notorious for putting at least a few runners a year in the hospital with some pretty nasty injuries.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Saturday was a long day, but we decided to rise and shine early and head for a free guided hike at Exit Glacier. First things first though, we had to hydrate with some local coffee from Raven. Good coffee and they didn’t seem to mind that we used the outside bench to make ourselves some peanut butter and bagel sandwiches for breakfast.
The hike up to Exit Glacier wasn’t very long or very difficult but we were seriously dragging. As we walked towards the glacier the NPS guide explained that all the year signs (i.e. there would be a random sign saying “1861” along the trail) indicated where the glacier had been at different points in history. It’s kind of insane to realize how quickly the glacier is disappearing. This is a short, but informative hike and definitely worth the time.
After retreating to the car we were exhausted. Yes, it was still morning but we decided to recharge with a power nap.
Fresh and rested after our mid-morning snooze we headed for the Summer Solstice festival in Moose Pass, which turned out to be much further than we thought. The festival was a mix of arts and crafts, but we found some grilled corn and Kristin tried her first reindeer hot-dog, so it was a worthwhile trip.
As we drove back towards Seward we spotted a hiking path to Hidden Lake so we decided to put on our adventure pants and give it a go! Sadly we didn't make it all the way to Hidden Lake, or maybe we did and we couldn't see it because it was hidden?!?! Eerie, right?
Back in Seward we decided to visit the aquarium, which was pretty cool. We got up close and personal with a variety of sticky sea creatures and enjoyed visiting the monstrous sea lion and the puffin exhibit (can you tell we loved the puffins?). Definitely a good way to kill some time in Seward.
Through her sleuthing, Kristin had found the starting point for the Iditarod - a several thousand mile long dog sled race through Alaska – was just on the other end of the aquarium parking lot, so we had to check it out.
For dinner and drinks we headed over to the Seward Brewing Company. The converted building had a very homey feel to it, and the flight of beers gave us a good chance to try a smattering of different brews. The IPA was our favorite.
Day 4 (Monday)
For breakfast we headed to the Sea Bean Café. This local shop serves up a very good cup of coffee – likely the best we had in Alaska. The ambience is very chill and just from sitting in the café for 20 minutes we could tell this is where the locals come for their caffeine fix, and it’s usually hard to argue with the locals.
We broke up the long drive ahead of us with a stop at the Alaska Wild Life Reserve. Think of a sort of zoo-like experience tailored towards animals native to the Alaska region. It was nice to see some bears without being afraid we were going to be mauled to death, but all in all this was really only a 30 minute stop to get some photos and stretch out the legs.
We broke up the drive again with a stop in Anchorage for lunch at the very unassuming Sis’s Café – which despite its somewhat 1970’s exterior and boring signage was very well decorated inside. Aside from the décor the food was really good. We both tried the daily special chicken curry wrap and it was fantastic. Just enough curry for a little kick without feeling like you are licking the floor of a spice shop.
Thankfully, the drive to Wasilla didn’t take as long as expected. Seeing that we had a few extra minutes we spotted a sign for a Silver Mine (now a National Park) and decided to give it a whirl. I’m so glad we made the stop here, the weather was unbelievably beautiful and the abandoned mine site was really interesting. The only regret is that we didn’t plan to spend longer here, this is a definite must see. There is also a ton of hiking in the area and you could very easily spend a ½ day or full day checking out the mine area, going for a hike and even panning for gold in the river (yes, that’s actually allowed and encouraged). Put this on your short list if you’re in the area!
We continued our adventures in wilderness with a guided trek on Matanuska Glacier. This wasn’t quite a normal hike, but then again how often do we have the opportunity to hike on an actual glacier? This hike was not overly strenuous, but was complete with crampons (think spiked shoes that make walking on ice way easier) and some stylish helmets. The guide was very knowledgeable, the weather was perfect and the glacier was amazing. This was a once in a lifetime experience that we won’t soon forget.
Tip: boots must come up to ankle or you will rock some free rental boots which may or may not be a size too big or small.
A busy day of driving and hiking really peaked our appetite, so we were stoked for some pizza and beer at the Last Frontier Brewing Company. Right as we were seated we watched the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. The pizza was good – but we were starving, so we could be biased and the beer was decent, but nothing I would necessarily seek out in a store. A nice little spot for some local flavor though.
Day 5 (Tuesday)
What do you get when you combine six Amish, a couple of heavy-drinking Spaniards expecting their first child out of wedlock and us? Let’s just say the conversation at the breakfast table of our B&B was memorable. Everyone was very nice to one another, but it almost felt like a skit on Saturday Night Live at times. You can’t make this stuff up.
On the drive up to Denali we had an incredibly clear day which provided some unbelievable views of the entire Denali mountain range. We read a statistic that only 40% of park visitors get to see Mt. McKinley (the highest mountain in North America), and we were very fortunate to have an impeccably clear day to soak in the views as we drove North. While we didn’t stop for photos (we should have - the picture from below is from our return trip and while you can see McKinley in the distance it's not as eerily clear as it was on our drive up to Denali), it’s a view neither of us will soon forget.
After a long drive we were itching to stretch our legs and get some chow. Black Bear coffee is a pretty awesome little shop – and the only non-Subway sandwich shop near the McKinley village. We couldn’t decide on our own sandwiches, so we got two and split. The ham and cheese was good, but pretty cheesy. The turkey, cucumber and cream cheese had a very light/ summery taste to it – but our advice would be to ask for light cream cheese as they tend to glob it on.
As we walked shop to shop in the unusually warm 90 degree weather, we happened upon a whitewater rafting tour leaving about 15 minutes after we arrived. Apparently fate was on our side, they had two open spots! After being thoroughly trained in how to put on a dry suit (the opposite of a wet suit as it keeps you completely dry, while a wetsuit brings a thin layer of water close to your body which your body heats and ultimately keeps your body temperature warmer than the water) we boarded a bus and began our adventure. By the time we boarded, our raft was almost full – just two spots near the front, so Kristin grabbed the further back seat and I jumped in at the front of the boat. As we hit the first real section of tough waters I got nailed and in addition to the shock of getting pummeled with countless gallons of 35 degree water all I could hear was laughing. And I don’t mean a little laugh, I mean deep belly chuckling. I’m glad I could provide Kristin so much entertainment! We had an absolute blast on the whitewater, it was an insane amount of fun.
As we checked into our hotel an older gentlemen walked up and asked if we were staying at the hotel, and we responded that we were. Then he handed us two $50 dinner vouchers for the hotel restaurant that he wasn’t going to use – SCORE! Somehow no one else was sitting on the patio when we arrived, so we had the entire deck, mountain views and all, to ourselves. For our free dinner, we both indulged with the salmon, which was excellent. In addition to the great food, the weather outside was absolutely perfect – high 80’s and just beautiful.
After dinner we talked about walking across the street to a bar, but thought better of it and stayed put on the patio and enjoy another drink as we watched the sun escape behind the mountains around 10pm and then took a nice stroll down to the river. Even though the sun was behind the mountains it stayed pretty light out for the next few hours, which was awesome (and helped us not to fall in the river we were walking along). I don’t think we could recreate this experience, but if we could, we would.
Day 6 (Wednesday)
For our first full day in Denali we planned a ½ day hike to the summit of Mt. Healy. Unfortunately, life isn’t always a straight line. After about 20 minutes of hiking and constantly swatting ourselves and each other for pesky mosquitos the swarms of little blood suckers got thick and the noise in our ears started to drive us insane. At one point I clapped my hands over my head and counted seven mosquitos corpses. Yuck. This was not our idea of a fun hike, so we took control of the situation and high-tailed it out of there. There is no way that hike was even possible without full mosquito netting.
Now back at the car, partially covered in mosquitos bites we still had most of the day free – which we quickly realized would be challenging as almost everything “to do” in Denali involves hiking in the woods. So we decided to do something neither of us was that keen on – take an 8 hour bus ride deep into Denali. We soon learned that no private cars are allowed on the road towards Mt. McKinley because this is a one-lane road with sheer cliffs and no guard rails. I swear that on more than one occasion our bus only had three wheels on the road. Frankly 8 hours is way too long to do most things and sit on a bus starting aimlessly at the mountains is one of them. After about 3 hours of being held hostage by the park bus we decided to take another bus back out of the park. Ugh. There are a lot of things you can do with 5.5 hours of your life – riding a bus aimlessly through the mountains shouldn’t be one.
The trip wasn’t a total loss though as we did see our first wild moose!
Needless to say we were both a little bummed about how the day turned out, so I convinced Kristin to go for a short run from our hotel to the park entrance. Wow – what a difference some fresh air can make, that run was great and really turned the day around for us!
We capped off the day with dinner at the 49th State Brewing Company. Some breweries pop up because they think they might be able to make a buck, while others open because they are passionate about beer. 49th State is clearly the latter – this place was definitely built on a solid foundation of great craft beers. The food was also pretty kicking. I devoured the Reindeer meatloaf with mashed potatoes as we both happily enjoyed our hoppy cocktails. Great exclamation point to the day.
Day 7 (Thursday)
Fingers crossed, we decided to head to the Savage River Trail (the furthest public driving point in the park) for one last shot at a hike in Denali. Thankfully, the bugs were manageable and we were able to enjoy our morning hike along the river. It was pretty rewarding to hike between mountains and just soak in the scenery. Apparently the mosquitos were sleeping though, because by the time we found our car again the swarms had returned – but this time they were too late, we had already enjoyed our hike!
Yea for hiking in Denali!
After heading out of Denali we drove towards Talkeetna, which means meeting of the three rivers, because (read in Gomer Pile voice) “surprise, surprise, surprise” three rivers meet at the base of the town. Just outside of town is a birch syrup factory. We didn’t know what birch syrup was, so we were excited to learn about the process and taste the spoils. The taste is something like a granular molasses, which was quite tasty. While the shop is somewhat small, we were shocked to learn that they supply over 75% of the world’s birch syrup!
Tip: try the strawberry rhubarb and birch syrup on vanilla ice-cream, its delicious.
Just down the road from the birch syrup shop is the Flying Squirrel Café, which was repeatedly praised as serving up some of the best sandwiches in the area. Meh, it was alright. We both had the grilled salmon with sliced apples and brie and while palatable, it just wasn’t anything to rave about. The baked goods also looked sinfully good, but we were again a little let down as the double chocolate cookie was really dry. Nothing very memorable here, sorry folks.
After walking around the cute and quaint downtown Talkeetna area and getting a private tour by a local girl hanging out by the river we decided to take a guided river float. Let me stress, this was a float and definitely not whitewater rafting. It was gorgeous weather, so the ride down the river was quite enjoyable. The highlight of our time on the water was spotting a moose that just wandered into the river and stared at us as we floated by – a truly surreal moment!
For dinner we headed to Denali Brewing Company. This is an interesting little brewpub. The Matt Porter (a mix of three beers) was good and they offered a number of higher alcohol limited release beers, including a chai tea beer which was oddly refreshing. The burgers were good, but maybe a little too gourmet-style and not necessarily the “ordinary” burger we were craving. We’d definitely stop in here again for a pint and dinner though.
As we walked back to our car we passed Wake and Shake and just had to stop to sample a homemade chocolate malt. Mmmm. Now, that’s good desert!
Day 8 (Friday)
Our last day in Alaska we decided to rise and shine and go for a morning run from the B&B we were staying at to a vantage point overlooking Talkeetna. On a clear day we were told you can see the mountain range, including Mt. McKinley, but it was fairly overcast so we just enjoyed the scenic run.
Breakfast at the B&B was decent, nothing mind blowing, but we were seated at a table with a super nice Canadian couple. Very enjoyable conservation and overall a really nice B&B – off the beaten path but the accommodations were great.
Not that we were starving after breakfast, but we decided to head into downtown Talkeetna to taste the world famous cinnamon roll from the Roadhouse paired with some very good coffee from a tiny espresso shop on the skirts of the town square. As we sat in the town square to enjoy our snack, our taste buds were blown away. That was one insanely good cinnamon roll and the locally brewed coffee intensified the flavor explosion.
On the road again…After a few hours in the car we stopped at Krazy Moose Subs in Wasilla and split a massive turkey sandwich will all the fixings. Very fresh bread and a pretty solid sub.
Just outside of Anchorage we stopped for a relatively short hike to Thunderbird Falls. The mosquitos loved us here too, but we found that as long as we kept moving along the well maintained trail they weren’t too bad. After a mile hike to the lookout point over the tranquil falls we stopped for a quick photo before racing the mosquitos back to our car.
Kristin found a pretty unique attraction just east of the Ulu factory (maybe there is a reason to visit Ulu afterall) known to locals at the “salmon spawn.” While late June isn’t the salmon spawning season, we were treated to watching fishermen try to reel in some of these massive king salmon. Even though it wasn’t prime fishing season the water was crystal clear so we got to enjoy the salmon in all their bright red glory.
Watching fishermen battle massive salmon in hard work and calls for some refreshments, so we headed over to the Glacier Brewhouse for a beer sampler. The atmosphere of the brewhouse is very upscale yet comfortable with impressive wood beams, a wood burning oven and plenty of seating in the bar area. Kristin fancied the IPA and I liked the stout, but we agreed that this is a winner for an afternoon cocktail.
We tempted the mosquitos one last time with our tasty blood with a stop at the run course near Earthquake park to get a good look at Cook Inlet. Thankfully the mosquitos were not as bad as they were on race morning, but they were bad enough that we ended up running a few sections of the path to escape the blood suckers.
Our flight home was pretty late (~8pm), so we decided to eat dinner in the airport and catch some shut eye on the plane. Luckily the airport has a Humpy’s, so we were eager to give the health nut another go. The meal was good again, but the cucumber salad was downright spicy – but we put that fire out with some locally brewed beer.
Alaska Half Marathon Medals:
June 22, 2013: Mayor's Half Marathon