Marathon Challenges

By Rob McWilliam and Larry Duguay

Being involved in the organization of the Yukon River Trail Marathon we are very conscious of how many factors are really outside of our control. For example, our inaugural event in 1999 turned out to be on what was probably the hottest day of the entire summer. We scrambled to add more water stations. But always at the back of our minds was the thought, “what would happen if all our planning and work was overwhelmed by an ‘Act of God’?” Being aware that there are many factors that we can’t control we are always extremely interested in what other race organizers have had to cope with, and have great admiration for those events that have been able to bounce back from a major disaster. In fact, in some cases the organizers have been able to make the event all the more memorable for participants because of the unique conditions.

While we worried about the impact of an extremely hot day in 1999 our challenge was nothing compared to that faced by the Snow Goose Marathon organizers in Anchorage in 1992 when a volcanic eruption spewed so much dust and ash into the atmosphere that health warnings were issued in Anchorage. Strenuous outdoor physical activity was not recommended, and the Marathon organizers reluctantly had to cancel their event. Local veteran runner, Tom Fairman was one of the people that discovered the event that he had trained hard for in hopes of gaining a Boston qualifying time, and which he had just driven non-stop from Whitehorse to Anchorage to participate in had been cancelled. Imagine having to be the lucky individual who got to staff the registration booth and to provide Tom with the news! Especially when there were only two runners that they weren’t able to contact in advance, and he was one! However, the organizers demonstrated their resourcefulness. They had been able to take the race T-shirts and have them overprinted with “Cancelled due to Mt. Spur Volcanic Eruption”. Now that was a unique souvenir, and Tom definitely had a conversation opener every time that he worn the shirt!

My own first hand experience was at the 1998 Big Sur Marathon. The Ultimate Guide to Marathons ranks Big Sur as the Top Marathon in North America. The Guide says “Our perfect 100 Marathon”. Big Sur has it all. Well in 1998 it didn’t have a road. Due to El Nino rains the Coastal Highway was completely washed away in several areas. The organizers were determined that they wouldn’t let a little thing like that stop them, and they assured all interested runners that there would be a Marathon on the usual weekend. Arriving in Monterey a couple of days before the event we tried to drive the course, and couldn’t because several sections were still under construction and closed to the public. The organizers were left without a full course, so they quickly transformed a point to point course into an out and back course using the traditional finish area for the start and finish. There were obviously some logistical problems with this approach. For example, they had a system of buses to haul people to the start, and due to the change the buses were arriving and dropping runners off on a very early, very cold morning. Fortunately, it was a shopping centre with a 24 hour Safe Way store. The store managers took pity on the refugee runners and allowed us to wait inside. The scene resembled something from a disaster movie as the shopping isles were crowded with runners. The Supermarket staff were so bemused by the spectacle that they were actually were taking pictures of the scene. Eventually the sun came up, it started to warm up and we left the store to head to the starting line. The scenery was every bit as spectacular as the advertisements had promised, and in 1998 we had the unique experience of seeing it from both directions.

However, I must confess this article was prompted by a recent note I received from an ex-Yukon runner who many local runners will know. Dr. Janet Green has set as her goal to run 100 marathons by this October, when she plans to run her 100th in Victoria. To do that she has run in some interesting places, but her experience with this year’s Antarctic Marathon has got to be one of the strangest. We wrote in an earlier article about Roger Hanberg’s experience with this unique event. Picture if you can paying in excess of $5,000 to travel 10 days by a Russian cruise ship that is described as recalling the Spartan comforts of Soviet-era travel from Argentina to run in the most remote marathon in the world, only to be told that you can’t get ashore. Due to extreme waves the organizers were not able to safely transport the runners to King George Island where the race was to be held. The solution? Get the 108 runners on board to do the marathon on board the ship. All it would take is 422 laps of the deck of a ship tossing in 15 foot waves. No problem. Amazingly only 7 of the registered runners balked at the idea of pounding along a steel deck for 42.2 Kilometres. The rest of the runners were off and running, and experienced what it must be like to be a hamster in a cage. Some of them reported unique injuries, such as bruises up and down their left arm and leg from clipping corners on some of those many turns. Others experienced collisions due to the close quarters. One runner who finished the marathon in 4 hours and 21 minutes reported, “I fell five times. Got knocked out twice. I dislocated my finger. It was great.” If she hadn’t been a lawyer they would probably have been working on trying to have her committed instead of letting her give an interview to the Wall Street Journal. What is even more weird is that many of the runners vowed to go back and try again to run Antarctica. Janet included a picture of her running along the deck, and amazingly she has a big grin on her face.

I guess that the comforting thought that those of us who organize such events take from all these experiences is that in the end it isn’t about fancy shirts, or prizes, runners just want to run!