Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 4 Jun 2002 10:26:17 -0400

Somewhere Different

RUNNING COMMENTARY 416

No road trip is ordinary. All have their attractions and surprises.

Few have ever been more surprising and attractive than the latest one. Barbara and I knew we were headed somewhere different when we started the last leg of this trip.

Our plane into Ketchikan, Alaska, landed less than 20 minutes before the one to Prince of Wales (POW) Island would take off. "Will that be long enough to grab our bags and make the connection?" we asked.

"They'll wait for you," we were told. A van then took us down to the water, where sat a single-engine float plane. The lone pilot, who doubled as baggage handler and flight attendant, wore well-used jeans and work boots.

Five of us filled the plane, which looked like an airborne version of a 1965 Chevy pickup. Kevin gave his one-sentence safety lecture before starting the engine, which drowned out all further talk.

During descent the front-seat passenger mouthed the word "bears" as he pointed downward. There in a garbage dump were several black scavengers, finding their evening meal.

We landed in the waters of Craig, the town where the POW Marathon finishes. We would find it to be the perfect spot for a runner looking for something different.

Getting here isn't easy; you either take the 30-minute float-plane flight or the three-hour ferry ride. And this after reaching Ketchikan, almost two hours by jet from the nearest major airport (Seattle) in the Lower 48.

This remoteness is one of POW's attractions -- or someday will be. In its three runnings so far, very few runners have made the trip from out of state. The field has yet to top 40 marathoners (plus about three times that number of relay runners), mainly because so few outsiders know this race is here.

Now that I've visited, I want to help this little gem of an event get discovered. Up to now it hasn't appeared in the Runner's World marathon calendar and other national listings (the 2003 date is May 24th, and the web address is www.powmarathon.org).

POW will appeal most to two clans of marathoners. One is the 50-staters. They don't have many chances to bag an Alaska race, and this is as near to the Lower 48 as they'll find one.

This race also will attract members of the 100-marathon club. They've already proven they like to travel (and can afford it), and are looking for new and unusual places to run.

POW is definitely different. It isn't even Alaska as you might think of that state.

This isn't icebox country. The deep south of this state looks and feels more like British Columbia with its mild temperatures, frequent rains and spectacular coastal waterways. Picture Vancouver Island, without the city of Victoria.

Prince of Wales is no dot in the ocean. It has a thousand miles of jagged coastline and snow-topped peaks 3000 feet high.

The marathon is decidedly rural. It starts at a wide spot in the road, 26 miles from Craig. Sharing the turnout this Saturday morning were a picked-clean deer skeleton and the remains of an abandoned car. Wolf sightings are common along this road.

Runners reach Craig only in the last half-mile, and they pass through only one other village along the way. That's Klawock, the island's main settlement for the native Tlingits who contribute many relay runners to this event.

Water nearly surrounds the finish area. The bald eagles floating overhead outnumbered the marathoners down below. Whales carried on their own springtime ultradistance event in a nearby channel.

Last year Willis Ferenbaugh led in the homestretch until two women scooted past. He mistook them for relay runners, only learning later than he'd fallen to third.

Ferenbaugh came back this time to win, in 3:18. I can't recall ever hearing a marathoner winner say, "My next goal is to qualify for Boston" (which requires dropping another eight-plus minutes).

I also can't remember the last time every finisher was called forward individually at the awards party to accept applause and a medal (along with a bottle of Advil). I left town knowing almost all of these runners, by face if not by name.

The POW Marathon won't stay this small, but it will never get really big. Nor would the runners living or traveling here want it to be. They can find "big" plenty of other places.

As out of the ordinary as the Prince of Wales location is, I found its style to be nostalgically familiar. It took me back to a quieter, friendlier time before marathoning grew up.

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