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

Thu, 04 Apr 2013 04:55:24 -0400

Country Roads

RUNNING COMMENTARY 983

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the July 2009 issue.)

Ask me to name my favorite marathon and I can't pick a single race. Instead I list a handful, each for a different reason: Boston because it's Boston, Royal Victoria because it's like going to Europe without leaving North America, Napa Valley because its vineyard vistas are intoxicating, Big Sur because of its spectacular meeting of water and land, and Avenue of the Giants because it runs through a cathedral of redwoods.

These five stand out from several dozen marathon courses I've run, and at least twice that many more visited without going the full distance. Note that all but two (Boston and Victoria) are mostly or entirely rural. All except Boston are midsized to small, with none of the other four topping 3200 finishers in 2008.

Marathoning today is largely citified. Urban races offer the size and services that runners have come to expect. Attractive as escaping to the country might sound, few runners will go there if it means giving up the big-city goodies.

Few rural areas have the sponsors, volunteer corps or publicity machines that attract runners by the thousands. But country races, small in field and sparse in amenities, do exist. They offer their own attractions to runners who've made the big-time rounds and now want something different.

I did my early running on country roads because the boundaries of my tiny hometown wouldn't hold all the running I wanted to do. Most of my early races traveled the countryside too, because cities (Boston excepted) wouldn't think of closing their streets for a few runners.

Out of town has always seemed to be my proper place to run. But you didn't have to begin running ages ago to like out-of-the-way places.

None I've visited is farther out than Dave “Roadkill” Johnson’s Prince of Wales (POW) Marathon in Craig, Alaska. Having never run the full course, only a relay segment, I can't honestly call POW a favorite of mine. But it's one of my most memorable marathons, an example of small being beautiful. Rural too.

My wife Barbara and I knew we were headed somewhere different when we started the last leg of our trip to the first running of POW. Our plane into Ketchikan, Alaska, landed less than 20 minutes before the one to the 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. Pilot 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. (Later we would park here, at what the locals call the "Craig zoo," and laugh at a bear sitting at the wheel of a doorless car.)

We would find this island the perfect spot for a runner looking for something different. POW is definitely that. 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.

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

Water nearly surrounds the finish area. On race days the bald eagles floating overhead outnumber the marathoners down below. Whales carry on their own springtime ultradistance event in a nearby channel.

About 40 marathoners ran my first year there. I couldn'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 these runners. Those living or traveling here wouldn't want it to grow much. They can find "big" in plenty of other places.

I found Prince of Wales nostalgically familiar. It took me back to a time when most marathons were smaller, quieter, friendlier and farther out of the way.

UPDATE: A bear ambled across the road during one of the POW races. R.K. Johnson (who’s featured in RC 983) said, “If you see one, you can be sure that a dozen more have seen you.”


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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