The Alaska Heart Run is many things. It's a rite of spring that signals ice-free roads and nearly dry trails. It's a worthy cause that raises tens of thousands of dollars for the American Heart Association. It's a city-wide party that reunites folks after a long winter. It's the biggest 5-kilometer race in the state.
This year, it was a blast with a past.
Miles Dunbar ran the 14th fastest time in race history on Saturday, collecting the men's victory in what he believes was his Heart Run debut -- although he is certainly no stranger to the race.
Dunbar, 25, is the son of the Heart Run's most decorated champion, 10-time winner and record-holder Marcus Dunbar. Marcus claimed his first win in 1989, just a few weeks after Miles was born.
Dunbar, who finished in 14 minutes, 59.9 seconds, earned a spot on the short list of sub-15:00 times in the 36-year history of the race. Six of the 14 times on that list were recorded by his dad, who set the Heart Run record of 14:39 in 1995. By then, Marcus and Kathleen Dunbar had two sons -- the youngest, Trevor, is a star at Oregon who currently owns the second-fastest 5,000-meter time this season in college track.
Marcus missed seeing Miles win the race he once dominated -- he's the coach of the Kodiak track team and spent the day at a high school meet -- but Kathleen came to Anchorage for the occasion and texted the news to her husband from the finish line. Dad's response? "I bet he ran a great downhill."
What Dunbar ran was a great strategic race. He followed Jake Moe, who set a blazing pace -- 4:40 for the first mile of the 3.1-mile race on the UAA and Alaska Pacific University campuses -- before passing Moe right after the turn onto Alumni Drive, a short stretch to the finish line.
"I gotta thank him for making it a fast race," Dunbar said. "He did all the work."
Moe, 29, finished second in 15:02.71, his third straight runnerup finish.
"Now I know how Aliy Zirkle feels," he said.
The women's victory went to Hallidie Wilt, who defended her title in masterful fashion.
Wilt, a 25-year-old nursing student who ran competitively for UAA, finished in 17:42.16, beating runnerup and former teammate Katie Krehlik (18:18.45) by 36 seconds.
Wilt beat her time from a year ago by 20 seconds.
"I knew it was going to be fast, because there's faster girls here this year," said Wilt, who came to UAA from Unalaska. "I wasn't sure what kind of shape I was in."
The Heart Run is a barometer for runners eager to test their road-racing fitness early in the season. For many, it's their first competitive race of the year on ice-free, snow-free roads.
Dunbar grew up in Kodiak, where runners are toughened by inhospitable conditions. He competed in NCAA Division II cross country and track at Chico State and now lives in Eugene, Ore., where he works for the Oregon Running Company, a store similar to Skinny Raven, he said.
About a month or two ago, according to his mom, he told his family that he'd like to come to Alaska for the Heart Run.
"He wanted to come back and keep up the family tradition," Kathleen said. "His grandma lives here and she gave him mileage (for the airfare)."
Becky Dunbar witnessed all 10 of Marcus Dunbar's Heart Run victories, which came in a span of 12 years from 1989 to 2000. She's homebound now, but she was there in spirit on Saturday, Kathleen said.
Though the sun never made an appearance, conditions were perfect for racers -- calm and overcast with temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s.
A crowd of nearly 6,000 runners and walkers participated, with the vast majority opting for the untimed 5-K and 3-K events. The women's timed 5-K race drew nearly 800 runners and the men's field was nearly 600 strong.
Among the thousands were dozens and dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of people wearing red caps that designated them as "mended hearts." Young and old, male and female, fit-looking and not, each is a past or current heart patient.
Phil Evans, 58, ran thanks to the pacemaker defibrillator that has kept him alive since 2007, when he suffered sudden cardiac arrest while at work.
"Usually they call it sudden cardiac death, because so few survive it," Evans said.
A coworker who had recently been trained in CPR kept him alive until paramedics arrived, Evans said. He spent three days in a coma.
Race organizers said about $260,000 was raised this year, money that "makes a difference," Evans said. In the seven years since his cardiac arrest, advancements have been made for patients like him, he said.
Besides raising money for the American Heart Association, the Heart Run raises awareness. Booths at the start/finish area Saturday on the UAA campus offered information on how to identify risk factors, how to adopt heart-healthy habits and how to perform CPR.
The sight of all of those red caps raises awareness too, Evans said -- "To know there is life after a heart attack," he said. "We are walking amongst you."
Some are racing past you.
Bruce Davison and Julie Michels set wicked paces to win titles in the Mended Heart division.
Davison, fresh off an impressive performance at the Boston Marathon, topped the men in 21:43.77, which placed him 89th among all men. Earlier this month, Davison placed 28th in the men's 65-69 age group in Boston with a time of 3:41 in the 26.2-mile race.
Michels was the top Mended Heart woman in 24:43.65. She placed fifth overall in that division and ranked 76th among all women.
Michels, 42, was born with a hole in her heart and had surgery when she was 14. She grew up in Hawaii and ran cross country and track in high school, but quit running when she moved to Anchorage nine years ago. The harsh winters kept her indoors until she had a bout of depression.
"My doctor said 'You need to go back to your hobby,' and I said, 'Are you kidding? It's cold,' '' she said.
Michels found a running partner, got back into running and has become a cheerleader for the Heart Run. She thinks it's important that members of the red-cap brigade are visible and willing to talk about their experiences.
"Share your story, because the more you do the more it encourages people," Michels said. "Some people stay in the closet, but I don't want to hide."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG