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What makes Tuesday Night Race Series so beloved in Anchorage?

Alli Harvey
Runners head to the finish line at a Tuesday Night Race Series event. Erik Hill

I don’t consider myself a competitive person, but my best friend corrects me when I say this. She says I get competitive at things I enjoy. Specifically, Scrabble. I’m not sure she’s right. I don’t feel the need to win, I just really, really love Scrabble.

My friend and I agree on one thing, though. I’m not all that good at running, at least not in the traditional sense. When I think of good runners, I think of qualities such as speed, a kind of natural litheness, flexibility -- and maybe most of all, the drive to win. On the other hand, grace is to my running form as dainty is to an elephant. When running, I take my time, lurching and thudding along. I imagine small animals fleeing in my wake. Winning doesn’t matter.

Yet, I sign up for races -- especially the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series, which begins next week. I think this race series is awesome, especially for a runner like me. It’s organized to appeal to runners of all abilities.

Autumn descends quickly in Anchorage, and in our Alaska spirit of buckling down and banding together, the Tuesday Night Race Series brings people of all ages and abilities together. The energy from hundreds of feet thrumming down on cooler ground, crunching on leaves and dodging roots, forms a tangible sense of community. Few events consistently create this feeling as well as the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series.

The lowdown

The race series kicks off Sept. 9 and runs every Tuesday through Nov. 4 at various Anchorage locations, from Kincaid Park to Russian Jack Springs Park. Each race begins at 6:30 p.m., leaving time to get there after work. By November, racers will finish in the dark.

The races are not traditional (just like my running form) in that the course is often set by volunteers and remains secret until just before the race. If that makes you anxious, rest assured: There are three different courses tailored for different abilities.

The Munchkin League is always a distance of 1- to 3-K, and is billed as the league for “kids and kids at heart.”  The Farm League is for recreational runners, varying from 3- to 10-K. Finally, the Lightning League is 4- to 12-K and for competitive runners -- and its course can take some interesting routes. “Lightning courses have been known to follow narrow game trails, cross streams, and slog through swamps,” according to the Municipality of Anchorage’s website.

The other two leagues tend to follow heavily used trails, and with fields occasionally exceeding 1,000 people, the night can feel very busy. For some runners, this is a drawback as the race has gained popularity.

For others, the energy of the crowd is a motivator. It can be an incredible feeling to run in a throng of people, even if the pace feels close to 30 minutes per mile at the start. According to Brad Cooke, a recreation supervisor with Anchorage Parks and Recreation, “It’s a very family-oriented race. Even when it’s raining sideways, we’ve gotten 600 to 800 people.” Opening day in 2013 drew a record crowd of 1,300.

Alaska Methodist University beginnings

The Tuesday Night Races have been run since 1967, when the Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University) launched fall training nights for its ski team. Nordic ski legend Jim Mahaffey was originally behind the races, which originated “as the bridge event between summer activities and winter activities so people didn’t lose their fitness levels,” explained Margaret Timmerman, outdoor programs coordinator with Parks and Recreation. The races expanded to include APU’s ski team rivals at UAA and what is now the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA). Several years later, APU handed the races off to the municipality. Jerry Walton, then outdoor programs coordinator, organized races for 30 years before Timmerman took them on in 2001. “He wanted young runners to see elite runners,” said Timmerman of the vision behind the races. “He wanted to make this an event that many people could participate in.”

In 2008, the race was renamed in honor of the late Bonny Sosa, a beloved community member who was alarmed at the obesity epidemic in children. She co-founded the Healthy Futures program with husband Sam Young to emphasize daily physical activity by Alaska’s youth. The Munchkin League races help kids achieve their weekly physical activity challenge.

In its 47 years, the Tuesday Night Races have been canceled just twice, due to staff illness and a high wind event. This is a sobering fact for those of us who tend to crawl, spandex and all, onto the couch at the first raindrop or snowflake.

Healthy races

When you sign up for a typical race months ahead of time, there’s some expectation of training to boost performance.

When you sign up for a race like the Bonny Sosa series on Tuesday night, the expectation becomes more about getting outside, seeing people and having fun -- whatever that “fun” looks like to you. The races allow adults and children to get out and play together.

Too often, our “recommended allotment of physical activity” feels painfully dull, so prescriptive. But on Tuesday night, there is a sense of fun, almost like a recess. It feels healthy and satisfying, more than simply hopping on the treadmill at the gym, or running a tired route. Many entrants walk the course too -- again, the point is to get outside and be a part of something bigger than your own routine. As of last year there is even an untimed course for those who want it, “because there are a lot of folks who really don’t care about the time,” according to Timmerman. About a third of participants now ‘race’ this way, which underscores the point of Tuesday Night Races.

“It’s kind of a grassroots race for Anchorage,” Cooke said. “It’s got such a heavy volunteer and community member involvement, and the people that are setting the courses are people that have been doing it for years ... there’s this connection you make with something you’ve been a part of as it grew ... like watching plants grow, or families grow. It’s just cool to be tied in and be a part of it.”

In an age when Anchorage footraces can cost upward of $30 -- sometimes more than $100 for a marathon -- the cost is appealing too. Kids pay a whopping $2 and it’s $7 for adults -- with discounts if you sign up for the entire series, and the proceeds help offset costs for other Parks and Rec programs, especially for youth.

With the races as popular as they are, carpool if you can and arrive early. Leave the pup at home too. The schedule and information, family/season passes are on the muni website

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.