Outdoors/Adventure

What makes runners so ardent, and so plentiful? Maybe it’s the birch pollen

It's spring. Run.

Everyone runs in the spring. Look at the running calendars. There is some type of running event every weekend in Anchorage. Fairbanks skips only an occasional weekend from mid-May until the Equinox marathon in September.

It remains an unknown what drives otherwise sane people to push their bodies into the territory of physical abuse. On Saturday, there was a half-marathon in Fairbanks called the Two-Way Torture Test. Not content with causing a single participant extreme discomfort, this race runs pairs of like-minded folks in opposite directions on a closed course. This is one of those races where it can truly be said the trail is uphill in both directions. A 13-mile race is not for the timid.

The snow has not been gone for that long, and the summer road-robins are training for 5Ks and 10Ks. Most runners can't pass on a running event, even though they know payment will come in the form of blisters and sore calf muscles.

For those who want to run but are shy about going out where the entire world can see and judge their fitness, or lack thereof, there is an alternative. Fitfam.com is a nationwide virtual running community. It hosts a half-dozen or more running events each year.

These contests have an innovative format. Participants have a specified window in which to run their selected distance. Most races are 5K, 10K or 13.1 miles (a half marathon). You simply sign up and pay a token entry fee. Once your run is completed, send in your time and a photo. Fitfam will send you a T-shirt and some additional swag.

I may be naive, but I doubt that many competitors cheat. My wife ran a 5K with Fitfam a couple of years ago in February. She ran in bunny boots in minus-5 degrees.

There were the expected sore muscles and blisters for the next week. Typical.

But why?

The phrase "crazy as a March hare" comes to mind. I think it's the birch pollen in the air. It has gotten so bad this spring that Delta Junction has formed a runners club. Marathoners are so crazy that some dude from Michigan is contemplating joining the Delta Club. The Delta Windrunners, as they will be called, are considering hosting a race.

I will be wrangled into marking the course. Flagging the trail has some attraction.There are plenty of interesting things along a three-mile trail in the woods.

A 5K that starts and ends in a city also requires a road-crossing guard or two. There will be timers and maybe a local sponsor. Some folks will bring the family dog and all of the kids.

Instead of just a gathering of wild-eyed runners, a running event can turn into a community get-together. Those without a big interest in going fast can enjoy a three-mile walk with their friends – and make new ones. Such camaraderie is something all towns can benefit from.

Ultramarathons are the latest craze. These are races of 50-plus miles. They have always been around but lately are becoming more common. The Terahumara Indians, who live in Northern Mexico, have long set the standard for long-distance running. They call themselves Raramari, meaning "swift runners," and they excel at traveling long distances with minimal gear. There's no fancy running gear for these guys.

A recent trip to a high-tech sports shop left me shaking my head. The salesman was selling a running shoe. It looked like a run-of-the-mill tennis shoe to me, except for the $180 price tag. During the sales pitch, it was mentioned that the shoe was good for about 500 miles before it began to break down internally. You'd pay less for a car tire that is expected to last 40,000 miles. The Raramari ran in sandals, or barefoot. I'm with them.

As nuts as it seems, all of these summer runs bring people together in a very healthy way. The trick is not going too far, too fast. A good running partner helps with that; after all, you can't talk when you're out of breath. Running with friends also helps with the motivational side. It is easier to jump out of bed at 6 a.m. when you know someone is waiting for you.

So, I am off into the woods to start knocking a little more of that birch pollen loose. But I might wear a face mask to keep me from being affected.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.