The eight-race Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series kicked off Tuesday night at Kincaid Park, the latest chapter in the yin-yang popularity of cross-country running in Alaska.
With a family emphasis, the series lures hundreds of runners on autumn evenings in September, October and November. Last year's biggest field was 716 finishers for a Sept. 30 race on the East High School trails. For the entire series, some 52 percent of the 4,744 finishers were Munchkins -- children who tackle the shortest race distances, no more than three kilometers.
Recreational runners compete in the Farm League (up to 10 kilometers) and competitive runners have the Lightning League (up to 12 kilometers).
Perhaps even more popular, last month's Lost Lake Run, a 15.7-mile backcountry run near Seward, attracted 735 runners in a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that raised $253,000 this year. How popular? Registration opened at 6 a.m. on April 1, and the field was full in 14 minutes.
But beyond those heavyweights, some Alaska cross-country runs have trouble drawing more than a few dozen participants. Perhaps that is beginning to change.
An article in the September issue of Runner's World magazine, describes a cross-country boom across the Lower 48. High school cross-country running participation has grown 12 percent the past six years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, reaching 470,668 in 2014. Post-prep races are on the rise, too.
"It's the one word I've heard more than any other from my fellow runners as I've tried to understand what's behind the quiet resurgence of cross-country running in America," notes author Louis Cinquino. "Love."
In Alaska, though, the word may be "social." As races of all stripes see more and more women participants, races with a social component seem to thrive instead of merely survive.
"It's kind of a family tradition," Cathy Janigo of the municipal Parks and Recreation Department said on Tuesday as she prepared for the opener of the 48th edition of the Anchorage race series. "Lots of families have been doing it for years. Some runners, they've been doing it for decades and now their grandkids are, too.
"Some people just want to come out and talk the whole way. So if you're just coming out and want to get some fresh air, fine."
Even with a much-longer course than the typical cross-country race, Lost Lake doesn't neglect the social aspect of its event. The post-race barbeque may be anticipated as much as the footrace.
"I think it's a combination of a couple of things," Lost Lake organizer Patrick Simpson said of his race's popularity. "The trail is gorgeous. It's a beautiful course, especially on a beautiful day. I think that is a lot of its appeal.
"We try to make it an event, too. It's not just show up and you're done. There is food and beer afterwards, nice prizes, and people like to hang around and make a day out of it. It's not just a race but an event.
"Maybe most important, it's a good cause. People feel good about the event."
And among popular cross-country races, success can breed success. Lost Lake's website lists 51 sponsors that have donated between $250 and more than $5,000 to help defray more than $60,000 in expenses to stage the race that ends at the Bear Creek Fire Department.
The Tuesday Night Race Series is "a moneymaker," too, Janigo said, contributing to other city recreational programs. Attracted by its success, such sponsors as The Children's Hospital at Providence, Skinny Raven, Steam Dot and radio station KMVN 105.7-FM have chipped in $2,500 to $5,000.
But cross-country runners seeking races with smaller fields have options. On Sept. 19, the American Diabetes Association will sponsor the DeFeet Diabetes 4-mile or 1-mile trail run at Kincaid, with sponsors hoping for 300 participants. And being Alaskans, we even have cross-country runs with our dogs, such as the Run Rover Run Canicross 5K at Kincaid's Little Campbell Lake on Sunday.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com