At 50 years, the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon is a solstice event to celebrate

SPONSORED: Alaska’s largest marathon is a scenic tour of Anchorage and an iconic part of the state’s sports history.

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

Every year thousands of people celebrate summer solstice by taking part in the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon, one of Alaska’s premier races welcoming runners from across the nation and world.

The event is crossing a major milestone as it celebrates its 50-year anniversary in 2024. As the largest marathon in Alaska, it showcases not only Anchorage’s spectacular trails but also its welcoming local community.

“The race has gotten bigger over the years, yet it still has such a community focus. To me, that is really important,” said Ryan McWilliams, marathon race director and UAA head coach for cross country, track and field.

On Saturday, June 22, runners and walkers will again take to Anchorage’s trails for the event. Between the marathon, half-marathon, 4.7K Solstice Classic, marathon relay and a free Kids Mile run, there is something for everyone.

‘Everyone who does it has a story’

The inaugural Mayor’s Marathon took place in 1974. It’s one of Alaska’s older long-distance races, behind the Juneau Marathon, which held its first race in 1971, and Fairbanks’ Equinox Marathon, which began in the 1960s.

“Every marathon is an odyssey and everyone who does it has a story of their own race,” said Anchorage resident Jim Renkert.

Renkert is a local history buff. He completed the marathon several times as a teenager in the 1970s.

“It’s important for the current generation to learn about the race’s history,” said Renkert. “Some of these folks … were pioneers in what they did.”

Mayor’s Marathon runners have had many moments of glory over the decades. In 1975, 18-year-old Vernon Campbell ran the race in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 26 seconds, wearing a pair of mail-order Nike Bostons. Thirty years later, Campbell raced again and placed third overall, smashing the record in the 45 and older division.

Other moments are uniquely Alaskan. Moose and bears are often spotted and have even blocked the course.

Anchorage Assembly member Karen Bronga won the women’s race in 1982 and 1983. One of her favorite memories on the trail was when she spotted a mother black bear with cubs. They were standing on their hind legs, watching as racers passed.

“The bears were taking in the runners like they were spectators,” she said.

Participants make the event special in their own individual ways. Last year, a Mississippi runner finished the half-marathon in a Wonder Woman costume, completing a 13-year quest to run a half-marathon in every state while wearing the superhero outfit.

The event is a partnership between the Municipality of Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department and the University of Alaska Anchorage Athletics Department. Proceeds from the race support maintenance and improvement of city parks and student athletes at UAA.

ConocoPhillips Alaska has been the race’s presenting sponsor since 2001. The company provides financial support, event planning assistance and countless hours of volunteer help every year, said McWilliams.

“It’s more than a sponsorship for ConocoPhillips,” said McWilliams. “It’s about community.”

About 700 people ran last year’s marathon, and roughly 1,300 participated in the shorter courses. The race is certified by USA Track and Field as a Boston Marathon Qualifier.

Volunteers also play a big part in the experience and can sign up online to help make the event unforgettable and enjoyable for everyone. McWilliams has discovered a whole new side of Anchorage during his 14 years helping out with the race.

“This event builds community,” said McWilliams. “I know so many more people in our community because of it.”

A spectacular summer event ‘puts Anchorage on the map’

The Mayor’s Marathon was created to bring more visitors to the city, said McWilliams, and nearly every year all 50 states are represented in its roster. Runners often stay in Alaska afterwards, boosting economic benefits to local businesses.

Visiting racers have many reasons to travel to Anchorage, said Bronga.

“It puts Anchorage on the map as a place where you can run a quality race that you could get a fast time on—and there’s a party afterwards, and Anchorage people are friendly,” said Bronga.

The course has taken many routes over the years. The early days of the marathon were run partially on the “tank trail” paths at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Today, the trail mostly weaves through municipal and public lands.

Many Anchorage residents know and love these trails. Running them on race day can be eye-opening and spark renewed appreciation for Anchorage.

“Rarely do you run them all in one go. It’s cool to see how connected the city is,” said McWilliams.

On race day, the sun rises at 4:21 a.m. and sets at 11:42 p.m. While the days are long, for visitors, relatively cool weather may offer a respite, said Renkert.

“It’s a great summer marathon because it’s usually not too hot, " said Renkert.

The marathon begins at Kincaid Park at the ConocoPhillips Soccer Stadium. Runners trace Cook Inlet, running 9 miles on the iconic Tony Knowles Coastal Trail before turning east toward the Chugach Mountains. The trail then heads through UAA’s forested trails, to Far North Bicentennial Park and back down the Chester Creek Greenbelt, ending at Delaney Park Strip.

The popular half-marathon starts at the stadium and explores Kincaid Park before heading out on the coastal trail to finish at the park strip.

The shorter Solstice Classic race is accessible for a wide range of athletic abilities. It starts and ends at the park strip, taking participants through part of the city’s Chester Creek Greenbelt.

At the finish line, all racers are greeted by cheering supporters, live music and photo opportunities. The Downtown Summer Solstice Festival takes place the same day, creating even more festivities for participants to enjoy.

A friendly face at mile 21

Another way to participate is from the sidelines.

Carla Beam moved into her house in the U-Med District 24 years ago. Part of the property’s charm was the trail behind it, which is used year-round by the community.

Her house sits at mile 21 of the marathon route. In past years, Beam watched as neighbors cheered runners on during the marathon, spraying them down with hoses and handing out popsicles.

“I thought, ‘what a cool neighborhood,’” Beam said.

She has run the race a few times. By mile 21, “you’re really starting to feel the pain,” she said.

One year, she asked a runner friend if he wanted anything as he passed by her home during the race. He jokingly said he’d like a beer. So, she made sure to have a cold one ready for him when he arrived.

“The other runners got jealous,” Beam joked.

Today, Beam’s house is a well-known stop for racers who want a free cold drink. Her cooler is filled with beverages like sodas and water. She finds that runners and walkers at the back of the race will sometimes stop, sit, and enjoy the moment before continuing on.

“It is so much fun to do,” Beam said. “It brings a smile to peoples’ faces.”

She offers words of encouragement to participants. Some remember her from prior years.

“I got a marriage proposal one year. That was fun,” she laughed.

Beam believes that the Mayor’s Marathon benefits everyone—visitors and residents alike.

“It showcases not just the beauty of our state, but the warmth of Alaskan people,” Beam said. “It’s one of those neighborhood events that makes me feel like I live in a really wonderful community.”

Join the festivities on Saturday, June 22, as a racer, volunteer or supporter and experience an Alaska solstice tradition.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.