Six runners entered and completed Saturday’s Cape Blossom Marathon in Kotzebue, and from the sound of it, six people won titles.
Hannah Atkinson, who ran and helped organize the race, won the piggyback division.
“It turned out much different than I thought it was going to be,” Atkinson said. “Everyone ended up running different courses.”
Mucking things up was — surprise, surprise — the weather.
Staging a 26.2-mile race above the Arctic Circle in a place with limited roads likely would be a challenge anytime, but holding it a couple of days before the autumnal equinox almost guarantees trouble.
And so it was that 10 mph winds from the northwest whipped up the Chukchi Sea and sent waves crashing into Sadie Creek, a spot marathoners had to cross twice, at about Mile 11 and again at about Mile 24.
It’s not a long crossing, and sometimes gravel from the beach closes the mouth of the creek and you can cross it on the gravel, Atkinson said.
But between a rainy summer and a windy day, Sadie Creek was deep and wild come race day.
“Waves were coming into the creek, and we figured that we would cross it using chest waders,” Atkinson said. “We got a pair donated to use during the race and we had a volunteer stationed there to help with the waders.”
Five of the six entrants made it across the creek. Jesse Klejka of Bethel, the unofficial overall winner, did not.
“The leader got there before the volunteer, so he turned around and did a different marathon course,” Atkinson said. “One person ran across without waders. At one point the volunteer gave piggyback rides. It was a variety of different ways across it.”
Atkinson used the chest waders on her way out. The creek was about waist-deep then, she said.
On her return trip a couple of hours later, the tide was coming in and the creek was chest-deep. The waders had gotten pretty soggy by then, so volunteer Quinn Iten put Atkinson on his back and carried her across.
Atkinson finished in 6 hours, 21 minutes, according to her watch. Klejka, who ran a marathon distance despite his Sadie Creek detour, finished in 3:48:44, according to his watch.
There were no official times. No entry fees. No prizes. Precious few aid stations.
The race was so only-in-Alaska, there were signup sheets for marathoners (6 of them), half marathoners (10 of them, including “Will Wiese” and “Will’s mom”) and 4-wheeler support (11 of them).
It was so only-in-Alaska, recommended gear included bear spray and an inReach device.
It was so only-in-Alaska, sled dog puppies from a kennel on the beach tagged along with runners throughout the day. “They ran quite a lot that day, and they were great companions to have,” Atkinson said. And yes, some of them crossed Sadie Creek.
It was so only-in-Alaska, it came with a land acknowledgement noting it was being held on Iñupiaq lands. Cape Blossom, which juts into Kotzebue Sound 13 miles away from town, was originally called Igluġruat, meaning “old houses,” and was named after ancient beaver houses that have since washed away.
“Willie Goodwin recalls seeing the beaver houses when he was a young man,” says the acknowledgement, researched by Atkinson. “Igluġruat is the tallest feature on the landscape (and) is used as a look out for seal and beluga hunting.”
Atkinson, 29, has lived in Kotzebue since she was 14 and works for the National Park Service as a cultural anthropologist. She participates in shorter races in Kotzebue — home of the Mosquito Haven Half Marathon — but she’s never heard of a full marathon happening there until now.
Roads in Kotzebue are at a premium. Front Street is paved and a little more than a mile long, Atkinson said. Base Hill road is unpaved, goes about 5 miles out of town toward Cape Blossom, and the hill leads down to the beach. An 8-mile road loops through the tundra.
People on 4-wheelers sometimes camp at Cape Blossom, and Atkinson has hiked through the tundra to get there. Last summer she decided to run there via the beach.
“That’s when I realized it was 13 miles from town to Cape Blossom and I thought maybe I should turn this into a half marathon or a marathon,” she said.
Atkinson has helped organized Kotzebue’s Kobuk 440 sled dog race for the last three years, and knowledge gained from that plus help from friend James Austin V helped make the marathon happen. Austin, accompanied by sled dog puppies for part of her run, finished in 4:51:11.
Race day brought rain, wind and temperatures in the low 30s. Besides the raging waters of Sadie Creek, runners contended with tall deposits of grass, mud and water blocking the beach. Atkinson called them mud slumps.
“About a mile or two from Sadie Creek there were mud slumps coming out of the tundra,” she said. “This happens sometimes on that part of the course. Last year you were able to make it over on a 4-wheeler, so I was expecting it to be easy to cross that area.
“This year there’s a series of (places) where tundra is coming down into the ocean. You had to scramble over these slump piles, run a little on the beach, and then there’s another one. There were four of them.
“Mud slumps turned around a bunch of people.”
Atkinson navigated them twice, and the second time was so much harder she came up with a mantra: “Don’t get stuck in the mud.”
“It was much worse the second time,” she said. “I was really tired and the water was higher. You could still make it over them, but it felt scarier and harder. Those waves were coming up higher and there was less beach in some places.”
Only two marathoners made it past the mud slumps. The others devised new courses on the fly, and all of them ran 26 miles.
“Which I think was amazing,” Atkinson said. “To not have it go as planned and get turned around and still finish a marathon.”
This story has been updated with marathon times for Jesse Klejka and James Austin V.