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Running

50 years later, Tuesday night is still the time to run in Anchorage

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: September 12
  • Published September 11

Runners take off from a field at Alaska Pacific University in the first race of this year’s Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series, which is celebrating ita 50th anniversary. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Back when the Tuesday Night Race Series first began, the footraces were intimate gatherings of cross-country skiers and members of Anchorage's small running community.

Each week they raced on trails carved by ski coach Jim Mahaffey into the woods around what is now Alaska Pacific University.

Mahaffey never foresaw the day when the weeknight runs would attract a thousand runners ranging in ability from elite athletes to 1-year-olds being pushed in strollers.

"Fifty years ago you could count the number of runners in Anchorage on one hand," he said.

Race founder Jim Mahaffey was on hand to kick off the 50th anniversary of the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

On Tuesday,  Mahaffey, 88, helped usher in the 50th edition of the races series, giving 1,068 runners the command to "Go!" on a warm and sunny evening at APU.

What started as a grass-roots effort five decades ago still has a grass-roots feel.

The original series was part of AMU's dryland training, but everyone was welcomed.

"There weren't very many races then, so those folks had so little opportunity to run, I opened it up to everyone," Mahaffey said.

Same goes for today. Tuesday nights are three races in one: The Lightning League for the elite and otherwise swift, the Farm League for recreational runners and the Munchkin League for little kids. All run different courses of varying lengths.

The Munchkins division came along later, after Mahaffey handed off the series to the municipality and former Anchorage Parks and Recreation employee Jerry Walton took over.

"He turned it into a family thing," recalled Dee Mahaffey, Jim's wife.

The series has become a beloved family institution. It's older than the Iditarod, older than the Great Alaska Shootout, older than the Mayor's Marathon. Last year, the eight races drew a combined 7,127 runners.

Sasha McCole with Sport Clips gives Lucy Abad, 6, a colorful hairdo. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Tuesday's scene was more festive than usual, because it was an anniversary party. There was free ice cream at one booth and a place to get your hair spray-painted in crazy colors at another.

Bringing everything full circle was an Alaska Pacific University booth, where black-and-white photos of some of the early races were on display — and where several APU skiers were on hand to lead runners through prerace warm-ups.

Those skiers are the descendants of Mahaffey's AMU program, the very worthy predecessor of the vaunted APU ski team.  In the 1970s, AMU skiers routinely competed at the Winter Olympics. At this year's Olympics, APU sent half a dozen skiers to the Olympics.

"I remember running through the Hillside," said Tyler Kornfield, a who grew up in Anchorage and is one of APU's Olympic skiers. "You never know what the course will be like. They put us in a bog once and a couple of us lost our shoes."

Alaska Pacific University skiers lead kids through a prerace warmup. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The races are always held on trails. You can check the municipality's website to see where each week's race is — maybe APU, maybe Kincaid, maybe Chugiak, maybe somewhere else — but until you show up, you don't know what trails will be used or what distances will be run.

"That little bit of adventure — I love that part," said Melissa White, who started attending the races when she moved to Anchorage eight years ago. "Sometimes you end up lost with the group."

On Tuesday, White showed up with her mom, Susan Breznick, and her daughter, 2-year-old Eedaa. Susan and Eedaa were both first-time participants.

Some of the city's best runners have competed on Tuesday nights. Michael Friess, who coaches cross country and track at UAA, remembers dueling with Marcus Dunbar decades ago when they were among the state's top runners.

On this Tuesday, he was preparing to run with two of his grandchildren, 2-year-old Beau and 4-year-old Adeline.

"I remember freezing my butt off in a few of them in the mid-70s," Friess said. "…Marcus and I rubbed elbows a couple of times, and I remember the time at Kincaid when we ran smack into a moose."

"Or the time we were at Service and got surprised by the bees," said Judy Besh, standing next to Friess. "I got stung 14 times."

Besh said she used to do the races when her daughter was a little girl. "Now she's 32, and we're here again," she said.

Runners weave through the APU trails. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Several years ago the series was named in honor of Bonny Sosa, who founded and was the director of Healthy Futures. But other than the bigger crowds, not a lot else has changed.

There are no race bibs. There are no expensive entry fees ($7 per person; $2 if you're 17 or younger). The series begins in early September and ends the week of Halloween — eight races in all, capped by a costume run.

As Mahaffey waited for Tuesday's races to begin, he pointed toward the end of an open field near the University Lake dog park.

"This is the original Campbell Airstrip Road," he said. "That how you got from downtown to Campbell Airstrip."

As he spoke, more and more people arrived, some in sleek racing clothes, some in sweatpants, some in blue jeans. Some were back for their 10th or 20th or 100th time, and some were newcomers.

"I'm very proud of this," Mahaffey said.

Tuesday Night Race Series

Tuesday's races begin at 6:30 p.m. You can sign up in advance or on race day from 5:30-6:15 p.m.

Here is the schedule for this year's remaining races:

Sept. 18 — Chugiak High School
Sept. 25 — Service High School
Oct. 2 — Russian Jack Springs North
Oct. 9 — Kincaid Park
Oct. 16 — to be announced
Oct. 23 — to be announced
Oct. 30 — Kincaid Park (costume run and awards banquet)

Here are the entry fees:

18 and over — $7
17 and under — $2
Adult season pass — $35
Youth season pass — $16
Family season pass (2 adults, 3 kids) — $70

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