The sun peeked through the July clouds just long enough for me and 100 other people to run a few miles through the woods on a Wednesday night.
Luckily for me, I was coming off a day in which I’d literally been running through the office trying to finish tasks in time to make it to the third run in the Salmon Run Series at Tsalteshi Trails, so I was already electric with energy. A chilly wind wouldn’t take the heat out of my blood, and from the look of the smiles around me, I wasn’t the only one feeling the excitement.
A little of my competitive spirit softened when I watched a herd of toddlers and young kids take off across the grass on their 1K run, led by local celebrity runner Allie Ostrander. The crowd around me, runners and spectators, cheered on the kids with gusto, alternately cooing at how cute they were and marveling at the speed of some of the others.
After the last wayward toddler made it across the finish line, I piled into the group amassing at the starting line. I’m not much of a runner — as a friend says of himself, regardless of the size of the pack, I finish in the middle — so I tend to shy away from the folks with their spandex running shorts and mesh jerseys and head for the back, where I’m not as liable to get trampled.
Behind me was a source I’d interviewed the day before. To my left, I spotted a local pastor I know getting ready to run with his kids. To my right were the daughters of another source I’ve interviewed, cracking jokes together before the race. Soon, the pack took off across the field and up the hill, many still chatting as we headed up into the thick calm of the wooded Tsalteshi Trails.
Even in a town 3,700 miles from my own family, gearing up for a sport I’m mediocre at on a good day, I felt right at home.
Even when the runners plowed through the mud puddles that dotted the trails and tackled hills that might otherwise be sworn at for their steepness, the chatter, laughter and encouragement continued.
Even coming around for the second lap when I haplessly realized that no, this was not going to be easier than last time, why did I convince myself it was, my energy tank revved up again when I caught up with a girl who I’ve seen in several of the other races so far this summer.
“I didn’t think I was going to do this today,” she said.
“You just jumped in at the last minute?” I asked (huffing and puffing).
She nodded cheerfully, tackling the hill beside me with ease.
Most people know the story of the Salmon Run Series — if not, check the Clarion from July 21 for a little background on the now six-year-old event. I ran my first one last summer and was immediately enamored with the wildly supportive atmosphere of the event, where you see runners of all activity levels, backgrounds, interests and ages. The earliest finishers raucously cheer for the rest of the runners, and along the way, family members and organizers excitedly offer encouragement.
Initially, I thought I’d just be donating my entry fee to a cause I believe in — some of the proceeds go to support the activities of conservation nonprofit the Kenai Watershed Forum, which does landmark work to conserve the salmon fisheries of the Kenai Peninsula — but I found myself looking forward to the weekly races, shaving off seconds to beat my personal record. I was shocked to find myself actually enjoying a training run earlier this spring.
Soldotna has something incredibly special in the Salmon Run Series. Not only is it a good fundraiser and fun community event, it’s also a nonjudgmental way to introduce people — children especially — to physical activity. It can be intimidating to jump into a 5K event as a new runner, knowing that you’ll probably finish toward the back of the pack. But with a beautiful course and the warm, welcoming attitude of even veteran runners, the energy is contagious, and thank heavens it is. I might not finish otherwise.
By the time I rounded the final corner in the third race, I found myself in the company of a much younger runner, who had for the last mile been alternately sprinting and walking to stay in front of me. I stuck with him on the last downhill, thinking I was being the good guy by supporting a young athlete, but was indignantly but cheerfully dumbfounded when he took off into a bounding sprint in the last 20 yards. The people around the finish line got a laugh out of my indignity, which lay atop a very true happiness.
The Salmon Run Series is a beautiful celebration of recreation and community that gracefully embodies a key attribute of Kenai and Soldotna’s people. Long may it live.
Reach Peninsula Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.