With a springtime date of mid- to late-April, the weather for the popular Boston Marathon doesn’t give much of an adjustment period for Alaska competition.
Temperatures for the 120th running of the nation’s oldest annual footrace broke into the 70s last Monday, which to most that live in the Lower 48 feels like a lovely spring day.
But for Alaskans, who are still emerging from the icy grip of winter, the weather tested the limits of heat and hydration. For the 51 men and women marathoners that call the Last Frontier home, most struggled to find the pace for which they were looking.
“This was by far my toughest (marathon),” said Kenai runner Mark Blanning, who crossed the finish line at 3 hours, 25 minutes, 53 seconds, good for 6,499th and 141st in his age group.
“This one was the hottest, and most marathons start pretty early in the morning, so you’re pretty cool.”
Another Kenai Peninsula runner, Kevin Knotek of Moose Pass, said the morning temp reached 71 degrees by 9 a.m., and the first wave of men’s runners took off an hour later.
“It was tough this year,” Knotek said. “The heat took it out of me.”
Knotek finished 12,173rd in a time of 3:44:18, and 575th in his age group.
“By the end, my clothes were caked in white from sweat,” he said. “I basically bleached myself out of hydration.”
The Patriots’ Day celebration in Massachusetts that is highlighted by the Boston Marathon often sees hundreds of thousands of spectators cheering from every mile of the course. Runners toe the start line in Hopkinton and the journey ends 26.2 miles later on Boylston Street in Boston.
The race finishes just blocks from Boston Harbor, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, where cool sea breezes moderate the climate. Further inland, where the race begins, the temperatures climb higher.
“I woke up that morning and I knew it was gonna be hot,” said Susan Craig, a Soldotna runner. Craig finished with a time of 4:23:11, which placed her 20,949th overall and 1,471st in her age division.
For each of the three peninsula runners that made the trip East, all tell stories that relate to each other in a roundabout way.
Youth spurs experience
At 56 years old, and a veteran of 20 marathons, Mark Blanning had inspiration to make his Boston return for the first time in a decade from an unlikely source.
Tyler Dinnan, 28, a former Kenai runner that has since returned to his hometown of Juneau, prodded Blanning into making a run at the biggest footrace in America for a second time.
The 2005 high school boys 4A state cross-country champion was qualified to run in Boston, but Blanning still had to prove his worth. Having previously run the race in 2006 with a time of 3:03:49, the year-round distance runner who uses opportunities like the Boston Marathon to get out of Alaska to see other places went out of state to clinch his Boston appearance.
Blanning holds a personal record of 2:44 in his younger days, a time when he ran cross-country with the Vandals at the University of Idaho.
However, all he needed to make it to Boston was a time of 2:59, which he set in October at the St. George Marathon in Utah.
Once he was in, all that was left to do was train. Blanning said he spent weekends getting out to run the trails like Resurrection Pass, Lost Lake and Skyline.
“We both run year-round, and we bumped our mileage up this winter,” Blanning said. “The biggest I got to was in the mid-60s (miles per week), all outside.”
While trying to stay upright on icy patches, Blanning worked hard to target the three-hour goal he had in mind.
Come race day, the rising temps spelled trouble. Starting in the first wave at 10 a.m., Blanning knew early that he was in for a challenge.
“It was pretty warm already, and by the first few miles I could tell it was gonna be tough,” he recounted.
Blanning came out of the gates with a 6:53 mile pace, and crossed the 6.2-mile marker at 42:43. It was around then that he began easing up to ensure himself a solid result.
“I knew I really needed to start backing off, otherwise I wasn’t gonna make it,” he said.
By mile eight, Blanning was taking advantage of every aid station, pouring water on his head to stay cool. By the halfway mark, he began walking at the stations.
Because of Blanning’s troubles, Dinnan was able to run on ahead and put a gap on his senior running partner, but his young age alone didn’t mean Dinnan was immune to the heat. Blanning said he reeled Dinnan in and caught him at around the 22nd mile, just four from the finish line. After racing side by side for a while, Blanning made his move and went ahead of his younger counterpart, but in his late marathon daze, did not even see Dinnan cross the line beside him.
“I didn’t realize it until I looked at a photo after the race that we finished together,” Blanning said.
With his wife, Kenda, cheering him on from the sidelines, Blanning crossed the banner on Boylston 12th among Alaska men. Dinnan crossed in a time of 3:27:26, a 90-second gap to Blanning which is accounted for due to Dinnan starting slightly farther forward in the first wave.
After completing the first half of the race in 1:31:57, Blanning’s second-half split slowed to 1:53:56, and he missed his goal by a whopping 25 minutes.
However, Blanning said his love for running and the outdoors may make up his mind on whether a third go at the Boston Marathon is in the cards.
“Once I forget about this one, maybe I’ll consider coming back,” he quipped.
Experience spurs inspiration
Almost 19 minutes after Blanning hustled across the finish line, Knotek was making his appearance on Boylston Street, finishing 21st among Alaska men.
While recuperating with family Thursday under a bright sun in upstate New York, Knotek unveiled his secret to his race — the 57-year-old resident of tiny Moose Pass spent five and a half months of training with one of the most successful and well-known Alaskans in the running community, Jerry Ross of Anchorage.
“He brought me to a point I’ve never been in my life,” Knotek said about the gain in his fitness level. “I’ve never had legs like that before.”
With Ross sending him weekly updates and training schedules via a phone application, Knotek was consistently filling his weeks with miles of running on the Seward Highway, which runs directly through Moose Pass, and the surrounding mountain trails.
“I did a 20-miler on the treadmill one time,” Knotek said. “That was a lousy weekend.”
Prior to Ross intervening, Knotek had little marathon experience. At age 51, Knotek began taking on the sport when his son, Miles, a 2013 Seward High School graduate, started gaining a reputation as a runner.
“My son took my credit card and signed us up for Bird Ridge one year, which was my first race,” Knotek said with a laugh.
Knotek entered the 2013 Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage — which is a Boston qualifier — and popped a time of 3:49, just nine minutes off the qualifying mark. When a friend mentioned this to him, Knotek decided to go for it. In the 2015 Mayor’s race, Knotek finished with a time of 3:31, putting him in the field in Hopkinton.
In his inaugural Boston appearance in 2015, Knotek ran 3:28:14, a PR for the 56-year-old.
After training on his own schedule last year got him injured just three weeks out from the Boston Marathon, Knotek realized some outside help could go a long way. With Ross leading the way, Knotek managed to put in 650 miles of running in five and a half months of training.
“The quality was there, and I wasn’t just going out there and beating myself up,” he said. “It gave me legs.”
Last Monday, Knotek managed to get far into the race on a solid pace, checking split times on his watch and making sure they matched up with what he had written down on his arm in a dark Sharpie.
The turning point of the race came up the infamous “Heartbreak Hill,” which awaits runners just past the 20-mile mark.
“My race plan was to let it go at that point,” he said. “I knew the wheels were coming off, and at mile 22, it got tougher, and at mile 23, I went into survival mode.”
Ultimately, Knotek suffered muscle cramps that prevented him from hitting his goal of 3:25, but he knew it was worth it with his wife, Erin, a native of New York state, and three brother-in-laws and a sister-in-law cheering from the sides.
Inspiration spurs determination
At 47 years old, Soldotna runner Susan Craig is a grizzled veteran of marathon running, having competed in approximately 40 of them, to her count, since her early 20s.
On Monday, Craig finished off her race at 4:32:11, about 50 minutes slower than the PR she ran as a younger woman. The finish placed her 19th among Alaska women.
“Right about a year ago, I injured my hamstring pretty severely, and it bothers me still sometimes,” Craig said.
But for Craig, no excuse is strong enough to warrant missing a race, and part of her inspiration is drawn from tragedy.
After making her marathon debut in 1992, Craig soon birthed her first child, Matthew, but Matthew died from leukemia at the age of 4.
In honor of her deceased son, Craig ran the Honolulu Marathon on the island of Oahu in 1997 and raised $5,000 for the Leukemia Society.
“It made it a really special event for me,” she said.
Craig completed the race with two friends that she had met through the society, and in a motivational display, helped one of them who had began struggling with cramping.
“We stayed with her to help her finish, and that’s what my son would’ve done,” Craig said. “He always tried to help others out, even at a young age.”
At the time, Craig lived in Soldotna, but eventually moved Outside in 2000. Soon, she had two daughters — Katie and Emma — while living in Los Angeles.
In 2005, Craig came face to face with another inspirational moment of marathon running. While living in her hometown of DeQuincy, Louisiana, a small town of 3,200 near the Texas border, Craig decided that the St. Jude marathon in Memphis, Tennessee, was to be the next race on her calendar. It was there that she found herself in the middle of Hurricane Rita. In the days after the disaster, which had her family evacuated to Memphis, Craig had a decision to make.
“The first day there I was feeling sorry for myself, and my uncle said, ‘You’re still gonna run that marathon, right?’” Craig recalled. “So I laced up my running shoes, because he was right, you can’t spend your life feeling sorry for yourself.”
This year, Craig made the field in Boston with a qualifying effort at the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas, which she calls one of her favorites. In 2011, Craig was the women’s winner of the race with a PR of 3:40:12.
Last Monday, Craig found herself once again in a struggle to make it through, with the hot weather slowing her pace. By the halfway mark, Craig had been running for just over two hours.
However, Craig made the finish on the strength of the local crowd, which she credits as one of the most energetic and motivational crowds any race in the world can produce.
“The crowd support is amazing,” she said. “The people of Boston really love their marathon, and there are like a million spectators along the course.
“It’s a unique experience.”