JUMP STARTER - David Osmond of Skagway leaps high in the air as Steam Engine No. 73 blows its whistle to start the 29th annual Klondike Trail of ‘98 International Road Relay.

Rainy night on the Klondike

Story by Josh Wilson • Photos by Jeff Brady, Josh Wilson and Dottie Demark

It was dark, cold, and rainy on the pass. Wild cheers and car horns broke the silence, and headlights cast long shadows on runners as hundreds of us ran toward the White Pass summit. Getting to Checkpoint 2 was the only concern of my dark, rainy world. It was after 10 p.m. I was breathing hard, had miles to go, and I was running in the Klondike Trail of ‘98 International Road Relay.
This year’s relay found Skagway residents again experiencing first-hand the route to the Klondike, the journey that so many explain to tourists every day. I had the opportunity to be a part of Team 46, the WP&YR Highballers, and it was a run to remember.
Having never run in any kind of race, I was excited to participate. After hearing so much about it year after year, planning to run last year but getting sick at the last minute, and tucking my fifth Skagway summer under my belt, it was time to see what all the hype was about. My highlights were the challenge and satisfaction of running my own leg, riding along and cheering runners from support vehicles, and some friendly competition with fellow team Skagway Brewing Company.
It all started downtown next to the railroad tracks on Broadway. Steam Engine No. 73 waited to blow the whistle every 30 minutes as teams took off all night racing to Whitehorse. Buckwheat Donahue manned the microphone and stirred up the crowd energy. Every half hour he announced the countdown, anticipation swelled, and 73’s whistle ripped down Broadway, launching runners down the road. Locals and visitors from Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon watched, danced, and cheered as runners took off in a light rain for leg one of 10 to Whitehorse.
My team got a good jump-start from leg one runner Valerie Jensen. Then my all-night adventure began. I jumped in the car with our support driver Wade Brown, team captain Allyson Nannini, and fellow supporter Daisy Baker.
My leg started before I knew what hit me, and I found myself pushing uphill running leg two, the 5.6-mile shortest but steepest leg from after customs to the border. It was a pitch black night, cold, and raining steadily. The steep, winding pass I was struggling up became more real as I mustered enough energy after William Moore Bridge to look over my right shoulder for the first time. I took in the view, a caravan of tiny headlights, like ants, winding up the mountain and illuminating the encroaching fog.
I grew fond of the dark, realizing it masked the waiting uphill ascent. Passing headlights only reminded me of my predicament. I sank a little on the inside as the lights revealed what I had to do. But occasionally they gave me a boost when they cast my shadow onto a roadside granite rock wall, silhouetting me and my flowing White Pass cape which I had fashioned out of our company flag.
As I passed runners and got passed by others, I thought of the unique breed of people that I was among – people who wanted to experience an adventure like the kind that many tourists hear about while riding comfortably on tour buses up the very same road. I suddenly admired the 1,300 people who wanted to run over 100 miles from one country to the next, overnight and through steep mountain passes in the cold, pouring rain.
I snapped out of my thoughts as I struggled to ascend the final crest of the summit. I finally conquered it and continued toward brightly-lit Checkpoint 2, bustling with cars and people gathered to welcome runners. I felt a rush as I doubled my speed, descending my first downhill portion. I reached the bottom and sprinted through a tunnel of cheering bodies to the finish line and straight for my teammate Severin Nelsen. I tagged Severin and shouted our motto, derived from train radio talk and our team number, “Highball 46!” My personal leg was behind me, but the night was far from over. I would continue to follow the race to Whitehorse.
I quickly learned the support vehicle routine – drive, try to figure out how to recognize your runner, pass them cheering wildly, take care not to run anyone over, find a good pullout, wait for your runner to catch up, run with them a short distance offering water and checking on them, and then repeat sleeplessly for the next 18 hours until Whitehorse.
I rode with fellow support drivers Allyson Nannini, Wade Brown, Justin and Gretchen Jasperson, Laura Stott, Nikki Hunter, and all other teammates at one point or another. We passed the time eating the junk food we had brought along, arranging drinks for runners, mustering enthusiasm to cheer them on, trying and failing to take short naps, finding creative places to use the bathroom, and inventing names for all the wacky running styles we came across. We realized, especially after running, the importance of the support crew for the runner, for the race and for team morale.
Seeing the race up close and personal brought home the uniqueness of the experience. For one, it traverses some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen, crossing country borders, time zones and eco-systems. The overnight experience was interesting. The general consensus was that we appreciated the darkness. It added something to the experience that we couldn’t quite explain.
“It was really fun not being able to see,” said teammate Severin. “You can’t see where you are going or what you are doing – just running in the rain.”
Nikki Hunter ran the 13.9 mile leg 5 before the sun rose. She said it was quite different than her previous race experience, and it was the fresh air that she appreciated.
“I really loved the nighttime air, and the mist all around was really pretty and inspiring,” she said.
I had never known in my previous summers how large-scale the relay actually is. Checkpoints lit up the sky. Most had a tent for officials to record times, shout out approaching runners, and direct the traffic of runners and vehicles. A warm fire pit awaited runners and fans at most stops. With all the people and excitement, it felt like a party.
It was the anticipation and uncertainty that made things interesting for some of the WP&YR Highballers. A couple of us didn’t know what to expect or had no preparation for what we had agreed to do. My teammates Cash Stricker, Alexis Burton and I had never raced anything before – or had time to train at all. Keith Nelson, on the other hand, was the opposite and ran 16 miles after finishing a half marathon only the weekend before.
Of course, what would a relay be without some friendly competition? We found it with fellow team Skagway Brewing Company led by team captain Mike Healy. I ran into them after my leg and exchanged some friendly trash talk with Marc Divall, Brew Co runner for leg 6. At the time we had a decent lead. I expressed my not-so-sincere regret for him, and we moved on, running into them again at the end of the next leg.
Our next meeting was after leg 6, arriving at Carcross. I recognized Brew Co members and their support bus waiting. I anxiously hoped to see our 16-mile leg 6 runner, Keith, victoriously stroll into the checkpoint before I saw our Brew Co opponent Marc. Keith showed up a couple minutes before Marc and tagged Candi Ketterman for leg 7. She took off just minutes before Brew Co’s Danielle Sakry.
The competition lingered at the next checkpoint as Candi passed the torch to Laura Stott, just before Danielle did the same to Cherith Whitman. We continued cheering both along the way. This time Brew Co closed even more distance, worrying us slightly. I and teammate Cash Stricker figured it was time for a morale boost. We grabbed our two White Pass company flags rigged to some wooden poles and waited for Laura. Anticipating our move, Marc temporarily stole my flag. After some hassle, I reacquired it as we saw Laura round the bend. We grabbed the flags and ran proudly beside her, cheering in stride to the checkpoint.
The competition escalated as our next runner Alexis Burton took off with a lead of only a couple hundred yards from Brew Co’s Bree Merkwan for the second to last leg. We watched from the side of the road as Brew Co finally passed us on leg 9. However, neither of our teams finished in time for the mandatory 1 p.m. start for the final leg 10. Our final runner, Cash, and Brew Co’s Nate Weiler had to drive ahead to embark on the final leg before all support members caught up.
Highballers and Brew Co’ers found ourselves in the same place one last time a couple miles from the finish, ready for one final cheer before the end. We waited to see Nate rush past first. Brew Co lined up for one last farewell before the finish. We cheered him on, accepting that we had been taken over, yet very satisfied with our performance.
Marc summed it up well.
“Solidarity has been the theme of our race,” he said. “It’s not about times, winning or losing. It’s about coming together as friends. The competition has been friendly, cheering for each other’s teams and helping each other out.”
Our final destination, Rotary Park in Whitehorse, was next. The rain unexpectedly gave way to a beautiful sun-shining afternoon, just in time for Cash to finish strong. One country, time zone, full night, and grueling physical challenge later, it was finally over. We collected our free t-shirts and socks, were welcomed by White Pass president Eugene Hretzay, and finished the day with a much- welcomed burrito.
The relay consisted of 147 teams and 1,338 runners. The WP&YR Highballers finished 44th of 50 teams in the mixed gender category with a final time of 18:10:40. Skagway Brewing Company finished 12th of 19 teams in the corporate category with a final time of 17:21:23 and a five minute penalty pushing their final race time to 17:26:23.
Other Skagway teams participating in the relay this year and their team captains were David Osmond’s Alaska Excursions, Kathleen Shaeffer’s Russian American Company, Beth Smith’s Skagway Pizza Station Team SNAFU, and Dottie Demark’s three walking teams, Art Sole, Gotta Have Sole, and Soled Out, which took third place in its division.
“I'm proud of all 12 girls that walked this year,” said Demark. “They did an amazing job and we had a blast. We’re looking forward to next year.”
Complete results and times can be found at www.klondikeroadrelay.com. Here are links to a list of individual Skagway runner-walker times (pdf) and overall 2010 Relay Team Times (pdf).

ON A KLONDIKE CLIP

SNAFU’s David Knapp leads the first pack out of Skagway.

Buckwheat Donahue checks in the Yukon Brewing team and their entourage of famous cut-ups. Runners get lit up by the convoy of support vehicles as they head out of Skagway and up the hill.

Cara Cosgrove of Soled Out changes socks for her shoeless walk. The Brew Co’s Joe Stephenson is handed water by captain Mike Healy on the wet first leg. Highballer Severin Nelsen tags Tyler Rose at the stage 4 exchange.

Nate Weiler of the Brew Co. runs through a gauntlet of Skagway supporters. Highballers Cash Strickler and Josh Wilson escort Laura Stott with the WP&YR flag.