Willow Winter Solstice Race Recap

The single word that best sums up Saturday’s Willow Winter Solstice trail run is “pivotal”.  While my performance had nothing to do with that designation, time, place, and company were everything.  Some of the turning points from the run are:

Family

As the only declared “runner” in my little nuclear family unit, I’ve generally doomed myself to lonely race days.  I sometimes have my tiny fan club at the finish line, but I’ve taken myself to 5 of my last 6 races.  With small boys, and a sometimes long wait time between start and finish, it often makes more sense that way.

For this run, I was trying to figure out the logistics of racing in possibly finicky weather conditions as a nursing mama with a hungry infant waiting with a daddy who was also entertaining a preschooler.  Overall, the situation sounded pretty selfish of me.  Inspiration hit, and I emailed the race director.  She was prompt in her reply that the 5k was indeed a fun run, and my kiddos would be welcome on the course. I registered both John and myself for what would be a first 5k for 3 of the 4 of us.

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Alaska

Usually, my pre-race prep involves the following list: Shoes?  Check.  Shorts?  Check.  Sports bra?  Check and done.  For this weekend, I wasn’t even certain where I should begin.  Do I even need my running shoes?  Can I use those with snowshoes, or just spikes?  Should I just wear snow boots?  How many clothing layers will be warm enough, but not too warm?

Last year, the run, which also hosts a half and full marathon, was held in -30* weather.  This year, the forecast predicted temps in the 20’s and some snowfall.  Since I planned on not actually running much, due to the dual tasks of coaxing a 4 year old through 3 miles of snow and simultaneous babywearing, I opted for slightly warmer layers.  I ended up with fleecy tights under ski pants, snow boots, an Icebreaker top, fleece, and light water-resistant shell.  John and Silas layered similarly.  I put Skye in fleecy onesie jammies and a plush bear-suit, with socks on both his hands and feet, and planned to fit him into a front-carrier with a fluffy blanket covering the whole assembly.

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Post-baby

Even though I’ve been going to the gym regularly since Skye was three weeks old, I’m not even close to being fit enough to actually run a 5k.  On the treadmill, I’m up to half a mile at a time, which is a joke compared to the effort it takes to run three miles in 8” of fresh snow.  The most liberating part was that none of that mattered.  Brushing all preconceived notions about racing aside, my biggest goal for the day was to have a memorable day with my family in the beautiful place we live.Image

Winter Solstice

The particular day of the year for the run represents the largest scale pivot point of the day.  The first true day of winter is really something to celebrate in Alaska, because from here on out, the days are just getting longer.  I’m pleased to say that the short days really haven’t been “that” bad.  Our sunrises have been around 10am, with sunsets at 4pm.  That leaves a modest portion of the day with sunlight.  It really only messes with my head on days I don’t work, when getting ready for the day with a cup of coffee mysteriously lasts until lunch.

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The Race Course

The race site was a little over an hour up the Parks Highway from home.  We left around 7am for the Willow Community Center.  The driving directions from the race website only said “Parks Highway, Mile 70”, which turned out to be completely adequate.  In the Community Center, I took the opportunity to see what the other runners were wearing.  Everyone was in running shoes, some with spikes or snow tires, and some with gaiters, some without.  Black running tights, presumably fleece lined, were the universal choice, with a variety of running jackets concealing whatever top layers were chosen. Everyone was topped with a headlamp, including us, as it was the only required equipment.  Start time was 9am, and still in the dark.

The three of us pinned on our race bibs, I situated the baby, and it was time to go!  John was feeling ambitious, and started out encouraging Silas to try to run, at least to hurry, but the attempt turned out to be futile, for a few reasons.  For one, the newer snow layer was soft and deep, turning every step into a trudge.  Mainly though, Si is 4.  “Sense of urgency” is not a factor in his MO.  He spent at least 2 miles of the 5k holding my hand and jabbering away.

The 5k course was easy enough to follow: out across a field, down a road, around a lake to the turnaround, then back.  Taking up the tail end made it even easier to navigate: in the hour before sunrise we only had to follow the twinkle of bobbing headlamps.

The three of us marched along over the snowy landscape, with the baby sleeping snuggly.  About 2/3 of the way to the turn around, it started getting lighter and we began crossing paths with the actual runners on their way back.  Every runner we passed appeared to be struggling with the resistance the snow was providing. Only one runner was in snowshoes, but that seemed like the smartest idea of all.  I really wished I had been in mine.  A few runners looked downright annoyed, and I had a hard time imagining signing up for 26.2 or even 13.1 miles of that abuse, though I may feel differently next year.

After passing the lake, which was indiscernible from a snowy meadow, we made a right to the turn around, which was a woman in a red jacket.  At the halfway point, John, who had been trying to maintain some dignity by at least hiking quickly, gave in to our casual plodding pace.  He even pulled out his e-cig, which is quite the epic sight during a 5k.

As the sun rose, we were able to take in our surroundings, which was nothing short of absolute serenity.  We trudged on, and the community center came into view.  During our final approach to the finish, cheering and shouting began, and we were surprised by  the little crowd that was waiting to usher us in, even though we had easily taken twice as long as the next runner before us.

Inside we were greeted with hot soup and the relief of no more slogging through the snow.  We stayed until 11, two hours after the gun, and no half marathoners had returned.  When the results posted two days later, I saw 2:20 (men’s) and 2:46 (women’s) were the 13.1 winning times, and the first marathoner came in at 4:36 (5:37 for women).  Winter events are certainly a different kind of racing in Alaska.

This run did turn out to be a meaningful way to celebrate the winter solstice.  Though we still have plenty of winter to go, potentially until May, the days are indeed getting longer, albeit quite slowly.  Because the idea of the longer races holds very little appeal at the present moment, I’m thinking the 5k would make an amazing family tradition.  Every year will present something new and unexpected: wildly different conditions to plan for and navigate through, as well as adapting to the changing and developing abilities of my two little boys.  It will take years, and plenty of practice, but we may even reach a point as a family that this 3.1 mile, first-day-of-winter race is, in fact, a run.

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