The Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon is synonymous to solstice in Alaska. It’s a race whose history dates back more than 40 years as a way to celebrate the endless daylight (and, if we’re lucky, sunshine!) on the longest day of the year.
This year, it gets even better. The Mayor’s Marathon has now expanded to include its first-ever Health and Fitness Expo, to be held at the newly opened Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. With the advent of the expo – which is a destination in itself – UAA is able to have a bigger presence in an annual event that it co-hosts with the city each year.
“We anticipate 4,500 runners and another 5,000 coming through the doors,” said Dustin Morris, director of corporate partnerships at UAA’s athletic department. “The building is going to be very much alive.”
Michael Friess, head track and cross-country running coach at UAA and the primary organizer behind the race, said the expo is exactly what Mayor’s needed.
“You see events like this at a lot of the bigger marathons, like the L.A. Marathon, and that’s what Mayor’s Marathon has become for Alaska,” Friess said. “I think this expo will give the feel-good atmosphere that we are looking for and give people a real sense of what it’s like to live in Alaska.”
As race registration continues, Friess said runners from all but three states are represented, as well as 20 countries. That is quite a lot of growth from the first race, which was held in 1974 and boasted a hardy field of about 70 racers. By the mid 1990s, however, the field had grown to 1,500. Today, the numbers are approaching 5,000.
“Our participation continues to grow, and this is being seen as a destination marathon,” Friess said. “People come here and combine their race with a vacation to a place like no other.”
On the flip side, he said, local participation has grown, too, especially in the half-marathon category.
“It’s great to see the local community embrace this race as well,” he added.
The 2015 Alaska Health and Fitness Expo will be held June 18-19 and will coincide with bib pickup, which is being shifted to the expo as well. Doors open at 3 p.m. June 18 and 10 a.m. June 19.
Morris stresses that the expo is not just for racers. Everyone in the community is invited to check it out – it not only stresses physical fitness, but also incorporates healthy and local farm-to-table eating, a fun run for kids (See Page 6 for more on kids’ oriented events), a mobile mammogram van and – he hopes – representation from the Native community for cultural events and entertainment.
“We really feel it is important to figure out how we can incorporate indigenous cultures,” Morris said. “We also feel like it’s important for kids to see the value of not only physical fitness, but what a real college campus looks like, too. Now that we have this venue, they can actually come on campus and realize that UAA is a great place to go to school.”
Friess agrees. He said he is especially pleased that the expo will be held on the UAA campus, because it gives everyone a chance to see just how much this once tiny college has grown to a full-fledged university.
“Finally, we are going to have an expo that’s fitting for a running event like this,” Friess said, “and we have a chance to show people – locals especially – that we actually have a bonafide state-of-the-art university right in their town. It’s surprising how few people have been here, but live here.”
Runners in this year’s Mayor’s Marathon have picked a particularly good year to compete. Not only is the new and improved expo being unveiled, but is also is Anchorage’s centennial, and there are special events planned all summer to help celebrate that.
“The Anchorage Centennial commemorates the founding of Anchorage in 1915, but celebrations reach much farther back into the full breadth of Anchorage history,” says Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Jack Bonney. “There are a handful of special observances in the works this summer.”
Among them Bonney recommends the Anchorage Museum’s “Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage” exhibit. As the foremost British explorer of the 18th century, Captain James Cook circumnavigated the globe twice before exploring the waters that flank what is today Anchorage. “City Limits,” tells the story of Anchorage from the Dena’ina people to construction of the Alaska Railroad, and growth from a tent city to an urban center through artifacts, artwork and photographs drawn from the museum’s vast permanent collection. Both exhibits are on display all summer. (www.anchoragemuseum.org)
The Alaska Botanical Garden is also a great stopping spot, because it showcases heirloom plants and century-old gardening practices for the Anchorage Heritage Garden. The new garden incorporates many practical but pleasing varieties first planted as people were putting down roots of their own at the turn of the century. (alaskabg.org)
Cyrano’s Theatre Company will be putting on a play drawn decade by decade from the headlines of Anchorage’s history. Local playwrights craft the tales, and prominent Anchorage historians and authors serve as historical consultants with an eye for accuracy. Its June show will be held Thursdays through Sundays. Check the website for details – www.cyranos.org.
With all this activity comes increased spending, too, which is a boon for Anchorage. Friess said visiting runners boost the local economy by some $2 million, according to a survey conducted by the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau in the early 2000s. Between dining, lodging and extending their visits beyond the race, marathon participants are helping Anchorage thrive.
“It’s a great thing for our community, and for the runners,” he said.
Putting on a race like Mayor’s Marathon is a monumental effort, Friess said, yet it somehow always seems to work out. Months before the event is held, Anchorage’s Parks & Recreation Department, the mayor’s office, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s athletics department, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Skinny Raven, Arctic Com, and the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club work together to hammer down the details of the coming year.
If any of those vital partners weren’t involved, there’d be no race. The marathon’s success is all the small details, and there are plenty of those, from coordinating road closures to stocking aid stations with everything from water, bug dope, Band-Aids, Vaseline, ice packs to trash bags for use as impromptu rain ponchos.
Thanks to this well-oiled system, some of the fastest and most determined runners are able to enjoy a spectacular far-reaching tour of the city. Last year’s winner, David Kiplagat, is a former UAA Seawolves track and cross-country running standout from Kenya who raced most of the 2014 marathon with his two brothers, also UAA athletes – Paul Rottich and Solomon Kandie. The Kenyan trio made an impressive run in pouring rain before Kiplagat pulled ahead for the win in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 10 seconds. It was his second win in a row and third in four years, making him the second three-time winner in the 41-year history of the race.
His brothers finished 2 seconds (Rottich) and 13 seconds (Kandie) behind him.
In the women’s race, Fairbanks marathoner and new mom Davya Flaherty braved less than ideal running conditions to claim her first victory in the race, with a time of 2 hours, 59 minutes and 50 seconds, finally breaking the three-hour barrier that haunts many an ambitious marathoner.
Who will win this year’s contest is yet to be seen. UAA has stacked its impressive field of Kenyans yet again, but longtime locals are not to be overlooked, either. Last year’s fourth-place finisher was a 55-year-old construction worker who ran a 2:48:06 in his first-ever marathon. It’s the type of story that doesn’t surprise Alaskans, who are capable of anything in a land like the Last Frontier.