Writer finds fellowship in epic ultrarunning event at Beach Lake

Sunday, September 9, 2018 - 17:08
  • Amy Bushatz, Andrea Barnes, Laura Venning, Zach Pasag, Lara Zoeller, Amy Bushatz, Jennifer Lee-Smith and Michele Harmeling gather before the start of the A Day at the Beach race held Sept. 1-2 on the Beach Lake Trails. (Photo by Amy Bushatz)
  • The A Day at the Beach is a family-friendly race that welcomes kids and dogs plus offers an outdoor childrens movie after dark. This year’s event was held over Labor Day weekend. (Photo by Matt Soule)
  • Lara, Alec and Lilly Zoeller shortly after Lara won the 6-hour race at the A Day at the Beach event held Sept. 1-2 on the Beach Lake Trails. In 2017, Lara competed in the 6-hour race while seven months pregnant with her daughter. (Photo by Matt Soule)

I could have been strolling amongst farm exhibits at the Alaska State Fair.

Instead, I was out on the Beach Lake trails, surrounded by skinny people in brightly-colored clothes charging around a four-mile loop so ridiculously hilly that I was ready to call it quits after the first lap.

I was racing the third-annual A Day at the Beach, a timed event offering runners the chance to test their endurance during six-, 12- and 24-hour timed races.

Held each Labor Day weekend over the Beach Lake trails in Chugiak, the race is the brainchild of race directors and running buddies Matt Soule and Martin Lindeke. The idea came to them after the Mr. Miles timed race, hosted by the Willow Running Company, squeaked to a halt a few years ago.

“We thought, man, I wish we had a race around here,” Lindeke said. “There are few trail running events in the Eagle River area, but we have all of these wonderful trails.”

The first race was held in 2016 and emphasized a family-friendly vibe, where people could set up tents, bring their dogs and let their children roam free, chasing balls and dragging wagons through trees and, once dark hits, curl up and enjoy an outdoor movie.

“In a lot of ways distance running is a selfish hobby,” Soule said. “We leave our families behind for long hours of training and racing. It’s refreshing to have an opportunity to include them.”

The pain cave

Here’s the thing no one tells you when you sign up for a six- or 12- or 24-hour race. It hurts. It hurts like you wouldn’t believe. Your feet ache, your calves shake, your thighs scream for you to please, please stop. Yet you stubbornly, almost gleefully keep going. As I ran through birch and alder trees, sunshine flitting through darker spruce shadows, I felt both indescribably happy and profoundly miserable. It’s a paradox that’s difficult to explain.

“There is something spiritual about struggling with our limitations and rising to these huge challenges,” Soule said. “Ultra-runners don’t need to explain this to one another. They just look in each other’s eyes and know.”

Every four miles racers passed the finish area, where chairs beckoned, and tables gleamed with tempting carbohydrates: salty and crunchy snacks, tortillas and humus, cupcakes touting pastel-colored frosting. I lingered for too many minutes, stuffing potato chips into my mouth while chatting with other runners about the hills, those devastating and demoralizing hills. Why in the heck were there so many hills?

I later learned that Soule and Lindeke targeted the hilliest, most difficult route possible.

“I think runners want to suffer enough to find out what they are really made of,” Soule said. “If it was flat and easy the accomplishment wouldn’t have the same weight.”

As I stumbled down the biggest hill, dubbed Agony Hill, I caught up with Cole Grigg, who went on to win the 12-hour race. He told me about his father, who was 67-years-old and also running the race, and how when he first entered ultras over 30 years ago, he ran in canvas basketball shoes because that’s what everyone wore back then.

Meeting up with other racers throughout the day and evening, I realized that this was the beauty of a timed race, the saving grace, this chance to get out of my head and talk with other runners as we passed. We slowed or sped up, matched our strides and offered encouragement, a few kind words, a joke or two. Sometimes we ran together for a mile or the rest of the loop, exchanging stories about races where we got lost or puked or sat in the middle of the trail and cried. Like battle scars, these stories knit us together, gave meaning to the pain.

Such things, said Lindeke, are the strengths of a timed race.

“It’s accessible to everyone, from the new person who has never run an ultra to someone who has run a lot of 100 milers,” he said. “There’s support out there all of the time.”

As night fell and the air cooled, I crested a hill to find Kari Konrath-Bera in front of me. She was tackling the 24-hour race, alternating loops with her husband so that one of them could watch their children. More than twelve hours later, when her race ended, her kids joined her for the last lap, held on a separate and flat, one-mile loop.

“We had a genuine fun weekend, spent on beautiful trails with family and friends,” she said. “It’s a pretty awe-inspiring scene.”

While Soule and Lindeke enjoy their roles as race directors, what they appreciate even more is watching runners push past limits.

“This year, it seems like every other person set a PR (personal record),” Lindeke said. “They’re saying, ‘I’ve never run that far in my life.’ When I see people like that, I get really excited.”

“The line between what is possible and impossible has been moved forever for these runners,” Soule added. “I want people to do something they thought was impossible.”

Cinthia Ritchie is an Alaska writer, who spends a ridiculous amount of time running trails with a dog named Seriously.

A Day at the Beach

24-hour race: 1) Sarah Hurkett, Eagle River, 76 miles; 2) Jeff Estes, Eagle River, 66 miles; 3) Brandon Wood, Anchorage, 66 miles; 4) David Johnston, Willow, 60 miles; 5) Kari Konrath-Bera, Chugiak, 54 miles; 6) Jacob Bera, Chugiak, 54 miles; 7) Tony Covarrubias, Palmer, 52 miles; 8) Mike Fisher, Anchorage, 51 miles; 9) Jennifer Smith, Anchorage, 40 miles; 10) Andy Gardner, Wasilla, 40 miles; 11) Shawn McTaggart, Palmer, 24 miles; 12) August Lambers, Anchorage, 20 miles

12-hour race: 1) Cole Grigg, Wasilla, 49 miles; 2) Cinthia Ritchie, Anchorage, 47 miles; 3) Andrea Barnes, Eagle River, 42 miles; 4) Carlo Rapanut, Eagle River, 40 miles; 5) Lori Branin, Wasilla, 38 miles; 6) Michele Harmeling, Palmer, 38 miles; 7) Jonathan Ramirez, Wasilla, 37 miles; 8) Brian Burns, Fritz Creek, 36 miles; 9) Bill English, Anchorage, 33 miles; 10) Duane Grigg, Gainesville, MO, 32 miles; 11) Laura Venning, Eagle River, 24 miles

6-hour race: 1) Lara Zoeller, Eagle River, 29 miles; 2) Carla Vizzerra, Palmer, 27 miles; 3) Michelle Witt, Anchorage, 26 miles; 4) Pam Richter, Anchorage, 26 miles; 5) Destiny Lee, Eagle River, 23 miles; 6) Emily Soule, Eagle River, 21 miles; 7) Amy Bushatz, Palmer, 20 miles; 8) Scott Gage, Wasilla, 20 miles; 9) Jess Johnson, Anchorage, 12 miles; 10) Zach Pasag, JBER, 12 miles

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