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Eric Olsen 08-03-2008
I have long thought that I should write up something about the relay based on the "Big White Book..." It is a fat ring binder in which I have collected news clippings, brochures, and the "official results", such as was available, back to my own first run in 1984 which was the second year of the event. So here goes.

I was not a part of the first event in 1983. I didn't even hear about it until sometime later when Juneau's Bill Joiner told me about his own near-mystical run in the wilderness on the newly constructed Klondike highway under a full moon, dead still, in the chill air in the Northern darkness, sounded interesting to me.
The next year I got an invitation from some Juneauites who wanted to fill the Rain Runners team roster. I went, ran leg 1, and was hooked, especially by that feeling of the night wilderness when I supported my teammates Keith Levy and Gordon Harrison on 4 and 5 to Windy Arm. Maybe it was the aurora. My daughter was born in 1985 a few weeks before the third year of the event. She and her mother came along for the ride (not actually a very wise plan with a newborn, but it seemed like a good idea at the time).

Now many years later she has herself run three times and can cover the miles faster than I do. We can hope that this wonderful event will continue maybe even for her children.
There must be a few persons in Whitehorse who can tell what was the motivation that would conceive of a run up that hill and thru the night with all the associated logistical problems. I think the late great Jasper-Banff Relay must have been a first inspiration. It also went overnight and was even longer overall but with 17 shorter legs, a mass noontime start and an expectation that the slowest teams would best 8 minutes per mile. It was run the weekend near the summer solstice which meant darkness was a problem for only a few legs. Calgary and Edmonton provided many gifted athletes but the size and success of that event (in the two Canadian National Parks, bear worries and traffic, and stressed park wardens) eventually lead to its downfall.

The evolution of the Klondike from racers-only to a more popular event parallels the changes that have happened in running as a sport in the US and in the world generally. Now some of the volunteers who wanted to compete but couldn't run for 10 or 15 miles have influenced the inclusion of the walking division which will probably grow in numbers.

The "official results" in the early years were a primitive thing. But I have whatever was available including even the first year 1983, thanks to Jerry Buckley of the winning Taku Striders team (which has evolved, aged, ripened into the infamous Smoking Ole Geezers.) As far as he knew, he had in 1997 possibly the only copy of the '83 results. It was the whole race on one legal size sheet, teams and leg times in a primitive spreadsheet format but individual runners were not identified. Somehow I have some of the names written-in in pencil. Some of those names are still competing. As we hear at the awards ceremony, only Juneau's ageless Glen Frick, founder of the Striders and the original Geezer, has run every year.

In 1983 18 teams began together in a mass start at midnight. Anchorage wasn't part of things very much back then but the Lion's Gate running team of Vancouver finished second behind the Striders. Running on the primitive road, the Striders that year finished in 11:34:27, a time that would place second or third most years to the present. The median time was about 14:30. Seven Men's teams finished with the slowest at 15:29.

There were seven Mixed teams and four Women's teams. There was no Masters category. The two slowest teams finished in 16:06 and 17:11. The event was set up for "runners" and back then slower teams weren't really invited. My copy of the 1986 invite brochure prominently says "Time Limitation--16 hours." By contrast the MEDIAN times in the past two years has been 16:55 in 2006 and 17 hours in 2007.

In the 1980s few of the competitors were over 50. Now many runners are returning at 50 and 55 and 60, slower but still motivated to compete. Glen Frick is 68+. Even Glen isn't as fast as he was in the 1980s. And the event opened up to what we all call "recreational" teams as more and more people wanted to be part of this adventure and get fit in the process. For many Juneauites it is the last hurrah of summer before the drizzles of September and October set in. and we all love the colors of the boreal autumn.

Does anyone doubt that the all-women's teams have more fun and more mutual support than do the elite teams? In fact it should be no surprise that women now dominate the event numerically. They have to dance together at the party because they outnumber the guys, not to mention that they dance harder and longer. In 2006 56% on the runners were women and I expect the ratio was even higher in 07. Hard Women ARE good to find and there are lots of them at the Klondike Relay!

In 1984 Lion's Gate returned and beat the Striders 11:09 to 11:23. I ran leg 1 for the Rain Runners starting at midnight. The only other time I had ever been in Skagway the railroad was the only way to get to Whitehorse. I recall the highway from the foot of the big hill was not paved but was just packed D-1 gravel, no paint stripes. I'm sure Scotchlite reflective tape had not been invented yet. It was dark and cloudy on the Skagway side as usual but north of Summit Lake it was a beautiful night, just as Bill Joiner said. My team finished 6th out of 26 teams and we were proud. I met some of my teammates at the finish line. The next year I first put together a team of my friends and came year after year. There were 75 teams by 1989 and 112 in 1995 with a median time of 15:38. The traffic at stations was a serious problem and one answer was to stagger the start.

The highway has been rebuilt piece by piece on the Canadian side since the early years. Some veterans will remember running the dark legs south of Carcross avoiding dozers and shotrock boulders and serious mud puddles. Several years we had snow. There were no shoulders on the Canadian road in the early years and we had the ore trucks to contend with and that's another story.

One aspect of the history of the Relay is has to do with timing and "pace." Our digital watches can give times to the hundredth of a second but to my mind the distances of the various legs have never been measured to an equal accuracy. So any one year the times of runners on any one leg can be compared fairly reasonably but paces on various legs should be taken with a grain or even a tablet of salt. Unfortunately it is too easy for a computer to list the runners by pace: garbage in, garbage out. For 1990, the year that the race was completed in the fastest time ever, the results for individual runners on the available printout are in a list from the fastest pace to the slowest with all runners on all legs mixed together. But each entry has only the running time when the runner finished, not his pace per se or his leg split. So it was tedious to include 1990 in the attempt to come up with all-time record single leg performances. And I for the most part haven't included in women's records the runs from 1990. The record time is 10:16:28, approached closely by a serious recruiting effort in 99 and 2000, but never equaled.
One more thing needs to be understood about the history of the relay. The stations have moved about over the years. We have always started in Skagway and finished in Whitehorse. But from the first year until 1992 the starting line for leg 1 was the ferry terminal. Yes there is a flush toilet there and that is a good thing, but the dock is actually a bit away from all the action in town. It was figured out that a much better location is the corner of Broadway and 2nd, next to the Park HQ and (more importantly) near the RR tracks and the Red Onion bar. This makes for a more festive start but cuts off something like 0.34 mile, which makes some of the earlier leg times even more impressive. Think Steve McCormick of San Diego.

The finish line for leg 10 in Whitehorse was moved in 1997 from the visitor's building next to the SS Klondike to the Rotary Park on the other side of the Yukon River Bridge. This adds some length to leg 10, I don't know how much. A bigger change for leg 10 was routing the run down the Miles Canyon road instead of staying on the Alcan and down the South Access hill. My notes show that happened in 1989.

The first two years the station between legs 7 and 8 was about two miles farther north. I don't recall just where it was or why the change except the Yukon highway department was working on the road in that area those years. In 1984 I was sound asleep in the Suburban as our night runners drove that section to Whitehorse and I didn't see the place but I heard that our runner had to dodge earthmovers when he ran that stage.

Another year the station was getting setup and the workers asked a carload of runners at the front where it should be. They picked a place probably not at the 1-kilommeter post where it has been since. Jerry Buckley says he was one of these but doesn't know which year it was. It must have been construction that prompted the station at the Yukon-BC border at Windy Arm to be moved north less to a large pullout on the right for the years 1989 thru 1992. So those difficult legs 5 and 6 have different times recorded and comparisons with before and after are problematic.

Legs 6 and 7 have had one other major change in routing. For the first years leg 6 left the highway a short distance before the Nares river bridge near Carcross. The route went left, thru the native village, upsetting all the dogs, across the footbridge and finished at the train station, now visitor center, in Carcross village. Leg 7 then went back out to the highway and on northbound. The old SS Tutshi was on the beach there and the Matthew Watson Store was open for coffee or ice cream. Lots of parking and a nice, historically appropriate place for the Trail of 98 Relay exchange. But the ruckus was not a good thing in the village. The footbridge was often icy in those days (the race was held 15-20 Sept then and it was colder according to the memories of many of us). The village was avoided from 1992 by having leg 6 runners cross Nares River on the highway bridge and continue to the new Montana roadhouse. The exchange was moved a few feet again across to the right side of the highway and out of the roadhouse parking area a few years
ago. The effect was leg 6 was about the same length but more direct. Leg 7 lost some distance then and since. The lengths of every leg are very uncertain based on the published results in which the leg distances seem to vary as much as few tenths of a mile even when the stations were in the same places. Therefore one needs to be cautious interpreting and comparing the paces on various legs and over different years. I have heard but can't verify that the leg lengths have been measured more accurately in recent years, maybe by GPS tools. When I did the data collection for the original "profile" of the Relay, I used my Honda Prelude odometer and a Swiss Thomens altimeter, a clipboard and a pencil along with some topos. There are more accurate ways to do these things. I did it myself with the odometer on my bicycle riding back to Skagway after the race in about 1996.

Anchorage discovered the Klondike in 1985. The Sheffield hotel sponsored a team with Delaney and Downey and won in a still great time of 10:29:06. They won three legs but two of those were run by a phenomenon named Dave Bard. I believe his 35:12 on leg 2 and 51:22 on (a short) leg 8 are among the best runs ever. The Striders won five legs and finished second by just 8 seconds.

THE fastest run in the history of the relay was by Steve McCormick. His 57:56 on leg 10 (via south access) calculates to something like a 4:58 pace. At the SS Klondike he just missed reeling in Mueller, whose 59:44 is the third fastest ever run on leg 10. Some of us were watching these guys catch our own man and started giving McCormick gap times as the distance between them came down. And Mueller was flying. The story of McCormick and the San Diego connection is better told by Jerry Buckley in the Southeast Roadrunner newsletter for Aug-Sept 1996. My White Book has a copy.

In 1986 the Striders won again, this time in 10:26:49 with Lion's Gate second 11 minutes back and Edmonton Roadrunners third at 10:40. The 1985 results have runners' last names only so I don't know who ran what that year except for my own team. 1986 has no runner's names at all. The San Diego guys. The first year of the race the Striders had a Juneau man named Kelly Miller. He later moved to San Diego in part to be an aerobic athlete there. He joined a club or group of road runners called "the B Team" among whom was this Steve McCormick who ran so well in 1985. By 1986 and more so in 1987 "Mac" brought runners from San Diego for the event. I heard their team won a road relay in San Diego with a prize of Alaska Airline tickets anywhere. The Striders ran as two teams to make room and dominated for several years. In 1990 the "Juneau B Team" was all from the Southland and set the all-time record of 10:16:28. Some of them have come individually again over the years to re-live their youthful success.

From 1991 through 1993 the Pepsi Roadrunners based in Whitehorse (I think) gave the Striders, now called the Alaska Masters, some real competition and won overall several times. Since then the elite team from Anchorage has won most years with an evolving roster of talent. The exception was the Pacific Wolfpack, a Juneau-based team with some creative outreach aspect to their recruiting. A far as I can tell, the ringleader and chief recruiter was John Bursell of Juneau. The Wolfpack came close to the record with 10:18:39 in '98 and 10:18:58 in '99. So painfully close! The Anchorage team running as first National Bank or Take No Prisoners finished second in about 10:30. I don't think anyone has approached these times since though Take No continues to win. The original Striders team has become the Smokin Ole Geezers with some members running for Sitka and other teams and sometimes they recruit some fast 40 year-olds to keep their average pace high enough to win the Master category again and again. John Bursell went Geezer this year. It happens to the best of us, God willing.

In the last ten years I haven't paid as much attention to the teams finishing first overall, being more concerned in recruiting a team of my friends and trying to stay fit enough to run at all. When we could get printed results only by paying for them, I would call in the favor of a free copy because I, in a previous burst of obsessive behavior, produced the original version of the race profile at no expense to the sponsoring agency, and now with the results on-line I don't even print them out any more. The Big White Book is too heavy to carry about on the ferry or along the race as it is. It still carries a lot of memories.

Eric Olsen - Juneau
 

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