Brian Schweinhagen of West Covina, California, crosses the finish line in the annual Duff’s Skagway Marathon in 2017. PHOTO BY ANDREW CREMATA
By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
The countdown through the megaphone is like music to a runner’s ears. As race director Kristin Wagner’s voice echoes through the cone-shaped funnel, hundreds of sneakers ricochet off the wooden beams of Broadway Dock and begin their woodland dance.
Each step is deliberate, composing a ballad of muddy footprints over thick, hilly and rutted dirt roads. Twisting through Southeast Alaska coastline and skating between the glacially-carved valleys, 26-miles is all that stands between a racer and their Alaska-shaped medal.
It’s the dance of death, some say. Others have called it was the Seventh Circle of Hell, because the climb is relentless on the knees and the downhill is like toenail clippers for your feet. Welcome to Duff’s Skagway Marathon – where brutal is not only welcomed, but strongly encouraged.
“We own it, 100 percent,” Wagner said. “The people that are doing marathons aren’t in it for an easy ride I guess.”
Wagner says one year when it rained, the racer’s stuck their arms elbow-deep in the ground and dug out handfuls of mud to cover their bodies like it was warrior paint.
For Wagner’s sister and marathon runner Mindy Miller, the blistering winds out toward the Skagway Bridge were the most gruesome part of the entire course.
“It just mentally almost makes you want to give up…but the wind is blowing so hard and you’re just like shot,” Miller said. “It’s cold and your tears are running because it’s so windy…I shouldn’t tell anyone how bad this is but you’re like, ‘I’ve got to dig deep.’”
Miller says her husband used to joke about videotaping her limping around the house in the days following the race. Despite his efforts to discourage yet another entry in the coming years, the runner’s high kept Miller committed to the addictive long-run euphoria.
“[The race] puts things back in focus,” Miller said. “It’s a good zen run.”
As if it weren’t enough to push your own body up and down a hill, Miller remembers Duff’s trail challenge winner Ben Seale by her side pushing a double stroller with his two kids a few years back.
Miller also remembers the subtle whispers of electronic dance music while her legs pulsated up the steep terrain and the offbeat athletes running through the weeds embracing the wild delight.
However, no distraction was more valuable than the sandwich board Wagner placed at the top of the hill by the rifle range which read, “Mindy, kick this hill’s butt!”
Thanks to those words of encouragement Miller crossed the finish line four hours later. And although there were moments where she was wishing she could trade places with the harbor seals nearby, that sense of accomplishment has stayed with her forever.
Wagner thinks it’s only fitting that a name like Duff’s Skagway Marathon has earned quite the reputation for hard labor, considering her father, Duff Ray’s journey to Skagway in 1979.
“[My parents] showed up on the boat with a three-year-old, half a loaf of bread and $10,” Wagner said. “I mean just like nothing and they weren’t afraid to work. They took any job they could find. They cleaned the White Pass bathrooms and halls, you know they were janitors for a while, my dad did construction, and for a while he actually started his own river-rafting tour.”
Although Wagner is unable to officiate the race and participate at the same time, Miller still enjoys seeing her family bond over decision making and hopes that one day her husband and children will be able to run the marathon with her.
Until then Duff and Karla Ray take the kids and drive up and down the course handing out water bottles to the racers in need.
Duff’s Skagway Marathon will begin at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, June 10. Currently registration is 70 percent female, with over 80 participants already signed up. In 2017 there were 138 racers in attendance.
Anyone above the age of 18 is eligible to participate in the half marathon, full marathon or 13.1 mile walking portion. Online registration closes on June 6 and late registration will take place on June 9 at AB Hall from 1-4 p.m.