By Gretchen Wehmhoff

The act of climbing a hill is relative. I have huffed and puffed up slopes on bikes in my younger years and, believe it or not, in three Gold Nugget Triathlons. If it wasn’t for multiple gears, I wouldn’t have made it to the top. Actually, my stamina probably had more to do with my willingness to get off the bike and walk or stop for an unconventional break to visit with race volunteers.

I wasn’t in it to win it. I was just in it. I was a confident swimmer, and hey, anyone can ride a bike (it’s not the same as when you were 12 – don’t try it cold turkey) but when we learned we could walk the run, my swimming buddy and I decided to give it a try.

A friend told me that the most important thing I could do was to show up and get in the pool for the first leg. So I did. The swim felt good. Since I’d been swimming regularly, the 500 yards was over before I knew it. The 12-mile bike ride in a wet swimsuit, not so much. I thought I’d ridden several miles when I came up on the one-mile marker.  For the record, there were some crazy hills that year – those who passed me pushing my bike cheered me on.  “You can do it!  Keep going.”

The four-mile walk was the hardest. I was the last “runner” and I was walking through bear country. My feet were screaming at me. When it was over, I could barely hobble to pick up my bike and bucket from the transition area.

I finished in last place that first year. The next year I received the award for most-improved, but still came in near the end. I finished all three times and have the t-shirts to prove it – nevermind that they don’t fit anymore.

The point is, I wouldn’t have finished at all if I hadn’t shown up at the beginning. And because I knew I had finished once, I knew I could finish again.

I thought about this while photographing the high school cross-country meet last weekend. Nearly 100 runners started the race. Faster runners stretched out the pack and everyone else found their pace. Wherever they were when they started, it was that final hill from Yakutania Point trail to the Dyea Lookout that defined them.

The leaders climbed the final incline of Dyea Road to the finish, some looking like they had energy to go further, some asking more of their body than it had to give. The rest of the pack worked their way up the hill in groups, pairs and as lone runners. They all knew that the hill would be there, but they still ran across the starting line.

Once the boys race finished, the runners shuttled back down the hill to watch the girls teams take off. Then, they jumped back in their vans and returned to the finish line.

What impressed me, besides the coach who I watched run up and down that hill umpteen times, were the boys who ran back down the hill to meet their teammates coming out of the woods to encourage them as they started the final climb. I watched Hoonah boys running with their female counterparts up the slope. I had seen the same boys struggle up the road just twenty minutes ago, and here they were, climbing it again, encouraging a friend on the toughest part of the race.

Isn’t it like most things in our life? We can’t finish if we don’t start. And while climbing a hill is relative to the hill, physical abilities or experience, starting at the bottom one step or stride at a time is how we get to the top. The best part is that friends are often there to encourage us.

Everyone should know by now that Skagway has an election coming up in October. There are three candidates for one mayoral seat, two candidates for two assembly positions and as of deadline, zero candidates for three school board vacancies.

Simply put, there is definite competition for mayor, but if no one else runs, the two assembly positions will be filled by the two who showed up. And since no one has shown up for the school board race, no one will finish. Which, considering the support this town seems to give the school and the strong and diverse opinions of its residents, is less than satisfactory. No one will show up to help tackle the hills this community will be facing together over the next few years?

Nah, I believe in Skagway.

Just like the runners who knowingly started the race with a giant hill at the end, the people of this town are more than capable of showing up. I’ve seen them show up for each other when the pandemic set in, when a neighbor needed help, when funds were needed to rebuild a home or bring a friend back from medical emergencies. I watched this town rally to fight a major fire in the winter, pitching in to hold hoses, bring food and hot drinks. I’ve seen groups hold spontaneous fundraisers, burger feeds, pizza feeds, barbeques and even collect donations for causes at “free” yard sales.

This town can handle so much because you have each other. And the community will show up when you toss your hat in the ring to run for office. When you win (odds are good), I’m sure you’ll hear about it when someone is upset and you’ll feel the pressure of knowing the buck stops with you during emergency decisions. But the people of Skagway will be grateful you are there to complain to, to thank, and to appreciate.

There will be friends who will run up the hill with you. However, you need to start in order to finish. In this case, anyone who enters the school board race is almost guaranteed to win.

You don’t need experience to run up a hill or to run for office. You just need a desire to be part of your community and to give it a chance. Maybe it’s your turn this year.

Write-in applications are due Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. It’s just a little paperwork. Go ahead. Take the first step, visit the municipal clerk’s office.

Run. You won’t get out of breath in this race and the climb will be worth it.