AK: Running the Klondike Relay from Skagway to Whitehorse

Last weekend (Sept. 11-12), nearly 1,600 people ran a 10-part race from Skagway over the Coast Mountains and into Whitehorse, Yukon. It’s part endurance trial, part road trip and part party. For many on both sides of the border, running the 110-mile Klondike Road Relay is an annual tradition.

This year, I joined a team and ran the Klondike for my first time.

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Wolf Taco teammates run Sarah Kugel into the chute at the end of leg nine. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Wolf Taco teammates run Sarah Kugel into the chute at the end of leg nine. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The race begins on Skagway’s historic main drag, Broadway, in front of an idling steam locomotive blocking off the street.

My team is starting around dusk. Amid the gold rush-era buildings and dwindling light, glow sticks are cracking to life and runners are warming up, some in costume.

An emcee gives the 2-minute warning.

Brian Vander Naald is running our team’s first leg, which is 8.8 miles long. I ask him what he’s thinking about.

“The beer might have been a bad idea,” he says.

“Or the best idea ever,” another teammate quips.

Before long, Coldplay’s “Clocks” is playing in the street and the emcee leads a countdown that ends with a blaring train whistle and an eruption of cheers and applause.

Brian cruises through his leg while two carloads of us hopscotch ahead to cheer him on in the dark at regular intervals and give him our best wolf howls.

We’re howling and wearing plush wolf hats because our team is named Wolf Taco. There’s not much of a story behind the name. Someone suggested it and no one objected.

Wolf Taco at the start of the Klondike in Skagway. (Photo by Mike McKrill)
Wolf Taco at the start of the Klondike in Skagway. (Photo by Mike McKrill)

I’m up next. Leg two is the Klondike’s shortest at 5.6 miles, but also the steepest.

At the checkpoint waiting for Brian, I’m anxious, worried that I’ll be way off pace, that I’m overdressed and will overheat, and that I’ve micced myself wrong in the dark for the radio version of this story. I ask the Klondike veterans on my team for some last minute advice.

“Go that way, fast!”

“Go uphill!”

“Always run uphill!”

It’s a relentless climb up to White Pass. There are no flats or saddles, just one short downhill after the summit near the checkpoint to leg three.

Wolf Taco's Thai Ha-Ngoc of Boston finishes the Klondike strong.  (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Wolf Taco’s Thai Ha-Ngoc of Boston finishes the Klondike strong. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

I’m just glad it’s not raining.

A mile into my run, it is dumping rain. At the end of my breaths, I can hear a telltale wheeze — did I mention I’m asthmatic?

Another mile goes by in the dark. A runner passes me and says, “God, this leg sucks.”

It’s actually beautiful in the day. But it’s 10 at night, and we can only see a few feet of the highway in front of us.

Near the end of my leg at about 3,000 feet elevation, I’ve literally run above the rain clouds. The sky opens up to a zillion stars. And in front of me, I track the red taillights of a car up and over the horizon that I can’t otherwise make out, Christopher Columbus-style.

My checkpoint is just on the other side, downhill. I’m soaked at the finish, and try to keep warm around a fire barrel.

The weather clears up and about five hours later our fifth runner and team captain, Corey McKrill, finishes an epic leg under the northern lights.

Sarah Bronstein hands off the relay fob at the end of leg four to Corey McKrill. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Sarah Bronstein hands off the relay fob at the end of leg four to Corey McKrill. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

“I’ve heard over the years, lots of lore about running those middle of the night legs on the Klondike and seeing the northern lights,” he says. “But every year before this that I’ve done it has been totally cloudy and I’ve never seen anything like that, so this was really awesome.”

Corey’s got quite the legacy — his dad, Mike McKrill, just finished his 29th  Klondike.

We hand the race over to the Wolf Taco dawn team and sneak in a few hours of sleep at a noisy campground. When I wake up, it’s fall in the Yukon.

Our last runner crosses the finish line around 3 p.m. Yukon time. After a long soak in Takhini Hot Springs, we pile into a hotel room to discuss highs and lows from our runs over some victory bourbon.

Sarah Bronstein is a Klondike veteran. This time, she ran leg four, which is 13 miles.

“I love passing people. And I got to pass lots of people,” she says. “And I was feeling really good until … Corey gave me my second gel packet at mile 7. It just did not sit well with me. … And there was some adversity that I had to overcome.”

“Adversity” is a euphemism that Wolf Taco picked up. Sarah climbed down into a canyon to take care of business.

“But even this turned into a bonus, because then I got to go back up onto the road and chase down all of the people I had just passed and pass them all over again!” she says. “It was great! Pow, pow!”

Our final time was 17 hours, 48 minutes, 11 seconds. Just shy of the the winning time – by about 7 hours. Better luck next year?

Leg seven goes past Emerald Lake in the Yukon. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Leg seven goes past Emerald Lake in the Yukon. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
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Jeremy Hsieh is the news director at KTOO and 360 North in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He’s run Gavel Alaska for 360 North since 2011, and is big on using social media to summarize, unpack and demystify state politics and policymaking. Jeremy is an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008. He’s into sleeping late, rock climbing, ultimate frisbee, video games and eating tasty things.