The Susitna 100 is one of Alaska’s signature winter ultramarathons.
Ultramarathon is a term used to describe races with a distance longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.219 miles.
Sarah Hurkett is training to compete in the Susitna 100, and it’s not the first time she’s doing it.
In high school, she would not have guessed what her pastime would be now. She hated running and only became involved when she realized the sense of community runners enjoy. Hurkett discovered that instead of hating it, she enjoyed running because of the runners who cheered each other on.
“I really, really enjoyed going to group runs and races and seeing how supportive people could be for each other. It was very unique and totally different from other sports,” she says. “It’s only you and your two legs to get you there [to the finish line] but having support and people cheering you on, and excited about your success, is really awesome.”
After running a number of races and ultramarathons, Hurkett set her eyes on the Susitna 100, one of Alaska’s best-known winter ultramarathons.
Race conditions vary every year, creating new challenges for runners as they cross frozen rivers, navigate forests, traverse long, flat stretches and stay warm in sometimes freezing temperatures.
Hallucinating is a constant danger for racers. Runners tell tales of spending hours climbing fences that did not exist or avoiding imaginary moose charging from the brush. Hurkett was “not a fan” of the hallucinating, but accepted it as part of the experience.
“I hallucinated that I lost my hands,” Hurkett remembers. “It was snowing like a banshee, and my gloves were black, and I couldn’t see them. I thought I lost my hands at the aid station. I remember talking to myself and saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. There are really nice people who volunteer at the aid stations. They’ll take care of them, and you can get them later.’”
Hurkett ran with a group of friends and cousins, using the time to discuss a wide range of topics as they passed through the countryside. She fondly recalls trying to pick up a station on a radio she brought, finally finding one that played 80s music. She and her group tried singing all the static-infused songs that night as they rested in the Alaska wilderness.
“When you’re in the middle of who-knows-where in Alaska, it’s gorgeous!” Hurkett says. “Last year it was really snowing so we didn’t get to enjoy as much of the view that we normally would, but it was still gorgeous and like a Winter Wonderland. Everything was covered in snow and was sparkly!”
Because of the length of the race, and the long distances between checkpoints, Hurkett had to adopt a mentality that her group was on its own, which is something she enjoys about the race.
“It gives you a certain amount of confidence in yourself,” she explains.
Unfortunately, she was forced to drop out of the race once she started vomiting every few steps after completing 60 miles.
Undeterred, she is training hard with the Chugach Run Team throughout this winter in preparation to finish the 100-mile race this upcoming February.
About preparations for the race, she says, “You’re trying to prepare your body, but you’re also trying to prepare your mind. If you start to think about running 50 miles, 80 miles, 100 miles, it could be really daunting. Learning to accept that the distances are just numbers is a big part of it.”
She really enjoys the local running trails around Eagle River and discovering new trails with friends. Hurkett particularly enjoys running along Eagle River, through the neighborhoods in the early morning, and slugging up Mount Baldy.
“Baldy is really popular and heavily trafficked in daytime,” she cautions, “but at 5 in the morning there are not many people up there.”
She looks forward to completing the race this year, but to Hurkett the most important thing about the running is the community of runners who create the unique culture.
“I really enjoy the community aspect of running,” she says. “We have a local running group where you can always find someone to run with and share the miles with. It’s a great opportunity to meet other runners you wouldn’t meet otherwise that live just across town [in Eagle River]. It’s that community that has a big appeal for me.”
For more information about the Chugach Run Team and to join the local running community in Eagle River, visit their website at chugachrunteam.com.
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker