The Klondike Relay

Running through the night on the trail of ’98

Over a hundred teams from around the world come to compete in the overnight road race. Over a hundred teams from around the world come to compete in the overnight road race.  PHOTO COURTESY MATT HAGE / HAGEPHOTO.COM

If it weren’t for the unusually large number of fit out-of-towners crowding every table in the Skagway Brewing Co., you’d have no clue that more than a thousand runners were just an hour away from starting the annual Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay—a 110-mile running race along the Klondike Highway that climbs over White Pass. 

The overnight race is broken into 10 legs between 5.6 and 16 miles long. Nearly 150 teams descend every year on Skagway, mostly from Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory, but runners come from all over the world to race “The Klondike Relay.” 

The Canadian nonprofit organization Sport Yukon has been putting on the relay each fall since 1982. Sport Yukon promotes participation in sports and is involved with the Arctic Winter Games; the race serves as its annual fundraiser.

The most recent Klondike Relay, in September, got off on time to the cheering of a couple hundred spectators lining Broadway. Most of the race is run after dark and the parade of humanity up to White Pass would have made the gold rush stampeders of 1898 proud. 

A steady stream of traffic lights leading all the way to the pass lit aglow the shroud of clouds. Once on top, racers faced unrelenting rain and formidable winds. Fans and teammates braved the conditions to cheer not only their runners, but every runner. Hot drinks were given to those shaking from the cold and, if anyone needed to duck into an RV, they were made welcome. The emphasis of the night was on having a good time and getting the race done rather than beating the other teams. We had heard stories from the days of heated competition, mainly between teams from Anchorage and Whitehorse, but those rivalries seem to have been put aside. How could anyone come to the Klondike Relay set on winning when there’s a dude in a tight red dress running your leg in two-inch heels?

Real bragging rights go to those who have run all 10 legs of the relay, and a trophy has been set up to acknowledge this. Yukon Sen. and Klondike Relay runner Dan Lang donated the Senator’s Cup in 2010. It’s decorated with the names of more than 100 racers who have run each leg, regardless of pace or how many years it took to complete all 10. Not all legs of the race are equal—not even close. The sixth leg measures 16 miles of mostly rolling hills and gradual climbs while the second leg is only 5.6 miles—but those miles climb steeply the entire way. Deciding which is more difficult depends on a runner’s strengths. The uncontested easy or “Princess,” leg is the third. That 7.8-mile stretch descends from White Pass and ends right after crossing the border.

The most challenging part of the race might be the leg that comes after each team’s 10th runner crosses the finish line in Whitehorse’s Rotary Park. The 11th leg of the Klondike Relay would be the awards party hosted at the local curling club. “The after party is always a great time,” says Klondike Relay veteran Todd List. “Some things happen there that I just can’t even mention.” 

To call this an awards ceremony is like calling the annual Lollapalooza music festival a family picnic. Dancing to the live cover band were racers who hadn’t even bothered to bathe, as well as a team that turned out in formal finery. 

Leave it to a crowd of endorphin-pumped runners to tough out freezing rain on an all-night, 100-mile race just to cap off the experience with an all-night dance party. It’s easy to see why people come back to run all 10 legs of the Klondike Relay. 

List ran with Anchorage’s Skinny Raven competitive team until a life-threatening heart condition ended that aspect of his running career in 2006.

 “If I was still running and could only race one more race, it would be the Klondike.”

 

 

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