There’s a point in most races—no matter where, no matter how far—when I decide I’m done. I have gotten whatever it is I want from the race, my legs feel heavy and potentially on fire, and I would rather be standing at the finish line, chatting with other racers, and chewing on some orange slices, the rind probably stuck between my teeth. There are other universal moments, as well: the sudden rush at the start line, the debate whether to sip water on the go, stop and chug it, or pour it on my face, and the assurance that, at some point, there will be no more miles left.
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But in Sitka, races bring a little something extra—a different set of universalities—and this weekend’s (6-23-12) solstice run at Medvejie was no exception. While 80 degrees and sunny is hardly a Sitka norm, the angles and curves of the mountainous horizon—all granite and forest and snow, more rugged and high than I remember when they have disappeared behind a wall of fog—are rarely around for other races. Same with the eagles hunting overhead, the jumping salmon, the bear sign on the dirt road, the troller anchored in the island-speckled blue bay, Mt. Edgecumbe’s clear and flat peak, with snow dripping in stripes down its sides, and the water rushing, frothing white, in streams that cut through the surrounding thick Tongass National Forest I have grown to love.
I haven’t spent much time in Sitka—I’m about a week into my second summer—but every time I get out, whether to run, hike, paddle, or swim, whether on the roads, trails, or backcountry, it links me closer to this scene. It fills the landscape with moments. I can hardly look at a map of Baranof without thinking of paddling during a cloudless morning on Medvejie, with thrushes and a 4 a.m. sunrise, falling hard on the slick steps running down Gavin (and subsequently lying there, feeling the impact ripple from my tailbone down my femurs before getting up), searching for icefields in the fog in the middle of the island, glasaiding around Harbor, swimming in Camp Lake with tingly skin from a day spent pushing through devil’s club, and running on a clear summer night towards Thimbleberry Lake (the night a thick bright blue, with a band of the light from the north lingering on the horizon).
All the stories and scenes that fill the space between these island’s topographical lines draw me back out for more, because each trip infuses the map with further possibilities for exploration. Instead of a finite list of places or trails to visit and then check off, each outing injects the map with ideas for others—another lake to get to, another ridge to walk, another peak to climb. The setting leaves my sense of wonder insatiable: the age of the widest trees in the Tongass and the stacks of unnamed mountains layered on the horizon always capture my imagination. In my short time here, I have become somewhat addicted to maps.
And what I like best is that almost all of the moments that add layers to the landscape happen with someone else (except, of course, the feet-flying-forward-tailbone-hitting-wooden-plank-of-Gavin-stairs-fall type of layers), so that every time I get out, I am brought closer to both the people and the place of this island. And that’s one of the reasons I love racing here so much: for a couple of hours, a community comes together to collectively link itself closer to the land, and its members to each other, with moments that freckle the course’s path through the Tongass and along the coast. The universal becomes specific: that hill near the hatchery where your thighs ached and someone going down that same hill slapped your hand and cheered you on, the bush where you had time to forage for that one June salmon berry, the winding curves of Sawmill Creek Road near the finish, where you were just sure each one was the last, and the nice folks on bicycles who kept you company through that more trying and stretched out time.
And for me, whenever I pass Whale Park, I know I will think of the finish when I went straight for the stairs to the coast, another racer and his dog tagging along. We scrambled over the rocks, took off our shoes, and jumped into the water, pulling the seaweed from our skin. I dunked my head under and swam away, feeling absorbed in and inside of the sea.