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Running over the same old ground

Oh my, it’s that time again.

The Equinox Marathon starts with a cannon blast on the third Saturday of September here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The course, laid out by two students who were in part executing a homework assignment in 1963, loops from the athletic fields near the Student Recreation Center to the top of 2,362-foot Ester Dome and back. Twenty-six-point-two miles, to be covered on foot.

I will be out there running over that same old ground on Saturday. To spectators, it may look more like I am executing sort of a slow-motion version of jogging. But, as an acquaintance said to me during a chance meeting in Delta Junction last weekend, I’m still here.

I have completed that wondrous loop in this colorful, crisp, mosquito-free time of year more than 20 times. The fastest, when I was at the top of my arc, was three hours, 42 minutes; the slowest was a recent 17-hour walk that required a headlamp. I also completed the 40-mile Equinox Ultramarathon a few times when it was offered.

Twice, with my wife Kristen contending for first place and both of us possessing lifetime bibs we needed to honor, I pushed my 3- and then 4-year-old girl (now 17-year-old Anna) over the marathon course in a backcountry stroller. The dog came on those jaunts too.

I am a few months older than the Equinox Marathon, which Gail Bakken, Nat Goodhue and others penciled out as a race course and possible cross-country skiing loop. 

I first noticed the Equinox when Dan Joling, a former writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, wrote a profile on Stan Justice in 1986.

Justice is a multi-time race champion. In a fine example of old-school journalism, Joling followed him around for a month before the race. He was present with his reporter’s notebook as Justice ran at the West Valley High School track, as Justice ran repeats up the UAF ski hill and as Justice jogged seven miles to work.

Joling included pithy details of Justice’s personal and athletic life: “He’s reserved, gentlemanly and methodical, not someone you’d call to celebrate your 21st birthday but someone you’d want as your air-traffic controller.”

I read and re-read that story, and I still have the hard copy. It inspired me as a writer and a runner. I have logged many miles doing both as the decades ticked away since then.

And — jeez — haven’t they?

But here I am, in the same place to which I returned in 1986 after having tasted a bit of Fairbanks when I was a teenage airman at Eielson Air Force Base in the early 1980s.

That’s a lot of time to spend in one place. Its rarity is clear as I attend parties for friends and co-workers leaving Alaska. So many people have come and gone.

But not Stan Justice. He will be there on Saturday, volunteering at the two road/railroad crossings before and after Ester Dome. He will smile when you call his name.

The 60-year-old Equinox was a marathon before marathons were cool. It was the largest marathon by number of participants in the world three of its early years. It included women many years before that became common.

The race has survived reroutes, changes in management (from the University of Alaska to Running Club North), and early winters. Twenty people — including Justice but not me — ran it unofficially in 1992, when early September snows changed the reflectiveness of Interior Alaska. Autumn never came back. On this day 31 years ago, for example, the low temperature here was 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Equinox Marathon day has continued to be a favorite, and not just for me. Mike O’Brien, a man of similar vintage, considers it his Christmas Day.

On Saturday I will experience that again. The miles won’t go fast, but due to that time-warp every elderly friend told you about, they will fly by — even the moments of inevitable pleasant suffering.

Maybe, as is the case with that guy who wears the sweat-stained blue Montreal Expos hat, I will see you again the one time I’ll see you all year: at the foot of the UAF ski hill on the third Saturday of September.