Overall Rating
Overall Rating (1 Review)
5
(1 Ratings)  (1 Review)
DIFFICULTY
3
SCENERY
5
PRODUCTION
5
SWAG
5
Alaska…….Denali……Big, Wild & Wide Open Places. With 20,310’ tall Denali and surrounding Alaska Range Mountains and glaciers as its backdrop, the 135 Mile Denali Highway is the setting for the spectacular Denali 135 and Denali 100K Endurance Races. The Denali Highway was the original and only road into Denali National … MORE
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    M_Sohaskey FIRST-TIMER '21

    BOTTOM LINE: You never forget your first, and especially when your first happens to be 100 km (62.2 miles) in one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet. Held along … MORE

    BOTTOM LINE: You never forget your first, and especially when your first happens to be 100 km (62.2 miles) in one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet. Held along the Denali Highway, a wild and mostly unpaved stretch of 135 miles I’d immediately fallen in love with during my first visit to Alaska 15 years earlier, the Denali 100K is a bucket-list, back-to-nature adventure created for the intrepid ultrarunner. Though theoretically speaking I’d long been intrigued by the 100K as a “triple digit” challenge, it would take a special opportunity to make me commit to the distance—and the inaugural Denali 100K was just what this doctor ordered. The day I first learned of the event, it was as though someone had read my mind.

    Run on the summer solstice (meaning I finished at 2:30am AKDT under relatively bright skies), the race starts at the Alpine Creek Lodge near the midpoint of the iconic Denali Highway and finishes, without a single turn, near the highway’s endpoint in Cantwell. The largely unpaved highway opened in 1957 as the lone road leading to Denali National Park. (For true masochists, the race also offers a 135-mile distance that runs the full length of the highway.) The terrain is highly consistent crushed gravel that’s ideal for running. And though the Denali Highway wouldn’t be considered “hilly” per se by trail running standards (and the route is, in fact, a net downhill), it definitely rolls from start to finish. As my fatigue mounted, I was able to establish a time-efficient rhythm of speed-hiking the ups while running the downs and flats, a strategy that minimized my exhaustion in the second half.

    The Denali 100K is an untamed dichotomy of tranquil solitude on the one hand and unnerving vulnerability on the other. Because when you say “Alaska,” most people envision vast wilderness and the megafauna that call it home. Though I didn’t see any large mammals myself on race day (not such a bad thing when you’re alone for 12+ hours on foot without bear spray), other runners and their crews reported sightings of two grizzly sows and a cub, six moose cows and two calves, four foxes, and three porcupines including a baby. And on the topic of safety: given the remote nature of the course and the lack of cell service along the Denali Highway, each runner carried a SPOT tracker equipped with an SOS button throughout the race, which was used to track our GPS coordinates. Likewise, every runner’s crew carried a satellite phone which enabled them, if needed, to contact Race Director Sean or anyone else during the race.

    A note regarding the race name: on a clear day the stately snow-covered peak of Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the United States at 20,310 ft, is visible as you approach the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway. Clear days in Cantwell, however, are hit or miss to say the least, so if it’s a Denali sighting you crave (and what Alaskan visitor doesn’t?), I’d recommend you make the short-but-scenic detour to the village of Talkeetna on the drive to or from Anchorage. There, your best bet for seeing The Great One is from the viewing deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (see accompanying photo).

    In essence, I can say without hyperbole that the Denali 100K is the reason I run, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. To call this a “race” almost doesn’t do the day justice—this is a soul-cleansing experience not only for veteran ultrarunners but for any lover of the outdoors who’s looking for the perfect inspiration to challenge themselves and tackle their first 100K. And it’s the ultimate destination race for an increasingly stressed-out world.

    PRODUCTION: Race Director Sean Tracy, his partner and co-RD Holly, and their daughter Emilia (in whose young brain the idea for the Denali 100K originated) are amazing people who make an amazing team. Sean is a “big ideas” guy with the perfect temperament for a race director, while Holly is his detail-oriented right-hand woman who makes things happen. As with every event these past two years, the inaugural race (which was originally scheduled for July 2020) rode the emotional roller coaster of “yes, it will” and “no, it won’t,” and Sean did a terrific job of setting expectations and keeping us updated. For more background on the race and the man himself, I’d recommend you read “The Road to Denali” in the May/June 2021 issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. It lays out Sean’s story—including his becoming the first and only person to travel ~3,700 miles from Badwater to Denali Base Camp under his own power—and what compelled him to stage a 135-mile/100K foot race in the heart of wild Alaska. Most of all, I’d suggest you register to run the Denali 100K and discover for yourself why Sean and his family are exactly the type of thoughtful, caring and creative individuals you’ll be proud to call friends long after you cross his understated finish line.

    Sean’s pre-race communication—which actually spanned 15 months from March 2020 when I first registered, to June 2021 when the race finally happened—was personable yet professional (much like Sean himself) and a treasure trove of useful information re: what to expect on race day and how to plan the rest of your Alaskan vacation. His enthusiastic yet comforting words reassured me that I wasn’t making an egregious error in judgment by jumping feet first into this inaugural event in one of the wildest places on earth. And he went out of his way to give credit to his runners and call out their accomplishments, including a heartfelt “get well” shout-out to one long-time ultrarunner who couldn’t join us this year after recent open-heart surgery. Sean’s was the rare pre-race communication I look forward to seeing in my Inbox.

    Race weekend culminated in a beautiful evening and an excellent post-race buffet at the McKinley Creekside Cabins, our post-race accommodations located 15 minutes from the finish-line end of the Denali Highway. There we enjoyed grilled salmon, chili-lime tofu, coconut rice, plus salads, desserts and drinks while chatting and comparing notes with fellow finishers, and Sean presented a check to an appreciative representative from this year’s race beneficiary, the Denali Education Center. It was a fitting conclusion to an epic weekend.

    Sean and Holly expended an enormous amount of effort to maximize their runners’ chances of success on race day. This included Sean running the entire 135-mile course himself during the initial planning stages because, as Holly told us, he won’t ask others to run a course unless he’s first run it himself. The end result is a testament to their dedication and their desire to give the ultrarunning community a special event. And it’s tough to say they didn’t succeed with flying colors—the Denali 100K is an event you won’t soon forget.

    One important detail to note ahead of time: the Denali 100K is a self-supported, BYOC (Bring Your Own Crew) event. There are neither official aid stations nor so much as a convenience store along the remote route, and very few vehicles—aside from Sean or the other runners’ crews—drive the highway. So you’ll want to come prepared with your own crew and everything you need on race day. For this reason, Katie and I reserved a Jeep and an oversized cooler in Anchorage, then stopped for supplies before making the drive to Cantwell and the Alpine Creek Lodge where we stayed before the race. On that note, sports nutritionist Sunny Blende was spot-on when she said, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” Nailing my nutritional strategy was the single most important factor in keeping my performance consistent and reaching the finish line faster than I’d thought possible. If you’re going to run this or any other 100K, and assuming you’re trained up for the challenge, race-day nutrition is your key to success.

    SWAG: Truth is, I doubt that anyone running 100K in wild Alaska does so for the swag. That said, I wear my Denali 100K finisher tee proudly, while the real keepsake is the finisher buckle made from shed moose antlers (i.e. bone) and hand-sanded by Sean himself. Adorned with the race’s namesake peak, the ivory beauty easily earns a spot in my top five favorite finisher awards and now hangs in my home from an Alaska lanyard purchased at a roadside souvenir store.

    As you can probably tell, I have a lot more to say about the Denali 100K, and it all gets said (including logistics, recommended gear & more) in the accompanying blog report. I hope you’ll check it out at https://bit.ly/3N7OpuR.

    DIFFICULTY
    3
    PRODUCTION
    5
    My Report
    SCENERY
    5
    SWAG
    5
    My Media

    5 members marked this review helpful. Agree?

    thestudadam May 11, 2022 at 9:41pm

    We drove that entire highway on our way from Denali NP to Wrangel St. Elias NP about 2 months after the race. We at times went over an hour without… MORE

    We drove that entire highway on our way from Denali NP to Wrangel St. Elias NP about 2 months after the race. We at times went over an hour without seeing another car. We stopped repeatedly on the side of the road to take pictures. When you say remote you are not kidding. Other than the road there is literally zero civilization for as far as the eye can see on both sides of the road. I'm glad the condition of the road was good because by August the potholes were pretty severe. What an amazing experience though, the entire state of Alaska feels like one big postcard photo op but some of our best and most unique pictures came from that highway. So few people use it and get to see it, even my friends who grew up in Fairbanks have never driven it. Nice work Mike, and for anybody who liked his review, read his blog for the photo glory and all the details. LESS

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    M_Sohaskey May 12, 2022 at 11:35pm

    Thanks for the kind words Adam, and you're absolutely right... in a state full of postcard-perfect opportunities, the Denali area is unrivaled. And even after 13 hours on the road,… MORE

    Thanks for the kind words Adam, and you're absolutely right... in a state full of postcard-perfect opportunities, the Denali area is unrivaled. And even after 13 hours on the road, I know my own photos don't do it justice. Glad you guys got a chance to drive the highway yourselves last year, so you know exactly what I'm talking about... and I can't imagine anywhere else I'd rather have run my first (and only?) 100K. Crazy to think that someone who grew up in nearby Fairbanks has never driven that stretch! LESS

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    dscipio May 10, 2022 at 7:41pm

    Mike: just as the info from Sean is one of few race info emails you looked forward to receiving, your description of the exciting races where you cross the finish… MORE

    Mike: just as the info from Sean is one of few race info emails you looked forward to receiving, your description of the exciting races where you cross the finish line are the ones I read from beginning to end. LESS

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    M_Sohaskey May 11, 2022 at 10:49pm

    That's high praise Roy, I appreciate your support!

    That's high praise Roy, I appreciate your support!

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    usamhall May 10, 2022 at 4:26pm

    Mike, congrats on your epic adventure... definitely more than a race. Your commentary makes me want to get out there. Unfortunately for me at 72, I believe this is just… MORE

    Mike, congrats on your epic adventure... definitely more than a race. Your commentary makes me want to get out there. Unfortunately for me at 72, I believe this is just a little bit beyond my capacities. Thanks for the first hand account of the experience. All the best, Michael LESS

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    M_Sohaskey May 10, 2022 at 7:43pm

    Thanks so much Michael, glad you found this inspiring... I know you're still running strong at 72, so do keep in mind this race has a generous 20-hour cutoff, plenty… MORE

    Thanks so much Michael, glad you found this inspiring... I know you're still running strong at 72, so do keep in mind this race has a generous 20-hour cutoff, plenty of time (and lighting) to enjoy the journey! LESS

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