By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
I yearn for the diversity of a Tsalteshi-type trail system in Bristol Bay.
Here in Dillingham, active runners — and I will tentatively include myself in that category — surrender variety for redundancy. They run, ad nauseam and mostly alone, on a limited selection of paths, city streets and road shoulders. And cross-country skiers here have it even worse, with little history of the sport and no established trails, only open tundra and mountain passes bounded by private property along roads with few plowed turnouts.
Dillingham’s three main paved roads total 28 miles, plus three short segments of multiuse paths that parallel the pavement. There are also a few gravel roads, the longest being eight-mile Snake Lake Road, the only connection to four primitive hiking trails. A lack of regular maintenance makes these trails problematic for running, and throughout the winter they are difficult to reach because only the first half mile of Snake Lake Road is open to traffic. The rest is buried deep in snow.
Consequently, in order to log their requisite miles, local runners must repeatedly travel the same main roads, the same backroads, the same pothole-filled city streets and fractured sidewalks.
Still, some athletes here do more than just survive on what they’ve got. They thrive.
Andrew Berkoski, 46, traveled in 2010 to Antarctica to compete in a marathon. A few months later he ran in an ultramarathon in the Gobi Desert in China. To prepare for these two wildly different events, he trained exclusively in Dillingham, a community with no running culture and no indoor exercise infrastructure.
Berkoski, who lives about 13 miles outside the city, ran to work at the Dillingham City School District several days a week, throughout the year, in order to maintain his training. To prepare for the desert, he sometimes trained inside his family’s tiny sauna, jogging in place and performing situps and pushups in 140-degree heat.
Every other day during the winter, regardless of the weather, Berkoski ran to the school, leaving his house at 4 a.m., headlamp alight and work clothes in a knapsack, in order to beat the traffic on the shoulderless and mostly unlighted Aleknagik Lake Road. On nonrunning days, he rode his bicycle to work and back, then went for a short run (five to six miles) to keep his mileage up. On Saturdays, he logged roughly the equivalent of a marathon on foot.
He trained this way for at least two years in preparation for Antarctica.
Dillingham’s Cindy Tuckwood, who was preparing for a triathlon in Wisconsin in July and the Lost Lake Trail Run (near Seward) in August, trained by running and biking along a road construction zone at 5 a.m. every day, hiking and climbing mountains with her three young daughters, and, once the winter ice had melted, donning a wetsuit and swimming three times a week in a lake 20 miles from her home.
Even now, Tuckwood’s alarm wakes her at 4:30 every morning. A few minutes later, she clips a leash onto her dog’s collar and is out the door, in the dark except in summer. A veritable exercise machine, the 46-year-old substitute teacher logs each week about 50 miles on foot, several hours on her bicycle and six days of P90X workouts, in addition to the summer swims.
By the time her daughters are rising for school and her husband is preparing for work, Tuckwood is ready to focus on family. She has been training in this manner for the past 15 years.
It’s easy to see why, in many remote communities, such as Dillingham, runners are rarities. Like Berkoski and Tuckwood, those who exercise here regularly are mostly do-it-yourselfers, making the best of this community’s recreational deficits — no outdoor track, no swimming pool, no public gymnasium, no rec center, and just one event in the Alaska Runners Calendar.
Although a free-to-the-public, five-kilometer color run began here in 2014, the only established local race for which one can train is the annual Tony’s Run, which began in 1992 in honor of Anthony Jones, a Dillingham Police Department officer killed in the line of duty.
Being disconnected from the road system also means additional expenses for anyone wishing to train for an event outside of Dillingham. Promoters hoping to draw competitors to Bristol Bay for races face the same obstacle. Typically, round-trip airfare from Anchorage to Dillingham, or vise-versa, is about $500.
That cost is one reason that a Tsalteshi-type trail system here is unlikely. Almost since it was created in 1990, Tsalteshi Trails, on a road-system nexus near Soldotna, has been drawing athletes from throughout the state. Because of its excellent planning and maintenance over the years, Tsalteshi became and continues to be one of Alaska’s crown jewels of trails.
On the other hand, a Dillingham trail system, disconnected from the road system and expensive to reach, would have to be created with mostly the local population in mind. The middle/high-school running teams could train there during the fall and probably host a regional meet, but Dillingham schools have no skiing program. Perhaps cross-country skiing would surge in popularity if a trail system were installed and properly maintained.
At the present time, however, skiers in Bristol Bay are rarer creatures than runners.
Still, despite the difficulties of training here, success is possible.
Berkoski’s training in all that snow, frigid air and icy roads paid off in Antarctica, where he finished first in his age group (40-49), fourth among all male runners and fifth overall among 70 finishers.
Berkoski said he also benefited from the tedium of his Dillingham training. Logging all those miles at home was “good because I had to play mental games with myself. I had to get used to the monotony.” In Antarctica, which tightly restricts its use of public space, the marathon course was laid out in one eight-mile loop, with the runners navigating its hills, snowfields, mud, slush and streams until they reached 26.2 miles.
In Wisconsin, Tuckwood had a first-place finish, topping a small women’s triathlon field. As she ran, swam and biked, she did what she always does in Dillingham — just go.
The monotony of training in a Bush community doesn’t faze her, mainly because she refuses to dwell on it.
“We live in Dillingham. I don’t think about where (else) I could be,” she said. “I just get out and run with my dog. You can make up every excuse, but if you make it a priority or a commitment, you’re going to do it. I just do it. It’s a commitment to myself.”
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.