How a Small Alaskan
‘Old friend, got a crazy idea I want to float your way!’
In late May, Trevor Dunbar texted me. A week later and we were sitting for lunch in Concord, Massachusetts ahead of the Adrian Martinez Classic. My ears were open to anything.
‘I love what you do on Long Island and I want to do it in Kodiak. Bring you and a few of the guys up to Alaska and break-4 minutes there.’
I remember being in his position. Three years earlier I had turned the idea of creating a race in my hometown into a reality. I sat alongside Brendan Barrett, my friend and future co-meet director as we presented our crazy idea to HOKA. Before we could finish pitching the details of our business plan, they were on board and the Long Island Mile was born.
Trevor didn’t have a business plan, just enthusiasm. No one had broken 4-minutes outdoors in the 49th state. Most likely for two reasons: the weather and the distance. Elite athletes chase fast times. The summer months are spent burning through travel budgets desperately looking for an opportunity to go fast. That’s why a faraway place known for variable conditions isn’t generally thought of as a potential racing destination.
‘After the race we’ll go on an epic fishing trip and see some glaciers. It will basically be a vacation with a race.’
The 2017 Long Island Mile featured 15 athletes who’ve competed in either the Olympics or World Championships. But favors were called in that first year to fill the field. One of the friends I reached out to was David Torrence, in whose memory the race is now named after. Not only did he come, but he won in 3:53.
It was my turn to pay it forward.
Halfway through lunch Ray Flynn sat down at the table next to us. In addition to being a 3:49-miler himself, he was now both of our agents. Trevor filled him in and asked if it’d work following the 5th Avenue Mile, the unofficial end to most athletes’ season. Ray’s racing schedule was much fuller when he used to compete. There was rarely a race he would turn down. He shared with us how he once competed on the dirt of the Yonkers Raceway horse track. He won in under 4..
Ray was on board, as were the athletes. Trevor immediately launched into planning mode by securing venues, sponsors, host families, travel, marketing and all the little details to put it together.
A few weeks before the race, Trevor sent the itinerary. We would go to Anchorage on Wednesday and then race again in Kodiak on Saturday. And he included the field:
-Trevor Dunbar, the hometown kid with a 13:26 5k and 3:55 mile best
-Colby Alexander, my teammate and a 3:34 1500 man
-Garrett Heath of the Brooks Beasts with a best of 3:53
-Ben Blankenship from OTC, who was 8th at the 2016 Olympics
-Nick Harris, the Pac-12 800m Champ who had just graduated from Colorado
-Hans Roelle of Anchorage and owner of a 2:21 1k PR
-Doug Benson, the rabbit with a 3:42 1500 to his name
- And me, Kyle Merber, 3:52.2 PR
Trevor had assembled a strong group to not only chase the barrier, but to remove an asterisk. In 2013, Jack Bolas broke 4-minutes in Alaska. There were two caveats: the mile was run indoors and on a 413m track. His 3:58.3 mile served as an ambiguous state record due to the legality of oversized tracks. And while it’s an impressive time, everything that makes racing in Alaska difficult is outside.
When we broke the tape at the 5th Avenue Mile, we only had three days until our first race in Alaska. Once we caught our breath, the conversation among the athletes turned to everyone’s off-season plans. After 11 months of training and racing, it’s customary to enjoy some leisure at the end. But for Colby, Ben and me there was more to run before we relaxed. Other athletes reacted to our race plans with complete disbelief.
‘Alaska! Why? Can’t believe you are racing two more. I’m so happy to be done!’
When I committed to racing four months before, I didn’t think of this moment – when everyone else would be in full off-season mode. With the flight looming, regret and reluctance began to seep into my mind. And lingered, quite frankly, until I peeked snow-covered mountains through the plane windows on the descent to Anchorage.
Trevor met us at the airport, full of excitement and state history facts. Colby Alexander and I got the bags and loaded up in Trevor’s minivan. He dropped us off at what seemed like every teenager’s dream house: bright purple with a bocce court as the front lawn, an elaborate disc golf course around the perimeter and an old full-sized fighter plane tucked away into the trees. But it wasn’t time for fun. We had woken up at 5am that morning and it was past midnight back on the east coast, but we still needed to get in a run.
It was as if we had time traveled two months into the autumnal-future. It was still summer in New York and I was sitting on the beach just a few days before but here it was already November-like. Yellow leaves were falling and it smelled like cross-country. We jogged 3 miles; just enough to shake the junk out of our legs and see the high school track. It’s oddly comforting to visualize where the pain will be.
Despite the jetlag, my body was confused and woke up the next day with the sun. It was race day. After a cup of coffee I took off with Ben Blankenship for a couple morning miles. As always he was downplaying how his legs were feeling and his expectations. This is a typical pre-race mind game that he’ll play; often saying things like, ‘I hope to just finish!’ At this point, his routine is familiar.
Generally on race day I like to find a few distractions in between the hours waiting in bed on my phone. It’s good to occupy your mind. We wandered the city of Anchorage, sampled reindeer sausage for lunch and strolled through Kincaid Park. But before we were ready, it was time to head to the track.
As we walked up to the field, the stands were empty. It was just over an hour until the race was set to go off. What was supposed to be a professional track meet and in our minds, a historic attempt, looked like it had the same draw as a bad dual meet. The whole field warmed up together. We set out on a jog into the neighborhood before descending onto a bike trail set alongside the water.
Then someone asked:
‘Trevor, are you nervous? You look nervous.’
‘Guess there’s nothing I can do now. We just gotta go to work!’
In the final few minutes of the jog, the wind was pushing us down the hill with gusts up to 20mph. It was a pinch over 50 degrees, but no one mentioned the conditions. It was out of our control, so why complain?
It was too cold to take our warm-ups off. We went through the motions: stretching, drills, long strides, short strides and finally spiking up. And then with less than 10-minutes until the start, the fans began to pour in. The stands quickly went from patchy to packed. As we disrobed before the line to the sounds of our accolades being read off, the people of Anchorage continued to file in and take spots fence-side. The city was ready, but were we?
Pinned to our jerseys were black ribbons inscribed with ‘DT’, for our fallen friend and fellow athlete. We stood for a moment of silence and tried to block the flood of emotions. And then the gun.
The first 200 felt effortless. The surge of adrenaline and the small field made it easy to find position. With Doug Benson leading the way, we were in good hands. I sat in behind Nick Harris, Garrett Heath and Ben. But even that pack couldn’t shield the us from the headwind on the home stretch. We slowed practically to a halt.
Despite the fast opening, we came through 409m in 60. And when the wind blew at our back once again, the race began to feel more like a fartlek than an even effort. My head down, I was doing my best to only focus on the body in front of me. As the rabbit stepped off at halfway in 1:59 the pace became our responsibility.Nick was up for the challenge. He worked with the air flowing off the mountains but just after 1k, Trevor went around him and began to fight. His goal was for someone to go under, even if it meant sacrificing his own odds.
The clock at the bell lap read 3:02. We were behind schedule. With 300 to go, as Garrett went to move out so did Colby and he took off like he had shot out of a cannon. I followed and then rode the rail.
After the race Colby would laugh while recalling those final moments.
‘With 150m to go I was pretty sure I had dropped you guys and was about to jog it in to victory.’
With a straightaway to go, Colby and Ben were neck and neck, staring each other down. Out of their peripheral vision, I stepped into the lane two and gritted my teeth, shocked to find one last gear. With the scoreboard in front of me as I crossed the line, I knew it was under.
I Immediately turned to Trevor who had a smile on his face. With a high-five and hug we celebrated together. He made it happen. Together the eight of us ran back past the finish line and slapped hands with the fans that were asking for pictures and autographs. They were overwhelmingly thankful.
‘I know you have broken 4 minutes so many times before, but for you to do it here. I don’t think you can understand the impact this will have on our kids.’
After finishing interviews with the local TV crews and newspapers, I walked to my bag and put on my trainers. Quickly I was surrounded by a team of high school athletes who were spitting off questions ranging from my freshman year bests to what my diet is like. And as fast as they had arrived, the crowd of one thousand plus dispersed and we were left to cool down on a quiet track.
Spirits were high! We accomplished the first goal - breaking 4 outdoors in Alaska - with Ben also getting under and Colby narrowly missing. We retold the race through each of our own perspectives. We laughed at Nick for kicking from 800 meters out and at Ben’s bold inside pass. The weight was lifted off our shoulders, but there was one more mark that we still needed to chase, something Roger Bannister never did — beat Jack Bolas. 3:58 or bust.
That night we celebrated at Moose’s Tooth, Alaska’s most famous pizza spot (who knew?) before waking up to run the Glen Alps Trail, which winds through the Chugach Mountains. Before we went, the Alaskans prepped us for the possibility of being attacked by bears. If one came at us, which would be unlikely in such a large group, we should resist our instincts to run. Instead, we were supposed to get big, yell loudly and pray for a bluff charge. For 50-minutes I worried.
On Friday we flew to Kodiak. After getting dropped off at our host families and learning that everyone knew Trevor, we headed to a coffee shop for breakfast. There a fisherman took notice of our table and recognized us from the newspaper. He had just come to port after two months catching salmon in what was a historically successful season. He was open with us about the considerable sum of money he had just made and asked if any of us were interested in coming on board. The offer was enticing, however I’d imagine it might interfere with training.
The track at Kodiak was fast for a high school: supposedly surfaced the same as Hayward Field. Though the weather was cooperating for the pre-race warmup, collectively, our legs were tired. It had been a long year. Though I ran a mile personal best in the winter, the outdoor season had met a series of heartbreak. I was not alone in this sentiment, but there was only one race to go.
Committed to finishing the season together, we had an impromptu meeting about how to approach things that next day. There was consensus on both the goal [to break the Alaskan soil record) and that Trevor would not be responsible for making it happen. He had done enough bringing us here. That’s when Hans Roelle stepped up and said he’d take second rabbit.
That afternoon there was a cross-country meet that coincided with our race. Schools from the mainland had slept overnight on a 12-hour long ferry to Kodiak. Following a massive potluck dinner featuring delicacies such as a salmon quiche and spaghetti sandwiches, we spoke to 200 kids who were previously ignorant to the concept of professional runners.
On Saturday morning we woke up early for the lunchtime race. My legs had spring as I rolled out of bed and out into the fog. My confidence swelled and I convinced myself there was another race left in them. The forecast called for Alaska conditions. With temperatures below 50 degrees and drizzling, this record would not be handed to us. As we set off to warm up, the high schoolers were racing prediction and handicap miles. And they were still going as we returned.
With a small delay in the schedule, we were careful not to take our tights off too soon. The crowd in Kodiak was about half the size of Wednesday’s race, which made sense given that just over six thousand people live there.
Just like we had before, the start was easy and we seamlessly fell into position. This time Hans, who stands a few inches above 6 foot, settled in behind Doug. There was no 200m-split read out loud, but the pace felt right and we trusted it. Coming through the first lap in 59 seconds didn’t feel hard, but it didn’t feel great. I was mid-pack, tucked in behind Garrett and trying to focus on staying in sync. After halfway I tried to make a pass on Ben, but it took effort and the struggle continued for the length of the turn.
Hans rolled just past the 1k a few ticks under pace and as we approached the bell I tried to make my bid. I wasn’t hurting, but my legs couldn’t respond and Colby blew by me in an attempt to close the gap. When Ben glanced back with 300m to go before taking off, ambivalence crept into my head. My body was frozen and my legs had stopped firing. My hopes were done, but ours were not. It’s rare to root for someone as they’re actively beating you, although this was a special occasion.
Crossing into the end of my season, I joined the other guys in surrounding Ben and waiting in anticipation to see what he did. We stood shivering as the new Alaskan soil record was read through the microphone.
Mission accomplished. No asterisk.
As we huddled together, both for warmth and in spirit of sport, Ben summed it up.
‘Boys, that was a full team effort!’
Ironically, in 2008 a seventeen-year-old Trevor first grabbed the attention of the running world on that same Alaskan track. As witnessed through a foggy lens streamed on YouTube, he powered home to an incredible 9:01 2-mile in the snowy and lightly shoveled lane one.
This time I watched as the fans and cameras engulfed Ben. And as they swarmed him I recalled that conversation at lunch four months prior. Motivated just by the desire to do something cool with his friends, Trevor brought a 3:57 mile to a remote fishing town on the corner of the map.
That next morning, on the first day of my off-season, we went off-roading for a 16-mile ATV adventure through the backwoods to Saltery Cove. As promised, we caught twenty-pound salmon (well, everyone except Colby) and spent the day truly experiencing the Alaskan wilderness. Luckily for us, the sun was shining bright and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. That’s when someone asked the hypothetical:
‘How fast would Ben have run in these conditions today? What’s that 3:57 worth?’
A week after the race, long after we all returned home, Mrs. Dunbar overheard a group of Kodiak middle school kids talking about their dream jobs. Among all the answers you’d expect, one response stood out.
‘I want to be a professional runner.’
And that’s what the 3:57 was worth.