FAIRBANKS — The Equinox Marathon is returning to its roots — quite literally.
A half-dozen course changes in the 50th running on Sept. 15 will help spice up Fairbanks’ iconic race, with most of them designed to improve safety by re-routing about two miles from pavement to dirt. Organizers also anticipate that the runners’ enjoyment will be enhanced by using sections of trail that are both new and historic.
“There have been major changes in the past, just not so many substantial changes in one year,” said co-director John Estle, who has been involved with the event since the early 1980s.
The biggest alteration is a re-route near mile 9. Runners in recent years have simply headed steeply up Ester Dome Road until branching into the woods about two-thirds of a mile later. Now they will follow St. Patrick Road for a few hundred meters beyond its junction with Ester Dome Road and turn uphill onto a narrow trail newly built by Happy Trails Inc.
Runners will then briefly tie into a mountain biking trail, run through a deciduous forest and cross Ester Dome Road slightly uphill from the previous entry point. The new trail will merge with the existing trail shortly thereafter.
The work was funded through a grant obtained by the Interior Trails Preservation Coalition.
Because it is longer, the re-route will add several minutes to the ascent of Ester Dome — but allow for a faster pace since the grade is more gradual. The extra distance will be compensated for with shortcuts at miles 2 and 21.
Feedback on the mile 9 reroute has been overwhelmingly positive, Estle said.
“I’ve heard only glowing reviews from people who’ve run it,” Estle said. “(Except for one person) everyone else says how beautiful it is and how much they enjoy running it.”
Two other changes return the trail to sections that were used previously.
Near mile 8, instead of staying on Sheep Creek Road, runners will again follow the old airstrip across from Ann’s Greenhouses, a route that was used during Stan Justice’s record run in 1984.
Immediately upon exiting the airstrip, a new relay exchange zone will be used in the Goldstream Sports parking lot replacing the previous exchange area on Ester Dome Road. Estle called this change “a huge improvement in safety and traffic management and in the enjoyment factor for runners.”
Another historic section from more than 30 years ago is being brought back. Near the bottom of Henderson Road, runners will turn onto a powerline where they will follow a trail until rejoining the existing powerline route at Cloudberry Road. This will eliminate about a half-mile of pavement on Henderson and Goldhill roads, not to mention a soul-sucking climb that runners have had to contend with on Goldhill.
The final mile of the course is also being altered. Instead of heading down West Tanana Loop, runners will utilize a trail on the adjacent hillside that was created so University of Alaska Fairbanks athletes could ski from the Student Recreation Center to the West Ridge trails.
In order to balance out the distance of all the changes, the location of the turnaround on Ester Dome’s out-and-back section will need to be moved approximately 1/10th of a mile downhill, said Ben Nelson, who shares chief of course duties with Justice.
The extended turnaround will add time but not dramatically change the difficulty. “The grade (of the extension) isn’t too bad,” Nelson said.
The turnaround has been moved up and down several times over the years and the new location still falls within the historical range, Estle said.
With the help of volunteers, nearly all the mile-marker signs for the marathon and 40-mile ultramarathon have been moved, Nelson said.
Whether the revised course will be faster, slower or virtually the same speed remains to be seen. Runners will run a farther distance to reach the top of Ester Dome, but be a bit closer to the finish line when they begin losing elevation at the infamous alder chute. Trail maintenance has smoothed out parts of Ester Dome and will make those sections a little faster, Nelson predicted.
Meanwhile, the start and finish line will not be moved substantially although its configuration is yet to be determined due to the university’s utilidor project. Currently the SRC field has mountains of dirt and deep trenches, but Estle said he has been assured the field will be returned to a flat surface before race day. With no grass, however, Estle is concerned in the event of rain.
“The big variable is weather. If the weather is really wet between now and race day, or pouring rain on race day, then that whole area is going to be a soupy mess,” Estle said. “If it’s relatively dry ... then running across the dirt would not be a problem.”
Project officials have offered to help put wood chips on the field if necessary.
“We will hold off on a decision as long as we can to try to get the best information,” Estle said.
For the first time in its history, prize money will be awarded to the top finishers of this year’s Equinox.
The top man and woman will each earn $300, with $200 going to second place, $150 for third, $100 for fourth and $50 for fifth.
In addition, a premium of $500 will be paid to a runner who breaks the existing marathon course record. Stan Justice set the men’s record of 2:41:30 in 1984 and Susan Faulkner set the women’s mark of 3:18:16 in 2002.
Teams who break the existing relay records will receive $100 per runner.
“We’ll do this for a few years and see how it works,” Estle said. “If it’s effective in bringing in higher quality runners, that makes the event more exciting for everybody.”
Other events in Fairbanks, such as sled dog, snowmachine, cycling and championship ski races, have offered cash prizes before.
“This is not really anything out of the ordinary for sports in Fairbanks,” Estle said.
The Equinox previously offered cash for relay teams to run faster than Justice and Faulkner had. The incentive seemed to work as the men’s and women’s relay records fell dramatically in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
The Equinox Marathon Advisory Committee unanimously approved the prize money awards at its June meeting.
Entries for the Equinox are almost certain to eclipse 1,000 for the first time since 1969.
As of Saturday, a week before the 50th running on Sept. 15, 934 entries have been received.
The total includes 579 marathon entries, 325 relay runners and 30 ultrarunners.
“Once we add to the total relay runners who have been listed on a team but have not yet registered, the total will rise over 1,000,” co-director John Estle said in a press release.
The 1969 race saw 1,160 entrants comprised of 260 runners and 900 hikers.