North Pole’s Chena Lakes Recreation Area was packed with runners, volunteers and cheering families on Saturday for the 2019 Santa Claus Half Marathon.

This year saw 189 runners of all ages and abilities enter the race.

“The number is down from last year,” said race director Chris Oliver. “Historically we’ve had upwards of 300 people register, and last year we had close to 250.” 

Oliver said that the smoke from nearby wildfires as well as many families’ end-of-summer plans were most likely factors in this year’s slightly lower turnout. “But we were very, very pleased to have what we have.” 

The Santa Claus Half Marathon, which is also the fifth event in the Running Club North’s Usibelli Cup Series, has been running for 26 years, with Saturday’s race marking Oliver’s third year as race director. 

“This is a unique course in the fact that we don’t have many half marathons in the Interior,” Oliver said. “The course is very flat, but the terrain is varied, so you see a mix of running paths and trails, and runners also run on the berm.”

The total half marathon course runs for approximately 13.1 miles, starting and finishing near the swimming beach in the recreation area’s lake park. 

Saturday’s race featured two waves of runners, with those anticipating a time of over 2.5 hours starting at 8 a.m., and the more rest starting at 9 a.m. 

Rick Lader finished first overall and for first the men’s division, coming in with a time of 1:14.54. 

Lader has run the Santa Claus Half Marathon for two years, and finished first

both times. 

“It’s a really good course,” Lader said. “The problem today was we had record-setting rains since yesterday, so at some points I was up to my knees in water.” 

Lader was frustrated because despite being in better physical condition than last year, he ended up finishing slower because of the heavy rains throughout the course. “It was a run/swim today.” 

The Santa Claus was Lader’s first race in three months, and looking ahead at the rest of the season, he wants to reevaluate his performance before racing again. 

Moving past the weather conditions, Lader still expressed his appreciation for the course and the support from the numerous volunteers. “The event itself is great. There’s a lot of nice support, and people are very energetic and happy to see you out there.” 

Vishal Raheja finished second for the men’s with a time of 1:31.55, and Jacob Parker arrived third at 1:37.29. 

Raheja had a slightly different perspective on the weather. “The race was gorgeous. I loved the wilderness and running through the trees. This was beautiful weather.” 

Raheja is visiting from Toronto, Canada, and said that he wanted to find a local race during his trip. “I’m coming back from an injury, but there was such a nice community. It’s always fun to run with support.”

On the women’s side, Melanie Nussbaumer came in first with a time of 1:31.28. 

This year was Nussbaumer’s first Santa Claus Half Marathon, as injuries prevented her from being able to compete in past years. Like Raheja, she said she enjoyed the weather, noting that the rain and accompanying cool weather were helpful during the run. 

“Overall it was nice and cool, and just a pretty calm course,” said Nussbaumer, who has already raced in several of the Usibelli Series events, including the Chena River Run and the Midnight Sun Run. 

Rachel Gibson arrived second for the women’s division at 1:37.36. Gina Chythlook finished third with a time of 1:42.48. 

In addition to being a part of the Usibelli Series, the Santa Claus Half Marathon is also a large fundraiser for the North Pole High School cross-country running and JROTC programs. 

“They’re out here supplying most of the volunteers,” Oliver said. “So it’s really great to be able to support the high school through this race.”

Oliver, who also took over race directing for the North Pole High School’s cross-country team in 2017, described how the Santa Claus Half Marathon provides overlap for young runners who will eventually strive to compete at the high school level. 

“It is one of the only runs in North Pole ... So it really helps to attract those younger runners, since this is one of the places where they’ll do some running in the next couple of weeks.”

Contact News-Miner sports assistant Brian Ely at 459-7589.