Oftentimes, friends from the “Lower 48” balk at the idea of what seems like a trip to the other side of the world – even though Anchorage is just a 3-hour flight from Seattle and quicker to reach from Los Angeles than New York City. 

But I recently had success luring a friend and his wife to Alaska by proposing they visit for a reason other than the traditional fishing, glaciers, or wildlife. I told them they should come up to get some exercise. 

A destination marathon isn’t for everyone. But for a certain type of person, the chance to run 26.2 miles in a unique location can be enough to make the difference when planning a summer vacation. And while Anchorage’s two major marathons don’t have the luster of a Boston or NYC, they do have some unique advantages that make them the perfect excuse for running off to Alaska. 

My friend and his wife are avid (ok, maybe a bit psycho) marathon runners. They’ve participated in races all over the world, and she’s even parlayed her running into a gig as a brand ambassador for a beer company. They’re serious about this stuff. So this winter I had a hunch that running might be the carrot I needed to get them to come visit, and after a bit of convincing I got a call that they’d booked tickets. 

Now came the hard part. And I don’t mean training to run the race – although that won’t be easy, either. 

It goes without saying that the most difficult aspect of planning for a marathon is getting in shape to actually run the race. I can’t give much advice on that topic, but there are thousands of blogs and books and videos dedicated to the subject. I will say, however, that it’s a good idea to start training as early as possible. Anchorage’s two big marathons – the Mayor’s Marathon and Anchorage RunFest – take place in June and August, respectively, meaning you should probably begin any program sometime the previous fall or winter. 

Anchorage marathons and running trails

Where planning ahead is truly key though is when it comes to the logistical challenge of scheduling an Alaska vacation around a marathon, and this is where I was able to be a lot more help to my friend. Hotel rooms in the summertime throughout Alaska are more expensive in summer, so my advice was to lock in a plan as far ahead of time as possible. Price and availability are generally better the earlier you book, so it’s wise to both check ahead and call individual hotels to ask about special deals or even promotional rates for runners. 

My friends settled on the Annual Mayor’s Marathon in June and booked their flight to arrive in Anchorage the Thursday before the race. This would allow them to attend the pre-race expo on Friday, run the race Saturday and leave Anchorage on Sunday. 

The Mayor’s Marathon is a true summertime happening. Falling annually on the Summer Solstice, the event includes a full marathon, half marathon, 5K, 5-miler and kids’ mile. Coming at the height of Midnight Sun season it coincides with the annual Summer Solstice Festival and is the ideal time to discover Anchorage in all its summertime glory. The marathon itself is flat and fast, traversing they city multiuse trails between Kincaid Park and downtown. 

Anchorage Mayor's Marathon

Falling a bit later in the summer the Anchorage RunFest is equally alluring and includes an Ultra 49-kilometer course for those souls for whom running a full marathon just isn’t enough punishment. 

After deciding which race to run we needed to decide on post race activities. My friends are avid hikers, so we decided that on our way out of Anchorage Sunday morning, we’d do a hike up Flattop Mountain. This 1,500-foot climb is probably the most popular trail in the city and provides some of the best possible views of both the Anchorage Bowl and Denali off in the distance. 

After Flattop we’re going to head south to Whittier, where we’re going to grab some fish and chips and take a quick look around the quirky Prince William Sound city before continuing on for the two-hour drive to Seward

They’re planning to spend two days in Seward – enough time to check out both Exit Glacier and the Alaska SeaLife Center as well as give them an opportunity to take a glacier tour out into Resurrection Bay. 

After Seward the plan is to return to Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad and continue on via the rails to Denali National Park. The train runs regular service between SouthCentral Alaska and the park and is far more comfortable and scenic than driving. My friends plan to spend two nights in Denali before returning to Anchorage for a final night before flying home the next morning. 

All in all we’ll cover about 300 road miles, more than 500 rail miles and another 26.2 (plus) on foot in a week’s time. It’s going to be a lot of work but getting the hardest part out of the way will hopefully make it vastly easier. 

Planning an Alaska vacation around a marathon isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of relaxation, but with a bit of prep it can be one of the best ways to motivate yourself for a run to the Great Land. 

Now to see if I can beat my friend’s time…