Great Alaskan Maritime Marathon Cruise

June 22-29, 2008, from Seattle

With John "The Penguin" Bingham and Coach Jenny Hadfield

By Teresa Nightingale

This is my own personal story of the cruise and races, not meant to be a balanced account of everyone's activities!

As John and Jenny were my website clients I knew about this event when it first happened in 2006. I was very intrigued by this idea of a staged marathon on a cruise and mentioned it to other club members. By fall 2007, Liz Dilasser and Linda Willesen announced that they were going with me. Soon we had 3 more join us: Pam Knowles, Susan Hunt and Helen Sabourin. We would all leave the families behind for a week of running, exploring, and bonding. At the last minute we were joined by one more runner friend, Frances Steinfeld of Aldergrove. The event sold out with 100 runners signed up to cruise and race.

We did our shopping, packed our running gear, motion sickness antidotes, bug spray and too many clothes, and headed down to Seattle for the June 22 departure. Every one of us a first-time cruiser!

The weather was still "Juneuary" when we left, so we figured we'd be well prepared for cool temperatures in Alaska. Better prepared than those coming from places like Chicago where it had been sweltering hot already. We sailed out of Seattle at dinner time under partly cloudy skies, very pleasant. By the day's end we already felt somewhat settled into shipboard life — our "floating city" / Home away from Home. In the afternoon everyone had to do a safetydrill and meet on deck with our lifejackets on. We all looked lovely.

Our ship was the MS Westerdam, Holland America Line. It was spotless, with droves of friendly staff working around the clock to keep it that way. The food was fantastic - endless choices, all delicious. Every evening we'd return to our cabins to find the beds turned down, chocolates and the next day's schedule. Everything was first class: activities, entertainment, spa, on-board shops, etc.

Note: Our "cheap" inside cabins on Deck 1 were actually "quads" but I wouldn't want to fit 4 people in there. Three was definitely the maximum. We each had plenty of drawer and closet space for all those clothes, lots of shelf space in the compact bathroom, even a mini fridge and our own safe, with some floor space to spare. Two twin beds (with underbed storage) plus a single sofa-bed (pulled out every evening by staff when we were at dinner, and put away the next morning while we were out) were all comfortable. At first we wondered where on earth a fourth person would sleep. Then I noticed a bed-sized panel in the CEILING, perpendicular to the 2 twin beds - must work like an extra deck on BC Ferries, suspended from the ceiling. We never did see one in sleep position but we guessed it would involve stepping on one's cabin mates to climb up! Or using a rope ladder...?

We picked up our race packages on board the first day. Besides our race numbers, we each received a fleece vest, long-sleeve technical shirt, running hat, sports bag (all with the GAMM race logo embroidered or screened, and all very high quality) and a very cute Beanie Baby penguin. More about the penguin later.

Our first group get together was that evening, a welcome cocktail party in the Crow's Nest. John introduced me as his webmaster so there was no staying in cognito for long. We soon discovered that we were the only "team" — all the other entrants were couples or singles. We were introduced to the various staff including John Bingham Racing director David Babner whom I email all the time about website stuff. He had brought his entire family: including parents and in-laws! A very fun bunch, especially his father William who never stopped joking the entire cruise.

At that first meeting we were given a summary of the week's events: 2-mile deck run (6 laps) on Monday, half-marathon in Juneau on Wednesday, 5 miler in Sitka on Thursday, wrapping up Friday with a 10k trail run in Ketchikan. All adding up to 26.2 miles (a marathon). This was no ordinary marathon race: the winner was NOT necessarily the fastest runner! The 2 mile deck run determined the pace for the rest of the week: we would be trying to match that pace for the other runs and/or the total marathon. There would be stage awards and final awards, and a "Penguin Spirit" award by popular vote. The catch: we weren't allowed to wear watches for the deck run, or the final 10k trail run!

So Monday's schedule had us at sea, heading up the outside of Vancouver Island to Alaska and Glacier Bay. Open ocean, lots of whitecaps, fairly large swells. Thank goodness for those transdermal ear patches (three of us used them). We could spot the other passengers prone to motion sickness by those little circles stuck behind their ears, which match your skin colour perfectly if you happen to be Barbie.

It was so strange to feel the rocking motion of the ship, knowing it SHOULD be making me feel queasy, yet it didn't. The main side effects of the ear patch are dilated pupils and blurred vision which seemed to be common (for me, it meant I had to hold menus and books at arm's length — since I don't wear glasses, this was a new experience). The performers in the nightly shows even referred to it: a magician/comedian switched 2 items behind his back then said "and for those of you wearing the ear patch, you probably thought that was very good, didn't you!" Half the audience had no idea what he was talking about, making it even funnier for those of us who did.

On Monday morning we set a precedent with a slightly late arrival to the pre-run briefing, wearing our matching bright orange and yellow Fool's Run singlets, and from that point on we were known as "The Canadians", with super energetic Liz setting the tone.

We chose partners and timed each other for the 2-miler. I was aiming for 7:30 per mile but ended up doing 7:17, oops! My partner Liz did much better, nailing her goal pace within 1 second per mile. The rest of our team were happy with their times. The temperature was nice for running, about 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. The rocking deck took a little getting used to, occasionally causing me to veer into the rail, but that was all part of the fun.

2 Mile Deck Run Results:
Name     Time    Pace
Teresa   14:34   7:17
Liz      19:58   9:59
Linda    21:45  10:53
Susan    22:21  11:10
Helen    22:42  11:21
Frances  22:34  11:17
Pamela   23:09  11:35

I noticed while I ran that I seemed to be passing lots of people but nobody passed me, so I asked Coach Jenny later, "so who else was around my pace?" Turns out I was the fastest by about 1 minute per mile. Uh-oh. I didn't really want to be leading all the races, especially the trail run in bear-infested forest — not that I'm unfamiliar with that in Halfmoon Bay, but I don't run ALONE in our trails!

For the rest of Monday we attended a strength/stretching seminar by Coach Jenny, explored the ship, tried the hot tubs, made ourselves at home. Already we could see the genius behind the fleece vests — we could easily spot fellow runners among the 2,200 passengers and feel like we had instant friends wherever we went. We had our own sub-culture. We weren't just ordinary cruisers. Of course there were other groups, like a 150-strong conference of US Credit Union managers, and some families of 25-30, but no one doing anything crazy like running a marathon while on vacation!

Oh yes, about the penguin. As soon as I saw the little guy I had an idea that I would bring him with me everywhere I went and photograph him doing everything along with us, like a Flat Stanley. So he was there for the deck run. While I decided not to carry him on my run, I did get photos of him 'running' on deck, and when Liz was finished we each grabbed a little wing and took him for a real lap of the deck. People were starting to catch on.

Monday was our first of two Formal Nights. Since we didn't have to race the next day, we could relax a bit and enjoy the nightlife. We donned our fancy dresses, put our hair up, became basically unrecognizable to fellow runners and enjoyed the evening: dinner, broadway-style show, karaoke competition (as audience members!), and dancing.

The Karaoke was outstanding. It was actually called the Westerdam Star competition. There were over 20 entries and most of them were amazing — lots of talent! We already had our favourites and it was only the first round. At one point a singer was joined on stage by several other competitors and some audience members, and one of them pulled Liz up to join in! See photo. By the time that wrapped up it was nearly 11pm so half of our Sunshine Coast group headed to bed while the other half moved to the "Northern Lights" disco room and danced to some great 80's music including classics from AC/DC and Billy Idol. We danced with each other, as there seemed to be a shortage of male partners other than some ship's officers who of course gravitated towards some 18 year old groupies. For some reason none of the other runners were dancing that night. We Canadians know how to party, eh.

Tuesday morning found us in the calm waters of Glacier Bay. I decided to put in a short deck run to keep my legs loose (as if I needed more miles, clearly the ear patch was affecting my judgement). From 11am to 3pm it was glacier viewing time. First we attended a seminar by the local park ranger to find out about the geography and history of Glacier Bay - fascinating! Pea soup and hot drinks were served on the bow viewing deck. I took hundreds of photos; the scenery was spectacular and the weather cooperated with clouds giving way to sunshine. At one point we could see a grizzly bear way up on a rocky outcrop. Later, I felt like part of a "glacier paparrazzi" as we all waited with cameras at the ready for a chunk of ice to fall off the glacier. Only a tiny piece obliged, making a lot of noise but little visual impact. Who would have guessed we'd travel hundreds of miles to stand around watching ice melt.

Wednesday morning we had a pre-race briefing at 6am, which didn't feel quite so early as we had put our clocks back 1 hour Monday night as we crossed into the Alaska time zone. By 7am it was time to disembark in Juneau. After a short wait for the school buses hired to take us to the race start, we were on our way to Douglas Island and the half marathon. The bus ride was about 15 minutes, to the start line on a quiet road right on a bay with a glacier view.

The course consisted of 2 out and back sections: about 5 miles towards Juneau, then back to the start line, then 1.5 miles out and back in the opposite direction, to the end of the road and back (literally the end, the pavement just ends at a big END sign). The Juneau Running Club put on the race just for our group, but a few club members participated as well.

The mayor of Juneau officially started the race, and we were off. Right away I was out on my own. Every 2 miles were marked; at 2 miles I was running a comfortable 7:00 min/mile pace - slightly fast but I knew I'd slow down later so it would average out just fine. The scenery was beautiful, the course was quite flat, eagles were soaring overhead, and I was enjoying a peaceful run.

I was getting close to the 4 mile mark when things started to go awry. Three local club volunteers at the 6 mile mark (on the other side of the road, heading back) were under the impression that they were the official turnaround point, and insisted that I head back from there. I said no, the turnaround was supposed to be near 5 miles according to our instructions, and I had only been running 4 miles, so that couldn't be right - besides there was a big "6" painted on the road and I had definitely not run 6 miles yet! They wouldn't listen to me, so rather than waste time arguing I decided to do as they said and deal with the consequences later. In hindsight I should have ignored them and kept running the same way... anyway I soon saw Jenny Hadfield and told her the volunteers were turning us around too soon, so fortunately she was able to radio them and set them straight before anyone else was misdirected.

In the meantime I was missing about 2 miles. John and David quickly measured the missing amount in a car and figured out exactly where I should run to from the finish line, and back (along the first part of the course), to make up the missing distance. Which was fine, but it sure made for a lonely run as I was now about 2.5 miles ahead of everyone else. I got to see all of the runners going the other direction (who cheered wildly, thinking I was super fast!) as I headed back prematurely to the start, but after that I was completely alone for most of the 1.5 mile out and back portion. Which happened to contain a big long "up and over" hill - meaning we had to climb it both directions. The first climb wasn't bad, followed by the long descent and a flat section to the dead end turnaround, but on the way back I started to get a tight achilles and feel a bit light-headed, so slowed down significantly. Though the goal wasn't to be the fastest runner, once in first place I didn't want to give up that position! So I was calculating that as long as I didn't see anyone coming the other way until fairly close to the finish line, I'd still be safely ahead.

But then I spotted 2 runners coming towards me when I was still about half a mile from the finish line (with the 2 "make-up" miles still to do after reaching the finish). That meant they had 2.5 miles to go and so did I! It would be close. They were local club runners so not part of our cruise group, but I still wanted to retain my overall first place. I got to the finish line and headed out for the final portion. By then I was feeling more light-headed than ever and wondered if I'd have to walk, but I kept jogging along, determined to just reach the turn around and then make a last-ditch effort on the way back. I'm sure I was doing about a 9 minute mile. I hadn't really trained enough for a half marathon — I had run out of fitness! This was crazy.

Somehow I got to the turnaround car: 1 mile to go. Then I decided to get tough with myself and get MOVING. "Come on, come ON!" I told myself aloud several times, which actually helped, and when I had the finish line in sight once more, about half a mile to go, I found myself able to pick up the pace even more and feel almost normal. I kept an eye on the road beyond the finish, expecting to see those other 2 runners coming down the hill any time. When I was about 200m from the line they appeared, moving fast, but I was still able to get there about 20 seconds before they could. It was close! 1:39:29 was my final time. I had spent at least a minute, maybe more, stopped, talking to officials about the turnaround mix-up, so in my mind it was really 1:38:30... Though significantly slower than my deck run pace.

Half Marathon results:
Name     Half-Mar  pace   difference from 2mi pace 
Teresa   1:39:29   7:36   0:19
Liz      1:59:12   9:06   0:53
Helen    2:01:55   9:18   2:03
Susan    2:09:55   9:55   1:15
Linda    2:20:18  10:43   0:10
Frances  2:23:33  10:57   0:20
Pamela   2:34:15  11:46   0:11

Linda ended up winning the female stage award for that day (closest to her deck run pace), much to her surprise. For that she received a special yellow hat and penguin pin. Way to go Linda!

Interesting side note: one of the local club runners asked me if I knew Leslie Black. Of course I said yes. Turns out she ran on a relay team with some of them one year. Small world! Even more amazing if you consider that when Larry and I were in Jamaica for a marathon in 1995, we stayed at a hotel/resort in Port Royal, which we found out later was formerly owned by Leslie's dad and she lived there when she was a kid!

We relaxed and strolled around downtown Juneau for the rest of the afternoon, finding gifts for family members, and spending some time in the famous "Red Dog Saloon" with its sawdust floor, authentic decor and piano man singing funny lewd tunes. We all drank Alaska Amber Ale and found it to be excellent.

Back on board there was time before dinner so I decided to purchase a day pass for the Hydro Pool and Thermal Suites. This was a very relaxing session soaking in a mineralized hot pool with jets, then lying down on a heated tiled lounge chair in a room with aromatherapy, soft music and big windows. I slipped into a semi-conscious state for at least 30 minutes! Afterwards I felt rejuvenated and healed from the half marathon.

We woke up Thursday morning in Sitka and after another pre-race briefing climbed aboard "tenders" for the ride to shore. The start for the 5 miler was within walking distance. To make this run more interesting the organizers didn't mark the course; we were given maps and printed directions to follow instead! And we had to get our bib numbers marked at each mile checkpoint. Since I was leading the way, I felt some pressure not to make a wrong turn... but the directions were clear and it was easy to follow the map. A great way to tour the town. This time I was faster than my deck run pace, averaging 6:48 per mile. Felt pretty good, too! Five miles seemed very short after the half-marathon.

David Babner (John Bingham staff, executive director) was originally going to run with me for this one, but at the last minute I found out he wasn't allowed to since it would be like helping me, since we had to find our own way. So he ran about 100m behind me the entire way, like a shadow. He hadn't expected to keep up with my pace after the first couple of miles but every time I checked back, there he was. At the four mile mark I was a good way ahead, but when I looked again in the last couple hundred metres, he was suddenly much closer behind, trying to sneak up for a win! So of course I kicked for home, he didn't have a chance...

Unfortunately Linda, after her stage win the day before, had a sore knee and had to walk most of the way. Liz, Pam and Frances decided to sacrifice their own runs and accompany her. No stage wins that day, but everyone had fun anyway. Helen and Susan both had a good run and finished together.

5 Mile Results:
Name       5-Mile  pace  difference from 2mi pace
Teresa     33:59   6:48  0:29
Helen      46:05   9:13  2:08
Susan      46:05   9:13  1:57
Liz      1:15:25  15:05  5:06
Frances  1:15:25  15:05  3:48
Linda    1:15:25  15:05  4:12
Pamela   1:15:25  15:05  3:30

After a pleasant afternoon shopping and strolling in Sitka (including a quaint afternoon tea in a church basement) it was time to head to Ketchikan. Unexpectedly this involved more rough "open ocean" sailing and some of us spent the evening feeling queasy, not having been prepared with the ear patch! At first I thought I would be okay, and was fine for the wine and cheese party before dinner (didn't drink the wine), but at dinner when the food arrived, I discovered I couldn't eat a bite...

Pam and I spent the evening sitting in the Atrium lounge (very centre of the ship, less rocking there) listening to the excellent little band and finding that the music was quite an effective distraction from the seasickness. We also took some Dramamine but that just made me very drowsy, and didn't really get rid of the queasiness. Shortly after 10pm the ship finally entered calmer waters and we immediately felt better. We decided to check out round 2 of the Karaoke contest. We could hardly get into the lounge, it was standing room only, but we managed to find a couple of seats anyway. We enjoyed more excellent singing performances.

The next morning I didn't feel too good, not from the motion but from the Dramamine taken the evening before. No dinner didn't help either. I managed to swallow a half bowl of porridge at breakfast. Getting off the bus at the 10k start I tried running a few steps and felt dizzy, which was worrisome, but I hoped that once I started running I'd feel better (did that once before when feeling much worse than this, after partying all night in Montreal). I'd just have to start much slower than usual. The rest of our group were feeling good and ready to hit the trails.

This time the local mayor RAN the race. So did a few fast Ketchikan Running Club members, so my fears of running solo through the woods never came to fruition. The relaxed start worked: I started feeling better right away and after about a mile I was 100% better and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the run. Most of the course was on impeccably groomed gravel trail, the rest on smooth dirt roads. Lots of hills but relatively easy compared to the trails in Halfmoon Bay!

After a few km's I caught up with some of the local runners. I ended up running and chatting most of the way with one of them, Susan, which made it really fun. She told me about the local running scene and kept me informed about what hills were coming up next. I was dragging my feet a bit on the uphills but made up for it on the descents. Susan and I weren't actually first women to finish — a visiting young woman from the southern US was about a minute faster. The course must have been a bit long as our final time was 50:30 and there's no way we were running over 8:00/mile, even with the hills accounted for. Others in the GAMM group also thought it must be a bit long. Nevertheless, everyone loved the course, and Liz won the female stage award this time!

10k Trail Run Results:
Name        10k    pace  difference from 2mi pace
Teresa     50:31   8:09  0:52
Helen    1:00:34   9:46  1:35
Liz      1:00:47   9:48  0:11
Susan    1:11:42  11:34  0:24
Frances  1:12:45  11:44  0:27
Linda    1:20:05  12:55  2:02
Pamela   1:20:05  12:55  1:20

The finish line was in a beautiful spot, a camping area next to a glassy lake with fish jumping, ducks, a place to get changed, and shelters with big rock fireplaces — too bad there wasn't time to stay for a marshmallow roast! There were quite a few mosquitoes but we had bug spray handy. Other than a light mist for a short time, the rain held off and it was almost sunny: unusual for Ketchikan we were told. After we got back into town for an early afternoon departure, the rain finally set in. We were lucky to avoid it for the run!

(I took no chances and applied my second ear patch as soon as we got back on board after the run, deciding that the side effects were easier to deal with than seasickness.)

In mid-afternoon we all gathered in the Atrium for a big group photo, taken by the ship's professional photographers. It was a squeeze to get everyone in, but we finally got the shot. Later, we were able to purchase copies. The only downside of the group photo was that I had to miss the second half of a fun seminar by one of the entertainers, my favourite, a British comedian/magician. He was teaching us some of his magic tricks. I did learn a very easy and fun one that requires no props, and fools people every time. I tried it out on fellow runners immediately with excellent results.

We had the rest of the afternoon free to spend however we liked. I played some bingo (didn't win), then curled up in a quiet corner of the Atrium with a book for a couple of hours, enjoying a nice nap in the process. I wasn't the only one of the runners doing that! Some of the other Sunshine Coast women went for 'afternoon tea' (something Liz managed to attend most days!), this time Indonesian style with stunning costumes worn by the servers.

That evening was the second 'Formal Night' so we got all dolled up again and headed for dinner. Everyone was feeling very proud of their marathon accomplishment! But also maybe a little tired because we didn't find any of them partying later... including ourselves. I think we all hit the hay relatively early. The clocks went forward an hour to Pacific Time, so we lost an hour anyway.

On Saturday morning many of the GAMM group took part in a ship-wide 5k on deck Walk for the Cure, a breast cancer fundraiser. I took the opportunity to sleep in for once (well-deserved in my opinion!), doing a short easy deck run a little later on, in the sunshine. We were heading towards Victoria and the weather was getting warmer by the mile. Nice! I enjoyed a relaxing swim, hot tub and poolside lunch in a lounger. Quite a few other GAMM runners were doing the same, I discovered!

The GAMM awards ceremony took place that afternoon. First, we all received our "Big honkin' Penguin medals", and votes were submitted for the "Penguin Spirit Award". No surprise to us, Liz was the winner by a landslide! John made a great tribute speech that had most of our team in tears. Liz called us all up to accept the award with her and do a little song and dance. Apparently we (led by Liz) had gained a reputation for singing songs everywhere all week.

I received an award for having won each race outright, called the "Perspiration Award" as part of the four components of running: Inspiration, Determination, Perspiration, and something else we all forget... so we represented the Sunshine Coast very well, winning 4 awards total! We were then treated to an excellent slide show to music, put together by Jenny amazingly quickly from photos taken during the week.

Total Marathon Results:
Name     Marathon  pace  difference from 2mi pace
Teresa   3:18:33   7:35  0:18
Helen    4:11:16   9:35  1:46
Susan    4:30:03  10:18  0:52
Liz      4:35:22  10:31  0:32
Frances  5:14:17  12:00  0:43
Linda    5:17:33  12:07  1:14
Pamela   5:32:54  12:42  1:07

We were a bit torn during this time as the karaoke final was starting halfway through the ceremony, and we hoped to catch some of it. But we didn't want to skip the slide show and by the time we got out of there, the last singer was performing. We found out who won, anyway! ('Bob', who used to be a doo-wap guy for the Pretenders when he was young)

After that our gang decided to do most of our packing so we wouldn't have to worry about it later (luggage had to be outside the cabin door by 1am that night). Good decision. Then I headed back up to the Lido deck for an early dinner before we arrived in Victoria. However before eating I strolled around with the camera and got some nice photos of the blue water, mountains, and upper decks, exploring some parts of the ship I hadn't seen yet. I dined poolside again.

The rest of the gang were supposed to come and join me for dinner but never showed, and later I found out why: they had gotten into the wine in Frances' room! Pam has a story about mooning the pilot boat... I'll let her tell that one.

I spent a few hours in Victoria mostly trying to meet up with my mum. The first challenge was finding a phone to call her from - every pay phone at the terminal was tied up for hours with crew members calling home. I ended up borrowing a cell phone from a horse cabbie. After a rushed conversation with my mum (not wanting to keep the cabbie waiting) we agreed to meet at a parkade near the Empress, or so I thought... but my mum was talking about a different parkade apparently, so I ended up waiting for nearly an hour in front of the Empress hoping she'd go there eventually. She did. Then we just had time to exchange gifts (she had just been to Ireland and had something for the kids, and I had bought her a birthday present in Juneau) and go for ice cream! It was really HOT weather suddenly, and the downtown area was hopping with locals and tourists converging for the tall ship festival. Great atmosphere.

It felt really strange to suddenly find myself in a familiar place, and seeing some fellow GAMM runners as tourists - it was like I stepped right out of the cruise temporarily into another world and time zone - back to regular life. Then, it was all gone as soon as I stepped back on board.

But I'm glad I walked from the ship to downtown, because otherwise I would have missed a sign on someone's door that said 'Beware of Attack Penguin'. Of all places to find something like that — it must have been meant to be!

Sunday morning we landed back in Seattle and headed home. We all agreed: it was a fantastic week, and we'd all like to do this again! Visit for details.