Did you know that the Equinox Marathon was started by two students and two sports coaches as a University event?
September 26, 2023
In 1963, the same year as the historic events of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a unique marathon was born at the University of Alaska. The Equinox Marathon, initially billed as one of the toughest in the world, has evolved into a captivating race with a rich history that sets it apart from others.
A Marathon is Born: It all started when Bill Ordway, the basketball coach and interim athletic director at the University of Alaska (not yet known as UAF), along with Jeff Mahaffey, the men's ski coach, and two students, Nat Goodhue and Gail Bakken, contemplated the idea of organizing a marathon. Their goal was to create a trail race that embodied the rugged Alaskan spirit, venturing into the woods and mountains of Fairbanks.
They settled on the autumnal equinox, September 21, as the perfect race day when day and night are of equal length, and the fall colors in Fairbanks are near their peak. So the varsity basketball manager Ken Washburn registered the inaugural event on the university calendar and the autumn tradition was established.
Forging a Trail: As preparations continued, Goodhue and Bakken were assigned the unique homework of cutting the course trail in time for the inaugural race. Their efforts, alongside several others, included mapping the trail and obtaining permission of passage from private landowners. When it seemed the course might not be ready in time, the entire men's ski team joined forces to complete the trail.
The marathon route, which ascends and descends one of the highest points in Fairbanks, was originally designed for its scenic beauty rather than its toughness. The famous challenging "chute" section became a permanent fixture only after an encounter with a black bear led to the abandonment of the original, easier loop.
The Inaugural Equinox: On September 21, 1963, the first Equinox Marathon took place in 60-degree weather and under clear skies, with 117 starters, including 24 men, 8 women, 21 boys, and 64 girls. Nat Goodhue, who spent the summer trailblazing, emerged as the men's winner, conquering the course in ankle-high leather boots. His fiancée and co-founder, Gail Bakken, claimed the title of the fastest female.
Inclusivity and Impact: The Equinox Marathon quickly gained popularity, surpassing participation in the Boston Marathon in its second year. The early races had a casual, community feel, resembling camping trips with participants bringing picnic gear and refreshments. The University of Alaska President, William Wood hiked the race several times with his wife.
“It used to be the event of the year…It was just something that we did without thinking if it was good for our bodies or as a sport,” said Ruth Knapman, a hiker in the 1960s. “You walked along and visited with your neighbors and people you only saw once a year.”
The Equinox Marathon's success can be attributed to its inclusivity, as it had no entry fee, gender discrimination, or age limit. In its early years, it was particularly popular among young girls (the largest finisher group in the first year) who had limited opportunities for physical activities before the passage of Title IX in 1972. Women would not be allowed to run the Boston Marathon until 1972.
As noted in the September 23, 1963, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, “...One 16-year old, with a radio as big as an overnight bag bouncing on a shoulder strap, puffed happily along the trail listening to Wee Willie Walley. Other girls carried extra shoes, sneakers, warm clothes, lunches, first aid kits and other paraphernalia … one was seen stopped along the course as she carefully applied fresh makeup.”
The Equinox Today: Over time, measures were taken to reduce the number of hikers, but the tradition is still alive today, with some, like UAF's Geophysical Institute science writer Ned Rozell, hiking the race with their families and pets. Although participation fluctuated over the years, the 50th anniversary in 2012 marked a resurgence with more than 1,000 participants for the first time since 1968.
Today, the 26.2-mile course mostly maintains its original route, with an elevation change of approximately 3,300 feet. Although there have been minor diversions due to development and landowner conflicts, the race continues to start and end at Beluga Field, next to the Student Recreation Center. In 1993, Running Club North took over organizational duties from UAF. Even after their marathon running days are over, you can still find famous past winners cheering on runners and handing out water on race day. Hikers still earn their patch if they complete the route in under ten hours.
An Enduring Tradition: What began as a university event has now become a global attraction, drawing participants from all corners of the world to Fairbanks in September, regardless of the weather. The Equinox Marathon is not just a race; it's a testament to the spirit of community, inclusivity, and the enduring legacy of a unique homework assignment that turned into a beloved tradition.