Craig – Then and Now: Racing through the years

The 19th Annual Prince of Wales Island Marathon will take place on Memorial Day weekend again this year. Runners from all over the country will find their way to the high school in Craig for the Saturday morning start, which featured over 350 runners and walkers last year.

My first POW marathon was in 2001, as part of a four-person team. I ran the second leg, down across the Harris River Bridge and up and over the Summit. In those days the marathon started out on the Hollis Highway, exactly 26.2 miles from the ballpark in Craig. Everybody gathered at the 27 mile turnout that overlooks the Harris River Valley, just down the road from the old starting line.

Nowadays the course starts in Craig and follows the highway six miles to Klawock, where it turns and winds north another seven miles along Big Salt Lake, before doubling back to Craig. There’s lots of reasons why the “out and back” course makes more sense, but I have to say I miss the old straight shot on the Hollis Highway.

Some interesting people have come to run our marathon over the years. I talked to one guy who had run one on every continent. Naturally I asked if that include Antarctica, and he assured me it did. 26 miles across solid ice! No doubt it costs you plenty to put the Antarctica notch in your marathon belt.

A few years later I met another runner who had sailed off to Antarctica for the same reason. He said when they reached the Antarctic Coast, the ocean was too rough for their ship to tie up. Faced with a poor weather forecast, there was no choice but to head back to Argentina. Refusing to return empty handed, the runners measured the distance around the deck of the ship, and ran over 600 laps to earn their right to claim the icy continent.

During the past 19 years, the POW Marathon has enjoyed some great guest speakers. One year it was Olympic Champion Billy Mills. Interestingly, Mills is first cousin to lifelong Craig resident Justna (Demmert) Johns. Justna’s mother Florence was part Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where her nephew Billy was born and raised. Mills shocked the sports world with an unbelievable come from behind victory in the 10,000 meter at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. If you haven’t seen it on Youtube, it’s worth a look.

In the early 1960s, racing in Craig was a different story. The town was smaller – maybe less than 200 people – and there was just a one lane road that ended in Klawock. I don’t remember any races on it. For me, the big race of the year was the boys’ bike race on the 4th of July, which paid five dollars for first place. That was a big prize, and every boy under 13 who had a bike was hoping to win it. Unfortunately, my bike was in Ketchikan, so I wasn’t going to get a shot.

When race time came I was standing on the porch of the old Laundromat with my grandpa Tom. The Laundromat was on the lower level of the Thompson Hotel, where the Hill Bar Office is now.

The race was set to start down at Shelter Cove, go along a flat stretch and then up and over the hill by the power plant, and finish at the corner just down the hill from Laundromat. We wouldn’t be able to see the start, but were in good position to see the bikes come over the hill and watch the final sprint to the finish line.

I knew when the race had started by watching the small crowd that had gathered at the top of the hill. I pictured the bikes charging from the Cove toward the power plant. As they began climbing the hill, Cliffy Yates came running down the street toward us hollering, “Ezzy’s way ahead!!”

Ezzy Yates was Cliffy’s older brother, and one of my best friends. We spent a lot of time playing baseball up at the school ground. Ezzy appeared at the top of the hill all by himself, and it looked like he had it made. But then for some reason he sat down and began coasting. Forty feet behind, Emil Nelson broke over the hill in hot pursuit. Emil was all elbows and knees, bike swinging wildly from side to side as he pumped for all he was worth.

“Ezzy, go! He’s gonna catch you!!” I shouted. But it was no use. Ezzy was pooped out, and there wasn’t a single pump left in his tired legs. Emil shot into the lead as they passed the Laundromat, and won first prize by a good 20 feet.

About ten years later I watched another great 4th of July race. This time I was down on Front Street, standing on the porch of Mama Abel’s new restaurant. The old place, a tiny lopsided confectionary, had been damaged beyond repair a few years earlier. I was away at the time, but according to my friends, “Some hippy guy the City had hired went off the road in the dump truck and plowed into the back of the building.” Mama Abel got a new Pan-Abode out of the deal.

The race was the men’s 100 yard dash, which started by the Union Oil dock and ended in front of the Lunch Room, which would later become Ruth Ann’s. There were a number of seine-boats in town for the 4th, including one from Metlakatla. Monte Hayward was on the crew. Monte, like Randy Hayward a generation earlier, was a Southeast Alaska basketball legend. Not only could he shoot, pass and handle the ball like a wizard, he was blazing fast. I think he was just a year or two out of high school at the time. When he lined up to race in Craig that day, there wasn’t much doubt as to who was the favorite.

There were maybe 10 or 12 other local guys in the race, and one of them was Duey James. I had watched Duey play ball, and I knew he was pretty fast. But he was well into his 30s, which in those days was over the hill. Sports science and healthy diets hadn’t found their way to Craig yet. We were eating Sugar Frosted Flakes and Hormel Chili, which have a way of taking a toll on your body.

Mama Abel’s porch was past the halfway point in the race, and as the runners thundered by, I was really surprised to see Monte and Duey racing neck and neck, well ahead of the pack. Everyone was screaming for Duey, and a few seconds later, by the roar at the finish line, I knew that our local guy had won the prize. So much for science.

Two years ago I ran half of the Prince of Wales Marathon. Except for a short hill near the starting line, the course is fairly flat all the way to the turnaround point near the Klawock Airport. I remember thinking that the new course was easier than the old one. Wrong! I’m training with a friend for the whole thing this year, and I’ve found out that the other half of the new course is literally one hill after another. There’s a mile long climb as you go by Little Salt Creek, and then a long steep monster coming back out of Black Bear. If we haven’t thrown in the towel at that point, our chances of finishing will be pretty good. We’re a couple old guys who walk a minute or two after every mile we run. It helps when you’re not in it for the prize money.

• Ralph Mackie operates the Hill Bar in Craig, and gill nets out of Coffman Cove.

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