It was all there on the central Kenai Peninsula, just waiting for an idea to tie it all together.
A love for the Kenai River — the desire to see it nurtured, sustained and preserved.
A world-class trail system — close enough to town to be accessible, far enough away to feel just a bit wild and adventurous.
And a desire to get off the couch and move — and not only move, but move together. Run, jog, walk or bike with the force of a community.
The unifying idea came from the high-school project of a student accustomed to leading when it comes to running.
Kenai Central junior Allie Ostrander, the defending Class 4A cross-country running champion and owner of five straight Mount Marathon girls junior titles, wanted to do something that utilized her passion for running in her 2012 Caring for the Kenai Project.
“It had to be an environmental project, so that’s where the (Kenai) Watershed Forum came from,” said Ostrander, who took second in Caring for the Kenai that year. “I also wanted it to involve being active, so I just tied all those things together.”
The Salmon Run Series was born.
On five Wednesdays during the summer, Ostrander would hold a five-kilometer race at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, with proceeds going to scholarships for the summer camps of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health of watersheds on the Kenai Peninsula.
Hold it and they will come
Ostrander said she expected 25 to 50 people to show up for the races. But last year, the races all got over 60 people, with one race topping the 100 mark.
“It’s pretty remarkable, it really is,” said Josselyn O’Connor, the development director at the Watershed Forum. “To have Allie so dedicated to the program, and to have so many people get behind it, is incredible.
“After last year, we had people asking, ‘You’re going to do this again next year, right?’”
There have been four races this summer, with each event surpassing 100 runners. Wednesday will be the last run of the summer.
And the Salmon Run Series has already spawned an imitator. The Kenai Peninsula Cycle and Ski Club, the Tsalteshi Trails Association and Soldotna Rotary are teaming up for an eight-race Salmon Cycle Series that will culminate in PsychoCross on Aug. 31 at Tsalteshi Trails. For the first five weeks, the Thursday cycle series is using the trail laid out for the Wednesday Salmon Run.
The Cycle Series is also outdrawing organizers’ expectations, getting over 25 riders a week.
To put these participation numbers in perspective, in 2002 the central Kenai Peninsula had four fun runs, total. It was no sure thing one of those runs would draw the 100-plus the Salmon Runs are attracting every week. The 2002 Run for the River drew just 56.
“It’s exploding all over the nation,” said Angie Brennan, a personal fitness trainer and the bike chair on the Cycle and Ski Club. “It started with 5Ks and 10Ks, and now people want more, like triathlons and longer runs.
“People want to get off the couch and do something challenging.”
From Wii to Whee!!
Soldotna’s Sheryl and Wilbur Nelson are part of the group that has gotten into fitness in the last couple of years.
At Thursday’s Salmon Cycle Series, they proved it, with Wilbur taking second in the men’s race and Sheryl nabbing third in the women’s race. In the second race of the year, both finished fourth.
“What actually started getting us active is doing fitness on a Wii,” Sheryl said.
Sheryl said it was tough for she and her husband to be active when their four kids were little.
“When they were all young, it was harder to do things because we always had to get a baby sitter,” she said. “But as they’re getting older, we have more time.
“Only one needs a baby sitter now.”
Sheryl said she is able to get out and bike the trails nearly every day.
“It’s a good workout, and it’s fun and challenging,” she said. “And just being outside is nice, especially this summer.”
All in the family
As the Nelsons illustrate, running and cycling hold allure as a family activity.
Look down the list of results, and it’s not hard to find the last names of repeat customers, such as “Bergholtz,” “Pothast” and “Hollers.”
Chris Bergholtz, a science teacher at Kenai Central, competed in Wednesday’s Salmon Run with husband, Mike, and daughters Ithaca, 13, and Alex, 16.
Chris said this is her second year running. She actually started running last year for the Salmon Run Series.
“That main reason is I get to spend more time with my family,” Chris said. “Both girls ski and run, and it’s a way to be with them.”
She also gently teased that it’s a good way of helping her husband with his goal of losing weight.
Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, and her husband, John, the principal at Redoubt Elementary, also value family activity.
The couple and daughter, Hannah, a sophomore, and son, John-Mark, an eighth-grader, have teamed up to put at least two entrants in every Salmon Run this year. Family members also do the Salmon Cycle Series.
“It’s all for a great cause, and Allie is a great kid who came up with a fabulous idea. Who wouldn’t want to come out here and support this?” Sheilah-Margaret said.
Sheilah-Margaret said the Salmon Run Series makes any type of participant feel welcome.
“It’s a great mix of people and fitness levels,” she said. “There’s little kids, high-school kids and older runners. There’s people just starting running, or walking, and there’s really experienced runners.”
Soldotna’s Loren Hollers was at Wednesday’s Salmon Run with daughters Sarah, of Kenai Middle School, and Brittany, of Skyview High School.
“I’m here because of the incredible trails and because of the running community,” Loren said. “In the running community, everybody is for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are in last place or up front.
“It doesn’t matter what level you are at, they just want to see you participate. They are happy to see you doing something good for yourself.”
Straight from the Lower 48
As Hollers points out, when it comes to family, the running and cycling community has a pretty broad definition of the word.
You’re from Idaho? New Jersey? Come hit the trails!
Ian Clarke is an engineer from Idaho who is staying on the central peninsula this summer to work on a power plant.
Clarke has been a regular rider at Tsalteshi Trails all summer. When he showed up Wednesday afternoon, he saw a mass of people behind the high school.
“I came with my bike and I asked what was going on,” Clarke said. “They told me about the run so I decided to jump in.”
Despite the impromptu sign-up, Clarke finished 14th overall.
And he heard there was a cycle race the next day. Despite not having the bike he would prefer for racing, he finished 11th in the men’s race.
“It’s always a good time when you get a bunch of cyclists together,” Clarke said. “It’s lonely riding out here alone.”
Wednesday’s Salmon Run also drew seven participants from New Jersey, including Evelyn Estava, Rebecca Harris-Lee, Michael Avagliano and Gerall Hieser of the Madison String Quartet. The quartet is on the peninsula for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Summer Music Festival.
Harris-Lee started running about a year and a half ago to help her recovery from a bad accident.
“I got here last summer and it was my first summer here so I was looking for a place to run,” she said. “That’s why I came to this race.”
Harris-Lee liked the Salmon Run so much she told the rest of the quartet they were all doing the run this year.
“This is a great run,” she said. “It has all these hills. There’s not a lot of running like this in New Jersey.”
Up spoke Estava with perfect timing (after all, they’re in a quartet, right?): “That’s because everything is paved.”
As everybody knows, salmon runs need proper habitat. The habitat for the Salmon Run and Cycle Series is Tsalteshi Trails.
“We are so blessed to have this trail system here,” Sheilah-Margaret Pothast said. “It’s a fabulous part of the community.”
Mike Crawford is on the board of the Tsalteshi Trails Association. He competes in the Salmon Runs and handles the online registration, and will run Wednesday’s race in a suit and tie because runners pledged over $500 to the Watershed Forum’s education programs.
Crawford also helps organize the cycle series, and he may just put on more miles running while organizing than he does running while competing on Wednesdays.
Crawford said the trails association is constantly trying to expand the offerings of programs and trails.
“I think this community is intent on getting out and getting active,” he said. “They are interested in a healthy lifestyle. Tsalteshi Trails has all kinds of things to offer them.”
John Pothast notes that Soldotna residents voiced a desire for trails when surveying was done for Envision Soldotna 2030, the city’s comprehensive plan.
Tsalteshi, which started getting carved out of the woods in 1990, now has enough variety in trails and terrain that no two races in the series are the same. That’s giving competitors a great way to explore the trails.
Sheilah-Margaret Pothast said the only portion of the trails she knew before participating in the series was the Moose Loop right next to the school.
“I’m a big chicken,” she said. “I just go with what I know. But now I know a lot more of the trails. During these races, there’s enough people around that I don’t have to worry about getting lost or running into a moose in the bushes.”
Brennan said the trails can seem intimidating, until users try them. She’s seen that many times when she takes groups of her clients running at Tsalteshi.
“A lot of people don’t realize this is here, then they get out here and realize how beautiful it is,” Brennan said. “I constantly see people all over the trails now in the summer.
“I used to worry about bears, but I don’t worry as much anymore because there’s so many people out here.”
Loren Hollers lives near Tsalteshi and rents out cabins to vacationers from around the world. He is constantly sending those visitors to Tsalteshi for adventure, so he gets repetitive reminders of just how special the place is.
“We recently had a family of seven staying with us that rented bikes from Beemun’s and spent five hours over here,” Hollers said. “They saw a moose cow and two calves. They had a great experience.”
for endurance contests
The challenge now is to keep the Salmon Run and Cycle Series going.
“A couple people have requested that we do this all summer,” Ostrander said. “But it’s a lot of work. There’s space for growth, but right now I’m not committing to anything.”
O’Connor said the Watershed Forum is committed to keeping the event going when Ostrander moves on. She said the Salmon Run has been able to increase sponsorship for things like snacks, drinks and bags that go to each of the runners. If the force of volunteers and sponsors grow, so could the series.
“Five is good for now,” O’Connor said.
Tracy Pitts, the acting president of the Cycle and Ski Club, also said the cycle races can always use volunteers. Especially since some of the organizers wouldn’t mind competing in a race or two themselves.
But Crawford points out that it currently is taking just three volunteers to run the cycle race, and Pitts is confident the infectious quality of shared outdoor activity will carry the series forward.
She tells the story of a family friend who recently visited. The man was a former runner, and marveled at the way the Pitts family had woven activity into their lives.
“He called up after he left and said that after watching us, he had started running again,” Pitts said. “His son did, too.
“That shows how infectious this is.”