City of Solitude: How One Ultra-Runner Finds Inner Peace Through Exercise
Given the Alaskan city of Juneau is home to more miles of trails than miles of road, it only seems natural that a large portion of its residents are known for their enthusiasm towards the outdoors and active adventures. Living in such a scenic location makes it difficult to pass up an opportunity to explore and engage with the great outdoors.
In fact, the city's scenic landscape and the many miles of trails that wind through the area encouraged an unlikely athlete to take up a sport he once detested—running.
"As a wrestler, I wasn't really interested in running, I was more interested in losing weight and being able to eat," says Houston Laws, an ultra-runner who's now completed five 100-mile races since February of this year, his most recent being the Klondike Trail of '98 Road Relay which follows a historic, 110-mile gold rush route from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon territory and is typically split up between teams of 10 runners covering 5 to 16 miles a piece.
"But moving to Juneau and living there over the past five years with the trails and everything else has really gotten me into running," he said.
So much so that Laws made a transition into the wild world of ultra-running and now sees a successful career of competing in ultra races in his future.
"It started when I did a 50-miler in Oregon and I had a friend confident in me that pushed me to go further and I thought, well if I can walk a 20-minute mile pace I'd still make it into the time restriction of 48 hours, so worse case scenario I'd do 100 miles in two days," said Laws. "And I did it in 33 hours, got first in men's and second overall. But I was beat by a lady who was 53 years old which inspired me even more because this is something I can grow into."
Laws went on to explain that Juneau is not only a recreational paradise for those who love spending time and exercising outside, but that the city’s community, especially when it comes to running, is supportive and full of resources and encouragement.
"There are so many resources and the support is just amazing," he said.
Encouraged by Klas Stolpe, another local runner and the sports editor of Juneau’s local newspaper, Laws signed on to accompany Stolpe for the entirety of this year's Klondike Road Relay in one go. But it wasn't just so he could check another ultra race off his list.
In fact, before this year, no one had ever completed the Klondike route entirely on their own. It was Stolpe’s idea to ditch the traditional relay style of the race and run the entire 110-mile route solo as a way to honor Glenn Frick, a local runner who had run every Klondike Road Relay since the race's inaugural event in 1983 until he passed away this year.
"It didn't seem like a race at all," said Stolpe. "And it wasn't, it was supposed to be a memorial for Glenn. It was like an adventure without a goal. We just wanted to get through it."
Stolpe says he isn't sure whether he'll ever participate in another ultra race again, he admitted to finding more enjoyment from events that are faster paced.
On the other hand, Laws feels that ultras are the right type of race for his running personality.
"I really like the ultras because I'm never fast," he said. "I've never been the best runner, I've never been the fastest runner, so ultras have the pace that I really like. It gives you that time to be in your head. The marathon, it's not that it's too short, but it just doesn't allow me to really get to that place."
Of course, "that place," means something different for everyone.
"Everyone is at their own level, and that's what's cool and unique about running," said Laws. "Everyone can feel they're working towards something."
For many of us, running marathons or ultra-marathons or even just running isn't isn’t the answer to finding inner peace— that headspace where the mind quiets down and all our stresses dissolve, at least for the moment anyway.
Getting there is different for everyone, but if there's one thing we can learn from Laws, it's that (if you haven't already) it most likely means embracing the environment around you, and although it seems counterintuitive, pushing your body and mind outside of your comfort zone and into terrain and territory you've never explored before.
"I think that's why I chose to live in Alaska and why I chose to do ultra-running," said Laws. "It's just nice to be in your own head and have solitude."