At this year’s Ballyhoo Mountain Run, local athletes show a reporter who’s boss
It was the perfect evening for Unalaska’s annual Ballyhoo Mountain Run, with the sun peeking through the clouds and an ocean breeze lifting the scent of wildflowers across the tundra.
I stood at the base of a steep incline with around thirty other runners. We cracked jokes about passing out along the trail, which is roughly a mile up and a mile down. From the starting line we could see volunteers stationed along the trail, ready to hustle us down to safety if anything went wrong. Participants of all ages were present at the July 15 event, and it’s my understanding that, for the youngest of them, conquering Mount Ballyhoo is as normal as a day in the park anywhere else.
Albert Burnham helps run the city’s parks and rec department. At the start, long after we’d paid our admission fees, he issued a stark reminder that Ballyhoo isn’t for the faint of heart.
“Keep in mind that this gravel road can get especially treacherous on the way back down, so be careful when you come off of the trail or onto the gravel,” Burnham said. “That transition has taken a few people out.”
With that in mind, we all took our places at the starting line and waited for the signal. I did some stretching and took a long look at my ankles, hoping they’d come back intact.
Burnham drummed up the crowd with a call to line up in the colorfully-flagged chute, then the traditional, “Ready, get set…GO!”
From there, the more seasoned runners quickly took the lead. I was under no illusions that I’d discover my inner Olympic athlete that afternoon, but I was confident that I could at least keep up.
“It's gorgeous out here,” I huffed into my mic. “The flowers are in bloom. I'm already getting out of breath because the first thing you do is go straight up an incline. We're gonna see how much harder it gets from here.”
Only a quarter of the way in, I was struggling.
“I'm pretty out of breath at this point. I don't know why I thought this was a good idea. But I'm essentially bringing up the rear, and there’s a couple of people behind me. Here's a kid on her way,” I wheezed.
A small girl with a fierce determination in her eyes pressed on past me. “Good job,” I called.
“Thanks,” she replied, already speeding away. (That kid did beat me across the finish line, by the way.) Meanwhile, I took a seat in a patch of lush grass and peered down across Unalaska Bay. The water was a crystalline blue, and mountains on the opposite side of the bay stretched on toward the horizon. Once my heart stopped pounding, I continued up the trail.
Even though I ended up pretty far from king of the hill this year, I still found something special. No matter your pace, the point of running, hiking, or even crawling up Mount Ballyhoo is to be awed by it. At the summit, I saw Unalaska as it truly is: noble, splendid, terrifying. “You don’t really realize how big this place is until you’re up here,” I observed.
By that point, my breath was starting to return. My calves didn’t ache so much and the sweat beading around my temples was drying, so I stood there in the wind and took another moment to rest.
Burnham mentioned that even PCR staff don’t know what year the race started, which, to me, added yet another layer of intrigue.
“We even at one point had someone go through some of the microfiche at the library and see if they could figure it out,” he explained. “It'd be awesome if someone locally had that information that they could give us.”
At the summit, I met Sean Peters. He hikes Mount Ballyhoo an average of ten times a year. Twenty-six years old and a lifelong resident of the town, Peters serves as the local animal control officer for Unalaska Public Safety. For this event he had a different job: the final volunteer passing out Dixie cups of water.
Peters said that the best way to become a part of the community in Unalaska is to hike, hike, and then keep hiking. He mentioned that Mount Ballyhoo isn’t his favorite trail, but he still left a positive review.
“It's a good hike. It gets your heartrate up. It’s a beautiful view; you can overlook the cliffs and sometimes, if you time it right, you can see the whales swimming down below,” he said.
As I spoke with Peters at the top, the first contestants were crossing the finish line below. Mostafa Hassan was this year’s champion, with a time of thirty-six minutes and twelve seconds. The men’s second place title went to Tyler Justus, and third to Ellis Berry. Eva zu Beck came in first for the women at forty minutes and ten seconds. Beth Whitaker came in second, and Heidi Lucking in third. But no one toppled Ben Bolock’s record of twenty-four minutes, set in 2010.
In the teen girls category, Hedya Whitaker took home the gold. In the teen boys category, it was Jadon Whitaker. For youth girls, Nadia Whitaker finished in first place and Grace Burnham in second. For youth boys, Enoch Whitaker took home the gold.
I missed the entire ceremony, coming in dead last with a time of one hour, thirty-three minutes and thirteen seconds. Even the smallest child who competed this year smoked me by a solid half hour. But I climbed Mount Ballyhoo and returned with both of my ankles, so I still counted this as a win.
At the very end, Burnham told the crowd, “Thank you, everyone that participated. That was a great race. Next race — the first weekend in August — is the Bobby Johnson Summer Bay Classic, which is a half marathon. You can run it or bike it, so stop by the community center and sign up for that race.”
Maybe I will.