FAIRBANKS — Ashley Wallace laughs fondly as he reminisces about his childhood exhibit at the Yukon 800.
Growing up in Tanana, he would crawl out of bed and rush to the Yukon River near his family’s fishing camp to watch the speedboat racers go by.
“It was the only time in the summer when I got up early to go down to the bank and watch them go by,” Wallace recalls. “I’ve watched it pretty much my whole life and always wanted to get into it, but never found the time.”
Wallace finally got a chance to race in the historic Alaska Race this past weekend. And although he finished nearly 10 hours behind repeat winner Earl Mahler, he and his crew of two still scored a significant victory by simply finishing the race.
Considering the predicament of Team Wallace and their boat named Crazy Train just hours into the race, the feat was monumental.
The race, which travels 800 river miles on the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers from Fairbanks to Galena and back, is firmly in the tradition of other Alaskan distance races like the Iditarod or the Iron Dog which test the competitor under formidable conditions.
Less than 100 miles into the race, Wallace and his crew members Laura Ekada and Ken Newman Jr. were thrown into the channel of the Tanana River when their boat overturned around a bend.
“We were turning and a gust of wind came from the side and caught that arc and it went up,” he said. “When the stern hit the water it catapulted us all. We all came out of the water at the same time coughing and sputtering, we all swam back to the boat and took a little while.
The trio managed to turn the boat over but could not progress to bring it back to shore. His compatriot Joey Zuray was the first to pass the stage. Zuray’s boat had steering problems but he threw a rope at them. Shortly after, Sonny Lord passed by and was able to tow the boat and its crew to shore.
By the time they had most of the water out of the boat, Yukon 800 legend Harold Attla arrived on a barge and encouraged Wallace’s team to get the boat back up and running.
“We checked the oil and everything was fine,” Wallace said. “The cylinders were filled with water. We removed the candles. We knew we had a fuel source so we started it up and it just sat there and idled.
They finally put the boat back in the race and Wallace was happy to see the racing fans still on the shore cheering on the passing boats.
“We passed through Tanana (and) there were still people there and it was 9 p.m.,” Wallace said. “We passed by Ruby and there were still a few kids sitting there. I did a flyover of my fishing camp just for the good old days.
Of the nine riders who started, Wallace’s arrival just after 1 a.m. meant they all made it all the way to Galena on Saturday. Eight finished the race, with Sterling DeWilde scratching in Sunday’s return game.
But during the race, almost every driver had to deal with some sort of breakdown, mechanical or otherwise. Zuray’s directing issues required creative problem solving. For nearly 100 miles, he guided his boat by hand with a paddle attached to the motor. Five-time champion and perennial competitor Tom Kriska had to hand pump his gas bulb for part of the race until he reached Tanana. Kyle Malamute overheated multiple times and blew a hole in his rear fuel tank near Galena who held him up. Wallace, although he continued and finished the race, had a number of other problems resulting from his boat becoming choked.
“Don’t expect anything because whatever happens will be outside of your expectations and preparations,” Wallace said.
Mahler, who is from Fort Yukon, averaged over 60 miles per hour on her route with top speeds over 70 mph downriver. He said knowledge of the river and a fast boat are key elements of a winning race, but it also requires good fortune when it comes to avoiding accidents and breakdowns.
“It’s a bit of both and a lot of luck, the main thing is to stay together on the river,” he said. “You don’t race the guys, you try to navigate the river. This is your biggest obstacle in this race.
The inaugural race in 1960 featured 21 metal riverboats powered by 40-horsepower engines that traveled a course from Circle on the Yukon to Fairbanks. Eighteen runners finished, led by Ray Kasola in 26 hours, 26 minutes and 55 seconds. That’s more than double Mahler’s 2022 race time of 13:05.55. The race wasn’t that long back then. It was extended to 700 miles in 1964 and did not reach full 800 miles until 1972.
The event initially stemmed from the culture of running on the Nenana River in the 1950s and early incarnations of the race were known as the Arctic Circle Marathon, as it glided through the Arctic Circle.
But the early years often featured runners on the river for days without any source of communication before completing the marathon.
“These guys were astronauts,” joked former runner Tom Huntington, who now advises current participants and documents the race.
Many families have long racing histories, including Huntington and Attla. A number of captains have family members as part of the crew.
Wallace’s rookie experience to finish the race was an anomaly. In many years, even experienced runners end up scratching. In 2014, only two runners finished the race.
“Very few people who start doing that,” Huntington said. “It’s overwhelming. It’s a big country there. The Tanana River is big and you come into the Yukon and it’s huge. It can be intimidating.
And runners who take up running are finding it increasingly difficult to get by.
“It’s an addiction,” Zuray said. “You can see how much money you put into it. And if you’re not in the 800 or you miss a race after doing it for so long, you feel let down. You want to be in all the big races.
There’s also a personal and community pride that comes with competing on the river, according to Huntington.
“The biggest driver of wanting to keep going and keep going,” he said. “There is a title that we don’t talk about much, it’s to be called a man from the river or a woman from the river. It’s like being called a champion and that title is deserved. I think that’s the driving force.
Wallace, who also raced the Iron Dog snowmobile race in early 2022, said it won’t be his last race.
“I’m really grateful for all the help we received before and during the race,” he said. “These people who always stand on the banks even so late. There’s a reason this race isn’t going away for a long time.