Klondike Relay team “Cut to The Chafe,” left to right: Hilary Swift, Nate Anderson, Abbey Collins, Mischa Lopiano, Alanna Johnson, Nancy Swick, Ellie Poteat, Austin Taylor, Kiki Tsilimos and Jenna Kunze.

There is unmarred water on both sides, heartache blue, and steady sea unfurling in front of us like Aladdin’s carpet. Facing south as we glide up the Taiya Inlet to Skagway, our angle on the deck doesn’t allow us to look forward, only back at the sputtering white lines of our wake.

On the aft deck, a blue flag pitches and whips with the wind. Eight gold stars like ‘you are here’ pins. Where? Alaska. Right.

The Klondike Road Relay begins in Skagway, Alaska, arching up and over in a crooked elbow to the capital of the Yukon Territory in Whitehorse, Canada. The trail follows the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, and emulates the mass migration and pioneering journey to northwest Canada for a prize. Beginning in the evening on Friday, the race continues throughout the night and into the next day, for 110 miles. There are 10 legs, divided equally by distance and difficulty of terrain and split over a period of As Long As it Takes, and something like 2,000 runners. I am one of them.

Comprised of new and veteran runners, who are both new and veteran to Haines, our 10-member team is named Cut to The Chafe. Our captain, Mischa from California who threads us all together as the common link, fastens his nipples with tape to mitigate chafing before his run.

We just met two days ago, the day after I moved to Haines, when I was looking at Abbey from Massachusetts’ house as a prospective rental location because she was moving to Anchorage. I don’t know last names – barely know firsts – but learn my teammates by discerning where they are from.

I am, aside from initial cursory questions, anonymous to these people. If I do not speak, I’ll be The Quiet Girl. If I fall, or throw up from eating too close to my run, I will force embarrassing associations onto my character. It’s not that I’ve never felt this first-day-of-school feeling before, but that the stakes weren’t as high in the past, when I was transient and constantly meeting new people while travelling in Asia.

I live here now, four days fresh to Alaska. A fact my subconscious knows not to forget to remember. Most teams, I can guess from roster names like Roadkill and Blood Sweat & Beers, entered the relay to spend time with their friends. I came here to make them.

Among our motley crew, lackadaisical commitment to athleticism veils true intensity. Despite each individual proclamation of self-depreciation-“I’ve been taking a rest period since early June” (Nate from Washington)-and despite the fact that several of us were still being recruited up until an hour before the race, we have signed up for this (except some of us, who never actually signed anything).  Each of us nods to the insanity of the race, recognizes it silently, ignores it and runs like hell.

We pool our running gear and shuttle it to the next runner, which is how I end up with a still-sweaty arm band that holds my phone, so I can listen to Drake while I run. Headlamps change hands as though they are the baton themselves amongst the overnight runners. Hilary from Vermont decides against bringing hers altogether in a decision that I believe amounts to “screw it”, and runs in the dark. It’s 43 degrees and dropping, so I am swathed in a (borrowed) sleeping bag while I disembark from the bus to cheer on my teammates. Maybe it’s an Alaska thing-flippant commitment to objectively difficult feats-but it seems to be our inherent commonality, relative to the fact we’ve all chosen to move here. It’s understood that this (THIS) is what we came for.

Mischa picks us up from the ferry terminal in a minibus with his company name plastered on the side. Other vans and RVs we see in the lot are decorated as if in a beauty contest, with team names displayed inventively. A female group, who will later slap my hand along a stretch of otherwise desolate highway and cheer for me in my leg, have bedazzled their ride, spelling out The Gold Diggers. Another team, Hot Tub Time Machine, pulls a trailer hitched to their RV with a functional Jacuzzi sitting on the platform.

A list of things we forgot: toilet paper, VHS tapes for the antiquated TV mounted in the van, more Christmas lights to string up inside, and a hot tub. Kiki from North Carolina runs into her apartment to get the first two.

This bus, contrary to the ferry, only allows us to see forward. Carpet seals the back window shut, suggesting maybe it was never there to begin with, and causing concern each time we are forced to reverse. “North, to the future!” Kiki says, and we cheer. Ellie from Montana gives me a hydration pill to dissolve in water as we all settle in, pick a playlist, and share snacks. Alanna from California cooked hard boiled eggs. When our first runner, Hilary, finishes by 9 p.m., I still have 16 hours to wait before I’ll even begin running.

Among the throngs of REI packs and sleeping bags that appear to be uniform to the Alaskan expat, a carton of mint green American Spirit cigarettes, six packs of beer and boxes of White Claw hard seltzers litter the floor. At one point Ellie sees plastic cups in Mischa’s hands and gives him kudos for remembering water cups. “Well,” Mischa replies, ripping into the plastic wrapper with his teeth, “It’s for wine, but…”

With two bus seats to lie down on and more than 19 hours for our entire team to finish the race, the difficulty wasn’t the running itself (except for Nancy from Illinois, who had to drive herself to the starting line to run the longest leg of 16 miles, beginning in the middle of the night, while everyone else was sleeping), but the extenuating and precarious circumstances that surrounded the whole event. Weird, fluctuating energies fill our tiny confines, as each runner cycles, out of sync with one another, through stages of highs and lows. Some members sleep, some prep for their race, some forage through the woven hand basket of snacks, some with their mouths on a tequila bottle. It feels sort of like sleepaway summer camp, merging together with total strangers for a protracted period of time. More established Southeast residents know more of the team than others, but still everyone is meeting at least a few new people. But there is camaraderie bred in teams and sleepovers, of which we had both.

Outside, the race is nothing but a line of tail lights and the occasional reflective red armband. We are the support vehicle for our team, which means we drop the runner at their start line, wait for the relay hand-off at their finish, and find them at least once in between for water and a good shriek of encouragement.

I’m sleeping at the Canadian border when our passports get checked, but I hear the border patrol say that this is the busiest day of the whole year. That’s either reflective of how big this event is, or how small these Canadian towns are.

We stop in Carcross for Nancy’s pass off to Ellie and it’s daylight and stunning. Suddenly, it’s autumn and the landscape reflects a gradient of earth tones we hadn’t seen on the other side of the border. Fog hangs like a frozen screen that blurs out the mountain edges, and we continuously drive by still lakes. Suddenly it’s morning, we note, as Nate’s Stanley thermos of coffee circulates from hand to hand like a flask. I ask my team how they would describe the scenery, and Ellie thinks it looks like a desktop screensaver. Austin from Florida says it’s like slow moving waves of pesto green and orange. “Sherbet,” Kiki said with her eyes closed.

By the time I’m slotted to start, it’s 1 p.m. on Saturday and half our team is changed and possibly drunk. Leg 10, my portion, begins with a mass start instead of relay, because the beginning of the race was broken into waves based on intended finishing times that didn’t work out. Kiki, who would run leg nine, wouldn’t finish in time for my team to drop me off, so Cut to The Chafe drops Kiki, drives ahead to drop me by 1 p.m., doubles back to support Kiki and pick her up, and returns again for my last mile. My team is an overworked soccer mom. In my last three miles, when my shins scream and the cold air just about tears a hole through my lungs, they materialize, laying on the horn and careening down the highway next to me, as is their style.

I feel like my family is there. Some of them extend their arms with items for my choosing as I run past. Fig Newton: no. Water: yes!!!  God, I love them. Some of them remain on the bus, but I don’t blame them. I am met at the finish line by a spraying bottle of champagne that Abbey points at me.

The way I feel at the end of the race is the same way I feel at the beginning of the race, and best expressed by Nancy from Illinois as she plops to the asphalt after her 16-mile stretch. “What a ridiculous thing to do for fun,” she says, with what could be interpreted as a grimace or a grin.