A lot can happen between the start and finish of a 5K run — and did for more than 130 runners and walkers at the Clam Scramble in Ninilchik on Saturday, June 15.
There were two rivers to cross and mud to crawl through. There were 3.1 miles of beach gravel and sand that worked into runners’ shoes. There was a hopscotch course on a stretch of soft sand and sand-filled buckets to carry, calling to mind buckets of clams once dug on Ninilchik beaches. There were 115 stairs to climb to the finish line at Ninilchik View State Park Campground. But for front-runners Maison Dunham and Aaron Swedberg, it was a battle for first.
Dunham, a junior at Kenai Central High School, won the Clam Scramble in 2017 and 2018. Saturday was an introduction to the event for Swedberg of Soldotna, who attends and runs cross-country for Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. Although Dunham led at the beginning of the course, the two runners exchanged the lead throughout the event. In the end Swedberg crossed the finish line first with a time of 22 minutes, 16 seconds. Dunham was on Swedberg’s heels with a time of 22:17.
“I don’t mind. He’s a good runner,” Dunham said, adding with a smile his intent to retake the first-place title next year.
Swedberg’s fitting prize was a clamdigging trip to the west side of Cook Inlet with Ninilchik Saltwater Charters.
Finishing in ninth place overall with a time of 29:42, Leah Fallon was the first female to cross the finish line. This was the third time the 15-year-old had entered the Clam Scramble.
Saturday’s weather, cloudy but without rain, was a welcomed improvement from 2018.
“Last year was extreme, having heavy rain prior to race day and extreme high water flooding at the river crossings and a mud slide runners had to traverse on the north beach road to the harbor,” said Mike Schuster who, along with Debbie Cary, has organized the event since it began in 2015.
This year Cary took over organizing with the help of Schuster, Ninilchik Emergency Services chief Dave Bear, and 35 volunteers and 12 photographers positioned along the course. Proceeds benefit Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce and Ninilchik Emergency Services, sponsors of the event.
“It was an amazing day,” Cary said, acknowledging both the volunteers’ efforts and the athletes. “The runners are at the heart of this race and many have returned over numerous years. They always have such positive feedback and I truly appreciate the opportunity to see them each year.”
Three-year-old Sara Reynolds of Sterling was the youngest athlete to complete the course, running next to her dad Jeff Reynolds. Her mother Tasha and older sister Avilyn also participated. Tom Farrell, 80, of Sterling, was the oldest competitor, running with his wife Tammy and their dog Kaladi.
“It was there to do,” was Farrell’s simple explanation for tackling the course.
As they have for every Clam Scramble since the first one in 2015, Jean Philippe Hull and Pierre Morel of France were the last to finish the race. They weren’t the only foreigners to compete. Anastasiia Baidrakova, a journalist with AIST TV in Irkutsk, Russia, ran the course, and was welcomed at the finish line by photographer Vikatoriia Shoshnikova, also of AIST TV, and George Santulli, contract television producer with the United States Department of State.
“The two guys from France do this with us every year,” Cary said. “The Russian film crew contacted us through the website and I have been communicating with them for a couple of months.”
After a die-off of razor clams resulted in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closing Cook Inlet’s east-side beaches to clamdigging in 2014, the Clam Scramble was started as a way to raise awareness of the area’s declining natural resources and to highlight the beauty of Ninilchik beaches. It takes advantage of extreme low tides occurring around Solstice. This year’s event grossed almost $5,000.
“Any time that our big efforts are rewarded by bringing hundreds of people down to our beaches, rivers and State parks to enjoy and celebrate our beautiful environment and Solstice and to acknowledge our concern for our natural resources, how much money we raise is almost secondary to why we love this event and are committed to making it part of our summertime tradition,” Schuster said.
Next year’s Clam Scramble is scheduled for June 20, 2020.
Overall, male: Aaron Swedberg, 22:16
Overall, female: Leah Fallon, 29:42
Age 6-12, male: Chase Laker, 29:07
Age 6-12, female: Teresa Fallon, 33:57
Age 13-19, male: Maison Dunham, 22:17
Age 13-19, female: Leah Fallon, 29:42
Age 20-29, male: Aaron Swedberg, 22:16
Age 20-29, female: Jennifer Blossom, 34:55
Age 30-39, male: Zachary Ricketts, 29:39
Age 30-39, female: Megan Anderson, 31:56
Age 40-55, male: Nathan Anderson, 33:19
Age 40-55, female: Sarah Hobart, 37:39
Age 56 and older, male: Rodney Erosky, 37:56
Age 56 and older, female: Maria Sweppy, 48:13
For complete results, visit ninilchikchamberofcommerce.com/event/5th-annual-ninilchik-clam-scramble-5k-run.