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Just 170 miles from Russia, Nome, Alaska is perhaps best known as the finish line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Nome’s population is near 3,500, but grows in the summer with an influx of gold dredgers and panners.
Crystal Toolie is a Siberian Yupik ultrarunner from Nome, and is one of five Indigenous runners in this weekend’s Life Time Leadville Trail 100 Run presented by La Sportiva. In Nome, Siberian Yupik peoples are from the villages of Gampbell and Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island (164 miles west), off the coast of Alaska. Even here, they’re a relatively small community compared to other Alaska Natives.
Training in Nome harbors unique challenges that develop spades of endurance and strength.
Training in Muskox Country
“It’s a very isolated town. This year, we’ve had a lot more [brown] bears. And we have [musk oxen],” said Toolie. “So if you’re a runner and you train outside, you have to be aware of your surroundings.” The small but supportive running community in Nome leans on social media to update each other on bear and other wildlife sightings.
“There was one winter when I strictly just ran on the treadmill. It was torturous,” said Toolie. “There are other years that no matter what the temperature or if there’s a blizzard out, I made sure to get outside and run.”
Blizzard conditions are commonplace in remote Alaska, making appropriate gear mandatory. “I would wear regular running shoes but double up on socks and wear cleats, so I don’t slip,” said Toolie. “Layers, if it’s a blizzard. I would wear snow pants and a winter coat. My inner layer will be something that’s sweat-wicking, something to cover up my face and hood. Sometimes goggles, sometimes not. And then wear really good gloves.”
In addition to layering, Toolie sticks to Nome’s limited road system as a safety measure, making it a priority to be visible during runs. Looking to Leadville, she incorporated hiking local mountains into her training.
“This year, I’ve been able to get out of the road system and get into the mountains, which is great for training for Leadville,” said Toolie.
Running Under the Lights
During winter runs, Toolie has nature’s headlamp guiding her way. Best seen just outside of the city, the Northern Lights present colorful bands of greens and whites that illuminate the sky. The lights are generated from electrically-charged particles in the earth’s magnetosphere colliding with gases, creating energy in the form of light.
Though beautiful, the lights were sometimes frightening to Toolie as a child.
“Our elders would tell us if you’re outside late, when you know you’re not supposed to be, making noise, the Northern Lights would come down and steal you up,” said Toolie. “And so if you whistle or make loud noises, the Northern Lights dance and become more vibrant. It looks like it’s coming down.”
Nome-St. Lawrence Island Dance Group
Beyond ultrarunning, Toolie is dedicated to preserving the movements of her culture. Several years ago, Toolie reinstated the Indigenous dance group in the area. Toolie’s great grandfather, Nick Wongittillin, was the leader of the first Nome dance group, when he passed away, they stopped. “We all wanted our children to be able to learn about our culture, to be able to pass down that tradition,” said Toolie.
Composers set the tone on drums (Saguyak) – constructed from tightly stretched walrus stomach linings from the Bering Sea – based on how they’re feeling at that moment. The zen-like movements are reminiscent of Qigong from southeast Asia. Toolie and her relatives even have a particular song dedicated by an elder to their running pursuits.
The women wear regalia that is distinguishable from other Alaska Natives in the region. Traditionally, their dress-like garments have three to four red lines sewn at the bottom, symbolic of the Russian Orthodox influence on the culture. The women wear their hair in two braids with beads sewn into them.
The group performs at local events of celebration and mourning, a way to bring the community together. The elders ensure the dances are appropriately conducted so that the integrity of the movements is consistent over time.
Climate Threats and Commercialism
The Town of Nome sits mainly on permafrost (permanently frozen ground). Permafrost is particularly sensitive to increases in air temperature and changes in snow cover, making it especially vulnerable to climate change. Permafrost stores carbon from life buried years ago. As the permafrost thaws, carbon is converted to carbon dioxide and methane, which hasten climate warming. Generally, climate scientists are finding that the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world.
“Climate change is a huge topic when you live in our region. We have generations of hunters that know the land like the back of their hand. When scientists study the Arctic in our area, they will seek out the trained hunters and ask them questions because they know that they are observers of that area,” Toolie said.
The hunters and families have noticed changing behavior patterns in the region’s polar bears.
“We used to see them more frequently. One would always come up to the East End beach, and it would have to be redirected out of town,” said Toolie. “I haven’t heard of a polar bear going to Nome for years now.”
Lately, commercial fishing and cruise liners have affected the lifelines of local families, too. The cruise industry disrupts the area’s food system in the waters and creates challenges for the local fishing industry. In some instances, cruise ships have even dumped human waste on Alaska beaches, Toolie explained.
Moreover, commercial fishing overseen by state governments often harms subsistence family fishers in Nome. These residents store fish and other seafood for the winter to feed their families, not to make a profit.
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“Subsistence living is rooted in our culture. We have big families that live in one home. To feed them, you need to hunt, fish, and berry pick for survival,” said Toolie. Whaling is also part of that equation.
“I think it’s just because people don’t understand, don’t have an understanding that this feeds communities. It’s not done in a way that is disrespectful to animals or the earth. In Native culture, we’re taught not to over-hunt or over-pick, and we use everything,” said Toolie. “We don’t waste what we get. And so I think that’s something that would be nice for people who are unfamiliar with our culture to learn about.”
This year, at Leadville, she will be paced by fellow Native skier and ultrarunner Connor Ryan. Since this is Toolie’s first time taking on Leadville, her approach to the race will be to take it easy. “I’m going to take it slow,” said Toolie. “And if I feel comfortable, I’m going to take it slower.”