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Woman to run ultra marathon around 9th & 9th whale as homage to record ski season

Ultra marathoner will attempt to run about 30 miles in .04-mile laps around sculpture as homage for record ski season and fundraiser for Utah Avalanche Center

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allie Kolaski, who is setting out to run 30 miles around the 9th and 9th Whale on Saturday to pay homage to its role in bringing Utah the most snow on record last season and to celebrate the Utah Avalanche Center's role in keeping those who played in that snow safe, is pictured on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Update: Dec. 4, 2023, 9:30 a.m. >> Allie Kolaski, joined by Sarah Foran, completed 800 laps Saturday afternoon in 5 hours, 27 minutes and has raised $773.47 toward her new goal of $800 for the Utah Avalanche Center.

The snow started falling in April 2022, shortly after the unusual, colorful and colossal whale sculpture first breached the center of a roundabout in the 9th and 9th neighborhood.

Prior to the arrival of the art installation, called Out of the Blue, it had been a long, dry winter in Utah. Afterward, it seemed the snow would never stop. The precipitation returned last October and over the next six months delivered the state its snowiest season on record, besting the previous record by a couple hundred inches.

Pinning the abundance of snowfall on the magic of the whale became an inside joke among many of the city’s residents. Or, as Allie Kolaski prefers to put it, “a running joke.”

It’s an interesting turn of phrase considering Kolaski plans to run an ultra marathon around the whale Saturday — an effort that will involve many other less-than-interesting turns. Her goals are to complete 800 laps of the approximately .04-mile loop (or slightly more than 30 miles) and raise at least $500 for the nonprofit Utah Avalanche Center.

“This futile exercise,” Kolaski wrote on Instagram, “is backed by a desire to pay homage to the snow gods and to raise money and awareness for the importance of safety in snow.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allie Kolaski, who is setting out to run 30 miles around the 9th and 9th Whale on Saturday to pay homage to its role in bringing Utah the most snow on record last season and to celebrate the Utah Avalanche Center's role in keeping those who played in that snow safe, is pictured on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Skiers and snowboarders have been among the most persistent forces in perpetuating the folklore around the 9th and 9th whale and its power to produce powder. That includes Kolaski’s husband, Joe Nagle, an avid backcountry skier. Kolaski, however, doesn’t count herself among them.

“The great irony of all of this,” the Sandy resident said, “is that I am a terrible, terrible skier. I am very excited to support other people’s skiing from flat ground, with my running shoes on.”

Running is a passion the 33-year-old psychologist stumbled on after moving to Utah more than a decade ago. Her first running race of any kind was a 30-miler at Antelope Island State Park in 2018. Since then, she estimates she’s run at least 25 races of marathon distance (26.2 miles) or longer. That includes 30-milers, 50-milers and 77 miles of the famously grueling Wasatch Front 100.

She prefers training on trails, and in the winter that means running in the snow, often in the canyons and mountains. Kolaski said she checks the UAC’s avalanche forecast daily, because even though she’s typically running on established trails and not making first tracks down steep slopes, she could still be traveling through an avalanche path.

Unlike backcountry skiers, though, Kolaski, a board member for the Women of the Wasatch trail running group, believes many runners don’t consider that risk before entering the wilderness. She’s hoping she can raise some awareness around that with her ultra “whale-athon.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allie Kolaski, who is setting out to run 30 miles around the 9th and 9th Whale on Saturday to pay homage to its role in bringing Utah the most snow on record last season and to celebrate the Utah Avalanche Center's role in keeping those who played in that snow safe, is pictured on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

“We all know that if you’re going to go backcountry skiing, you need to have your beacon and your shovel and your probe and be prepared and you should take your Avy 1″ safety course, Kokaski said. “But runners, comparatively, are a lot less educated about the dangers of running on trails in the winter. So that also felt valuable to raise awareness in my running community around, you know, just because someone else ran it today doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.”

Kolaski’s run also happens to coincide with the UAC’s fifth annual Avalanche Awareness Week. It entails avalanche classes and “Know Before You Go” presentations around the state, starting with a kickoff party and community avalanche rescue practice on Monday at Sugarhouse Park.

This season’s early snows followed by warmer, drier weather will likely create an unstable snowpack through December, according to UAC director Mark Staples. How quickly conditions stabilize, or if they do at all, depends on a variety of factors. Consistent snowfall, he said, would help.

Staples said he thinks most people have some awareness about avalanches, but like snow, more is better.

“There’s always more we can do,” he said. “That’s why we’re grateful for this event around the whale. All these events or events that we do, they help raise awareness.”

If this weekend’s weather forecast is any indication, the whale is also responding favorably to Kolaski’s tribute. Most Utah ski areas are expected to receive about two feet of snow by Sunday night, according to OpenSnow.com, with Powder Mountain possibly seeing close to four feet. Several inches are forecast to accumulate in Salt Lake City, according to the National Weather Service, including 3-5 inches on Saturday.

That could add an extra challenge to Kolaski’s already long and unusual run.

She expects to spend between five and a half to seven hours circling the 23-foot-tall whale. Because the circumference is so small, it throws off the GPS tracker on her watch. So, she will have to manually press a handheld clicker to keep track of her laps. That will preclude her from getting lost in her thoughts, as she might during a typical ultra held on a trail. Along that .04-mile lap, she also won’t get much of a change in scenery, though she does plan to change directions every several miles.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allie Kolaski, who is setting out to run 30 miles around the 9th and 9th Whale on Saturday to pay homage to its role in bringing Utah the most snow on record last season and to celebrate the Utah Avalanche Center's role in keeping those who played in that snow safe, is pictured on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

“Running 32 miles is hard, no matter how well trained you are, so there will be the physical aspects,” she said. “But I do anticipate that the mental game of the monotony will be really, really challenging for this particular racecourse especially given that so much of my experience has been on stunningly beautiful wilderness trails. So, this will definitely not be that.”

Kolaski is inviting people to come out to talk to her, cheer her on or give her high-fives, though she asks they be respectful of the businesses in the area and the cars moving through the traffic circle. A good whale pun would also be appreciated.

What if her sacrifice works and the whale once again provides a season for the ages? Kolaski said she would be thrilled, mostly for the water it would provide the Great Salt Lake and the happiness it would bring her husband and skiers like him. So sure, she said, if that happens she’ll commit to running a 50-miler around the whale next year.

But she does have one favor to ask first, given what a headache all last season’s snow brought bus and snowplow drivers as well as anyone with a sidewalk to shovel:

“Maybe,” she said, “the whale can work its magic so that we don’t have any snow on sidewalks, driveways or roads.”

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