Meg Inokuma was seven years old when she and her family travelled from Japan for a two-week vacation in Alaska. She documented the visit as if taking field notes.
“I still have the journal I kept during that trip,” she said.
“All I wrote every day was how many animals I saw. Not just black bear and brown bear, but squirrel, bird. Every single one.”
Now 41, Inokuma is herself an Alaska beast, and the place to find her is the mountains.
The land that inspired an awestruck seven-year-old to fill a journal listing all of the things she saw drew Inokuma back as an adult. She lives in Palmer and works as a biometrician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“The joke is I’m doing the exact same thing and getting paid for it,” she said.
She is one of the state’s top trail and mountain runners, and in recent weeks she fashioned back-to-back triumphs.
She set a course record in the Resurrection Pass 80-km race on the Kenai Peninsula in July and four weeks later ran the eighth-fastest women’s time in the history of the 25km Lost Lake Run near Seward in Alaska.
Next up, if her knees are willing, is the upcoming Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks. At the 2019 race she placed sixth.
Inokuma could fill a scrapbook with press clippings from the last couple of years.
She’s a beast, all right, one who spends nearly every lunch hour going up and down Lazy Mountain, a 8km hike with about 914m of elevation gain.
Hard to imagine that as the summer of 2018 began, Inokuma was so anemic she could barely make it from her bedroom to her bathroom.
Dreaming of Alaska
Inokuma is a self-made athlete who was academically oriented as a youth, the daughter of a man who worked with computers, valued education and was an avid hiker.
She ran track in high school and belonged to a bicycle racing team at the University of Tokyo, but she never forgot about Alaska. Soon after her family vacation here, she decided she wanted to be a mountain ranger in Denali National Park.
“Back then I wrote a letter to some National Park Service but learned I would have to change my citizenship, and I couldn’t think of such a big thing as a child, so I kind of gave up that dream,” she said.
But she never stopped dreaming of Alaska. When it came time for graduate school, Inokuma wanted to go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but her parents were paying the bills. They were living in New Mexico at the time so her dad could study the Navajo culture, and they wanted their daughter nearby. Inokuma wound up getting a master’s degree in forestry at Northern Arizona University.
That paved her way to Alaska and a job with Fish and Game, first in Kodiak and then in Soldotna. In 2015, she returned to school, this time at UAF to earn a master’s degree in statistics.
Fatigue, then chest pain
Sometime around then, Inokuma’s hemoglobin level began to drop, but for a long time she really didn’t notice anything significant. And what she did notice, she dismissed as a byproduct of a busy life.
“I thought, ‘I’m studying for 18 hours a day every day, of course I’m out of breath. It will get easier tomorrow.’ And it just kept getting worse and worse,” she said.
She tried to diagnose herself, and although she didn’t discover what was wrong, she learned how to cope.
In the fall of 2017, Inokuma got a blood test at a health fair and learned she had low hemoglobin levels. She started taking iron supplements but they weren’t enough to stop heavy bleeding during her periods and her overall fatigue.
Then came pounding headaches and chest pain.
In June 2018 she wound up in an emergency room. Her hemoglobin was at 6.9, well below the normal range of 12 to 16 for a woman of her age. She received a series of five iron infusions and an IUD to help slow the bleeding during her period.
By the spring of 2019, her hemoglobin level was back to normal. She could still go long, and she didn’t need to go slow anymore. Inokuma was in beast mode.
A record and redemption
This summer showcased a healthy Inokuma.
Two races in particular tell the tale, including the Resurrection Pass 50.
“I always have a goal when I do a race, and the goal is to enjoy the race, except for Resurrection Pass this year,” Inokuma said.
She won the race in 2020, and although it wasn’t her first ultramarathon, it was her first 80km race and the first time she’d done the whole trail. She won the race in 8 hours, 4 minutes.
“At the finish line it felt like I didn’t use up everything I had, so I knew I could go faster,” she said. “My goal was to break 8 hours. I did check the record just in case but I didn’t aggressively go for it; I just wanted to run five minutes faster than the year before.”
She ran more than 35 minutes faster.
Several weeks before Resurrection Pass, Inokuma returned to Bird Ridge for the first time since 2015. She was unknowingly anemic by then, “and it took me forever to finish.”
“I suffered on Bird Ridge from 10 steps after the start through the finish,” she said. “My body was oxygen-deprived the whole time.”
She finished the race in 1 hour, 3 minutes, 34 seconds.
Her time this year: 47:55, good for third place. First, second and fourth place went to members of the US Ski Team.
“I was so happy by (how far) I have come that I cried after the race.”
Bagging peaks and living life
Inokuma remembers taking a train or a bus in order to find mountains and trails with her family when she was growing up. Her father died three years ago but her mother and brother still live in Japan, where her brother is a successful architect.
“His life is 180 degrees different from mine,” she said. His office is in the busiest part of Tokyo. Hers is near the Alaska State Fairgrounds, and she can see Pioneer Peak from the parking lot and she can climb 830m Lazy Mountain top to bottom if she can stretch her lunch break to 90 minutes.
“I have never owned a fancy GPS that tells me how fast I am going. I don’t use a watch. I just listen to my body,” she said. “I don’t train. I don’t really do workouts. I go (to Lazy Mountain) to get fresh air because I’m at work standing in front of a computer all day.”
Though she is making a name for herself as a mountain runner and trail runner, Inokuma said her passion is the pursuit of mountain peaks.
“I’m a peak bagger,” she said. “That’s what I always wanted to do. There are 120 peaks in Chugach State Park, and I think eight people have completed all 120.”
Inokuma has done 82 so far, some by herself, some with others.
Last summer she became one of a handful of women to complete the Chugach Front Linkup, a challenge that involves climbing the 12 highest peaks in the Chugach Mountain front range, all in a single push. She and Matt Green completed the hike in a respectable 20 hours and 55 minutes.
“I’m fast now,” Inokuma said. “I’m back to myself as far as my health goes.
I appreciate my health every day. Everything is like a gift.” – Anchorage Daily News, Alaska/Tribune News Service