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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

Friday July 4
I remember when my friend Denali first told me about Mount Marathon, a race held in Alaska on the Fourth of July. It stuck in my mind because I grew up doing a race called the Mountain Marathon on the Fourth of July at a camp in New Hampshire.

Denali said that the race starts on main street in Seward, Alaska and climbs straight to the top of Mount Marathon and straight back down. I said that our race started on the ballfield and when straight up Rattlesnake Mountain and back down.

She said the race wasn't really a marathon, it was just over 3 miles. I said my race was just over three miles also.

She said it was amazing that no one died doing the Alaska race. I said that the New Hampshire race was eventually cancelled by the powers that be, because they were nervous about serious injury.

It sounded to me that the races were very similar. However, once I moved to Alaska, one of the first things I did was to look into this Mount Marathon race. And let me just say right now - my little Fourth of July race is nothing compared to Mount Marathon. I completed my first Mountain Marathon at age 7. At age 7, Mount Marathon would have scared the crap out of me. The main difference between these similar races: Rattlesnake Mountain in New Hampshire has a vertical gain of 500 feet. Mount Marathon in Alaska has a vertical gain of over 3000 feet. Yes, in the span of three miles, racers go up 3000 feet and back down 3000 feet.

There was an article in the April issue of Runners World that quite accurately illustrated how insane this race is. The trail up is very steep and never lets up. As soon as you hit the woods, the first pitch is nearly straight up. The only way to make it is to grab on to rocks and roots and pull yourself up, hoping that the ground does not give way. From here, the trail is smoother, but still un forgivingly steep. The trail back down is just as steep, and is very rocky. It is like running down a pile of marbles. And there are a couple of small cliffs you need to navigate near the bottom, just for fun.

This sounded like a great event for me. I love that kind of stuff. Only one problem. This race is so popular that they have to limit it to 300 men (the women have their own race of 300 also). And everyone who completed the race the year before is automatically eligible to run this year. I, on the other hand, had to try to enter via lottery for the remaining spots way back in March. And I did not get in, nor did most of the other lottery entrants. My last hopes for this year were a last minute raffle and a last minute auction, both held the night before the race. But due to forces beyond my control, we did not get to Seward in time for these options (and besides the auction entries went for about $900!).

So did not race this year. But watching the race made me want to do it next year even more. So I'll give the lottery another try. In the meantime, there are pictures from this year's race in the gallery.
Pre-race article in the Anchorage Daily News
2003 Mount Marathon Results

Saturday July 5
On our way from Seward today, we stopped and did the Lost Lake hike. This was recommended to us by friends, and since I am doing a race on this trail at the end of August, I thought it sounded great. It was an amazing hike, with beautiful views of the mountains, Resurrection Bay, and more. Quite possibly my favorite Alaskan hike so far. I won't go into details about the trail (I'll save that for the race), but it was incredible hiking/running.

Wednesday July 9
Yep, I am hooked on this orienteering thing. And even better, so is Linda. We have found that it is a great way to get out of the house together and work on our teamwork skills. Today we went to our first of the standard format O-sessions that they have here in Anchorage almost every week. I think we were a little over-confident after successfully navigating the Mountain -O course a couple of weeks ago. We decided to do the Red course, the hardest one they had. They handed us a map and a paper with a bunch of weird symbols next to each control number.

Linda asked, "Uhh, should we know what these symbols are?"

The answer of "Yes" came with a look that said both "Duh" and "Maybe you shouldn't do the hard course."

They tried to talk us out of doing the hard course on our first 'real' orienteering course, but I was not having any of it. I know how to use a map and compass and I know how to navigate in the woods, I just didn't know the orienteering symbols. One of the volunteering explained them to us and we were on our way.

We successfully completed the Red course, with only one major navigational error. We only beat one person, but only the experts do the hard course (and no other women besides Linda), and we were clearly not in their league yet. We impressed the race officials with our successful return. I think that after our cluelessness at registration, they were sure they would have to come rescue us at some point. But no, we were getting the hang of this thing.

Orienteering Results - 7/9/2003 - pdf file

Wednesday July 16
Another orienteering event today at Kincaid Park. This one I had to do on my own. Linda and I had plans to go to a Dar Williams concert at 7:30, and the orienteering started at 5:30. Linda didn't want to have to rush from orienteering to the concert being all sweaty and dirty, but I had no such hygiene concerns. I figured I had plenty of time to do the medium course in about an hour, then wash up quickly at the Kincaid Chalet, change clothes and be semi-presentable for the concert.

This event was Bike-O, which meant orienteering on mountain bike on the Kincaid trails. It was a lot of fun and I did pretty well, except for one control that was hidden much more than the rest of them.
Bike O results - 7/16/2003

Saturday July 19
Back in April, when I didn't get into the Mountain Marathon, I circled a different date on my calendar as my 'big race of the summer.' That date was July 19, and the race was the Crow Pass Crossing.

The Crow Pass Crossing is a foot race through the backcountry of the Chugach Mountains. It starts south of Anchorage, near Girdwood, and travels up and over Crow Pass, down to Eagle River which is about halfway through the race. You then ford Eagle River, which the race entry form describes as a 'quarter-mile wide, glacier-fed, thigh-deep, torrent' (its not quite a quarter-mile wide). From there the 'trail' (and I used that term loosely) follows Eagle River, with a couple more smaller river crossings, out to the Eagle River Nature Center, which is north of Anchorage and is the finish line. The whole race is between 24 and 28 miles (no one really knows because it is too hard to measure).

It is a very hard race, and because it is so remote, the race organizers need to make sure that everyone who enters is capable of finishing in under 6 hours (the maximum time allowed). A few more quotes from the entry form:

"This is a risk filled and dangerous race. Bad things can and usually do happen. Someone has been injured or imperiled each year. There are very real hazards and little chance for immediate medical aid if needed. Racers are asked to please assist their fallen brethren. COmmunication is nigh onto impossible."

"Don't be stupid. Do not make this your first experience with the trail. If you believe you are special, you are wrong."

And the list of hazards:

Good stuff. The entry form seemed like overkill, but maybe I was underestimating this race.

My first major decision was what kind of pack to take. I had seen from a picture in the newspaper, that the winner usually only carries a water bottle belt and then duct-tapes the required clothing to it. Required clothing is: hat, gloves, long underwear top & bottom, windbreaker and pants. I had planned to take an Ultimate Direction pack (like a Camelbak). Was that too much? I couldn't see how one water bottle would be enough. So I went with the pack and 96oz of sport drink.

Crow Pass Crossing start

I'm in there somewhere

With this decision made, I found myself at the start line bright and early at 7:00 am. The first four miles of the race were uphill to the top of Crow Pass. At the top, I think I was in 8th place. The next ten miles were downhill to the river crossing. I knew that downhill running was not my strong point, but I moved my legs as fast as I could over the rocky terrain. Soon after we started the descent, the trail became overgrown with cow parsnip, devil's club, and other wonderful weeds. The trail was still rocky and uneven, but now I couldn't even see my feet because of the poisonous weeds all around me. I kept pushing, hoping with each step that my foot would land safely. Occasionally, it would not, and I would trip or fall flat on my face. Every time, I had to bounce back up and keep pushing. It is extremely hard to run all out when you can't see the trail under your feet.

For the first half of the descent, there were two guys coming up behind me, Mark Strabel and Ben Speiss. When they caught up, I turned to ask if they wanted to go by...except they weren't there anymore. That was weird. After the race, Mark explained that he had tripped and fallen and lost a few seconds. Then when he got up and continued his pursuit, he came around a corner and there was a bear in the middle of the trail. I never saw it, but it must have been right there when I went by, since I was only a few seconds ahead. Mark waited some more precious seconds while the bear moved off the trail and then he continued.

Ben caught me a few minutes later, and I followed him down to the river. I found it much easier to follow someone else. The river was apparently much higher than usual. It came up to mid-thigh on me. Lars Spurkland claimed it came up to his waist, but since he is about 6'8", he must have been crossing on his knees or way off course.

When we got out of the water on the other side, my feet felt really weird. The icy water had numbed them, but as the feeling started to come back, I felt like I was running in clogs - my shoes felt hard, unforgiving and about 4 sizes too big. The feeling went away after a few minutes and I began to feel really good. I passed Ben and began to pull away. I lost time at the next river crossing and he caught up again, but I pulled away again. I knew that these couple of miles were the best trail I would see all day and I needed to take advantage of it. I was moving pretty well. Every time I stumbled I would feel my calf muscles start to cramp, but they would release. I began to wonder how long I had before they cramped up for good. The cramping made me notice that, even though I felt strong, I also felt dehydrated. I was drinking plenty of my sports drink, how could this be? I began drinking more often.

Soon enough I was back into the thick brush, rocks, and roots and struggling to maintain my balance on every stride. Many of the rocks and trees had drops of blood on them from other competitors. I would do a 'superman' (fall forward with my arms out in front of me) every ten minutes or so. But I had to keep pushing.

I was feeling more and more dehydrated and I began to think that my sports drink was too saturated. By drinking it, I was dehydrating my body more and more. I began to crave pure water, but I had none. Should I keep drinking the sports drink? I wasn't sure, but I had no other option, so I did. Just when I began to think that I was slowing down, I saw two people ahead of me. This was a good sign, maybe I wasn't going really slow through the technical stuff. But over the next 20 minutes, I couldn't close the gap. Maybe they saw me and speeded up. Just when I thought I was finally going to catch them and move into 6th or 7th place (not sure which), Ben came motoring up from behind. He was now moving very fast and I hitched a ride with him as we reeled in the two ahead.

The four of us ran together until Echo Bend, which is a significant landmark in the race because it is three miles from the finish and the trail is much wider from there on in. At this point we began climbing for a little while. The gap between Ben and the guy behind him was opening up. I waited to see if it would close. When it became obvious that Ben was getting away, I passed the other two guys and reeled Ben in. I was feeling really good. In fact on a number of the hills, all the other guys were walking and I was still running. I passed Ben and was in 5th place and feeling good.

But then a funny thing happened....I bonked on a downhill. Now, I should tell you that I never bonk. Lots of times, I will gradually get tired and slow down, but I almost never have the instantaneous bonk, where you go from feeling decent to feeling awful in a few minutes. In fact I can't remember a single time this has happened to me. But it happened today. Just after I had passed Ben, we were coming down a hill and he flew by me. At first I thought it was just me not pushing down the hill fast enough, but I couldn't pick it up. And when we hit the flat I dropped even further behind. Then Trond Jensen came flying by me like I was standing still. I hadn't seen this guy all race, but now he was charging for the finish, passing about 8 people in the last few miles. There was another guy with him, who I thought was also a racer, but now I am not sure.

Trond Jensen (63) et al. start passing me (third guy) as I bonk

It was at that point that I knew I was bonking. Was it because of the sports drink? The fact that I am not in my best shape? The fact that I have never done a race longer than three hours? I didn't know, and it didn't matter. I just had to minimize the damage. Only two miles to the finish. I can do that.

I ran pretty well for the next mile, considering how awful I felt. One of the guys I had left behind earlier came by, but I thought I could hold my position from there on in. Then, with about a mile to go, I lost it. My pace slowed to a crawl. Mark Strabel came flying by me like I was standing still, which I might have been. I could barely move. Each step was a struggle. Fortunately there was no one else close behind me and I was able to fight my way to the finish line in 10th place in about 3 hours and 34 minutes. To show you how slow I was going at the end, Mark passed me with about a half mile left and he beat me by two minutes! Ouch.

I have never felt as bad after a race as I did for the first ten minutes that I sat at the finish line. They handed us all Snickers bars as we crossed the line, but all I wanted was water, and even that was hard to swallow. After a few cups of water, I began to get some life back, but my legs were shot. The were so tight I could barely hobble around.

Going into this race, I had no idea what to expect for a time. I was pretty sure I could do the course in under 4 hours, and I would have been thrilled to go under 3:30. I came close to my goal, and I was happy about that and my top ten finish, but I was still disappointed with my bonk. If I could have finished strong, I might have been sub-3:30 and top 5. I also noticed that everyone around me in the race was carrying a much smaller pack than I was. Something to keep in mind for next year.

I guess I did pretty well for a first-timer, its just that I always expect more. But hey, 3:34 isn't too bad for a marathon distance through the backcountry of Alaska. And regardless of the finish, it was a worthwhile and fun adventure.

Men's race article
Women's race article

Crow Pass Results

Saturday July 26 - Powerline Pass Trail Run
I was pretty beat up after Crow Pass, more than I expected to be. Sure, I knew it would be a very hard three to four hour run, but I figured that after a few easy days I would be back on the trails. I had run the last half of Crow Pass with a slight cramp in my right calf. At least I thought it was a cramp. When it hurt enough that I still couldn't run on Wednesday of this week, I finally figured out it was a muscle strain. I gave it a couple more easy days, hoping I would be well enough to race the Powerline Pass Race.

Powerline Pass is a new race that starts at sea-level, climbs steeply up to 3500 foot Powerline Pass in five miles, then descends for about 1000 before leveling out for the last half of the 11 mile race. It was similar to many of the other great Alaskan trail running races that I was starting to become familiar with. I really wanted to do this one, because it was the first year of the race, and I thought it had potential to become one of the most popular races. Since there are races I can't get into because I am new to the area (Mount Marathon) it would be nice to get in on one from the beginning. Kind of like seeing a band in a club before they get big.

On Friday my calf was still hurting but I really wanted to race. I decided I would jog over to race registration (about three miles from my house). If I could make it there, I would sign up. The run over was fairly painless, except for the one uphill, which really hurt. Hmm, not a good sign for a race that climbs 3500 feet. But, refusing to accept not even trying I signed up,a nd figured I would make a final decision during my pre-race warm-up.

Also affecting my race decision was the fact that my girlfriend (okay, actually she's my fiancee but I dislike that word - seems kind of snooty) was signed up and ready for her biggest running event ever. I was extremely excited that, after watching Crow Pass last weekend, she immediately decided she wanted to give Powerline Pass a try.

Linda is in good shape and is a willing partner in most outdoor adventures, but she would never consider herself a runner. Runners are those people who wear the short shorts and singlets. Anyway, as much as I wanted to race, I thought maybe the pain in my leg was trying to tell me that this was Linda's day. I should just be her support team, as she has done many, many times for me.

I drove her to the start this morning, thinking I would be fine with sitting this one out. Of course, I was dressed to run, with my number on just in case. Linda and I went for a short warm-up run. My leg felt better than yesterday, but was still tight. As the start neared, my competitive juices started flowing and I knew that despite my best intentions, my competitive instincts were going to get the best of me. I was going to race. I rationalized it by saying that if it hurt, I would back off and run with Linda.

From the start I felt a bit tired, but the leg was fine. Amazing, the pain and tightness was gone for the whole race. I was a little frustrated that there seemed to be a lot of people ahead of me, twenty or so, but without having any expectations I was able to enjoy a nice, hard run through the mountains. When I finished, a few people commented to me that I was crazy for running both Crow Pass and then this. And these were people who had run Crow Pass, then sat this one out. It never occurred to me that I would need more than a week to recover from Crow Pass. After all, in the winter, we frequently race 50K marathons only a week apart. I had forgotten that marathon runners rarely run more than one a month. Hmm, maybe that was why I felt tired today. I was pleased to see that even though I was not near the top of the results, only one person ahead of me had run Crow Pass as well. In fact one guy who beat me at Crow Pass came in well after me this weekend.

I basked in this accomplishment for about thirty seconds, they realized I now had to fulfill my support duties. I ran put on a dry shirt, grabbed some water and headed back out on the course to jog in with Linda. She came along much sooner than I expected and was moving quickly enough that I really struggled to keep up with her to the finish. I was very excited about her accomplishment. I may make her into a slightly insane endurance athlete yet. She may not be a runner, but she sure beat a few out there.

Thursday July 31 - August 3 Denali Highway Bike Trip.

Next up on the to-do list is a four-day bike trip along the Denali Highway, with our friends Scott McArt and Jessica Smith. Scott and Jess planned this trip and were nice enough to invite us along. I think the pictures in the Gallery tell the story of this trip fairly well, so I won't give play-by-play. Instead I'll just jot down some notes about the trip.

  • We rented two BOB trailers to haul all our gear. Scott and I hauled the trailers. It was the first time I had used one of those things, but I really liked it. Sure, it made the going tougher, but with Scott and I weighted down a bit, we were all able to travel at the same pace.
  • The scenery along the Denali Highway is beautiful and rivals anything in Denali National Park (except for 'The Mountain', but you almost never see that anyway). The main difference was wildlife. The Denali Highway is not a park of any sort, so hunting is allowed. This means that most animals know to stay away, or learn the hard way. Before the trip we took bets on how many grizzly bears we would see. Guesses ranged from 4-8, except for Jess, who guessed just one. Turns out she was right, and even that one was a good distance off.
  • The first night Scott and Jessica surprised us with fancy wine & cheese. Okay, the cheese was fancy, but the wine was in a box. A box was easier to carry than 2-3 bottles. When we started the trip they had no idea that today was my birthday, but their extravagance was a great gift nonetheless.
  • Considering that Alaska is such a huge state, and considering that 250,000 people live in Anchorage, I am amazed at how often I run into people I know. Many times, I have been on a long hike/run through the wilderness and come upon friends out doing the same thing. But surely, along the Highway, about 300 miles from Anchorage, with only 25 cars going by each day, we wouldn't see any familiar faces. Wrong. On our second day, our friends Mike and Tanja, who we hiked Resurrection Pass with drove by in their truck, on the way from Denali National Park to Valdez. I am convinced that there is something about the Alaskan wilderness that calls to us when she is ready for us. Thus creating these chance meetings. Or something.

Continue in the August Journal

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.