It’s bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s massive. It’s wild. It’s incredible.
Snow capped peaks.
And very, very few people. (but they do have Geoff Roes!)
Alaska is an adventurers’ dream. A playground of wilderness, abound with outdoor pleasures, experiences and challenges.
In a full disclosure I have an affinity for Alaska after my first visit there in 1995 so this may be a bit of a bias push for Alaskan attention. I would spend that summer with my family hiking the mountains around Anchorage, playing in the ridges of Hatcher’s Pass and being bewildered by the scenic value found in every turn of the head, everywhere you look. Lush massive cliffs of rock covered in snow late into July. Moose along the roadway and on clear days, Denali hundreds of miles away…there…staring you down from a distance.
Alaska captivates the adventurer in all of us and for me, it’s a constant pull. A never ending yearning for more. A “what’s around that bend? What’s on the other side of that ridge?” Seemingly desolate, untouched. Devoid of human contamination.
The obsession reached a whole new level in 2010 when again visiting family I entered in the Crow Pass Crossing trail race. As overused as the word has become, this race defines the word “Epic” and remains a staple on every racers schedule in Alaska each year. At twenty three miles (or whatever they claim it is each year) from Girdwood, Alaska to Eagle River, Alaska it covers some absolutely stunning territory. Starting off with a couple mile climb a few thousand feet to the top of the pass you need first to just get there within the time limit. Fail at that point and you’re turned around. Make it in time and you’re allowed to continue. Pass that hurdle and you are rewarded with one of the most spectacular downhills of all time.
To be clear:
Of All Time.
It’s the view that Colorado wishes it had and Alaska has in bounty. With the Raven glacier in the backdrop, the trail winds through the snow and scree to the bottom of the valley deep into the lush rainforest like vegetation, past the bears, bushes and trees to the half way point of the race, 1/4 mile wide (possibly exaggerating…) glacial river up to your knees, so cold you can barely walk getting out into the cold air.
At this point the experience is so surreal you’re not sure it’s really happening but with only half the race completed it’s time to bust off the ice on your feet and push the pace. The trail follows a rugged single track course along the banks of the river, along the forest, past giant rock piles, through bogs until reaching the boardwalk. At the boardwalk you’re near the finish. If you’re near the finish you need to run hard.
Running hard up the final hill to the cheers of the small crowds fills out an extremely rewarding race experience. A very Alaskan race experience. No frills, no fancy anything. Just steep mountains, stunning trails and lots, and lots of rugged beards and tough women. Not a one of them even familiar with the words pompous or conceited. The experience left me completely enamored with the state of Alaska, even more so than I’d ever been before. Being able to finish the race with my cousin that day, stand at the steps of the finish line and experience that…well…it left me wanting more.
(You can read my full race report with more pictures of the Crow Pass Trail @ http://www.getoutgetlost.com/crow-pass-crossing-2010.html)
And more I did find.
Alaska, maybe more than any other area in the US seems to really pride themselves in climbing. With mountains everywhere you look, not to mention the highest peak in the US with Denali/Mount McKinley, there isn’t a shortage of adventurers. But for trail running they certainly seem to really excel at climbing. Which makes perfect sense when you start out on their trails and realize their missing something.
They don’t have them.
It’s straight up. All day.
Which is very evident in their race schedule. So in the spirit of the upcoming Crow Pass Crossing this weekend and the rest of the Alaskan trail running race series this summer here’s a breakdown of what they have to offer. They may not all be very long but they make up for it in difficulty and outright beauty.
May 24th – Kal’s Knoya Ridge Run – An uphill only race of 8.5k but with 4,300 feet of vertical climbing. Limited to only 100 people it was unfortunately cancelled due to too much snow on the course.
June 2nd – Government Peak – This is an uphill only race of only 2.75 miles. Yet has 3,500 feet of climbing…Winner? Matt Novakovich in 46:27, 58:35 by Christy Marvin for the women’s.
June 17th – Bird Ridge – 3 miles and guess what? 3,400 feet of climbing. Go figure. Winning time? How about a 39:39 by Matt Novakovich. 47:17 for Holly Brooks on the women’s side.
I’m not going to post a picture of the trail but here’s a link of a couple of ladies that did the trail…no seriously…go to the link. Don’t forget to scroll down…http://melodyjai.blogspot.com/2011/06/bird-ridge-alaska.html
July 4th – The “Super Bowl” of Alaskan Mountain Running…The Mount Marathon. It’s not a marathon at all, in fact it’s only about 3.5 miles. Except you are starting at sea level in the town of Seward, Alaska on the ocean, running up the road to the trail, going up a 60% degree cliff to the trail and sprinting to the top, some 3,000 vertical feet in 1.75 miles before turning around at the summit and hammering it to the bottom to the cheers of the people lining the street. Broken bones, bloody scrapes, bad falls and sometimes worse (2012 resulted in a lost runner, it’s first death in over 85 years of the race). This race is extremely difficult and nearly as difficult to even gain entry. It’s lottery is almost as hard as it’s training but certainly one for the list.
Winner this year? Guess…Matt Novakovich in 44:07. It was a close one with Trond Flagstad finishing only 19 seconds later and ultra runner Matias Saari right behind them in 45:13. Holly Brooks brought in another victory on the year with a 57:54 victory.
July – The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Challenge – This is a little known race but possibly the greatest wilderness race in the country, if not beyond. You have to be accepted to participate and that alone takes some time in proving yourself and readiness given the difficulty and dangers that await you on this race. The race has been around for years, testing the most adventurous Alaskans year after year on a course that changes every few years. You’re given a start point and an end point and you take it from there. No vehicles, no animals, no bikes. You can run, you can hike and you can packraft down the rivers. It’s a rare race where at the start entrants might bolt in different directions based on their plans of attack on the course. Around this mountain or over it? Take this river down or bushwhack through it? You’re required to carry a satellite phone and the waiver is impressive. Oh…how far is it?
200+ miles most years. Winners usually take 3-4 days to complete it. To no fanfare. No winning lap around the track. Really not much of anything.
Except the pride of being arguably the toughest guy out there. The toughest guys out there this year were Luc Mehl & Josh Mumm who finished first in 3 days and 22.5 hours. Second place fell to Todd Tumalo & Gerard Ganey who finished in 4 days and 4 hours. First place solo finisher and 3rd overall was many time finisher, several time winner and Alaskan legend Roman Dial. Throw down a You Tube search for Roman Dial and you’ll know what I mean…here…I’ll get you started:
July 27th/28th – Resurrection Pass 50M/100M is one of Alaska’s few ultra marathon’s and includes some rugged terrain as you’d come to expect. With extremely long stretches between aid stations (38miles for some) it’s not the Vermont 100. Bears, exposure, severe weather changes. It’s beautiful but comes with it’s risks. Which is the beauty of it all. Unexpected benefit of this race? Very little headlamp use needed with the sun not going down until early AM. Makes it easier to spot the bears…http://www.respassultras.org/
August 4th – Matanuska Peak Challenge– 14 miles and 9,100 feet of climbing? Why not? This race is an out and back starting with a steep climb up Lazy Mountain (a complete lie of a name), descent down into the bowl before ascending the steep and rugged Matanuska Peak. The peak is narrow and scree often in the clouds overlooking the entire Matanuska Valley below and endless mountains behind. Runners turn right around and head all the way back down Matanuska Peak, up the backside of Lazy Mountain and then straight down to the finish. 9,100 feet of climbing in 14 miles. Think about that.
August 15th – Alyeska Classic Mountain Runis on the ski mountain Alyeska and is a short 2.2 mile run up the ski slopes with 2000 feet of climbing. It’s a tune up for the Alyeska Climbathon in September…
August 25th - Another staple in the Alaskan running scene the Lost Lake Run covers 15.5 miles in a point to point course. While it doesn’t have the major peaks other races do its often still difficult due to its technical terrain and a big draw due to its course beauty.
September 8th – Alyeska Climbathon – One of the last races of the year this takes place again on the Alyeska ski mountain and starts at 9am and ends at 7pm. Most summits by the 7pm deadline wins. Get to the top and the tram takes runners back down before kicking it back into gear on the way up.
Many of these races fill quickly, others don’t at all. Nearly all are under $50. So next time you’re taking a cruise up that way or maybe thinking of a running vacation take a look at flights into Anchorage…and www.alaskamountainrunners.org.
Be prepared though…you’re likely to fall deeply in love with the area.
Want a chance to run with some pros? Geoff Roes has Ultrarunning Training Camps in Juneau, Alaska. http://akultracamp.blogspot.com/
Have you run any of these races in the past? What did you think of them? We’d love to hear your comments!!
Feature Photo Credit: Mount Marathon Race by Ron Niebrugge