I’ve decided that each year I want to do one thing I never thought I could do. 2013 was Crow Pass Crossing, a roughly 23-mile trail race with roughly 6000 feet gradient in the Chugach mountains behind Anchorage. It’s a tough trail – rocky and full of tree roots and crossing many streams and one quarter-mile wide glacial river. There’s no support and a six-hour cutoff time (the registration form is worth a read, if only for this quote: “This race is not for beginners. It is not designed for ‘recreational’ runners, ‘hikers’, or people who listen to the song ‘We are Young’ and sign up for an event that they are not properly conditioned to undertake.”)
I hadn’t been able to train the way I wanted due to recurring calf injuries, and because of a bear/moose kill that closed the trail mid-summer, I hadn’t actually run the entire course through.
Here’s my race report:
I woke up that morning sure I was going to die. Every fiber, every nerve told me not to run this race. I wasn’t ready, my calf might give halfway through, I hadn’t run the entire course, and the river was higher than normal, high enough to sweep me away. Worst case scenario I could actually DIE. My intuition kept telling me no.
I ignored it. I climbed down from my loft in the 4:30 a.m. Alaskan sunlight, pulled on my black running capris and my lucky Portland Marathon t-shirt. I zipped up a gray hoodie, brewed a half cup of coffee, ate a banana and filled my water bladder. I drove down to the grocery store in Marisa’s mother’s car, where I picked up three other runners and drove us down to Girdwood. Esther drank a half-gallon of carrot juice and both she and her fiancé Peter devoured breakfast sandwiches. Kyle chattered from the front seat the hour’s drive down Turnagain Arm in the misty drizzle, which made time pass quickly and allowed me to ignore my nerves.
The previous day I had written to Matthew about my fear of the race. He gave me sound advice: “You’re allowed to be concerned for your safety, but you’re not allowed to be scared. And you’re not allowed to be either until you toe the shore. Put another way, I think you need to employ some mental compartmentalization.” I tried to take that to heart — “I’m not allowed to be scared” — and not think about the glacial torrent waiting for me at the halfway mark.
We were able to get the last parking spot at the trailhead, saving us a long walk up the gravel road to the trail. We checked in, showing the race director that we were carrying the proper gear (wind/rain jacket and pants, long underwear top and bottoms, hat and gloves), and then tried to stay warm until 7 a.m., when the race started.
The crowd was fit. Far more fit than I. Men with quads as thick as my waist jogged up and down the road, while women with tiny shorts and the chiseled cheekbones of a lithe runner stretched out. A creek rushed under the wood bridge at the starting line, reminding me of the river I had to cross.
At 7 a.m. the gun went off, and we charged up the trail. The first three miles of the race are steep and racers are required to make it up to the pass in an hour. Two weeks earlier I’d made it to the Crow Pass sign with 45 seconds to spare on a sunny day. I hoped my adrenaline would carry me up quickly enough.
I ran where I could and hiked where I couldn’t. The trail was rocky, crossing boulder fields slick with rain. I used my hands on my legs to help push them, but my heart was pounding and I couldn’t keep my breathing steady. Thirty minutes in my friend’s husband Doyle, who is 52, passed me. “We’re doing great,” he said. “We’re in a good spot for thirty minutes.” I looked behind me and only saw two people. The entire race was ahead of us. “There’s nothing to see back there,” Doyle said.
I continued climbing. I didn’t think I could make it in an hour. The trail inclined up to a lake where the Crow Pass Cabin sits and I crossed my first creek, charging through the icy water up to my shins. I thought about the chances of me making it up in an hour. I thought I had a 15 percent chance. I began to make plans to turn back. I thought about not even bothering with trying for the pass – hadn’t my intuition been telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, anyway? I was killing myself trying to make it up the mountain.
I had locked Marisa’s keys inside the car, and she was going to come pick it up later with a spare set; she’d ridden to Girdwood with friends and would drive the car back to town, while a different friend, KB, was meeting me at the other side of the trail in Eagle River. I figured I could run back down to the car, put on all my long underwear, rain gear and hat and gloves, and stretch out on the ground and wait for Marisa. I wouldn’t have cell phone service; I hoped Marisa hadn’t come yet. I also hoped she wasn’t going to wait until noon to retrieve the car.
But even as I entertained this daydream, I kept pushing. I thought about my friends on the other side, and the shame I would feel in dropping out. But then I would swing back: I shouldn’t be doing this race. It’s not safe and it’s disrespectful to the racers and organizers. What if one of my calves get injured eight miles in and I have to turn and walk back? But suddenly the trail leveled out and I was close to the pass. I started running and saw a couple of people standing ahead in blue and red rain jackets against a gray cloudy backdrop. I heard cheers. I checked my watch as I ran through the checkpoint: 57 minutes! As I passed, the trail began to slope down and the valley opened up below me and I forgot about turning around. I also forgot to look at Raven Glacier, arguably one of the most beautiful sights along the trail.
A few hundred feet down from the pass, I ran by Doyle. As I went by, he slapped me on the ass and said, “Go get ‘em, kid. I’ll see you at the finish.” A Doyle Woody ass slap! I actually smiled and felt my adrenaline surge. I was going to run this race.
The eight miles or so down to the river are a blur. I felt strong and tried not to worry too much about my footing. I came across another rushing creek, this one up to my knees. I tried to hurry across it, slipped, and fell in sideways up to my shoulders in icy water. A runner stopped to check on me – I felt like an idiot and let him know I was okay and he ran on. I wondered if my iPhone, diligently tracking my mileage in the front pocket of my hydration vest, was still functioning after the dunking. I stood up and paused in my dripping clothing, wondering what to do. I started running. I barely registered the mountains around me, don’t remember crossing Thunder Gorge and have no idea if I yelled for bears or not.
As I passed a few runners, I became determined not to let anyone pass me back. I thought about barreling down Mt Marathon and the skills I had built doing that. I ran through pushke so dense I couldn’t see my feet and so tall I had to raise my arms to run through it. Two men ran behind me, intermittently conversing with each other, and I refused to let them pass me. I ran hard. I knew I wasn’t supposed to use all my energy at the beginning of the race, but I wanted to use it while I had it, and so I willed myself to run like I was strong, making my posture reflect that. “I am healthy, I am strong,” I chanted to myself with the rhythm of my footsteps and breathing. “I am healthy, I am strong; I am healthy, I am strong.”
The trail flattened out, became sandy and then the river came into view. “This is it,” I thought. My stomach began to feel upset. I came upon the crossing at about three hours, a bit faster than I thought I could and still enough time for me to make the six-hour finish cutoff. The volunteers posted there were preparing to cross the river themselves and run to the finish – a bit ahead of schedule, I thought, worrying a little about Doyle, who isn’t a whole lot bigger than I am. I watched runners charge solo right into the river, but I knew I couldn’t cross it by myself. I ate a few sports beans and waited for the two men behind me, who I had gained 30 seconds on. They arrived and I asked if I could cross with them. We debated the best setup; they suggested lining up with our hands on each other’s waists like a perverse conga line, but settled on linking arms side by side. I took the middle and we entered the silty, rushing river.
I didn’t let myself pause and I didn’t let myself think as I started pushing through the water. It was cold, but I ignored it. The water rose to my knees, then my thighs, then my stomach, and finally to my sternum. I saw a chunk of ice from the glacier a mile upstream shoot by. I heard boulders tumbling down in the current. I wondered if my phone was going to get wet again, and how deep this fucking river actually was. At its highest, just below my chest, my feet left the bottom and I began duck paddling, only the arms of the two racers keeping me on track. My feet hit bottom again, and the water receded to my stomach, my thighs, my knees and finally my ankles. The cold hit and my feet began to ache wildly, so much I cried out.
I turned back to the river to look for Doyle. A woman in a fluorescent yellow wind jacket was crossing by herself, the current pushing her sideways. She had made it almost all the way across; she was up to her knees when she went down and began to skitter downriver.
“Stand up! STAND UP!” Did I yell this, or think it? Did someone else yell it? I started back towards the river but one of the guys with me sprinted out to her and yanked her upright and they stumbled to the shore.
I checked one more time for Doyle – he’d run this several times and I was sure he knew what he was doing – and then turned back to the path and started running on my numb yet aching feet across the rocky sand. I crossed several more ankle-deep braids of the river, my feet screaming each time I got out.
But I did it! I didn’t die! I was too tired and too intent on pushing myself to celebrate internally, but even as I ran my eyes welled up in relief. The adrenaline surged again and I felt my posture get just a little bit more upright. The race was halfway over.
The next 12 miles of the trail were mostly flat, following the contours of the river along a soft brown trail cluttered with fir trees and crossing the occasional glacial stream and boulder field. There were places where it became briefly, intensely steep. Ladders and ropes allowed me to give my legs a bit of a break and use my arms. A large log was set across yet another raging stream, Icicle Creek, with a rope strung between two trees for balance. I crossed, feeling like such a badass and wishing for a moment that someone I knew could see me. Fuck those contrived Tough Mudder races — this was the real deal.
The woman in yellow and the two guys who helped me across the river passed me. I passed them. They passed me. We chatted now and then. I sucked my water bladder nozzle and swallowed a berry-flavored gel. I had added two types of electrolyte powders to my water bladder and now the only thing I wanted was clear, pure water. I couldn’t handle any more sugar. I came across a clean shallow stream and squatted on shaking legs to scoop water into my mouth. I had been running with the guy who’d gone back into the river for the woman in yellow, and he stopped to wait for his buddy while I ran on, my belly full of cold water. I didn’t see him again.
I ran and waited for the five-mile mark, a well-established campground, to reveal itself. I was at four hours but didn’t want to pause to check my phone for the distance. At this rate, I figured I could still make the six-hour race cutoff. But the campground didn’t come and it didn’t come, and my posture began to wilt. I felt myself collapse inward, my steps becoming smaller, my shoulders hunching and my arms swinging across my body instead of charging out in front and pumping back. I got turned around on a boulder field. The woman in the yellow jacket passed me. We got to a straighter stretch and I passed her. I told her I saw her fall in the river and couldn’t believe she had crossed by herself. She said, “I figured I would have to and so I just did it.”
I did a quick scan of my body. It ached, but my injury-prone calves felt fine. “Is this the hardest thing I’ve ever done?” I asked myself. The answer came without thinking: “Nope – this is way easier than divorce.”
I heard yelling and cheering in front of me and rounded a bend to the campground, where several women stood on stumps, clapping and handing out sports drink. I forced my face into a grimace of a smile, thanked them and ran on. Five miles left. I was at four and half hours.
The only thing to do now was make my feet push me forward. “Lift your legs,” I told myself; this is always the point in my exhaustion where I trip over tree roots. I kept my eyes on the trail and thought about keeping my feet far enough from the ground so that I didn’t fall and knock my teeth out. I tried to stand up straight.
At three miles my friend John appeared, pulling a large pack onto his shoulders and preparing to lead a couple of small children out. “Al-most there! Al-most there!” They yelled and clapped. My posture straightened itself out. I pictured the finish, and the people there. The trail became rocky and I had to sort of jump from rock to rock, my wet feet squishing around in my shoes. I became aware of a blister on my heel and looked down to see blood.
A thirty-something man walked toward me on the trail and asked if I had seen a woman in a yellow jacket. He looked so worried I was excited to tell him that she was just right behind me. His face transformed into relief and he cheered me as I run-limped by.
As I got closer to the Eagle River Nature Center, the trail widened and smoothed. I went faster. I checked my watch – I was going to finish before six hours. With about a mile left, KB appeared. KB! KB was here! She and her dog Benson began running back with me. KB asked questions about the race and the trail, but I could barely answer. She chattered on, letting me just run. I kept trying to pick up my pace.
I rounded a bend and there was the final uphill slope. Josh and Janet were there and I willed myself to finish as strong as possible, not sprinting but lengthening my stride as KB faded behind me.
And then I crossed the finish. I remember making eye contact with a runner I’ve seen around, before I bent over, clutching my thighs and trying to catch my breath. Someone handed me a Snickers bar, the Crow Pass equivalent of a medal or t-shirt. I limped over to a picnic table and laid down on the bench and sucked berry-flavored water. All I wanted was regular water and for someone to spoon-feed me easily digestible food. I ran the race in five hours and thirty-five minutes.
It was at least a half an hour before I managed to put on flip-flops and waddle over to the hose and rinse the mud off my lower legs. I could barely change my clothes in the Nature Center bathroom. I peed for the first time since starting the race six hours earlier; my urine came out nearly brown despite all the liquids I drank.
After the awards ceremony and a few weakly chewed oatmeal raisin cookies, I got in the front seat of KB’s truck. We sped down the road through Eagle River, when I noticed a sign with my name on it. “Hey!” I yelped. “Turn around!” KB swung around and we found a giant sign propped up next to the road that read, “Congratulations, Catherine Bodry! You did it! You crossed the river!” A crabby woman came out of her house and informed us that the sign was on the wrong side of the road. We moved it, I posed for some photos, and we drove off (forgetting to take the sign).
I totally did it! I crossed the river – intuition be damned.