Archive for the Sport Category

2013 Crow Pass Crossing Race Report

Posted in Alaska, Sport with tags , , , on February 19, 2014 by ilikemountains
Look, this is the trail.

Look, this is the first half of the trail.

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 about 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.

Hitting the pass at 59:15 on a sunny training run. Raven Glacier in the background.

Hitting the pass at 59:15 on a sunny training run. Raven Glacier in the background.

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.

Amara entering the river in July

Amara entering the river in July

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.

Hikers crossing Icicle Creek on one of my training runs

Hikers crossing Icicle Creek on one of my training runs

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.

View from the Eagle River side of the trail

View from the Eagle River side of the trail

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.

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The entire month of July

Posted in Alaska, Sport on August 18, 2008 by ilikemountains

So I kind of suck at blogging. Sorry.

There were two main events this July, with a lot of little ones beaten in for texture. The first is that I completed Mt. Marathon without injury or incident, save for some uncomfortable chafing in some uncomfortable places. The other is that I spent 3 nights camped on the Alaska Ferry, a trip from Bellingham to Juneau that I’ve wanted to take for years.

First, Mt. Marathon: As my previous posts note, I trained very little for this race. I was in reasonably good shape, but Marathon is the type of mountain that requires strategy. Two days before the race I climbed halfway up just to try to pick a route up. There are three options: 1) Run past the chute and take switchbacks up; 2) Stop in front of the chute and climb a near-vertical hillside covered in trees, called “The Roots” because you climb up tree roots like a ladder; 3) Go directly up the chute, which involves scaling a rock face — I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard that’s what some of the winners do. I chose the roots, because I figured it’s the most direct route, and you’re using your arms for that part and in doing so taking some pressure off your legs.

Mt. Marathon from town.

Mt. Marathon from town.

The race starts about a half-mile from the trail in downtown Seward. The men’s and women’s races are split into two waves 5 minutes apart. I made it into the first wave (thanks Laura!), which is better since the trail is single file and you want to be near the front. I made it to the root trail, got in line, and started climbing. The climb itself doesn’t have much to describe — it’s long, and it’s hard. I had a strained calf muscle, so instead of climbing on my toes as usual I put my heels down. This meant I used my quads almost exclusively, instead of my calves taking some heat. But it saved me from injury.

The chute just above treeline. Scary!

The chute just above treeline. Scary!

Here’s how long and steep Mt. Marathon is: Picture the Empire State Building. Tall, right? Stack two and a half of those buildings together, and you’ve got the vertical height of Marathon: 3022 feet. So, let’s say you’re climbing to the top of those ES buildings. You take the stairs, but to make it like the Marathon race, you need to take every other stair to lengthen your stride. Then, take away the stairs, leaving just the incline, which is so steep you can’t put your heels down (unless you’re injured). Add some mud — I slipped flat on my front a few times, with women behind me grabbing my calves and ankles. Throw in rocks and snow, and you’ve got a difficult climb. That’s Marathon. Now imagine going back down.

I hadn’t practiced going down from the top part of the mountain. Again, there were choices: go straight down a snow field, or go around it. I chose the snow field. A deep luge had been carved out, and I jumped in and started sliding. Bad move. I was wearing running shorts, which immediately slid right up. I tried using my hands and feet to stop myself, but the incline was too great. The result: chafing. I managed to hop out of the luge at some point, as other racers were bearing down on me and they were out of control. I stood there for a few moments, watching them go by while I tried to figure out how to get down. Finally I just started running down, digging my heels in the snow.

The rest of the way down was uneventful. At the bottom, I had to run through a creek, swinging over small waterfalls and over rocks, but that was child’s play next to the snow. Once I made it half way down realized I was going to complete the race, and that felt great. I honestly didn’t know when I started if I would finish because of my calf.

I felt strong when I hit the street, and I heard my name all over. I didn’t look too sexy, but I was in good company. My time was nothing fantastic, but it wasn’t horrible either and might even be fast enough to keep me in the first wave next year.

Up next: the Alaska Ferry and why it’s one of the coolest trips ever.

Scared

Posted in Alaska, Sport on June 5, 2008 by ilikemountains

Two weeks before I leave for my Lonely Planet research trip, I made my first trek — halfway — up Mt. Marathon. I’ll interrupt research briefly to return to Seward and run the race on July 4th and I’ve got between now and June 11 to get to know the mountain and try to steel my quads.

Although I’m in fairly decent shape and can run four miles without totally dying and hike somewhat often and just completed two triathlons, my body was not prepared for the mountain. I went with two friends who are also in training and try to get up there three times a week, and what surprised me the most was not just how steep the incline actually is, but also how slow we went. Our pace raised my spirits briefly, because winners complete the race in under an hour. Maybe this mountain wasn’t as big as I thought?

Late spring snow has resulted in only a thin slice of bare land and, I’m told, this bare land is the “up” trail and the one visible from town. The “down” trail is in a chute still covered with snow and isn’t much of a trail at all — it’s all shale, and racers have perfected the art of taking giant leaps downhill and thrusting their heels in the shale, allowing them to sort of glide down the moving rocks.

After 35 minutes of a painstainking fight against gravity, we reached a sort of pipe. “What’s this?” I asked Stacy. Above her, the summit seemed close. Maybe we were almost there. “It’s the halfway point!” she announced cheerfully. Any confidence I had plummeted as quickly as the trail. My thighs were burning, and the incline was so steep that I spent the bulk of the climb on my toes. Calf cramps already seemed imminent.

Stacy and Laura headed back down the “up” trail with me carefully following them. I tried to run, but felt I was going to lose control and tumble down the mountain. I worked out a sort of awkward gait that jammed my toes into the front of my shoe and left my butt near the ground. My feet kept slipping out in front of me on mud and snow, and by the end I was frustrated and near tears. Stacy and Laura had come across a black bear last week, and a brown bear sow and cub have been spotted up there recently, so they would stop and wait for me to make sure I hadn’t been devoured. There’s not much I hate more than making people wait for me like that.

As we walked back to our cars from the trailhead, they assured me that once the “down” trail was clear it’d be much easier going downhill. “It’s fast,” they promised. As it was, it took me just as long to go down as up.

Now the mountain taunts me. I leave the post office, and the “up” trail is visible, looking innocent and harmless, just like a basic, decent trail. I cross the alley from my classroom to the cafeteria, and the summit is right there above the building. Biking to town, I look directly at the ridge we climbed. I even have the north arm of the mountain rising out of my backyard, so there’s no escaping it.

Obviously, running — even trail running — is not going to be enough to get me into the kind of shape Mt. Marathon requires. Instead of the leisurely jogs through small Alaskan towns that I’ve been envisioning, I’m going to have to set aside time to seek out the grueling mountain trails while researching the area.

My original goal was to finish the race in under an hour an a half. With my new insight into my fear of running downhill in addition to the fact that the snow might not be gone before I leave, I’ve rethought that goal and just want to get up and down the mountain at all. That’s it.

First triathlon, first BBQ, 10th foot of snow

Posted in Alaska, Sport on April 28, 2008 by ilikemountains

We had our first race of the season and first outdoor celebration. The night before, Anchorage got two feet of ill-received snow, and we got six inches. Not cool. After a week of sunshine and melting, spirits were damp. It was the end of April, after all.

But we raced in the slush, dug out a hang-out area in front of the barbeque and fireplace, dug out a path from the garage and line it with beer, and generally managed to have a good time. Beer helped.

Beer pathGiving uncle a kiss

The ugliest trail runners in America?

Posted in Sport with tags on April 22, 2008 by ilikemountains

Shield your eyes

Quite possibly.

Despite my repeated efforts to subdue their color by thrashing them around outside, they remain perky and clean. Just wait until all that snow melts, Day-Glo runners. It’s a muddy world out there and I fully plan on giving you a serious mud-bath treatment.

They feel really nice, though. In fact, I’ve raved so much about how great they feel that my friend Stacy drove to Anchorage and bought a pair. We make quite a duo on the trails, since these are the type of shoes that you can’t help but notice.

I hope they make me really fast and really uninjured.

Another angle