I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I was planning on running Crow Pass Crossing, the 24(ish?)-mile backcountry trail race, which takes place July 26th this year. I have since decided it’s probably not in my best interest to run it this year, and will be saving up my registration fee for 2015. That decision, however, didn’t prevent me from jumping on the opportunity to preview the course this past Sunday, June 29th. I joined two other runners, Evan and Michelle, both of whom plan to race next month, for a casual hike/jog of the trail.
“Casual” is a funny term to use describing the trek. For the actual race, runners are required to carry a substantial list of required gear to be prepared for anything. The weather can change suddenly and extremely, and there are additional dangers, since it is, after all, the Alaskan backcountry. Bears, moose, steep drop-offs, glacial rivers, snowfields, cow parsnip. Then there are the logistics of just coordinating the point-to-point expedition. Driving from trailhead to trailhead is 50 miles, so it’s either the 150 mile routine of driving two cars to the end point, carpooling to the start, completing the trail, and then driving back to the start to pick up the other car, or finding someone nice enough to chauffeur to the start and from the finish. Adding in childcare needs, and an acute knowledge of being undertrained for such a feat, and I nearly backed out all together.
Luckily, the stars aligned in more ways than one, and due to having some very generous and kind people in my life and community, taking on the trail made sense. To prepare, I assembled a modest collection of gear. All week, the weather forecast predicted rain for Sunday. Because of the elevation change, rain in lower areas may be blizzards up above, so in addition to my standard running layers, I stuffed a wool shirt, rain shell, running tights, extra socks and gloves in my hydration pack. I made some date and coconut butter bars (recipes appearing here), filled my 2L bladder, and called it good. Well, except for the revolver. It is Alaska after all.
We started on the Girdwood side at about 7:30am with not a cloud in the sky. I ditched my gloves, tights, and wool layer, but kept my rain shell just in case. Plus is was brand new and seemed sad to leave it. The trail climbs steadily for the first three miles. I began the ascent at an easy jog, but within a quarter mile or so realized that might be a bit too ambitious. My training lately has not been particularly consistent or focused, but can perhaps be described as sporadic and opportunistic. My pace eroded to a steady hike, interspersed with jogging on the flats and stopping entirely for photo ops.
Evan and Michelle had pushed a bit harder than I did to reach the pass, but waited for me at the top. By my clock, I made it in 1 hour, 11 minutes. With all of my dawdling on the way up, I have no concerns about making the hour cut-off next year during the race.
After the pass, the remaining 21 miles are mostly downhill. That always sounds like a piece of cake, but I’m frequently reminded that downhill running is my weakest area. It doesn’t take much descending to trash my quads and leave me tiptoeing. To remedy that issue, I’m planning lots of single-leg squatting and leg-pressing to prep for my upcoming runs.
The descent from the pass to the river should have been the easiest part of the trail, but presented a series of challenges. The trail was often rocky, and a few of the larger ones left me scraped and bruised since the tall and lush grasses concealed them from view. The relentless downhill pounding is taxing and really takes it out of my legs. But the views are spectacular!
It took us about four hours to climb to the pass, and then descend to the river, which is about halfway through the trail, and right on schedule. We were hoping for an 8 hour crossing, which is significantly slower than the 6 hour cut-off for the race, but much faster than the two and three days some of the backpackers we passed were taking.
After the river crossing, about 12 miles remained of the trail. Had I been a bit fitter, it would have been a blissful joy to fly all the way to the Nature Center. The trail mostly flattened out and was wide and fairly clear. Pretty much a dream run. My leg juice gauge, however, was approaching E. I did a lot of hiking, a little jogging, and after a couple of hours, no more picture taking. Beautiful! Beautiful. Pretty. Yep. Yep. Uh-huh. Uh.
Michelle and Evan drifted farther and farther ahead so I charged forward alone for the last couple of hours. As the miles went on, I crossed paths with more and more other runners and hikers, so I knew I was getting closer to the Nature Center. Some looked happy to be out in Alaska on a beautiful summer day, and others looked as beat as I felt. I’m certain the fatigue wasn’t showing on my face, though, because I felt genuine gratitude through the whole trail for all of the factors that allowed me to be out there that day.
With about four miles left, I decided I was too tanked to try running any more. With two miles left, I was so bored of walking, I had to run. I dug deep and passed onto the patio of the Nature Center in Eagle River running, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Girdwood. Not bad for a lazy Sunday.
I owe a ton of thanks for this gun-toting, beta crossing of Crow Pass. A big thank you to Jan for chauffeuring, Evan for his expertise and guidance on the trail, Maria for generously posting baby-duty, LJ for keeping me realistic, Zaz for the beer and peanut butter cups, and Michelle for making the dream become reality!
Good luck to Evan and Michelle when they take on the trail again in a few weeks for the 2014 edition of Crow Pass Crossing!
Aftermath: I was physically unready for the trail. Although I finished successfully, and felt pretty good afterwards, my legs were sore for a record-breaking (for me) four days. I had a nice selection of bruises and scrapes from the rocks on my shins and knees, and what I believe is a mild reaction to cow parsnip. Nothing, though, that will keep me from preparing for 2015!