Crow Pass Crossing Race Report
(Posted: 7-30-06)

The Crow Pass Crossing is held every year near Anchorage, Alaska and runs from just outside the town of Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center. The course is 24 miles long over a mountain pass, through a river, and on a trail that ranges from scree to dense vegetation. The image below was taken from a Google Satellite map and the race route is roughly drawn in, starting at the red X at the bottom and following the black line to the red X in the upper left.

Image taken from Google Maps

The entry form for the race is pretty hardcore. For a first time racer to qualify to even enter he or she has to have run a half marathon sub 1:45 or a marathon sub 4:00 in the last year. This is to make sure everybody can make the 6 hour time limit, as in if you finish after six hours you're disqualified and race officials are "not amused." Also from the entry form:
"You should seriously reconsider your entry if you sustain an injury within six weeks of the race, or are a smoker."
"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."
Yeah, this is a serious deal, but being long on endurance and short on brains Ben and I both signed up.

The night before the race we attended the pre-race meeting to pick up our bibs and were slightly relieved to hear that the trail was supposedly in good condition, then went home to start packing and panicking. I was doing most of the panicking because with my work schedule this summer I never had much time to train. I was probably exercising one to two days a week. And our dry run of the traverse took 6.5 hours. No time to have doubts, though, so I got busy preparing the mandatory gear. All racers must have a full set of long underwear, wind pants, a windbreaker, a stocking cap, and gloves at the start and finish. Try to skimp on weight by leaving out some of that gear and they'll take your sorry ass out of the race results. Several years ago 30 to 40 percent of the field was disqualified, so the gear rule is no joke.

The next concern in packing was food and water. You're not going to find a table stocked with Gatorade on the moraine by Raven Glacier so bring any water you need to drink, or have the ability to treat water from the streams along the trail. I went with 2 Liters in my pack and threw in a little bottle of Iodine tablets in case the two liters wasn't quite enough. As far as food, nut allergies prevent my brother and I from eating most of those energy bars and gels, so we went to the grocery store and looked for the highest calorie, lowest volume snack food we could find. It was Pop Tarts by far. One of those goofy little sleeves of Pop Tarts that high-fructose-corn-syrup-loving nancy boys eat for breakfast contains 400 calories. Bracing for the worst I packed four sleeves.

Race Morning: Ben looked way to happy to be leaving the house at 4 am.

Race Morning
To pull into the Crow Creek parking lot at 6 am we got up around 3:30 and left the house by 4:00. For breakfast I had some oats out of my trough and drank some water. My nerves were pretty bad because I'd never run a marathon and was about to attempt a wilderness marathon on very little training. Can't waste time being nervous though, so I oiled up my loin cloth and we hit the road.

At the start we quickly noticed that the field was intimidating. I've never seen a race where everybody looked so fast and so hardcore. There were no lightweights hanging around the Crow Pass trailhead at 6:30 that morning. After checking in and going for a little warm up jog, it was race time.

Team Delta-T cooling their jets in the parking lot
And they're off!

The team Delta-T racing strategy was to stick together over the pass and through the river, then let Ben peel off and run the last 12 miles as fast as he could and leave me to death shuffle to the Nature Center. We started near the back of the pack and held there on the gradual uphill, but once we got to the scramble up to the pass I came a little more into my element. I've got a couple of tree trunks that like to go straight up but aren't known for being particularly fast on flatland. We're talking sack of hammers on the steep uphill and made the four miles and 2,000 vertical feet to the pass in around 47 minutes. The pass is the first checkpoint and anybody who fails to make it there under 60 minutes "looking good" is sent back. Cleared that with plenty of cushion.

On the way down, if you can peel your eyes off your feet while scurrying down the rocky slope you'll be rewarded with a view of the Raven Glacier. Don't get too wrapped up in the scenery though; there was a fun little section across an avalanche chute where you had to be careful to avoid an unintentional glissade off the race course. And towards the bottom of the pass there was a small snowfield that I tried to run down but the snow was too hard and I fell on my ass, headed straight at a guy who was carefully picking his way down. I clawed at the hard snow and slowed down just enough to avoid knocking him over, and once I got around him I noticed with some dismay that there was no clean runout: the snow just stopped. Again, I clawed at the snow to slow down with poor results and eventually accepted, this is going to hurt. I slammed against some rocks at the bottom of the snowfield and took a role call of my limbs. They were all present and accounted for so I got up and kept running.

Ben and I probably didn't make any friends charging down the pass, cutting several people off and nearly bowling them over, but hey, this ain't no popularity contest and coming down from a pass is a great way to make up time. After crossing a creek at the bottom of the major downhill we settled into a spirited jog through the dense grass and brush. You have to be careful to watch your feet through this section as the overgrown vegetation makes it difficult to see the rocks and roots grabbing at your feet.

At 90 minutes I ate one of the sleeves of Pop Tarts. Ben rolled his ankle but insisted that he was fine so we kept chugging away and made the river crossing in 2:15. The race organizers had bought a bunch of those cancer research bracelets and volunteers were giving one to everybody at the edge of the river, so by having a bracelet you proved you forded the river in the right place. Plunging into the ice cold water of Eagle River felt good. Really good. You can turn your head to the right and see Eagle Glacier while you're slogging through the river, so that water was cold. It was mostly knee deep with a couple sections up to my thighs, and thankfully no higher than my thighs because I didn't enjoy the prospect of not seeing my testicles again for several years.

The race strategy went off without a hitch and Ben took off. We were both feeling pretty good now that our legs had been numbed up. As Ben disappeared I settled in behind two other racers and followed them for a while. About three hours I started to fade. The gradual realization dawned on me that I was in the process of bonking, which made sense because I didn't do any training that involved over three consecutive hours of strenuous exercise. At the same time my water ran out and I had to stop at a little creek to fill up and throw in some Iodine. The 30 minutes between filling up and having safe water to drink hurt. I was pretty thirsty by that point and could tell I needed more carbs. At the 3.5 hour mark the water was good to drink so I guzzled it down with another sleeve of Pop Tarts. All right, now I'm replenished, time to modify my racing strategy: don't think, and don't stop moving. No matter how slow I'm going or how much it hurts, do not let forward progress halt.

In the last hour I got passed by quite a few people who I had glided by effortlessly in the pass, but I guess I kind of expected that to happen. And after an hour of forcing pained smiles to the backpackers cheering people on at the side of the trail I popped out at the Nature Center. The time was 4 hours 35 minutes, a full two hours better than rehearsal. Ben came in at 4 hours 1 minute in 26th place overall out of about 100 people. He looked in pretty good shape by the time I got there, but he'd already had 34 minutes to recover. I gotta imagine doing the last 12 miles on that trail in 1:45 must have hurt. I hobbled through the second half in 2:19 and my legs have never hurt that much. At the finish I tried walking around but my legs were in so much pain I could hardly move so I sat down. The pain didn't subside a bit when I sat down. After 45 to 60 minutes I was feeling quite a bit better and was content to just hang around and soak up the little bit of sun that was now shining.

The post race atmosphere was nice. A lot of racers were drinking beer and there was plenty of food to go around. The winner came in a couple minutes over 3 hours, and the top three were all under 3:10, which is apparently the fastest top three in race history. They credited good trail conditions and cool overcast weather. Also, there was a sportsmanship award where the recipient was chosen by applause from the crowd that went to "Larry from New Jersey" for helping a small woman get through the river. All in all it was a great experience and I'd like to do some serious training and try it again.

Me at the finish, not looking very pretty.
A quick smile before we hobble back to the car.

Ben: "Once I broke away from Michael after the river crossing I probably was going way too fast. I had to slow down a little bit, but I relished passing a couple of people Michael and I had been hanging behind. Then for about two or three miles there was no one around and I was running all by myself through the woods on a very windy trail. After 3 or 4 miles there is a really vicious part of the trail that is all steep up and down with poor trail visibility. There is even a ladder up a small ledge at one point. That section knocked the wind out of my sails because I tried to go fast to pass a few people, but the steep sections were probably to steep to run up. It was a relief to get back to relatively flat ground and start picking people off, at about two or three people every mile until mile 22. One person's comment as I passed them by crashing through the brush on the side of the trail was "Where the hell did you come from?" I was keeping up a really good pace past a guy who said there was only 5.5 miles left, and then almost as good of a pace past a guy who said there was 3.5 miles left. The only food I ate during this whole second half was part of a poptart I grabbed from my pack while running. I wasn't drinking that much water either, just a few sips every half mile or so. The pack was really annoying because it rode up on my back and was rubbing my lower back completely raw.

At mile 20.5 I looked at my watch and did some mental math. With only 3.5 miles left I was at 3:30. That meant that if I could average 7 miles an hour for the last half an hour I could break 4 hours. This motivated me to push hard. Those last three miles were some of the most painful I have ever run in my life. It didn't help that the trail veered slightly upwards for a good portion of that last 3 miles. Trying to keep my spirits up during that very unpleasant half an hour I would say things like "Isn't this fun?" or "I'm having a great time!" to hikers that I passed who were going the other way. I tried to keep the pace up but as I looked at my watch I saw my goal of breaking four hours slowly slipping away, which was incredibly demoralizing. With about a half of a mile left I finally slammed into the wall that I had somehow magically avoided during the rest of the race. This reduced my pace to a pathetic 9:00 a mile (or slower) death shuffle. I barely did not break four hours and came in at four hours and one minute. But like Michael, the pain did not stop when I stopped running. Everything hurt, and when I tried to sit down and eat some food and drink some water (since I probably was running dangerously low on calories and fluids) my entire face and chest started to go numb. I got up and walked down the road about half of a mile and back and finally started to feel better. But I was worried because the parental units had not shown up yet, so I tried to find a phone to call them. Luckily, then Michael finished (he looked like he was in as much pain as I had been) and then Mom and Dad showed up. Michael was not doing so hot for awhile, but eventually he started to look a little less pale and overall quite a bit better. Michael even won an award for first in his age group since he was the fastest runner under 20. By the time we left, the sun was out and the warm feeling of accomplishing something that no sane person would seriously consider finally set in."

 

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