The Matanuska Peak Challenge: Race Report by Bender
(Posted: 9-15-06)

The Matanuska Peak Challenge labels itself as "The Ultimate Mountain Run." With a 14 mile ascent and descent of two mountains, including 9,000 feet of elevation gain and loss this is very likely an uncontested title. To even consider running this race (if you know what the hell you're getting into) is a sign of either great faith in your ability to tolerate copious amounts of pain or even greater stupidity. (In my case more of the latter).

The race begins at the trail-head of Lazy mountain usually on the first Saturday in August. The race course is fairly straight forward. First you race up Lazy mountain, then down the backside of Lazy and into the McRoberts creek valley. In the McRoberts creek valley you hook up with the McRoberts creek trail, and then you continue on the trail all the way to the summit of Byers peak (Matanuska peak if you want to go by the USGS nansy-pansy name). Then you go back the way you came. The ascent of Lazy is approximately 3000 feet, the descent to McRoberts creek valley is about 1500 feet, and the climb from there to the top of Byers Peak (Matanuska peak) is about 4500 feet.

Ascend the mountain on the left, down the backside, ascend the mountain on the right, then go back the same way. The picture was taken late April so there's not actually snow like that on the race course in August.

The Mat-Peak Challenge was started 18 years ago by the Kopsack brothers, Lance and Braun. Their father was a somewhat infamous character, who won a 50 mile walk that was held in Alaska that was one of many 50 mile walks happening at the same time across the nation that were part of President Kennedy's policy to encourage a more healthy and active lifestyle. (We could use an initiative like that today, with the epidemic of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles). The walk was between Palmer and Anchorage, and apparently old man Kopsack ran the first 32 miles, and walked the last 18 to win by a huge margin. This was back when running long distances wasn't "cool" and there weren't a million of different types of running shoes with fancy technologies. So the Kopsack brothers came from a background of doing ridiculous feats of physical exertion. The Kopsack brothers themselves created the Mat-Peak Challenge after deciding Mount Marathon was too short (a 3 mile, 3,000 feet of up and down race held in Seward every year that is way too popular), and the Crow Pass Crossing didn't have enough elevation gain (a measily 2,000 feet). The nice thing about the Mat-Peak Challenge is that you don't have to worry about not being able to run in the race, because unlike some of the other races (Mount Marathon in particular) which attract posers and wannabes to the point that the race fills all the way up, this race is brutal enough that it separates the wheat from the chaff.

My friends and family questioned my sanity (and a few suggested I could beat myself with a 2"x4" and feel about the same afterwards) for wanting to run not only Crow Pass, but also the Mat-Peak Challenge (which are separated by only two weeks). Something inside of me wanted to find out how much punishment my body and mind could take, and the Mat-Peak challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to reach my limit for pain. This is the kind of race where a person finds God.

My strategy for this race was to try and reach the top of Lazy in under an hour (but not by much), reach the picnic table (which is about 3,000 feet below Byers peak, in the McRoberts creek valley) in under an hour and a half, reach the summit of Byers in 2:45, then be back down to the picnic table by 3:45, back up Lazy in 4:45, and back to the parking lot in just over 5 hours. This was a tentative plan, because I truly had no idea how fast I could run this race. In all reality it could be that I wouldn't be able to finish at all, because I had never subjected myself to 9000' of climbing up in a single day, much less 5 hours. As far as water and supplies, I traveled with almost the exact same setup as the Crow Pass Crossing, with warm gear, wind pants, 8 pop-tarts and 2 quarts of Gatorade flavored water.

I woke up early on race day, and was down to start of the race at 7:50 AM (even though they recommend you show up at 8 AM, since the race started at 9 AM). I ended up being the first person to register, so I was lucky number one. This gave me over an hour to psych myself out; the anticipation was agonizing. Luckily LD showed up. Jon Leiner is the man, because he decided to run this race basically without training at all. That is quite the feat, since even with a summer of training I was seriously daunted by what I was about to subject myself to. LD and I hung out for awhile until about 30 minutes before the race when I decided I should probably warm up. Unfortunately I injured my hip in the Crow Pass Crossing and was seriously worried about my hip giving out completely during this race. The warm up jog wasn't encouraging because my hip started to hurt right off the bat. I hadn't trained much in the two weeks in between the races, but Michael and I had done one sweet training run the Sunday before where we ran from the Motherload to the summit of Hatch Peak. My hip acted up during that, so I hadn't really run that much in the following days. This was going to hurt.

This is what a racer sees from the summit of Lazy Mountain, before dropping into that valley and ascending the peak in the middle.

About 5 minutes before the race people started to gather at the starting line, which was on the far side of the parking lot. The field for this race looked like the 50 most hardcore people from the Crow Pass Crossing, which is saying something. No posers here. After standing around, jumping up and down, and stretching, the gun was fired and we were off. I knew I was going to really have to hold the horses back, because I didn't have Michael in this race to keep me from going out to fast like I did in Crow Pass. I kept up a steady pace, but I went out to fast, since I passed Braun Kopsack in the first 15 minutes. This should have been a huge red flag but I felt really good. Another reason why the Kopsack brothers are bad-ass (aside from coming up with this race) is that not only are they the race creators, they also run the race every year. Luckily, Michael and I have done Lazy many many times, so while physically it was about as difficult as usual, mentally it was not that difficult. I got to the top in about 47 minutes, which was definitely too fast. I tore down the backside of Lazy and back up the next ridge, and back down into the valley. I made the mistake of getting off the trail at one point and had to bushwack through a bunch of pushke (cow parsnip), which caused blistering and burns all over my legs and arms the week after the race. When I got off the trail Braun Kopsack passed me (since Braun and Lance are speed demons on the downhill).

After getting back on the trail I made up some lost time by running for most of the 1500' feet back up to the picnic table, where I passed about four people. This was a huge mistake where my inexperience led to very poor strategy. I was feeling really good, but I should have remembered how brutal Byers really was. Byers peak is really steep, so steep that it reduced me to a crawl. My legs were burning, and all the people I passed and more passed me. About 500 feet above the picnic table I started to seriously question my ability to finish the race. My legs were starting to feel like lead weights, and I knew that I wasn't even halfway done. Braun caught up with me and I tried to stick with him for as long as possible, and I was with him almost all the way to the summit, but he broke away. Of course once he turned around and went down he was gone. Another person passed me, but I passed one guy who wasn't doing so hot. While going up the peak the race leaders came flying down. Harlow Robinson was in the lead, with a huge margin. Harlow is an amazing runner by any standard, because the more brutal the race, the better he does. The biggest shock though, was a woman who was in about 6 th place, (I was in 20-something place) Cedar Bourgeois. That was absolutely amazing.

The last 1000' to the top is a 30 degree boulder scramble, which was actually not so bad, because you have to use your hands. That helped a lot. I don't know exactly what time I reached the top of Byers, but I think it was about 2:30. I gave the race officials at the top my number and they took my picture then it was back down. The clouds had obscured most of the ascent, but as I was going down I caught a few glimpses of the beautiful scenery.

View of Palmer from the top of Byers on a clear day
View looking East a little earlier in the summer.

Going down was much better than going up, and I screamed down. Apparently I lucked out, and my hip was not hurting too bad, but that might have been because I took two Ibprofen before the race. I made it down into the valley in under an hour, but had to stop at the picnic table to empty all the rocks out of my shoes. Michael, Mom, Dad, and the Hulberts hiked up McRoberts Creek trail to the junction where the race course intersects McRoberts Creek trail to watch the race. It felt really good to have a large group of people cheering me on, and I was actually feeling pretty good going downhill. I knew going back up the backside of Lazy was going to hurt, but little did I know what I was about to experience. I hit the backside of lazy, and as soon as I stopped running and was forced to hike it was as if someone pummeled me with a baseball bat. Sack of hammers baby.

Bender goes flying by on his way back down McRoberts valley

At this point the physcial pain was transducted into mental and spiritual pain. My mind was forced into the one foot in front of the other mantra. I couldn't allow myself to look up because doing so would induce a complete breakdown with me sobbing on the side of the trail. I somehow reached the top of the first ridge, which only left the last 500 feet or so up to the summit of Lazy. I forced down a pop-tart and sucked on my water. The sun was out and the summit of Lazy was tantalizingly close, but I was barely moving. I had never hurt that bad, and it took every last scrap of strength to keep going forward. And then I was at the summit, and I was running down. I think in my altered state of consciousness everything began to seem like a dream. It's amazing how even if going up seems impossible, going down can be so easy. I flew down Lazy in 20 minutes or so, and passed a person about 30 seconds from the parking lot. As I came down into the parking lot Rachel James was about 15 feet ahead of me, and I thought what the hell, and I tried to sprint and catch her. She saw me and kicked in the after burners as well. I wasn't able to catch her, but it was an exciting finish to an unbelievable race. And we finished both in about 4 hours and 10 minutes. Harlow won the race in 3 hours and 9 minutes, which makes him a mountain running legend.

That champ, Jon Leiner, finished the race about 2 hours later. His performance was much more impressive than mine, and I am constantly in awe of his ability.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. And luckily I was going to be sitting in a car for a week so my legs would have a chance to recuperate, because Michael and I left for New York two days later.

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