Thursday, March 14, 2013

Learning to run

It occurred to me during the long drive north to Fairbanks that I haven't really trained this year for running on snow, at all. There was that one 22-mile run in Yosemite, a couple of arduous sled-dragging hikes, and a lot of good intentions once I arrived in Alaska. But just like the rigors of snow biking have caught up to me as a wholly different sport than mountain biking, my trail running muscles felt weak and not tuned to the demands of snow. Plus, I was exhausted. That one was my fault so I tried to shake it off. The Chena River to Ridge 25-mile race loomed. 

I decided to sign up for this race partly because I needed a shakedown training run for the Homer Epic, at some point. But mostly I signed up because it gave me an excuse to visit Fairbanks, which is perhaps the most fun community in all of Alaska. And I mean this genuinely — you need to have a good sense of humor and an adventurous spirit in order to survive this stark and cold place. 

My arrival felt like a homecoming of sorts, even though I've never lived here or even spent all that much time in the Fairbanks area. One of CR2R race-directors, Ed, let me stay at his place during my visit. I credit Ed with helping re-spark my passion for adventure racing when I was disillusioned with a lot of things, because he invited me to sign up for the White Mountains 100 in 2010. I had a lot of fun staying with Ed. He's an animal on skis and packrafts, and has completed numerous amazing wilderness trips throughout the Arctic. At home he's a weather forecaster who loves pop culture. While I was there, we indulged in silly movies and television such as "Pitch Perfect" and "The Biggest Loser," and top-40 radio is always pumping when he's awake. It was great fun. 

Chena River to Ridge had 55 entrants on skis, bikes, and foot. There was a 25-mile race and 45-mile race run concurrently, encompassing two different trail loops in the recreation area. There were about an equal number of starters for both distances, but the majority of runners were in the short race and bikers in the long race. At the sign-up, a number of people asked me where my bike was. I think most who have even tried skis or snow bikes can't imagine why anyone would leave these beneficial pieces of equipment at home. Snow running is just slow and strenuous, and only those who really love running would bother with it. After several minutes of gleefully describing my Willow, Denali Highway, and Denali National Park bike adventures without a single mention of running, it was probably clear I am not one of those people.

But the challenge — the sheer amount of difficulty running causes me — is exactly why I love it. The first five miles of the Chena River to Ridge trail were sublime. Rolling through frozen swamps into a canyon surrounded by round-top mountains, the trail was just soft enough to feel like a cloud under my feet, but still packed enough to allow my untrained legs to kick up some 12-minute miles. The effort level was still high and my mind slipped into a peaceful daze — the mindless serenity of running. And just when I had decided this run was going to be amazing and maybe even sorta easy after all, the warm sun peeked over the mountains.

By the time the climbing really started, the trail had softened considerably and was churned up by several dozen runners, skiers, and bikers — many who were reduced to pushing after the lead pack enjoyed smooth trails. The steeper climbs weren't bad for me — similar to hiking up a slope with loose talus — but anytime the trail leveled out and I tried to run again, my forefoot would stamp a hole into the  mush and my knee would wrench sideways. Lifting off the snow was equally straining and pulled uncomfortably at my hips. Within a mile of this I was already hurting, only seven miles into the race.

Around mile nine I caught my cyclist friend Dave Shaw, and tried not to sound too chipper because I know it sucks to be caught by runners. But the truth is despite my aching hips and sore knees, I was still in a great mood. It was a beautiful, warm morning and the endorphins were running full-tilt. "Are you sure this race is in Fairbanks?" I chirped. "It feels like Juneau in the spring, or California." Dave smiled back at me; he wasn't even crabby. "At least it's a beautiful day to take my bike for a walk," he said. Two days later, Dave would take me out for an incredibly fun ride on the Corral Creek Trail, near his cabin in the Goldstream Valley. We weaved through trees and dipped into icy stream beds, pedaling until the trail got steep and it was time to start pushing our bikes. Dave observed that he'd had enough of pushing for a while, and I fully agreed.

I passed a few more bikers and began to wonder if my knees and hips would hurt less if I could resume the bike-pushing position, which I'd had at least some conditioning for. It sounds idiotic to envy a bogged-down cyclist pushing a bike, but I was willing to try anything to soothe my aching hips. I moved my trekking poles to the side and leaned forward, but it was awkward to walk that way without an actual bike to lean on.

By mile thirteen I was grumpy, aching, and done with slushing. Before the race began I strongly considered wearing snowshoes, but didn't because it was a short race that I wanted to try to run. Also, I already had trekking poles, and the snowshoes would have made me look like a complete dork among the well-tuned Fairbanks runners. I rarely worry about how dorky I look, so I'm not sure why the snowshoe thing mattered. Next time.

Luckily, there was a high ridge aid station with friends to lift my spirits. I didn't even recognize John Shook in his Jesus Christ Superstar outfit, and his wife Andrea had abundant enthusiasm for the semi-broken back-of-packers. I stood there eating bread and butter, enjoying the sweet relief of not moving my hips for a few minutes. Then I started to worry about the bikers catching me, which is humorous because I knew they would not only catch me but start riding again as soon as the trail trended downhill, and finish two hours before me. Ah, well. Bursts of irrational competitive spirit — that's what racing is all about.

I was about three miles from the finish, walking downhill to reduce the posthole strain on my knees, when my cell phone rang. Beat was calling from the long traverse of hills before the Yukon River, and lamented the warm weather. He had been rained on the day before, fought slush for more than a hundred miles, waded through ice-choked overflow up to his thighs, and maxed out his capabilities for a walking pace that I could stil achieve relatively easily. He asked if I was still out on the Chena trail.

"Aw, we're both in a race!" he said with silly excitement.

"Not much of a race for me," I grumbled. "I'm still going to try, of course, but I think I'm screwed for the finishing the Homer Epic under the cutoff if trail conditions are similar at all, which they probably will be because it's spring down there. The trail is just so soft. This is really hard."

Beat just paused for a few seconds. I thought the line had cut off because he didn't respond, but then he burst out laughing. I started giggling, too, because my complaints were ridiculous in comparison. If Beat can bust out his slog for a thousand miles, I can certainly work my way through a measly 25 miles of soft snow.

I finished in 7:30, which was still under my guessed time of eight hours, but admittedly well over the hoped-for six hours I thought I could achieve in good conditions. According to my GPS the race actually came in closer to a marathon, 26.1 miles with 3,100 feet of climbing. Although painful during the race, the hip and knee soreness mostly worked itself out within 48 hours, although my legs retained a deadened, tired feeling.

But, above all, the Chena River to Ridge race launched what turned out to be an incredible week here in Fairbanks. I regret nothing.


  1. Matt and I were talking about Fairbanks in that same way on our trip. We can always find an adventure buddy that is crazier than us and not scared away when we do something fun. Our Cali buddies aren't like that. They hear the words "winter camping" and run the other way. :(

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  3. Looks like fun. I lived in Fairbanks a long time ago... in the 70's!

  4. It's nice to see you back in your natural habitat!


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