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.
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.
"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.