Monday, July 24, 2017

Alaska Race Weekend: Alaska Men's Run & Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile

I just love destination races.  While in Alaska, I had the opportunity to run a double-header weekend of both Alaska Men's Race on Saturday and the Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile on Sunday.  Two very different races.  Here's my story:

Anchorage, AK
Saturday, July 8, 2017

Arrived a good hour early at the Anchorage Football Stadium for the Alaska Men's Run 5-Miler.  Was immediately impressed with how well organized the race was.  For example, both pre and post registration was all done electronically using an array of laptop computers setup at registration tables.  Course marshals looked dapper in their Alaska Military Academy uniforms.
Nice bibs.  Good cause.
Benefits the fight against prostate and testicular cancer.

Race out:
After a 2-mile warm-up, we were ready to go.  The pre-race instructions and speakers were a little long in the tooth, and the race did NOT start on time.  As an RD myself, I’ve learned over time to cut pre-race instructions to a minimum as many participants don’t listen and really they all just want the race to start.  The race course started and ended on the track, and while the rest of it was asphalt, none was on the roads, but instead utilized a bike path on the Chester Creek Greenway.
Before the start.  We're both wearing the club singlets.
We did get a few questions asking where Westerly is.

Just before the starting gun.  We're wondering how and when the
waist-high orange finish tape is going to come down.  My fears of getting tripped
up in it were unfounded.

After the national anthem, Matthew and I started out at about a 6-flat pace (pedestrian for Matthew, who was looking to conserve energy for tomorrow’s race).  About a mile in, Matthew was 2-3 places ahead of me and I caught up to the first of a number of youngsters I would pass.  Shortly thereafter, there was a brass band in the woods under a canopy playing patriotic music.  I don’t think I had ever seen that before at a race, and it was pretty neat!
A very rare easy tandem start to a race, where we're conversing and
hanging back a bit.

Running parallel to the Chester Creek for parts of race.
There was no cone turnaround but instead the course gradually looped around before doubling back on itself.  While sometimes a necessary evil, I do so despise cone turnarounds.  Mile splits:  6:08, 6:20, 6:14.

Race back:
I was feeling good on the way back and actually picked up the pace a bit to sub-6.  I passed one final competitor on the way back, finished strong on the track, and of course, saw the seconds ticking way from 29:5x and finished just over 30 minutes.  Final miles:  5:52, 5:53.
Matthew on one of the last bike path sections.
The course looked like this for most of it,
including whatever weird white plant blooms you see on the path.

Near the final turn before entering the track for the finish.

Finished!  (I've just crossed the finish line in lane 1)

Final results:   30:07, 8th of 227 finishers.  1st in age group.  Full results here.
How many races have you posed with a moose mascot post-race?
This is Alaska, after all!
A fun race on different terrain, and cool to race in Alaska.  My only disappointment was that despite specifying a medium size during online registration and reiterating it when picking up my shirt, I was inadvertently given a large size and didn’t notice it until later.  Normally, I wouldn’t care about a cotton race t-shirt, but this one said “Alaska” on it and was in my favorite color of blue as well.  Oh well, that’ll teach me to check sizes of shirts when I get them.

Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile
Palmer, AK
Sunday, July 9, 2017

Wow, was this race epic!  I feel like I cut my teeth on mountain running by racing Loon twice, and while I still have so much to learn from that race alone, this took mountain running to a whole new level.  Studying this ahead of time, I knew at least a little bit of what I was getting into:

·         4.5 miles (shorter than Loon by almost two miles, although you have to run back down after the race)
·         5,300’ vertical gain (almost double Loon, and no flat or downhill sections).  Most vertical gain in an uphill ONLY race in Alaska.
·         Threat of bear attacks (a runner was killed by a black bear in not too far from here on a trail race last month, and that was the second bear-induced fatality of humans in Alaska this summer)

The bear factor and repeated warnings almost everywhere we went were freaking me out a little, but I tried to remind myself that I was statistically far more likely to die in a car crash than a bear attack.  Away with the pessimism, and on with the race report.

Shuttle:  Drove 45 minutes north from Anchorage and showed up at the shuttle point on the side of a rural road in Palmer, Alaska at about 9:30am, an hour and a half before the 11am race start.   A July start of 11am would be a death wish in New England with the heat, but this is Alaska, with much cooler temps still in the 50s at race start, and besides, I appreciated that the volunteers at the water stop and the top had to do some rugged hiking to get to their posts (no auto road, jeep roads, ski lifts, or other shortcuts).

Registration:  We parked our rental car in a dirt rutted out parking lot at the Knik River, where we got into the “shuttle” (a race volunteer’s large 9-seater SUV) for a 4-mile drive to the start.  The registration was as old school as it gets:  no pre-registration, a whopping $5 entry fee, a simple waiver/entry form to fill out, and you’re handed a bib.  No shirts, no requests for e-mail or even physical address, just sign off that you understand the dangers including possible death, and you’re ready to go.  The race rules are few, but are taped to the back window of the RD’s Subaru, as are the results for the past few years.
Aptly named outhouse at the start of the trail.
"Trail Head"!  Get it?  I chuckled, as I'm easily amused.

Warm-up:  At registration, we were instructed that any warm-up had to be done on the trail, and we were not allowed on the road as there was no shoulder and while there are few vehicles on the road, they travel very fast.  Normally, I’d be all over that trail warm-up requirement, but the problem here is the trail immediately started with some pretty hefty climbs on single-track and I didn’t want to exert much before the race.  We saw that other runners were doing a “warm-up hike”, and we got behind a group and followed suit.  Even that was mildly taxing, so we took a break after ¼ mile and then jogged back down.  There were markers with numbers incrementing by 200, which after a ways into the race I finally figured out were marking the horizontal distance you had travelled in feet.
Trail right from the start!
The warm-up was emphasizing that this would
be tough from the get-go.

Pre-race concerns:  At a talk before the start, I was comfortable (or so I thought) that there would be a lot of mud on trail from all the rain yesterday.  I also felt comfortable about making the aid station cutoff of 1:20:00, and full race cutoff of 3 hours.   There were the usual trail race remarks requesting runners to be honest about lining themselves up pace-wise, but there were two problems with this:   
Pre-race talk.

1.       I don’t know a single person here besides Matthew, so other than “he should go in front of me”, I had no idea as to any placement strategy.
2.       The distance from the race start to the trail head was less than 100 feet!

Three warnings the RD gave made me really question whether I was totally unprepared for this mountain race in the vast wilderness:

1.       We should be carrying water.  FAIL.  Yup, I see many runners with hydration packs.  Left my Amphipod back in Anchorage and my Camelbak back in RI.  It’s not happening.
2.       Carrying bear spray for this race is recommended.  FAIL.  Again, I see a number of runners with bear spray, some tucked into their hydration packs and others carrying the canister as a hand-held.  REI has provided bear spray for the race, and we can sign for bear spray and take a canister.  Should I do it?
Bear spray check-out at registration table.

3.       We should bring a jacket, as it will be cold on top of the mountain.  FAIL.  Again, looking around, I see a number of runners in tights, some already wearing jackets, some with jackets packed in their pack, and then there’s these two idiots from flat coastal RI wearing short shorts and a singlet.

Should I just drop out now and DNS?  Should I carry the bear spray?  Oh, you need to stop whining and man up already, would you please.  Looking around in more depth and taking a deep breath, there are many runners WITHOUT hydration packs, many NOT carrying bear spray, and while singlet wearers are the definite minority, I do spy one or two and even two guys that strip off their shirts just before the start.  Here goes nothing!

Mile 1 – “runnable”:  We toe a make-believe line towards the back of the trailhead parking lot.  There will be no gun or “on your mark” here.  The RD is in radio communication with finish line personnel at the top of the mountain (there’s no cell service here), and then he counts backwards from five and when he gets to zero, we’re off.  I’m in about 15th place to start and already have concerns that I started way too far up, as I’m breathing hard ascending the tight single-track switchbacks.  Matthew is a few places ahead of me, and soon he is out of sight.  About ¼ mile in the runner ahead of me switches to hiking mode.  It’s awkward, because there is still a pack at this point and tough to go around him.

By ½ mile in, I have passed another 2-3 runners, one of whom also switched to hiking, and the other two guys I just felt more comfortable running ahead of them.  One young guy goes with me and it’s just the two of us for the rest of the first mile.  At one point, I feel a hand firmly on my butt.  OK, this was not the type of excitement I was looking for.  (Remember, there is no one even within sight ahead or behind us, so what the hell?)  I look back at him, and he instantly apologizes and says he often finds himself running very, very close to runners.  Hmmm.

In the first mile, I've covered 1,100 feet of elevation gain in a mile split of just under 16 minutes.  The next few miles will only get harder.

Mile 1 to 2 - the mud:  Between the steeper grades, gnarled tree and tree roots across the trail, the trail turning to mud, and just feeling beat, with the next runner I come up to hiking, I join in behind him hiking, as my butt-touching friend moves ahead of me.  Over the next couple of miles, I am hiking more than I am running, but resume running at each opportunity that the terrain allows me to.  At some points, I move to the side of the narrow trail when I can get better footing, and in other places there are no options except to just plow through the mud.  I am so glad I do NOT have a hand-held water bottle or bear spray canister at this point, as I am often slipping in mud and using my hands to grab tree branches and plants to keep myself from falling backwards on steep inclines.
Two steps forward, one step back.
Hard to get traction in the mud,
even with trail shoes with lugs.
I learned later that some locals with
knowledge of this trail had put on
microspikes and ditched them at tree line,
retrieving upon return.

With mud this wet and deep,
you didn't slide back (note runner
at top of pic), but how fast can
you really run through this mud
interspersed with roots?  Note the deep
shoe prints sinking into mud at the
bottom of pic. 

Miles 2 to 3.5 - open climb:  The only water stop on the course comes just about mile 2, and is very much appreciated!  These volunteers had schlepped drinking water up 2 miles of mostly muddy single-track with over 2,000' of elevation gain!  I thanked these angels as I paused to savor the water.  This is also the first cutoff mark, with a strict cutoff time of 1:20:00.  I made it fine in about 36 minutes, but later learned a number of runners did not make the cutoff and/or decided the course was too tough and turned back.  The views are amazing from here, and I'm glad I stuffed my camera into a zippered pocket in the back of my shorts for pics on the way down.
Matthew and I at the Mile 2 water stop ( on way back down post-race).
Beautiful views of the Knik Glacier (just above our heads), Knik River, and surrounding mountains.
As we emerge above tree-line for good, the mud ends but the grade increases.  I am surprised but happy to see Matthew for the first time since the start of the race.  It seems like he is much closer to me than in reality, due to the fact everything is wide open now and there are a number of switch-back as well.  There are many sections with 30+% grade, and these are all hikes for me.  I'm getting tired, and in this section, I am passed by one, two, now three male runners.  Ugh.  They all appear much younger than me, but I still feel everyone in the entire race is about to pass me.   I keep thinking the peak in view must be the top, but we ascend false summit after false summit.  On one of the last of these steep climbs, as we're headed into the clouds, the 2nd woman passes me.  She is visiting here from Russia, and ran the famed and insane Mount Marathon earlier in the week.
One of many open sections of trail above tree line.
(Matthew on left; unknown runner at right)

Stunning views of Knik Glacier and snow-covered mountains
were visible through much of the upper sections of the course.

The course threw in a few technical sections
for good measure.

Mile 3.5 to finish - ridge running:  I didn't know it at the time, but the final mile or so is along a ridge, which while still going up, has leveled off considerably in grade.  This is very runnable and run!  We pass a small patch of snow, which I remind myself to stop and photograph on the way down, but it won't be necessary as the snow patches are appearing in increasing frequency and size now.  I keep the Russian woman in sight, and surprise, no one else passes me as I run most of this session.

Snow fields alongside the trail.
Finally I am seeing and hearing more people and know that I am very close to the top and finish.  The finish line comes into sight and I cross with a big smile on my face.  I catch my breath for a moment before catching up with Matthew. What an experience!  I made it! 

Runners on final ascent, very close to finish.
Finish line in sight (opposite red tent).
Isn't the volunteer dog cool?
The finish line! 
Red tape between two makeshift cairns.
Note the volunteers bundled up in winter jackets, hats, and gloves.  It's
cold up here!
We were originally told there would be limited water at the top, but the volunteers tell us there is plenty of water as they are pumping it from a nearby natural water source.  Cold and delicious water!  We hung around for a few minutes snapping pics but quickly got cold, ate the finish line food of one Snickers bar per runner (recommended to avoid bonking on way down), had another water, and started out jaunt down.
Snowfield at the finish line!
Yes, the snow is deep!  Awesome!

Final results: 1:33:10.  17th overall, 15th male.  Write-up and results here.   Full results here.
The return of 4.5 miles and 5,300' net loss was tiring on the legs, but obviously easier on the legs and other than stopping for pics and getting a water at the water stop, ran the entire distance.  At the bottom, plenty of food and assorted drinks awaited us.  All for our $5 entry fee!  Just an epic race!  One of the hardest and most exhilarating adventures I have ever done.  Life is short.  So glad we did this!  As someone at the race mentioned, it's going to be hard to go back to running road 5Ks after this!
Badge of honor:  Matthew's mud-spattered legs and shoes at end of trail.


  1. Sounds like an incredible and difficult race. I'm glad you guys had the opportunity to do it.

  2. Your smile in the last picture tells the story. Both sound awesome the Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile sounds amazing. I'm glad you played spectator a little bit and took some pictures to share with the rest of us flat landers. Congratulations on some great adventures and a spectacular Walker Family Vacation!