The Crow Pass Crossing was easily the most difficult and humbling race of my life. I have my excuses, like having underestimated the course during my own training on trails, rough weather, some poor gear choices and struggling mentally during the second half, but I'm also convinced that this 24ish-mile route was just an incredibly tough course that Alaskans handle better than some (relative) flatlander. I'm glad I did it, and more glad I'm on vacation this week to rest up.
The race started in a downpour at the Crow Pass trailhead past Girdwood. Timm had picked me up the day before, and we got our friend Heidi and went to the pre-race meeting. More than a dozen people had already dropped, so she got a spot and her husband drove us all down to the start at 5 a.m. Saturday.
The race starts in the parking lot, so you run about 100 yards and then everything bunches up on the trailhead. After walking 20 feet the group spreads out and the first uphill climb begins. The climb (advertised as 3,000 feet over 3 miles) actually wasn't as tough as I thought. Very runnable and a decent gravel trail until the last 3/4 of a mile or so, where everybody hikes up until the Pass flattens out. I made the Pass at about 39 minutes, depending on where people consider themselves "making it."
The course flattens out at that point, but then you're on an snow field. I took a break to rearrange my hip pack, which was a bad choice for transport. It centered poorly on my hip and bounced around too much, and I could have used more water. Should have went with a backpack. After crossing the snowfield there's a creek crossing. The race organizers tell you about the river crossing and one major creek. They don't tell you about the two dozen other small creeks where you get wet. So now it's rainy and really windy on an exposed face, with soaked feet. The first glimpse of a glacier is here, which was pretty spectacular. Maybe I shouldn't say glimpse, since Raven Glacier is huge and right in front of you, and the trail kind of follows it downhill.
Speaking of downhill, this is where I got drilled. The footing was sketchy on the rocks and scree, and then periodic snow fields were thrown in. So you're running sideways in and out of the snow, and then the snow turned into a steep downhill. I think there were three of them, and by the third I had given up and just slid down on my butt. Hot-footing it quickly kind of works but beat my legs up, and I always ended up slipping and falling anyway.
Coming off that the trail goes through a really muddy stretch, where the grade levels out to something runnable but the trail doesn't really. I was hoping to get going here, but the course just doesn't allow that (at least for lower-48ers like me). This part was really overgrown (which especially sucks on a rainy day) because hikers have been discouraged from thru-hiking all summer. There was a moose kill and rangers were worried about bears in the area.
I passed a few people through here, but the going was really tough. There's no straightaway to stretch out your stride, it's really windy and muddy with grass-covered rocks popping up every so often. It's probably an amazing hike. I admit I got a little mentally beat up here, the soaking was getting me down and I slipped a lot on the slick rocks, and I ended up alone for a good stretch. When I stopped for a bathroom break Heidi and a group of three or four passed me. I quickly caught up to them when the trail opened up a bit and hooked in for the river crossing.
We linked arms and waded across as a group of six, which calmed me down in the thigh-high glacial water. The water was actually really refreshing, even on a cold day. After crossing you end up running in a little creek for 100 yards or so, so we were soaked thoroughly by then. The group followed a guy through the drainage, which was also fortunate because I really would have lost the trail there. Stuck with a little pack along the river for awhile, which was nicer footing and a good view.
When we wound back into a spruce forest I took out with a guy named Bill that I had met the night before. I would have liked to stick with him, but as we neared the 3-hour mark I started to hit the wall. This was a bad sign. I was about out of water and really cramped in the quads. I lost Bill, then ran with a girl for awhile until I kicked a root and tore open the toe of my shoe. The little insults were starting to add up, and my quads were completely shredded. She left me, then Heidi and two others passed as well. I went through a pack of shot blocks to get some fuel in me (I hadn't paid really good attention to fueling because I was so focused on not tripping), but ended up doing a pretty slow pace with multiple walks on the uphill portions. It was so difficult to find footing, and even the little high-steps or jumps over logs were killing me.
About four miles out there was a campsite and the women there gave me cookies and some water/gatorade, which was good for a little boost. Then at 3 miles another guy helped me with some water. The last three are actually pretty nice miles through a thin forest on a wider dirt-and-rock road, though I was pretty mentally beat by then. As the road started both legs completely cramped up and I had to stop and take a little walk. I was passed by three or four guys through there, though I caught up with one with a mile left. But the last stretch is insult to injury: a steady uphill mile on a gravel trail to the visitors' center. Me and this guy were running side by side, both of us going "ugggghhh" every time the trail turned and we didn't see the finish. I took a slow step just before the last bend as my hamstring cramped one last time, and he beat me by two seconds or something.
But the death march ended eventually, which is when it really started pouring again (or maybe I just noticed it again then). Some friends were waiting and taking photos, and they hand you a Snickers bar for crossing the line. I was dead, and freezing, and cramping, but also smiling. Timm ended up just five minutes behind me, which is really awesome for him. He's a tough Alaskan, what can I say?
I realize this blog makes it sound like a death march, but the story is worth it and I really did have fun, all things considered. What a gnarly course, what a tough group of people, and what an amazing place.