4,700 ft of decent, 3,500 ft of elevation gain, 140 participants, 24 miles, 1/2 dozen snow fields, 6 hours, 1 river crossing, 1 checkpoint, and no aid stations, this is the Crow Pass Crossing race. Every year on the 3rd weekend in July for the past 29 years racers tow the starting line of what has become an iconic Alaskan back country mountain race.
This was my 3rd start for what was an attempt at my 2nd finish. I started in 2008 but got lost in thick fog coming down the backside of the pass so I didn't finish within the 6 hour cutoff. Last year I got my redemption and came across the finish line in 5:04. The race used to be 2 weeks before the Resurrection Pass 50 and 100 milers, but over the past few years the race directors have moved the dates around so now Crow Pass falls just 1 week prior to the Resurrection Pass races, which means that I really shouldn't be running such a demanding race a week out from my 50 miler. However, this takes us down a road of tapering and training plans and the different philosophies, ideas, and theories behind them that I won't really go into. But as an example some people believe in a 3-4 taper while others believe that the last hard run should be a week before a big race. Either way, I enjoy this race so much I just couldn't resist staying away, especially since I was only running 50 miles (go ahead and roll your eyes, or laugh, or call my crazy with that comment) the week after, as apposed to 100.
Almost every Wednesday evening since May my runs consisted of at least 2,000 ft of climbing in no more than than 5 miles. I did this in preparation for both Crow Pass and Resurrection Pass and also as a form of cross training and just because climbing up mountains has also become terribly fun. This, coupled with long trail runs on the weekend, meant that I felt I should definitely be able to break 5 hours and get a PR without really having to push myself too hard and pay the price a week later.
The race starts at 7 AM with check in from 6 - 6:30. We arrived at the trail head at 6 AM and proceeded to check in with the RD. Off and on for the next hour until the race start rain came down hard at times, leaving most racers wet and cold before starting. The race starts on the road then goes about an 1/8 mile through the parking lot before hitting the trail head, this means that there is always a bottleneck at the trail head. I lined up just behind the middle of the pack in hopes of being pushed up the climb by those around me. I felt with my training I would be strong up the climb so I wanted to take advantage of this as the race goes up over 2,000 ft in the first 3 miles. This plan was working well until I realized I tied my shoes way too loose and needed to stop about halfway up to fix the lacing. At this point I got passed by several people and more importantly ended up behind people slower than me at a place on the trail where I was unable to pass them. This probably cost me a few minutes up the pass but I was still able to make to the races only checkpoint in 46 minutes (well within the 1 hr cutoff) which was a full 10 minutes faster than last year (the leaders make it there in about 34 minutes)..
We crested the 3,500 ft pass and were met with high winds with cold and painful pounding rain mixed in. The next 10 miles down the pass and through the valley towards the river turned out to be some very tough miles, by far the worst in the 3 times I have ran the race. We had to cross several hard packed snow fields, faced very overgrown trails, more cold rain, lots of large and wet rocks, and plenty of mud. I probably fell 10 times on my way to the river which included one bad spill on a snow field that left me muddy and scraped up.
I ended up catching another runner just as we arrived at the river crossing in 2 hours and 33 minutes. I was really hoping I would hit the river around the 2:15 mark but the rough trail really slowed me down. I adjusted my pack prior to crossing the river and watched the racer in front of me forge ahead. The river crossing can be tricky. First of all, the river is ice cold due to being glacier fed so your legs go numb after about 10 seconds, but that also feels good in a way. The crossing is not 1/4 wide as the race organizers advertise, the entire river crossing area may be 1/4 mile wide, but the really deep part is probably only 50 meters. We had several 70+ degree days this week which mean the river would most likely be high. I knew this was the case as I saw the racer in front of me who is about 6' 5" had the river go up to his waste at one point.
I made it through the river without incident and pushed ahead. After taking a bad spill on some rocks and scraping up my leg just after the river I caught up to the racer whom I was behind just a few minutes before. He ended up being a guy named Greg who I later found out was the 50 mile winner at Resurrection Pass last year. We ran together for what must have been well over an hour. Chatting at times and at other times just running quietly. The trail from the river to the nature center is mostly run-able with just a few technical sections and is essentially flat, so I knew I could try and pick up some time on the second half. I used Greg as my pacer as he was running at a slightly faster pace than I would have. I walked a small section to eat a gel about 5 miles from the finish and ended up hitting my head pretty hard on a fallen tree. I walked for a few more minutes to make sure I was okay and then decided to run it out (I ran the last 2.1 miles in 19 minutes).
I knew the last section of the trail fairly well and made a mental choice to run into the finish without doing any walking despite a few rocky sections and some short uphills. The last 3 miles I ended up passing 4 people, including someone in the last mile, I attribute this to my 50 mile training as my endurance was still going strong. I looked at my watch and realized I would be really close to finishing in 4:45, I just kept running and tried to stay strong until the end. I came across the line in 4:45.46 for 82nd place (120 finishers, 100 of those male), a PR by about 18 minutes! On a side note my GPS said 22 miles with a 12:56 average mile (the is advertised at 24 miles but the trail changes every year depending on snow and other conditions, plus there is a high and low side of the trail for a few miles on the second half that changes the distance slightly as well)..
This race is always a humbling experience, and this year was no different. I fell probably a dozen times including 2 pretty rough falls, I hit my head on a tree pretty hard, got hit in the face several times with tree branches, took a branch stub to the shoulder, was at times covered in mud up to mid shin, basically the trail had its way with me. But, I am feeling pretty good this morning with just a little soreness and stiffness, and will head out for a 4 mile run to loosen things up later today. Then this week is just a few small and easy runs to keep everything loose before the big race this weekend. Overall, a good day on a fun, but quite challenging, trail.