The short version: an absolutely amazing experience, great trail, beautiful weather, and an awesome day of running with 2 friends. I finished in 11 hours 20 minutes, and can now officially call myself an ultramarathoner!
The long version:
The race started bright and early at 6am on Saturday, about 2 hours from Anchorage, so I drove down there Friday afternoon with 2 running buddies (Ray, who I had met while running the Frosty Bottom 25 last winter, and Jonathan, a friend of Ray’s I hadn’t actually met before this) and we camped out a few miles from the trailhead. We also met up down there with Morgan who I know from Dailymile. That night was spent talking about the race and obsessing over how much gear we were carrying (“if I don’t carry that I can save 1/2 a pound”, “if I dump some water there goes 2 more pounds”…). Before bed, we took a quick trip over to the trailhead just to check things out and see who was there. The start line for the 50 miler also acted as an aid station and turnaround point for the 100 milers who had started at 3pm Friday afternoon. There’s technically only a small parking lot at the trailhead, but many people were turning it into an impromptu campground and just staying there for the night. We headed back to our campground and went to bed early in the the hopes of getting some sleep.
We had to check in for the race at 5am, so we were up at 4 to get a little bit of food in us, and to get dressed and lubed up in all the right places. Then we were headed back to the trailhead to get registered. Our “bib” consisted of a number written on the back of our hand with a black permanent marker. They made a few jokes about not calling themselves race volunteers because this isn’t a “race”. I think they’re trying to be careful about how official of an event they make this, so that they don’t have to get a permit, insurance, etc. This is also why there is no registration fee, they just ask for a donation at the end.
There was a pre-race meeting 15 minutes before the race started, which we actually missed because we were back at the car grabbing our drop bags. We were told it basically consisted of “Don’t get lost. Don’t get eaten by bears.” Standing around talking, waiting for the race to start, the most surprising thing to me was seeing the wide range of how much gear people were bringing. The first 38 miles are on a wilderness trail, and is completely unsupported with no aid stations. Most people were carrying similar to what I was – a large hydration pack that carries 80-100oz of water, and plenty of room for extra gear. There were a few people, however, that looked to be carrying nothing more than a handheld and a few gels. I guess that works fine if everything goes well and the weather doesn’t turn on you. But 38 miles is a long way, and if something happens out there, you could have a long cold walk out. I still brought my camera with me – I know I could have saved a few ounces by leaving it behind, but I decided it was well worth it to be able to capture some photos of this epic adventure!
With everyone still just standing around talking in the parking lot, we heard someone yell “GO!”, and we all quickly realized that was the start. The 4 of us held back a bit, knowing we’d be near the back of the pack. We had talked the night before and decided to shoot for 11-12 hours. We knew this would be a relatively easy pace, but that 50 miles is a long way, and that we’d have plenty of time to speed up later in the race if we were feeling up to it. Within probably the first 6-8 miles, Morgan ended up dropping back and running with a group of 2 other women, so it was just Ray, Jonathan and myself from there on out.
Looking back at where we came from, partway up the climb to the pass. Juneau Lake is in the far background.
The skies were clear, and we could tell from early on that it was shaping up to be an absolutely beautiful day. Which of course is both a blessing and a curse, because we knew it would be getting hot as the day wore on. The early miles ticked by pretty quickly, moving at an easy pace, taking short walking breaks from time to time, and walking any of the decent hills. As we neared the pass, we knew we had some of the biggest climbs of the day coming up. We were also running into a fair amount of cow parsnip, which if you’re not familiar, is pretty nasty stuff. It is found across the U.S., but is especially prevelent in Alaska. There is an enzyme that is secreted from the stalks that when it gets on your skin, interacts with the UV light from the sun, and can burn and even blister your skin. There were a number of sections of trail with large stalks of cow parsnip leaning across, forcing you to slow down and pick your path carefully, but there’s still only so much you can do. There were numerous stream crossings, which we used to wash off our arms and legs after going through some of these sections.
Finding our way through the cow parsnip.
Speaking of stream crossings, we put a number of these to good use. As the day wore on and it got warmer, I found myself drinking more and more and needing to refill more often than I had anticipated. At the last minute, Ray decided not to bring his water filter (saving himself a whole pound). I did have iodine pills, but that takes a fair amount of time and effort to treat the water, add drink mix to mask the taste, wait 30 minutes, then drink. The streams were all clear and moving quickly, and we were thirsty and tired, so we decided to just drink straight from the streams. It also felt great to splash the cold water over our head and face.
The only patch of snow we had to cross all day.
Approaching the pass…and getting ready to pass someone!
There’s really only one place along the trail where you could make a wrong turn. Coming up to Resurrection Pass, there’s an alternate pass called Devil’s Pass that branches off the main trail. We were told repeatedly “don’t go to Devil’s Pass”, so I knew to avoid it, but I wasn’t sure how obvious the correct trail would be. Well, it became very obvious when we reached that point, as there were actually 2 volunteers stationed there making sure nobody went the wrong way. It was an older couple that looked like they had hiked in the day before and camped overnight. I was surprised to see this considering the size of the race, but definitely thankful.
It felt good to reach the pass, which is actually only at 2600 ft, but it was still good to know we had reached the high point for the day. At that point we were above the treeline and had some really amazing views. There was little snow up there, in fact we only ran across one small patch all day. I had decided to leave my Garmin home, knowing the battery wouldn’t last the entire run. Luckily, it turned out that Ray had a Garmin 910 (with 20 hours of battery life!), so we had a pretty good idea of where we were all day. We passed the marathon mark around 5 hours 45 minutes, and hit 50k around 7 hours. Those last few miles on the trail were getting long. I was getting tired, and really looking forward to hitting the 38 mile aid station and being able to ditch my pack.
We finally reached the end of the trail and the mile 38 aid station after about 8 1/2 hours, and were met by roaring applause from the crowd. Ok, maybe it was just a couple of friendly aid station volunteers and Ray and Jonathan’s families (I had told my wife not to bother and just meet me at the end, though I kind of regretted that). It felt great to drop my hydration pack and put on just a waistpack. I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon while one of volunteers refilled my bottle. Not knowing how I’d be feeling at this point, I had packed quite a bit in my drop bag, including a fresh set of clothes and shoes. At that moment, I was actually feeling pretty good, and in my haste to get moving again, didn’t take much with me (spoiler alert: BIG MISTAKE). I had one 24oz bottle with water, a Clif bar, and 2 gels.
Our original plan was to stick together during the first 38 miles on trail, and then we’d just wait and see how we all felt after that. Leaving the aid station, we ran down several miles of gravel road that was mostly level. Jonathan dropped back a bit while me and Ray pushed on ahead. At one point Ray looked at his Garmin and we were doing something like 8:30 miles! I never would have guessed I’d be able to run that pace after 40 miles. But then came THE HILL.
From mile 41-49, it’s basically 4 miles up a really big hill, hit the last aid station at mile 45, then 4 miles back down. I was still running with Ray at the start of the climb, but he soon started pulling away from me. This is where my not grabbing much from my drop bag came back to haunt me. I was quickly running out of energy, and moving very slowly up this hill. I was starting to get pretty light-headed and at a few points not even walking quite straight. At this point I was also nearly out of water and I knew I had probably 2 miles left to go to the top of the hill. Luckily, Jonathan’s wife had offered to take my drop bag, as they were going to leap-frog us a bit on this last section and offer support. Just as I was at my lowest point, she showed up and I was able to refill my water bottle and get the Mountain Dew and Payday out of my drop bag. These are things I would normally never eat, but I’d read in a number of places that they can really hit the spot late in an ultra – and oh boy were they right!
Quickly feeling revitalized, I was able to pick up the pace and actually passed 2 people on the last part of the climb. It was an amazing feeling to reach that last aid station at the top of the hill. I grabbed a bit of Gatorade to drink, along with some chips and M&M’s and I was back on my way down. After having my low spot coming up the hill and slowing down considerably, Jonathan managed to catch back up to me shortly after I started back down, and we ran the rest of the way together. Even though we had 4 miles of downhill ahead of us, it was far from easy running. After 45 miles, our legs were tired, and any kind of running hurt.
After having walked pretty much the entire 4 miles up, coming back down went by pretty quickly (probably helped by having someone to run with again). We reached the bottom of the hill and were excited to know we only had 1 mile to go. We glanced back over our shoulders at this point, and saw that one of the runners I had passed on the way up wasn’t too far behind us (I later found out he was the last 100 mile finisher). We didn’t want to get passed right at the end, so we picked up the pace. There was one intersection right near the end that wasn’t clear if we were supposed to turn or go straight. Since there was no sign, we figured just keep going straight, but we were a little worried, until Jonathan spotted one of his kids up ahead waving and cheering. We made the final turn (which was clearly marked), and I could see the finish line, along with all my family cheering, just a few hundred yards away. There was a bit of a moment of shock, where it finally set in that I was about to finish my first 50 miler. I just ran 50 miles!
My 2 kids ran out to meet me, and we ran the last 100 feet or so hand-in-hand. My wife, parents, and mother-in-law were all there cheering me on as I finished, along with the volunteers and other runners who were still around. It was a great moment. Jonathan and I finished in 11 hours 20 minutes, right within our original goal time of 11-12 hours. Ray must have had quite a burst of energy right at the end, because in just those last few miles after he pulled away from me, he put considerable distance between us, finishing in 10 hours 56 minutes.
All in all, I was really surprised by how good I felt all day. I was certainly getting tired near the end, but other than that brief low point I hit going up the last big hill, I had pretty even energy all day, and my legs were still feeling (relatively) good. Leading up to this race, I totally expected my legs to feel thrashed by the time we reached the mile 38 aid station, but that definitely wasn’t the case. I felt better immediately after this race than I did after Mayor’s Marathon last month. I’m also happy to report that I didn’t have a single problem with my feet – no blisters or anything! Full credit for that goes to Bodyglide, my Injinji socks, and Altra Lone Peaks.
The whole day really was amazing, and in all honesty, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for my first 50 miler. Big thanks to Jonathan and Ray (and their wives) for helping to make it such a great day! And an extra big shout out to all the awesome volunteers!
P.S. – if you want to read a race report from someone who totally smoked this race, check out AK Runner Dude.