Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Part 2: Juneau - Alaska Ultrarunning

After my week in Anchorage, I flew to Juneau to take part in the Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. The camp is a six night, five day run fest along ridges, snowfields, marshes, and rainforests. It was a blast, to say the least. I pretty much blew my entire entertainment budget for the summer on this trip, but it was well worth it.

I actually went on vacation to Alaska last summer, as well. The trip left me wanting more, and I was a little bummed that I didn’t get more running in during my stay. I was recovering from a hard 50M race effort during the stay and, to be honest, I was a bit intimidated to go running around Alaska without knowing the area too well.

I had met Geoff, the founder of the Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp, last fall while he was living in Boulder. When I heard that he was going to hold these camps, I was pretty excited - he’d be a great guide to show me around one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. I filled out the application, wrote the deposit, set it on my desk at work, and awaited the results from the Hardrock 100 lottery. Upon rejection, I mailed in my deposit for running camp. Seven months later I was at the camp.

The day I arrived in Juneau, I had time to do the sightseeing thing. Here is a black bear that is terrible at fishing

The 'world famous' Mendelhall Glacier.

I could seriously write ten pages of highlights from the trip, but I’m going to let pictures do most of the talking. The experience was amazing. We stayed at a great cabin right on the bay with a view that I still daydream about a month later. Additionally, Geoff and his girlfriend provided us with copious amounts of delicious food - I actually gained weight on the trip. I got tons of cool running gear, as well.

Getting familiar with our surroundings on the first night of camp with Randy. (Photo: Damien)

The Juneau running scene is quite cool. There’s a tight knit group of runners of all ages, each of whom can hold his own on some pretty insane terrain. One of the more entertaining members of this group is a 73 year old man named Glen. Dude can run, and is so full of life. If I manage to be half as active as he is at that age, I’d be pretty happy.

My ‘campmates’ were also an awesome group of people that I am sure I will stay in contact with for quite a while. We’ve already planned our first reunion for later this year. A big shout out to my friend Randito who just finished Leadville 100 a week ago.

The itinerary for each day pretty much went like this:

8:30 am: Wake up and eat
9-10 am: Chill and eat snacks
10:30 am: Go running somewhere awesome for several hours
3, 4, 5 pm: Trailhead beer
5 pm: Chill, have beers and snacks
7 pm: Eat an awesome dinner
8 pm: Chill, have beers and snacks
Midnight: Go to bed

I ended up banking 84 miles of running over the five days. Considering the lack of running I had done before my trip and the recent race, that 84 miles was about all my body could handle. I was in heaven though, and I wasn’t about to take it easy and miss out on anything.

Sunset, from the deck.

Here’s a quick rundown of each day:

Day 1: 17M - Ran up a valley along a crap load of slippery planks to a cabin. Bushwacked across a spongy marsh led by a 73 year old man for several miles. Ran at a decent clip down a different river valley to the car and beers.

The impeccable tour guide, Glen, pretending to be lost. (Photo: Damien)

A bunch of runners hanging out in an awesome valley. (Photo: Damien)

Day 2: 17M - Ran straight up Mount Roberts, then proceeded to traverse a rocky, snowy ridge with breathtaking views for several miles. The last peak of the day was Mt. Olds, the highest and most technical peak of my entire trip. We descended on snow, then slippery plants, and ran back to the cars on the Perseverance Trail. I didn’t want this day to end. I would have run until I couldn’t anymore - the place was simply amazing. Also, I had a great time watching Randy, who hadn’t seen snow in several years.

We ran the entirety of the ridge you can see in this picture. Mt. Olds on the far left.

Me. On top of some mountain. I think that's the Roberts ridge in the background.

Brian, John and Randy contemplating the best route back to the car.

We ran down into that valley eventually. (Photo:Damien)

Randy getting his snow legs. A bit different than running in Tuscon.

Day 3: 10M - “Recovery” run on a crushed gravel trail. We ran out to a glacier and back, followed by brunch. This was kind of our rest day. We went into town, ate some fudge and judged cruise ship tourists.

Me and my campmates.

Day 4: 26M - Totally unplanned. The group split into two groups and half drove up to a ski resort and we did the whole car shuttle thing, where each group ran to the cars left by the other group. I was in the group that was going to run up to the ski resort. I took a different route that went over some peak with a fellow named Dan. Dan is awesome. He loves hunting and mushroom picking and bush-whacking and running down hills really fast. We got to the car and nobody was there, so we decided to run down the trail until we found people. That ended up being a couple miles. We were both feeling good and kind of feeding off each other, and decided it made sense to keep running down to just finish our run at the pizza place for dinner with the rest of the group. I love finishing runs at functional destinations, especially ones that sell beer. Although the weather was sketchy, and the scenery wasn’t the best, this was my favorite run of the trip. I just felt so fulfilled afterwards. I had scrapes all over my body from falling in Devil’s Club and thrashing through raspberry bushes, and I was soaked to the bone, but it made me feel all the more satisfied with the day’s effort.

Home. For the week.

Day 5: 14M - Juneau Ridge. I’ll admit, I was tired to start this run. It was a lot like Day 2, but on the other side of the valley and the weather wasn’t quite as perfect. I was straggling a bit on the climb and the traverse of the ridge. Once we hit the down, however, I decided to crank it. Geoff came flying by and I tried my best (and failed) to keep up. As he passed by, he told me to just go and not worry about falling (there was no trail, just snow and rocks). I kind of had a breakthrough with my downhill running during the next stretch. I’ve decided downhill running is 95% mental. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It’s actually 0% mental. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that the key to running downhill fast is to disengage your brain and just let it happen. Stop looking at your feet, and concentrate on moving your legs as fast as possible. Some other part of your brain is much better at figuring out where your feet need to go than you are.

On top of Mt. Juneau (Photo: Damien)

Typical ridge trail (Photo:Damien)

Yep. I was a tired, but happy camper at the TH after the last day of running.

Anyway... the run was followed by a trip to the Alaska Brewery and a picnic out on the bay where we grilled up fresh salmon and drank the night away.

Ultrarunners, doing what ultrarunners do.

Brent and Tamara. New friends enjoying some beers on the last night of camp.

More beers, salmon, and good company.

Day 6: I had to wake up at 4 am, say my goodbyes, and board a plane back to Colorado. It was hard to do. I really miss Alaska.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Alaska 2011

I recently got to spend nearly two weeks in Alaska. While I'm totally out of vacation time, it was absolutely worth it. I spent the first week in the Anchorage area and the second in the Juneau area, where I participated in the Alaska Mountain Ultra running camp. I'm going to divide the trip into two posts: one for the Anchorage portion and the other for the Juneau portion.

Part 1: Anchorage

I decided to visit Anchorage for several reasons: to visit my good high school friend, Scott, to visit my friends Jess and Dave (Popes), and to participate in the Crow Pass Crossing race.

I technically got in on a Friday morning (at 2am). Jess and Popes graciously hosted me for the week, and we started off my vacation with a pasta feed the night before the Crow Pass Crossing. They invited quite a few friends over, and we drank beer, played kitchen Pong and I got some advice about the next morning’s race. Namely, I was to beware of a sneaky tree located about three miles from the end of the race.

Crow Pass Crossing

(Jess and Popes posted a quick report on the day with some photos on their blog. I'm gonna steal a picture or two and give a couple additional details).

The race director was an interesting fellow. Not very encouraging, I guess I'd say. He tried pretty hard to convince people not to run the race. He told us that every year things happen in this race that will permanently change the lives of a few racers (injuries, animal attacks, etc.)

In my opinion, this race is AMAZING. It has almost anything you could want in a trail race: a huge climb, a mountain pass (surrounded by glaciers), a 30-yard glacial stream crossing, stiff competition and extremely technical trails. Check out some photos (photo #7 in particular).

On that note, I fell twice during the race. Once was about a mile after the pass on a steep downhill. I caught my toes on a rock and tried to catch myself, but quickly realized it wasn't gonna happen. I assumed a mid-air fetal position, did a tuck and roll, and landed back on my feet relatively unscathed. It was probably the most fun fall I've ever taken.

The second fall wasn't as fun. You probably know where I'm going with this - I ran straight into that damn tree I’d been warned about. I was running along the river where the trail got really close to the bank - one second I was watching my feet and the next second I was on my A$$. I hit my head and slightly chipped my tooth. It took me several seconds to realize what had happened. It really seemed like someone had jumped out of nowhere and hit me in the head with a bat. As I got up and started running again, I saw the guy behind me do the exact same thing, expelling a few expletives in the process.

I also got to forge through a glacial stream about halfway through the race. It was awesome, as it numbed the legs for a few miles.

I bonked the last four miles or so, and got passed by a lot of people. I finished in something like 3hr 53min for the 23-25 mile course. (I love races where nobody actually knows how far they are).

There was a nice cheering section near the finish (thanks ladies). Jess came to the finish line to check on me and ask if I was okay. I told her I was tired and a bit dehydrated, but otherwise in good shape, to which she replied,

"You're bleeding from your head."

Turns out I got a nice souvenir from the race - a scar on my forehead. Here's hoping I never go bald!

Popes ran the race as well. He's an animal. He did phenomenal for a 'beginner' trail runner. If he trained like a 'serious' runner it would be scary the things he could accomplish.
Popes and me looking great after the race

Bumming Around Anchorage

After the race, I spent a few days generally bumming around the Anchorage area. I caught up with Scott for some hiking, beers, and pizza. He put the hard sell on me to moving to Anchorage and, I have to admit, it is intriguing. I love the city and the easy access to remote wilderness. You can be in the middle of nowhere in about a 10 minute drive.

By some lake on an evening hike with Scott

Short Backpacking Trip to Ships Lake

On Tuesday I finally motivated to go on a relatively short (6-7 miles each way) backpacking trip to a small lake in the Chugach State Park. I essentially started from a trail head in a small suburb of Anchorage, but within a mile or two of hiking, I was all by myself. I hiked up tundra and rocks to the top of Ships Lake Pass, where I could see Ships Lake maybe 3/4 of a mile away and 1,500 feet below. I turned around and I could actually see Anchorage and the bay.

Map of the area. I never did see Hidden Lake.

There are two relatively decent peaks on either side of the pass: The Ramp and The Wedge. These peaks are only about 5,000 feet high, but to the Colorado eye, they seem like 14ers. This is likely due to the fact that treeline is at roughly 2,500 feet.

Ships Pass in the middle. The ramp on the Left.

The weather was a little funky and The Ramp was covered in clouds, so I decided to drop pack and hop over to the top of The Wedge to take in the scenery. Afterwards, I picked up my pack and toppled down the steep slope to Ships Lake. I had camp set up by 5:30, and since it wasn't going to get dark for another five hours, I decided to make an attempt at climbing Mt. Willawaw, the highest peak in the "front range."

Anchorage from the top of The Wedge
Ships Lake from the top of the pass

I packed up some snacks and made my way down the creek that ran from Ships Lake, intending to scramble up a drainage along the ridge to Mt. Willawaw. I'm not an expert on bear safety, by any means, but with the creek, thick willow cover, and just a general feeling, I decided that my route was looking like a nice place for a bear to hang out. I figured if I made some noise to let any bears in the area know I was there, I'd be in good shape. I debated... should I whistle? Talk to myself? Sing? I decided on singing. Now I had to think of a song. I am embarrassed to say that the first song that came to mind was Party Rock Anthem. Not ten seconds after I started singing, a huge-ass brown bear came barreling down the exact drainage I was targeting for my ascent. I guess bears don't like LMFAO. I don't blame them - they’re pretty awful. This bear was at least 75 yards away, and while it wasn't like I was about to be eaten or anything, I was definitely scared sh!tless. After standing in fear for a few seconds, I decided the best course of action was to turn around and go back to camp while continuing my wonderful serenade. It was all pretty pathetic.

I made some dinner next to the lake while watching some beavers swim around in circles. I then retreated to my tent to await being eaten by a bear.

While eating dinner I stared in this direction, waiting for a bear to come over the horizon

I survived the night. In the morning I was still too wussy to attempt another trip over to Mt. Willawaw, so I gathered up my stuff and grunted up to the top of the pass again. It was easily the hardest hour of backpacking I’d ever encountered. I had to stop several times to take breaks. During one break, I took my pack off and it started rolling back down the steep hill. I wouldn't recommend trying to pack up a 40% grade, ever. Once I finally made it to the top of the pass, I decided to go to the top of The Ramp to make up for missing the Willawaw summit. It was a fun class 2+ scramble, but the visibility was marginal at the top.

The view I was treated to in the morning

Once I got back to the pass it was a quick 90 minutes back to the car, followed by some beers and more hiking with Scott before heading to the airport on Thursday morning to start the second part of my adventure in Juneau.

To be continued...