These high on vertical, low on lateral foot races are a big deal in Alaska, with several events so popular they are lottery entry only, and easily fill to capacity.
I’ve always admired the racers, and been a follower of some of the more popular events, keeping tabs on who is doing well, who is poised to strike a big win, sets a record, etc. That being said, I’ve never had a strong interest in competing.
Running is something I actually really enjoy. Aside from being a highly practical and economic work out, it’s one of the few workouts I do where I find my mind can just wander. I come back from runs feeling refreshed in a way I just don’t get on most bike rides.
The last few autumns I’ve been doing more overland “mountain” running in the Chugach, and, aside from the fact that I really enjoy it as an off-season activity, I noticed that when it came to going uphill, I was pretty descent.
This last point shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m fairly small, which gives me an advantage in just about any uphill-oriented activity; but it also doesn’t hurt that the muscle mechanics of backcountry skiing and pedaling a bike lend themselves well to steep foot travel.
After this winter’s Tour of Anchorage and Kachemak Nordic Marathon, I decided I should give competitive mountain running a try this spring, before the mountain bike race season began in earnest.
Aside from suspecting that I would do OK, I also expected that mountain running would provide a flavor of competition I embrace.
I like events where I’m going head to head with others, pushing myself to keep up or keep ahead. If the race ends just a wheel length, ski length, or maybe a foot fall, in front or behind someone, I got my money’s worth.
The bell curve for results in these races, particularly the shorter uphill-only ones, is tightly packed.
As excited as I was to give this all a try this spring, I did not directly train for these events in any way. In fact, I ran less this spring than I have in the last 10 years or so due to some scheduling stuff; though I was road biking a normal amount, and had good carry-over fitness from Nordic.
The first event I signed up for was Kals Knoya Ridge. The race starts a short walk from a secluded subdivision at the corner of Muldoon and Tudor, and is pretty informal. The short of it: I placed 9th of 59 in the “Original Dome” course, running the 3.5 miles and 2,900 vertical feet in 50:25.
Not surprisingly, I loved it. I was quite happy with my time too. Without much for reference, I was hoping for about an hour.
I was also quite happy with my choice to run the “Original” course, as opposed to the “Full Monty,” which follows the original course, and then continues upward along the ridgeline toward Knoya Peak, for a total of 5.3 miles and 4,300 feet of vertical. Veterans tell me the longer event rolls along seemingly endlessly. I think if I wanted a better idea of how I stacked up against my age bracket peers, I would have found a better answer in the longer distance, but, common, this was my first time, and, as I’m coming to learn, having a good race doesn’t just mean signing up for the biggest and the baddest option. Maybe I’ll try the Full Monty in the future. TBD.
The highlight of the event was undoubtedly having some great comradery with Nathan and Rob, who were both trying out this mountain run thing too. It was good to have friends to share anxieties with at the start line, and war stories with on the walk/jog back down.
Also, we all faced a brief but raging snow and hail squall on the final push to the top. It sure made those last punishing minutes very real.
Don’t start in the back
Rob, Nathan, and I all kind of agreed: we didn’t want to be “that guy” who starts too close to the front, and causes a traffic jam, so we all started in the back. All three of us learned pretty quick into the run, we should have given ourselves more credit. All of us spent a good portion of the event having to barge through the emerging devils club to pass long conga lines of runners. On the upside, we all agreed it kept our pacing pretty chill down low along the rolling and flat sections. It was rare that I felt like I could push the pace much faster along most the flat sections, certainly not fast enough to make aggressive passes. I reserved my passing mostly to the short up hills lower down, and occasionally on flats or rolling terrain if someone started to let a gap open up in front of them. I was only passed once the entire time in Knoya, and I had just passed the guy. It’s a nice morale booster to do all the passing, but, not good strategy. Higher up in the race I began to catch up with more runners going a pace closer to mine, but, I still did a lot of passing every time the course pointed upward.
At the finish, there was basically no question, I had a blast! I wished it was a bit more of a “race,” but I felt really good with my effort overall.
The next event was Government Peak. Starting at the Government Peak Rec Area, the course climbs about 3,700 vertical feet in 2.5 miles according to my Garmin. I finished 1:00:28; 38th/105 overall; 8th in age class.
Compared to Kals, this event felt brutal! The weather was practically the opposite from Kals: mid 60s, sunny, and a light breeze. Quite nice really. Government also started in three, self-seeded waves. I placed myself in wave 1, for racers who thought they could finish in under an hour. This seemed reasonable to me based on the previous week’s run, though I knew it would take work. I did not want to get stuck in the back again.
The race went out pretty fast considering what we had on our plate. I just held my own on the short approach. There were a few quick broken climbs early on and I made a few moves. There was a lot of jostling going on. People who went too hard on the lower flats were suddenly dropping back, and people who had better uphill legs were scooting up.
Then the course hits an endless Alaskan mountain wall. A bulk load of the vertical route is really steep scrambling, hand over hand, grab an alder, grab a root, grab a rock.
It’s endless, and it’s steep.
I was sitting in with two dudes who were probably going just a tad slower than I could, but not enough to justify a risky pass. One or two speedy climbers were able to scramble through, but positioning was pretty static.
There were very few short flats through the steeps, footing was unsure, and my lower back was complaining loudly. Also, my right foot was growing increasingly numb. I tried to pick up a jog any time there was a flat, but between my foot and back, it was uncomfortable, and the pitch would go so steep again that I could not carry an momentum.
Eventually the course hits the more rolling alpine ridge.
This is where the true climbers separated themselves, and despite my hopes, I was not amongst them. I know the exact point where my biking and skiing muscles had given me what they could. I remember realizing, in almost horror, that the fitness freeride was over.
I power-paced the endless ridgeline, trying to focus on form, and recruiting strength by channeling skinning and biking technique wherever possible.
Efficiency allowed me to pick off a couple others, but overall, I watched the nose of the race pull farther and farther ahead. I could not summon the power to jog, even though the gradient was generally low enough I probably could have we it not for the effort dumped out on the wall below.
Right near the finish, two guys behind me punched it, and though I didn’t have much left to contest, I took the bait and punch it too, getting pipped two spots. I felt physically destroyed.
A friend asked if my bikes were going to get jealous of my sneakers?
I think for now the answer is safely: no.
I really had fun in Kals, but, I also think I learned in Government, that the former was a fitness free ride. Government kicked my bike-pedaling butt.
In both events, one thing I noticed, was that while those around me were very often sucking air, I rarely found myself breathing hard, comparatively. My legs were giving it their all, but they weren’t asking for more than my heart and lungs were ready to provide. It’s typically quite the opposite for me in full-on bike races, where my legs will outstrip cardio.
Another lightbulb I had go off in Government was: “why am I paying money to run up this mountain, when I can run up any mountain in Alaska for free?”
The answer of course, is obvious: it’s a race. But I guess, when I had that thought, it no longer felt like one to me. I was slammed. I was just surviving. If I beat someone, it wasn’t really because I had more skill or cunning, was actually faster; they just hurt more than I did.
It was pretty clear that running uphill is a more of a 1:1 activity in terms of fitness returns. You get what you put in.
You can get strong on a bike by training a lot, and turn pedals like a machine; but if you can’t handle the bike, at least in mountain biking, you’ll just be a machine that crashes into trees.
I think Kals will stay on my calendar going forward, and I’am hoping to revist competitive uphill running in fall if it avails itself, but whether I do Government again, or sign on for mid-summer races – this season or next – remains somewhere between “we’ll see” and “probably not.”
As for competitive trail running…that was never really an interest from the beginning, and certainly, this did not spark any interest. I just hung on through flats in these two courses.
Not surprisingly, I had some broader takeaways and learnings.
Don’t start in the back
OK, so, I didn’t know how Knoya was going to go, being my first running race ever, but I won’t make that mistake again. I would not start on the front row either, but, I think it’s fair to say that, I should at least be close enough to the front to see the leaders. At government, there could be some logic to starting in wave 2, in that, and if you’re on the tail end of the wave 1 seeding like me, you might be able to get a little more freedom to maneuver through the steeps and run your own pace.
Passing seemed tricky.
It felt difficult to ludicrous to pass in both races. I got the sense in Knoya that passing just doesn’t happen a lot in general. People settle out and dig in. Since I was clearly too far back in that race, I had to make endless passes.
Sometimes something like this happens in bike racing due to a mechanical or because a faster group will lap a slower group. Other riders are often all too eager to get out of the way, and at times, I’ve had to tell a rider I’ve caught to just chill out, and let me around at safe spot for both of us: they don’t need to throw themselves into the devils club!
In this case, it felt rather the opposite, particularly at Government.
It felt like passing involved mandatory devils club bashing, saying “on your left” was an inconvenience,” and in some cases, a little elbowing and shoulder bumping was required. Early on in Knoya, passing was swift, and mostly relegated to the short hills, where I would pass up to 5 people in as little as 20 feet. I wasn’t too concerned since they were usually going really slow as soon as they hit a hill.
Later on in Knoya, and for most of Government, I found that I really had to say something if I wanted the pass to go smoothly, or provide a gentle tap on an elbow. If all else failed, it was time to get pushy. It struck me that, given the sometimes sketchy footing, it was safer for both of us to facilitate a smooth pass, than fight for a narrow trail, but several times it came down to the later.
Conversely, at Government, I had a handful runners come charging up behind me. I could quite literally hear them approaching – their heavy and increasingly loud breathing, their shoes drumming out a speedier tempo than those around me. Essentially, the second I had a chance, I would take a step to the side and wave them through. In a few instances, I got the sense they were almost confused, before huffing out a thanks and carrying on. It just struck me as obvious: it’s a 3,500 foot climb, if they’re going this hard halfway in, what business do I have folding them back?
Anyway, like I said, it didn’t feel malevolent, it was just clear passing etiquette is different here.
The silence is deafening.
I think one of the oddest things, was how absurdly quiet these races were. The start of a bike race is a notoriously loud and predictable chorus. First there is the clicking in as cleats are locked into pedals; then the ratcheting and clunking of shifting gears and clinking of winding chains; a brief interlude of hissing freewheels, abruptly broken by the the wailing of brake rotors as the paceline slows and files in as it hits the first single track or downhill corner and everyone speed checks.
Throughout the race there is pretty continuous mechanical clatter, along with friendly jeering and cheering, whoops and hollers, directional “lefts” “rights,” and the occasional crunching and vegetation thrashing of a crash or pile up.
In this case, people jogged through the woods in an endless pace line, and the only noise was the collective sound of heavy breathing, and of sneakers plodding over the damp spring earth.
The silence created a bit of an insanity in my head!
When I did say anything to anyone, it was always in a whisper, like we were in a theater or something. So odd.
I noticed a lot of people hunched and bunched on the steeps. It’s tempting to drop down and get low, but I found that the more upright I could stay, the more power I could draw out of my lower back and glutes, relieving stress and transferring load off my quads onto my core. Literally, the more I tried to replicate a steep skin track, the more people I passed. Not surprisingly, when the grade got so steep I had to tuck, I got myself into a bike-like position to maintain glute and lower back engagement.
I tried to run as much as possible, but when a group or a grade knocked me out of my jog and I had to walk, I swung my arms gently. It felt dumb, but as carryover from skinning technique, it also engaged my lower back, and I passed people.
Go for the ankles
Something I noticed in Kals later in the race as I cleared the endless conga lines and caught up with more racers going my pace, was that I was hitting the bases of the climbs harder than those around me. Just like I would on a bike or skis, I tried to carry momentum, whether it was actual, or just physio-mechanical, into the base of every climb, and then allow my pace to drift back down to a sustainable level as the climb continued. The result was that I would make a lot of passes near the bottom of a climb, putting distance into those behind me, and often closing gaps on those in front of me. At some point, it occurred to me that I was attacking at the ankles of all these climbs, something I can’t do on a bike since that’s where all my cohorts attack too. On a bike, if I can attack, it’s usually near the top, or, in this analogy, at the forehead, or even cresting the scalp.
I ran in a pair of $65 sneakers. These are same pair of cheap “trail running” shoes I’ve been buying once a year and running in until they blow up for at least a decade. They have enough tread for trails, and do quite well on rock. When the squall hit during Knoya, the lower portion of the course turned into a greasy mess. I was lucky I was above it and running through the rocky alpine. There were a few places higher up on Government I was envious of those with treadier shoes, but overall, they were fine. I’ve only owned one pair of true trail running shoes in my life, and they disappointed me on all fronts. If it had been muddy I would have needed something better, so I won’t say never, but, I’m glad I didn’t rush out and buy an expensive pair of kicks.