Chena River to Ridge: The 25.9 mile JV Race
Most years I like to mix things up and do something different, otherwise the same old same old thing gets so redunant that I want to just pick up my Fischer Carbonlites and throw them in a pile to burn. Or at least sell them off at a ski swap. But that would make things too easy to my rivals, so I keep looking for ways to keep it interesting. I'd been thinking of doing the Chena River to Ridge race, the 25 mile short version, for the past month but didn't want to commit to the entry until I had returned from Tour of Anchorage. Would the weather be decent, like above zero for the most part, no 3 foot blizzard? Do I even feel up for it, coming just a week off my main event of the year (even if I was less than jazzed about it, and the race was shorted by a half)?
I checked in on the Endurance North/Race website on Wednesday morning and it looked like they were booked up, so I just planned on doing a long 3 hour ski at Birch Hill on Saturday. I emailed some friends on Friday and found that there was still and opening or two for the Chena River to Ridge, so what the heck.
Waxed up with Six LF4/LF3 cold powder and drove out on the sketchy Chena Hot Springs road: 99-100% ice pack for 25 miles. "Racing" per se wasn't really in my plan. Looking at the list it appeared that my friend Jim and I would be at or near the front, so maybe we could ski together. First time on these trails, and I haven't even really toured much since moving to Alaska a decade ago. Other than good endurance workout and the opportunity to take in some scenery, my biggest goal was not to take a wrong turn and end up in Circle or something.
We took the lead right out of the parking lot and onto the narrow snowmachine trail, jockeying back and forth with bikes and a runner for the first several miles. Not much beyond Colorado Creek Cabin we passed the bikes on the long incline from mile 6 to 9. The trail was good, and I could even stride out some without too much side slipping. Kick wax (Toko binder with four layers of Swix Green) was perfect, good glide and just the right mount of bite to make it up the ridge (almost 2000 feet above the valley floor from where we had started). The pace was pretty easy, and we were not making any speed records; averaging about 10 minutes a mile for the first 10 or 11 miles. The only hitch was that the zipper on my right boot kept dropping and icing up, and my big toe on that foot was rubbing, and I knew I'd have blister. These issues would come back 12-15 miles later.
Once we got to near the ridge top, we were able to glide along pretty well, more like 6-8 min miles on average, while we wound along the contour of the ridge and made our way to the aid station, which was a hoot. A couple crusty older guys (well my age at least) who had set up a camp with pots and food and burners. I took in some hot (too hot!) Tang and a Gu, and after a 2-3 min pit stop we were off on the descent. And the pace quickened, both because of the terrain and the effort. Still I was within myself and having fun.
Two moderate climbs of a few minutes each over the last ridge and then we'd have smooth sailing. Or so I thought.
I took one more Gu at about 2:30 into the race (~20 miles), and then it all started to unravel. I wanted a drink, but unlike earlier on when we slowed down and waited for each other, Jim was forging ahead and not looking back. Meanwhile, both boots had unzipped on the miles of descent and were now too frozen to zip up again. So I kept pushing, just 5 or 6 seconds back, figure I'd catch him at the crest. Poof, he double poled over the top and was 100 yards ahead by time I had reached the same spot!
Oh, so I guess this IS a race after all.
I made my way down those switch backs but with wobbly boots had to go kind of easy on the turns, and even hit the end of a fallen tree on one banked turn--caught my shoulder as I skidded around. Luckily it missed my face and was just glancing blow. I got to the bottom of the descent (~22.5 miles) and was a little bleary and getting weary. The longest I ever ski or run is 3 hours (Equinox was 3:17 last year), and I was heading into the zone where I don't often tread. Only 3 Gus downed and about a quart of fluid. I stopped and finished off my Tang-Heed mixture and then trudged slowly back. Probably 8-9 minute miles at that point, not a total bonk, but I didn't have the energy, nor the desire to push beyond that. I could see Jim's tracks and he was marathon skating. I tried some, but with my boots in disarray and toe hurting more I figured it wasn't worth the effort.
At times I was just hoping that I was still on the right trail--the course has the minimum of signs and no flagging. But I knew I was going in the right direction and paralleling the highway. With a slight headwind too, this was the most unpleasant section of the course and it seemed to take an eternity.
My Garmin said 25.9 miles when I finished. 3:34. I went straight to the medical tent to take off those boots and socks (now packed with ice and snow), but beyond losing the skin off the bottom of that one toe I was fine. Got a little assistance with that. It will affect my running for a few days, but skiing seems fine.
Overall they have good little event going there. It's really nice to get away from Birch Hill. I'd like to see a little more signage and maybe one more aid station on that loop, but these events are put on by the hard core--21st century Sourdoughs--who do 100 milers to warm up for the 300 to 1000 mile wilderness treks. I'll stick to the JV event, but next time (and I'd like to come back) there will be no slowing down in the first half, and I'll fix that pesky boot problem.
I'll give the event an A.