Friday, August 25, 2006

Equinox Marathon T - 22 Days

Outside of Alaska this race is practically unheard of, but here it is one of the biggies--especially in the Interior region, where local activities sometimes become larger as perceive through the provincial magnifying glass. However, this race certainly does deserve its reputation as Alaska's "oldest and toughest marathon." Indeed, the Equinox is one of the oldest and toughest marathons in North America. Founded in 1963, the race features approximately 4,000 vertical feet, mostly on rugged trails, including an 1,800 foot climb from mile 8 to 12.4 (with most of that climb from 9 to 12.4), to the "first" summit. Ironically, I find the downhill sections to be most challenging--first the "chute", at 17.1 miles, which plumits down a gravelly power line from 2,400 feet to about 1,800 in less than 1/2 mile, and then the next 8 miles drop another 1,300 feet. It is in these sections that I feel most vulnerable. The challenge with this course includes energy management and glycogen depletion, but also the ability to keep your legs moving quickly after some 2 hours of climbing and technical running.

I have been preparing for the Equinox since late June, and with only three weeks to go, all seems well. As more of a middle distance and semi-long distance runner, the marathon is somewhat beyond my comfort zone. These days I feel fairly confident racing anything from the mile through maybe 30 kilometers, but beyond that is a gamble. Nevertheless I've done the work, or as much as feasible and have averaged about 65 miles a week since June, not quite as much as I'd hoped for, but it's a solid running base on top of the cardiovascular volume accumulated during ski season. More importantly, I have been able to put in the requisite long runs throughout the summer, and by the time I start my taper in a week, I'll have logged in about eight or nine runs of 15 miles or more, including several 20 - 21 milers. In addition, I've run another eight or ten 12 to 14 mile efforts, and most of these include several miles at marthon pace or faster.

It's hard to compare Equinox times and those from a flatter road marathon, but the course appears to be 15 to 25 minutes slower (depending on your pace) for those who would normally run 3 hours or faster on a relatively fast course such as New York, Boston, or Chicago. The course record is 2:41 for men and 3:18 for women. The 3:00 barrier has only been broken 53 times by about 25 men. At this point, I'd be most thrilled to challenge the master's record of 2:58, set in 1988 by Frank Bozanich. That would be a tall order. A more realistic standard would be to aim to break 3:05. If I can manage the downhills without breaking down, maybe a few minutes under that. If the weather is poor, or if I just don't have it on that day, a couple of minutes slower would still be acceptable. Anything slower than 3:10 would be disappointing.

This will be my 2nd attempt at Equinox. In 2004, our first year in Alaska, I ran a train-delayed 3:12:24 (a freight train passed through the course at mile 8, which delayed me and two other runners by 2 or 3 minutes). At the time I was listed in the archives as the course record holder for age 46, but alas they've found that someone ran 20 seconds faster back in 1982. I should appeal for an asterisk due to the train delay, but that would probably be met with derision and ridicule. I'll just have to make up for it in a big way this year.

Stay tuned for pictures and stories.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

An Alaskan Right of Passage

On Cheechakos and Copper River Dipnetting
Newcomers to Alaska are called "Cheechakos," which is a Native term given to the miners and pioneers a century or more ago. Jokingly, I figured that our family would be Cheechakos only until we received our first Alaska Dividend check, an oil windfall provided to all legal residents who have made Alaska their home for at least one calandar year. We moved here in the spring of 2004, and will receive our first Dividend sometime in the next month or two. That's a major right of passage for sure, but to my chagrin, we're still considered Cheechakos by some who say that the length of residency required to be considered a "Sourdough" is 10 years. "Old Timers" must be in Alaska for 25 years. Regardless of the provincial vernacular, I survived an important right of passage last weekend--my first dipnetting excursion to Chitina (pronounced Chitna), on the mighty Copper River.

Dipnetting for salmon is a privilege reserved for Alaska residents only and the experience could be lifted from the most dour Jack London story. People die out there while others continue to fish. For a few months each year, the State Department of Fish and Game allows residents to use large hand-held nets or fish wheels to catch migrating salmon on a small portion of the Copper. Each year the State issues about 1,000 to 1,200 permits, resulting in a harvest of about 50-60,000 fish.

Once you get your free permit the process is pretty simple: find a good spot, place your net in the water, and wait for unwitting salmon, fish on a mission to spawn, to swim in. However, the logistics, not to mention politics, are anything but easy. I'll defer the political discussion to other sources, but to summarize, access to the prime dipnetting sites is controlled by the Chitina Tribe, who would like to be compensated for use of their land to access the fishing sites. The fee is pretty nominal, about $20, but they did close off access for several weeks in 2004 or 2005, and there are still some hard feelings.

Back to logistics, the Copper is only 286 miles long and its watershed is relatively small compared to other major rivers (Mississippi, Colorado, or Yukon, for example), but this river is considered among the 20 largest rivers in the U.S. During peak flow the river flows over 150,000 cubic feet per second, and it transports nearly 70 million tons per year of sediment ( The best dipnetting is in the narrows, below Eskilida Creek, where the river chanel is less than 100 yards wide in most places and the river flows at about 15 miles an hour. Even with a life vest, unless there is someone to pluck you to safety, if you fall into that river you will probably die. The water is cold, about 40 to 50 degrees and the current will carry you away like a piece of driftwood bobbing through roiling undertows, rocks, and eddys to be ground up like hydrated fish meal.

To dipnet somewhat safely on this portion of the river you need to be tied by rope to an immovable object such as a stout tree or large boulder. Neglect a tie down is to tempt fate, to become another statistic or story. The river has claimed many lives over the past 30 years, when this practice was made official by the state (Natives have dipnetted for eons).

A Dipnetting Adventure
While my kids and wife slept soundly in the tent, my neighbor Rose and I woke at the unseemly hour of 4, to get in line for the first-come, first serve charter ride on the river. We waited for a couple of chilly hours at O'Brien Creek, loading on caffeine and making sure we had the right gear. Promptly at 7, the guides arrived and we were on the river in a minute. They dropped off a few others first, on what seemed to be pretty scary spots, bascially at the base of a cliff, with nothing to hang onto. Rose is an Old Timer, but hadn't dipnetted in over 20 years. Our site was much more benign, on the east side of the river at the base of a landslide, that included a lazy eddy and even a sandbar. While somewhat less dangerous, the netting was poor. We caught only six or seven fish between us by 1:00 in the afternoon, nowhere near our limit of 60 and goal of 30. Meanwhile, the fellows across the river were pulling five to ten fish an hour.

With only one fish, Rose had reached her limit of frustration and started to brew something warm to drink--I was ready for a break too. But a guide appeared and promised to take us to a better place, this time on the base of a cliff on the west side of the river. Here the river boiled and bubbled angrily at our feet. The guide instructed Rose on where to sit, and I hadn't even finished setting up when she pulled in her first fish.

At my spot, just a few feet away, it was a struggle just to keep the net in the water for 30 seconds. The current was so strong in this part of the eddy that I had to brace the net against my leg while I leaned against a boulder with all my weight--in a semi-sitting position. This was exausting. The roar of the river was almost deafining and its motion mesmerizing. The water was brown with silt, about the color of heavily milked tea. Particles of silt were visible in the liquid maw, and large trees float by looking like burnt matchsticks. I thought about the Copper River, and realized it cares not what it carries on its rapid decent to Cordova and the Gulf of Alaska. It just flows relentless and untamable. A good Alaskan river. And a scary river that typically does not give up its dead.

Over the next four hours we pulled in 30 Sockeye salmon, ranging from three to eight pounds. I struggled at my spot, managing to net another eight in the first few hours, but by 4:30, my arms were exausted. So I took a break to mark the fish that we had caught and to prepare some for our pickup. Rose went on a tear and pulled in about a dozen nice salmon over the last 30 minutes, including a couple of double captures. By then I was scrambling to tie them up and get them ready for transport. Had we stayed until 7, we probably would have limited, but 37 fish seemed pretty good and we didn't want make any mistakes out there. At the end of the day, when you're tired, that's often when bad things happen. We quit at 5:30 and were boated back to O'Brien Creek by 6:00. A long, tough day. But now my family has 70 pounds of famous Copper River Sockeye salmon to savor for the next year, high in Omega-3-oils and all.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

July Wrapup

I don't know quite where I'm going with this blog and have been meaning to make some entries over the past month, but the desire to actually sit down and think about something let alone write about it has escaped. My mind is on vacation.

Running--Things running have gone well. Averaged about 65 miles a week for July and competed in two races. June was middle distance month, with everything 10k and under. July was distance with a half marathon and a 16.5 miler. I had to work through both of those (no prior tapering/recovery) because I'm trying to build-up for the Equinox Marathon in September. Nevertheless, both races went well, with a 4th in the half (averaging about 6:01 per mile) and a 3rd in the 16.5 mile Gold Discovery Run (averaging 6:13 per mile). Now I feel semi-beat up, but will continue with the marathon buildup in August. I could ramble on about running [being an age-group running geek is both exiting and somewhat frustrating] but let's just leave it there for now.

Work--It's going along. Our environmental impact statement analyzing the impacts of an Army training range at Donnelly Training Area, Alaska, was finalized. I worked several sections, mostly last year, and did some good analytical work on impacts to wildlife and vegetation. I also wrote and coordinated much of the cumulative effects analysis, using cutting edge methodology. This is not like science publication, altough the level of rigor is pretty close. Overall, it involves too much nit-picky lawerly wordsmithing.

Blog--Speaking of wordsmithing, Tamara reviewed some of my recent entries and of course found typos. She says she will do some editing. I need all the help I can get in that department.

Family--The kids are amazing, and sometimes amazingly lazy! But that's what summer is for, so we indulge them. Tristan has enjoyed his soccer, but he's not That into it and probably will not do competitive league next year, even though he could. It's a year around sport now and he wants to run in the fall and ski during winter. He's incredibly level-headed for an 8 year old, and did I say fast? He ran a 7:09 mile last week! Mikko is the consumate computer geek, but we keep him active. I attended biathlon camp with him last week for two days. He's not much for the running or skiing aspect, but likes the shooting. He does like cycling and has been a regular at the Jr. Mtn. Bike Club. Tamara has been able to focus more on her artwork lately. The plan is for her to really take off on that, get famous and rich, and support my aerobic habits.