Ideally, the annual path to pain that is the Crow Pass Crossing marathon through the Chugach Mountains would be sponsored by a maker of ibuprofen, and free samples would be furnished at the finish.
And at the start.
And where runners splash across Eagle River roughly halfway through the backcountry journey.
Sure, the race from the Crow Pass trail head near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center, which celebrates its 25th edition Saturday, bisects beautiful country with no shortage of jaw-dropping sights. There's the historic Iditarod Trail, gorgeous glaciers, tumbling creeks, Eagle River, wildlife and greenery galore. It's all very Kumbaya.
Not that Crow Pass is the toughest mountain race around these parts. Next month's annual Matanuska Peak Challenge, with its nine billion feet of vertical ascent and descent, is sheer madness. (You expected something less from the Kopsack brothers, who founded that little charmer? Those guys are tougher than trigonometry.)
Nonetheless, Crow Pass rates high enough on the pain-o-meter to suit most folks. (Full disclosure: I've run the event three times -- "raced'' would be too kind a description for my glacial pace. Run Mat Peak? Not at gunpoint, pal.)
Anyhow, part of what makes Crow Pass unique is its length. The organizers call it "marathon-length," explaining that it's tough to accurately measure a trail that occasionally changes for various reasons. Back in the day, they called it 28 miles. Then it was 26 miles. Now, it's called 24 miles. My screaming quads measured it at 32 miles, so I guess we'll all just have to agree to disagree.
What really sets Crow Pass apart -- apart from the 2,000 feet of elevation gain in the first three miles and the subsequent descent into Eagle River Valley -- is the myriad ways a racer can become freaked out, injured, or both. Let's count just a few of the potential pitfalls.
There's the pesky wildlife, which in race history has thankfully proved more startling than dangerous. Countless Crow Pass racers have run into bears, who are best given right-of-way. Don't forget about bear scat, either -- slippery! Nor it is unheard of for racers to run across a moose, always good for an adrenaline rush. One year, Tom Corbin even kicked a coyote when it darted across the trail while he was in mid-stride.
Bees and wasps have drilled enough flesh that when someone refers to The Year of the Bees, the correct response is: Which one?
Sections of tall grass in the first half of the race sometimes make it difficult to see the trail, and that can turn a racer into a stumblebum. So can imbedded rocks and tree roots on the trail, always a special treat for the toes.
If those don't get you, maybe you'll take a nice tumble on the scree and shale during the descent off Crow Pass. That's always good for blood-letting.
Oh, and it turns out that blown-down, snapped tree limbs make swell little spears that penetrate flesh quite nicely. One year, a thin branch near the ground fit perfectly through a loop in my shoelace and sent me sprawling in a face-plant that would have received a 9.9 from the Russian judge.
Unbridged creek crossings can occasionally make for frantic footing too.
Crossing Eagle River, so cold it pierces you, is always a shock. And in years when the river is high, plenty of sub 6-footers like me can tell you that one step into a hole up to your waist can deliver shrinkage beyond anything George Costanza ever imagined.
The good news about crossing Eagle River? It thankfully numbs aching legs. Bad news? The numbness wears off in the next mile, tops.
Not that your Crow Pass water world is necessarily limited to the river. As a bonus, you may find yourself splashing through some small, filthy ponds created by flooding.
Racers may also experience the slice of hell that is cow parsnip, the plant that can cause blistering. Short of that, it's always a buzz-kill to stumble, attempt to catch yourself and end up grasping Devil's Club.
If all those hazards fail to strike, maybe you'll get lost. Even some of the best racers in Crow Pass history have gone adrift of the trail. Don't fret -- you'll eventually stumble back upon it.
In any event, you're basically on your own, no matter what befalls you. There are no aid stations, no water stops, no phone booths to call a friend for a ride if you're having a bad day, no cell phone reception.
That's why race rules require runners to carry eight mandatory items: long underwear top and bottom, wind pants and a wind jacket, a hat and gloves, a water container and a bib number.
No other item is mandatory in the Crow Pass Crossing, but if you're racing Saturday, you might want to drop a few ibuprofen in your fanny pack.
By race's end, you'll probably need them.
Find Doyle Woody's blog online at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
A sampling of Crow Pass Crossing cirses
Man vs. bear
In 1989, a black bear near Thunder Gorge charged racer Braun Kopsack, who ended up climbing a spruce tree and defending himself with a rock.
"I started hollering. He saw me and kept coming,'' Kopsack recounted years later. "I was next to a (spruce tree) and out of the corner of my eye I saw some rocks next to the tree. I grabbed a rock and by the time I started up the tree, he was right behind me.
Kopsack winged the rock off the bear's chest.
"It bounced like a rubber ball,'' Kopsack said.
The bear circled the tree for about 30 seconds, then wandered far enough away that Kopsack was able to return to ground, skirt around the animal and back onto the trail.
He finished fifth that year in 3:34:28.
Gary Spidahl in 1994 reached the finish a bloody mess after tripping in high grass about halfway through the race and scraping his forehead on sharp stub of wood.
When I got off the ground, the wound was just spurting blood, Spidahl said. There were a couple of ladies behind me, and when they saw all the blood, I thought they were going to go into shock.
Race officials nearby wrapped Spidahls melon in protective gauze and he continued. Oh, he also received two bee stings that year, when he finished in 4:54:02.
In 2005, Tony Slatonbarker crashed while descending from Crow Pass and smashed his elbow on jagged rock. He removed his headband, tied it around his arm and continued to a bloody fifth-place overall finish in 3:30:46.
When the bleeding finally stopped, I took off the headband and wrung it out, Slatonbarker reported. It was pure blood. Ive got ripped tights, a bloody elbow, a smashed knee.
It was brutal.
Attack of the bees
On a section of the course racers refer to as the chutes and ladders section, Hugh Gren ran into some seriously buzzed-off bees in 2005. The encounter resulted in stings to his arms, hands and chest, and the back of his knees.
Thank God thats over, Gren said after finishing 10th in 3:44:41. The bees are worse than the bears. (Bears) run from you.
That same year, Mark Strabel absorbed eight bee stings, the worst one above his right eye, which blurred his vision. I couldnt see. I had no depth perception, Strabel said after finishing 14th in 3:49:52. Id look at a rock and think its six inches in front of my feet when it was really a foot.
Lost, lost, lost
Jens Beck was a few minutes behind race leader Harlow Robinson nearly halfway through the 2002 race when he became lost; it took him six to eight minutes to find the trail.
It was really one of those things where Im standing there, I do a 360 (-degree turn) and say, I have no idea where I am, Beck said after finishing second overall in 3:17:43. I was in thick brush and then I saw (fresh) bear scat, and I thought, This is not good. Now I was really panicking. Robinson could relate. In 1999, he was leading the race about 17 miles in when he took a wrong turn near Icicle Creek, lost about 10 minutes wandering around and eventually finished ninth in 3:31:39.
It was a nightmare, said Robinson, who went on to win Crow Pass in 2001 and 2002. I was feeling great and was really having an outstanding race. Everything was working. But when Robinson crossed the creek on a suspension bridge he had never seen, he couldnt find the trail on the other side.
I thought it must be higher, so I went up, up, up, up, and I still couldnt see (the trail), he said. Then I thought it must be lower, so I went down, down, down, down. Then I decided it must be even higher than I thought, so I went up, up, up, up again.
He finally found the trail.
The other shoe dropped literally
John Berryman was enjoying a terrific race in 1988 and was five or six miles from the finish when disaster struck he sank to his waist in mud and crawled out of the muck missing his left shoe.
I started to get out and I felt my shoe come off, and I thought, Oh, no! Berryman said. I dug around and searched for it for a couple of minutes, and then I thought, Ill just keep running."
He ran about a half-mile with one shoe before his right leg cramped. So he ran barefoot for about a half-mile. Finally, he came upon Chris Gibson, a high school kid who was watching the race and loaned Barryman his left shoe.
It was about three sizes too big, but it was better than nothing, Berryman said. I was hitting stones and roots and everything.
Even so, he finished 13th in 3:54:48.
Anchorage Daily News