Bear, moose confront Crow Pass runners

July 24, 2010 

The series of unfortunate incidents that foiled Eric Strabel's dream race in the annual Crow Pass Crossing wilderness marathon Saturday began with the bear that surprised him on the trail and stopped him for maybe 30 seconds.

Then came the wrong turn that took him off course.

Soon after that was the moose and calf that wouldn't budge and forced Strabel to bushwhack to get around them.

Then came the hard tumble onto rocks that left him with a bloody ear, a bloody shin and bloody hands.

Quicker than you can say Lemony Snicket, Strabel's shot at both victory and a race record was toast.

But that didn't keep the 27th running of Crow Pass from living up to advance billing.

The rematch of Strabel vs. Roes vs. Alaska was everything the first meeting was a year ago, if not more.

In the end, Geoff Roes of Juneau slashed more than 2.5 minutes off his own record to defend his title in the mountain-pass-climbing, river-wading, wildlife-infused race through Chugach State Park.

Strabel set a blistering pace through the first 16 miles or so of the 24-mile race before encountering his obstacle course of woes and eventually hitting the wall all marathoners fear. Roes used a sure and steady pace to catch and pass Strabel right before Echo Bend, about four miles before the finish line.

Both men dipped below the three-hour mark -- a barrier once considered unbreakable -- for the second year in a row. The race originated in 1984 and until last year, no one had broken the three-hour mark on a trail that many hikers take two days to do. Of the 107 runners who finished Saturday, only about a third -- 38 -- beat the four-hour barrier.

Roes, one of the country's most elite ultra-marathoners, finished in 2 hours, 54 minutes, 44.49 seconds to easily beat the 2:57:11.7 he ran a year ago.

Strabel, an Alaska Pacific University ski coach, made the trek from the Crow Pass trail head near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center in 2:59:41.75 -- about 70 seconds slower than his time last year.

Although both men said they intend to take a break from Crow Pass, both indicated the race's next barrier -- 2 hours, 50 minutes -- is within reach.

"When Eric said after last year's race that a 2:50 was probably possible, I thought he was crazy," Roes said. "But a 2:50's definitely possible. I lost (time) today on things that could be avoided."

A threat to the course record every time he enters an endurance event, Roes was running four weeks after his record-setting victory in California's Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Roes, 34, said he never felt fast -- and, like Strabel, he encountered his share of speed bumps, including having to slow to a jog for a few minutes because of a moose traveling in the same direction, only slower.

"I had to jog a long stretch right there, but in a way it was a good thing because I was really hammering and it gave me a break," Roes said. "I must have lost two or three minutes between the moose encounter, and I had to stop and go to the bathroom, and I took a good fall, and I turned my ankle about three times.

"I kept feeling like this just isn't my year, but I was still on a really good pace."

So was Strabel, at least for a while.

Strabel, 28, has been training for Crow Pass for months, with dreams of a record run, and all systems were go for the first two hours of his race.

After making it to the top of 2,000-foot Crow Pass in 31 minutes and to Eagle River in 97 minutes -- times that were both personal bests and the fastest of the day -- Strabel was on pace to run a 2:50.

"For two-thirds of the race, I was a rock star," he said.

The rest of the way, he needed a Rock Star. Or a Red Bull. Or some kind of instant infusion of energy.

Stabel's race started to unravel a couple miles after he crossed thigh-high Eagle River. First came all the interruptions -- the bear, the wrong turn, the moose, the bushwhacking, the fall -- and then came the revolt of his body.

When Roes passed him -- less than 30 minutes from the finish line -- Strabel could summon no response.

"I was on pace to run about 2:50 through (the first two hours) and then things really hit the fan," he said. "It feels probably what paralysis feels like. My legs were just unresponsive and my vision was staticky.

"I had no hope of staying with Geoff."

Roes' experience in long races told him to not give up when Strabel demonstrated blistering speed on his scramble up the pass and his run to the river. Besides his Crow Pass victory last summer, Roes set course records in three 100-mile races and a 50-mile race last year to earn UltraRunning Magazine's North American ultra-marathoner of the year award.

"The biggest thing I benefit from is having to learn to be really patient," Roes said. "Twenty-five miles through this terrain is really a long way. Today I was able to say, 'There's still two hours to go ... There's still an hour to go. I was able to be really relaxed and never got stressed at all."

Next up for Roes is next month's Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race of about 100 miles through the Alps that features 30,000 feet of elevation gain.

Strabel is bound to do a few more mountain races this summer, but after focusing on Crow Pass for more than two years, he's ready to shift that focus to more vertical races, like Seward's Mount Marathon.

"You're always hoping for that dream race," he said. "I had two solid years where I really targeted this race and I gave it a good, honest go."

Find Beth Bragg online at or call 257-4335.

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