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Whatever its length, the Crow Pass Crossing is a wicked journey

Doyle Woody
Bob Hallinen

The estimated length of the annual Crow Pass Crossing backcountry marathon, also known in this corner of the typing factory as the seventh circle of hell, apparently is a moving target.

Through 1999, the Alaska Runners Calendar proclaimed the race from the Crow Pass trail head near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center covered 28 miles.

In 2000, that publication, no doubt informed by race officials who submit event details, reported Crow Pass to be a 26-miler.

The following year, 2001, the race was further diminished in the Runners Calendar to a 24-miler, a designation that endures.

Meanwhile, the race description on the Alaska Mountain Runners website lists the distance at a mere 22.5 miles.

And a page on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ website weighs in by whacking the trail to 21 miles -- talk about The Man keepin’ ya down. 

Surely, a Google spree would turn up, in some taunting, demented corner of cyberspace, the contention the Crow Pass Crossing is actually an untimed 5-K fun run, all gently downhill, with dessert stations all along the frolicking journey to the finish line, where puppies and unicorns await.

In any event, the race registration form for Saturday’s 30th annual race pegs the distance at 24 miles and notes the course has “never been accurately measured and it changes year to year.’’

Whatever the approximate length -- and, no, tech nerds, we don’t want to hear about how you went all GPS with your fancy science, because our gut tells us it’s 32 miles if it’s an inch -- racers know one undeniable truth: The Crow Pass Crossing is continuous, merciless purgatory.

The race opens with a four-mile slog that gains 2,000 feet in elevation to the top of the pass, where runners must beat a one-hour cutoff. Don’t make the time check and your reward is a DQ -- either turn it around, poser, or continue unofficially. Also, fork over your race bib.

The subsequent downhill into the valley is littered with loose rocks and shale, technical, stumble-inducing turns, slippery snowfields, tricky traverses and all manner of unstable footing and peril. Pratfalls in this section of the race often double as immediate and painful weight-loss programs – you pick yourself up to discover you have left behind skin and blood.

Granted, the scenery is gorgeous -- Eagle Glacier, an alpine valley, rushing Eagle River. Only thing is, if you take your eyes off the trail for too long, you will go splat.   

In many sections of the valley, overgrown bushes and vegetation prevent runners a clear view of their feet, which turns imbedded rocks and roots into gremlins that generate frequent stumbles and occasional face-plants. Such moments make for excellent post-race banter -- less so, of course, when it is your face that executed said plant.

Racers next get the joy, halfway through the race, of fording a quarter-mile across glacial Eagle River, the waters of which for us height-challenged lads are high enough in some years to prompt, well, numbing shrinkage.

The second half of the race features relatively flat terrain, which is easier to navigate. Well, it would be easier, if quadriceps weren’t tightening, hamstrings weren’t barking, fatigue was not a constant companion and you didn’t have to put up with your own stink. (Really, by late in the race, everyone smells like the Middle Ages.)

Also, there could be bears. Or bees. Or wasps. Or all of the above.

Oh, and you pay $65 for the privilege of all this awesomeness, which is somewhat like employing nature as a dominatrix.

Failing to finish Crow Pass ahead of the six-hour cutoff, though, brings tough news -- no happy ending for you. You are not an official finisher. You will be disappeared from the results.

Take it from a perennial Bottom 5 overall finisher -- hey, those perennial Top 5 finishers in each gender are just show-offs, and probably cyborgs -- none of this is hyperbole.

The race registration form reads more like a threat than an invitation: “This is a risk-filled and dangerous race. Bad things can and usually do happen. Someone has been injured or imperiled each year.’’

Nor does race director Michael Friess want neophytes running the race. Again, from the race registration: “This race is not for beginners. It is not designed for 'recreational' runners, 'hikers,' or people who listen to the song 'We are Young' and sign up for an event that they are not properly condition (sic) to undertake.’’

Friess is so serious on this front that he usually opens the mandatory prerace meeting the day before the race by trying to talk newbies out of their bib, enticing them to trade it for one of the jumbo-sized Snickers bar each race finisher receives.

Were it a Butterfinger, a far superior candy bar, we might be tempted.

Instead, we’ll take another stab at the race.

After all, it’s only, what, a 19-miler?

This column is the opinion of Alaska Dispatch News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/section/hockey-blog or contact him at dwoody@adn.com.