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Backcountry run among friends became Crow Pass Crossing

Doyle Woody

When the four runners took off from the Crow Pass trail head near Girdwood on that summer day in 1983, they sought nothing more than a long, demanding workout to fortify their strength.

Bound for the Eagle River Nature Center on a marathon-length journey through the Chugach Mountains were Tim Neale, a 40-year-old masters athlete, and a trio of 20-somethings who harbored ambitions in nordic skiing. Bill Spencer was gearing up for a shot at the Olympics, and Nancy Pease and Jim Renkert possessed post-collegiate aspirations.

"We would do these long runs on weekends -- three of us building our bases, and Tim hanging onto his,'' Pease recalled.

The four made the trip in about six hours total, four-plus hours of it actual running time. They stopped for lunch after fording frigid Eagle River, and stopped a couple of other times to wring out their socks after crossing creeks. They also encountered a black bear shortly after stopping to drink from a creek.

"Bill gave Nancy grief, something funny, and Nancy started chasing Bill, and Tim and I gave chase,'' Renkert said. "Suddenly, Bill stopped and said, 'Uh, there's a bear.'

"We beat a hasty retreat, and then ran around it.''

All in all, though, it was a splendid day -- four friends enjoying a long, demanding workout in a picturesque setting.

What none of them knew then was that their training run would soon became the impetus for the founding of the annual Crow Pass Crossing, the race that Saturday celebrates its 25th edition.

Neale became the architect, developing a race that since 1984 has become a staple on the local running landscape and helped kick-start the subsequent mountain-running boom in the area during the ensuing two-plus decades.

During the winter that followed that summer training run, Neale began thinking of Cross Pass not simply as a beautiful place for a long weekend run. He also envisioned it as a gorgeous setting for a race that differed dramatically from the usual road races that populated the running calendar.

"I'd been over the trail a few times before the four of us did it, and after that I thought, 'You know, this would make a pretty good place to have a run,' " Neale said. "It was a natural distance, roughly a marathon.''

At the time, the annual Mount Marathon race in Seward on the Fourth of July, which Spencer already had won several times and Pease likewise would soon rule, was just about the only single-day, off-road race in Southcentral Alaska. Spencer and Pease still hold the course records on that race up and down the 3,022-foot peak overlooking Resurrection Bay.

As Neale began planning the inaugural Crow Pass Crossing for July 21, 1984, he knew he would need liability insurance for the race before Chugach State Park and Chugach National Forest would grant permits.

His conversations with insurance agents were brief and fruitless. Agents took a pass once Neale began describing the course -- a steep descent coming off Crow Pass, the crossing of Eagle River, a trail obscured in parts by tall grass and littered with imbedded rocks and tree roots.

Undeterred, Neale turned to Dr. Jay Caldwell, a sports medicine specialist who also oversaw Old Folks Sports, which specialized in putting on off-beat running races and triathlons.

The idea of the Crow Pass Crossing, Pease said, appealed to Caldwell's "sense of mental torment'' for athletes.

"Jay said, 'Ah, we have an insurance policy. We'd be happy to do it if you put us on it as a co-sponsor,' " Neale recalled. "He was a good sport.''

Neale initially saw the race as a feel-good, laid-back event, but runners who expressed interest in competing wanted to do just that -- compete.

"People were concerned about timing,'' Neale said. "We thought it would be a fun run, people would break into groups and run, but no, no. Competition was bred into them, into their blood.''

The permits Neale secured provided for a maximum of 55 racers, though 16 extra people on a waiting list also showed up and ran. Neale said he received a little static for that from government officials, but things were eventually smoothed over. Today, the race, now organized by UAA athletics as a fundraiser for its Milers Booster Club, is limited to 150 runners.

That initial race, Neale said, included a 55-minute cutoff for runners to reach the top of Crow Pass and a six-hour limit at the finish to be considered an official finisher. Those standards today are 60 minutes and six hours, respectively.

Spencer, who skied in the 1988 Olympics, stormed to victory in the inaugural Crow Pass Crossing, clocking 3 hours, 24 minutes, 27 seconds. Sue Forbes won the women's division in 4:23:23.

Spencer won the race four times and his 3:05:25 in 1989 stood as the race record until Eric Strabel clocked 3:05:18 in 2006. Pease won the race in her 1985 debut and won all nine Crow Pass Crossings she entered. Her 3:26:20 in 1990, when she and Spencer tied for the overall victory, remains the women's record.

Renkert last ran the race in 1995, when he finished seventh in 3:22:48.

And Neale, whose 3:55:15 in 1985 placed him 12th among men and the first finisher after women's winner Pease, owns a legacy as the guy who spawned an event that has now lasted a quarter century.

"The one thing I'm glad about is it didn't die, didn't go away,'' Neale said of the race. "I think it was a genesis for these types of races, the alternative to racing on asphalt.''

Find Doyle Woody's blog online at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

Race winners

Marathon-length wilderness run

Crow Pass trail head to Eagle River Nature Center

Men

2007 -- Geoff Roes, 3:07:49

2006 -- Eric Strabel, 3:05:17*

2005 -- Zach Violett, 3:17:56

2004 -- Toby Schwoerer, Time rescinded**

2003 -- Toby Schwoerer, 3:08:27

2002 -- Harlow Robinson, 3:08:38

2001 -- Harlow Robinson, 3:14:03

2000 -- Lars Flora, 3:16:49

1999 -- Kevin Donley, 3:15:47

1998 -- Lance Kopsack, 3:20:48

1997 -- Francis Cosgrave, 3:17:28

1996 -- Adam Verrier, 3:19:11

1995 -- Harry Johnson, 3:14:53

1994 -- Steve Bull, 3:20:20

1993 -- Michael Graham, 3:18:00

1992 -- Michael Graham, 3:16:04

1991 -- Michael Graham, 3:18:45

1990 -- Bill Spencer, 3:26:20

1989 -- Bill Spencer, 3:05:25

1988 -- Michael Graham, 3:19:31

1987 -- Michael Graham, 3:19:15

1986 -- Bill Spencer, 3:26:08

1985 -- Vernon Campbell, 3:08:21

1984 -- Bill Spencer, 3:24:27

Women

2007 -- Rachel Steer, 3:58:48

2006 -- Monica Tibbetts, 4:05:04

2005 -- Noelle Brassard, 4:05:15

2004 -- Julie Udchachon, 3:48:07

2003 -- Abigail Larson, 4:05:34

2002 -- Anne Thomas, 4:08:29

2001 -- Shannon Donley, 4:13:52

2000 -- Nora Tobin, 3:46:03

1999 -- Tina Boucher, 3:59:17

1998 -- Kjerstin Lastufka, 3:58:54

1997 -- Kjerstin Lastufka, 3:55:58

1996 -- Kjerstin Lastufka, 3:51:35

1995 -- Nancy Pease, 3:31:07

1994 -- Nina Kemppel, 3:36:28

1993 -- Nancy Pease, 3:31:50

1992 -- Nancy Pease, 3:29:29

1991 -- Kjerstin Lastufka, 4:11:30

1990 -- Nancy Pease, 3:26:20*

1989 -- Nancy Pease, 3:28:58

1988 -- Nancy Pease, 3:32:21

1987 -- Nancy Pease, 3:37:54

1986 -- Nancy Pease, 3:34:40

1985 -- Nancy Pease, 3:47:43

1984 -- Sue Forbes, 4:23:23

* -- Race record

** -- Schwoerer won race in what was believed to be a course-record 3:02:58. Officials later determined Schwoerer crossed Eagle River at the wrong spot. They upheld his victory but stripped his time.

Top 10 All-Time Times

Place, Name, Time, Year, Result

Men

1) Eric Strabel, 3:05:17, 2006, 1st

2) Bill Spencer, 3:05:25, 1989, 1st

3) Geoff Roes, 3:07:48, 2007, 1st

4) Harlow Robinson, 3:08:03, 2006, 2nd

5) Vernon Campbell, 3:08:21, 1985, 1st

6) Toby Schwoerer, 3:08:27, 2003, 1st

7) Harlow Robinson, 3:08:38, 2002, 1st

8) Andy Liebner, 3:09:45, 2006, 3rd

9) Harlow Robinson, 3:10:38, 2007, 2nd

10) Harlow Robinson, 3:10:56, 2004, 2nd

Women

1) Nancy Pease, 3:26:20, 1990, 1st

2) Nancy Pease, 3:28:58, 1989, 1st

3) Nancy Pease, 3:29:27, 1992, 1st

4) Nancy Pease, 3:31:07, 1995, 1st

5) Nancy Pease, 3:31:50, 1993, 1st

6) Nancy Pease, 3:32:21, 1988, 1st

7) Nancy Pease, 3:34:40, 1986, 1st

8) Nina Kemppel, 3:36:28, 1994, 1st

9) Nancy Pease, 3:37:54, 1987, 1st

10) Kjerstin Lastufka, 3:44:18, 1995, 2nd

Closest finishes

Overall -- Bill Spencer and Nancy Pease tied in 1990

Men -- Bill Spencer beat Willy Gruber by 9 seconds, 1986

Women -- Tina Boucher beat Pam Richter by 52 seconds, 1999

Interactive Map: Crow Pass Crossing
By DOYLE WOODY
dwoody@adn.com