After an Anchorage teenager was mauled to death by a black bear on Sunday at a mountain-running race on Bird Ridge, Michael Friess' first thought was to cancel the upcoming Crow Pass Crossing, the marathon-length backcountry race he directs.
Then he reconsidered and brainstormed ways to improve safety in the race he organizes for the University of Alaska Anchorage and uses as a fundraiser for the UAA Milers Booster Club.
Friess, who coaches the school's running programs and serves as associate athletic director, talked with UAA administrators about enhancing communications and medical capabilities in the rugged race.
The more he thought about it, though, the more he believed his window was too small to properly institute changes in the race from the Crow Pass trailhead near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center. The 34th annual race was scheduled for July 22.
"It was, initially, a no-brainer (to cancel),'' Friess said. "Then, I didn't want to be knee-jerk. Then, 'Hey, we can do this, we can do that, and we can push it through.'
"Then it was like, 'Why are we trying to push things through?' ''
That settled things for Friess, who Friday announced this year's Crow Pass has been canceled for the first time since the race began in 1984.
Friess said UAA will use the hiatus to develop a plan aimed at making things safer for the punishing race that draws some of the best endurance athletes in Alaska.
"The more we delved into it, the more we realized that if we're going to make an honest effort, we're going to need a little more time,'' he said.
Sunday's death of Patrick "Jack'' Cooper shortly after he completed the junior course at the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb is believed to be the first bear-related death in an Alaska mountain- or trailing-running race.
The Crow Pass Crossing, which takes runners up a mountain, over a pass and down into a valley and includes a ford of swift and bracing Eagle River, has never suffered a fatality.
Still, injuries, albeit usually minor, are common. So are bear sightings — runners have occasionally encountered bears at close range in the 33 times Crow Pass has been run.
Friess thinks some part of that "clean'' history is good fortune, and some is a reflection of race rules.
Racers must generally meet qualifying standards, must carry mandatory gear and are strongly encouraged to help fellow racers in distress. Friess spends the mandatory racers' meeting on the eve of the race basically trying to scare off neophytes and runners ill-prepared for the perilous demands — difficult terrain, potential wildlife encounters — of the 24-mile journey.
"We may have been lucky, but I think we made a lot of our luck,'' Friess said.
Friess in 2005 postponed the race one week because of health concerns prompted by smoke from fires on the Kenai Peninsula. Last year, a wildfire near McHugh Creek briefly threatened postponement or cancellation before the race was run as planned.
Lance Kopsack of Palmer, who won Crow Pass in 1998 and has raced it 31 times, was bummed this year's race was canceled. He was entered in the limited field of 150 runners.
"I'm disappointed that we're not running, but I can understand why they're doing it,'' he said. "I have kind of a mixed feeling both ways. You know the risk when you're going into it, but with the circumstances, and the university involved, I understand it.''
Kopsack estimates he's been stopped by bears at least five times in his Crow Pass race history. He also had a brown bear run across the trail in front of him one year, and another year he spooked a black bear that then climbed a tree.
Conversely, a black bear once sent Kopsack's brother, Braun, up a tree.
Ellyn Brown, who estimates she's raced Crow Pass 20 times and owns two age-group records in the race, said she thinks canceling Crow Pass is unnecessary.
"I think we're just having a knee-jerk reaction, and I'm sad they're not going to have it; not for me because I wasn't going to run it, but for the people who were,'' Brown said. "For me, it's a safe way to run through the wilderness, with a lot of people.''
Friess said he understands some runners will be upset.
"This is a special race,'' he said. "I'm bummed just like the rest of the people that we're not going to fire off the (starting) gun at 7 a.m. But I also feel good, off this tragic thing that happened Sunday, that we can be a little bit better for 30 years to come.''
Friess said he made the final decision to cancel the race after consulting UAA administrators.
"I understand people are upset, I understand people have trained for this, and I feel bad about that,'' he said. "I'm very proud of my university. They weren't pushy. Of course they were concerned about liability — why wouldn't you be?
"At the end of the day, it was my call. I do this fully knowing this race has never had a problem.''
Friess said ideas he is considering to enhance safety include equipping race officials along the course with satellite phones and instituting a series of medical aid stations throughout the course.
Other considerations are suggesting, or requiring, racers wear bear bells and be equipped with bear spray. He's also thinking about having a bigger group of athletes pre-run the course the morning of the race and using larger groups of runners as trail sweepers.
Measures instituted for the 2018 race will likely require a larger crew of volunteers than the 15 or so Friess uses most years.
Friess said UAA intends to engage with mountain runners and mountain-race officials, wildlife experts and officials from Chugach State Park to access and improve UAA's race plan.
"We need to start the conversation of how can we be more collective and collaborative about what our responsibilities are here,'' he said.
Friess informed runners registered for Crow Pass about the cancellation in an email sent early Friday afternoon.
In the email, Friess told runners they could be refunded their $75 entry fee. He encouraged them to split their entry fee into donations to the Eagle River Nature Center and to Healthy Futures in honor of Jack Cooper.
Friess said he expects criticism for canceling this year's race, but thinks a hiatus to improve safety is a worthy trade-off.
"We all know how precious this event is, but at the end of the day it's just a running race, and there are higher priorities to consider,'' he said.
Here's the text of the email Friess sent to Crow Pass runners Friday:
The Alaska running community was stunned, then saddened when it learned of last weekend's tragedy during the annual Bird Ridge Run. All of us in the mountain and wilderness running communities empathize with Jack Cooper's family; we share their pain and grief, and will remain at their side as they attempt to normalize their lives without their beloved son. We, too, need time to reflect on this and really look closely at how we stage our events in the future.
Business as usual cannot continue in the face of this tragedy. As a small token of respect for Jack, I, the race director and a University of Alaska Anchorage associate athletic director, have suspended, with UAA's blessing, this year's Cross Pass Crossing — the iconic, annual 24-mile mountain run from Girdwood to Eagle River through Crow Pass — originally scheduled for July 22. Jack Cooper's death is a call to all race organizers to try to optimize the safety factors in place, to the degree possible.
I have been involved with the Crow Pass Crossing for 31 of its 34 years, as a volunteer, and now as an organizer. I am committed to providing as much additional communication and as many medical support resources as possible in 2018 to mitigate the risks of running an inherently dangerous, near-marathon-length backcountry race. This one-year pause will help ensure we can add the resources necessary to respond swiftly to incidents on the trail.
I, as a runner myself, know that for many of you this will be a terrible disappointment. I understand how much you have trained for this event and how much you look forward to it each and every year. I did not make this decision lightly nor out of fear, but rather to ensure that this race can continue for the next 30 or more years.
From its inception in 1983, Dr. Jay Caldwell, the race originator, and I have always gone to great lengths to ensure that participating athletes are qualified and that they understand and embrace the risks associated with this race. Though these risks will never be eliminated, we can improve our ability to respond to unfortunate incidents. The safety of the runners and volunteers, preserving the awesome beauty of the Crow Pass Trail, and protecting the wildlife that call it home will continue to be my priorities in organizing this event.
So, it is very important for us to pause, listen, learn, and then implement policies and procedures that will help us achieve these goals. In the coming weeks and months I will be involved in meetings with key stakeholders and authorities, including the mountain running community, wildlife experts, and Alaska State Park staff, to assess our race plan and determine possible augmentations of the safety, communication, and medical response elements of this classic Alaskan race.
Please take part with me — with Jack Cooper in mind — in these discussions about how we can strive to make our wilderness events safer and better for all. While I cannot guarantee the race will be held every year . . . wildfires do happen and other natural situations arise . . . I can commit, with your help, to making the Cross Pass Crossing as safe as possible.
We will be offering refunds for all who wish one. However, I hope that you will join me in splitting 100% of the registration fees between the Eagle River Nature Center and Healthy Futures in honor of Jack Cooper, the teen who died as a result of the bear mauling on Bird Ridge. In order to minimize delay in offering this donation, I ask you to let me know by July 1 if you'd prefer the refund.
Thank you and I very much hope that you enjoy your summer and that you remain safe and fit.