The iconic Crow Pass Crossing will return to Alaska's sports landscape Saturday with extra safety precautions, a later start and a potential run at the record book.
The backcountry marathon from Girdwood to Eagle River, first held in 1984, is back after a one-year cancellation and a subsequent change in management.
Last year's 22-mile race through the Chugach State Park wilderness was canceled by University of Alaska Anchorage race organizers due to safety concerns in the aftermath of a fatal bear attack at the Bird Ridge Run. A couple of months later, UAA handed off organizing duties to Healthy Futures, a nonprofit program that promotes physical fitness.
Evidence of new management will be obvious from the get-go on Saturday. Instead of the usual 7 a.m. start time at the Crow Creek trailhead near Girdwood, the race will begin at 9 a.m.
"The primary reason is that it's friendlier for racers, who get a couple extra hours of sleep and don't have a 4 a.m. wakeup call," race director Matias Saari said.
Christy Marvin, the winner of the last three women's races, lives in Palmer and appreciates the extra time. Sometimes she has camped near the trailhead on the eve of the race; sometimes she drives the 80-some miles from Palmer to Girdwood early on the morning of the race.
"The late start time is nice for a little extra sleep but can mean the river will be higher if it's a warm day," she said. "It can also get hotter for runners in the afternoon. But pros and cons to both. I think most people prefer the late start."
Another racer-friendly change: One-way shuttle buses from Anchorage and Girdwood to the Crow Creek trailhead. The shuttles leaving Anchorage, which can transport about 60 people, "filled up in no time," Saari said.
The most significant change will be the on-trail presence of four two-person crews from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. Crow Pass doesn't have aid stations and, as is the case at most of Alaska's mountain and trail races, participants are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. But Saari is happy to have the rescue crews.
"They were the first group I thought of, and I'm elated to have them out there," he said. "They are backcountry savvy and medically experienced."
Runners will see the first crew around Mile 5, after they climb Crow Pass and reach the Clear Creek area on the other side. Two crews will be at the Eagle River crossing and another will be at Icicle Creek, about five miles from the finish line at the Eagle River Nature Center.
A crew will be on either side of the river to provide advice or perform a rescue if one is needed, Saari said. They are not there to help runners cross the river.
"They have been instructed that their job is not to escort people across the river," Saari said. "Racers should be able to cross on their own or link arms … It's up to other racers to help each other."
The river, which some years can be waist-high for women, is just one of the race's challenges. There are roots and rocks to negotiate, and wilderness encounters can range from bears to cow parsnip to bees to moose. The unmarked trail begins with a 2,000-foot climb up Crow Pass in the first four miles, followed by a long and often technical descent into the Eagle River Valley.
Saari checked out the trail Tuesday with two-time Crow Pass champion Harlow Robinson.
"We definitely saw some bear scat," Saari said. "There's some vegetation growth down off the pass, but it's always overgrown in some areas. Overall I've seen it a lot worse than this year, so I think it'll be a pretty fast trail in general."
A fast crowd hopes he's right.
Reigning champions Marvin and Scott Patterson have both shown they are capable of a record run.
In 2014, Marvin came within 24 seconds of Nancy Pease's revered record of 3 hours, 26 minutes, 20 seconds. No one else has come within five minutes of that record.
"Records are always a goal," Marvin said, "but Crow Pass has a way of throwing curveballs that are outside of my control. I will just have to see how the day pans out. Trail conditions, vegetation height, water depth, snow crossings, bees, loss of trail are all factors.
"That said, I hope it all come together on race day."
Patterson, the Olympic skier who has won four of the last five Crow Pass Crossings and owns two of the four all-time fastest times, expects a challenge from two runners from the Lower 48 with impressive race resumes:
— Zach Miller, who lives in a cabin on Colorado's Pikes Peak and is a two-time winner of California's North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile race. He placed second in last year's North Face race in a field that included eighth-place Max King of Oregon, the runner-up at this year's Mount Marathon race, and 11th-place Allan Spangler of Anchorage, who boasts two Crow Pass' top-10 times.
— David Laney of Oregon, who was Ultrarunning Magazine's ultrarunner of the year in 2015. He's one of just a handful of Americans to earn a podium finish at the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 103-mile race through the Alps that is considered one of the world's most difficult races.
"I'm really excited they're coming up," Patterson said. "They definitely have some stacked resumes. It's exciting that this race is getting a little attention from outside.
"Hopefully we can set a new record, one of us, and hopefully it will be me."
The men's record is 2:54:44, set in 2010 by Juneau's Geoff Roes. Patterson has the next-fastest time, 2:56:13 in 2015.
Patterson often finds himself alone when racing Crow Pass. A world-class cross-country skier, he is a beast on uphills so usually he sheds his pursuers during the steep ascent at the start of the race. This time, he thinks he could have company.
"Zach has a tendency in racing to take it out pretty aggressively," Patterson said. "He's not afraid of blowing up. There's been so many years when I'm racing Crow Pass and 30 seconds after the start I'm in the front, so I have hours of racing in the front. It'll be fun to have someone who can lay it on the line."
Patterson skipped Mount Marathon earlier this month with a broken toe that is still healing. He said he's still hampered by the injury and hasn't been able to spend as much time in the mountains as he would have liked, but he's ready to go.
"My full intention is to race, and to race hard," he said. "I started running again two weeks ago. That's not ideal preparation for a race, but I'm going in relatively ready."
Crow Pass Crossing
Top 10 times
1. Geoff Roes 2:54:44 2010
2. Scott Patterson 2:56:13 2015
3. Geoff Roes 2:57:11 2009
4. Scott Patterson 2:58:27 2016
5. Eric Strabel 2:58:30 2009
6. Allan Spangler 2:59:23 2015
7. Eric Strabel 2:59:41 2010
8. Geoff Roes 3:00:28 2011
9. Scott Patterson 3:00:44 2013
10. Allan Spangler 3:01:45 2014
1. Nancy Pease 3:26:20 1990
2. Christy Marvin 3:26:44 2014
3. Nancy Pease 3:28:58 1989
4. Nancy Pease 3:29:29 1992
5. Christy Marvin 3:29:33 2016
6. Nancy Pease 3:31:07 1995
7. Christy Marvin 3:31:38 2015
8. Nancy Pease 3:31:50 1993
9. Holly Brooks 3:32:05 2015
10. Nancy Pease 3:32:21 1988
An early version of this story incorrectly stated Nancy Pease's race record of 3:26:20.