Sunday, July 9, 2017

Kesugi Ridge Traverse race recap

In my last post, I mentioned that I was running the Kesugi Ridge Traverse a couple of Saturdays ago, June 24. Well, I did, and it was awesome, and I will tell you all about it.

Kesugi Ridge is in the Denali area, so it is a couple of hours’ driving distance from my house. The race starts at the Little Coal Creek trailhead, and ends at Byer’s Lake campground and trailhead. The race director had arranged a free (although rocky) group camping spot at Byer’s Lake, so I decided to head up Friday night and spend the night. Becky and her friend Vivian decided to come with me (the same kids that crewed for me at AETR), which again worked out well. When we got to Byer’s Lake, the group campsite was as rocky as advertised, but I was able to find a fairly comfortable spot right next to the only other person I knew that was running the race, my friend Chris, who was also at AETR, and managed an amazing 57 miles in his 12 hour race. He’s fast, so I knew I wouldn’t see him once the race actually started.  The girls slept in the back of my Cherokee, and I put up my 1 person tent, and was quite comfortable. Chris lent me one of his inflatable sleeping pads, and I have been tempted to buy one before, and now I’m convinced I have to have one.

I always worry that I am going to oversleep for a morning race (even though I never have), so I set multiple alarms on my cell phone. I woke up half an hour before my first alarm, though, and briefly thought about going back to sleep, but didn’t. I found I had slept very comfortably, and wasn’t sore anywhere, which is not my normal camping experience. Gotta get a sleeping pad.

It’s a good thing I got an early start, because I was still barely ready at go time. I made a quick breakfast of Optavia blueberry and almond hot cereal (yummy) with water boiled in my new Jetboil stove. That’s a new purchase for me, and this was my first time using it. The instructions were frustrating, as they were all pictures, without written instructions, and I found it to be too much to decipher first thing in the morning. Chris, however, is well versed in Jetboil use, and showed me pretty quickly how it worked. That thing was amazingly fast! It had my ½ cup of water boiled in seconds! I mentally went through my packing while I ate, and decided which foods and how much I was bringing with me. Then I packed up my tent and sleeping bag, returned the sleeping pad to Chris, and we were on our way to the Little Coal Creek trailhead, where the race began, 20 miles further up the Parks Highway.

When I got there, I tried to quickly get organized and get ready to go. What I thought was plenty of time turned out to be barely enough. In fact, a friend lent me a Delorme In Reach satellite beacon with tracking and text capabilities and I didn’t even get it turned on. I decided that if I needed it, I would turn it on then. In fact, I didn’t even get my GPS watch searching for the satellite soon enough, and the race started before I even had a signal. I was .2 miles into the race by the time my watch was ready to go. Oh well. I just had to add .2 to all my distances.

So, this race has a pretty tough cutoff at about the halfway point. You have to make it to about mile 14.5 in 4 hours to be able to continue the race. If you don’t make it, you have to hike out at Ermine Hill instead of going all the way to Byer’s Lake. I knew, thanks to simple math, that I was going to have to really push to have a chance at making the cutoff. So I did not stop to take any pictures at all, because I didn’t want to waste a single precious second. All the photos are borrowed from when I hiked this with my family last summer.

The first mile is sort of rolling trail through the woods. But the next 2+ miles are pretty much straight uphill. You gain over 1000 feet of elevation in those 2 miles. Those miles took me a long time, like 26 minutes per mile. That ate a big chunk out of my 4 hours. Over an hour had passed by the time I got to the top of the ridge. 

I was already starting to worry, but I had given this a lot of thought ahead of time. I decided that I was going to keep pushing, and try my best to make the cutoff, but also not stress about it if I didn’t. Either way, I was going to be spending most of the day running in the mountains and I was determined to enjoy it no matter what. So every time I started worrying about the cutoff, I reminded myself to just keep going and do the best I could and not worry about the time.

Once up on top of the ridge, the terrain becomes rolling, with lots of ups and downs, but is very rocky. I found that there were only a few places that I could confidently run at anything close to full speed. I tripped lots of times, but didn’t actually fall. 

And I have to say I HATE crossing boulder fields, but I did it. They were much easier with my running pack than they were with a 35 pound backpack the previous summer.

(Did I say I hate boulder fields? Well, I do. Here I am last summer, picking my way across one while my husband patiently waits. And occasionally helpfully tells me to "step on that one")

The weather was sunny and very warm, and there were beautiful views of Denali for a little while before it got clouded over.

I ran and I ran, and I pushed as hard as I could given the terrain, but I didn’t make the cutoff. I missed it by 36 minutes. I was disappointed, but I’m confident I’ll make it next year. After passing the Ermine Hill junction, you have to go about ¼ mile farther down the trail to get to the checkpoint, and it was up a steep hill. Climbing that hill, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to continue running, was the only time in the race that I got really frustrated. I was still feeling really good, and felt confident that if I had made the cutoff, I would have been able to finish the race. After checking in with the volunteer at the checkpoint, I stopped to finally take some pictures of the beautiful rocks all around me, then headed back down the hill to the Ermine Hill trail junction. 

Once I got back down to the junction, I took off my shoes and socks to tend to my feet, which had blistered during the race and been ignored. They felt much better after putting chapstick on the blisters and letting them be bare for a couple of minutes.

My plan was to run down the 3.75 miles or so to the trailhead. The race sweep was just behind me, and we quickly caught up to a girl that had gotten to the checkpoint about 10 minutes before I did. She was not in very good shape. It was really warm and sunny, and we had all been out in the sun for close to 5 hours by that point. She was stumbling down the trail with her trekking poles swinging aimlessly. I called out and when she turned around, her gaze was clearly unfocused. She said she wasn’t feeling very good, and I believed her. As we were talking to her, sort of assessing her condition, we passed a tiny streamlet that crossed the trail. I encouraged her to dip her buff in the water, which was nicely cold, and drape it around her neck. She did that, and I tried to get her to do the same with her headband, but no luck. I took my hat off and dipped it in the stream too and the cold water felt really good on my head.  We found a patch of shade and had her sit and rest for a bit, and encouraged her to drink some water. She did, and promptly threw up. I was starting to worry that she might not make it out on her own feet, but after resting for a while, she was able to eat a few dried mangos and drink some more water and kept that down. Soon she was looking much better, and we got to our feet and started moving again. 

We crossed another steam and I made her get her buff wet again, but she was doing much better, and was able to make it all the way to the trailhead under her own power. After a few minutes wait, a shuttle (a guy in a Subaru that was helping out with the race) picked us up and took us to the finish area at Byer’s Lake, where I got some food and watched some other runners finish.

I was hoping to see Chris finish, but by the time I was ready to go (and the girls were begging to go), he wasn’t in yet. Chris is a strong runner, though, so I wasn’t worried, and headed home. Turns out I should have worried. Apparently, several runners really struggled with the heat and suffered badly from cramping, including Chris. He had a really tough day out there, and since he is a friend, I felt bad that I wasn’t there to support him when he was able to make it across that finish line. I’ve heard second hand, though, about his commitment to making it across that finish line himself, even after being encouraged to let a 4 wheeler bring him in, and I am super impressed with his strength and persistence.

It really was super hot and sunny, and while the weather was a blessing because rain can really make for a crappy run with poor visibility, you are completely exposed the entire time you are up on that ridge, with no shade anywhere to get a break from that unrelenting sun beating on the rocks. The trail sweeps were familiar with the course and had Delorme satellite beacons in case of emergency, and they were friendly and supportive of the slower runners (including me). This was an excellent, well organized, well prepared race and I completely enjoyed every minute I was out there.

I mentioned in my last post that I was using this run as sort of a decision point for Angel Creek 50. Although I felt great, I did not make the cutoff at the halfway point, and I have decided to not try to run Angel Creek 50 this year. Instead, I am going to focus on being ready for Resurrection Pass 50, which is on August 12, because I think if I can get some quality training in between now and then, it’s totally doable for me. Angel Creek will have to wait til next year. I know Travis and Chris are both running it though, and I wish both of those guys lots of luck. Travis missed the cut off by 1 minute last year, after battling through some nasty conditions. The weather looks like it could be much better this year, and I think he’s got it in the bag. I can’t wait to see how they do!

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