Saturday, May 30, 2009


Shoes are probably the most important piece of equipment or clothing that you'll take on the Classic. Your feet will give you more pain than any other part of your body during the race and you should take care of them as much as possible. You might think that you can ignore pain as well as the next bloke and you'll just suffer through it. That might tactic might work in a marathon or on a hike but it doesn't work on the Classic. The abuse your feet and ankles take is just too great. Even if you can mentally withstand the pain, your body can only physically take a certain amount of damage before it slows down.

Not very many racers take full-blown, ankle covering hiking boots. Some do but they are often the people who drop out. The terrain the Classic covers is rough and heavy boots might save your feet a little wear and tear but the extra weight is not worth it.

Many other racers take something smaller than large boots but larger than trail running shoes. These "day hikers" are not a bad choice if you're just looking to finish the race. They are still a bit heavy compared to what you could survive with.

Most competitive racers wear adventure racing or trail running shoes. Don't take regular running shoes. They're not built to withstand the rigors of cross-country travel and after 50 miles of abuse they will fall apart. And after they fall apart, your feet will fall apart.

Trail running shoes are stiffer than regular running shoes because of an insert in the sole and usually have more toe protection than regular street shoes. No matter what you wear, if you're running the race for the first time, your ankles and feet are going to suffer mightily.

By far the most common brand used by competitive racers is Salomon. Most equipment made for adventure racing won't work for the Classic because it's too heavy and won't hold up to the abuse. One notable exception is the Salomon Mens XA Pro 3D Ultra GTX
There's a reason why you'll rarely see these shoes for sale under $100. Salomon knows these shoes are the best and they are going to soak you for the maximum possible amount. If you look for these shoes, contrast the XA Pro with the XA Comp. When you try them on in the store, the Comp might seem more comfortable but the Pro is the better choice because it has a more rigid insole supporting your foot. You'll appreciate this when you're walking creek beds covered with large rocks like these racers on Cooper Creek on the Nabesna to McCarthy route.

The XA Pro's also come in a GTX version. This just means it has some sort of gortex sewn into it. This is just a marketing scam and will add unnecessary weight. Gortex or not your feet will be wet for the whole race anyway, so just get the regular version, if you can find it.  It's not always available.

One more reason to get adventure racing shoes is the nifty little shoe-lace holder that most of them have. Shoe-laces are generally a problem when racing and if you get shoes with the snazzy "quick-cinch" shoe-lace system and a place to tuck in the laces so they don't get snagged you'll save yourself a lot of headache.

Obviously, the XA Pro's won't work for everyone and you should pick what works best for your feet. Whatever you end up getting, take out the paper-thin liner that always comes with shoes and replace it with Superfeet inserts. These will do wonders for your your feet over the long run.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Packrafts are essential equipment for running the Classic. Alaskan rivers are usually big, fast and cold. Crossing or floating them are one of the most dangerous aspects of running the race. When the Classic first started, nobody took a packraft except for Dick Griffith. At the now legendary first significant river crossing during the first race, people learned quickly that Griffith knew what he was doing by bringing a packraft. He crossed quickly and safely while everyone else without a raft was stuck on the other side waiting for the water level to drop.

Soon most people started carrying a raft. Back in "the day" people usually carried Sherpa brand packrafts. Sherpa rafts were burly and got the job done pretty well. After a while racers began to look for ways to cut weight and came across Curtis Designs rafts. These rafts were well-made and super lightweight. Here's a nice Curtis Design raft weighing 1 lb 8oz.

The Curtis Design rafts don't have inflatable floors or a seat and because they're so light, they make running large water very exciting! Especially when you're running the Nizina at flood stage in the dark trying to avoid sweepers and then you get caught in a train of 5 foot standing waves only a few feet from an overhanging cliff with no life-jacket after 14 hours with no food!!

But I digress . . . Whew, sorry for the flashback. Anyway, the Curtis Design rafts are extremely lightweight and are no longer allowed when running the Classic.

Most everyone is familiar with the Sevylor rafts. They are toys made for swimming pools that have a warning on them that they shouldn't be used in real water. You should heed the warning. They're cheap and the bottom almost always rips out and loses air early on in the race. Countless racers have been stranded and had to drop out of the race when their Sevylor got a hole (usually a seam blowout) that couldn't be repaired. They're chincy but they also propelled many a Classic racer to the finish. Most Sevylor's were pretty lightweight at about 3 lbs.

Here's a Classic racer floating Jack Creek at the beginning of the Nabesna to McCarthy route. Notice the feet hanging in the water. This is standard practice with Sevylor's because they are so small.

Alpacka or Sherpa brand packrafts are now required equipment for the Wilderness Classic. Compared to the Curtis Design and Sevylor's, Alpacka rafts are like yachts. They are well designed, made out of bomber material and have basically spawned a whole new sport of packrafting just for fun.

If you find yourself getting addicted to packrafting, check out Roman Dial's book on packrafting.

Here's an early model Alpacka raft weighing 4 lbs 3oz.

You can add all sorts of nifty things to your Alpacka raft. Even though some people complain about the price of an Alpacka, they are well worth the money. Trust me, when you're in big water, you'll be glad you don't have to worry about your boat. Most close calls on the Classic have been in rivers and the requirement for Alpackas is a good one.

The only thing wrong with Alpackas is their weight. They are significantly heavier than rafts used in the past and all the nifty add-ons make it even heavier. When you're trying to shave 100th's of an ounce off your pack weight, 5 lbs of raft is like carrying a Cadillac. You would also do well to verify all listed weights. Weights of these rafts can vary. Sometimes significantly.

I'll write a lot more later on about packrafting on the Classic but here's a note to end this post with. You might think that you can take as long as you want to blow up your raft and the only thing you'll lose is time. Here's a picture of racers hiding in the bushes trying to inflate rafts as fast as possible on the bank of Iron Creek on the Eureka to Talkeetna route. As we were laying out our rafts and getting ready for the final float into Talkeetna, we found a half eaten 25 lb salmon about 5 feet away. The grizzly showed up on the opposite side of Iron Creek just as we were putting our rafts in the water. Needless to say, raft inflation speeds probably rivaled all time records.

1995 Race Results

Black Rapids to McKinley Village
26 people started and 26 finished.

Clark Saunders, winner
Marten Martensen
Kevin Donley
Brant McGee
Roman Dial
Peggy Dial
Michael Martin
Dave Lucey
Jeff Mailloux
Skip Kula
Steve Daigle
Mike Wayt
Brent Widenhouse
Shane Metcalf
John Lapkass
Gregg Tibbetts
Eric Sachs
Mark Ross
Jeff Gedney
John Sisson
Dick Griffith
Barney Griffith
Bobbie Sue Griffith
Brian Hall
Sue Ellen Christiansen
Tom Gillis

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

1994 Race Results

Black Rapids to McKinley Village
22 people started, 16 finished.

Frazier Miller - 2 days, 12 hours and 36 minutes, winner.

Clark Saunders
Randy Melton
Dave Dixon
Stephen Rising
Dave Kramer
Roark Williams
Jeff Sands
Dave Lucey
John Gartiez
Jeff Mallox
Dick Griffith
Barney Griffith
Jim Renkert
John Lapkass
Robin Beebee

Monday, May 25, 2009

Reality Check

This blog was originally meant for just a few friends who are interested in the Classic. Readership has grown so much faster than I thought it would though, I figured it's time to have a reality check. This race is great the way it is. Nobody wants it overrun by wannabes and gumbies getting themselves in over their heads because they read someone's blog.

Call this blog entry a disclaimer, call it the fine print, call it whatever you want. The point of this entry is to convince you not to do the Wilderness Classic. I realize that for a certain subset of the population, this post will be a "call to action" and a challenge to do the race. If that's you, you're exactly the type of person who should not run the Classic.

If you can't get off the couch right now and do an ultra marathon, you shouldn't even think about doing this race. I'm not talking about on a paved bike-path, I'm talking about through the woods with no trail, over mountain passes and through rivers contending with dangerous wildlife and unpredictable conditions.

The men and women who run the Classic are a different breed. They don't seek or need outside ego affirmation. They are the real deal and they are world class athletes. Fitness is only one aspect of this race though. You need superb wilderness skills, stellar fitness and the ability to operate at 110% in potentially life and death situations contending with little sleep and exhaustion.

There's no safety net in the Classic like there is in other adventure races. There are no TV cameras, there are no aid tents and there are no prizes. When you finish the race in some small Alaskan town, no one will be there to applaud. Most locals will look at you like you're crazy and have no idea what you're doing. Most people have never heard of the Classic.

This race is not the place or time to "find yourself" or test your skills and fitness. This race is hard-core. I'm not joking. If, for some crazy reason, you find yourself at the start line and you're not scared, then you have no idea what you're doing. Veteran racers have dropped out minutes before the race has started because it didn't feel right. There's no shame in doing that because this is dangerous and you must be in "The Zone" merely to finish.

"The Eco-Challenge is about perceived danger and actual safety. The Wilderness Classic is about perceived safety and actual danger". Quote from prior race organizer.

"The stress and intensity of the Wilderness Classic is as close as a civilian can come to experiencing actual combat". Quote from prior race winner and Vietnam veteran.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More Packs

Here's a couple examples of packs that might work well. It will depend a lot on how much you think you'll be taking and how much back support you think you'll need for jogging with 22 pounds on your back. More back support is always better for jogging with a pack but at the end of the day, the person with more back support is going to be just as tired as the person without back support and will still be carrying the extra 8 ounces of padding.

Do your own research and find what works for you but the lighter the better.

Vaude Cross Ultralight

You can also check out the Gossamer Mariposa Ultralight.

Or something like the Equinox Katahdin might work.


As with most things on the Wilderness Classic, lighter is better. You really don't need more than a nylong bag to cram your stuff into for a backpack. It doesn't have to be waterproof but if it's not you should line it with a garbage bag to keep your stuff semi-dry. In fact everything you want to keep dry should be in ziploc bags anyway.

Some people have used super light dry bags used for rafting and kayaking. These are handy because they might actually keep your stuff dry. Most of them are pretty heavy though and not very large. You definitely don't need anything with a frame or padding on it unless you're going to carry 30+ pounds. If you're carrying that much then you're probably not worried about speed anyway.

You should try to keep your pack weight below 22 pounds. This is pretty hard to do but it's possible if you don't eat too much and don't take anything to sleep in. Keeping pack weight to a minimum used to be easier before Alpacka rafts were required equipment. These are excellent rafts and they're lightweight relative to other floating devices but they are heavier than what racers used to carry. If you add on a spray-skirt and a life-jacket, you're adding on quite a few pounds. Minimalistic is the best choice. You can add a few ounces here and few ounces there for comfort but it's going to cost you in energy and time. The main question should be can you literally survive without the piece of equipment. If you can't, you should probably take it. If you can, consider if it will increase your speed. If it won't then don't take it.

You should look for a backpack that by itself weighs less than 16oz. Most weigh more than that but it's a good goal. Cut extra straps and material off and take anything metal off of it. You'll usually save several ounces by doing this. Weigh everything on a scale and evaluate anything that weighs more than an ounce. 85 miles into the race, you'll be glad you did.

Some racers have been able to get their pack weight below 20 pounds but this is pretty rare. Anyone who claims their pack is 18 pounds is probably not counting in the weight of a full water bottle or has a funky scale.

Don't forget to use your backpack as a half-sleeping bag and the garbage bag in it as a bivy sack. GoLite makes some good, lightweight packs but there are several other brands out there that will work well also. Look at Walmart or Costco for a super cheap (and inexpensive) pack that you can cut stuff off of. If you pare your pack down to just cheap nylon and a waist belt, you're on the right track.

Line your pack with a garbage bag and tie the top. Put everything in ziplocs inside the garbage bag. Things like fire starter you probably want to put in two ziplocs. Many racers carry smaller bags like a fanny pack somewhere on their body. You won't have time to stop and take your pack off to dig for food or water. Strap your water bottle to your chest and put a few power bars in an outside pocket. You'll dig in your pack a lot less than you think. If something is in the bottom of your pack, you'll probably never get it out just because it takes so much time to unpack.

You should carry absolute survival material on your body somewhere. When your raft flips over and your pack goes floating away, you'll be glad you have a lighter and a couple calories with you.

It may seem strange, but consider what color your pack is. If it's a bright color you can wave it to flag down the helicopter that comes to rescue you when your ankles swell up like cantalope and you think you can't hobble even one more mile. On the other hand if it's a light color then you might boost your competitors' moral when they spot you across the valley. They'll speed up to catch you whereas if they can't see you, they'll still think you're 20 miles ahead of them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The name of the game for Classic specific training is to go long. Speed matters less than length. Training as you would for an ultramarathon is probably the most appropriate but anything that lasts for more than 6 hours is going to help.

Long runs are probably the best but hikes, bike rides and skiing are also good. You should keep moving all the time. If you get tired, slow down but don't stop. Work up to a 12 hour day, then 15. Then do two 15 hour days back to back. On the Classic you'll be carrying at least 20 lbs in a pack so don't forget to add some weight in a small pack in your training.

The leaders and winners of the Classic usually combine a fast walk and running for the first several hours of the race. Try mixing a jog with a fast walk while wearing a 20 lb pack for two hours at the beginning of a 15 hour day. If you can do that, you're in decent Classic shape.

Obviously volumes can be written about training alone so I'll post more about it later.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Bears are a potentially serious hazard when running the Classic. There's never been any major incident but there have been close calls. Bears have eaten rafts, bluff charged racers and added a lot of excitement in an already dangerous race.

Pepper spray is not a bad option although in general pepper spray is more of a psychological protection than an actual defense against bears. A couple people have carried handguns. Adding several pounds onto your weight total by carrying a large caliber handgun is probably a bit excessive. Especially when you consider the abuse it will take during the race and how difficult it is to actually shoot a bear with a handgun.

Most racers rely on their wilderness skills to avoid bear encounters. This is probably the best thing to do. If you're running the race, hopefully you've already spent a fair amount of time in bear country. When you're racing you should be thinking like a bear anyway by taking the easiest route through brush and around hills on game trails. Avoid tall grass, salmon streams, and make noise when traveling through bear country. Sometimes you can smell bears. Some people say they can sense a bear is near by being alert and in tune with their surroundings. Whatever you do, just use your common sense.

Most racers will see grizzlies on most races. But most of the time, the bears will be going the opposite direction and you won't have to worry about it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More Sleeping Strategy

More Sleeping Strategy

After a full, hard day of navigating and racing, the initial race-start adrenaline will have worn off a bit and you'll be left with your core physical condition to keep moving. Hopefully you'll have eaten a minimum of two to three thousand calories during the day to keep your engine from conking out. Depending on your body type, three to four thousand calories is probably a better goal.

At any rate, when you're starting to look for a dry patch of ground to sleep on, start packing in the calories. Ideally, you should eat something high in fat that will give your body enough heat to make it through a couple cold hours laying on the ground. You also shouldn't be too low on hydration, but you probably will be. Drink a liter of water before bed too. It will help your body clean out the lactic acid that built up during the day. What you shouldn't do though is drink a liter of water just as you're laying down. Start drinking an hour before you stop hiking so your body doesn't cool off too much from a huge influx of cold water. A liter of 40° cold water from a river will cool off your body quite a bit and conserving body heat is so important on the Classic.

If you're extremely hypothermic, you can try to build a fire to warm up but it usually takes more time than it's worth. If you're only mildly hypothermic, just hike a little faster. Being cold and wet is just part of the experience, don't waste energy trying to change it. Many racers do the whole race in a mildly hypothermic state.

Some people have used tarps or bottomless tents with mixed results. You'll need a stick to prop it up with and those aren't always around. You can use a ski pole but not everyone takes those along. Some people have just wrapped themselves in a small piece of visqueen. That works ok but you'll be even wetter when you wake up since moisture can't evaporate.

If you're lucky enough to get a fire going, find a way to reflect the heat back toward you. Here we're using an abandoned barrel as a backdrop. It didn't really help warm us up and as soon as it got light we put out the fire and started hiking again.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sleeping Systems

Despite everyone's intent at the beginning of the race to run straight through to the finish without sleeping, inevitably you probably will sleep at some point in the race. It's been done a couple times from start to finish without sleep but not often.

A couple hours of sleep is usually helpful to keep your head about you when packrafting Class III+ waves and figuring out how many miles you are off course. The dilemna comes with deciding when to sleep. Generally, you should be able to run and walk at least 16 hours the first day without stopping for more than a couple minutes. If you make it through the first night without sleeping, you can consider yourself pretty burly.

You'll gain time by not sleeping but you should also consider the extra effort involved for route-finding at night. It's not usually very efficient to travel when it's completely dark, even with a headlamp. Most racers stop moving when it gets too dark to travel. In a mid-summer race, this should be about 2am.

Most racers carry something extremely lightweight to sleep in. Some use a down coat or thick jacket that weighs less than two pounds. I've used a sleeping bag liner inside of a super light bivy sack for a sleeping system of less than one pound. Some people take a sleeping pad and nothing else.

Whatever you use to stay warm, keep your body off the ground as much as possible. Lay on your packraft, put your feet inside your backpack, put your shoes under your feet. If you brought a vest type life-jacket, put it on. If fact, put on all your clothes. Taking a dry pair of socks just for sleeping will usually keep you much warmer also. All these strategies will help keep your body heat from leeching away into the cold ground.

If you make it through the first night without sleeping, you might be able to catch a nap the next day when temperatures are warmer. Your sleep will be much more restful but you'll lose time by not moving. On some Classic routes, there are public use cabins to sleep in. The Solo Mountain cabin on the Nabesna to McCarthy route is one of these. It has a wood stove so you'll be warm and can dry out. The only danger here is the siren call of the bed and there's the danger of staying too long and losing significant time.

Waking up on the morning of the second day at 4am after two hours of sleep on the cold hard ground is difficult. You'll wonder why you started the race at all and you'll be ready to quit. Usually you'll wake up not because you really wanted to wake up and start moving again at 4am but because it's just too cold to sleep anymore. The only way to get warm is to start moving.

This is what a 4am wake-up looks like. Cold and miserable.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

2009 Course

The course for the 2009 Wilderness Classic looks like it'll be a great one. It's the same route that was used in 1994-1996 for the Donnelly to McKinley Village route and then it also covers some of the same ground as the Mentasta to McKinley Village route in 1985-1987. The Mentasta to McKinley Village route was so long and hard on the feet that everyone agreed it shouldn't be done again.

It seemed like the standard Donnelly to McKinley Village course was too short and easy at 140 miles so this year 40-50 miles was added by making the start of the race at the Gerstle River, where it crosses the Alcan Highway. This will definitely make it more difficult and since there's a mandatory checkpoint at Black Rapids where it crosses the Richardson Highway, the temptation to drop out will be very strong.

Imagine that you've just covered the first 45 miles of the race over mountains and through boggy forest in 24 hours, you've only had 2 hours of sleep and you stagger to the Black Rapids checkpoint where people are car camping and drinking beer around a campfire. You're not really going to want to cross the freezing cold Delta River in your packraft and continue another 140 miles through the wilderness. The pull of a warm sleeping bag and cold beer will be strong.

I'll write more about this route in a bit, but in the meantime, here's a link with some great information on the route.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Welcome to the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

I'm just starting this blog. It seemed like a great way to share some information about The Classic and maybe get a little feedback too. I done the race a few times and I know a fair amount about it. Like many other Classic racers I'm obsessed with it even when I'm not doing it. I'm always thinking about how to improve speed, cut weight, figure out a better system to stay warm, dry and alive.

For non-racers it might seem a little obsessive, but anyone who's done the race will tell you the same thing: there's something primal about covering hundreds of miles of the roughest terrain on our planet in such a short amount of time. The race is the antitheses of every-day life. It's exhausting, dangerous and it'll test you to an extent you never knew possible.

If you think you're tough and you haven't survived The Classic, you don't know what tough is. You'll puke, weep and almost freeze to death. Maybe all at the same time. The Wilderness Classic can change your life.

Anyway, with the introduction over I hope to post here occassionally and share some knowledge with future racers and maybe swap ideas with current ones.