Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2008 Race Report

27th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race Report
June 15, 2008 - Chicken to Central

The running of the 27th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race was the third and final installment of the grueling Chicken to Central course. The course will long be remembered as one of extreme difficulty and attrition, with success rates for the three year period hovering below 60%. The fact that this may well be the first ever Classic where the winning time in successive races became longer rather than shorter speaks volumes about the course. This winning time this year was 5 hours longer than the winning time last year, and 12 hours longer than the winning time in 2006.

A Showdown at Circle Hot Springs
The four winners of the 2008 Classic represented the merging of two teams: Tyler Johnson & Craig “Chunk” Barnard, and Butch Allen & Jim McDonough. How these two teams came to cross the finish line together is a story that will pass into Classic legend.

After traveling separately along slightly different routes over the previous 4+ days, the two teams arrived at Circle Hot Springs at almost exactly the same time, with only 8 miles of gravel road separating them from the finish line in Central. After the initial shock of seeing other racers this late in the game wore off, an old-fashioned, Wild West standoff ensued.

The two teams, although tired and battered, squared up, face to face, to size each other up. The tension was palpable. You could smell the testosterone and body odor. Who would blink first? Who would make the first move towards the road to Central? Nobody wanted to back down. As one racer had remarked at the start of the race, “There will be blood.”

McDonough spoke first. “Well, gentlemen, we have two choices: we can take off running and run until the last man is standing, or we can all shake hands and walk into Central as winners.”

After a few seconds, Chunk broke the silence. “If we walk in, does that mean that I would still be exempt from having to pay future race entry fees?” Race director Butch Allen replied, “Yes. Once you win a Classic you are exempt for life.” “Then that sounds good to me!” Chunk replied.

With the tension finally broken, and Chunk dreaming of a lifetime of free races, the four racers shook hands and congratulated each other and began the victory march to Central. After several miles on the hard-packed gravel, the racers all agreed that the decision to not take part in an all-out sprint was a wise one. All four of the racers began to experience the phenomena that the previous race winner Bobby Schnell has dubbed “exploding feet.” Exploding feet often occurs after hours or days of walking on soft, wet trails, followed by a rapid transition to hard gravel or pavement.

Feet swelled and blisters oozed. Walking the last eight miles was challenging, and by the last mile the pace of the group had slowed to 1.5 miles per hour. Fortunately, cold swamp water in the roadside ditches allowed for periodic soakings. Finally, the group hobbled into the finish like a bunch of old men. It was agreed by all that attempting to run the last eight miles would have done some serious and lasting foot damage.

A Tale of Two Routes
The Johnson/Barnard team (293 total miles) and Allen/McDonough team (284 total miles) followed similar routes. Concerned about possible low water in the Charley basin, both teams floated the 40-Mile River from Chicken towards the border. With travel in Canada strictly prohibited, the Johnson/Barnard team took out at the border and headed due north, following the border cut (a.k.a. the “Swath”) directly. They stayed on the Swath for about 20 miles before traversing inland and taking the high country to the Yukon to avoid the last two burned-out canyons and the dreaded “Valley of 10,000 Sticks.”

The Allen/McDonough team arrived a few hours later and took out at Sam Patch Creek, about a quarter-mile before the border. Having experienced the pain and misery of the Swath in 2006, the boys immediately headed for the high ridges just west of the border. By connecting the ridges and high points, they avoided traveling in the burned out valleys where the trees resembled a giant’s game of “Pick-Up-Sticks”. The ridges were fairly easy traveling since the burned up trees at elevation were smaller diameter and had not started falling over yet. Higher yet, the traveling was even easier on the treeless tundra. Their new route was 9 miles longer (34 miles versus 25) than taking the border cut directly, but they were able to shave almost 7 full hours off their time from 2006 (29 hours versus 36 hours). Having avoiding the dreaded "Valley of 10,000 Sticks", they were literally giddy with laughter when they reached the Yukon and inflated their rafts.

The 110-mile float down the Yukon to Woodchopper Creek that followed was fairly smooth for both teams, with Allen/McDonough making only two brief stops to allow storm squalls to pass. It was also a great opportunity to rest the feet and take some cat-naps in the warm sun. McDonough had purchased a larger packraft specifically for this purpose, and with his 5’5” frame nestled fully inside the raft, it was like having a fully enclosed cabin-cruiser.

Allen/McDonough arrived at Slaven's Cabin just as Johnson/Barnard were leaving. Johnson said they had overslept, taking a total of six hours rest. They told Allen/McDonough exactly where they were going - all the way up Woodchopper and into the high country to avoid the swamps and bushwhacking. There are very few people in Alaska that are stronger in the high country than Tyler and Chunk, and they were certainly playing to their strengths. Tyler recently summitted Cho Oyu without bottled oxygen and Chunk, a Cooper Landing carpenter, arguably spends more days backcountry skiing than anyone else in Alaska. Both are mountain goats for sure. After drying out their gear, Allen & McDonough slept for only three hours to make up some lost time. They gorged on sausage fried in bacon grease before hitting the trail.

The Ghost of Joe Vogler
Allen/McDonough initially planed to head all the way up the valley to the head of Woodchopper Creek, traverse the pass, and then drop down in the Yukon Fork of Birch Creek to float from there. However, the possibility of low water in Birch Creek had cast serious doubts on their plan. As they headed up the valley and started to climb, they crossed what later turned out to be the infamous Joe Vogler (a.k.a. Bielenberg) Cat Trail. They had heard rumors that the trail went all the way to Woodchopper, but nobody associated with the race had yet found the missing link. The Park Service claimed that they had stopped Vogler and his D-8 Caterpillar at Webber Creek, miles short of his intended destination: his mining claim at Woodchopper. The news reports said that Vogler’s dozer was left in its tracks. The July 14, 1984 armed standoff between Vogler’s crew and the Park Service was later dubbed the "Battle of Webber Creek" by the media.

Having a passable trail in front of them, Allen/McDonough abandoned their plans to head into the high country and followed the trail. It seemed to be the only possible way they could keep pace with Johnson/Barnard who, at this point, were several hours ahead of them.

Apparently, Old Joe Vogler must have snuck back in a few weeks later and fired up the cat to finish the job. The dozer track does indeed go all the way from Vogler's claim (now owned by Stan Gelvin) at Woodchopper, past Webber Creek, to the east shore of Birch Creek, and finally on to Circle Hot Springs. Allen/McDonough stayed on the track the whole way in, almost 40 miles from Woodchopper to Circle Hot Springs. Although the track is overgrown in spots and under water for at least half of its length, it was still manageable. By staying in one of the two depressions left by the dozer tracks, they avoided having to walk on top of the wobbly tussocks. The muddy sections presented the greatest challenge, where the depths would range from a few inches to over a foot deep. They had to be careful not to let the deep mud suck the shoes off of their feet.

It took Allen/McDonough about 36 hours to make the 40-mile run from Woodchopper to Circle Hot Springs. Several sections of trail forced them to wade through thigh-deep swamp, but by staying in the dozer ruts they could still manage at least a half-a-mile per hour through the worst of it. They slept on the trail for only one hour during the heat of the day, knowing full well that Johnson/Barnard may still have the advantage in the high country above them. Allen/McDonough could see the ridges and peaks to the south the whole time, and could only speculate on what kind of progress the other team was making.

The Amazing Taco Bell Traverse
As Allen/McDonough slogged through the swamp trail below, Johnson/Barnard were busy working on their masterpiece in the high country. The dynamic duo climbed to the head of Woodchopper, and stayed in the high country for close to 42 miles. Their route to Circle Hot Springs took them up and down no less than ten different peaks, with a total elevation gain of over 15,000 vertical feet (per TOPO route data). Johnson said they had no other choice than to tackle each peak directly. Slippery and unstable slopes of slag would not allow for any side-hilling whatsoever. Additionally, large, unstable boulder fields also had to be navigated, and on more than one occasion, the boys had to react quickly to avoid being crushed by an unstable boulder.

Their traverse should go down as one of the more noteworthy efforts in recent memory, especially when considering how late in the race it took place. At a time when most racers begin to fall apart, Tyler and Craig seemed to get stronger. Also noteworthy is the food the boys were carrying – mostly burritos from Taco Bell.

Into Circle Hot Springs
When Allen/McDonough hit the final stretch of the trail after crossing Birch Creek, they saw no human footprints in the mud ahead of them. Filled with adrenaline at the prospect of their first Classic victory, they pushed hard for the last 11 miles through the muddy trail.

McDonough was pumped up for what looked to be their first Classic victory in six attempts. Allen refused to acknowledge him, repeating the phrase "It's the Classic - anything can happen. Somebody could pop out of the brush at any moment." And Allen was absolutely right. The team was only about a third of a mile from Circle Hot Springs Resort when Johnson/Barnard simply “appeared from nowhere” from the high country and descended onto the trail. It took a few seconds to realize that the two men approaching them were not a hallucination.

McDonough summarized his thoughts: “All along the course, we kept waiting for the wheels to fall off like they typically do. But it just never happened. The food was plentiful. No major navigational mistakes. The route seemed to lie down in front of us. We slept for a total of eight hours which was just enough to avoid hallucinations. As the race went on, we became more and more aware of what was happening, as unbelievable as it was. It's not something that happens often during these races. Sharing the victory with Craig and Tyler was also special, after witnessing what they had done up in the high country. To watch those guys pull off such a huge traverse, especially so deep into a long race, was nothing short of spectacular.”

The Jedi of Pain
This year’s 2nd Place finisher was none other than the “Jedi of Pain” himself, Dr. John Lapkass. As most of you know, John typically makes it a point to race solo and goes to great lengths to keep his whereabouts and his route top secret. John also enjoys longer routes versus shorter ones, assuring that he will enter the “higher plane of enlightenment” that he seeks year after year. The 2008 race represents John’s 16th Classic.

John followed a similar route as the winners, but skipped past Woodchopper Creek and opted for Thanksgiving Creek instead. After battling up Thanksgiving Creek (which is a straight-up bushwhack with no trails whatsoever), he hooked up with the Vogler/Bielenberg trail and followed the swampy track to the finish. His time of 5 days, 15 hours and 57 minutes was almost a full day faster than his time from 2007. John’s 2nd place effort represents what is believed to be his best finish ever. Congratulations, John!

Those racers who stayed up into the wee hours of Friday morning to see John finish were able to witness his euphoric state firsthand. While standing around the fire, John pointed out many of the vivid hallucinations he was experiencing, most notably the Tin Man (from the Wizard of Oz) and the Talking Squirrel in the Fire. John also described the “rock radio” he encountered on the trail last year and again this year. He said the boulder was in the exact same location as last year, only this year it was playing Spanish music rather than Top 40 pop. The particular hallucination was so real that he actually inspected the rock to see if any wires were attached.

7 Days of Bliss
This year’s 3rd place finishers consisted of “Iron” Mike Sullivan and Leo Claunan, both professional pararescuemen (or “PJ’s”) with the Air National Guard in Anchorage. Mike and Leo were the only racers to complete the Charley route this year, and they deserve special mention for grinding out the route despite the low water conditions. They suffered through low water, dwindling food supplies, a few navigational errors, a huge hole in Mike’s raft and Leo’s blown-out shoe. As was the case last year, the Yukon Fork of Birch Creek had very little water in it, and the duo was forced to walk many miles of creek bed before they could float in their rafts. Mike, having scratched the two previous years, was bound and determined to finish the course this year. Their perseverance paid off with a finish time of 7 days, 8 hours and 44 minutes. Way to stay with it, fellas!

The Indomitable Dick Griffith
The 2008 Classic marked the first and only time that the race has had a Master’s Division. Race director Butch Allen created a special rule that allowed all racers over the age of 80 to both enter Canada and use the Steese Highway from Circle to Central.

We only had one official entrant in the Master’s Division – The amazing Dick Griffith, just shy of 81 years old. As most of you know, Dick is truly the Godfather of Alaska adventure racing and the Wilderness Classic. Dick also pioneered the use of the packraft and has floated more rivers since the Classic began in 1982 than most of us can count.

Dick was accompanied by longtime racing companion Jerry Dixon. Some of the duo’s history includes racing together in 4 Wilderness Classics, traversing 7 mountain ranges and skiing 600 miles of the Iditarod Trail. For Jerry, a former smokejumper and Fire Management Officer in the 40-Mile/Eagle area, it was truly an honor to travel with Dick through his old stomping grounds. The pair made several historical stops along the way, including the Long Tom cabin on the 40-Mile River (built in 1910), Jerry’s hand-made log cabin in Eagle, The public use cabin at Nation (built in 1908) and, of course, the amazing Slaven’s Cabin. Dick and Jerry finished the course in the neighborhood of five days.

Jerry described his time with Dick as a magic journey, and likened the experience to “being 20 years old again.” Jerry said one of the highlights of the trip was experiencing the thunderstorms, lighting and rain while on the Yukon.

Dick announced that this, believed to be his 25th race, will be his last Wilderness Classic. He said, “I was already old when this started”, way back in 1982. Dick’s favorite course is still Nabesna to McCarthy, with Eureka to Talkeetna a close second. When Dick introduced the packraft to the Classic in 1982 and nearly beat men that were half his age, he uttered one of his most famous quotes: “Old age and treachery will beat youth and vigor every time.”

We sincerely thank Dick on behalf of all racers, past and present. Dick, your contributions to this race and to human-powered exploration in general will live on for generations to come. Sharing the course with you for one last time has certainly been our privilege. Best wishes on your future journeys.

Return of the Iron Maiden
The 2008 race marked the return of Nora Tobin, whom Dick has dubbed “The Iron Maiden.” As most of you may already know, Nora suffered a severe back injury while skiing back in November of 2007, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. She shattered 3 vertebrae, but luckily did not damage her spinal cord.

To have Nora on the course again was a treat for everyone, as she carries such a positive energy with her wherever she treads. Although low water in the Charley and blistered feet forced her and her partner Brook Kintz to scratch and float the Charley to Circle, it was still a great effort considering, just six months ago, she was hobbling around in a walker with metal rods and screws holding her spine together. She had the body cast removed in March. We all hope to see Nora again in 2009, when she is fully recovered and showing all of the boys how it is supposed to be done. Welcome back, Nora!

Cat Scratch Fever……
As was the case last year, the Charley drainage was low and not kind to racers. The rookie duo of Kyle Amstadter and Ryan Johnson made a noble effort, but eventually scratched at Circle. After dropping into Fish Creek too early (they were lured in by snow that appeared to be water), the duo became separated and lost precious time to bushwhacking and attempting to float the low water in Fish Creek. Their key learning points were: stick to the plan, don’t get separated and never forget that Alaska is Big.

Michael Martin, a professor of Oral Medicine for the University of Washington and a Classic veteran, was fully prepared to lay siege to the Charley route. Knowing it was a long course, he carried a well-stocked pack that weighed 44 pounds at the start. Unfortunately, he succumbed to severe nausea about 30 miles in. After resting and attempting to recover, he decided to slowly head back to Chicken.

Rob “The Yak” Kehrer and Matt Reardon, veterans of the Eureka to Talkeetna races, also fell victim to a similar illness when Rob went down during their traverse from the 40-Mile to the Yukon. The pair had been moving together very well up until the point where Rob’s GI tract literally stopped them in their tracks. By the time Rob had recovered, the duo decided to finish the traverse to the Yukon and float down to Circle where they officially scratched. Knowing how much these guys enjoy racing together certainly guarantees that they will be back in the not too distant future.

Recap and Looking Forward to 2009
2008 was a success in that nobody required outside rescue. All of the people who scratched were able to self-rescue. No planes or helicopters were put into the air. Undeniably, the primary reason for this is the use of satellite phones. Sat phones will continue to be the one and only piece of mandatory gear required by every racer. It is a small price to pay to keep our humble little race off of the front page of the Daily News.

In keeping with Classic tradition, 2009 will mark the start of a new course for three more years. No course decisions have been made yet, but rest assured that the new course will be challenging, unique and will offer many possible route options.

A Special Thanks
Many thanks to the Busby Family and the crew of the Chicken Gold Camp, who once again sent us off in style from Chicken. Your kindness and accommodation will not soon be forgotten.

Thanks also to the Steese Roadhouse in Central, who served many meals to hungry racers and allowed us to use their facility as our command post.

We were fortunate to once again have use of Rourke William’s family homestead at the finish line in Central. Rourke, we are forever in your debt! Many beers were consumed and tales told and retold around the comfort of your fire pit. And we can’t say enough about having real beds to sleep on.

Sherri Tingey has come through once again and agreed to donate a brand new Alpacka Raft. Butch will be coordinating the drawing, which will take place at the post-race party. Stay tuned for times and dates….

And, last but certainly no least, a heartfelt thanks goes out to Ann Marie Sack and Gabriel Goldstein for giving up their time to help the racers at the finish. Ann Marie continues to be our “Angel of Mercy” at the end of a long course. We hope that she still finds us entertaining enough to lend support next year on the new course. And Chef Gabriel is welcome back anytime. That beef stew was to die for, brother!

Respectfully submitted,
Jim McDonough

Official Results – 16 starters, 9 finishers

First Place:
Butch Allen & Jim McDonough
Tyler Johnson & Craig Barnard: 4 days, 22 hrs, 56 minutes

Second Place:
John Lapkass: 5 days, 15 hours, 57 minutes (solo)

Third Place:
Mike Sullivan & Leo Claunan: 7 days, 8 hours, 44 minutes

Master’s Division Winner:
Dick Griffith, age 81 (accompanied by Jerry Dixon): Approx. 5 days.

Matt Reardon & Rob Kehrer (illness – floated out to Circle from above Eagle)
Michael Martin (illness – floated 40-mile back towards Chicken)
Nora Tobin & Brook Kintz (low water in Charley/bad feet – floated out to Circle)
Kyle Amstadter & Ryan Johnson (low water in Charley – floated out to Circle)

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