Wednesday, September 14, 2011

1997 Race Info and Race History

I got the following article from Roman Dial's archives.  After scanning it and doing some digital gymnastics, it cleans up nicely.  Claire Holland penned it after completing the 1997 Wilderness Classic.  It has some great history of some of the earlier races that I haven't seen anywhere else.  Thank you again to Roman Dial for saving all this great material.

Claire Holland - 1997
I saw the dimpled river current straight ahead, but I misjudged-I thought we could clear it. By the time I'd realized my mistake it was too late. We hit the rock squarely and the 3 pound inflatable raft flipped, spilling its contents, including Angelicka and me, into the Fox River. Now Angelicka was wrapped inside my sleeping bag and a blazing fire of logjam wood warmed us both. As veteran wilderness racer Roman Dial once quipped "ln the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic it only takes seconds to switch from race mode to survival mode."

Indeed, Angelicka and I had managed to stay in race mode for most of the 1997 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic (AMWC) which traversed the Kenai Peninsula from north to south, starting in Hope and finishing in Homer. Only four days before our Fox River dunking we had joined 25 other racers at the starting line on Hope's main street. After flipping the raft, Angelicka and I emerged from the frigid Fox River in the initial stages of hypothermia. Once warmed we would return to race mode, running the Fox in my Sherpa pack raft, and angling towards the race's finish line at the end of the Homer Spit.

Each year since 1981 participants in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic (AMWC) have met in end of the road places like Nabesna, Hope and Mentasta Lake to compete in this obscure wilderness race. Every three years the start and finish points change in order to prevent race veterans from monopolizing on their extensive knowledge of the course. Racers may connect the start and finish points in any manner they choose as long as they use only foot or paddle power and they stay off of Alaska's road system. Total distance of the race varies from route to route but averages around 150 miles. The AMWC is a loosely organized event and has only a few simple rules. Racers must carryall the food and gear they will need for the entire race. They may accept food and aid along the way from only their fellow racers. As the most current race information packet explains: "There will be no people to check up on anybody. There will be no trail sweep. This is a wilderness race. Come prepared for the wilderness on its terms."

The AMWC is so challenging and remote that the pool of competitors tends to simply self select. Would-be racers must evaluate both their repertoire of backcountry skills and their ability to deal with the inherent dangers of the AMWC: wildlife encounters, fording glacial streams and rivers and floating the same in tiny inflatable pack-rafts, changing weather conditions and the vastness and wildness of the country through which the racers travel. To race safe, participants must also know when to switch between race mode and survival mode. In its 17-year history the AMWC has seen many close calls, few serious injuries and no fatalities. As Adrian Crane, the first non-Alaskan to take first place in the AMWC said after the 1990 race, "It's a challenge at whatever pace you do it."

The AMWC's starting line has never been crowded. The 1984 race, which attracted 35 to the starting line, holds the record for the highest turnout while, with only eleven starters, the 1986 race hosted the smallest turnout to date. Over the race's 17-year history, the average ratio of starters to finishers is around 10 to 6.

Some race observers have concluded that AMWC participants are slightly unhinged. As a veteran of six Classics, however, I take exception to that theory. What I've learned my fellow racers and I share in common is not lunacy but an unyielding desire to test our mettle via the challenge of lean, efficient wilderness travel. The achievement in doing the race is simply to finish it. And for some of us, the race becomes a yearly ritual, another event to add to the family calendar along with salmon runs, hunting trips and springtime skiing.

For some racers, like three-time winner Hank Timm, the AMwe is just a sped-up version of their lifestyle. Timm, who with his wife and family settled on 22 acres of remote land near the Robertson River in 1981, was the first of only two finishers in the 1985 AMWC. The 1985 race marked the first year the race moved from its inaugural Hope to Homer route; racers traced their own line between Mentasta Lake and McKinley Park and at 235 miles the route is the longest ever undertaken in the race's history. Timm meticulously studied the route, sorted and selected gear and relied on the skills and strength he'd gained from trapping, hunting, log-building and exploring his home territory in the Robertson River country. Though 14 competitors lined up at Mentasta in 1985 only Timm and second place finisher Tim Cory completed the course.

The 1986 race marked the first time that accomplished endurance athletes from the lower 48 participated. They were Tom Possert, who at the time held the country's record for travelling the most miles by foot in 24 hours and Adrian Crane who once ran across the entire Himalaya Mountain Range. Though both Possert and Crane lacked the bush savvy and wilderness skills of the Alaskan racers, they managed to finish their first Classic in third place. Timm, meanwhile, easily won his second race, knocking two days from his 1985 time.

Timm logged his third race victory in 1987, when his presence at the start was an incongruous sight. He and partner Randy Pitney straddled mountain bikes, each carrying half of a 16-foot folding canoe on their backs. Timm's totally unorthodox plan was to bike the old Tok Trail (which is not part of the state's highway system) to the Tok River, then paddle the Tok River to the Tanana River and take out 450 miles downstream in Nenana. From Nenana, Timm and Pitney planned to switch back to their bikes and follow the railroad bed into McKinley Park. Though this route more than doubled the total mileage of the standard 235-mile route, Timm and Pitney not only won the race, but finished in just over four and a half days. After the 1987 race, rules were changed to prohibit the use of mountain bikes.

In 1988 the race route switched again, this time from Nabesna to McCarthy. The 1988 race yielded the Classic's second three-time winner when Roman Dial, who won in 1982 and 1983, handily beat an extremely competitive field that included Timm. Possert, Crane and Dave Manzer, the perennial second-place finisher who still holds the course record of 3 % days for the Hope to Homer race. Dial, a biology professor at Alaska Pacific University, has been called "Alaska's best all¬terrain vehicle." He's travelled Alaska's most remote and rugged terrain in a fashion similar to the AMWC: quick and lean. Recently Dial completed a mountain bike traverse of the entire Alaska Range, a distance of over 700 miles.

The next three-time winner cut his wilderness racing teeth in the 1988 race, when he put in one of the best showings by a rookie racer. Alaskan born and bred Brant McGee exhibits a race style toughened by his stint as a front-line medic in the Vietnam War as well as by a lifetime of travelling Alaska's backcountry on hunting trips and expeditions. McGee won the 1990 Nabesna to McCarthy race and the 1991 and 1992 Classics, when the course was moved to the Brooks Range. For McGee, who's been at the starting line for seven races, part of the race's ongoing appeal is that it is a challenge few people can or choose to do.

Though he's never won a Wilderness Classic, Dick Griffith is no less a legend than any of these multiple winners. White-haired and sporting the best pair of calf muscles this side of the Himalayas, the 72-year old Griffith has completed 14 Classics. He is universally recognized as the father of the pack raft strategy. At the Skilak River crossing between Hope and Homer in 1982, Roman Dial, race founder George Ripley and Dave Manzer were pacing up and down the riverbank like nervous dogs, looking for a safe place to cross when Griffith arrived and calmly extracted a small nylon bundle from his pack. He blew up his 3 lb. Sherpa pack raft and left the other three racers to ponder their chilly swim. Later in the race the raft allowed Griffith to avoid a nasty bushwhack along the Fox River. He instead floated the logjam-choked river, giving his feet a much-needed break, and arrived at the finish only 4 hours behind Dial.

Griffith, whose tough exterior only partially conceals a genuinely kind and thoughtful nature usually ends up unofficially sweeping the race route. Utilizing a steady, strong pace he eventually catches up with the walking wounded and sometimes disoriented stragglers. He is most proud of the number of women racers he has accompanied, starting with Kathy Sarns and Diane Catsam, who traveled with him from Hope and Homer in 1984 and were the first two women to successfully compete in the AMWC. One year Griffith loudly complained that race rules concerning outside help were too restrictive. He had been forced to forego bush etiquette by turning down a cup of coffee offered by a miner along the race route. Race rules were thus amended and now read: "No racer under 60 years old may receive anything from non-race participants."

One more racer has managed to log a trio of victories in the AMWC. As Griffith wrote in his summary of the 1993 Brooks Range race: "Gordy Vernon was delirious, disoriented and last in the 1991 race. Gordy was delirious, disoriented and last in the 1992. And Gordy was delirious, disoriented and FIRST in the 1993 race. How do you explain that?" Vernon did, in fact, spend most of the 1991 and 1992 races lost in the Brooks Range. His route-finding obviously improved, however, since besides his 1993 Brooks Range win he went on to win the 1997 Hope to Homer race with rookie Thai Verzone and completed a solo win on the same course in 1998. Vernon penned the best first hand account of the race in his 1991 essay titled "Crazed Souls, Raw Feet" in which he described his first AMWC experience, when he followed Dick Griffith from Nabesna to McCarthy. Goaded by Dick and Dick's son Barney, Vernon ran the last eight miles into McCarthy in order to take third place by passing Rich Irvin and Will Sherman just a few feet from the finish line at the McCarthy lodge. This is one of the closest finishes ever in the race's history.

I entered the 1997 AMWC alongside my friend Angelicka Castaneda, a 53-year old triathlete from southern California. Our Fox River swim was the closest to survival mode we knowingly came the whole race. We covered nearly a third of the course in the first day, following the well-maintained Resurrection trail from Hope to the Sterling Highway. Once we left the ease of the trail at Russian Lakes. however, our pace slowed abruptly. We made our way south through Confusion Hills, along the Skilak glacier and overland to the 2000-foot Killey River canyon. We crawled out of the canyon and up to the alpine country at the headwaters of the Funny River and then down to Tustemena Lake. From Tustemena we navigated through a beetle-killed spruce forest and came out on the Fox River where we blew up my raft and floated to the head of Kachemak Bay. The final portion of our route followed the Kachemak Bay shoreline for 25 miles. When we finished at the Road's End Resort in third place at 2:00AM, five and a half days after we left Hope, the only person in sight was the resort's night clerk. We signed a finish log we found hanging on a bulletin board and crawled into the back of Dick Griffith's pickup truck. While Angelicka fell asleep immediately I sipped one of Dick's beers and contemplated the after effects I knew were forthcoming. By morning my feet would be tender and swollen and my joints numb. Scratches and bruises I'd sustained bushwhacking through alder thickets would color my body in shades of purple, blue and yellow. Though my body will always bear accurate witness to the abuse of wilderness racing, I know from experience that it will take more than pain and discomfort to keep me from the starting line of another Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.
As Gordy Vernon so aptly said at the end of the 1997 race: "The first year you do it for your ego. The second year you do it because you know you can do better. By the third, it's just that time of year."

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