Monday, October 29, 2018

Double Trouble: Two Inaugural Loppet Races

The Red Bull Urban Portage

A few months back I heard scuttlebutt about this race and thought it sounded terrible. I’ve done a number of canoe races that involve portaging and have never found running with a canoe, or trying to run with a canoe, anything I wanted to repeat. I happened upon the registration for this event when I went to sign up for the Loopet Loppet and although I still thought it was ridiculous (about 6 miles of paddling and 4 miles of portaging), Erik and I knew we had to sign up for this event because this is what we do, albeit usually on our own and not part of a race.

We signed up just 3 weeks before the event. That’s not much time for a planner like me:) As usual, we had grand plans to get in some good paddling but then Erik got sidelined with shingles on his face. He didn’t like braving the waves with an eye that was swollen shut in our racing canoe. So we made it paddling just 3 times. We did get in some practice portaging and I found a new way to carry the canoe for which I was really glad.

Getting some training in on a flooded side channel of the Minnesota River. Here we're paddling over a ped bridge! Photo: Erik
Given I wasn’t getting much time in the boat, I devised a little extra mini workout for my forearms in our basement. This included swinging back and forth on our small set of rings and dumbbell exercises. I did this five minute workout about 6 times. We knew a bunch of our fast canoe friends were racing which lowered our expectations. They even pre-scouted the course while we decided to wait for an adventure on race day.

The course started on the west side of Cedar Lake with a half mile portage. From there we paddled to Lake of the Isles and back and then into Brownie for 5 miles of consecutive paddling before we did a 1.5 mile portage into Wirth Lake. From here the paddling and portaging sections were each much shorter as we made our way up Basset Creek. The course ended with a 0.6 mile portage to finish at the new Trailhead.

The course map for those of you who are more visually inclined. The red represents the portaging and the blue the paddling.

I wasn’t looking forward to the long portage between Brownie and Wirth Lakes:( On the flip side, given the cold temps, I was glad to be able to use my neoprene boots from my Alaska trip!

Race morning was chilly. We chatted with our friends as the Red Bull DJ in the massive Red Bull truck played subdued pump up music. Similar to ski racing, we all placed our boats in line behind the blow up Red Bull arch. With a minute to go we got into canoe portage position and waited for the airhorns to go off. Once they did everyone took off running. We had lined up in the second row so we got passed by some people but towards the end of the portage we were passing people back up.

The start under the Red Bull inflatable Arch. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
There's lots of ways to portage a canoe. Here's Josie with the usual up on the shoulder. Photo: Bruce
And Kate with the black canoe demonstrating the waist carry. I switched off between this style and the one below. Photo: Bruce

My new portaging technique- turning the canoe sideways and jamming the bottom of the boat into my neck. This works better for my short arms than up on the shoulders. We just had to make sure that our paddles were well secured. Photo: Bruce
We got a slow start on the water as I was careful to not go in deeper than my boots. Once on the water the racing canoes took off on us. We passed some SUPers and then worked on two non-racing canoes. Erik and I aren’t great canoe racers and it was frustrating at how long it took us to pass these guys who weren’t paddling in sync and J-stroking. Erik and I paddled as fast as we could but we were the slowest racing canoe by a long shot.

Some fast boats! Photo: Bruce
We're in this mix- about to pass the SUPs and about to be passed by the racing boats. Photo: Bruce

Erik started our long portage with a shot of red bull while I opted for the safer water option. We walked the beginning uphill part of the portage to the road and then began running once we got on level ground. Some guy with a fancy camera followed us across the 394 bridge and I’m hoping to get a few seconds of fame in a fancy Red Bull video one of these days!

From there the portage followed some single track in the woods. This part seemed to take forever and I thought we were never going to make it to Wirth Lake. Once we turned north on a more direct route to the lake it felt like we were getting somewhere and then we passed one of the racing boats which elevated our spirits! On that long portage we did a combination of carrying the canoe on our shoulders and at our waists. And then we were at Wirth Lake.

I was glad to have the long portage over and from here the race went really fast. Quick paddle across Wirth Lake- super short portage, short section down Basset Creek, slightly longer portage under hwy 55 and back to Basset Creek. Then we had a longer section up Basset Creek. There was an optional portage around an irrigation pipe but we found it an easy duck.

The optional portage or duck. Photo: Bruce
There was another optional portage around the rapids under Plymouth Avenue. It looked doable and the skilled Greg Zofie in a solo went up right in front of us and made it look super easy so we followed suit. We made it up without difficulty but the water was shallow and we hit rocks a few times (perhaps why I had a small crack in my paddle blade).

Not the first rodeo for my paddle so it was OK it got a bit beat up. This photo, circa 2009, shows Erik and I paddling around Manhattan! Photo: John Kaputska

Some put-ins and take-outs on the portages were rocky or muddy but all were free of underbrush. Erik and I had planned to be deliberate in these areas so as not to swamp the canoe. We were careful but efficient and barely scraped on the rocks.

As we continued up Basset Creek this was all new water for us as we hadn’t scouted. We enjoyed the challenge but not the “suck water”- the shallow water that’s less than a couple feet deep. There was another short portage around a fast section and then a final short section paddling up Basset Creek. This part was my favorite because as a bow paddler, my skills can really shine in technical upstream paddling!

Good thing we got so much rain in the past 2 weeks so we were able to paddle more of Basset Creek than portage.

Then we had one last 0.6 mile portage back to the Trailhead. We took off running but once we had to climb the big hill, we just walked. We figured we’re about as fast walking as running anyway. Once we crested the hill we started running again and ran fast all the way to the inflatable Red Bull Finish arch.

My GPS clocked the course at 9.71 miles and we completed this in 2 hours and 7 minutes. We finished 14/28 doubles boats but were closer in time to the winners than the last boat. We ran less than 3 miles back to the start (and not the most direct way either) to pick up our car.

I’m not sure we’ll do this one again, but just in case it’s a one and done we’re glad to have given this Red Bull Urban Portage thing a try.

We also couldn’t help but think of all the ways this course could be made even more challenging...making the portage longer and hillier, paddling up the culvert and weir on Basset Creek under the hwy 55 bridge or starting the whole event on Minnehaha Creek with an upstream paddle, portage into Lake Harriet, portage into Bde Maka Ska and then Chain of Lakes and follow with the remainder of the course.

The Red Bull DJ truck. Photo: Bruce

The Loopet Loppet

Doesn’t everyone want to know how far they can go on foot in one day?

I entered the solo 12 hour category of the Loopet Loppet just 4 weeks before the event. My initial plan was to go the farthest I’ve ever gone on foot in a day- or at least 30 miles. I’m not exactly sure how far I’ve gone in a day before but it’s either in a road marathon or hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon.

As the race neared, I began to get more competitive and started thinking about really pushing up into the 30s...or wouldn’t it be awesome to hit 40 miles!!!

I didn’t train specifically for the ultra. I also didn’t taper and did some hard workouts two and three days before the race. I was mostly going to use it as a long training day with the plan to run for the first 15 miles or so (including a fast lap) and then walk/pole hike/bound the uphills thereafter and once I got tired I would just walk. I hoped that by mixing up the race with running, walking, and using poles that I could prevent any kind of injury.

As the name implies, the course involved a 5 mile course at Theodore Wirth, weaving in and out of the forested parts of the 18 hole golf course on the mountain bike trails. This meant every 5 miles I could easily assess whether to keep going.

Race day was cool and windy but sunny and dry. Most of the day temps were in the upper 30s with a high in the low 40s.

As planned, we arrived to the 7:00 am start just in time to pick up our bibs, pin our bibs on, and stow our gear. I opted to go without a headlight seeing as it would be totally light within 30 minutes of the start and only the last 30 minutes of the day would be dark and I thought I’d probably finish a bit early anyway. I was a bit surprised that everyone (or at least everyone I was around) took off running. Granted, we were running slow. I was happy to tuck in behind a couple girls with headlamps as it was quite dark in the woods even though the sky was getting light blue and pink. These girls seemed pretty legit. They both worse tight fitting camelbacks. I didn’t carry any drinks or food with me. Part of my strategy was to take nice breaks every 5 miles. These girls were talking about how they trained with the loppet ultra running club and that they had to keep reminding themselves this was much longer than the Birkie Trail Marathon. I was a bit frustrated when they used speed walking up the hills and didn’t run all out on the downhills. But I tried to be patient and tell myself that I was in this for the long haul! With about a mile to go in the loop I passed those girls and started running a bit faster- but mostly I just ran my comfortable 9 minute mile pace and faster on the downhills.

Erik still running early on in the day. Photo: Loppet Foundation

I completed my first loop in 57 minutes and then took some time to switch jackets, drink water, and go to the bathroom. My strategy, or rather lack thereof, was to run a fast second lap around threshold pace. The reasons for this included wanting to get in some threshold work, hopefully stave off some muscle pain by varying my technique/speed, and after I ran my first lap slow, to treat myself. Usually I wouldn't consider a threshold run as treating myself but with trail running there is terrain to “work” per se (banked corners, rollers) and so my second lap was the lap to do that. And that’s what I did and it felt good and I hit just under 48 minutes.

My next transition was quick- another couple glasses of water and then I took off with a cookie in each hand. My friend John joined me for this lap. This was a “run easy” lap although John had done one less lap than me at that point and hadn’t ran the last one hard so mostly I was running at my comfortable pace. It was fun talking with my friend but about half way through the lap he was going faster than I wanted so I let him go. Shortly after that, I fell. I was in a new section of trail with some rollers. I kept wanting to land just on the down-slopping side of the roller but I’m not very agile and so I think I landed on the up-slopping side and just couldn’t adjust. Oh well. By the end of the third lap my left knee was having the patellofemoral pain problem again. It was time to grab my poles.

This time in transition I took time to put on sunscreen, my new Loopet Loop (aka buff race swag) as a hat for sun protection since I hadn’t brought one, and then for some dumb reason I was getting warm and decided I should switch into just a long sleeve wicking shirt on top. I took off with my poles, doing a bit of bounding but mostly just walking and froze. Each loop had 3 sections connected by an out-and-back trail and the first section was full on exposed to the wind while the second and third sections were very well sheltered. So every lap I was either fine or cold on the first section and then warmed up later on. Halfway through this loop Erik caught up with me. He was still running so I started running, too, albeit quite slowly by now. By using my poles a lot on the downhills, my knee pain actually went away by the end of the loop.

The awesome aid station that included a grill and cook stove! Photo: Loppet Foundation

After that fourth lap (20 miles down) we took a break inside. I ate some chicken noodle soup and a couple cookies. Erik and I headed out together on the next loop and planned to mostly just walk. Unfortunately my right hamstring started to hurt immediately. This hadn’t happened before and I wondered if sitting with my legs propped up on another chair caused this. It bummed me out because I could tell we both had this idea of 40 in our heads since it was still early in the day. Actually, Erik talked about doing 42 miles since a running marathon is 42 kilometers although there is no logic with that. And then he wondered what we should call the 42 mile distance. We never did solve that one. (the confused sucker distance?)

Erik and I split a chicken hot dog and I drank some thick hot chocolate (so much better thick than thin!) before we did our sixth lap with Allie and Kevin who were each doing the solo 12 hour category as well. Only they are much better ultra runners than ourselves and so they were doing their seventh lap. Mostly we walked fast but occasionally I did a bit of running (mostly to catch up with the guys who can walk faster than me). This was the last lap I had any spring.

Our friend Emily came to pace us for our seventh lap. By now I was having a lot of pain behind both of my knees in the lower hamstring and upper calves. I’d never had this pain before and I was struggling to keep any kind of walking pace. I was so grateful for my poles and probably would have quit many miles earlier if I didn’t have my poles. “If only this were a 12 hour pull-up contest,” I lamented. The cookies and tasty soup Emily had brought were getting me through this lap. I surely wasn’t going to end the day too calorie deprived and made full use of the aid station! Erik really liked the pancakes. We chatted with Emily and this made the time go by faster.

Erik, Emily, and I finishing up our 7th lap. I was dressed pretty goofy- but I needed the jacket on the windy section of the course and there weren't any prizes for best (or worst) dressed:) Photo: Loppet Foundation

I ate a couple bites of grilled cheese before we headed out on our eighth loop. Emily had to go and so it was just Erik and I. Erik could tell I was in pain (he was faring much better) and suggested maybe I should call it quits. Nope, today was one of those mind-is-stronger-than-the-body-days. The first bit was always the hardest and after the first few steps the pain behind my knees subsided just a tad. I loved the uphill sections where I could really use my poles and upper body to get me up but the downhill parts were torturous. I didn’t hurt anywhere else. I don’t know why I thought I shouldn’t be in pain after 35 miles. We spent a mile with Erik playing his game of trying to get me to figure something out (in this case, why there is no #36, my Loopet Loppet number, in basketball). The pain behind my knees never let up and nothing else ever hurt.

Now we were at 40 miles and had just 35 minutes left. The loop was shortened to 1 mile at this point and after a pickle and quick stop in the bathroom, I was off to get in one more mile. For some reason, I had renewed energy for this one mile loop. Maybe because the end was really finally in sight, maybe because I was pushing daylight and wanted to finish while I could still see, maybe it was because I was about to get third place, although I thought briefly those 2 girls I had started with were coming up on me but they really had 10 miles on me. I was able to run downhill without any extra pain but I think it was just the endorphins.

The prizes were carved pumpkins that said "1st," "2nd," or "3rd" place. Pretty nifty prize as it gave the relays team something to do while waiting and since they are decompose no one has to add them to their trophy shelf! Photo: Loppet Foundation

Officially I finished with 41 miles although the loop clocked .1 miles extra so for my personal record (plus my trips to the bathroom) I’m going to say 42 miles. While that’s pocket change in the ultra world, it’s a solid 14 miles or so farther than I’ve ever gone before in one day and not bad considering I didn’t do any specific training or tapering.

While the loop did start to get boring, especially the new rougher part of the trail, it was nice to have a full service aid station and access to my drop bag every 5 miles. It made logistics easy- for the racers, spectators, crew, volunteers and organizers. Nice and simple. Although at the end of the day, even though I put 40+ miles on my legs, I went absolutely nowhere:)

Maybe next year I'll be part of a relay team like Team Tutto. They were always lapping me so fast. Maybe if I'd only gone half as far I could be running that fast! Photo: Loppet Foundation

After I stood and sat around at the finish, I made the most pathetic walk over to our car. I kept almost falling until I realized I needed to straighten my knees. For some reason I was upset that I hurt. In redemption, I didn’t use any body glide and had zero blisters or chaffing. And I did make it out for an hour rollerski the next day.

I’m not sure Red Bull sponsored the crazier of the two new loppet events:)

Next up: a 12 hour pull-up contest!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Crossroads #3: Dear High School Self

In high school, I got really burned out on running. This didn’t happen in skiing- probably because I only did it junior and senior years and was such an underdog coming in that I was able to continue on the up and up trajectory. My burnout in running began when I started to plateau and couldn’t push myself any harder.

This post is primarily fueled by my running burnout experience, but I’ve included some things to make it applicable to skiing as well.

While the title suggests this entry may be exclusively for high schoolers, this is simply not true. This post is for everybody who has raced in the individual sports world. I think most kids start to feel some burnout in high school or at least are aware of its existence. But what breaks my heart is that some kids experience it even earlier than high school:(

Back when I was in high school (I graduated a whopping 15 years ago now) the coaches never talked about the mental aspect of racing. Us kids talked about it subliminally. We were very aware of the mental fortitude required to race and most of us weren’t terribly fond of it. But we had a coach* (see disclaimer below) who gave us the message that talking about it would make us weaker, not stronger. It’s unclear if that was the coach’s true intention, but that’s how we felt.

Hence, I dedicate this post to my high school running teammates- may we no longer suppress our burnout in silence!

None of us wanted to be the weak one that succumbed to the mental pressure but we were all secretly envious of those who quit the sport- and there was a steady stream of attrition. Kids are smart and sometimes we talked about this when the coaches were well out of earshot. But we really didn’t have the resources to help each other out.

In the past year, some teammates have discussed their high school age children’s burnout. I also had a very short, but poignant conversation with one of my teammates (between 300 meter track repeats) that went something like this: my teammate said, “I didn’t like track, well, I liked track practice and all the people, but I didn’t like the meets.”

“True that,” I responded.

I don’t think we were alone. I think the majority of the kids in cross country running and distance track (i.e. from the 400 meter and longer- when we become aware of our own suffering during the event) feel the same way, which inspired this post. I don’t think we like racing against our teammates or friends very much either.

So this is the post where I lay down what I wish I would have known in high school, what I wish the coaches would have believed, and helped me believe, and if I didn’t believe, forced me to follow anyway. Although, as Marit Bjoergen recently said in her Nordic Nation podcast, and Sadie Bjornsen noted in her recent blog, we have to make mistakes ourselves and learn for ourselves. Marit said her coaches urged her to change her training for years, but it wasn’t until she started believing this advice that she herself made a change. And Sadie said it took her a long time to recognize the importance of taking days off.

So if I could go back to high school, here’s the advice I’d give to myself and where I wish the coaches would have stepped in:

#1: This is supposed to be fun

Even those who love racing will tell you at times the work is not fun, but at least 51% of the event needs to be Type 1 fun. That means you look forward to it. If you aren’t looking forward to it, then you need to change something. This is where I think individual plans, even at the high school level, are really important. This may mean some kids need to train more, some less. Some need more intervals and some need more endurance. Some need to cross train more. Some need to race once or even twice weekly, and others do better with less racing. Or perhaps even no racing!

Type 2 fun: rocking the classic race at sections my senior year of high school (this was interval start and I started a few minutes before #31!)

Balancing the Type 2 fun with some Type 1 fun at our annual high school skier dress up day.
 While I come across as hardcore and all about the racing, I think that is largely because I’m a product of the environment and we have a culture that is very focused on winning and a high school sports system that is very competitive as a result. But is winning the most important thing? I would beg to differ. I think high school athletics is about finding something you enjoy, something that can help keep you healthy for your life, something that can help forge friendships, teach you about commitment and prioritization, failure, success, and goals, and having fun all at the same time. I think these are the questions we need to ask ourselves- not did we win or lose, but did we have fun? (My mom has been telling me this for years:) And this is where I think the coaches (and parents) should be having these individual and group meetings with athletes to help determine if they are meeting their goals and if not what needs to change.

Goofing off with life-long friend Kathryn as we kissed our "Pelties" after we both had good races at Mt. Itasca


#2: Mix it up. 

 I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do kinda wish I would have done some different track events. I know I was headstrong even back in high school and would’ve been resistant to running anything but the 3200 meters, but I would have appreciated had my coaches noted that I was miserable and running slow and would have encouraged me to run some shorter distances or maybe even do some field events. Well, actually, one coach did one time and he made me run the mile in sub 7 minutes before I was allowed to double and run the 2 mile in the same meet. I met the challenge but wish in hindsight he would’ve made the challenge more difficult for me or had me run the 200 meter at some really fast pace instead. I wouldn’t have been very good at sprinting or field events, but I wasn’t good at distance either and perhaps I could have done longer warm-ups and maybe even have gone for some neighborhood runs which I loved back then and still love. There is no point in being miserable.

Trying to stay with the pack on the track my junior year of high school (I'm 3rd from the back); this photo was probably taken on the first lap

And dropped from the pack, running a lonely, miserable 3200.

This may seem a little more difficult to achieve in a high school ski race, but there are many variations on a theme other than a 5 km skate or classic. To keep things fresh, athletes could “handicap” themselves- for example, do a skate race without poles or double pole only for classic. This could be done at an individual level or the whole team could do this. The point is to learn about strengths and weaknesses and take some pressure off always having to perform to a certain standard. In term of skiing race format, the team sprint is not just for elite athletes anymore and seems to be gaining lots of momentum, at least in Minnesota! Mixing it up also goes for training (including intervals) and doing different sports. I’ve specifically given some racing examples but the same goes for training, too. Try to think of different exercises and variations on a theme. On Vakava when doing intervals we often stipulate that the first interval is striding only, the second kick double pole, the third double pole only, and the fourth whatever technique we want. This keeps things fresh.

#3: Athletics don’t end with high school. 

 Physical activity is good for us- not just in high school, but for the remainder of our lives as well. We need to cultivate sports as a lifelong activity. Fortunately in the endurance world, there are plenty of opportunities for us to keep active- whether that be on our own, as a tour, part of a training group, or racing. Too often in high school I felt like my teammates were so burned out, myself included, we just didn’t want to push ourselves so hard ever again. And so we quit. I think we need to change the culture, look back at the previous two points, to something that is more sustainable. We talk about moderation and sustainability in diet, and we need to do this in sport, too. And again, it’s individual and may even change over time for any one individual. We want to model for our high schoolers how to have a lifelong healthy lifestyle. We don’t want them to be so burned out they give up.

Racing citizen races with the U of M Nordic Ski Club in college
But still having some fun with indoor rollerskiing:) Photo: the one and only Jordan Hart

I was so burned out on running after high school that I didn’t want to do any races for years. It took me well over 10 years to want to actually “race” in running again. And in the past few years I’ve been loving it but part of what I love is that since I was never that great of a runner in high school, arguably because I was so burned out, I’m about as fast now as I was then but I have such better control over my training and racing that I’m not burned out and feel I’m less likely to burn out. The point here is, maybe high school isn’t this athlete’s time for a given distance or sport. Maybe it’s later in their life and that’s OK because it will give them some focus and purpose down the road.

#4: Just because you start at an early age (elementary school) doesn’t mean that a) you will do it forever or b) that you will be successful on the national or international stage.

After college, I moved to upstate New York and remember vehemently attempting to argue this point with one zealous dad. He believed that because he had a bunch of 9 year olds heavily involved with skiing, that these kids were going to make it to the Olympics. I tried to tell him about all the kids in Minnesota who raced in high school and quit the sport thereafter. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing there is somewhere around a 90% attrition rate in regard to racing. The reasons for this are numerous and certainly minimal snow and expense are large factors (compared to recreational running per se) but there is also a large burnout component. Anyone who keeps racing after high school likely has a good grasp on the above 3 points, and if not, is probably struggling with burnout.

#5: Go back and read #1.


In my experience, rigid training and racing schedules lead to burnout and I think the best way to combat this is by first talking about it, second by making more individualized plans, and third to think about not just high school goals, but long term goals as well. I think if we’re doing this athletes, athlete supporters, and coaches will all feel more fulfilled and get better enjoyment out of our sports and life.

Some high school shenanigans! After years of playing in pep band for the football, basketball, and hockey players I thought the skiers should get some recognition!

*Disclaimer: I’m referencing one particular running coach who gave us the impression that the mental aspect of racing was a completely taboo subject that should never be discussed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Race Recap: The Trail Loppet Half Marathon

After a four year hiatus, I decided to run the Trail Loppet Half Marathon again this year. The reasons for my hiatus were twofold. First, in 2015 Erik and I began trail marking for the City Trail, Tri-Loppet, and Trail Loppet. Marking trail takes a lot of time and the mile per hour pace is excruciatingly slow which equates to lots of standing and terrible rest before a race. Second, after doing the Trail Loppet a couple years in a row I wanted a break and have done some different races in the past few years.

But this year I wanted to do it again, partly because I’ve been going back and trying to shatter all my old slow running times and given my previous Trail Loppet times were 2:04 in 2013 and 2:07 in 2014, I figured I should be able to go sub-2 hours without any problem!

My training leading up to the Trail Loppet wasn’t ideal. After my patellofemoral knee pain in the late winter and spring, I didn’t run more than seven miles for a couple months after my 25 km trail race in May. Then I focused so much on speed for my sub-6 minute mile attempt that this didn’t leave much time for training distance.

By the end of August I managed a 9.5 mile run and then promised myself I’d get lots of good trail time and altitude training on a backpacking trip in New Mexico. Mother Nature had other plans and I missed the memo that it was monsoon season so I sufficed myself with afternoons in the tent during thunderstorm-hail showers that at least I was getting in some training because we were above 10,000 feet. We managed to hike so little that I didn’t poop for three days!

Getting close to some big horn sheep (the females don't have the classic horns) on North Trucas Peak at 13,000+ feet in New Mexico. Obviously dealing with some clouds! Photo: Erik
Hiking the next day, looking back at what we had climbed the previous day. Photo: Erik
Once back in Minnesota, a week before the Trail Loppet, I easily pounded out an almost 12 mile run without knee pain. Apparently my accumulation of 15+ mile runs have paid off.

The day before the Trail Loppet I woke up feeling fine. I planned to get out of work early to mark about a 3 mile portion of the course before it got dark. By mid-morning, I started feeling a little feverish. This slowly started intensifying and I shivered after lunch. I had a mild sore throat and headache but otherwise didn’t feel too bad. I arguably should have left work, but find it hard to justify leaving work sick when I feel good enough to bike home so I stayed. And I felt way too guilty to get out of trail marking so I biked over to Wirth.

Trail marking went fine except that if I landed too hard on my feet on the downhills it made my headache worse. Sometimes in these situations I suffer in silence but I knew I should tell Erik how I was doing (after he remarked that I was breathing really hard after walking up a minor hill). I decided that if I felt this bad in the morning I shouldn’t race as it would be miserable. This might be an obvious decision for everyone else but I’m a big sucker for punishment.

Back at home I checked my temperature. I can’t say I was too surprised that it read 100.1. Yup, definitely a fever but I’m probably not going to die. I made some pesto and remarked at how rough my fleece pants were on my skin. I went to bed early, deferring a decision to race to see how I felt in the morning. Only it was hard to fall asleep because I was breathing hard and when I checked my heart rate it was 77!

My fever broke early on in the night and I felt fine when I woke up so decided to race. Plus, I had to finish to get my race swag socks:) I thought about maybe running easy but I signed up to race in the fast wave so ultimately I decided to just see how my body felt.

And I guess my body felt reasonably good because my first three mile splits were all 8:20 or better with the fourth mile at 8:37. Although it should be noted this was the flattest part of the course. After that my pace slowed, the hills kept coming, and there were a few logs and pipes to go over.

I started off next to my much faster friend Kitty (I'm on far left, Kitty next to me). I'm also in front of Jan at this point which didn't last long! Photo: Bruce Adelsman
Somewhere in the next few miles I decided today wasn’t a good day to fight my body and succumbed to a “comfortably hard” pace where I was pushing just a tad. I figured I was already tempting fate by running the day after a fever and didn’t want to make my body work too hard. Per my Garmin my pace dropped into the 9-11 minute/mile range while my heart rate stayed pretty consistent thanks to the uphills. As a trail race, the downhills are important, too, and I at least took some satisfaction that people would catch me on the uphills and I could run away from them on the downhills.

Gorgeous day and nice dry single track trails! Just falling off the pace after 4 miles. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
The night before I had marked the section through Eloise Butler and this was my first time racing a section of course I had marked. It would have been ironic if I got off course here but I didn’t. Sometimes there were volunteers in this section telling us where to go and they didn’t know I had marked this section. I did take note of what marking styles were most effective and where I could have done better.

In the last third of the race I could tell I had more to give but hung back a bit. This is also where I reminded myself that running up big hills is hard work and no wonder my previous Trail Loppet times were over 2 hours! Erik was cheering for me near the end and I picked it up a bit but didn’t bury myself to the finish.

The weather was picture perfect and I managed to finish 34/195 women and just under my 2 hour goal at 1:57; however, my Garmin clocked the race at only 12.58 miles so had it been a full half marathon I would have been over 2 hours, but not by much and I probably would have still had my fastest Trail Loppet which is a bit impressive given how I had felt 15 hours earlier.

It’s too early for me to decide if I’ll be doing this race next year. Between trail marking and the uphills it might be a tough decision but given my pace for some longer distance races, it seems I should be able to average 8:30s equating to a 1:53 time so maybe I’ll keep trying until I get to that goal. It might help if I do some hilly trail running in preparation:)

With all the rain in the days prior to the race we were warned there might be some standing water on course. The distance was slightly shortened to avoid any “swimming” sections and beyond that the worst of the water came a quarter mile into the race on the paved Luce Line Bike Trail. Aside from that, the only other unavoidable muddy sections also came on paved sections that had obviously recently been underwater. I guess this says kudos to all the Loppet workers and volunteers over the past years who have created very well draining non-paved hiking, biking, and skiing trails at Wirth!

I’m also happy to report my fever never returned so it was probably some mild viral illness that 10 hours of sleep cured.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Elusive Sub 6 Minute Mile

My senior year of track in high school I ran the one mile race three times. I ran a 6:24, a 6:30, and another 6:30. After that last race I decided breaking the 6 minute mile wasn’t in my cards that year and instead focused on the 2 mile. At the time I eased my conscience, telling myself sometime in my life I would break a 6 minute mile.

My naive high school self. First XC meet my senior year. I hit a PR of 18:20 for 2.5 miles and never got faster. I never was fast

I don’t recall this being a flippant assertion but in hindsight it was the most naive plan I ever put forth. While the 6:30 mile left me knowing I could dig deeper, I had no idea how fast a 6:30 mile was and a few years later could barely manage 8 minute mile pace for a quarter mile!

It took me 11 years before I got serious about breaking a 6 minute mile. That was 4 years ago when I was 29. I figured I ought to try before entering my fourth decade of life. And as I began doing intervals I couldn’t even maintain 6 minute per mile pace for 200 meters!

At that time I vowed to start doing more track intervals. But I also ran a marathon and did some other longer distances. I ran some 400s, running them in the upper 90s, slower than 6 minute per mile pace. I just wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be. But I kept after it, not ready to fully commit to that 6 minutes of pain.

Last summer I broke a 90 second 400 for the first time since high school. Finally!

Sometime last winter I got really motivated to give this sub 6 minute mile thing a try for real.

In April I did a set of track intervals with my friend Emily. The plan was for an all out 800, 400, and 200, each with ample rest in between. I didn’t want to take 10 minutes of rest between the 800 and 400 so elected to do a 4 minute interval at a slower pace. My times were 3:03 despite covering my ears for some of that as there was a tornado siren drill (not sure why at 2 pm on a Thursday), 88 seconds, and 42 seconds. This exceeded my own expectations! Maybe because I was doing them with someone I had ran faster than I had in a long long time. This gave me confidence that a 6 minute mile might be possible.

Emily and I in 2014 on a portage on our Minnesota-Ontario Border Route Canoe Trip. Photo: Erik

After my 25 km trail race in May, I religiously ran track intervals weekly. I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to train prior to my Alaska trip and figured not running for 2 weeks in Alaska would set me back so I chose the last week in August for my 6 mile attempt.

My track intervals went mostly well. Most weeks I was able to meet or sometimes even exceed my pace goals. I mostly focused on shorter intervals with good rest to get my legs feeling a pace faster than 6 minutes per mile. And it worked! At least in terms of getting my 400 pace down. In my 4 x 400 workout I ran an 83 (yes, an 83 and it didn’t even feel that fast), an 84, an 86 (my shoe came untied less than half way through), and an 85. I was impressed with myself. A couple weeks later I did some 300s and actually felt the pace was slow enough that I could work on my running technique- trying to get more “air time” and more forefoot striking.

After a couple days of floating down a river in Alaska, I sought out a track in Fairbanks. I did an 800 in 3:10, above goal but I figured not bad for not wearing my track shoes and having not ran in 2 weeks. Then I did a 600 in 3:23- 8 seconds slower than goal pace. Oh well. BUT, here’s what I was able to do in the workout- check my watch for my 200 splits. In the past few years I’ve worked so hard at just being able to run at 6 minute per mile pace that I couldn’t even check my watch. Now I can! I finished up the workout with some 200s in the low 40s. Thanks to Tiffany for running these with me.

Getting after it in Fairbanks. Wow, I'm already looking super focused only 100 meters into my 800. Photo: hubby #1
Tough Tiff in Alaska carrying our super heavy bear barrel. Photo: Erik

When I told Craig about my plan, he told me a good workout to see if I was ready was to run 4 x 400 meters with only half time rest (so that would be 45 seconds of rest). When he told me this in the Spring, I thought “no way am I ever going to get there.” But as the summer wore on and I planned my last couple track workouts, I decided I had to give that one a try a week before my planned attempt.

It went almost exactly as I thought it would. I did my run first thing Saturday morning like I always do. But this time I took a gel with caffeine beforehand and then did a pull-out on the way to the track. I ran the first 400 in 88 seconds. Perfect, that was my plan. I felt I had more to given on that last straightaway, but this wasn’t an all-out 400, this was essentially the first 400 of a 1600. I wasn’t breathing too hard when I finished and 45 seconds felt like enough recovery. I hit my second 400 in 89 seconds, perfect, and again felt like I had more to give on the last straightaway. But this time I was breathing hard and still 2:1 breathing when I began the third. Somehow I managed 90 seconds on the third. Better than I thought I could do as I feel like it’s the third lap that I always slow on. Now I could barely walk from the finish line to the start of the 400 in lane 6. I gave myself a couple extra seconds (I find it’s best to just go on these workouts and not allow time to think) and then took off. This one was the roughest and I felt a bit like puking. The last straightaway was soooo long. I felt like I maybe had a little more to give as I didn’t have that feeling like I was losing blood to my arms but couldn’t muster anymore speed and ended up with 92 seconds. My heart rate was only 173 at the end of that 400, so clearly, I can do better. Maybe I’m just saving that super hurt for next week?

These times added up to a 5:59. Not bad. If Craig’s theory held true, I was ready. And even if I didn’t break 6, I still felt incredibly accomplished to hammer out this workout (and as a solo effort to boot!)

As I set a date to try to break 6 minutes, I wasn’t very sure I could do it. I’ve met a number of my running goals over the past few years, but I knew this one would be quite challenging. In some respects a 6 minute mile isn’t that fast, but that’s when I compare myself to these blogs I’m reading about women going after Olympic Trials Qualifying times. These are women who can string together 26 miles in the low 6s- so one mile under 6 shouldn’t be unreasonable...but I’ve never been that fast and so it has been reassuring to me that everyone I have told this goal to has said “wow, a 6 minute mile- that’s really fast!”

So I might fail, but if I don’t at least try, I’ll never know. I’ve put off trying for a few years because I’m afraid of failing, but I recently came up with a mantra “you have to fail to succeed.” I know how hard these 6 minutes will be but at the same time I’m proud of myself for being brave enough to hurt so good.

I’m also proud of myself for how far I’ve come.

In the week preceding my determined date, I thought about this mile effort way too much. I thought about how hard it would get with 600 meters to go and decided I needed to focus on a much smaller goal- like 100 meters at a time! I woke up early and was nervous.

I invited some friends to join me as I thought that might help give me a faster time. It turned out my bro happened to be in town from Bemidji which was a real treat! We met at our house at 7 am and ran the 1.5 miles to the track with a short pull-out and again I took a gel with caffeine to try and give me an extra boost as I had rehearsed the previous week.

At the track, getting ready to start. Craig is covering up my head here. Photo: Erik

Once we got to the track, my bro changed into his high school spikes and then we got on the start line. It was a bit of a hodgepodge of previous running experiences and our last conversation before the start was something to the effect that no one except Craig (who is hoping to hit 6:00 min/mile average for the New York Marathon in 2+ months) had any idea if we could run a sub six minute mile. Well, at least we were all in the same boat! I started my watch and we were off.

:41 my bro called out 200 meters in. Darn, felt easy but a bit fast.

1:28 at 400 meters. Perfect I thought in my head and “perfect” echoed behind me by my companion runners.

2:15 at 600 meters. Dead on. Good.

3:04 at 800 meters. Uh-oh, 4 seconds behind pace. Not good. Bjorn picked up the pace and surged leaving me. I couldn’t respond.

My bro again called the 1000 meter split but I hadn’t learned that one. And I was working way too hard to compute the simple math: 3:00 + :45 = 3:45; OK, I got it for next time:)

Craig left me with 500 meters to go.

4:40 my bro called on the bell lap. This really wasn’t good, 10 seconds behind pace. OK, I can still PR if I can run a 90. I tried to run fast. I thought I was running fast. I tried to break it down to each 100 meter but it was just going by so fast anyway.

Erik’s cousin sped by me on the back straightaway leaving just Erik and my bro near me. I tried to give it everything I had but had trouble picking up the pace.



But in hindsight, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting since I was above pace in my 600 workout 2 weeks earlier. The short intervals were good but I needed some longer ones, too.

It’s a bit hard to be completely disappointed by this time given it’s the fastest mile I’ve ran in 17 years and just 7 seconds off my PR. Per my mantra, I have to fail to succeed. This is true in so many aspects of life (especially in applying for jobs and competitive schools) and also rings true with this mile attempt. If I didn’t try, I never would have known and now since I tried and failed, I have a better sense of how I may succeed in the future.

Because I still want to break this elusive 6 minute mile.

Just after the attempt. Photo: Erik

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crossroads #2: The Business of Racing

When I sign up for races, I think a lot about the athlete aspects of races, but not the business aspects. This past spring, there was one race and one tour that really got me thinking about the business side to racing.

This became obvious when I was at the Boston Marathon Expo with Erik in April. There were numerous posters, paraphernalia, and advertising ranging from the subliminal to the blatant that encouraged the runners to not just make the Boston Marathon something to check off the bucket list, but something to keep coming back for year after year. It was just enough to make those of us who hadn’t qualified feel salty and desire to push for a Boston Marathon qualifying time and those who had earned their start some impetus to earn it again so they will come back to Boston year after year. All this advertising is really good at making us feel that if we don’t do the Boston Marathon we are somehow lesser people. There were the banners everywhere with “#BostonStrong.” There were the posters that included every runners name. The most striking merchandise with this subliminal message was a peg board with room to carefully place a decade’s worth of Boston Marathon medals. And then there are the desirable Boston Marathon jackets that lured Erik, somehow, even though he usually uses his seam ripper to remove any visible brands from his clothing.

Just one example of the peg board...
Maybe these ones suit your decorating style better?

Many ski races are small and operate entirely on volunteer support. There are a few bigger ski races with full-time staff. The Birkie is quite good at advertising and has a monopoly on the upper midwest marathon ski race scene. They have a large budget and a decent amount of this can be spent on marketing which helps maintain its dominance.

A few weeks after I got back from the Boston Marathon, I went for a bike ride on the day of a local MS bike tour. Biking through the staging area at Minnehaha Falls, I was struck by the metal fencing and rows of Porta-Potties. There is so much infrastructure and time that goes into organizing a race or tour. Suddenly this all just made me really sick. Although disclaimer, this did come the day after I had spent 3 hours marking less than 3 miles of a course for a trail running race.

Porta-Potties at the start of the Boston Marathon (although obviously not this year). Photo: Canadian Running Magazine

With so many races and tours, marketers have to dig deep into the psyche of participants to make them choose their race or tour over all the others.

So let’s look into the business aspect of races and tours.

Races cost money. For the competitors there’s the entry fees, transportation, lodging (if staying overnight), equipment for the races and training (much more so in skiing than running), trail passes for training, fees for a training group, and on and on. For the race organizations there are the bibs, the food, law enforcement at road crossings, port-a-potties, shuttle buses, salary for non-volunteer organizers, marketing, etc, etc.

Races take time. There’s the obvious time for the participants but there’s lots of time for the organizers as well. Some are all volunteer organizations while others have several full-time staff. A fair amount of time goes into advertising each event. And for the volunteers there’s lots of time- setting up the start and finish areas, rest stops, handing out food, planning the event if no one is paid to do this.

Races use resources. Think of the rows of port-a-potties. Think about the cups and wasted food and gu packets lying on the ground, and orange gatorade stained snow. There’s the barricades. Think about the trucks hauling all this stuff around, spewing their diesel fumes.

Feed station mess! Photo: Shape Magazine

This list is by no means exhaustive but it is a start to thinking about not just the racer/tourer logistics, but the organization logistics as well.


What are we really getting out of this? A t-shirt or hat (or socks if we are lucky), a medal, some kind of prize (if we are unlucky one of those ugly plaque-things and if we are really lucky- money!), and maybe a meal afterwards.

As the t-shirts, hats, medals, and even prizes accumulate these objects are becoming significantly less luring.

Why do we need an event t-shirt, a medal, or to all start together to feel accomplished? Given the MS ride was a tour only, wouldn’t it make more sense for participants to start from the closest part on the course to where they live to help decrease driving (I hate driving) and not have a rigid start? This would also eliminate the problems with parking at the start of an event and all those concentrated porta-potties.

Why do we (the collective we here, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone) have to get something from the race or tour? Do we really need that T-shirt? Sure, we can wear it again and might make someone jealous which might make them do the event (good marketing scheme) but how many of us really need more t-shirts? Well, we can always make them into quilts...but how many quilts do we need? And what about those medals that go into boxes or hang on hooks- do we really need those? Have the race organizers tapped into something that we want bling or would we be better off without? I’ve recently been thinking about entering into the races where I’m least likely to win an additional award simply because I can’t keep getting all this crap.

One of my latest creations- both something I'm enjoying doing instead of racing while using up some of my racing paraphernalia (those are Birkie Age Class Bells I've used as the feet!)


There is something less tangible we get from these events: achieving a goal. I don’t keep racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the wreath around my neck- I keep training and racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the journey and to see what my maximum potential is. I want to find out if I can be as good of a skier as I want to be.

And thus, what us hardcore racers are paying for, are getting out of this, is a sufferfest! We are paying to suffer!!!

That sounds harsh, but is largely truthful. If our goal is to race as fast as possible, we will be breathing hard and our muscles will be burning, but at the end we will be satisfied to have achieved a goal and we will certainly have an endorphin rush. So put another way, we are paying for an endorphin high!

There is also something incredible about being a part of something big and I have experienced this in the past in some of my larger ski races and running marathons. Anyone who has ever watched a popular marathon at Mile 20 can appreciate this as well, watching a steady stream of thousands of runners go by for hours.

So where am I at with this business on a personal level?

Since I already own a lot of equipment and am going to do some races anyway and hence am already going to pay for trail passes, it’s really the entrance fees, transportation, and lodging that I consider. It’s not that I don’t have the money for these races, but rather I’m questioning is it worth working X number of hours to suffer? How often can I put for the effort that will produce the endorphin high? And as I’ve more recently realized, I pay so little attention to the scenery that I could be racing anywhere and have started to like loop races. But I will say tons of cheering spectators does make any race significantly better. More concisely, lately I’ve been weighing the different factors of course, technique, distance, location, and spectators to judge if a race a good value.

There was one time Erik and I did a ski race near Montreal (the Marathon d’Oka) that was the best value race we’ve ever done. We brought home so much booty from that race (wax, cheese, more cheese, a ski jacket, t-shirts, hats, and that cat crap collector contraption) that it more than paid for our entry fee and transportation. I don’t think it quite covered our lodging though.

I’ve done at least a hundred races and this was the one exception.

Erik in Montreal's Mont Royal Park the day after he got this snazzy ski jacket in the raffle at the Marathon d'Oka.

The last few years I’ve been more selective about which races and tours to do, limiting my number and trying to only do those ones I want to do instead of feel I have to do. Between house projects, vacation, spending time with family and friends, and just wanting some lazy weekend mornings there are a limited number of races I can do each year. With most people having more commitments than I do, my real gripe is do we really need so many races and tours? There are multiples of these every weekend. They all cost money, take incredible time, and use resources- not only for the participants, but for the volunteers and organizations as well. Is this sustainable- for the participants, the organizations, and the volunteers? Is this the best use of our volunteer time? Are there other volunteer efforts that would be better as a society? Many of these events are charities, but if an event costs $100 per person and $50 of that goes into organizing (fencing, police, food, tents, porta-potties, t-shirts, awards), would it be better to just donate $100 to whatever charity of choice and instead just go do something outdoors that day at your leisure instead? Do we really need all the junk we get from races? Is anyone going to see that medal around our neck after we change our clothes?

My point is, where is the balance? How many races/tours are sustainable and how much is too much? Interestingly, in our capitalist economy, ultimately supply and demand will provide the answer!

From the Boston Marathon Expo: If you aren't savvy with a sewing machine, no need to worry, you can pay someone to turn all your t-shirts into a quilt, or maybe you will be a lucky recipient of a free t-shirt quilt!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Alaska Encore

When my vacation plans for 2018 looked like 2 trips to Alaska were in store, I asked myself if this was overkill? These would be 2 very different trips to a state twice the size of Texas with a March ski trip around the Anchorage area and a summer paddling trip north of the Arctic Circle. I thought about this a bit, but given everyone I know who has ever visited Alaska always talks about “wanting to go back,” I figured why not go back later that year?

Our March ski trip to Alaska left us wanting more. We lucked out with perfect ski conditions but given we were both the sickest we had been in years, we decided this was perhaps our worst vacation ever! Fortunately we got a do-over.

The idea of paddling a “far north” river had been on the radar for a long time. The Yukon held some allure and we almost committed to this in 2015 but for a variety of reasons (largely all the logistics) we scrapped the idea. Besides, I really wanted to canoe a river in the mountains and the Yukon was more like in the foothills.

In 2015 I happened to be flipping through an old National Geographic magazine when a particular picture of the Tinayguk River caught my eye. The river was in the mountains. I did some research and learned this river was class II-III. Given that I’m not one much for whitewater, I started considering my other options and came across the neighboring North Fork of the Koyukuk (the Tinayguk is a tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk). The North Fork of the Koyukuk was a class I with small sections of class II.

Zoom ahead a couple years and we decided 2018 was the year to make this trip happen. After spending a decent time pondering logistics for this trip, we decided to fly into the arctic village of Anuktuvik Pass and then hike and packraft to the arctic village of Bettles. Almost the entirety of this trip lies within Gates of the Arctic National Park where there are no trails and absolutely no infrastructure- not even a sign. In other words, my kind of place.

We bought a used packraft and lost no time trying it out.

Trying it out in the living room right after it arrived. Don't worry, we tried it out on the Minnehaha Creek and Mississippi River a couple times before we left.

Here’s a brief day-by-day synopsis of our trip which transpired in early July:

Day 1: We took a 10 person airplane on a semi-commercial airline (Wright Air) from Fairbanks to Anuktuvik Pass. This small plane flies around 10,000 feet allowing for some stunning views. About half way into the flight we approached a broad valley with a wide river. It took me awhile for some reason to realize this was the Yukon! Seeing this iconic gem of the north that is so powerful moved me to tears.

There's tears behind those glasses as I pose with the Yukon! Photo: Erik

As we neared Anuktuvik Pass we were flying directly above the mountains!

This flight was the best $175 I've ever spent. Photo: Erik

  And then we landed in Anuktuvik Pass! After spending so much time planning about this trip it was a bit surreal to finally be here.

Our quartet (Erik and I flanked by friends Sarah on left and Tiffany on right) in Anuktuvik Pass with the plane that brought us there. I was wearing my pack but otherwise you can see our gear in front of us. Special thanks to Dave and Josie Nelson for lending us this bear barrel! Photo: some guy who was hiking out to the Dalton hwy

Once in Anuktuvik Pass we poked around time a bit and then set out on our trip on the tundra.

Starting our hike on the Tundra. Sarah and Tiffany in photo. This is the Anuktuvik River that drains into the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Erik

Throughout our trip we enjoyed mostly Goldilocks weather (aka, not too hot, not too cold, not too sunny, and not too rainy:)

Day 2: More sun and continuing towards Ernie Pass, the divide between the Arctic and Pacific watersheds. We only made 8 miles given the difficult trail conditions (tussocks, deep stream crossings, occasional shrubs) and heavy bear barrel that Erik and Tiffany took turns carrying (we took some food out but it still weighed around 60 pounds). Meanwhile, I labored under my heavy 35 pound pack. OK, 35 pounds isn’t too bad considering it was a dry bag and included our packraft and one lifejacket but since I’m used to about a 15 pound pack it felt heavy:)

Me and my 35 pound pack. The tundra was often quite wet and we were glad to be hiking in our new NRS neoprene boots. Photo: Erik
Me and my usual little backpack as seen here in Colorado's Maroon Bells in 2016. Photo: Erik

Day 3 began cloudy and drizzled on and off. We were still able to see the tops of the mountains but I’m a fair weather camper and really really wanted to sit on some dry ground on our breaks. Hence, we kept our breaks short and kept forging on and covered the same distance as the previous day in much better time. We made it up to the broad Ernie Pass on the Continental Divide where we found some dry ground and set up camp.

Drizzly day and ice on the river. This was the only time I sat down all day and paid for it with a wet butt. Photo: Erik

Day 4: We awoke to clear skies and I immediately declared it was mountain climbing day. We had planned that 2 days of the trip would be dedicated solely to side hiking with the goal of climbing a mountain or two. We hadn’t necessarily planned to climb a mountain from the pass but we decided this would be the best and easiest way to get up high. We looked a bit at the topo map and then I got out of the tent and checked out the mountain to the south of us. This was my first time scouting a route by just looking at the mountain and it looked like the far ridgeline would be quite do-able so we set out for that.

It's mountain climbing day!!! Photo: Erik
The mountain we climbed. Our tents are in the low spot on the divide on the right. We hiked across the base of the mountain and then ascended on the far left ridgeline before making our way across the top.
We brought our running shoes for the actual climb and cached our boots once we decided the remainder of the route would be dry. After starting on a ridiculously steep gravel slope, we made it up to the ridge that was mostly small to medium loose rocks on a solid class II-III route. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick layer of snow on the north side and we had no idea what awaited us on the south slope. We figured that slope would get more sun but being as we were so far north with 24 hours of sun we weren’t exactly sure if it would be snow free. Sure enough, when we crested the ridge it was snow free and we were able to walk across the mountain to the summit.

This was Tiffany’s first ever summit and since this sub-peak didn’t have a name we decided to name it “Tiffany’s First Peak.” The views were obviously amazing!

Tiffany on her mountain:) Photo: Sarah
Me on top. Photo: Erik

Day 5: It was time to move on and so we began hiking along Ernie Creek on a watershed that drains to the Pacific! From here on out the paddling part of our trip could potentially begin. Unfortunately water levels were too low so we kept hiking.

Around this time we began leaving the “north slope,” aka the tundra. The vegetation was getting taller and we had more rocks to contend with. As the afternoon wore on the shrubs got increasingly taller and we had a couple ravines to cross. We had an arbitrary goal of making it to Tributary Creek, but alas, as the breaks became more frequent and we got a stunning view of the Gates of the Arctic (two mountains, Boreal and Frigid Crags, that rise up above the North Fork of the Koyukuk on either side) on a dry ridge, we decided to set up camp (even if the sun wouldn’t be setting for another 5 days).

Our camping spot with the Gates of the Arctic in the background. Photo: Erik

Day 6 involved more tussocks, less tall vegetation, and fewer ravines than the end of the previous day. A bit below Tributary Creek we tried packrafting for about a mile. The water was moving quite fast and there were some big waves with constant channel picking and rock dodging (we’d give it a class II) but overall it was shallow. At one point we decided to do a peel out maneuver to leave the eddy we had stopped in. Erik and I got spun around quickly when the current caught the back of the packraft. This threw Erik off the raft. I braced super hard in front to keep the raft from tipping. Erik kept hold of his paddle and the packraft and was able to walk us back to shore. The water was cold but it was another Goldilocks day and so Erik was able to stay warm as we kept going. Shortly after that we resumed hiking on the east side of Ernie Creek as we could tell there was a big gorge coming up. Later we scouted the water which appeared to be quite shallow with lots of rocks and decided it was better to hike. We were too far out for something bad to happen and the views up on the plateau were stunning.

This is what I came for- mountains rising out of boreal forest! Photo: Sarah
Not bad views with Mt. Doonerak and Hanging Glacier Mountains in the backdrop as Tiffany and I walk along. Photo: Erik
As we were portaging we got back into the trees! We hadn’t seen any trees in 6 days since we left Fairbanks and it was both exciting and a bit bittersweet to be back in the trees as we left the tundra behind and marked the halfway point in our trip.

After some bushwacking through the forest, we arrived at the North Fork of the Koyukuk. We inflated our packrafts yet again and this time, it was for real! We had to always pick the deepest channel and a couple times we had to line but mostly it was nice paddling. We set up camp at the base of Frigid Crags Mountain.

The final section of bushwhacking before we could definitively begin packrafting! I love how Sarah and I defined by our packs. Photo: Erik
Finally packrafting with Frigid Crags on the right.

Day 7:
As a dedicated side hiking day, we had valiant plans to climb a mountain but we awoke to rain and remained in our tents until 11 am. Although the weather was clearing there were still clouds and it was intermittently raining. After dinner we decided we better get out for a hike. We tried climbing a mountain but found that although from a distance it appeared to be grass, up close it was thick bushes up to 5 feet high growing down the hillside. This made progress really slow and after a couple hours we gave up.

Me fighting through the really tall shrubs on the mountain we tried to climb. Sometimes, when the going is this tough, it's better to just try again tomorrow. Photo: Sarah

Day 8: Due to all the rain, the river had risen at least 2 feet and instead of being glacial blue, was now brown silt. We were a bit concerned this would make the water dangerously fast but instead found it made things easier as we no longer had to carefully pick our channels. We made good time and by early afternoon had reached our planned destination, setting ourselves up well for another mountain attempt.

After a successful first summit bid a few days earlier, Tiffany now had summit fever. We set out for Eroded Mountain and were happy to discover the walking through the evergreen trees was relatively easy. Once above treeline there were some shrubs, but significantly fewer than on the mountain we had tried climbing the day before. After a series of false summits, we made it to the actual top- a sketchy bed of shale! We then cooked dinner at a slightly lower spot that had a beautiful view looking back towards Gates of the Arctic. We saw a rainbow but of course that also meant it rained on us :) and :(

This was our absolutely amazing dinner view looking back north this time towards the Gates of the Arctic. Photo: Sarah

The rainbow! Photo: Sarah

Day 9: The next day was only a paddling day. It rained on us intermittently and we were a bit cold. At one point a thunderstorm rolled in quickly. By the time we thought maybe it would be safer onshore, the storm had already passed over. There were a number of gravel bars along our route that provided for great lunch spots and often had some sand that made doing some plyometrics fun (mostly to warm up!). We camped on a few of these gravel bars. That night, at 9 PM, the weather definitively switched. The sun stayed out for good- all night long:)

Day 10: Under sunny skies we departed our gravel bar campsite. 1.5 miles later we realized we had left our water bag and filter. Given we didn’t have any side hiking planned for the day, I declared we go back to retrieve the water bag and filter. Erik and I took off on this mission alone and predominantly portaged upstream along the gravel bars. The current was way too strong for our packrafts to paddle upstream. When the gravel bars ran out, we got in the packraft and ferried across the river. It took us about 50 minutes to get back upstream and only 20 minutes to go back downstream! It was a good thing we did that little adventure because that proved to be the most adventurous thing we did all day!

After Glacier River came in, there was something on our maps labeled “Squaw Rapids.” We assumed these to be Class II and didn’t know much about them. It ended up being about a mile plus long of mostly choppy waves requiring minimal navigation. We can only assume that the high water levels covered up all the pillow rocks and actually made things easier.

The rest of the day we literally spent floating given the packrafts aren’t terribly fun to paddle and the current was trucking along at a good 4-5 miles an hour anyway. We enjoyed the scenery as the trees gradually got bigger and bigger and we started to get out of the mountains. We camped on another gravel bar. Wow, backcountry camping is so easy when there is Goldilocks weather!

Erik and I paddling/floating. Photo: Sarah

Our second to last campsite.
Day 11: Another spectacular weather day. Again, we mostly floated but sometimes did some paddling when we felt we needed to make more time. Now we only occasionally had views back to the mountains.

Sarah and Tiffany floating in relaxed mode. The mountains are now way behind us. Photo: Erik
Day 12: We had a short paddle to the town of Bettles where we met our 10 person plane for the flight back to Fairbanks.

The gravel runway at the airport in the booming metropolis of Bettles. Way just kidding! Photo: Erik
In reflecting on this trip, especially the last 2 days when we had Goldilocks weather, what strikes me is how “normal” or ordinary this trip seemed to me. I love point to point or big circle adventures, and this one being a point to point, allowed for purpose. True, we were above the Arctic Circle and didn’t seen any other people in 10 days, but despite this I felt amazingly comfortable and “at home.”