Did you know that a normal July day in Fairbanks, Alaska lasts for 24 hours. Officially, daylight hours in this city around mid June range close to 22 hours with the remaining two hours resembling a dusky-dim lit interval. So, it never really gets completely dark here during the summer months. The sun glistens through your windshield at midnight. Middle of the night trips to Walmart are not uncommon. They also don't necessarily guarantee you won't hit traffic in the parking lot nor easily find your way through the store without dodging a mother and her three small kids. By the end of July, however, as summer gravitates toward fall, these day-lit hours in Fairbanks, Alaska begin their cease. By Dec. residents will only see about 3-4 hours of faint-daylight (that dusky-dim-lit interval mentioned earlier) during a 24-hour period, and oximoronically speaking, their 24-hour day will be their 24-hour night.
Did you know that temperatures on a normal July day in Fairbanks, Alaska can reach into the high 80's with night temps dropping into the 50's. Like many of the lower 48, Fairbanks, Alaska does have noticeable seasonal change, albeit with some characteristics to its own. Similarly, that of which most of us associate a seasonal change with, the residents of Fairbanks, Alaska do too, and winter and summer is differentiated by hot and cold temps. Nevertheless, with winter temperatures dropping as low as -50 degrees below zero, it can be hard to fathom that summer warmth, new growth and normality could even be possible in such a place. But it is. During these months residence enjoy swimming and sunbathing and biking and floating on the Cheena River just as we do in any other southern state. A freezing cold that so many of us tag Fairbanks, Alaska with does let up for a little while and warm summer temps are recorded and enjoyed.
Did you know that Fairbanks is one of the largest cities within Alaska's interior region and its popularity attracts tourists year-round. Its approximating 32 square miles adds to the additional 663,235.3 square miles helping to make the state of Alaska the largest in the US. Most people visiting Fairbanks, Alaska for their summer vacation spot are doing so for the very first time. Many will visit by cruise ship while others will touch down via airplane onto Fairbanks International Airport. However one arrives, setting sights on some of the must-see attractions has many anticipating the rich history, natural wildlife and spectacular terrain. The city is known for its ice carving and sculptures, and tours are available (yes, even in July). The tallest rising evergreens line the sides of a flowing Cheena River and make even the most spectacular Christmas tree in my world seem tiny and unremarkable. Locals will remind you that bear and moose sightings are the real deal if hiking, and it's important to know how to protect oneself if out and approached by one. "The moose are mean," one alerted, or "if you happen to spot a bear, don't run." Rodents, such as porcupines, could also be among the norm seen, especially for a hiker. Real live reindeer can be viewed and petted at such places as the Cheena River Resort and Lodge. Finally, a greater sense to the vastness of this frontier state might be experienced. Known as the Alaskan factor, some will get a sense or impression of the fascination to what seems an endless area of such untouchable terrain and beauty.
Finally, I bet you didn't know that I traveled to Fairbanks, AK during this past summer. The true reason for my visit here, without argument, was a desire to just go; take a trip somewhere far away unlike I had ever been. Too, I had been looking for a challenge unlike I had yet faced with running on the road or trial. I desperately needed to add some flavor to my present yet mundane running life. While online, I came across a newer ultra-marathon called the Angel Creek 50 miler about 30 miles outside of downtown Fairbanks. Only in its second year, I presumed that the race wouldn't be too crowded with other runners and might be a great adventure at that. So I registered, booked a flight, and was on my way within the week. Solo.
The course would take runners through "miles of boreal forest and tundra trials." For those of you who don't know, like myself, a boreal forest is a snow forest. The tundra trails are normally treeless colden areas, but in the summer may be the home to smaller grass or shrubs. Runners would make their way through the Cheena River Recreation Area beginning at Twins Bear Camp and run to a finish at the Cheena Hot Springs Resort. But a finish would involve some serious work, and as I would soon believe, the many awesome climbs and descents would not be easy for a runner of any caliber.
The highest climb would reach3427 feet in elevation. By the first checkpoint of 7.5, I was running well, and the rocky trail didn't seem anything other than what I had experienced at home. Some single track sections mixed in with those similar to a bumpy 4-wheeler trial had me moving confidently. The weather was comfortable even starting with rain. Once we began to climb up the Little Cheena Dozer Line to cross the ridge to the Cheena Dome trail, I began to notice the difficulty level rising. I felt as though the climbs were straight up, and as I increased to the higher ridges to enter into the un-maintained Alaskan State Park, my confidence began its decrease. I made my way through the aid station cabin just before beginning my cross (roughly 17 miles in) as it had gotten considerably colder. Unprepared with gear, I had failed to follow the recommendations of having a warm rain jacket on my waist. With consistent movement, however, I was able to keep the chill in check.
The rocky mountain top made for unsteady footing through a path that was missing the noticeable wariness that I was used to. An additional struggle with the section was the lack of visibility that had settled. And I use "lack of" extremely loose. The clarity around me as I started over this ridge was so dense that the realization of getting lost was frightening to say the least. The pink flyers that had been tied out prior to race day had been done so on a clear day. The two aid station volunteers directed me, "If you can't see the pink flyers, you can always stay on track by hiking up towards the highest peak." I must tell you, the rugged and rocky terrain was something unlike I had ever run or hiked. In addition, not being able to find my way through what seemed a never-ending-cloud had me panicked, frustrated and irritable. Slow and steady. It was the only way to be.
As I began to descend to the Upper Angel Creek Cabin, there were times that I felt as if I was part of a balancing act. I was able to stabilize myself hiking around the side of the mountain enough to make it into the 30-mile marker aid station where I would indulge in my first drop bag. It was 3:20 pm and having been on the course for 10 hours and 21 minutes, I was really glad to regroup and take in some calories. I finished up and made my way out of the aid to station in a little over 10 minutes.
From this 30-mile checkpoint, runners would cross the Angel Creek Bridge and take the Angel Creek Hillside Trial into a mandatory 42 mile checkpoint. The cut-off time to reach this hillside trail was 6:30 pm. I knew I was seriously pressed for time and needed some very runable trails to hit this goal. I ran into mile 40 at 6:10 pm. This quick aid station included minimal aid for runners along side road access. And this would be the last of the road access on the race course before the finish. Reasoning with myself I justified that I was too unaware of what the remaining course held, and time was definitely not on my side. I was so troubled with making a spot-on decision to move ahead. In reality, I knew a DNF was inevitable. Three circumstances were clear: unsuspecting terrain ahead, insufficient time, and the unavailability to road access for the remainder of the race. Sag wagons were waiting. The same van driver that had carried me to the start, drove me to the finish.
I must add that there was a fourth reason for my decision to drop at 40 miles. Enter in---my poorest planning yet. When I booked my flights, I thought it would be ideal to leave on Saturday evening just following the race and fly overnight back into Little Rock. I had purchased a ticket without warranty but with a late departing time that would have me leaving Fairbanks International at 9 pm. I had done this with every intention of being able to run without incident, hit the post-race party and still make it to the airport on time. Based on my past experience with 50 mile trail races alone, a 13-hour-finish was a very realistic goal. However, (and unfortunate), I DO NOT run in a perfect world. Shit can and will happen. In my perfect little running world, I would have breezed up and over every steep climb, the slippery rocks would have been as stable as a grassy trail with zero thoughts given to my footing, and visibility issues--well there would have been none. You see my perfect little running world is only the name of my website. Perfection will always be my goal but will never be a reality, especially on my running trail.
I am so two-fold as I write about my experience with this stranger state and impressionable trail race. With one hand, I'm dealt royally. I feel so grateful to have been able to make a trip such a this, participate with the race, and see all the surroundings to a place most people only dream of going. Experiencing a non-stop day, warming up through nice afternoons, talking with those who call Alaska their home, and experiencing the true vastness of it all is enough for vacation success. Even completing only 40 miles isn't too bad of a deal, and has me looking forward to returning next year, drawing better cards of preparation, and running to a finish on the course. At least 5 good reasons that I could list in order all representing the positives, which certainly surpassed the negatives.
But on the other hand my fan of cards holds my competitive nature, has me disheartened and is a disappointing fold. Being unprepared for incidents along the course. and not spending enough time researching the race particulars was a bad discard on my part. My need and desire to finish a race that I start is apparent because--honestly--well, no one really ever wants to DNF. Booking my return flight and not giving myself enough time for unseen setbacks during the race was a nut low. A hand that I don't ever want to draw again.
I have always said that I never finish a race without learning something new. No matter how many ultra marathons I finish, good or bad, hurting or healthy, I always walk away with something beneficial that I can use or share, try out or trash. This race was no different, and there were certainly many should's that came with my results. Definitely many eye-openers concerning myself. I should never become complacent. I should always be physically trained and well-prepared for any ultra-marathon, and never let a past finish find merit to an upcoming race. I should always go prepared. Prepare myself with the necessary gear and maintain a mentality for difficult situations. Whether I get lost, hit bad weather, or struggle to move on pace, I have to be able to regroup and determine the best solution for myself for the time at hand. Even if it means feeling guilty or down on myself afterwards, I have to learn to avoid second-guessing, make a decision and move ahead. 2016 had me digging out of a running rut and wanting to try new races in new places. Challenges can be intimidating, but usually exactly what we need. I want to carry this goal into 2017 with even more running challenges. I want to teach myself to better. I want to be more self-sufficient on there races. I want an unbreakable mentality.
A huge shout out to local runner Ned Rozell who caught up to me as I was beginning my cross over the first ridge. Had it not been for this runner, I would have surely crashed and burned before too long. An amazing runner with even more amazing stories, not only did I have his help finding my way, but it was as if I had my own personal tour guide for a good portion of the day. I learned that the boy scouts were responsible for the permanent navigational markings across the ridge. During winters, the section we were climbing across was snow drifts and impassable. We trekked up and over, slow but consistent. Many times stopping to search and point out the direction to take, I followed Ned through the early afternoon. One thing caught my attention as I noticed him bending down and pulling up something from the lower bushes. It was wild blueberries. They covered the ground on either side of the trial. Only about the size of my pinky nail, they were so good. Ned described them as tasting "healthy." I had never tasted a wild berry, and they were delicious. So glad I tasted. Ned was able to continue on despite these slower sections. He picked up his pace and made the 6:30 cut-off to the 42 mile marker. He now has his second finish on the Angel Creek 50. Well deserved. Truly respected. You can read his race report and see some more of his amazing finishes at alaskatracks.blogspot.com