Race director Bobby Gillis gets ready at the start line. PHOTOS: Matt Bosford
Matt Hosford tells us about his personal experience of the Chena River to Ridge: 25 and 50 Mile Multi-Sport Endurance Race – Part 1 of 2
Start of Race
I looked up at the cawing ravens flying over head, passively flapping their wings and circling me as I ran. They glided with such ease as if to point out their superior wings to my two gravity abiding stumps. I was envious.
I had just past the 1 mile marker and I was already starting to sweat. I was working hard to move through the soft snow, huffing uncharacteristically for the speed I was moving. Over a foot of snow had fallen within the past five days and it hadn’t settled. Every step sunk down a few inches, like running on a sandy beach.
Bobby Gillis, the race director mentioned that Fairbanks had an unusually high snowfall this year; not exactly ideal for a foot race. Fortunately, the course had been plowed via snowmobile dragging a pulch the night before.
Our plowed trail was essentially a three foot wide ditch between two walls of snow. Step off this path and you’d find yourself waist deep in snow. We were truly bound to the trail.
Location & History
The River to Ridge course lies 40 miles (64 km) northeast of Fairbanks in the Chena River State Recreation Area. Each participant could choose between fat biking, cross country skiing or running a 25 mile (40 km) or 50 mile (80 km) course. Due to the high snow volume, the 50 mile course was altered from two different 25 mile loops to the same 25 mile loop, twice. Veterans of winter racing and others with general common sense analyzed the recent snowfalls and traded in their runners for skis. If only I had been so smart.
This year marked the sixth anniversary for the River to Ridge, which began in 2011. Bobby Gillis took over as race director three years ago because he wanted to keep “this amazing event alive.” This will be his last year as director and he said, “I am hopeful that someone will take the reins for next year to keep it going. It’s a special event.”
Pre-race orientation and check-in was done in a warm cabin near the start line. The atmosphere in there was cozy and relaxed. Everyone seemed to know each other and were slowly packing their things. It felt more like an outdoor club meetup than the regular pre-race registration where you usually see participants frantically packing bags, stretching and more or less “getting in the zone.”
When I passed this 1 mile marker, it dawned on me that this excuse to adventure out to Fairbanks was going to be a struggle, rather than the fun run that I’d signed up for. Running in the snow felt more like jumping than the natural flowing stride you get on solid ground. Skis were definitely the weapon of choice today. Fat bikers were having a tough time as well. I traded places with a biker for the first few miles, taking over him on the uphills and being passed by him on the downhills. At mile 5, we hit the ridge and began the 2.5 mile climb. The fat biker was left to slowly push his 30 pound steed to the ridge while skiers stopped to re-apply wax.
Once on the ridge, the trail flattened and the snow covered alders thinned, giving way to views of the wide valley from which we had come. My spirits lifted thinking that I could make up some ground to the approaching aid station. What I wasn’t prepared for was the added snow on the ridge. It turned out that our side of the ridge was heavily wind loaded – meaning snow had blown off the adjacent slope and piled up on the trail side. Post-holing, literally plunging knee or hip height into unpacked snow, was now added to the growing list of course obstacles.
A snowmobile passed me halfway along the ridge. I pulled over to let the sled by however, my half step off the trail brought me down to my waist and I face planted into the powder. I rolled onto my back and tried without success to push myself up. Instead I flailed around like a flipped turtle on its shell as the sledder continued on; a scene of pity and comedy in equal measure.
My initial reaction was relief to see the sled compacting the trail. In reality, the holes created by earlier runners had only been lightly covered with a hollow base. Now, the trail felt like playing a game of minesweeper. Every four or five steps you would hit a bomb and be ankle deep in snow. While post holing for the fifth consecutive time, I began to laugh hysterically, like a deranged man filled with both anger and bemusement.
These obstacles were inconveniences and while I was enjoying the adventure, I could not ignore that I was not even half way and my body was starting to show fatigue. I also could not keep thinking of the Alaskans ahead of me who were crushing this race in comparison.