Trails in and around Anchorage

Bryon Powell at iRunFar asked readers to prepare descriptions of the trails and running facilities in 32 cities around the US. His goal is to create a resource for new or travelling runners to find out about trail running in their cities. With Vanessa's help I prepared the following description of the trails around Anchorage:

I moved to Anchorage in the winter of 2009 from Johannesburg, a great big concrete city. I was amazed to discover the trail-running paradise that characterises Alaska. Since I’ve been here, I have run more than ever, and I have made some great running buddies who are only too happy to share their favorite routes with me.

The Anchorage City Bowl boasts a myriad of parks and trails, all of which link up to the forests and mountains of the Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park.  190 parks covering 10,000 acres are connected by 400 miles of trails, which cater to trail runners of all levels [].

Many of these trails are accessible on foot from within the city districts. For new or amateur runners, there is the paved Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which starts in Kincaid Park, home to over 44 miles of dirt trails. In fall, the local running community hosts the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series, now in its 44th year. For nine weeks, three separate race courses are marked out, and runners from babies to pensioners come out to participate in the Munchkin, Farm or Lightning categories. []

Anchorage is also famous for Alaska’s most frequently climbed peak, Flattop Mountain. This trail has a total elevation gain of 1,350 feet in 1.5 miles and the peak provides stupendous views of the city, the valleys, Cook Inlet and Mount McKinley in the northwest. From the same trailhead, there is easy access to Powerline Pass, one of Anchorage’s most beautiful trails and one of my favorites.

Powerline pass as seen from Flattop

These trails are all part of the Chugach State Park trail system. The Chugach Mountains run along the east of the city, and are accessible from various points along the Anchorage trail network. In 2010 Harlow Robinson traversed the twelve peaks with an elevation higher than 5,000 feet, completing the Front Range Link-Up in under 23 hours. (Robinson has won the tortuous Matanuska Peak Challenge six times and the backcountry Cross Pass Crossing marathon twice.) [].

Runners who train on these trails might be preparing for two of south-central Alaska’s biggest trail races. In June, competitive trail runners connect Girdwood (40 miles south of Anchorage) to Eagle River (15 miles north of Anchorage) using trails through the Chugach Range, running as the crow flies, in the Crow Pass Race.

This marathon-length race has fixed start and end points, but the route past the Monarch mine ruins, Crystal Lake, Raven Glacier and Eagle River is up to the racers. Runners have one hour to make it to the top of the first mountain (where they invariably have to run through snow), and a further five hours to complete the race. Roughly-defined paths help out at times, but there are large sections of the trail where the tundra is unflattened and the bush is overgrown. Encounters with bears, moose and Dall sheep are common. Halfway through the race, the runners choose their own place to ford the thigh-deep, 25-foot, glacial-fed Eagle River.

Crow Pass veterans recognize rock piles and distinctive trees, and spend their summers working out short cuts and fine-tuning their routes. It’s a physically demanding race, but it’s great fun! The 2010 Crow Pass was won by Geoff Roes, a Juneau-based trail runner who also won last year’s Western States 100.

Anchorage’s trails are also accessible in winter. Many intrepid trail runners still take to the snowy paths, enjoying the solitude or possibly training for one of the toughest winter trail races, the Susitna 100. This race covers 100 miles through remote forests and frozen rivers and lakes, and can be completed on foot, bike or ski. Look out for my name on the finishers’ list this year!

Powerline pass in early fall

The best running store in Anchorage is Skinny Raven. They stock a good selection of kit and trail shoes and they helped to design the Adidas Raven trail shoe. They also sponsor a lot of local races, including the Tuesday Night Race Series and Crow Pass. They have marathon and half-marathon training groups and hold group runs from their store.

National Trails Day is a big deal here, and many runners and other trail users come out in force to contribute to the maintenance of the in-town trails. The Alaskan landscape provides the most beautiful backdrop for the trails, and it is a privilege to be able to enjoy them. For the trail runner, I think Anchorage is heaven! 

Remembering summer

On a beautiful summer's day we ran from Indian to GlenAlps. We climbed mountains, saw Dall sheep and took great photos.

Susitna 100 - 4th men's foot division!

Last night I finished the Susitna 100, my first 100 mile race. It was a tough day and a half (finish time 35 hours 54 minutes), and I came 4th in the Men's Foot Division!

My number and first 100 miler belt buckle!
Race report here.

Maps and plans

I love maps. Vanessa and I have maps on all the walls in our apartment - maps of Alaska, the USA, Africa and the World. As I'm planning to run along trails I've never been on before it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put up some new maps! We now have three versions of the Susitna 100 trail on our bedroom door.

Maps and time checks

The top two maps are overviews of the entire course: the larger one to see some of the details and the little one I'm taking with me. Below that the course is laid out in four different sections so I can plan where I'm going and what time I want to hit each check point. The mile markers and planned times are on the white post-it notes next to each section. The plan may be a little enthusiastic, but it's a useful reference to figure out and adjust along the way.

Susitna 100 course

Running with a sled?

This weekend I'm running in the Susitna 100. It's a 100 mile trail race in the Susitna Valley along the Yetna and Susitna rivers. The race has a list and a minimum weight limit of required gear for each participant to ensure that the racers have enough survival gear for up to 48 hours in the Alaskan winter. I struggle to stay outside for a day of skiing in the middle of winter so I'm happy for any advice to survive running for up to 48 hours!

There are only two real options to carry all this gear: drag a sled or carry a backpack. As almost all the running racers went with sleds in the last few years I'm taking that approach. I've tried running with a light pack and the weight in a pack would put tremendous pressure on my ankles (especially if there are poor conditions and lots of snow). So a sled it is. My marvel of a sled is a homemade device that I built. It is a child's sled from the supermarket combined with rope and PVC pipe from the hardware store and a custom fitted belt created from seat belt material. It runs smooth on thicker snow and fairly straight on almost all grades. Not perfect or professional, but it's going to do great.

I narrowed down the gear I want to take with me, taking out the most extreme expedition gear that I was contemplating, and right now I'm feeling ready to go. My list of gear includes the required gear, in red, and is separated into what I'm wearing, what I'll put in my hydration pack and what's going into the two stuff sacks on my sled.

list of gear (click to enlarge)

To keep it all together on the sled I have a 30l sack with food, clothing and gear that I want to be able to access easily during the race and a 60l sack with required gear and emergency clothing in case it gets really cold. Food for the race includes Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem, dates, dried apples and chocolate. Mmmm, chocolate!

All my food before repackaging

A little lighter and exactly what's going in the stuff sack

Along with the food will be my extra gloves, goggles, a spare water bottle and other warm clothing. This falls under the "needs to be quickly and easily accessed" gear of the sack and is determined by my fear of the cold and fast-freezing extremities.

All the non-food contents of my30l stuff sack

The 60l stuff sack contains the heavier required gear, emergency food and clothing I'm only planning to take out in a really cold and dire situation. This includes a tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag from my friend Doug; more warm clothes; emergency food supplies; and a few other things to repair a broken sled. Things will not be looking good if I have to go into this bag...

Contents of my 60l stuff sack

Once everything is packed it goes onto the sled which is affectionately know as the "ninja turtle" because it looks like a turtle shell when I'm carrying it empty on my back! The gear weights 17.9 pounds which is about 2 pounds above the minimum, but I'm willing to pull a few extra warm layers to help me endure the longest period I will spend outside in Alaska.

Fully loaded and aerodynamic sled

I'm debating whether to take some bunny boots for the sections of the race where I might be walking in deep snow. I had planned to leave these behind, but four inches of snow overnight and the flurries I can see out my window are doing a good job of convincing me to put the extra weight on my sled. I'll do a final pack tomorrow morning before the race so there may be a few tweaks to the gear, but right now I think I've got exactly what I need.

Learning to run in an Alaskan winter

Rainy days in Cape Town and cold winter mornings in Johannesburg used to frustrate me. I hated wearing a rain jacket and occasionally adding gloves and tights. Running was running and it was easier when the weather cooperated. In Alaska the weather is part of a greater running adventure!

Winter runs require more gear than I've ever run in before:

  • 3 layers on top (compression, long-sleeve t-short, wind jacket)
  • 2 layers on my legs (tights, wind pants)
  • GORE-TEX shoes
  • gaiters
  • neoprene gloves
  • beanie
  • balaclava
  • headlamp

And that's for a good day where the temperature hasn't fallen below 0 Fahrenheit!