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Resurrection Pass Trail racers are in it for the long run 50 and 100 miles

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004

Jeff Bannish's feet hurt.

The 42-year-old runner has just finished the 100-mile Resurrection Pass Trail Race and the first order of business is to get his shoes off and get some air to his toes. It's a little past noon and Bannish is the first finisher.

He slowly lowers himself into a canvas camping chair and begins pulling at his shoe laces.

The last few miles of the race are run on a gravel road. Bannish's shoes are powdered with gray dust from the road. His ankle-high socks are stained with a black ring of sweat and dirt accumulated along Resurrection Pass Trail, the backcountry hiking trail the majority of the race is run on.

Bannish pulls off a dusty shoe and grimy sock. He hasn't taken his shoes off since beginning the race the day before, more than 21 hours ago. He slowly wiggles his toes.

 

Jeff Bannish cools his heels and stretches his toes after winning the 100-mile event. Blackened toe nails are common to long-distance runners.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"That just feels so good," he says.

He pulls off his other shoe and sock and bends down to examine his feet.

His toes are slightly swollen and a couple of the nails are black. He says his toes feel like little sausages.

His feet look beat up, but mostly they burn from the hours they've worked at pounding away the miles.

"They're hot. They're really hot," Bannish says, almost in awe.

 

Rick Rochelle suffers through dust on Resurrection Pass Road. Most of the race's course is on a scenic trail where the only other people are wearing hiking boots, on mountain bikes or riding horses.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Resurrection Pass Trail Race, which finished Aug. 7, is run between Cooper Landing and Hope along the Resurrection Pass Trail. The event is actually two races: a 50-miler and a 100-miler. Participants in the 50-mile race run the length of the course. Participants in the 100-mile event start at the finish line, run the length of the course, turn around and run back.

The distances are long enough to qualify each race as an "ultra," short for ultra-marathon or ultra-distance run. An ultra is a race longer than 26.2 miles, the distance run in a marathon.

The backcountry trail the 50- and 100-mile ultras are run on offers some unique challenges to the runners.

Resurrection Pass Trail starts at Hope and gains about 2,100 feet in elevation as is it climbs to open alpine terrain and runs along ridge peaks through the Chugach National Forest.

Most long-distance races offer water and food aid stations every four to eight miles. Resurrection Pass Trail is off limits to motorized vehicles. Because of the difficulty involved in transporting food and water, there are no aid stations along the trail. Aid stations are offered at each end of the trail. For 38 miles runners are forced to carry their own food and water, according Pat Munz, one of the race's organizers.

"That adds another dimension," she said.

Eating and drinking enough food and water is crucial to getting the ultra-distance runners through the race. Runners have a variety of options to supply themselves with food and water along the 38 miles between aid stations.

Runners may pack water with them using a backpack designed for the purpose, such as a CamelBak. If runners don't want to carry the extra weight, they may bring a water bottle with a filter or use iodine tablets to purify water collected from streams along the way.

To get them through the race, a lot of runners prefer foods high in calories, sugar and salt. In other words junk food. Runners may carry anything from pretzels to M&Ms.

"All the things you don't think runners usually eat," Munz said. "Anything that tastes good and they can stomach after running for so long."

 

Laura McDonough sips from a water bottle near the summit of Resurrection Pass as the day's light dims behind the Kenai Mountains. Racers ran through the night

Photo by M. Scott Moon

An ultra-distance runner herself, Munz likes PayDay candy bars because the peanuts and caramel provide salt and sugar in one package.

Runners also are allowed to stash food and water along the trail in advance.

Keeping food down when a runner's body is under extreme stress can be a real problem. For a solution, some runners like products specially formulated for runners that come in a semi-solid form and are easy to digest, such as GU Energy Gel or PowerGel. The products are packed with just what the popular Atkins diet recommends cutting way back on.

"It's a real high-carbohydrate gel," said Munz. "You can squeeze it in your mouth and swallow and be done with it."

Sometimes even high-tech foods aren't enough.

 

Julie Udchachon, right, rests her ankles in the ice cold water of Coeur d'Alene Creek as her friend Paul Pletnikoff helps her out of her shoes shortly after she set a new record in the 50-mile event.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Karen Williams, a 43-year-old veteran ultra-distance runner, couldn't keep any food down and, for most of the race, thought she wasn't going to make it.

"I vomited maybe 10 times all together," she said.

Williams previously had competed in nine 100-mile races and completed all but two. She'd been having stomach problems her last few races.

"My last couple hundreds have been pretty ugly," she said.

She seriously thought she'd have to quit a 100-miler for the third time, despite lying down a few times along the trail to rest. But after making it halfway and resting for a while at the aid station at the Cooper Landing trailhead, she felt well enough to turn around and head back. All the vomiting actually may have helped.

"You throw up and you feel better," she said.

Once she got going again, Williams found motivation in the fact that there'd be no aid for another 38 miles.

"Once you take off from the 50, you're committed," she said.

Williams took some aspirin on the way back and it made her feel even better. Her persistence paid off. Williams was the first female to complete the 100-mile event.

On the trip back, runners have to contend with the dark as they run through the night. Some runners wear lights on their heads but the halo of the constant glow can give some runners a headache. The other option is to carry a flashlight.

 

Jeff Bannish rests after his victory in the 100-mile event.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the dark, innocent objects can take on threatening outlines.

"The stumps become bears and moose through night," said Pam Richler, who ran the 100-miler last year but sat out this year to help organize the event.

None of this year's participants reported seeing any bears or moose on the trail. But last year Richler sighted a brown bear. She was running with three others at the time. The group started singing loudly to let the bear know they were there. Apparently, the bear didn't like what it heard and wondered off without incident.

For whatever reason, a lot of ultra-distance runners seem to be over 40, according to Munz.

At 33, Julie Udchachon is a youngster in the field who may be coming into her prime. Despite taking a wrong turn near the end of the race and losing time before getting back on course, she came in first overall in the 50-mile event. She completed the course in just under eight hours, breaking the course record she set last year.

Udchachon thinks age can be a benefit to ultra-distance runners.

"It's very difficult to do these runs at a younger age. I could never have done this 10 years ago," she said. "When you get older you develop a lot of stamina you never had."

 

Pat Munz, one of the race's two directors, uses a topographic map to explain a confusing area of the course to a racer after the event.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Although men are ultimately faster than women at the elite level in ultra-distance racing, Udchachon contends the longer distance can narrow the gap.

"(Ultra-distance) starts to eliminate the gender factor the longer you get, the longer the race," she said.

The Resurrection Pass Trail Race is in its ninth year for the 50-mile distance. The 100-mile race was held for the first time last year. The number of entrants in the field for the races has traditionally been small. This year a total of 13 runners entered: seven in the 50, six in the 100.

Although there's plenty of room for more participants, organizers would like to keep the number of entrants on the low side for permitting reasons. As long as the event is limited to 35 entrants per race and no entry fee is charged, organizers will not be required to get a permit from the Forest Service to hold the races on the Resurrection Pass Trail, Munz said.

Those conditions are fine with Munz, who likes the intimacy of the small group. As it happens, the majority of the entrants and organizers live in Anchorage and know each other personally or from other races they've run together, which makes the Resurrection Pass Trail Race less than just a race and more like a weekend get-together of friends and acquaintances who have an extreme idea of how to have a good time.

"It's kind of a crazy thing to do," Williams said.

Running a hundred miles more or less for fun may be crazy, but it has its rewards. Williams explains the attraction of ultra-distance running by pointing out that completing such a grueling event can give a person confidence that carries over into other parts of life. It's also a rush.

"You think, 'If I can run 100 miles, I can do a lot of things in life,'" she said. "And the finish line is so sweet.

For at least one runner, crossing the finish line of a 100-mile race apparently isn't sweet enough. Jeff Bannish had plans to go kayaking with a friend the next day.

"Yeah, I'm not gonna have to use my legs. That's exactly why I'm doing it, so I can get out and do something," he said. "That is if I can get up."



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