Zach Miller from Colorado became the first elite runner to sign up for the Crow Pass Crossing shortly after registration opened on May 1.
His buddies Tim Tollefson and David Laney — both have finished on the podium at the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 100-miler — then followed suit.
No elite trail runner from the Lower 48 had entered Crow Pass in the iconic backcountry footrace’s 33-year history — and then suddenly there were three.
Alaskan Scott Patterson, a four-time champion who owns two of the top four times at Crow Pass, welcomes the competition.
“All three of these guys bring some serious accolades and talent to Crow Pass and I look forward to standing on the start line with them,” said Patterson, a 2018 Nordic skiing Olympian who delivered a stunning 11th place in the 50-kilometer event last February in South Korea.
Miller’s resume includes wins at three high-profile 50-milers — the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco, the Lake Sonoma 50 and the JFK 50 in Maryland — plus a title at the Madeira Island Ultra Trail 115K in Portugal. He’s also placed among the Top 10 the past two years at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 100-miler in France, arguably the most competitive 100-miler in the world.
Miller, 29, lives, trains and works as a caretaker at Barr Camp (elevation 10,200 feet) on Colorado’s famous Pike’s Peak.
On May 12, Miller, representing Team USA at the ITRA Trail World Championships in Spain, held a 3 ½ minute lead at 52 kilometers of the 85K race. That was nothing unusual, as Miller is known for his no-holds-barred racing style. Unfortunately for him, the aggressive tactics didn’t work out as he struggled with dehydration and ultimately placed eighth.
Meanwhile, Tollefson, 33, and Laney, 29, have had less domestic success than Miller but have made their marks at UTMB, where until recently Americans had a history of underperforming.
Tollefson, a physical therapist in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., placed third at UTMB the past two years, including a 2017 run of 19 hours, 53 minutes.
Laney, 29, was fourth at UTMB in 2016 and third in 2015.
While Crow Pass, at 22.5 extremely technical miles, is not even a quarter the distance of UTMB, Tollefson says the mileage is in his wheelhouse.
“I’ve only run two 100-milers and my favorite distance is still 50K,” Tollefson said via email.
Laney, of Ashland, Ore., has focused on longer races in recent years.
“But a few years ago I was racing 5K’s and 10K’s,” said Laney, whose girlfriend is from Anchorage. “I think this will feel more like a 50-miler than a 24-miler with all the climbing and technical nature of the race.”
Laney has visited Girdwood and run on trails at Alyeska Resort, but hasn’t yet been on the Crow Pass trail.
How did Crow Pass even get on their radar?
The link was Billy Yang, a runner and filmmaker from Los Angeles who raced Crow Pass in 2015 (finishing 79th).
“This was all Billy’s doing,” Tollefson explained. “He texted me one morning an Ultrasignup page and asked if I would ever consider this race. I had never heard of Crows Pass but seeing Zach on the list I thought ‘Sounds grand!’ (I) signed up and then immediately texted Laney to peer pressure him in as well.”
It’s a good thing they acted with urgency. The race reached capacity (150 entrants) in just over 7 hours and there’s now a wait list of 36 hopeful runners.
The event will be newly directed by the nonprofit Healthy Futures, which takes over from the University of Alaska Anchorage running program. After the fatal bear mauling on Bird Ridge in June 2017, Crow Pass was canceled for the first time ever.
The race begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 28. Participants have six hours to travel from the Crow Pass Trailhead near Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center. Along the way, they’ll experience a 3 ½-mile climb, run downhill through waist-high vegetation with large hard-to-see rocks underfoot, cross the frigid Eagle River at the halfway point, possibly encounter yellowjackets, moose and bears, scramble through a “chutes and ladders” section, hop over deadfall and navigate a trail that is defined but unmarked.
Patterson said Crow Pass rookies may also have to deal with the frustration of briefly losing the main trail.
“For first-time racers, not getting lost is a big deal,” Patterson said. “I am talking about … the little mentally taxing wrong turns where you run into a campsite, have to reevaluate, backtrack, and get back into your flow for the race. In my first year, I had two significant wrong turns, even having run the course only two weeks prior.”
That year, Patterson, then 19, finished sixth in 3:19. He’s since entered Crow Pass four times races and won all four (2012, 2013, 2015, 2016). In 2015, Patterson clocked 2:56:13, a mark that is just 89 seconds shy of Geoff Roes’ record (2:54:44) from 2010, a year in which the Juneau runner won the prestigious Ultrarunner of the Year Award.
Patterson also notched 2:58 in 2016 and 3:00 in 2013.
“The record is what keeps me coming back,” said Patterson, who has trained more than 1,000 hours in each of the last two years and expects to average 25-30 hours of exercise per week this summer.
“I have been close in the past, but have started to realize that my cruiser winning pace is just not quite enough. I need some serious competition out there. Thus I am super excited to have the three out-of-state pros in the race. It should make for an exciting battle.”
Healthy Futures has also created a new incentive: a $500 prize to a male or female runner who breaks the record and wins the race.
Patterson, also the defending Mount Marathon Race champion, isn’t the only Alaskan with stout credentials entered. Allan Spangler is one of only four runners to break the 3-hour milestone with his 2:59:23 from 2015. His 3:01 won Crow Pass in 2014.
Other Alaskan entrants include AJ Schirack, the fifth-fastest Crow Pass runner in history (3:02 in 2016); upstart Kenneth Brewer (3:06 PR); Cody Priest (3:10 PR) and Ben Marvin (3:12 PR).
Eric Strabel, the only other man to break 3 hours at Crow Pass, plans to instead run the Matanuska Peak Challenge on Aug. 4.
However, Strabel’s wife, Denali, is part of a strong women’s field that also includes Laura Fox, Alison Barnwell, Heather Edic, Abby Jahn and Christy Marvin of Palmer, a three-time champion (2014-16).
In 2014, Marvin had a chance to break Nancy Pease’s 1990 record of 3:26:20, but took a bathroom break late in the race and finished an agonizing 24 seconds off the mark.
Pease won the race nine times, including tying Bill Spencer for the overall win in 1990. Only Marvin (three times) and Olympian Holly Brooks (one time) have come within 10 minutes of Pease’s record since she set it 28 years ago.
Will this be the year one or both of the records fall?
“A record is highly dependent on how the race unfolds as well as the race conditions,” Patterson opined. “One of the biggest challenges for Crow Pass is the lack of visibility when running. Not being able to see one’s feet on a highly technical trail usually imposes a speed limit for certain sections. The key to a record is to have somewhat reduced vegetation and make up time in the other areas.”
And if conditions are optimal?
Said Patterson: “With good conditions and a competitive field, I think the record could not just be broken, but smashed.”
– By Matias Saari, Alaska Sports Blog Contributor and Crow Pass Race Director