FAIRBANKS — Lying on the ground curled up in a ball, sick to his stomach, screaming and writhing in pain from cramping hamstrings, an uncomfortable thought crossed Scott Jerome’s mind.
“I thought, I could die here; I gotta get up and get moving,” Jerome said, reliving his lowest moment in the AlaskAcross, a roughly 70-mile wilderness race from Chena Hot Springs to Circle Hot Springs held last weekend northeast of Fairbanks.
Suffering from fatigue and dehydration, Jerome was in a hallucinatory state. He thought of his two kids, Emma and Alden, and how he had to get home to see them. Jerome credits his traveling partner, Joel Pierson, with bringing him back to life by giving him what little water he had left, as well as a pep talk to get moving again.
“If it wasn’t for him I’d still be rolled up in the tussocks in a fetal position,” Jerome said.
Nobody said the AlaskAcross was going to be easy and now that he’s done it, Jerome will be the first to tell you that it wasn’t. It took him and Pierson 32 hours, 18 minutes of non-stop hiking and paddling to complete.
“This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the 41-year-old University of Alaska Fairbanks ski coach said. “By far.”
That said, Jerome said he can’t wait to do it again.
That’s the kind of event the AlaskaCross, formerly known as the Hot Springs 100, is. It’s not necessarily fun all — or any — of the time that you’re bushwhacking through stands of dwarf birch, black spruce and scrub brush; zig-zagging your way through mazes of old burns; picking your way through fields of tussocks; or climbing miles up steep brush-covered hillsides.
But when it’s over and you sit back and reflect on it with blistered, swollen feet, it’s a blast and you can’t wait to do it again.
That’s where Jerome was on Monday.
“It just challenges yourself mentally and physically,” Jerome said of the race. “Eight hours into it I was already thinking, Next year I’ll do this, this and this. Then at midnight (six hours later), I was like, I’m crazy. What am I doing this for? I’m never doing this again.”
He had changed his mind again by the time he reached the finish at Circle Hot Springs, which he called the fourth-happiest moment of his life behind his wedding day and the births of his two children, and was already plotting his strategy for next year’s race.
“It didn’t take him long,” Pierson said. “He was talking about it in the truck on the way home.”
At least until they both fell asleep.
A day later, Jerome said every muscle in his body ached. His feet, which didn’t bother him until the final 15 miles after getting out of his packraft, were blistered and swollen.
“Everything on my body aches,” he said.
But Jerome can’t wait for next year.
“Yeah, I’m definitely doing it again,” he said.
A record 25 participants started this year’s AlaskAcross, and it was 21-year-old Gerry Hovda of Fairbanks who claimed the title of wildermeister, shattering the previous race record by more than two hours. Hovda finished the race in 21 hours, 13 minutes
Opting for an all-overland route as opposed to floating 40 miles of Birch Creek in a packraft like his closest pursuers did, Hovda’s time beat the previous record of 23:38 set two years ago by the team of James Binkley, Pete Calvin and Jeff Levision, who, coincidentally, finished in almost the same exact time (23:30) to take second this year.
Hovda, who finished second last year in his first try at wilderness racing, didn’t see another mammal — man or animal — after sprinting out of the parking lot at Chena Hot Springs Resort on Saturday morning.
“I ran out of the parking lot and nobody else ran,” he said.
The light-traveling Hovda didn’t take much more than he was wearing, a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of ski tights and running shoes. He had a small backpack with a windbreaker and food, but that’s it.
Following almost the exact same route he took last year, Hovda cut more than five hours off his time. Last year, Hovda made a wrong turn early in the race that cost him more than hour. Then, he sprained his ankle negotiating a nasty stretch of tussocks about halfway through the race hiking to Birch Creek. This year, Hovda stayed on course and took it slow through the tussocks.
“I didn’t hurt my ankle so I could run when I got up on the ridge after crossing Birch Creek,” Hovda said. “I followed that for 16 miles and I was able to make good time.
“I think I’m in better shape this year and I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “Last year it was just keep going. This year I knew exactly how many miles I had left.”
The GPS he carried mapped his route at 66 miles, which was six miles shorter than last year. He reached Birch Creek an hour and a half earlier this year than last.
“I cut a few corners,” Hovda said. “I think I planned better and had a better route this year.”
Visibility was also much better this year. Racers had to contend with low clouds and fog last year, which made for difficult navigating. The weather this year was perfect, except for a cloud burst that drenched some racers on Sunday afternoon and early evening.
“It made a big difference,” Hovda said of the visibility. “I could see the ridge I was following and where I had to go.”
On Monday, Hovda was still limping around on tender feet. His arms and legs were covered with scratches from bushwhacking through the brush. He had five blisters, including one “giant” blister that started forming only about eight miles into the race.
“I took my shoe off and put duct tape on it but it didn’t do much good,” Hovda said. “I’m kind of hobbling. I might lose a toenail.”
Even so, Hovda was still planning to race in the Tour of Fairbanks bicycle race that starts tonight, though it might be tough squeezing his swollen, blistered feet into a pair of tight biking cleats.
“I did it last year,” he said.
Low water in Birch Creek may have cost Binkley, Calvin and Levision a chance at catching Hovda. Race founder Mark Ross, who finished fourth in 28:14, said the water in Birch Creek was the lowest it’s been in the seven years of the race.
Despite paddling as hard as they could non-stop for 12 1/2 hours, Binkley, Calvin and Levison spent 2 1/2 hours longer on the river this year than in 2009.
“As soon as we saw the river we knew if Gerry had a good race he was definitely going to take it,” Levison said. “There was nothing we could do on the river. We were paddling as hard as we could and barely getting 3 1/2 mph.”
The low water conditions also forced them to get out of their rafts several times, he said.
Given the water conditions, the fact that they were able to beat their time two years ago was impressive, Levison said.
“We couldn’t have done it much faster,” he said. “We had a perfect race. We did exactly what we wanted to.”
Lots of rookies
Of the 25 people who started the race, 23 reached the finish line at Circle Hot Springs. The only racers who didn’t make it were the Fairbanks team of Larry Bartlett and Mike Kramer, who turned around after about 20 miles when Bartlett fell ill.
More than half of this year’s field — 17 — were rookies. Most said they had a good time, at least once it was over.
“It was a little more difficult than we anticipated but it was fun,” said the 35-year-old Clairmont, who teamed up with Rogers to do the race.
The two physician assistants at Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks finished the race in 40 hours, 26 minutes. They would have been faster, Clairmont said, but his hip started hurting 12 hours into the race.
“The last 10 miles down to Birch Creek I was using my trekking pole as a crutch,” he said. “I couldn’t put any weight on my left foot. That slowed us down.”
Once in his raft, the hip was fine, Clairmont said, but it bothered him while hiking the final 15 miles.
The 36-year-old Rogers said the race was “a blast.”
“We’re already planning next year’s race,” he said. “We know we made a lot of rookie mistakes.”
For 16-year-old Mark Plumb, the AlaskAcross was just another notch in his Alaska adventure belt. Plumb, from Colorado, has been traveling to Alaska the past five years to spend time with his Fairbanks uncle, Ed Plumb, who has taken him on several hiking and packrafting trips in the Alaska, Brooks and Wrangell mountain ranges.
The Plumbs finished in eighth place with a time of 34 hours, 15 minutes. The only time they stopped was for a 45-minute nap during their 16-hour float down Birch Creek.
“He’d never done anything like that where he didn’t sleep,” Ed Plumb said of his nephew. “I was impressed.”
The fact that he arrived in Fairbanks two days before the race makes it even more impressive.
“It was hard staying awake and constantly going but it was fun,” the younger Plumb said.
This year’s race featured two father-son teams. Eric Troyer talked his 16-year-old son, Riley, into doing the race. The race sounded like it might be fun, the younger Troyer, a cross-country skier and runner at West Valley High, said.
Now that he’s done it, he’s not so sure. It took them over 41 hours to finish the race and they only slept 1 1/2 hours, Riley said.
“I had not idea how much bushwhacking and off trail stuff there would be,” Riley Troyer said. “It was the hardest thing mentally that I’ve ever done. Now that it’s over it’s fun.”
His father, an avid hiker, said the race was “pretty brutal,” especially hiking down a road for the last 10 miles.
“It seemed like that road goes on forever,” Eric Troyer said. “I kept thinking (the finish) must be around this corner and it was never around that corner. I started cussing at the ground.”
They each had sore feet after the race but no blisters. If he does it again, the elder Troyer said, he will consider a packraft.
“The idea of sitting down and resting your feet sounds pretty nice,” he said.
Still, Troyer said it was a good father-son bonding activity. As they hiked through a rainstorm on top of a ridge on Sunday afternoon, Troyer said he thought about where they were and what might happen if something went wrong. If he or Riley had slipped and broken an ankle it would have been a bad situation considering they didn’t have squat for survival gear, though they did have a SPOT device they could have used to call for help.
“It does make you feel alive,” he said of ultralight hiking through the wilderness. “You’re on a fragile edge out there.”
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.