Sept. 1, 2009
By Leilana McKindra
Not much marks the finish line of the Alaska Wilderness Classic - just a simple piece of paper kept in a plastic bag (to stay dry in case of rain) and tacked to a post staked in the ground. As competitors arrive, they list their names and finishing times.
The lack of fanfare aside, adding one's name to that piece of paper is a big deal, and it's an honor that Alaska Fairbanks Athletics Director Forrest Karr recently earned.
Karr and teammate Stephen Taylor were two of only a dozen individuals to finish this year's race that began with a field of 26. The tandem completed the event in a little over a week - and they weren't in as good a shape as when then they started.
As its name suggests, the Classic is a race through the rugged wilds of Alaska. The race's handful of rules that require participants to be self-propelled and self-contained (meaning no motorized vehicles or pull/pack animals allowed), to stay off mapped roadways, and to carry a satellite phone and either an Alpacka or Sherpa raft. Otherwise, competitors are largely on their own in figuring out how to cover the distance between the start and finish lines.
Although a few brave individuals from the lower 48 do come to test their survival skills at the annual event, the competition, which began in 1981, attracts mostly Alaska residents like Karr, who first learned of the race during a presentation at a Rotary Club meeting a couple years ago.
"You don't get prizes. There's no money for the winner. There's no news reporter there or free long-sleeve T-shirt," said Karr. "It's a quaint group of people who are really passionate about the outdoors."
By those criteria, Karr easily qualifies. The outdoors has been a lifelong interest for the former ice hockey standout at Notre Dame who grew up in Wisconsin. In the five years since he moved to Alaska, he has taken full advantage of all the state has to offer in the way of outdoor adventure - ski mountaineering, backpacking, even sheep hunting and now the Classic.
Entering the race, Karr and Taylor, whose goal was simply to finish, admitted to a local news reporter covering the July 26 to August 1 competition that they were a little scared and nervous.
"There's no question when you go out into the wilderness in Alaska without a tent or sleeping bag and you're on a multiday adventure, it's intimidating," said Karr. "We were nervous about it, and we knew it was going to be hard."
The Classic's route changes every three years. This year was the first for the 160-mile route that took competitors over the little-known Granite Mountains. Racers had three options for covering the distance - around the north side of the range, through St. Anthony's Pass or over the mountains.
Karr and Taylor chose the last.
"About eight of us chose to go the shortest distance, which meant going right up in and over the mountains," Karr said. "It seemed like a good idea on the map, but when we got there, it was a little more difficult than we thought."
The first 40 miles were the toughest, Karr recalled, but the entire trip was a test of physical fitness, mental fortitude, endurance and determination. Crossing swollen creeks and rivers were some of the biggest challenges. The warm summer caused the glaciers to melt more than usual and the creeks and rivers were higher - waist-deep in some cases - and more difficult to navigate.
There was also the 60 mile-per-hour winds to deal with, not to mention the injuries. Around the fourth day, Karr's Achilles tendon affected his ability to walk so severely that Taylor had to stop and wait for him every few hundred yards. Medication didn't help the pain. Finally they cut off a piece of the back of Karr's shoe to take the pressure of the tendon.
On the fifth day, Taylor dealt with agonizing pain in knee and ankle while hiking along gravel bars in the West fork of the Little Delta River. After a few more miles and a bit of sleep, the pain subsided and he was able to continue the race, which took the duo across the Hayes, Gillam and Trident Glaciers in addition to the Granite Mountains.
Seven days, five hours and 42 minutes after striding off into the Alaskan wilderness, Karr and Taylor (along with Rob Kehrer, who was competing solo and met the duo about four days into the event) arrived at the modest finish line. The trio was about four days behind the winning team.
Karr said one of the lessons he took from the grueling experience was the importance of working together.
"There's so much importance in teamwork throughout your life, not just in college sports," he said.
But the main thing he learned was the opportunity in every challenge. Reflecting on his Achilles tendon injury, Karr said the pain at one point caused him to consider quitting.
"I thought the race was over," Karr said. "Steve and I sat down to discuss it. It occurred to me that while we were sitting on the hill with our toes jammed forward in our shoes, the back of my left shoe didn't rub my Achilles and the pain subsided. That's when I decided to cut off part of the back of the shoe. That little adjustment solved what previously seemed insurmountable."
Karr said he and Taylor likely will enter the race again next year.
"It was so beautiful and such an amazing experience - combined with the fact that we did learn a lot about how we could do better - that it is appealing to do it again," he said.
You may also read this NCAA News story, and other features like it, on the official NCAA web site, www.NCAA.org.