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Matanuska Peak Challenge Race Report

Matanuska Peak (L) from Lazy Mountain in the fall"The best race pace is a suicide pace and today is a good day to die."

- Steve Prefontaine

I've been waiting for the Matanuska Peak Challenge mountain running race all season. It's unique in our series of mountain races up here in that it's long and hard. Most of our races, aside from the more typical trail races, are uphill affairs and generally under an hour. So, Mat Peak is special since the winners come in around 3 hours and the vertical gain is nearly 9,000 feet. Additionally, it doesn't end at the top. Nine thousand feet of descending greet competitors before the finish. The event requires attention to both smart pacing and nutrition/hydration, concerns absent in shorter events. I love these aspects of the game.

Prefontaine's quote had been running through my head leading up to the race as I pondered my pacing strategy. Looking at times from past editions and who did what I had a good idea where I would fall. Nutrition was easy. Fluid requirements would depend on the weather and Saturday dawned cool and cloudy with the threat of rain in the afternoon. This suited me fine. 

So, pace was the big unknown. I knew from experience in skimo races what going out too hard could cost me. On the other hand, all of those races were at altitude so my racing heart rates were not a reliable comparison here. I had no idea how different they would be. Since my threshold HR is around 165 (or used to be, tested in SLC over a year ago), I figured a conservative pace would hold my HR around 158 or lower, leaving me plenty of juice for the duration. If I could hit threshold on the last climb after 3 hours of effort, all the better.

RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)

When performing lactate threshold testing in a lab in hopes of finding appropriate training zones, RPE is recorded along the way. This involves simply asking the athlete at the end of each stage how they would qualify their effort based on a standard subjective scale. It turns out that RPE correlates to blood lactate levels very closely. "Hard" or "Very Hard" RPE scores typically occur at LT (lactate threshold). I wanted to race just a tic under this. At LT, I probably wouldn't last the duration of the event and would have to slow considerably once my stored glycogen was depleted. But by holding back slightly, the "nitro" would last and my pace would be sustainable. That was the plan.

The fun begins

We blasted off the start line for about 100 meters down the parking lot and turned onto the single track and immediately started climbing through the woods. I settled in quickly and my HR was in the 160s.

Okay, I thought, I'll bring it down in a little bit once I start hurting. Strangely, the pain didn't come and, although I was huffing and puffing as usual, I felt within myself. I persisted. The usual bum rush from behind never happened so I figured I was doing better than usual. My HR creeped up and, with it, Pre's mantra repeating in my head. Once my monitor started reading over 170 I knew I was flirting with disaster. It was a good day to die, indeed.

You can see in the HR graph that I slowly regained my common sense. As the course topped out on Lazy Mountain, I was under control and feeding for the first time. I had one guy on my heels talking to course support people along the way. Talking?? Are you kidding? Why the hell aren't you suffering like me, I thought? Some people have more sense, I guess. I was snapping pictures along the way and he got close enough near the top to mention that he wanted copies. Yeah, why don't we exchange email addresses right here. NOT! Hey, can't you see I'm trying to race here?Looks far away.

Looking back from Lazy Mountain

Matanuska Peak above the clouds

We dropped off the top onto some forgiving scree, hit another short climb and then plummeted into the valley below.Down we goI a couple of kamikaze descenders blew by me. The trail is narrow and overgrown making for less-than-all-out descending, at least for me. We hit a few steep stream beds in the thick alders and then started the slow grind up the valley toward the main even, Matanuska Peak. At over 6,000 feet, this is one of the bigger peaks in the local Chugach. The additional relief makes for a very aesthetic peak. I was looking forward to getting on its flank.

The moraine went smoothly and I could see that I was bringing a few people back. My HR was holding in the low 160s. The two hour mark was approaching and I would soon know if I had screwed myself. I passed four others on the climb through scree and finally awkward, slippery talus. 33 degrees, slippery, loose.Some fresh snow and wet lichen made the going slow for me. This was no place to get hurt. The summit was awesome with great views and a tempting ridge line for another day. A few photos and I turned for the descent.View doesn't suck

A volunteer offered. I said sure.Lance Kopsack, a descending machine, was by me within 5 minutes and long gone before I knew it. Once I was in the loose scree I let it roll a bit as I passed other competitors. Lots of encouraging words were exchanged by all. Great group of athletes, really.My friend Kyle lovin' it.

Back on the moraine I tried to let it roll, knowing this was not my forte. Even as I descended my HR was in the mid 150s. Once through the brushy creek beds and onto the climb back up Lazy Mountain, my HR went easily into the 160s again. This was validation that I was on a good day and hit the pace right. More Gu and Roctane went down. It seemed like I was nailing the food about right, too. I wanted it gone as I started to descend.

I could see Lance ahead on the final scree slope but there was no way I would catch him. He would destroy me on the final down, anyway. What surprised me, however, was Christy Virgin, the top female, suddenly appearing behind me. I kept an eye on her, holding her at least a minute behind. She was not closing on the uphill but she did something special in the valley to get this close. The final drop to the finish was going to be interesting. 

I hammered off the summit going faster than I have ever in that kind of terrain. Once I dropped off the crest and onto the painfully steep forested slope, it was game on. I couldn't relax. This is quad and knee blowing terrain. Smooth, packed clay-like surface with few switch backs for relief. The drizzle was making it treacherously slick. With each bobble and near fall my calves and hamstrings would cramp. I finally gave up trying for saves and started taking sections willingly on my ass. Safer than cramping into a motionless ball of sinew.

And then Christy was on me. She shouted some beta about drier side trails as she blew by me. I couldn't understand how she was upright and I was covered in mud. Sure, I had 40 pounds on her but shouldn't that give me better traction? Apparently not. I knew there were others back there so I kept the pressure on. Gawd it was slick. And suddenly, I was down. I sprinted the final 100 meters uphill to the line with a nice round of encouragement from the bystanders. The rain was falling steady at this point.Jessi wearing her mud proudly

Kyle..."do these leaves stuck to my legs make me look fat?"

Locals told me that the trail is nearly impassable when rain comes like this. The rest of the field would be in for it. It took at least two hours for everyone to finish. Lots of mud on backsides. But there were some curious exceptions. After asking around I discovered the secret weapon used by Lance, Christy and several others - screws in shoe soles. With a big winter running scene here, these runners adopted traction-gaining tactics for this notorious course. Key beta for next year. 


I ended up 12th which is my best finish overall this year. The field was smaller so that explains some of it. This race also suits me better than the shorter events. That said, I still got trounced by the same two guys in my age group, Barney Griffith and Karl Romig. Barney is competitive with the leaders at every race and Karl is close behind. The fact that Karl's son, Erick, was third overall speaks to the DNA in that family. Amazing. 

Fueling and final thoughts

Clearly, I can go harder now. I think this is the direct result of recent training efforts involving 30 to 90 minute threshold efforts on various peaks in the front range. This is way more threshold training than I've done in the past.

A repeat lactate threshold test here at sea level may be revealing. I sense I may need to readjust my zones.

I like racing with a monitor. It's nearly indispensable for analyzing these efforts and adjusting pacing strategies.

I took two days off work, including the day before the race. I was well-rested coming in. Sleep was good. On my shake out run Thursday, my legs felt incredible. I rode my bike for about 50 minutes Friday. I was recovered. 

This was my first race with my Ultraspire Surge running pack. I've used it plenty on recent training outings but I bought it with this race in mind. Ultraspire represents the latest design efforts of Bryce Thatcher whose previous efforts include Ultimate Direction and Nathan. He has refined his ideas even further with this exciting line of hydration packs, belts and hand helds. Check 'em out.It was perfect. It fits so well that I don't really notice it. It easily held the mandatory gear (hat, gloves, shell tops/bottoms, water), plus my food and camera.

I hit my nutrition perfectly. My day started with some toast and coffee. I drove to the race drinking a serving of GU Brew Recovery drink. Just before the start I downed 200 kcals of GU gel. I started with 2 flasks with 3 Gu each. Half of each was Roctane. My bladder contained 1.5 liters of water with 300 kcal of Roctane Ultra Endurance drink mix. At the last minute, I grabbed a single serving of Chomps which I downed as I left the summit of Mat Peak. I finished everything as I started the final descent. If I had another flask I would have used it along the way but never really felt I needed it. Clearly, my pace did not suffer from lack of calories. I remained focused and aggressive the whole day. Mission accomplished.

With the winner coming in 50 minutes faster than me, it's mind boggling to ponder his pace and talent required to make it happen. He obliterated the old record. Conditions were nearly perfect for those that came in before the rain started. Temps were cool and winds light. The valley brush would have been sufferable in the heat. I would've needed another liter of fluid.

Running some this winter will improve my ability to get through lower angle terrain. Spikes will keep me upright on the slick descent. Could I find ten minutes in there somewhere? Maybe. But I really think I ran a smart race. Next year will be interesting. - Brian    

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Reader Comments (4)

Nice work Brian. You killed it for sure. A friend of mine who is an Orthopedic Surgeon in Florida got his Chem Engineering degree at MIT. I said to him wow that is cool how was it going to such a prestigious university. He says, Humbling. Everyday someone sets the bar higher than you can imagine. Same goes for elite athletes up here. Never ceases to amaze me what people are able to get done in the mountains up here. Since you referred to next year does that mean you are enjoying the thought of a future in AK. Cheers and congrats

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLance Breeding

Hey Lance,
I think it's simply the nature of humans, at least some, to aspire for more in any sort of endeavor. Thank goodness. Keeps us moving forward.

Shit, dude. My transition to AK has been hard. I really miss all I had in the Tetons. Trying to stay positive and get after it, though. Making the best of it. Looking forward to the winter. Never know what's going to happen.

August 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterBrian

Thanks for the heads up on the Ultaspire stuff. It looks great.

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKRB

The Ultraspire folks are onto something, for sure. Bryce has a clue and always puts out good products. That said, there are a few bugs being worked out so I think it's best to wait for the 2013 stuff. It'll be lighter, too.

September 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterBrian

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