In the grueling Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, where contestants race unsupported through the wildest country of Alaska, just finishing can be an honor. But when you’re not only the first to finish, but the only one of 29 competitors to do so in the scheduled time, the honor gets doubled.
Homer racer Josh Mumm did just that, winning the 250- to 300-mile 2015 classic with a time of 5 days, 22 hours. Starting on June 28, Mumm finished about 8 a.m. July 4 at Red Shirt Lake near Willow. Racers Meg McKinney, Tory Dugan and Matt Kress had yet to finish and were still in the backcountry as of Wednesday morning.
“First of all he finished the course, but he came in with a respectable time for 250 miles,” said another Homer racer, Gordy Vernon.
Mumm, 33, said he didn’t see any other racers after the first day. For a while he got concerned that he had chosen a bad route and gotten behind. When he got to the Kahiltna River, he realized he was ahead.
“I crossed the Kahiltna there and was surprised not to see any tracks on the other side,” he said.
Mumm downplayed the event as a competition.
“It’s really not a race so much as it is a chance to go out and do a trip with a bunch of other people at the same time, just moving fast and seeing a bunch of country,” he said.
While about half the course involved rafting rivers, the first three days involved hiking. That meant Mumm averaged 40 to 50 miles a day, said Luc Mehl, one of the racers and who won the 2012 race with Mumm.
“He’s a monster,” Mehl said of Mumm. “He was just motoring. It’s amazing, actually. … What he did was just mind blowing.”
Mumm said his feet are a little sore and his arms and legs chewed up by alder and devil’s club.
“My feet didn’t swell up to quite as nearly as grotesquely as they did in 2012,” he said.
The Mountain Wilderness Classic usually takes the same route for three years, then changes to a new route. With no fees and no big corporate sponsors, it’s a totally volunteer effort. This year’s race varied from the usual schedule as a one-year route to honor the late Rob Kehrer, who died in the 2014 Wilderness Classic. The route went through country associated with him: Rohn, an Iditarod checkpoint where Kehrer volunteered, and Red Shirt Lake at Nancy Lakes, where Kehrer had a cabin. The race started at the end of the Petersville Road. Racers had to check in at Rohn but otherwise could pick their own path.
Vernon said a lot of racers ran into thick alder.
“It’s a lot of bad alder bashing. We gave up early and just floated to Anchorage,” Vernon said.
Vernon and his racing partner, Thai Verizone, floated down the Susitna River and then paddled across Knik Arm to Verizone’s home near the Coastal Trail.
Mumm said thick brush was the worst part of the route.
“Probably the low point for me was the brush coming down from Fairview Mountain by Collinsville where you cross the Yentna River. It was really thick, I was tired and the bugs were out,” he said.
Ironically, Mumm said he sat out the race until this year because of thick brush he ran into in 2012.
“That ended up being a really brushy route, reportedly the brushiest, nastiest route they had,” he said. “As it turns out, it (this year’s race) ended up being relatively brushy, too.”
The race had some high moments, too. Following the Yentna River, Mumm said he came to a canyon he knew would be bad so he popped up on a ridge on the north side.
“It was really beautiful and good walking up there,” he said. “Tons of sheep. Good views of Denali and Foraker and looking across at the Kahiltna Spires.”
Mumm said he saw lots of wildlife, more than he had seen on other trips: 12 grizzly bears, a lynx standing in the middle of the trail, sheep and moose. Floating down a river, Mumm said at one point he dozed off.
“I woke up and saw this sow and a couple of cubs on the bank,” he said. “It was a shocking experience to wake up and see this bear right there.”
Just eight racers made it to Rohn, Mehl said. Some racers scratched because of injuries, but most dropped out because they ran out of time.
“This course was too long to be realistic for everybody except Josh,” Mehl said.
When he got to Rohn, Mumm said he expected to see other racers arrive, but nobody showed up. After a 10-hour layover, he moved on. Rohn was the only stop with outside food, burgers and brats shipped in by the competitors.
Mehl said he joked that the reason Mumm finished so fast was that Mumm had rented a satellite phone for the week.
“I was imagining Josh thinking ‘I’ve only got this phone checked out through next Sunday. I had better make sure I get it in,’” Mehl said. “He just rips through and finishes Saturday morning.”
For photos of the race and Mehl’s account, visit his blog at thingstolucat.com.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.