Alaska. Stereotypically, it is the state where the sun is either always up or always down, and a comfortable temperature is anything above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Realistically, it is the state with gorgeous, diverse scenery and active, down-to-earth people. It is a micro-climate state where temperatures can rise or fall by 30 degrees within a one- to two-hour drive. The many regions vary in terrain, offering treks over the plains in one and hikes into one of the state’s 39 mountain ranges in another. It is the state where warnings of bear sightings outnumber the highways’ speed-limit signs.
In one year, Houston Laws, experienced all of it. From February to August of 2014, the 29-year-old ultrarunner completed what he calls the Alaska Slam, made up of four 100 milers all within differing climates and terrain in Alaska. And, as a bonus to his year, Houston added one more 110-mile ultra, for good measure.
Houston calls himself an Alaskan, having moved to the southeast city of Ketchikan as a young child, after being born in Tennessee. His father, he said, moved for the fishing and to become his own boss, but mostly because he wanted to live the Alaskan dream. Now, Houston lives that dream, too.
After attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study fire science, Houston decided to relocate to the city of Juneau. There, he switched careers, becoming a psych tech for the local hospital, which led him to work more closely with people, something he enjoys. Over the years, Houston dabbled in a few races such as The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in California in 2010, and a 13-mile race up Mount Fuji in Japan called the Fuji Mountain Race in 2011.
Yet, it was in Juneau where his love of ultrarunning emerged.
“The terrain was motivating,” he said. “Even in less-desirable weather, there is still beauty.”
This month in Juneau, the daily temperatures are beginning to fall and the sun’s presence is decreasing. Light snow and rain scatter over the trails as the cloudy, overcast sky clashes against the peak of Mount Juneau.
“What’s beyond that mountain peak? What’s beyond that bend?” The many possible answers to those endless questions have molded Houston into the ultrarunner he is now: always encouraged to go a little bit further.
A family friend introduced him to his first ultra distance, the Mt. Hood 50 Mile, in Oregon in 2009. Four years later, Houston threw his name in the lottery draw of the White Mountains 100 Mile in Fairbanks, not really believing his name would be picked. The race only permits 65 participants, which includes cyclists, skiers, and runners.
“I was lucky out of so many people not chosen,” he said, deciding to just go out and try it, walking if needed. Instead, he finished as the second foot participant. “I had the immediate feeling of, ‘I need to do this again,’” he said. He had no regrets, despite dealing with the onslaught of nausea and delusions at mile 60. “I crossed the line and said, ‘I need to do this again, and I need to do it better.’”
When January of 2014 came around, he was spurred on by his own determination. Add to that a running buddy’s proposal to complete all four of the Alaska 100 milers. The seed was planted, Houston said.
The next month he started the Alaska Slam: the Susitna 100 Mile, the White Mountains 100, the Sluice Box 100 Mile, and the Resurrection Pass 100 Mile. It was a year of more than just running. It was a year of new, unique adventures, each one requiring its own training, prepping, recovering, and battling through the diverse conditions that Alaska offers.
Houston’s first 100 of the year started February 15. The race takes place in Anchorage and sidelines Flathorn Lake, Cow Lake, and the Susitna River. Being in winter, the difficulty of trekking 100 miles is amplified by the amount of ice, and safety precautions each runner has to adhere to.
In the winter, the Alaskan terrain accumulates an overflow of underground water, which causes bubbles to form over a thin layer of ice and snow. “It is like running on cereal,” Houston explains. “It crumbles underneath.” Often, the surface layer cracks, causing runners to sink three inches down into the freezing water. Sidestepping off the snow-packed trails, trying to avoid these overflow sections, only causes more trouble, as runners might sink deeper into unconsolidated snow, up to the knee or hip. Trekking through the overflow is often the best bet, Houston advises, and then drying off immediately afterward. Dealing with wet feet is inevitable in Alaskan running.
This year, though the overflow water was cold, the air temperature were not, according to the Alaskan natural. During the race, it was a “warm,” above-zero temperature, usually around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This comfortable temperature, as Houston calls it, allowed him to run in only a light layer and jacket for most of the race.
In Alaskan winter racing, preparing for the race can seem more strenuous than actually running it. The race requires a list of equipment needed to run the race safely, and to even toe the start line.
“There is a safety meeting before the race you have to go to,” he said. “They inspect the bags to make sure you have everything. If you don’t, they wont let you in.”
The required list includes a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent, 2,000 extra calories (that cannot be touched until the last aid station), two 64-ounce water bottles, a shelter blanket, clothes, and more suggestions for a successful trip. Other recommended gear includes more food, clothes, a map, and other equipment that would be helpful in case of emergencies. All of this is strapped onto a sled, which is dragged behind each runner. Overall, the runner must start and finish the race with at least 15 pounds of gear, not including the sled.
“The whole race is dragging that sled,” Houston said. “You can feel it going up every hill and bumping behind you going down.”
He, with the side-kick sled at his side (er, back), finished in fourth place in 26 hours and 49 minutes.
White Mountains 100
The second race was colder. In the Fairbanks area, the race took place on March 30, yet the later date did not affect the weather for the better. Instead, the temperatures dropped down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit at night, with blowing snow and strong winds.
“Mile 80 was the coldest,” Houston remembered, specifically around four in the morning.
Ice crystals were forming on the corners of his shoes where he had sweat earlier in the day. “You can tell how much you’re sweating by how many crystals form.”
According to Houston, these temperatures are the normal for winter, where the average temperature is below zero for most of the state. Schools officially close at -40 degrees and metal can “burn the hell out of you,” he added.
The race only allows 65 participants, and the field is composed of bikers, runners, and skiers. The number of athletes within each category is determined by the percentage of registrants. With only four aid stations, Houston usually did not see a soul during the 20-mile stretches, which lasted up to five hours when the snow was bad. But, thanks to the bikers and skiers ahead of him, he had a nice, car-wide path to follow.
These stretches also forced Houston to run with most of his nutrition. Personally, Houston likes to think of his fuel in long-term and short-term needs. For longer races, he sticks to just three or four GUs and solid food, and short-term, usually just electrolytes. In 100 milers, he turns to energy bars, many of them. This year the majority of calories came from Mule Bars. So many, in fact, that he is now sick of the taste of them. He also preferred Clif Bars and PROBARS for the calories, and Snickers, of course, were a good pick-me-up, he said, and cheaper, too.
“My favorite food is sweet potatoes,” he added. “They are a good heat source, too.” Besides being flavorful, they also helped keep his water from freezing when the boiling hot potato wrapped in tin foil was placed next to it.
Being the second time Houston has finished this course, he said he was definitely more prepared. After finishing in 22 hours and 50th among the bikers, skiers, and runners, he had about three months before his third race.
Sluice Box 100
The next race was June 28, and as his first summer 100, so Houston had to completely adjust his running and mindset.
“It was a huge learning curve,” he said of the race. The race is known as one of the toughest ultras in Alaska, being in the midst of June, point-to-point, and comprised of 10 different course segments connected together.
Because of the 80-degree temperatures and difficult-to-follow course, 12 of the 18 runners dropped from the race, and Houston almost made 13. It is deemed as the closest thing to a wilderness race, “without actually being wild,” by its race website. The race tests the runners with lingering snow and ice, overhanging trees, just one highway crossing, and weather-beaten trails. The site warns of the possibility of getting lost, but that is all part of the fun it.
Houston may disagree. Overestimating calories, Houston suffered digestive issues and heat cramps about halfway through the race. And, he missed a flag somewhere along the course.
“At mile 70, I came to an aid station and they (volunteers) said I came out on the road, instead of the trail,” he said. He was told quickly that he would not be disqualified, but would have to go back and recover the seven miles he had skipped. The volunteers offered to drive him back to his rightful mile, yet it took some time to get his mind back there, too.
“It was a terrible choice to have,” he said. “I sat there for 40 minutes eating ramen noodles, contemplating not quitting.” His goal of four 100s and stubborn determination forced him out of the lawn chair and back onto the trail. “I knew I was going to have one race that was not going to go my way,” he said. “I wanted to finish the course that everyone else did.”
Houston completed all 100 miles, coming in fifth out of the six finishers in 32 hours. Not a fan of the heat, Houston said temperatures in the summer can rise as high as 80 degrees, yet still drop as low as 15 at night. But ask most people in the state, and they would agree that the best part of Alaska is the long summer days. Throughout June, the sun is above the horizon for 18 to 24 hours, depending on the part of the state.
Resurrection Pass Ultra Trail Races
Six weeks later, on August 8, the last Alaska Slam ultra began. It was run on the Kenai Peninsula in Hope. According to Houston, the remote singletrack wound through the Kenai Mountains. He would go miles without seeing anyone, yet was always on the lookout for bears and moose, which as stated on the race website, have the right of way. The race travels through a high-risk area for bears, prompting runners to carry bear repellant and bells.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides information on wildlife safety. The site also lists wildlife found in Alaska to look out for such as foxes, owls, and Arctic hares.
At night, wildlife knowledge came in handy during the race, Houston recalls. Around 3 a.m., he came upon two animal eyes. Thinking it was a bear, he tried everything to scare it away, yelling and blinding it with his headlamp. Yet the creature stayed put.
“I was weighing the pros and cons,” he said, after several minutes of starring at each other. “It was a smaller animal and I was losing time.” He mustered up courage and began to walk toward it, finally shooing the animal away.
“It was a smaller than me, I believe,” he said. “All that matters in the animal kingdom is that you’re bigger.”
For the low-key race, Houston had to carry everything he needed in a Mountain Hardwear backpack. The semi-self-supported race only supplies a few volunteers, who were camped out at the two aid stations, one at mile 42 and the other at mile 70. There were also only two drop-bag stations. Houston’s race plan accommodated the minimal support.
The local streams provided water sources for the runner, and after learning from the last race, Houston backed off of calories, keeping his stomach and pack light throughout the 100. Being another summer race, the temperatures ranged from the 30’s to the 70’s. In the past, the runners have trekked through wind, rain, sun, and clouds, but this year’s race delivered great weather conditions. He completed the race with a personal-best time of 21 hours and 47 minutes, coming in second place.
The Klondike Relay
Between each 100, Houston focused on proper recovery, physically and mentally. Thinking about eating, sleeping, and his job during the day, he focused on training and prepping for the next race, like practicing with the sled, and getting heat acclimated for the summer 100s. After the Alaska Slam, he thought he was ready to be done, letting his body and mind finally take a much-needed break.
Well, things change.
Four weeks later, Houston was called up by Klas Stolpe, 54, to join him in the Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay. Usually run in 10-person teams, Stolpe wanted to run the 110-mile relay as an individual in honor of Alaskan mountain runner Glenn Frick, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 75. Stolpe, the sports editor of the Juneau Empire newspaper, says he prefers to write about sports and sportsters, like Houston and his Alaska Slam, rather than actually competing in events himself. Since he knew about Houston’s experience and had run with him in the past, Stolpe knew he was the best person to accommodate him on the tribute ultra.
“Since I had run a lot with Houston, I signed him up, without telling him first, and then asked him,” he admitted. “I told Houston I would pay all expenses if he made sure I got through the run. And who better to ask than someone that had just completed the Alaska Slam, four 100-mile races in a year?”
Though a little hesitant due to the short recovery time, Houston knew this opportunity was too good to pass up. It was the chance to help someone else complete his first 100, he said.
Despite having the experience of four 100s embedded into his mind, running this race was completely different, Houston said.
“I was constantly aware of the responsibility on my shoulders,” he said. He kept all attention on his runner, asking what he needed and how he was feeling. He even recited the monologue of the movie Dumb and Dumber at one point, Stolpe said.
The two journeyed from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon, running alone through some sections and through others where hordes of fans lined the streets cheering. “It was amazing how much support we received from other competitors who were in the relay portions,” Stolpe said. “We received a lot more attention than we expected. The crowd would not let us leave the finish area. We were overwhelmed with folks wanting photos and congratulations.”
Solo yet still supported describes running in Alaska. The two opposites are embraced by the vast, diverse state. There are the secluded trails where runners don’t see anything but the land and footprints. In other areas, the community opens up toward runners and races, welcoming each other and the outside world into its homes.
“The community makes the races and the runners,” Houston said. “Runners talk about the trails we run on and then make them into a race. We want to share them.”
Alaska. Mountains, bears, and freezing-cold socks: it is not as intimidating as it sounds. “You just have to ease yourself into it,” Houston advises. “Have plenty of endurance and build up.”
To run in Alaska, you have to prepare for the unfamiliar factors, just like Houston does when he runs outside of his northern land. For his work, Houston accompanies patients traveling among hospitals for treatment. At the time of this interview, he was in Columbus, Ohio on a beautiful, fall day. “I love the colors,” he told me on the phone, before leaving to go for a short run. “We don’t have a lot of [leaf] change in Alaska.”
Change is something Houston is not quite ready for yet. One day, he hopes that the big-name ultras like Western States and Hardrock will show up on his UltraSignup resume. Until then, the Alaskan will remain in his serene and chilly home state.
“I love my winter runs,” he said. “I want to do better and perfect my Alaska 100s first.”