Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Zack Bursell, age 28, is making a dent in the ultrarunning world, one 20-mile-plus race at a time.
Bursell placed fourth at the 22.5-mile Crow Pass Crossing on July 24 in a respectable three hours 22 minutes and 12 seconds, in a race that saw Anchorage Olympic skier Scott Patterson, 29, set a new course record of 2:50:05.
Bursell said he has never been to Girdwood or Eagle River until he lined up to race and then ran from one place to the other, including three wrong turns which only added on the miles and time.
“Scott had quite the gap on me,” Bursell said. “Even though I was new to the trail and hardly knew where I was going, those Anchorage guys are fit. So hats off to him. I know he has been eyeing that record for a long time.”
The race record was held by Juneau’s own Geoff Roes with a time of 2:54:44 seconds, set in 2010, a year in which Roes was recognized as the ultramarathoner of the year by national racing organizations. Roes is a four-time winner of the race and owns two of the fastest Crow Pass times in history. Patterson’s record time is his second of the fastest Crow Pass times.
The wilderness race starts at the Crow Pass trailhead near Girdwood, and runners climb 2,000 feet in the three miles that lead to the top of the 3,500-foot pass.
There have been minor trail improvements since Roes set his mark and this year the trail was cleared and the path gleaned to produce a fast course.
“I appreciate any course that gives any type of advantage to the locals,” Bursell said. “It certainly was the case with this one. There were a couple times where if you are a rookie to the course you have to think twice about which way you are going.”
Bursell noted there were times he was unsure of the route and wound up passing racer Max Donaldson three different times after getting lost.
“I lost my bearings at least a couple times,” Bursell said. “It just makes me want to come back and try it again and shoot for a better time. It’s a really fun race.”
Racers climb a mountain pass, cross snowfields and boulder fields and wade across a waist-deep river during their journey.
“As far as the course goes, right off the bat they send you up this mountain path with a couple thousand feet elevation gain,” Bursell said. “Right from the very beginning. You get up on top of this pass and the next thing you know you are descending just about as steeply as you were going up. This rough rocky stuff just like you were going up the Juneau Ridge or any of the peaks around here. A lot of terrain. A lot of rough, loose rock. It is pretty difficult right off the bat.”
The race flattens out into a valley with less intense hills.
“But the obstacle changes from mountain terrain to really brushy, thick vegetation,” Bursell said. “And the occasional rock you cannot see because your foot is covered by salmon berry bushes, stinging nettles, all that crazy stuff. It is one thing after the next.”
The last portion is divided by Eagle River.
“It is like a glacial river,” Bursell said. “Imagine icy cold silty water just chilling your legs with 12 miles to go. The last 12 miles are pretty flat and the trail gets a lot nicer but at that point I think my experience was the same as it was for a lot of people. The miles start to add up in your legs. There is a lot of lactic acid and some cramping. I didn’t come into the race with any particular goal. I just wanted to run hard. I just pushed it and tried to see if I could catch anyone. I didn’t see any more competitors, I just ran hard.”
It is hard to catch runners when they are behind you. Only three were in front and one was Patterson.
It would be Patterson’s seventh victory, but in six previous triumphs he always fell short of Roes’ record.
“I’ve been chasing it for a long time. I didn’t really think it would happen today,” Patterson told Anchorage media.
Assistant race director and two-time winner Harlow Robinson recalled that when Roes broke the three-hour mark more than a decade ago, someone suggested the next barrier was 2:50.
“I didn’t know if that was humanly possible,” Robinson said.
Another former Juneau runner, Katie Krehlik, 31, placed fifth for females and 21st overall with a time of 4:11:55.
Bursell, a former Juneau-Douglas High School cross-country and track runner who ran for the University of Portland and Western Washington University, said he is enthusiastic about entering the ultra-running world.
“I owe a lot of credit to all the guys in Juneau who have been pushing the limits in the mountains for decades now,” he said. “Geoff, my dad (John Bursell), Dave Pusich, and a lot of other guys who I have looked up to for a long time have just kind of instilled this respect for mountain running that I have had for a long time. After running hard in high school, running hard in college, and wanting to end up back in Juneau it seems like a natural thing to want to do big runs in the mountains.”
Bursell said he is not training for ultras specifically.
“Just enjoying running in the mountains,” he said. “It felt like I was in ok shape so I thought I would jump into a couple races, so that is why I ended up doing Crow Pass.”
On June 27, Bursell placed third in the 15-mile Juneau Ridge Race with the events all-time fourth fastest effort of 2:22:57. The race was won by Salomon athlete Dakota Jones, 30, of Bozeman, Montana, in a course record of 2:14:59 and Dylan Anthony, 29, of Juneau was second in 2:19:08.
“Right now my focus is shifting to assistant coach with JDHS cross county,” Bursell said. “That is what I am really excited about right now, getting those athletes pumped up about their season. That is kind of where my head is at. I have been rolling around the idea of doing the Equinox Marathon up in Fairbanks, but we’ll see.”
The Equinox takes place near the time of the autumnal equinox in September. It is considered the premier running event in interior Alaska and includes a climb up and over Ester Dome and then up and over again.
Bursell also has a friend running Juneau’s Nifty Fifty next week.
“If he goes so will I,” he said. “I will be his support team. It is just about enjoying running in the mountains. Running hard in the mountains. That’s what it is all about.”
Bursell offered this advice to aspiring runners or hikers or people wanting to get outdoors.
“Grab one of your friends and drag them out the door with you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you go. Just go explore and enjoy it with people you enjoy being around. That’s kind of how it all started with me.”
Above - Juneau's Zack Bursell during the Crow Pass Crossing 22-mile race on July 24. (Brad Benter)