The theme is as old as time, or as old as man has existed in time.
Juneau’s Houston Laws has set his sights on four 100-mile ultrarunning (long-distance) races that will pit his body against nature, against time and against himself.
A 100-miler usually features the athlete alone in the wilderness and in his own thoughts.
“I like that,” Laws said. “In my job working at the hospital it is pleasing everybody else and serving everybody else, which I enjoy, but when it is my time this is how I can help myself. That solitude, decompressing from work, that is what running is. Being out there alone is the alluring part, and achieving the goal is what draws me to these 100-milers.”
The original Grand Slam of Ultrarunning consists of running, and finishing, the four oldest 100-mile trail runs in the U.S. in the same year: the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, Leadville Trail 100 Mile run and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run.
The Alaska Grand Slam consists of the Susitna, the White Mountains 100, the Sluice Box 100 and the Resurrection Pass Trail 100.
Laws will question if he has done everything right to earn each of the 100-mile finishes.
His first was Feb. 15, in the Susitna 100 where temperatures varied between the lower teens and minus 10.
“That is the big appeal,” Laws said, the Mendenhall Lake ice catching his footfalls as he ran laps around its snow-tipped shores.
“If I do better in time that is just awesome. That is icing. I can’t predict what will happen, but what happens along the event is part of why I do it.”
On this day Laws is towing a small child’s sled remodeled to hold the roughly 25 pounds of gear that will follow him along the paths.
Susitna 100 Race officials require runners to pack or drag provisions such as emergency food, a minus-20-degrees-Fahrenheit sleeping bag, foam mat, front and rear light, two quarts of water and a tent. Laws will add snacks, several clothes, eight pairs of socks and undergarments. Safety checkpoints will provide hot meals and fresh water. Runners will be disqualified if their gear bags fall under 15 pounds or if they don’t finish within 48 hours. Laws hopes to average 12-15 minute miles and finish under 30 hours. Due to safety concerns and unfavorable conditions, last year’s Susitna 100 was canceled.
“It was a fun challenge constructing this sled,” Laws said. “This race requires so much stuff and what I have read in blog posts and such is that a sled is the way to go instead of having a big back pack. You can buy sleds but they are expensive and overweight and huge.”
Laws bought a roughly 3-foot long child’s sled for $10 at a local store. The use of a friend’s wood shop led to four wooden chalks added to rest the sled on top of used children’s cross country skis and lessen the drag while increasing speed.
“The skis provide a focal point,” Laws said. “And that is less material to drag. More surface area to drag is more weight, the skis allows less area.”
Laws used chimney rods that attach to eyebolts on the sled and connect to carabiners on a pack-harness waist belt. The skis were sanded down to remove factory tracking marks on the bottom and re-waxed.
“So far it has seemed to work OK,” Laws said. “Temperatures may be a concern but I don’t expect any sudden impacts as the trail is packed each day.”
Laws has averaged 20 to 30 miles four to five times a week for the past four months. In an average four-day span he is running 100 to 130 miles.
The biggest obstacle in training, aside from injury, is monotony.
On days where training miles seem daunting he makes a deal with himself: He runs a couple miles and sees if his feelings change.
“If I don’t feel like doing 20 I won’t force myself,” Laws said. “I will change things up, make it interesting. I have gone through so many audio books. You get this feeling when running, not that you have to, but you want to and, if anything, it is my therapy. What is my next goal? How do I challenge myself more next year? The goal is the motivator, the carrot, and as I continue being active and enjoying the lifestyle I feel like I am improving my quality of life.”