By JEFF BRADY
In this years Fulda Challenge, a Skagway-based team will represent not only Alaska, but the USA. And along with a Yukon team representing Canada, they will have a major advantage over their European competitors: they train in the North.
Eric Coufal, 36, and Jessie Rapin, 24, are one of 11 coed teams in the event, billed as Madness in White: 2,000 kilometers of Arctic Hell! Their goal for the Fulda Challenge is simple: have fun with fellow athletes and do the best they can, and maybe that will be enough to win.
For their relatively short times in Skagway, these two have developed a reputation as animals among local adventurists, but both have endured injuries or illness in recent months that could have ended their racing careers.
Coufal has called Skagway home since last April, but first came up here from upstate New York in the early 1990s to work for the Westmark Inn. The Syracuse graduate arrived in town with hair down to his waist and was supposed to be trained as a bartender, he said, but a manager took one look at him and shifted him to folding sheets. After one summer in housekeeping, Coufal moved on to Seward, where he enjoyed cycling and dog sledding.
When he returned to Skagway in the spring of 2004 to work for Packer Expeditions as a guide, his blond hair was much shorter, and he developed a nickname, Whitey. He had spent a decade competing in cycling and triathlon races, but gradually shifted to running.
I realized I was getting older, and not any faster, so I got into ultra marathons and distance.
Last August, he tried to break the speed record on the Chilkoot Trail. His time of 7 hours, 14 minutes missed the record by 30 minutes, but word of his feat spread to the Fulda organizers, who just happened to be in town that day prepping for this winters event.
Coufal said that Susan Huff, the Yukon coordinator, called him a few months later, and asked him if he was interested in representing Alaska in the Fulda Challenge, and if he knew of a potential female teammate. He immediately thought of Jessie Rapin, who had been in Skagway part of the previous summer.
Rapins year had been an eventful one. After graduating from Montana State in 2003 with a degree in social work and a running, skiing and mountaineering background, she won the Yakima River Canyon Marathon in Washington. Then she came to Alaska in October 2003, landing a job with the womens shelter in Juneau. After six months, she was ready for a change, and was making plans to go to Mongolia last spring when she met her future fiancé, Patrick Goodrich, a pilot for Skagway Air Service. She decided to come up to Skagway for the summer, and went to work for Alaska Excursions in Dyea.
Summer was off to a great start for her until an unfortunate accident at the end of June. While handling for the Dyea tours dog team, her hand was run over by the sled, and she sustained a serious wrist injury. For the next two months, she was back in Juneau in a wrist cast and unemployed. But it was a great situation for a runner with nothing to do.
The key to training is to stay unemployed, she joked in a phone interview last week from Eagle River, where she and Patrick moved last month after he took a job with Arctic Circle Air.
Jessie Rapin takes a break after some ski training. Photo submitted
Like Coufal, she had gradually made a shift from running on pavement to trails. She competed in an ultra marathon event in October, but on a trail run up Mount McGinnis near Juneau, she strained her hamstring and developed pain in a knee. For the next two months she was in physical therapy, and had just started cross-country skiing when Coufal called last month.
Eric called, and a week later the pain went away, she said. (Since then) Ive got my base back.
When Coufal contacted Rapin about the Fulda opportunity, he had just suffered his own, more serious health episode. During a training run on Dec. 13, he developed a bad headache. It would not go away, and he went to the clinic, where staff sensed it might be a life-threatening brain aneurysm. No one was flying that day due to weather, so he was taken by EMTs to Whitehorse, and flown from there to the Juneau hospital. Fortunately, the problem ended up being nerve damage in his neck, which would require surgery at a later date.
Coufal was sent home to Skagway, where he lived with partner Susan Jabal. Awaiting him via e-mail was a formal invitation to compete with Rapin as Team USA in the Fulda Challenge.
I got the invite the day I got back, he said. I was still whacked out on morphine.
There was two weeks of down time before he could train again, frustrating for an athlete trying to focus on an event.
I was angry and pathetic. I drove Susan up the wall, he said, but eventually his doctors gave him the go-ahead to train. The only break in his schedule since then has been to fly back to Juneau two weeks ago for the neck surgery to repair the damaged nerve.
I had to get over it and move on, he said. The doctors said it was okay to keep running.
Winter finally arrived in early January with minus temperatures and blizzards perfect preparation weather for an event like the Fulda Challenge.
The recent move to Eagle River, where Rapin and Goodrich have bought a house, coincided with the arrival of minus temperatures.
Running in the cold is hard on your lungs, but you adapt to it, Rapin said. Still, its freaking cold, I can hear snapping in my throat (at minus-9 F).
Rapin has been able to go out for about an hour and 20 minutes in the mornings and evenings, alternating between running, skiing, biking, and snow shoeing all events that she and Coufal will be taking on in the Fulda Challenge next week.
Coufals routine has been mostly running on the Lower Dewey Lake trails. Most races are won and lost on hills, he said, and training on hills builds lung capacity.
But neither athlete wants to over-train for events that at most last one to three hours.
Theres an old adage that its better to be 10 percent under-trained than 1 percent over-trained, Coufal said.
Id rather hurt myself in the race than the week before, or get a cold or asthma attack, Rapin added.
Both athletes have bicycle racing experience, but neither are anxious to take on the Skagway-Fraser hill climb on mountain bikes next Monday on Day 2 of the event. Coufal has reached the summit in less than an hour on a road bike in the summer, but says it is the event I am looking forward to the least.
Rapin prefers running up the pass.
On a run last summer, I passed a mountain bike and I remember thinking, I would never want to mountain bike up this road, she said.
Shes also nervous about less strenuous events like racing hovercraft and changing tires. Coufal said hell practice changing tires on a friends Toyota RAV4, before he climbs in his official Fulda model on Sunday.
He doesnt look forward to tent camping in freezing temperatures (required except on the first and last nights of the week-long event), but at least he will be ready for the cold unlike many of the Europeans who fly into Whitehorse Jan. 29.
Coufal thinks the northern teams have the best chance of succeeding. Last years event was won by a Dawson City, Yukon couple, Greg and Denise McHale. Another Yukon team is entered this year, veteran adventure racer Tamara Goeppel of Whitehorse, and Tagish musher Thomas Tetz, a strong finisher in several Yukon Quests and other northern events.
Even though both Coufal and Rapin have lived the past year in Southeast Alaska, they have mushing experience, and Rapin may have the inside track. The dogs at Blue Kennels near Haines Junction, where the mushing event takes place, were in Dyea last summer.
Theres a very good chance I will know some of those dogs, she said.
While theyd like to win, Coufal and Rapin say their goal is to just have a good time and share experiences with athletes from around the world. In addition to the northern U.S. and Canadian teams, there are teams from Germany, Austria, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The Skagway event starts next Monday, Jan. 31 at 9:30 a.m. in front of the WP&YR rail depot. The Team Alaska members hope for a great local send-off. And if you cant get to the Yukon for their other events (from a Whitehorse biathlon with bow and arrows, to a half marathon at the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway), you can follow their progress on the event website: www.fulda-challenge.com. The event ends in Dawson City on Feb. 5.
UPDATE: The event was going well for the Skagway team through the first three contests, including the Klondike Highway mountain bike climb on Jan. 31, but Team USA withdrew from the event that Monday night, citing safety concerns. A member of the British team had been injured in a traffic accident on the highway after the Carcross Desert Kayak event. Details in the Feb. 11 Skagway News.