Area entrants ready for Mount Marathon

When the sun set on Seward on the evening of July 4, 2003, with it went one of the last of the old guard of the Mount Marathon race — the kind of runner that could show up, grab a bib and win the thing.

The men’s race that day was the last of four victories for Kenai resident (then a Galena native) Todd Boonstra, and with it he took the race record for oldest victor at the tender age of 41.

However, the success of the Boonstra family name didn’t end there.

Twelve years later, another Boonstra crossed the finish line at Fourth and Washington to the applause of the raucous crowd with a palindromic birthday count to that of her father’s.

Riana Boonstra, the 14-year-old daughter of Todd, won with a time of 32 minutes, 38 seconds, the fastest girls time by a runner not named Allie Ostrander, giving her the sixth-fastest time in junior girls history and keeping the Mount Marathon junior girls title within the walls of Kenai Central High School for a seventh straight year.

Exactly 365 days later, Boonstra is ready to have another crack at the record books. The Kardinals junior is primed for another winning run up the dirty, dusty, icy, shale-coated, cliff-walled temple of rock that casts its year-round shadow on the sleepy town of Seward.

“You never know what’s gonna happen,” Boonstra said Wednesday, a day before heading down to Seward for one final scouting trip up the mountain.

While Boonstra will join the rest of the junior class as they make the scramble to the halfway pole, another local runner will be tasked with adding to her family’s legacy on the mountain. Taylor Ostrander, older sister to six-time junior champion Allie, is back in the race after a year off and is looking to build upon her impressive sixth-place finish from 2014.

“I’m just super excited to be participating again,” Ostrander said. “There’s no where else I’d rather be on the Fourth.”

And Ostrander will not be the only Willamette attendee that has a chance to become the top peninsula finisher. Soldotna’s Darin Markwardt is back for his 18th attempt in the men’s race and 22nd overall.

“A top 50 (finish), I would be happy,” Markwardt said with brute honesty. “Last year I was 34th, and this year I would die for that.”

All three races July 4 will be broadcast live on GCI Channel 1, starting with the coed junior race at 9 a.m. and continuing with the men’s event at 11 a.m. and the women’s race at 2:30 p.m. The times and races are a departure from prior years when the men would race last, filling up the “prime” viewing slot of 3 p.m.

However, after last year’s live television and internet coverage left out the women’s race, a rally to help bring equal coverage to the day’s events was finally heard and the change was made. Each year moving forward, the men and women’s races will swap spots, with the women starting in the afternoon in even-numbered years and the men going last in odd years.

For each of the top three peninsula prospects, the goal of finishing rates number one on their list, but the accolades could be more.

Riana Boonstra, 15, attends Kenai Central High School, where she will be a junior this fall, but in the summers, she becomes a Ninilchik regular, working with her family’s fishing operation.

Monday’s Mt. Marathon race will be her third time, and she hopes to follow up her fifth place finish in 2014 and a win last year with another big moment.

“This race is always close to my family, my mom’s done it 12 times and my dad wants to come do it again,” Boonstra said.

Todd Boonstra holds four wins in the men’s race, in 1996, ‘97, ‘98 and 2003, but since finishing eighth in 2004, he has only made one other appearance, a 53rd-place finish in 2010.

A year ago, Riana added another trophy to the Boonstra collection with her fast time, which made her the second-fastest junior girls racer in the history of the event.

“Dad gives me a lot of advice, he always hikes with me, shows me different ways,” she said. “He makes up a training plan and runs with me every sprint day, hard day, he’s out there with me doing sprints and intervals.”

This summer, Riana skipped the high school track season to avoid the additional stress and strain that led to a few minor injuries and in order to be better prepared for the mountain. Last year, she recalled that fellow prep runner Molly Gellert of West Anchorage High School beat her to the junior turnaround pole, located halfway up the slopes of Mt. Marathon.

However, Boonstra’s confidence on the downhill, along with a little slip by Gellert, allowed her to power her way past and into the lead.

“I think she’s my biggest competition again,” Boonstra said. “Molly and also Ruby Lindquist (of Seward).”

With regular training runs up Skyline peak and Grace Ridge near Homer, as well as the traditional trips to Seward, Boonstra said she is hoping for the best. Joining Boonstra in the junior race will be Kenai Central teammate Mackenzie Lindeman and Soldotna’s Kellie Arthur, both of whom could be darkhorses for good finishes.

While her younger sister, Allie, will be preparing for the United States Olympic trials, Soldotna’s Taylor Ostrander will be looking to build on the highlight of her mountain running career, a sixth-place finish in the women’s race in 2014.

Under cloudless skies that offered little in relief from the heat, Ostrander gritted her way to an impressive time of 58:17 that day, which slashed almost six minutes off her time the previous year.

“My goal was to break an hour, so I was super excited when I saw the clock,” Ostrander recounted of her 2014 run. “At the top of the mountain, someone told me I was in fifth, and I was like, ‘Wow!’”

The newly graduated Willamette (Oregon) University alumni — studying exercise science — is planning to take a year off from school to work before delving into her graduate degree in fall of 2017.

Last year, Ostrander spent the summer working in a lab at her school, which meant she had to miss out on Mt. Marathon for the first time since her junior debut in 2011.

But now, the collegiate steeplechaser is back and faster than ever. At least, that is the goal.

“I just finished the (college) track season at the end of May, took a break from running, then got back into it, so my mileage is decent,” Ostrander said. “I’ve gone up (Mt. Marathon) and did Skyline. … I feel like my fitness is there.”

Prior to her appearance in the popular Alaska event, Ostrander was left to watch from the sidelines for four years while Allie tore up the trail. Taylor recalls the day when Allie decided that Mt. Marathon was right for her, and mother, Teri, was a bit skeptical due to her own past.

“My mom said she did it in like, 1991, and got hit by a rock and had to be carried off the mountain,” Taylor said. “But when Allie wanted to race, she kind of put that ghost in its grave and it’s been part of our celebration ever since.”

Ostrander can now count herself as one of the top runners in the field, but pointed to Christy Marvin as the favorite, with Anchorage’s Najeeby Quinn, Seward’s Allison Barnwell and Chugiak’s Lauren Fritz as other contenders.

As far as her own expectations, Ostrander would like to come away with a top-five finish, which means another sub-hour run will likely be needed.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out, especially on the downhill side,” Ostrander said. “I think (road) runners tend to have a good uphill, but I know the forecast looks a little rainy, so hopefully the conditions are good.”

As for the later women’s start at 2:30 p.m., Ostrander brushed it aside and put forth the realization that every racer must tackle the same conditions, even if it is the heat of the midday sun.

“For me, of course I prefer it to be cloudy and 50 degrees, but the conditions are the same for everyone,” she said. “You’ve just try to stay in that competitive mindset, and be ready to adapt.”

Darin Markwardt’s history with Mt. Marathon is longer than Boonstra and Ostrander’s combined total history running the race — by nearly threefold.

Markwardt, a Soldotna resident since 2014 but who was born in Seward, first ran the senior division race in 1999, but competed as a junior racer starting in 1995, when Colony High School ski coach Ed Strabel challenged his cross-country ski team to sign up for any and all races they could enter.

A 14-year-old Markwardt eagerly asked his parents if he could try the big race down in Seward on July 4.

“The night before the race, I slid down a cliff and lacerated my hand, which I still have scars of,” Markwardt said with a chuckle. “But I took third place among the juniors.”

Now age 35 and recently graduated from Willamette with a law degree, Markwardt has the wisdom and experience of an aging veteran, but not necessarily with the worn out knees or feet.

In his heyday, Markwardt ran with the best of them, racking up top-11 finishes from 1999 through 2005, highlighted by a best finish of third in 2001, when he ran his personal best of 46:54, an elite standard.

“I was a young sly lad then,” Markwardt coyly said.

Markwardt tallied six consecutive sub-50 minute finishes, and his 2001 race ranks him 37th on the list of all-time individual bests per runner.

So how does a runner get to reach that elite status of runner? Markwardt says it comes down to priorities.

“It’s the ability to focus on that race and nothing else,” he said. “Where job and school is a secondary project. That’s the way it was in high school and the first four years of my college life.

“Running was my life. I did college, but that was never the focus.”

After his run of success among the mountain’s best, Markwardt’s finishing results slipped for several years before making one more comeback, a seventh-place finish in 2010 with a time of 47:21, the closest he has come to knocking off his personal best.

“That was because I quit my job as a teacher and was more focused on coaching,” he explained. “I wanted to give Mount Marathon one more stab.

“I will say that I’m really impressed with people that can do it both — the job and the race.”

Last year, Markwardt took home 34th.

The men’s race, which has dazzled the crowd with several record-breaking performances in recent years, has quickly risen in competitiveness, as indicated by last year when Spaniard Kilian Jornet won in his debut with a course record 41:48. The fifth-place finisher, Canadian Nick Elson, crossed the line in a time of 43:46, which would be fast enough to win the race all but three of the previous 87 runnings of the historic event.

In this year’s men’s race, Scott Patterson and David Norris — a pair of Alaska Pacific University skiers in their mid-20s — hope to pull off the same feat in their rookie year, which is to win the event. Both eclipsed the Bird Ridge race record two weeks ago and have strong uphill pedigrees, but Markwardt said it always comes down to downhill speed, something that two-time runner-up Rickey Gates has shown in the past three years.

“Rickey would be the favorite, just based on everything I’ve seen,” Markwardt said. “Eric (Strabel) doesn’t seem quite as fast this year, but you can never count him out.”

Markwardt also pointed to 2012 men’s champion Matt Novakovich as a contender. Novakovich finished under 40 minutes at Bird Ridge, marking him as a realistic contender.

“I like that fact that race times have gotten faster, it shows the improved level of competition, it sharpens everyone,” Markwardt said. “For that, I give credit to (six-time winner) Brad Precosky, he transformed the race in the early 2000s to something you train your whole year for. The guys around him like Barney Griffith and Clint McCool all brought the times down from the previous generation, and now this generation is bringing them down further.”

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