Given the choice between an even firmer grip on Alaska immortality or competition, it tells you everything you need to know about Soldotna’s Allie Ostrander that she chooses competition.
Just one year after making history by becoming the first girl to win the coed junior race, the recent Kenai Central graduate turned in a performance Saturday at Mount Marathon that would have been a headlining stunner in the first 87 years of the trial up and down the 3,022-foot peak overlooking Seward.
But not the 88th running. Not with 28-year-old Swede Emelie Forsberg in the field.
Forsberg, smiling brightly and coasting down the homestretch in cool, cloudy and moist conditions tailor-made for epic, finished the 3.1-mile race at 47 minutes, 48 seconds, smashing the mythic 1990 record of 50:30 by Nancy Pease.
In the men’s race in the afternoon, Forsberg’s boyfriend, 27-year-old Spaniard and mountain-running superstar Kilian Jornet, would make an equally triumphant, cool and joyous procession down Fourth Avenue, winning in 41:48 to lower Eric Strabel’s 2013 record of 42:55.
As the media massed around Forsberg at the finish line, Ostrander crossed the line in 50:28. Were it not for Forsberg, Ostrander would have matched Bill Spencer’s feat of winning his first senior race in a course-record time the year after aging out of the junior race.
“It’s a bit anticlimactic,” Ostrander, 18, said of breaking Pease’s record but losing to Forsberg. “She beat me by two or three minutes.”
Spencer remains the only person to win the senior race in his first year after aging out of the junior race, turning that trick in 1974.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have run that time if she wasn’t pushing me,” Ostrander said of Forsberg. “But I’m glad I had the chance to race against her.
“It gave me the chance to learn where I can get better.”
It is believed to be the first race in which the winner had no Alaska connections, although early race records don’t include hometowns, and that number doubled in the afternoon.
“She showed us Alaskans what a real hiker is,” Ostrander said.
Likewise, Forsberg came away impressed with Ostrander, whose Nike Cross Nationals title this fall stamped her as one of the nation’s elite prep distance runners.
“I’m so impressed by that little girl,” Forsberg said. “She’s amazing.”
National and even some international mountain runners of note have taken on Mount Marathon before, but have always been repelled by the race’s unique mix of a technical cliff at the bottom and the hard-charging, dangerous descent, where knowing every step counts.
But the race’s quirks only served as catnip for Forsberg and Jornet.
As she ran down Fourth Avenue to victory in front of an adoring crowd, Forsberg said she focused on soaking up the energy of the race and not on breaking any record.
“It’s so cool. I love it. Wow. Seven-year-old kids are going here, and I’m afraid,” Forsberg said of the course.
Forsberg won 2013 and 2014 Skyrunning World Series ultramarathon titles, which are generally over 50 miles.
But there was a question of how she would do on Mount Marathon, which at 920 meters in elevation gain is similar to the vertical kilometers contested in the Skyrunning World Series. Plus, vertical kilometers have no downhill.
But Forsberg, who was ranked 24th in the Skyrunning vertical kilometer in 2014, emphatically answered any questions on the second half of the uphill and the downhill.
By the middle of the mountain, Forsberg and Ostrander had distanced themselves from the pack, with Forsberg hitting the halfway pole at 19:55 and Ostrander at 20:00 — 17 seconds faster than her historic trip to the halfway point in the 2014 junior race.
But Forsberg reached the top in 36:17 to Ostrander’s 37:08. Ostrander said Forsberg alternated between power-hiking and running up the second half of the mountain. The Alaskan said she only could power-hike, and added running up steep slopes is a skill she must add if she hopes to compete with Forsberg.
The second major skill would be a mind-boggling downhill. Forsberg, despite slowing to soak up that Fourth Avenue energy, made it down in 11:32 to Ostrander’s 13:20. Forsberg’s downhill would have been 10th in the men’s race, and was just two seconds slower than men’s runner-up Rickey Gates of Madison, Wisconsin.
“On the downhill, she just mountain-goated it right away,” Ostrander said.
It took 88 editions to get a pair of runners like Forsberg and Ostrander on the mountain, but both were holding out hope after the race that the clash could become a regular occurrence.
Forsberg and Jornet have been gushing about the Alaska experience all week on their Facebook pages. As a race champion, Forsberg has a spot in the race for life
“Yes, I’m coming back,” Forsberg said. “I won a starting place for next year.”
Ostrander is going on to run at Boise State University, one of the nation’s top track programs. But coach Corey Imhels has said he is all for Ostrander continuing to run Mount Marathon. It probably didn’t hurt that Ostrander got through the race without aggravating a hip injury that kept her out of several national track races in June.
Just minutes after the race, the wheels were already turning in Ostrander’s head as to how she could make up time on Forsberg. Ostrander said she must take advantage of her running ability on the half-mile trip to and from the mountain. She also missed her sister Taylor, who was sixth last year, calming her nerves at the start. Taylor was away doing an internship.
“It’s such a tradition in my family,” Ostrander said. “I can’t imagine the Fourth of July without it.”
The hometown of Seward once again impressed in the women’s race with five in the top 20, led by the fifth-place finish of Denali Foldager-Strabel. Anna Widman led the central Peninsula by finishing 17th in 1:02:28.
In the men’s race, Jornet re-enforced the notion that Alaska’s mountain may be about to become the world’s mountain.
Since bursting on the mountain running scene as a 20-year-old by winning the prestigious Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France, when Jornet has talked, the international mountain running community has listened.
And after the race, he said he planned to talk up Mount Marathon to competitors around the world. Add to the fact that Jornet himself doesn’t plan to be a stranger to Mount Marathon and Alaska’s skiing and mountaineering possibilities, and the lure of Mount Marathon will only flash brighter.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s technical, really fast and a good crowd.”
Jornet said the fans lining the mountain trail is unique for America. He said the downhill is fun and technical, but, in a nod to the places this guy frequents, noted that it’s not exposed to harsh elements, so a turned ankle and broken bone doesn’t mean a flirtation with death.
“The people here are so cool and the mountain is beautiful,” Jornet said.
The Spaniard also likes the fact that the men’s and women’s races both get equal amounts of competitors, noting that many races are 70 percent men.
The crowds that stuffed the streets between Mount Marathon and Resurrection Bay got a chance to see one of the most unique and dominant athletes of this generation.
Jornet was the 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and is a six-time Skyrunner World Series champ. Last year, he showed the range of his abilities by sweeping the vertical kilometer, skyrace and ultra skymarathon categories in the Skyrunner World Series.
When he wasn’t doing those skyraces, he was pulling off unprecedented feats like going up and down 20,237-foot Mount McKinley from Kahiltna Base Camp, at 7,300 feet, in 11 hours and 48 minutes.
While nine-time Marathon women’s champ and Olympic skier Nina Kemppel was known to take a week off to go sea kayaking after the race due to what it did to her legs, Jornet will run in the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run next weekend, which has 34,000 feet of climbing and an average elevation of 11,000 feet. He finished at 22 hours, 41 minutes, last year, taking 42 minutes off the course record.
Jornet, Gates and Anchorage’s Jim Shine all reached the summit within three seconds of each other. Eric Strabel, the three-time and defending champ, was just more than a minute behind the three.
Strabel was the only runner in the field with a downhill that could threaten Jornet, so Jornet said he let it loose on the first half of the mountain, opening up a big enough lead on Gates and Shine that he could take more care not to injure himself on the bottom portion of the mountain.
Gates was second at 42:56, and now has two of the four fastest times in race history but no title to show for it. He also has only himself to blame for it.
“The first time he did the race, he said you should go to the race,” Jornet said of Gates.
Shine was third at 43:11, while Strabel was fourth at 43:26. Seward’s Erik Johnson led Peninsula residents by taking eighth in 45:23, while Soldotna High School graduate Brent Knight was 22nd in 50:02 and Rex Shields, who spends the summers on the central Peninsula, was 33rd in 53:13.
Alaskans did pick up a pair of wins in the junior races.
In the junior girls race, Riana Boonstra, 14, improved on her fifth-place debut of a year ago to follow in the footsteps of her father, Todd Boonstra. Todd won the race in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2003, becoming the oldest winner at age 41 with that last win.
Riana, who will be a sophomore at Kenai Central, also made it seven-straight years for the central Kenai Peninsula in the junior girls race, building on the six titles of Ostrander.
Boonstra is now the second fastest junior girl in history, with her time of 32:38 moving her past Aubrey Smith’s 33:01. Last year, Boonstra ran 37:55.
“She’s a big influence,” Boonstra said of Ostrander. “She always makes us do our best. She pushes us.”
Riana also was pushed by her father, the man she called her hero in her Arctic Winter Games bio.
“I don’t know a lot of secrets,” Todd said. “I gave her what I had.”
Riana said she took the lead for good when Anchorage’s Molly Gellert slipped on a rock on the way down.
She finished close to Kenai Central sophomore Karl Danielson in the race.
“It was a coincidence,” Boonstra said. “I didn’t know where he was. I thought he was ahead of me.”
Danielson was 18th in 33:11 in his debut to lead all Kenai Peninsula boys. He said the race is definitely tough, but he sees no reason why he won’t keep doing it.
The junior boys win went to Luke Jager of Anchorage, a 15-year-old sophomore at West. Jager led at the turnaround halfway up the mountain last year, but was passed by overall champion Ostrander and boys champion Michael Marshall on the descent.
With a winning time of 27:39, Jager has two years to chip away at Spencer’s 1973 junior boys record of 24:30.
“My goal is to keep on lowering my time and hopefully defend my title,” he said. “But that Bill Spencer record may be untouchable.”
With the star-studded women’s and men’s field, Jager had another goal Saturday.