The Mount Marathon Race in Seward is back and better than ever for its 94th running Monday.
Sounds more like advertising copy than a lead to a newspaper story, but it might actually be true.
First, about 5-kilometer race up and down the mountain of just over 3,000 feet being back.
It takes a number of factors for the crowds packing the streets of Seward to be at their greatest — the race has to be attached to at least an extended Fourth of July weekend, a major wildfire can’t be roaring on the Kenai Peninsula and the world can’t be in the midst of dealing with a pandemic.
Those stars haven’t aligned since 2016, when July 4 was a Monday. After midweek dates in 2017 and 2018, the Swan Lake Fire made things so smoky an official junior race wasn’t even held in 2019.
In 2020, the race was canceled due to the pandemic, while the 2021 edition was held on July 7 — a Wednesday — in order to keep the crowds small as major concern remained about COVID.
The race program is asking those who recently tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms of it to stay home, but other than that the party appears to be back on in Seward.
“We’re back on the Fourth of July and it’s been three years,” Matias Saari, race director and 2009 men’s champ, said. “It falls on Monday, so it’s an extended weekend and not a midweek race. We expect the crowds to be massive.”
Seward’s Hannah Lafleur, the two-time defending champion in the women’s race, could feel the coming wave Friday.
“I’m starting to feel the buzz in Seward and it’s still three days out,” she said. “It’s cool to be back to quote-unquote ‘normal.’ People are ready to have a big party and have Mount Marathon be a big thing.”
Seward’s Erik Johnson, who has finished in the top 10 in seven of his nine starts, said having the race back on July 4 is good for more reasons than he doesn’t have to take a vacation day from work to race this year.
“I feel like there’s an extra amount of fun vibe to spur on a great performance,” he said. “It’s kind of like being shot out of a cannon. It’s like a sports team running out of a tunnel in front of all the fans.
“It’s fun to know that’s going to be a thing again.”
But is the race better than ever? That’s highly subjective, but there is no question this race is set to continue a trend of more and more elite athletes coming from far and wide to race in Seward, as well as Alaska athletes stepping up their game to compete with those Outside racers.
On the women’s side, seven of the top 10 times have come since 2015. That’s the year Swedish pro Emelie Forsberg ran 47 minutes, 48 seconds, to break the previous record of 50:30 by Nancy Pease in 1990, with recent Kenai Central graduate Allie Ostrander also nipping Pease’s standard by 2 seconds that year.
On the men’s side, nine of the top 10 times have come since 2013. That’s the year pro Rickey Gates, like Forsberg sponsored by Salomon, pushed Anchorage’s Eric Strabel to run 42:55 and break the 43:21 record held by Bill Spencer since 1981.
There once was debate about whether Spencer’s mark could ever be broken. Now, it’s 10th on the all-time list.
Spanish mountain runner Kilian Jornet, one of the biggest names in the sport, broke the men’s record in 2015, only to have Anchorage’s David Norris run 41:26 in 2016 to lower Jornet’s standard by 22 seconds.
Mountain running enthusiasts the world over have taken note.
“Some friends of mine were in Switzerland and they told some people where they were from,” Johnson said. “They knew all about Mount Marathon and said they wanted to do the race.
“People know who Kilian is and watch race videos on YouTube.”
There’s no prize money or money paid to runners for appearing, but top runners keep showing up.
“We don’t recruit people,” Saari said. “They come out of the blue. Mount Marathon is getting a reputation as a premier mountain running event — a one of a kind for the more elite runners.”
Saari said injury has taken some key players from the field. Norris, undefeated in three Mount Marathon races, and Salomon athlete Bailey Kowalcyzk will not race due to injury.
But both races are still stacked.
“It feels incredible to live in a place where people travel from all over the place to run a mountain that’s in my backyard,” Lafleur said.
Lafleur, a 33-year-old who owns a kayak guiding operation in Seward with her partner, will try and keep the title in Seward for a third straight race despite the race’s ability to draw impressive talent.
Rosie Frankowski, a 30-year-old who skis for APU, will race for a third time. She has a top finish of fourth and missed out on a second Olympics appearance last winter despite winning the 2022 SuperTour.
Novie McCabe of Washington will make her Mount Marathon debut after skiing in the Winter Olympics and taking 18th in the 30K freestyle. Colorado’s Allie McLaughlin also makes her Mount Marathon debut with a resume of impressive trail running accomplishments in the Lower 48.
Ruby Lindquist, a graduate of Seward High School who just finished a successful college running career, also presents a threat after finishing second to Lafleur in 2021 by running the 11th fastest time in race history.
Palmer’s Christy Marvin, 41, has raced eight times, nabbing two titles and never finishing out of the top three.
“If I had to handicap it, I’d say Rosie, Novie and Allie will lead the charge up the hill,” Saari said. “Hannah, Christy Marvin and Ruby will be chasing off the top, and as we’ve seen in the last two years, Hannah is very capable of chasing everyone down and winning the race.”
Anchorage’s Klaire Rhodes, a 24-year-old who was fifth last year, also figures to factor after winning the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb at Bird Ridge on June 19.
Lafleur also is interested to see how Seward High graduate Denali Strabel, California’s Olivia Amber, Anchorage’s Najeeby Quinn and Palmer’s Meg Inokuma perform.
Lafleur said she’d love to be leading at the top of the mountain, but also said the downhill is clearly her strength.
“You have to be really scrappy, gritty and not be afraid to put it out there,” she said. “The risk of injury is real. Part of it is kind of letting go on the downhill, staying loose and smooth, and not trying to hold back at all.”
In 2021 Lafleur had the third-fastest downhill since those times have been kept since 1989.
Norris has two of the top three times in race history, so his absence changes everything.
“That makes it a wide open men’s field,” Saari said.
Johnson, Anchorage’s Lars Arneson, 32, and Seward’s Pyper Dixon, 31, are athletes with Kenai Peninsula ties looking to take advantage.
Arneson, a 2009 graduate of Cook Inlet Academy, has been sixth, third and seventh in the last three Mount Marathons. He was second at Bird Ridge this year.
“I’m just shocked he hasn’t won yet,” Johnson said of Arneson. “I think he has the potential to win.”
Dixon had eight men’s races under his belt before popping his first top-10 finish in 2019 at fourth. He then finished 10th in 2021.
Johnson, 45, said he would love to go under 50 minutes for the 10th time in 10 tries.
“I’d love to be in the top 20,” he said. “Where in the top 20, I don’t know.”
The three peninsula racers will be fighting for glory with a deep field.
Oregon’s Max King, 42, is a Salomon athlete who ran the fourth-fastest time in race history in 2018 in losing to Norris, then won in 2019.
“He’s 42 now, but he’s not slowing down much,” Saari said.
Sam Hendry, like McCabe a University of Utah skier, was second last year and could become the first Canadian to win the race. Anchorage’s Luke Jager, a University of Utah skier and an Olympic skier last winter, returns to the race after winning three junior titles and taking sixth in the men’s race in 2018.
Salmon athlete Darren Thomas, 28, of Nevada, who was third last year, will be a race-day decision with an injury. Rounding out the top five last year and hungry for more this year are Michael Connelly, 20, of Chugiak and Lyon Kopsack, 26, of Palmer.
Thomas O’Harra, an APU skier, adds even more firepower to the field after earning a bib due to his victory at Bird Ridge in June. Galen Hecht, who lived in Soldotna last year before moving to Anchorage, was third at Bird Ridge but doesn’t have a Mount Marathon bib. Johnson’s guess is Hecht will aim for one at Sunday night’s auction.
Thanks to King and Palmer’s Ben Marvin, a 41-year old who was eight last year, Johnson said it will be really tough to even win his age group.
“It’s outrageous,” Johnson said of the quality of the field. “I’m really excited and humble but happy to be a part of it.”
Odds and ends
• Kenai Central incoming senior Jayna Boonstra, who already has two Division II state cross-country running titles to her credit, is the top returner in the girls junior race. Boonstra was second last year behind Anchorage’s Lucy Young.
Boonstra is looking to join her sister, Riana, as a junior champ. Riana won in 2015, while Jayna’s father, Todd, won Mount Marathon men’s titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998, then became the oldest winner in race history at 41 in 2003.
The boys race looks set to be another duel between Ali Papillon, 16, of Boulder, Colorado, and Coby Marvin, 15, of Palmer. Papillon got the best of Marvin last year.
• Saari expects about 325 men, 300 women and 200 juniors to toe the line, with the junior race at 9 a.m., men’s race at 11 a.m. and women’s race at 2 p.m. There will be about 300 rookies in the field, which Saari is confident is a record.
The reason is as of last year, racers, with some exceptions like those with 10-year veterans status, had to finish in the top 50% of their age group to gain a guaranteed spot in this year’s race.
Saari said the race committee instituted the rule because under the old system, getting in through the lottery was getting too hard. Saari said odds in the men’s lottery went from 3% to 23%, while the women’s lottery is up to 43%.
Johnson said he still remembers how bad it hurt when he couldn’t get entry to the race in 2014, so he feels for everybody, especially local racers, who got cut.
Ultimately, he sees it as another step toward Mount Marathon joining elite races around the globe.
“In the Boston Marathon, you have to qualify,” he said. “In Western States, they only automatically bring back the top 10. This race is on that echelon, and the race does take a pretty big field.”
Lafleur also doesn’t like to see local friends out of the race, but said it was time for a change.
“We’ll see how it plays out over time, but at this point it was the smart thing to do,” she said. “Something had to change. Under the old rules, it was nearly impossible to get in.”
• Seward’s Fred Moore will look to extend his consecutive race streak to 52 years. Anchorage’s Chad Resari, 86, will look to up his oldest finisher mark by a year. Anchorage’s Ellyn Brown also is looking to extend the women’s consecutive finisher mark to 33.
• Saari said the race is going to start experimenting with streaming. Mountmarathon.com will have a start and finish camera for sure this year, but a midmountain camera may be a little more iffy due to the crowds overwhelming data connectivity on the holiday weekend.