Lasting thoughts after 90th Mount Marathon

A few thoughts on Tuesday’s 90th running of Mount Marathon in Seward:

— It was good to see Soldotna’s Allie Ostrander feeling good again, and interesting to ponder what that means about the future of the women’s race.

Ostrander — freshly skinned knees notwithstanding — said after the race she was feeling as good as she’s felt since the winter of 2015-16. That winter, a tibial stress fracture sabotaged the end of her indoor track season at Boise State and kept her out of the outdoor season.

She came back to finish eighth in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer, but then a sacral stress fracture took her out of the 2016 cross-country season and 2016-17 indoor track season.

But patience and hard work got her back to the point where she won the NCAA Division I 3,000 steeplechase crown in June.

Then came Tuesday. Keep in mind Ostrander was feeling better than when she finished eighth at the Olympic Trials.

The trail conditions and air temperature were suitable enough that the biggest complaint by racers was the bugs.

“And those damn bugs,” Seward’s Denali Foldager-Strabel said. “They don’t bite you. They just hang out on your sweat.”

Ostrander also had the perfect person to push her in Morgan Arritola, a 2010 Olympic skier and three-time U.S. Mountain Running champion.

After running 50 minutes, 28 seconds, in her debut in 2015 and beating the 50:30 course record by Nancy Pease that had stood since 1990, Ostrander improved Tuesday by running 49:19.

Yet one time loomed over the performance — the 47:48 of Swedish mountain-running pro Emelie Forsberg in 2015.

“That time still makes my race today look like child’s play,” Ostrander said. “Hopefully, I can get closer to it every year.”

The record will be a formidable challenge. Ostrander improved her time to the top of the 3,022-foot peak by 10 seconds, but that was still 41 seconds behind record pace.

After racing Forsberg in 2015 and marveling at the way she started running, and not power-hiking, on the top half of the mountain, Ostrander said she’d like to work on that technique.

Easier said than done, even for somebody who won a steeplechase crown with no previous experience in the event before this spring.

“I ran about three tiny stretches, so more than last time,” Ostrander said with a smile, not unlike the one that Forsberg somehow had on her face when she was doing the uphill running in 2015. “And I’ll keep building on that.”

And Ostrander reminded everyone she’s a great downhiller as well. Or at least everyone who had forgotten her downhill time in the mixed-gender junior race in 2014 tied for second overall.

Her downhill Tuesday was 12:21, 34 seconds faster than anyone in the field and the seventh-fastest since reliable records began in 1989.

But it was still 50 seconds off Forsberg’s 11:31 downhill in 2015.

So let’s add it up. An athlete feeling better than when she finished eighth at the Olympic Trials, an athlete with six junior titles and two senior races under her belt, and an athlete racing in great conditions really didn’t get close to the record.

Mission impossible, right?

Ostrander doesn’t think so. The reason is the competitive surge going on in the women’s race right now.

Look no further than two-time champion Christy Marvin, who ran 52:22 to finish third Tuesday then said, “I just had one of those days where I didn’t feel good.”

Yea. But her time was still good for a tie for 18th all-time on the women’s list.

Foldager-Strabel got fourth place at 55:05. She called the women’s race right now competitive and scary, but addicting.

It’s no wonder. Nina Kemppel only had to dip under 55:05 twice in her record string of nine titles from 1996 to 2003.

“I got fourth place, but I had to work my tail off for it,” Foldager-Strabel said.

Although Outside aces like Arritola definitely help, that competition also has a local flavor, with 11 of Tuesday’s top 23 finishers hailing from the peninsula.

And that competition also has its best days ahead, led by the 20-year-old Ostrander. Two of the next three finishers were in the 30- to 39-year-old age group, suggesting peak performances can come then. But all but four of the top 15 finishers were in the 18- to 29-year-old group.

“There are a lot of eyes on that record and it will eventually come down,” Ostrander said.

—Photographing from the top of the cliffs at the start of the men’s race led to two conclusions.

First, the fabled secret routes up Mount Marathon still have their place.

People in Seward couldn’t stop telling me how ready local Erik Johnson was for this race.

So as I was photographing at a bottleneck where nearly all the racers have to pass, I wondered why he wasn’t with the leaders. In fact, I didn’t see him at all.

After the race, Johnson explained that he had hit the mountain in 10th place, but taking some clever routes had him in second place one-third of the way up the mountain.

Clint McCool, the KTVA analyst who has 10 top-10 finishes to his credit, always tells viewers how race veterans pile up time on newcomers by making appropriate route selections.

That thinking has its limits. National caliber skiers like 2017 champ Scott Patterson and 2016 champ David Norris, or international stars like 2015 champ Kilian Jornet, clearly don’t have to know the mountain well.

But with Johnson’s second-place finish for Seward, the best for a men’s runner from the town since 2000, it was nice to see local knowledge still has its place.

In May, four UAA students completed an extensive mapping of the mountain, a project that lowered the height of the mountain from 3,022 feet to 2,974 feet. Think there’s a few trails that Johnson knows that the UAA students don’t?

My second thought from watching the race just minutes from the start is just how hard this event is. It’s humbling to see the state’s top endurance athletes already slowed to a crawl and grasping madly for air with so much mountain left to climb and so much danger left to navigate on the downhill.

To finish the race once is an amazing feat. But special credit goes to Seward’s Fred Moore and Anchorage’s Ellyn Brown. Both extended their records for most consecutive finishes, with Moore hitting 48 and Brown 35.

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