A year after giving their iconic Mount Marathon to the world, Alaskans, and even runners from the host city of Seward, offered a vigorous defense of their mountain Monday in the 89th running of the race.
In the men’s race, David Norris, 25 and a graduate of Lathrop in Fairbanks, snatched the race record back from Kilian Jornet, the Spaniard who is widely considered the best mountain runner in the world and missed this year’s race after winning last year. Norris, running in slightly overcast skies and moderate temperatures, lowered the men’s standard from 41 minutes, 48 seconds, to 41:26. Canadian Nick Elson was second at 43:06.
In the women’s race, Palmer’s Christy Marvin, 35, held off professional Norwegian mountain runner Yngvild Kaspersen to bring the crown back to the state after professional Emelie Forsberg of Sweden won last year.
Marvin finished at 51:02, the fifth-fastest women’s time in the history of the race, while Salomon-sponsored Kaspersen was at 53:23. Forsberg, who did not race this year due to a knee injury, keeps the race record at 47:48.
“I love that Alaska has the men’s record now,” said Marvin, who won her second Marathon title and lowered her previous personal best of 52:51. “I feel bad that I didn’t get the women’s record, but Emelie Forsberg’s record is an anomaly.
“That was just an incredible, incredible performance.”
With the women’s race being held in the afternoon time slot for the first time, runners from the host city more than proved they were ready for prime time.
Led by Denali Foldager-Strabel setting personal bests with a third-place finish and a 53:40, Seward runners claimed four of the top eight slots. Throw in the ninth by Soldotna’s Taylor Ostrander, and that’s five of the top nine for Kenai Peninsula runners.
And the junior races — which go halfway up the mountain — showed Alaska has more Marathon talent on the way. Molly Gellert, who will be a junior at West High in Anchorage, won the race in 31:55. Gellert is now the second-fastest girl ever in the race, while Kenai Central junior Riana Boonstra, who was runner-up in 33:11, is the third-fastest. Anchorage’s Luke Jager defended his boys title in 27:29.
In order to snatch the men’s record back, Alaskans called on the sport they usually turn to when seeking national and international acclaim — cross-country skiing.
Understanding what Norris did Monday requires a brief history lesson. A long time ago — as in, like, three years ago — Bill Spencer’s men’s record of 43:21 from 1981 was considered almost unassailable.
Since then, the mark has seen its stature undergo a Tiger Woodsian decline.
Anchorage’s Eric Strabel and Salomon athlete Rickey Gates both broke the mark in 2013 — Strabel at 42:55 and Gates at 43:04. Then last year, three bested Spencer — Jornet at 41:48, Gates at 42:56 and Jim Shine at 43:11. This year, Norris and Elson beat the Spencer standard.
Jornet’s radical restructuring of the top of the table was thought to be a possible run for the ages, but it turned out to be just the run of the year.
Norris used the immense aerobic engine accumulated from Nordic skiing to finish the uphill in 30:35. Last year, when Gates, Jornet and Shine got uphill at 31:26 through 31:29, that was recognized as the best uphill ever even though uphill times have become an official part of the timing only recently.
“All the training I do for skiing translated well into climbing,” Norris said.
Strabel, who finished third, did not think the record would fall Monday. But he added that Norris and training partner David Patterson, who did the uphill in 31:51 and finished fourth, are taking the APU program to new and exciting levels by putting in over 900 hours a year training.
“If you had told me that someone would break the record today, I would have told you it would have been David,” Strabel said. “The training those two are doing is world-class.”
Brent Knight, a 2002 graduate of Soldotna High School, retired from skiing in the APU program two years ago.
The 32-year-old, who now lives in Colorado and finished 18th Monday, said elite ski training develops the massive capacity that allowed Norris to take big, powerful steps up the mountain, which has average slopes of 34 degrees. No low gear needed, thank you.
“When you’re training, you’re using all four limbs so your lungs are just bigger,” said Knight, who led Mount Marathon before collapsing just over a block from the finish in 2009. “I always felt like it was a nice advantage.”
Living Outside and training with some of the best trail runners in Boulder, Knight said he is very excited by the buzz Mount Marathon is now generating in the Lower 48.
Whether it’s skiers, mountain runners, just plain runners or an athlete for another background, Knight looks forward to what the future holds on the mountain.
“There’s a lot of dudes that could fly up and down this mountain, and I think you’re going to see some of them start showing up here,” he said.
Norris, who saw some time on the World Cup circuit in 2014 and is shooting for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, certainly didn’t give the impression of somebody who thinks his record is safe.
“I’ve heard Kilian wants to come back,” he said. “It’s hard to say what will happen.”
While Nordic skiing carried the day in the men’s race, good-ole Alaska perseverance shone through for the women.
Marvin won her race debut in 2013, but famously said in the Marathon documentary “3022 ft.” that she did not want to be known as the person who won because the Olympians — Holly Brooks and Kikkan Randall — didn’t show up.
The full-time mother just missed chasing race-winner Brooks down on the street in 2014, then in 2015 watched Forsberg and Soldotna’s Allie Ostrander scoot away from her on the uphill and admitted she didn’t have what they had.
But Marvin put in the hours anyway. And her winning time Monday is faster than any posted by Brooks or Randall.
“This is a really big deal,” Marvin said. “It makes me feel good that all those hours of training have finally paid off.”
Marvin said she continually tinkers with her training each year. With a foot injury from last year healed and her sons — Coby, 9, Jeb, 7, and Isaac, 4 — now no longer going at “kid pace,” the former Glennallen running standout had it all fall into place.
“I could feel all the energy and love up there with everybody cheering for me,” she said.
Taylor Ostrander showed she is still fit even after concluding a college career at Willamette University in Oregon which saw her compete at the NCAA Division III national championships in cross-country and track four times apiece.
The Kenai Central grad put that experience to good use when she hit the road behind April McAnly of Anchorage. Ostrander passed McAnly on the road to run 59:06 and beat her by two seconds.
“She passed me on the cliffs, so I tried to call on my cross-country and track prowess to see if I could pass her back,” said Ostrander, who wants to transition to marathons and ultramarathons.
While Ostrander’s mother, Teri, missed Mount Marathon to go to the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials early to see sister, Allie, compete, Taylor and father, Paul, were still in Seward to continue the July 3 family tradition of climbing the roots at the base of the mountain and going to the same downtown restaurant afterward. Taylor and Paul leave for the trials in the middle of the week.
The junior girls race also continued to show it is at a new level.
Allie Ostrander set the race record of 28:54 in 2014 to cap a run of six straight titles. In 2015, Boonstra, now a Kenai Central junior, became the second-fastest junior girl on Mount Marathon and gave Kenai Central seven straight titles.
This year, Gellert, who will be a junior at West High in Anchorage, took over the status as the second-fastest junior girl.
In keeping with the theme of the day, both Gellert and Boonstra are skiers. They also are good cross-country runners, and Gellert beat Boonstra by six seconds for the Class 4A state cross-country title last season.
Boonstra said she was able to stick with Gellert halfway up the junior race. But after that, Gellert took control.
“I wanted to keep with her and stay with her and see what she does,” Gellert said. “She’s super good on the mountain and such a good athlete. Following what she does really helped.”
Gellert and Boonstra were shoulder-to-shoulder at the turnaround last year, but this year Gellert improved her downhill.
“Last year, I took a nosedive in the creek,” she said. “I didn’t hurt myself, but after that I was in a bit of mental shock.”
Boonstra skipped the track season this year. She said she’ll be doing track this year, and is looking forward to seeing what she can do next year in Mount Marathon.
“It was fun,” Boonstra said. “Every year, I ask, ‘Why do I do this?’ Then as soon as I finish, I can’t wait until next year.”