By JEFF HELMINIAK
The Mount Marathon Race in Seward is back, but it’s not quite back to normal.
For the first time since 1942, the race was canceled in 2020. This winter, the race committee decided to hold 2021’s race on July 7 instead of the traditional July 4 date. Due to the coronavirus, the committee wanted the smaller crowds of a nonholiday Wednesday versus a holiday Sunday.
With that decision to move to a nontraditional date, the committee also gave racers the option to defer to 2022 and not lose priority registration status. Matias Saari, race director, told the Anchorage Daily News combined capacity for the men’s, women’s and junior races is 1,050. About 860 are expected to race due to deferments.
But even on July 7, and even with the deferments, Seward’s Hannah Lafleur, who in 2019 became the first local senior race champion since Cedar Bourgeois in 2010, expects Mount Marathon to be Mount Marathon.
“Somebody once said it feels like all of Seward is at a wedding on race day,” Lafleur, 32, said. “Everyone is full of joy.
“That’s the feeling I’m looking for on race day. That feeling of everybody being full of joy, whether it’s the racers or spectators.”
Lafleur helps run Kayak Adventures Worldwide. The office closes one day — usually July 4 — between May 19 and Sept. 7. This year the employees voted to close July 7 instead of July 4.
“There’s definitely still a buzz in town for the race,” Lafleur said. “There might even be more of a buzz because we’re able to have the race and we didn’t have it last year.”
Erik Johnson, 44, has become the leader of the Seward trail running community in rolling up six top-10 finishes in eight races since his debut in 2011.
“At my job, various people who don’t have anything to do with the race are asking for the day off,” said Johnson, who works with the maintenance crew at Kenai Fjords National Park. “The vibe in town is that people are still really interested in the race.”
Johnson said he knows about 100 mountain-racing regulars. He said that group is an all-in as ever for an event that has achieved international fame in mountain running circles.
“For someone like myself, and people in my closest groups, we never stopped training,” Johnson said. “I was on the mountain last year 30 times up to race point. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a race, I trained for it.
“I peaked for the race last year because it’s such a routine. I had my fastest run right around the fourth.”
The junior race starts at 8:30 a.m., while the women’s race is at 11 a.m. and the men race at 3 p.m.
Racers also could face a slicker mountain due to the move from July 4 to July 7. Sunday was sunny in Seward, but the forecast is predicting rain early in the week on the course that gains and loses just over 3,000 feet in just over 3 miles.
As an operator of a kayak company, Lafleur has kept a close eye on Seward’s weather over the years. Sunday, she said she hadn’t dug too deeply into the Wednesday forecast because forecasts two days out and sooner are the most reliable. She did say rain looks pretty certain Monday and Tuesday.
Johnson said the main impact of a slick mountain comes on the first half of the up route — from the top of the cliffs to the midway point. The trail is rocky from midway to the top, so rain isn’t a factor. Johnson and Lafleur said rain actually makes the downhill softer, and thus faster.
“It’s just 15 minutes of mountain when you’re in the brush from the top of the cliffs to midway,” Johnson said. “I’m not worried about it.”
Lafleur isn’t so sure: “He keeps saying that to me, but I think he’s just trying to quell my anxiety.”
Both Johnson and Lafleur see some positives to a potentially wet mountain. Lafleur pointed out that Seward runners have done plenty of runs in the rain, so they are used to it. Johnson said the cool air that accompanies rain should be welcome for runners charging up a mountain that reaches a maximum steepness of 60 degrees.
Johnson also added snow will not be a factor in descending the upper half of the mountain.
In 2019, Lafleur uncorked the eighth-fastest downhill time since downhill times were kept in 1989 to pass two runners and earn eternal Seward fame. Her victory didn’t surprise anyone in Seward, but did catch some in the broader Alaska mountain running community by surprise.
There will be no surprising anybody this time.
“I do feel like I need to go out and run my best race, and there will be added pressure because I won last time,” Lafleur said. “I feel like this race is a celebration of the preparation I’ve done and everybody else has done on Marathon.
“I feel as though if I go all out and give everything I’ve got, it feels like a celebration, perhaps more than ever before.”
One of the runners Lafleur passed on that 2019 downhill is Christy Marvin.
Marvin, 40, of Palmer will race. She’s won Mount Marathon twice and has finished in the top three in all seven of her appearances. Marvin also has victories in a pair of mountain races — Crazy Lazy and Government Peak Climb — this summer.
There are plenty more sizing up Lafleur’s crown, including U.S. Ski Team member Kendell Kramer and Olympic skiers Rosie Frankowski and Holly Brooks. Anchorage’s Klaire Rhodes has victories in trail and mountain runs this summer, while presenting race sponsor Salomon gave bibs to Anchorage’s Taryn Hunt-Smith and California’s Olivia Amber for a reason.
Peninsula runners have had tremendous success in the women’s race recently. In 2019, six women’s runners with Kenai Peninsula ties were in the top seven and eight were in the top 25.
Many of the athletes responsible for that success — such as Julianne Dickerson, Denali Foldager-Strabel, Aubrey Smith and Allison, Mackenzie and Isabel Barnwell — will not race this year.
Johnson did say Ruby Lindquist, a 2018 graduate of Seward High School, looks primed to improve on her seventh place and personal record of 1:00:20 in 2019. Lindquist this year ran 4:34.29 in the 1,500-meter run to break the school record for Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Riana Boonstra, a 2018 graduate of Kenai Central and 2015 girls Mount Marathon champion, also is entered to race. Boonstra’s father, Todd, won the men’s race four times.
All eyes will be on David Norris, who won in 2016 and 2018 in his only tries at the race. In 2016, Norris improved the course record of international mountain running superstar Kilian Jornet from 41:48 to 41:26. In 2018, Norris ran 42:13, the third-fastest time in race history behind himself and Jornet.
Norris is a professional Nordic skier and missed time early in the season after contracting COVID-19, but he came back for two top-20 finishes at the world championships in Germany in March.
At the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb in Anchorage on June 20, Norris smashed his own record of 36:58 by dropping all the way to 35:40.
“I’d say it’s Norris’ race to lose,” Johnson said of the 30-year-old.
One of the main contenders to beat Norris is Lars Arneson, a 30-year-old and 2009 graduate of Cook Inlet Academy now living in Anchorage.
Arneson finished third in a personal-best 45:32 in 2019. He has been on a roll this summer, setting a new course record at the Crazy Lazy on March 20 and also winning the Government Peak Climb on June 5.
More local names to look for are Johnson and Seward’s Pyper Dixon. Johnson said he feels as good as he has in years. He said he dreams about doing all kinds of things in the race, but setting a new personal record and remaining the top racer over 40 would be good places to start.
Before 2019, Dixon had run eight men’s races with a best of 18th place in 50:22 in 2013. In 2019, Dixon dropped to fourth in 47:16. Dixon has had success this season, taking second at the Crazy Lazy, but he was 23rd at the Spurr Climb.
“I think Pyper has it in him to do really well,” Lafleur said. “Erik is in incredible shape. For both, it will come down to if they’re having a great race day. They’re both capable of the podium.”
Soldotna’s Galen Hecht, who was ninth at the Spurr Climb, will make his Mount Marathon debut after successfully petitioning for entry. Hecht must finish in the top 10 to earn a spot in next year’s race.
The junior race was canceled in 2019 due to wildfire smoke. With the 2020 race also canceled, much of the junior field this year will be new.
Ali Papillon, a 16-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, is not new. He will be doing his sixth junior race after finishing third in 2017 and second in 2018. Papillon will have to deal with Coby Marvin, a 14-year-old who turned heads by defeating his mother, Christy, in the Government Peak Climb.
Lafleur knows Papillon well, having run with him in Alaska and when she spent a year in Boulder.
“I’m so excited for Ali to just crush the junior race,” Lafleur said. “He’s really fired up and I’m excited for him.”
Palmer’s Katey Houser was third in 2018 and is the top girls returner.
Kenai’s Jayna Boonstra, Riana’s sister and the Division II state cross-country champion as a sophomore in 2020, is on the roster to make her debut in the girls race.
Christmas in July
Johnson said as much as he loves to talk about the horse race up in front of the field, he continues to volunteer for the junior race just because being around all the racers is so fun.
“I’m just really impressed to see people up on the mountain week in and week out,” he said. “I love to see them on Strava charging up the hill. I love the buildup of the race and the community of people who get into it and are super inspired by it.
“It’s like the Christmas of running to me.”
Johnson said a new rule enacted by the racing committee should spice up racing all over the mountain. Racers now must finish in the top 50% of their age group to earn priority registration status. This replaces a rule that said racers had to finish in the top 225 to earn priority status.
There are exceptions. The top 10 finishers in each age group maintain priority status, in order not to penalize older racers. Those with 10-year status also maintain priority registration.
The new rule will open up more spots in the lottery, making it easier for new racers to gain entrance.
Due to coronavirus mitigation measures, the women’s race will have six waves, while the men’s race will have seven.
“With all the waves, it will be really challenging for people to know where they are at,” Johnson said. “There will be a lot of tense moments as people come in.”
Even with all the changes, Lafleur said the important thing is there will be a race.
“Kudos to Matias and the race committee for putting this on in a challenging year after not having it last year,” Lafleur said. “This would not have happened without a lot of hard work.”
Editor’s note: The original article has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Matias Saari.