The epic battles that raged on the slopes of Mount Marathon two summers ago will always be remembered in race lore as the day the foreigners took over.
In the women’s race, Swedish mountain running star Emelie Forsberg pitted herself against Soldotna racer Allie Ostrander and came out ahead with one of the most fantastic athletic accomplishments in the history of the event, crushing the former 1990 race record held by Nancy Pease by almost three minutes with a time of 47 minutes, 48 seconds. Ostrander was left to settle for second, also eclipsing Pease’s hallowed mark by two seconds.
Later, in the men’s race, Spanish mountain runner and Forsberg’s boyfriend Kilian Jornet took a veteran group of Alaska locals to task by slaying the downhill run en route to a then-record 41:48, which lasted only a year before an Alaskan reclaimed the record with a 41:26 from Fairbanks native David Norris.
The two out-of-towners did not return to defend their race titles last year, and neither is back this year.
With that news coming out, the stage is set for Ostrander. The 20-year-old Kenai Central High School product, who now runs for Boise State, is primed to take on the 90th edition of Mount Marathon in the women’s race Tuesday in Seward.
“That would be amazing, since it’s such an iconic Alaskan race,” Ostrander said via phone Friday. “I read an article in the paper that said once you win it, you’re a celebrity forever. It’s a big deal. I would love to win.”
Ostrander is coming off a sizzling spring that saw her capture her first NCAA Division I championship with a victory in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase June 10 in Eugene, Oregon. By the way, the race was just the fourth steeple event in Ostrander’s running career.
Since then, Ostrander said her training load has turned almost exclusively to mountains, with a little flat-land running mixed in to prepare for the fall collegiate cross-country season. She cited three trips down to Seward to train on the officially 2,974-foot and traditionally 3,022-foot behemoth. A study by college students knocked the height of the mountain down a few notches earlier this year.
She said Boise State head coach Corey Ihmels wanted her to rest up for two weeks after her steeplechase triumph, but the run-hungry Ostrander decided to bend the rules a bit.
“Coach wanted me to take two weeks off from running, but I kind of disobeyed him,” she said. “I went on three hikes on the second week and two more this week.
“But he said (he doesn’t) see any reason to hold me back, and he gave me the green light.”
Ostrander pocketed six junior girls race wins — including a phenomenal overall junior win in 2014 when she topped even the boys field — but had to settle for second place as an 18-year-old rookie in the adult race in 2015 as Forsberg sped off to the victory.
Both athletes ran side by side up the lower portions of the mountain that day before Forsberg began to pull away after passing the tree line. Forsberg reached the summit with a women’s race record time of 36:17, with Ostrander making it less than a minute behind at 37:08. The third-place runner hit the top more than two minutes behind Ostrander.
If the race wasn’t over at the top, it was by the time the two superstar athletes hit the bottom. Forsberg blitzed the downhill run in a women’s record time of 11:32 (downhill times have been kept since 1989), while Ostrander made it from the top to the finish in 13:20.
Ostrander said she learned a lot that day, including which routes are best to take as the trail braids its way up the spine of the mountain.
With no Forsberg in the field, Ostrander said the plan is to run a strong uphill and try to put time on her rivals, then take the downhill at her own pace so as to not risk injury.
“I do go fast on the downhill, I’m not a pansy,” she said with a laugh. “But I’m not jumping over waterfalls.”
Upon learning that Forsberg will not race due to a busy European racing schedule, Ostrander said she hopes to see someone else step up and push her in the race.
“It’s probably sixth-hand knowledge that I’ve heard (Forsberg is not racing),” Ostrander joked. “Either way, it’s going to be a great race. … I want strong competition.”
Ostrander may get that with in Palmer’s Christy Marvin, a two-time winner of the race. Marvin, 36, is the defending champion and posted the fifth-fastest women’s time in race history with a 51:02 effort last year, just 34 seconds behind Ostrander’s best time from 2015.
Seward native Denali Foldager-Strabel also figures to be a contender. Foldager-Strabel finished third last year in a personal best of 53:40 while notching a wild downhill run of 11:51, the third-fastest women’s downhill time in race history.
Plus, a wild card enters the field this year in 31-year-old Morgan Arritola, a three-time U.S. Mountain Running champion out of Boise, Idaho, and a 10th-place finisher at the 2015 World Mountain Running Championships in South Wales, the same event that saw Ostrander take the victory in the junior division.
Ostrander said she and Arritola are acquaintances, having met at the world championships in Wales two years ago, and added Arritola will likely be someone to watch.
“I don’t think she would travel all the way here not to contend,” Ostrander said.
Ostrander’s father, Paul, will also be running, competing for his third time in the men’s race, while mother, Teri, and sister, Taylor, are skipping 2017. Taylor finished ninth last year in 59:06, and holds a career-best finish of sixth in 2014. Allie said that Taylor is currently on a trip to Europe.
Tuesday’s 90th running of Mount Marathon will also see several familiar names return to the field.
In the men’s race, four-time race winner Todd Boonstra returns after a long break, along with wife Kelli, a former race runner-up.
After running off three wins in a row from 1996 to 1998 and then returning in 2003 to win a fourth, which set the still-standing record of oldest race winner at age 41, Todd is back in the mix.
Since finishing eighth in 2004, Boonstra has run the race just once, when he turned in a 53rd-place finish in 2010, a year that he ran in memory of his deceased nephew Mathias “Matti” Martin.
Now, the old master is back for another go.
“Last year, I started running with some older guys I used to race against, like Bill Spencer, Martin Martensen and Brad Precosky,” Boonstra said. “I got to thinking, maybe I should try again.”
Now, at age 55, Boonstra said he is simply looking for a safe and solid run. The veteran runner and nordic skier recently took third at the Run for the River 5-kilometer race in Soldotna with a stout time of 17:47, a pedestrian time by Boonstra’s own standards.
“I’ve got to go into it with different expectations, I’m not used to racing behind the front,” he said. Boonstra’s personal best came in 1997 with a 45:17, ranking him 37th on the all-time list of fastest men’s times.
“Last time I did this race, we had been in vacation in Minnesota for weeks before the race, and it’s not fun to do if you don’t train a lot,” he said.
Kelli originally entered the race in 1991 when the family all got into it. Known then as Kelli Ann Lindeman, her five siblings were enough motivation to run fast, Kelli said, and it all helped her to keep a strong ski season in order.
“Back then, we were full-time skiers,” Kelli said. “Mount Marathon was like, ‘Let’s run it to get in shape and ski fast in the winter.’”
Boonstra set a personal best time of 1:00:39 in 1994, although she contends she ran a 58-minute race one year.
Both Boonstras came agonizingly close to qualifying for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, both finishing a spot short of the goal at the U.S. Nordic Ski championships.
Since then, both have taken on busy lives commercial fishing in Ninilchik and raising kids.
The couple’s daughter, Riana, has since blossomed into a top high school athlete at Kenai Central, where she helped the Kardinals girls cross-country running team win their first state championship in school history.
Boonstra also got her name into the Mount Marathon history books by winning the girls junior race in 2015 with a time of 32:38, at the time the fastest girls time by someone not named Allie Ostrander.
Last year, Anchorage’s Molly Gellert took Boonstra’s crown with a win in 31:55 in the junior girls race, relegating Boonstra to a second-place finish at 33:11. Boonstra said she expects another strong challenge from Gellert, as well as Seward native Ruby Lindquist, who took third in 2016 with a time of 34:02.
“I’ve been putting in pretty good training, I’m trying to hike a lot to prepare for it,” Boonstra said. “It’ll be tough, there’s a lot of good competition with Molly and Ruby, and there’s always new girls.”
Kelli said her daughter’s success in Seward helped prompt her and Todd to put their names back in the hat.
“Riana was saying, ‘Mom can you get under an hour, because you could get a top 10!’” Kelli said.
Riana Boonstra said her parents’ past success also played a role in her running, and said she earned a lot of valuable advice in her formative years.
“My first time I raced it, I asked my dad what’s the fastest route, where do I go right, left or through the middle,” she recalled. “They show me that.”