Alaska has always been tough to beat at Seward’s Mount Marathon because its national- and international-caliber athletes want the race even though they don’t need it to prove athletic bona fides, and because the race route — a 3,022-foot, 34-degree-sloped, rock-and-mud-infested infinity sign — develops everlasting devotion in running communities across the state.
Tuesday at the 90th running of the race, both factors again combined to keep the men’s, women’s and junior titles in the hands of Alaska.
Women’s champ Allie Ostrander, 20, of Soldotna and men’s champ Scott Patterson, 25, of Anchorage both won their first titles to join a list of wnners like Nina Kemppel, Kikkan Randall, Bill Spencer and Todd Boonstra who put careers as elite athletes at risk to tackle the race.
Ostrander, a 2015 Kenai Central graduate, stamped herself as something different when in 2015 she became the first Alaskan to win Nike Cross Nationals. She also won a junior world mountain running title in Wales that year.
Last summer at this time, she was finishing eighth in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trails, and in June she won the NCAA Division I steeplechase for Boise State. It is believed only two other Alaskans have been NCAA Division I individual champs.
Yet Ostrander had also come under the sway of Mount Marathon while growing up on the central peninsula — a race with no prize money but packed with endless Alaska prestige.
“It’s Mount Marathon. It’s Alaska. It’s my Fourth of July,” said Ostrander, who became the first peninsula runner to win a senior race since Seward’s Cedar Bourgois reeled off seven straight from 2004 to 2010. “Fourth of July feels empty without Mount Marathon.”
She won six junior titles, winning the 17-and-under, mixed-gender race outright in 2014 while lowering the girls junior record to 28 minutes, 54 seconds.
In her senior debut in 2015, she clocked 50:28 for the second fastest time in race history only to lose handily to Swedish mountain-running pro Emelie Forsberg, whose shocking 47:48 had experienced race watchers looking at the clock and thinking something must be wrong.
Before that epic performance, Forsberg said she didn’t consider herself a favorite. So when Morgan Arritola, a 31-year-old pursuing a degree in respiratory therapy at Boise State, said he didn’t consider herself a racer to watch, Ostrander wasn’t about to be fooled.
Arritola cross-country skied in the 2010 Winter Olympics, won three U.S. Mountain Running titles and also finished third at the World Mountain Running Championships in 2015.
So it was no surprise when Arritola was able to stay 15 to 25 seconds behind Ostrander as she broke from the rest of the field up the mountain, including two-time and defending champ Christy Marvin.
“It’s always hard, especially having such a history with the junior race, passing that midway pole,” Ostrander said. “I’m always just so devasted I don’t get to turn around.
“Her being so close really helped me push it on the second half of the mountain.”
Ostrander reached the summit 36:58 into the race, 10 seconds faster than in 2015 but also only 20 seconds faster than Arritola.
“I honestly thought she was going to pass me on the downhill,” Ostrander said.
That may have been because of what happened in 2015, when Forsberg uncorked an 11:32 downhill that was a women’s best since such records began being kept in 1989. Ostrander was at 13:20, 24th on the all-time list coming into this year.
But this year, Ostrander made it down in 12:21, seventh on the all-time list, while Arritola was at 12:55.
“My legs were like, ‘What are you doing?’” said Arritola, who had been up the mountain just once prior to the race and had to ask directions once on the way down. “I was just trying not to fall.”
Arritola succeeded in not falling. Ostrander did not. She caught a toe on the top half of the mountain four times, doing full-body sprawls in the razor-sharp shale each time.
“On the second half, I was like, ‘OK, just relax, maybe take it a little bit slower and your legs are tired. Just try to get this down without falling again,’” she said. “And I think that relaxing really helped me to have a better downhill groove.”
She credited Anchorage’s Conor Deal, her sister’s boyfriend and a member of the Kenai River Brown Bears from 2011 to 2014, for lessons that helped her run faster. Deal finished 26th in the men’s race at 51:35.
“Always seek out a hockey player to help you with mountain running,” she said.
Ostrander finished at 49:19, 1:09 better than two years ago and a time that would have won every Mount Marathon outright through 1962, while Arritola’s 51:09 stands as the sixth-fastest time in race history.
Nobody is threatening Forsberg’s 47:48 right now. But Arritola fell for the race, calling it real mountain running as opposed to glorified road racing that can pass for mountain running, and plans to be back.
Ostrander said it’s that type of competition that will take down the record in the next 10 years.
“There are a lot of eyes on that record and it will eventually come down,” she said.
Patterson led a parade of elite Anchorage Nordic skiers to the top of the podium.
Patterson won the men’s race at 44:30, a time that ranks 21st on the all-time list and brings a temporary pause to the wild times that had seen the race record be broken three times in the last four years.
Fellow Anchorage skiers Luke Jager and Molly Gellert won the junior titles, with Jager finishing in 29:09 for his third-straight title and Gellert crossing at 32:53 for her second straight title.
Patterson’s skiing ability was a blessing and a curse Tuesday. He had an unrivaled aerobic engine, but also a possible Olympic spot to lose in the event of serious injury.
As the 2016-17 SuperTour Champion, Patterson will ski on the World Cup full time in November and December. If he is in the top 50 in either the classic or sprint distance lists after that period, he qualifies for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
And with a ninth-place finish in a 30-kilometer World Cup skiathlon on the PyeongChang trails in early February, Patterson was setting himself up for serious regret in the event of one wrong step.
“I knew on the uphill I’d be strong and superfit,” said Patterson, who had 2:16 on the field by the time he reached the top. “I wanted to get a big lead on the uphill and take the downhill hard and fast, but not take any chances.
“The plan worked out perfectly.”
With three of last year’s top five missing the race and Eric Strabel, who had been in the top four in seven of the past eight races before finishing 17th Tuesday, having an off year, Patterson would have no repeat of the multiple ankle twistings that marked his descent last year.
The thinning of the top of the field also gave Erik Johnson, 40, a chance to punctuate a day that showcased the kind of small but passionate mountain-running culture boomlet that has always been the backbone of the race.
Johnson set a personal record of 45:22 to finish second in the race, giving the Seward men their first top-five finish since Eli Lane was second in 2000 at 47:18.
After becoming transfixed by the Mount Marathon race plus Seward’s trails and people during a visit in 2008, Johnson found a way to relocate there in 2009.
He won the Mayor’s Marathon in 2010, allowing him to write a letter and get entry in the race. He’s run every year since.
“This race has been the pinnacle,” Johnson said. “It’s what I think about anytime I run, whether it’s a 5K or a 20-mile run.”
Johnson is happy to have his wife, Mariah, in the race and daughter, Rae, 2, in the Mini Mt. Marathon, but his infectious enthusiasm has not stopped there.
The last two summers, in the month leading up to the race, he’s created an informal race series including Bear Mountain, Mount Alice, the Mount Marathon bowl and this year a Tonsina beach race.
“Our community has great trails,” Johnson said. “It’s not just Lost Lake and Mount Marathon. And the community also has an awesome group of people who all support each other.”
The fingerprints of Johnson’s clan were all over the Tuesday race.
Hannah Lafluer never ran competitively in high school or college. She spent last summer in Seward without falling in with Johnson’s crew, but this year she started running with them.
The group saw Lafleur’s talent and, along with co-workers at Kayak Adventures Worldwide, raised $500 so Lafleur could score a race spot in Monday’s auction.
She finished seventh as Seward put four runners in the top 12 — with Denali Foldager-Strabel fourth, Allison Barnwell eighth and Sarah Glaser 12th.
“It was just ‘informal racing,’” Lafleur said of Johnson’s series, using the classic finger quotes. “But we were all really pushing each other and that helps.”
While Foldager-Strabel never did any of Johnson’s races, she did meet Lafleur on the trails this summer and was excited for her to do Mount Marathon.
“It goes back to the junior races,” Foldager-Strabel said. “It was the Seward girls against everybody else.
“I’ll forever line up with the Seward girls at the starting line.”
Ruby Lindquist of Moose Pass also was a regular at Johnson’s races and set a personal record in finishing at 33:55 to take second in the junior girls race.
“When it comes to competition and racing, it helps a lot,” Lindquist said. “I got to race a lot of different terrain and some of it was even steeper than today.”
Racing series regular Ali Papillon took third in the boys junior race despite being just 12 years old. Papillon’s brother, Bodhi Gross, was eighth.
The boys are listed as being from Talkeetna, but their mother, Linda Rao, has a summer job in Seward so they were able to train in the mountains five days a week.
“I’ve went to the top twice in one day, so this didn’t seem super bad,” Papillon said after completing the junior race, which goes up half the mountain.
Riana Boonstra, the 2015 junior champ, gave the peninsula its final top five with fourth in the junior girls race. Boonstra was happy that her mother and father were back in the race. Todd is a four-time men’s champ, while Kelli finished as high as second in 1999.
Immediately following the race, though, Kelli was not willing to commit to a similar family reunion next year.
“It’s way too early to tell,” she said.