In the minutes after knocking down her second straight NCAA Division I steeplechase title June 9 at Oregon University’s Hayward Field, Soldotna runner Allie Ostrander found her family on the sidelines and embraced each of them in a moment of joy that showcased her love for the sport and for her family.
It is for that reason that Ostrander is currently on the fence on deciding whether to race the famed Mount Marathon mountain race Wednesday in Seward.
If it’s not already apparent, Mount Marathon is a race near and dear to Ostrander’s heart. The family has traditionally packed up and made Seward their home on race day, and the Ostranders have become a part of the festivities and atmosphere of the Independence Day event.
Which is why Allie’s dilemma on whether or not to run one of her favorite races of the year strikes an intriguing tone. In conversations with Boise State head track and field coach Corey Ihmels, Ostrander has debated the pros and cons.
“It’s not necessarily about me getting injured,” she said. “It’s just such a high impact race and it’s so much stress on the body.
“I’m not sure if it’s worth it.”
As a previous champion (2017), Ostrander has the leeway to pick up her bib at Seward High School the night before without the intent of racing. She said it could be a race-day decision.
“If I wasn’t going all out, I’d probably be out to hike it and cheer for others,” she said.
If Ostrander decides to run, she will be the clear favorite in the field. After all, she’s just one of two women who have broken 50 minutes in the race, and the other isn’t racing this year.
The 2015 Kenai Central grad is a six-time junior girls champion who, in her final junior race, won the coed event outright.
Then, in her senior debut, Ostrander finished second in one of the most stunning women’s races in event history, clocking a time of 50:28 that broke the 25-year-old female course record held by Alaskan mountain icon Nancy Pease.
Swedish mountain running superstar Emelie Forsberg beat her to it, winning the race in a jaw-dropping 47:48, the first women ever to break the 50-minute barrier.
Ostrander became the second last year, winning her first women’s Mount Marathon title in a time of 49:19, a time that even surprised “Allie-O.”
“I was hoping to win, but I didn’t expect to PR by that much,” she said. “Conditions last year were conducive to fast times, the shale was so deep and perfect for running down fast.”
In her epic battle against Forsberg in 2015, Ostrander managed to keep up for the first half of the climb, but the Swede ultimately pulled away to reach the summit about 50 seconds ahead of Ostrander, then blew her — and the rest of the field — away on the downhill to romp to an easy victory.
Forsberg posted the fastest known downhill time among women at 11:31, putting her ahead of seven-time champ Cedar Bourgeois, who notched an 11:48 downhill run in 2010.
Ostrander reached the finish in 2015 with a 13:20 downhill.
Ostrander last year proved her doubters wrong by lowering her downhill time by a minute to a speedy 12:21, but the rest of the field also improved their downhill runs, as eight women clocked a sub-14 minute time from top to bottom.
“That was also partially because I really focused on my downhill last year (in training),” she said. “I also practiced the gully more than I would. I think that was probably faster.”
Depending on whether Ostrander toes the starting line on Wednesday, there are several women in the mix to win. Two strong contenders figure to be Anchorage’s Jessica Yeaton and Palmer’s Christy Marvin.
Both ladies finished 1-2 with sub-45 times at Bird Ridge in June, setting themselves up for strong Mount Marathon races. Yeaton won Bird Ridge with the fourth-fastest female time ever run in the history of the event, and became just the third woman to eclipse 45 minutes with a time of 44:48. Only Nancy Pease has run quicker than that on Bird Ridge.
Marvin, meanwhile, finished second to Yeaton at Bird Ridge by just 11 seconds, and is a two-time Mount Marathon winner (2013, 2016).
Yeaton’s Nordic skiing prowess has become her ally to mountain running. Yeaton was a state-caliber skier during her prep years at South Anchorage High School, and competed at the Winter Olympics last February for team Australia.
Another name that could be in the mix is Rosie Frankowski, a race rookie who won the June 2 Government Peak run in dominant fashion to punch her ticket into Mount Marathon. Frankowski is a Minneapolis Nordic skier who raced at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February for Team USA, and represents a wild card in a race becoming increasingly known for them.
Forsberg’s debut in 2015 was the ultimate success story for “wild card” racers, and last year, Boise runner Morgan Arritola finished second.
In the non “wild card” category, Seward High School graduate Denali Foldager-Strabel knows the mountain as well as anyone. Foldager-Strabel has been in the top 10 in six of her nine women’s races, including in the top five the last three years.
Her best result thus far was third at 53:40 in 2016. That’s the year she blasted an 11:51 downhill, the third-fastest recorded since 1989.
Allison Barnwell, another Seward runner, has been in the top eight the past five years, including finishing second at 55:11 in 2013.
Another peninsula athlete to keep an eye on is Soldotna’s Sadie Fox, a three-year veteran of the women’s race who rolled to her best finish of 17th last year, notching a time of 1:02:36.
Two weeks ago, Fox finished 13th at Bird Ridge, setting herself up for a potential sub-hour run in Seward.
Seward’s Ruby Lindquist could also be a potent contender after the recent Seward High grad aged out of the junior division. Lindquist will make her senior level debut Wednesday after racking up podium finishes in the junior girls race the last four years, including runner-up finishes in 2014 and 2017.
Lindquist’s personal best time of 33:55 in the junior race ranks her as the fifth-fastest girl in junior course history, only behind record-holder Allie Ostrander, Molly Gellert, Riana Boonstra and Aubrey Smith.
While the race for the women’s victory depends on Ostrander’s entry, the men’s field is looking much more open. Last year’s first-time champion Scott Patterson is not returning after breaking a bone in his foot, and three-time champion Eric Strabel of Palmer is also out with a foot injury.
However, 2016 champ and current record-holder David Norris of Anchorage is back in and looking good after rolling to a course record at the uphill-only Bird Ridge race two weeks ago, and he will likely have company in American ultrarunner stud Max King.
The top peninsula representative figures to be Erik Johnson, who last year took home a “surprising” second-place finish. That was the top finish for a Seward men’s runner since Eli Lane placed second in 2000.
“I was passing people and didn’t realize I was in second until like halfway up the mountain,” recalled Johnson. “Hell, I was just going to keep chasing the guy in front.
“I’ve been thinking about it all year.”
Johnson expects a heavyweight duel between Norris and King, with two-time runner-up Rickey Gates in the mix as well.
“It’s extremely exciting to have that kind of athlete at this race,” Johnson said of King. “It’s as exciting as having Kilian (Jornet) here.”
King arrives for his first Mount Marathon race as a rookie who boasts a long resume of success in endurance racing. The 38-year-old Bend, Oregon, runner has won many of the big ultradistance races in the Lower 48 as well as several international events, such as the 2014 IAU 100-kilometer World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships in Albania. King is also a three-time champion at the Xterra Trail Run World Championships.
King also ran at Division I Cornell University, where he set school records in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an event he contested at the 2012 Olympic trials. As a 2:15 marathoner, King has competed in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials on two occasions.
However, as athletically gifted as King is, Mt. Marathon is a challenge that notoriously rewards course experience, and the downhill blast will be a key factor in determining King’s finish.
Johnson said he gave King a tour of the mountain last Wednesday, allowing King a first look at the venue that he will be tackling on the Fourth, and said he harbors no doubts about King’s abilities to get up and down the peak.
In 2015, Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg had no trouble knocking down course records in their race debuts.
“Max King is always strong and David Norris is in the best shape of his life,” Johnson explained. “I don’t think anyone will beat those two guys.”
Johnson also listed the heat of the Lower 48 as another advantage that King owns, as Wednesday’s race day forecast suggests sunny skies and high temperatures in the 70s.
“It’ll be an interesting race for sure,” he said.
With a solid snowfall this winter combined with a late spring, the usual snowfield that hangs around the upper crags of the mountain has been in full abundance this year, and Johnson said this year’s offering seems softer than most.
Johnson doesn’t believe his current form puts him among that leading trio of contenders, but another top-10 finish is well within reach.
“That’s usually my goal, and the place usually works itself out on how you feel and who’s there,” Johnson said.
Johnson has also already bagged a race victory this year in the Government Peak hill climb June 2 just north of Palmer. In the uphill-only Bird Ridge race held June 17, Johnson finished seventh in the field of 134, just a week after running a marathon distance.
“I felt a little fatigued in the second half, maybe could’ve run a minute faster, but I felt like I could’ve been near the competitors from third to seventh,” he said. “I didn’t move any positions past halfway.
“It was a good chance for me to re-evaluate and get to see the good training I’ve gotten the last couple weeks in town.”
After last year’s runner-up result, the Seward resident took it upon himself to give those who haven’t gotten into the Independence Day race a chance by creating an informal series of races around the Seward area, partially as a means to include the folks who have tried but been unable to gain entry into Mount Marathon.
“I started by writing letters to the Seward Chamber of Commerce about not getting in,” Johnson said. “It was frustrating that Lost Lake and Mt. Marathon are so exclusive. … This is so people can get on the mountains and run them.
“I was thrilled to watch my daughter and wife get up for the races this year, and I felt positive about it and got a lot of good feedback. We’ve had everyone from high-schoolers to people in their 60s come out.”