Photo by Jeff Helminiak Women's racers stream up Mount Marathon during the race in 2014. With international mountain-running stars in the field Saturday, focus will be on the mountain like never before.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak Women's racers stream up Mount Marathon during the race in 2014. With international mountain-running stars in the field Saturday, focus will be on the mountain like never before.

Ostrander’s senior debut adds to buzz about Saturday’s Mount Marathon

For the first time in years, Kenai’s Allie Ostrander is not the clear favorite to win a Mount Marathon race.

The last time that Ostrander crossed the Mount Marathon finish line not in first place was 2008, when at the tender age of 11 she finished an astounding second competing against runners as old as 17. And as “On the Rise: Allie Ostrander” documents, Ostrander probably wins that race if her parents didn’t make her take the safest, and slowest, route down the cliffs at the base of the mountain.

Fast forward seven years, and Ostrander has built a distance running legacy as large as the 3,022-foot temple of rock that shadows the small town of Seward.

The 18-year-old, who recently graduated from Kenai Central High School, is facing a monumental task Saturday in Seward, when she attempts to become the first woman to claim Alaska’s biggest mountain race in her debut after transitioning from the junior division.

While junior racers only complete half of the mountain — turning abruptly around at the halfway marker just above tree line — senior racers are faced with the battle of grinding up all 3,000-plus feet of excruciating pain, then turning around at the top and blitzing down a slide of snow, shale and roots before landing back on solid ground for the final half mile of asphalt.

“I know it’s an extremely competitive race, and it seems like it gets more and more competitive every year,” Ostrander said Tuesday via phone. “I mean, the length of (the race) is hard, and it requires more pacing than the junior race. A lot of it is having the mental capacity to continue pushing.”

According to available records, the only Mount Marathon competitor to win the senior division in their debut after aging out of the junior class is Bill Spencer, who also broke the course record en route to winning in 1974. The previous year, Spencer had set the junior course record of 24 minutes, 30 seconds, which still stands to this day.

Ostrander, who at 18 has aged into the senior women’s race this year, appears to hold the best shot at becoming the second ever runner — and first female racer — to perform a successful junior class encore among the adults.

“It definitely feels a lot different,” she said. “It’ll be a completely different animal. It’s a little intimidating, especially with such high competition, but I’m excited to see where I stand.”

Ostrander will have to deal with a formidable cast of mountain-running luminaries, including 2013 Mount Marathon champion Christy Marvin and Emelie Forsberg, a 28-year-old Skyrunner World Series champion from Sweden that entered this year’s race on special invitation. Since Forsberg has never run the race, her entry presents quite a wild-card scenario.

Marvin won the women’s race at Bird Ridge two weeks ago, running a time of 45:03, fourth-fastest in race history. Marvin is coming off a foot injury she sustained in February.

Holly Brooks, the Mount Marathon champion in 2012 and 2014, was also expected to run this year, but pulled out of the race three weeks ago, citing a winter of ski marathons that sapped her energy. Kikkan Randall, the 2011 champion and four-time Olympic skier, also is out of the race, telling the Alaska Dispatch News she wants to focus on her ski training.

The crossing of such strong competition in one race has created an early buzz and excitement in the mountain-running community, and the anticipation was ramped up even further with the film premiere of “3,022 ft,” a movie depicting the brutal nature of the race, with added insight by some of the best known and most successful racers, including Ostrander. The interview subjects convened in Anchorage last week to help present the film to an engaged audience, and Ostrander was there as well.

Looking toward the race, Ostrander said the pressure of having to deal with competition for the title on the mountain for the first time in years is nearly nonexistent, as there are no prior expectations set upon her.

“I expect to be able to compete, but honestly I don’t know what sort of time I’ll run,” she said. “I’m excited to get out there and compete with high caliber athletes, and the next few years I’ll have a much better idea of what to expect.

“At this point it’s just kind of fun. I have no real idea of what I can do.”

“Allie-O” is set to embark on a new chapter in her running career. In addition to leaving behind the days of dominating the Mount Marathon junior division, the three-time Alaska state high school cross-country champion is preparing for a collegiate career at Division I Boise State University, after signing her letter of intent in mid-April.

However, as her senior year was coming to a close, Ostrander began to feel the effects of four years of dedicated training.

A hip injury that spurred a bout of tendinitis began to afflict the track star just a week before the Kenai Peninsula Borough meet in mid-May, but as the Kenai girls track and field team harbored hopes of placing high at state, Ostrander worked through the issue and ran away with state titles in the 4A girls 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races. The Kardinals ultimately finished second in the team standings, with 30 of the 54 total points coming from Ostrander’s trio of wins.

Unfortunately, the state meet was the last time Ostrander has raced to date, as the pain eventually worsened and forced Ostrander to make late decisions to pull out of a pair of races on the national stage — the Dream Mile race June 13 in New York and the Brooks PR two-mile race June 20 in Seattle. Both events featured a collection of some of the top amateur female runners in the nation.

“It was really hard to do, and both times, it was just hard to watch,” Ostrander recalled. “It was tough knowing I could’ve competed with those girls, and I just wasn’t able to. My entire season I was aiming toward those races, and that was when I was gonna be able to show it all.”

During the month of June, Ostrander has balanced out her sports life with cross training, putting in time on the elliptical, bicycle and hiking around the Peninsula. Ostrander collaborated with her new college coach, Corey Ihmels, to help her heal faster while retaining her athletic edge.

“I’ve only hiked the mountain once until this week because it’s been bothering my hip,” she said. “I felt a lot better last week, although I wish I could’ve been able to do more hiking. But in the end, what’s important is Boise State.”

The decision to forego the national races may be Ostrander’s saving grace on Mount Marathon. While the 5-foot-1 dynamo is deadly on the grueling uphill climb, the downhill is a bit of a question mark.

In her final junior appearance in 2014, Ostrander made the turn at the halfway pole running second, only behind race leader Luke Jager. On the downhill plunge, Ostrander passed Jager but was then passed by Seward’s Michael Marshall, who went on to win the boys race.

Ostrander admitted that she has never particularly thought of herself as an astute downhill runner, so perhaps the key to winning Saturday is building up a gap large enough to hold off any downhill demons, particularly Marvin, who has dipped into the 12-minute range on downhill splits in the past.

The six-time junior race champion estimated that she has been to the top of the hallowed peak only about five times in her life, including Monday.

“Every time I’m training, I would always just go to the halfway point and turn around,” she said. “Now, every time I pass the halfway point, my heart breaks.”

This year, any advice Allie-O receives will have to come from either her mother, Teri, or father, Paul, both of whom also run the senior races. Unfortunately, Ostrander’s older sister, Taylor, is not entered in this year’s edition due to prior school commitments. Taylor finished a career-high sixth in last year’s women’s race, with a hot time of 58:17, nearly six minutes faster than her previous personal best.

Like the women’s race, the men’s battle is expected to be the fiercest ever, with an assortment of past champions, course record holders and international mountain-running champions among the mix.

Anchorage’s Eric Strabel returns for an attempt at a fourth Mount Marathon men’s title, to go along with his wins in 2011, 2013 and 2014. When Strabel won in 2013, he also eclipsed the legendary 1981 men’s course record of 43:21, set by eight-time champion Bill Spencer, with a new standard of 42:55.

Strabel was joined in the record book that year by California native Rickey Gates, who finished second with a time of 43:04, even after suffering a stumble while coming off the mountain and dislocating his shoulder.

Add to the mix a bit of international flair, as the Mount Marathon race committee has invited Kilian Jornet of Spain, a 27-year-old Skyrunner World Series champion who is widely regarded as one of the most dominant trail runners in the world, to join the race. Jornet has made a habit of setting course records in various ultramarathon races, and holds speed records for ascent and descents on prestigious peaks such as the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Mount McKinley. Jornet’s record run up and down Denali last year was done in under 12 hours.

The fastest local man in the race is expected to be 26-year-old Rex Shields, who returns one year after missing the race. Shields finished 24th in 2013, the only year he’s competed in Mount Marathon, completing the leg-busting task in a healthy time of 51:46, less than nine minutes behind Strabel, who broke the all-time course record that year in 42:55.

Shields, a Brigham Young University track athlete that currently lives in Soldotna, was born in Alaska but lived in Utah during his high school years. Shields is a regular contender at many local races, and holds victories in the Run for the River 10-miler and Soldotna Rotary Unity Run 5K.

No matter rain, sun or wind, the Fourth promises to be one to remember.

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