A fun little wrinkle at last year’s Mount Marathon Race involved 2015 Kenai Central graduate Allie Ostrander and the women’s event.
It was well-known that Allie O. was in Seward on the Fourth of July, but the defending MMR champion and owner of two of the top three times in the race up and down the 3,022-foot peak had not said whether or not she was racing.
This led to fervent speculation around town and on the live KTVA broadcast until just minutes before the Ostrander-less start about what exactly the women’s race would look like.
In the way that Mount Marathon makes a normal 5K look pedestrian, Thursday’s 92nd running of the race could make last year’s hushes and whispers seem quaint.
With the Swan Lake wildfire continuing to waft large quantities of smoke toward Seward, race officials took the unprecedented step Tuesday of allowing any of the combined 1,000 racers in the men’s, women’s and junior events the opportunity to sit out this year’s festivities and still have a bib for next year’s competition. (See related story, Page A1)
The quality of the air comes and goes, and racers will have up until an hour before their race to decide, so unless the air defies forecasting models and clears by Thursday, which contenders will line up and race will be a mystery.
Mount Marathon normally favors those who make their living running and skiing. But those are the athletes who may be more wary of taking any kind of chance with their lungs.
Local contenders lean
Seward’s Erik Johnson, 42, is not a pro runner, but has been in the top eight in five of his seven starts at Mount Marathon. He has some experience as a wildland firefighter on his resume and was pretty confident when interviewed over the weekend that he would race.
“It would have to be lousy enough that I wouldn’t want to stay in town,” he said.
Denali Foldager-Strabel, 29, of Anchorage grew up in Seward on the mountain and has finished in the top five the past four years.
“I know I’m one of the runners who would stupidly still run,” she said. “It’s so embedded in my heart to run. It would break my heart if the other competition isn’t there. I don’t think I’d be content with the win if half the field isn’t there.
“Seward, bless us with a few hours of good air.”
One of the women’s contenders is Hannah Lafleur, 30, of Seward. Lafleur was seventh in 2017 and fifth last year.
“I plan on racing as usual,” Lafleur said. “I keep joking that living in the smoke these last few days has given me an advantage.
“I haven’t been pushing it training in all this smoke. I’m definitely taking it easy and hoping to avoid further complications.”
Anchorage’s Lars Arneson, a 29-year-old graduate of Cook Inlet Academy, stamped himself as a contender last year by finishing seventh. Mountain runners have to be able to deal with changing conditions. He said the forecast for smoke and temperatures in the mid-70s is no exception.
“Smoke has been in and out of Anchorage on an hourly basis,” he said. “We’ll deal with that when and if it’s there on race day.
“I don’t love the heat, but I’m learning how to deal with it better.”
Keeping it local
With the variable of smoke hanging in the air, women with Kenai Peninsula ties will look to keep up incredible success in recent races.
Last year, eight of the top 16 finishers had solid peninsula ties, while six of the top 16 had Seward ties. In 2017, 11 of the top 23 had peninsula ties, with nine of those being Seward runners. In 2016, the peninsula had seven in the top 20, with Seward claiming six of those runners.
Foldager-Strabel, who graduated from Seward High in 2008, has played a big part in that peninsula success.
She now lives in Anchorage, something she is still trying to wrap her head around because, growing up, she said athletes from the peninsula always had a chip on their shoulders when competing against bigger schools from Anchorage and elsewhere in the state.
That and the rugged mountain trails available from Seward to Cooper Landing explain peninsula-grown success.
“It’s funny,” Foldager-Strabel said. “I still look for Kenai Peninsula girls when I’m on the starting line. I forget at some point I have to say I’m from Anchorage now.”
Peninsula men have not had the same impact on the race. In last year’s top 20, Lars Arneson was seventh and Johnson was eighth. In 2017, Johnson’s stirring runner-up run was it for the top 20, while 2016 saw Johnson (16th) and 2002 Soldotna High grad Brent Knight (18th) in the top 20.
With the juniors to race at 9 a.m., women at 11 a.m. and men at 2 p.m., the peninsula, particularly the women, are set to again play a major role.
So, is Allie running?
First, let’s get the Ostrander question out of the way. The six-time junior champ would be the overwhelming favorite if she races.
“I’m probably not going to race Mount Marathon since I’m in the middle of my track season, but you never know,” Ostrander texted Saturday before battling the world’s best steeplechasers at the Prefontaine Classic on Sunday and finishing 13th, and before announcing Tuesday that she would turn pro.
Allow Foldager-Strabel, who has known Ostrander for a while, to translate. Foldager-Strabel said she was never at Ostrander’s level on the track, but also knows it’s very painful to step out of a high-impact track season and into Mount Marathon. If Ostrander toes the line Thursday, Foldager-Strabel would be very impressed.
“Girls from the Kenai Peninsula don’t ever want to say they’re not going to race,” Foldager-Strabel said. “She has the whole track thing ahead of her, but she still won’t say she’s not going to race.
“Being from the Kenai Peninsula, we race every year.”
“That town would explode …”
No Allie O. increases the chances Seward welcomes a local champion for the first time since Cedar Bourgeois finished off a run of seven straight in 2010. The Anchorage Daily News also reported Tuesday that defending champion Jessica Yeaton will not race due to injury, meaning the race will not get is first repeat champion since Bourgeois in 2010.
Both Foldager-Strabel and Lafleur have shown the form it takes to win. Foldager won Crazy Lazy V in late March and was second at the Government Peak Hill Climb on June 1. Lafleur was second at Crazy Lazy and second at the Bird Ridge climb on June 16.
“That town would explode and go absolutely nuts if a Seward girl or man were to win,” Foldager-Strabel said. “It would be the same excitement for me or Hannah. There’s really so much pride.”
Foldager-Strabel’s roots run deep in the race. Her mother, Patti Foldager, won in 1985 and 1993. Foldager-Strabel has seen the same volunteers at the same points on the course since her first race as a junior. The same group of guys sit at the same spot at Tony’s Bar and discuss her race.
“You’d think they’re my coaches, but they’re not my coaches,” Foldager-Strabel said.
In the 2015 documentary “3022 ft.,” Foldager-Strabel’s father, Flip, famously predicts Denali will win the race one day. Foldager-Strabel said she loves having a proud and supportive father, but she’s seen too many racers put too much pressure on themselves every year to feel like an anointed one.
“There’s more of a chance of me never winning than winning,” she said. “If that does ever happen, I’d be overjoyed.”
Seward’s culture, trails quickly build contender
Lafleur first moved to Seward in 2016 and her mountain-running ascension shows the powerful effect of Seward’s mountains and culture.
“A cool part of Mount Marathon for me is preparing for the race along with other Seward runners and being part of the running community here,” Lafleur said. “We have a trail running club and get together for informal races.
“It’s not just about showing up and racing. We have something to build up to alongside all our friends. The Seward trail running community starts in the wintertime and builds up to the Fourth of July.”
Lafleur started running as a teenager as a personal hobby and eventually got good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but shinsplints made her first fall in love with trail running in New England. That love only increased when she moved north to work for Kayak Adventures Worldwide and fell in with Seward trail runners.
“It made me understand and appreciate what running means to people here and how important it is in building friendships and relationships in Seward and Alaska as a whole,” she said. “It’s cool to see how the running scene in Alaska is super unique and important to people, communities and families. All these races always have a kids option.”
Lafleur said this race is more about setting a PR, enjoying the Mount Marathon feeling and competing against other great ladies than it is hunting a win.
“The feeling on race day is one of joy and celebration,” she said. “You don’t have to be a racer to feel it. It’s really palpable.”
Women’s field has gotten deep and fast
A Seward victory in the women’s race will not come easy.
Alaska Pacific University skier Rosie Frankowski, 27, won three uphill only moutain-running tuneups this season, two in record-breaking fashion. Frankowski also led at the top of Mount Marathon last year, but was timid on the downhill and faded to seventh.
Two-time champ Christy Marvin, 38, of Palmer hasn’t been out of the top three in all six of her Mount Marathons, and had her second-fastest time ever last year. Anchorage’s Najeeby Quinn, 39, has been in the top six of all five of her races and had her personal best last season.
On the local front, Seward’s Allison Barnwell, 27, has been in the top six in her last six races. Anchorage’s Julianne Dickerson, 31 and a 2006 graduate of Wings Christian Academy born and raised on the central peninsula, finished ninth last year and was third at three of this summer’s tuneup races.
As a whole, these women have raised the race to new heights. Lafleur (54:02) actually has a better PR than the 54:20 of nine-time champion Nina Kemppel, who won the race in 1994 and from 1996 to 2003. Foldager-Strabel pointed out that Kemppel only went as fast as the victory required, but there is no denying the improvement of the women.
“All these girls coming up are these cheery, laughy girls,” Foldager-Strabel said. “They’re laughing and cheering at the line, then the gun goes off and they transform to the primal instinct of racing, women racing together.
“It’s exciting and it’s kind of terrifying because it’s so fast.”
Will smoke effect skiers, pros in men’s race?
In the men’s race, if the smoke doesn’t change things, Johnson and Arneson may have to contend with a stacked field of pro runners and APU skiers in attempting to get the win.
Max King, 39, of Bend, Oregon, returns after running the fourth-fastest time in race history in debuting with a second-place finish to APU skier David Norris last year. Norris, 28, has the race record at 41:26 and two of the top three times in race history. King, a professional, is considered one of the most versatile runners in the world.
He won the Vertical Kilometer at the Broken Arrow Skyrace in California on June 21, saw Foldager-Strabel there and told her he’s coming up to Alaska to win this time.
Hayden Hawks of Utah, who won the 52-kilometer race at Broken Arrow on June 22, gives Mount Marathon another formidable pro.
Anchorage’s Scott Patterson, the 27-year-old winner of Mount Marathon in 2017, told the Anchorage Daily News he will not race.
Three-time junior champ Luke Jager and APU and Olympic skier Erik Bjornsen, winner of two of this summer’s tuneup races, have bibs if they want them.
“I’d love to win,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how realistic that is unless things really go my way.
“I don’t know how realistic it is I’ll take time out of Olympic 20-somethings and professional runners. But, hell, I’d love to.”
A place to still be elite
While the pros and APU skiers make victory difficult, Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way. The standard they set motivates him year-round.
“I treat it like the most important event of the year and I think about it when I’m doing any kind of hard training,” he said. “I want it to be awesome and I want other people to feel that way too.
“Any time an elite athlete from out of state wants to check out the mountain, I’ll take them. I want them to do well so this is a testing ground for people to run a rugged mountain race. For me, it hasn’t lost its charm.”
Johnson tried mountain running in New England but he couldn’t be near the elites. At 42, he has seen his road racing times dip in the past few years. Mount Marathon, which he first saw in 2008, has given him a place where he can still play with the elites. Johnson also wouldn’t mind a PR and being the top runner over 40.
“On Marathon, you can put out such an amount of aerobic power going up and it’s no impact,” he said. “There’s so much scree you don’t have the jarring breaking action going down.
“It’s a special place in that sense, there’s that thrill that I’m still able to do something great. If I’d lived in another place, I’d have to move on to ultras.”
Johnson also has enjoyed watching the Seward mountain running scene flourish, with Lafleur having a shot to win and Mackenzie Barnwell and Allison Barnwell ready for solid finishes. On the men’s side, Seward’s Pyper Dixon looks set for a third top-20 finish and Seward’s Chaz DiMarzio looks ready to improve on his 32nd-place finish last year.
“When you’ve discovered health and mountain running, it’s really addictive,” Johnson said. “People can’t stop talking about it and it self-affirms your decision to keep doing it.”
The Anchorage outdoors scene isn’t bad either
When Arneson graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014, being on the ski team had him burned out on racing.
“I didn’t race for two years, but once I moved to Anchorage, I had more people to go running with up here,” he said. “I ended up getting out in the mountains and running hard without even thinking about racing. One of my buddies talked me into racing Pioneer Peak a few years ago, and that’s how I started racing again.”
In 2017, Arneson won the Matanuska Peak Challenge to earn a bib in Mount Marathon. Up until last year, Arneson’s only appearance in the senior race was in 2008, when he finished 45th in 58:24. Last year he ran 47:07.
“It’s one of the most competitive races and it has the most clout throughout the state,” he said. “People always ask if that’s the race I’m doing. They don’t even know about other races going on.”
And that’s why Arneson, and many whose lives are tied to mountains, will probably toe the line Thursday.
“It would have to be quite bad for me not to do it,” he said. “It’s less than a 50-minute race if you are on your A game. That’s not too long to expose yourself to it, even if you are sucking wind.”