Wednesday’s 91st running of the Mount Marathon Race in Seward was a sunny, cloud-speckled ode to the ties that bind — whether they be personal, community or statewide.
In the personal department, Anchorage’s Jessica Yeaton and David Norris, who are dating, teamed to sweep the women’s and men’s races. Yeaton, a race rookie who cross-country skied for Australia in the 2018 Winter Olympics, held off the hard-charging Denali Foldager-Strabel of Seward on the downhill to run 51 minutes, 30 seconds, and win by 30 seconds. Norris collected his second crown in two attempts by crossing at 42:13 to nip Max King of Bend, Oregon, by 20 seconds.
At the community realm, King, a Salomon-sponsored athlete who has raced around the world and won the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships in Albania, paid testament to the event Seward puts on.
“It was fantastic,” said King, who plans to return. “What drew me in was the history and the community around the race.
“There is just a terrific community around this race. If it was a standalone race it’d be great but this community makes it so much better.”
That community extended out from Seward to fans from around the state who attended the race and helped out athletes with water on the mountain. The temperature was mostly in the mid-60s, steering well clear of the July 4 high of 87 degrees in 1999, but that didn’t mean the furnace effect wasn’t achieved in the brushy lower half of the mountain.
“There were people pouring ice and water down our back the whole way,” said fifth-place finisher Hannah Lafleur of Boulder, Colorado, who lived in Seward for the summers of 2016 and 2017. “I owe my race and my health to them. It was so hot.”
The women’s race shaped up like a rabbit-aided attempt at a running record on the track, while the men’s race was more akin to a heavyweight prizefight.
Rosie Frankowski finished 21st in the 30-kilometer classic race at the 2018 Winter Olympics so it was no surprise when she owned the climb up the 3,022-foot mountain to the tune of 37:05, particularly when defending champ and Soldotna runner Allie Ostrander elected not to run.
Frankowski’s climb was in line with the 36:17 of Emelie Forsberg in 2015, the 37:08 of Ostrander in 2015 and the 36:58 of Ostrander last year. Those three climbs resulted in the fastest three overall times in race history.
What was a surprise was what happened next, unless you’re Jessica Yeaton. Like the aforementioned rabbit, Frankowski ran up to the snowfield at the top of the mountain, took one look, and retreated to go around the side, allowing Yeaton to blow by her.
“She knew she wasn’t going to go for it on the downhill,” said Yeaton, who skis with Frankowski at Alaska Pacific University and has been a longtime training partner. “I knew that going in.”
Although she lives in Alaska now, Frankowski grew up in Minnesota. For someone reared in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and not the land of endless peaks, maybe the decision to turn down a steep slide on snow ending on razor-sharp shale isn’t so crazy.
Four years ago, Yeaton and Frankowski climbed Mount Marathon together and delivered this verdict, according to Frankowski: “Literally, we were like, ‘These people are clinically insane.’”
While Yeaton has grown more comfortable with the downhill, Frankowski has not.
“This is fun, but my prime sport — I’m not going to ruin it,” said Frankowski, who held on for seventh in 56:42.
For Yeaton, the victory represented a triumph of courage after watching the race for at least five years and not taking an available spot last summer.
“I love it,” she said of being champion. “I’ve always loved Seward and I always wished I had the guts to run this race.”
Even with Frankowski in her rear-view mirror, Yeaton had to hold off downhill demons Foldager-Strabel and two-time champ Christy Marvin of Palmer, who held the third- and fourth-fastest downhill times. respectively, recorded since 1989 coming into the race.
Foldager-Strabel broke the downhill record Wednesday, descending in 11:27 to top the 11:32 of Forsberg in 2015.
With the men softening the course, Foldager-Strabel had her eyes on a downhill record but faced an immediate challenge when she pulled out her gloves at the top — both left-handed.
“I said, ‘I guess this is not happening for me,’” she said.
Making matters worse, she had to stop at mid-mountain and again at the top of the cliffs to ditch her malfunctioning gators.
Despite all that, and the heat, Foldager-Strabel had her best placement and her 52:00 crushed her previous PR of 53:40. Marvin was third at 52:04.
“These are such amazing women,” she said. “They said we wouldn’t get PRs. I love proving people wrong when they tell me I can’t do something.”
Lafleur was fifth at 54:02, after finishing seventh in 56:41 in her debut last year.
“I love Seward so much,” Lafleur said. “This event and the running community was one of the high points while I was here so I want to keep doing it.”
Six runners in the top 15 had Seward connections, while Soldotna High School graduate and University of Alaska Anchorage senior Sadie Fox led the central peninsula by finishing 16th in 1:00:58 seconds, a best placement and time. Fox was able to pull that off despite battling a pair of illnesses since finishing fifth in the half traverse at the Kesugi Ridge Traverse on June 23.
The men’s race saw a fierce struggle between Norris and King. King started by letting loose on the run to the mountain, and Norris was the only one who could keep up.
“I felt my advantage was on the road against these guys, and I tried to take advantage,” King said.
Once the duo was off cement, Norris had a haymaker of his own ready.
“As soon as we hit the dirt road up to the cliffs, I pinned it,” Norris said. “I wanted to break him. I don’t know if I broke him, but I made it a hard race.”
King estimated Norris opened up a 20-second gap with that move, and at mid-mountain Norris led 16:53 to 17:26.
On the top half, though, Norris felt that move. In smashing the uphill record with a 30:35 in 2016 en route to a course record of 41:26, Norris was smooth and pistonlike. Wednesday, he staggered, slipped and careened his way up the mountain.
“It must have been,” when he was asked if it was the heat. “My legs felt heavy and my calves were twinging. I’ve never had cramping issues.”
Accentuating the scene were multiple people pouring water on Norris, like cornermen urging him to continue the fight. He won the scuffle to the top 31:33 to 32:04.
Norris used the snowfield to recover aerobically, but said his legs were still spent on the downhill. He fell in the rocky, slippery stream bed on the bottom half of the mountain.
“If I’m going to race, I really want to win,” he said, when asked if he was thinking about his skiing career at that point.
Norris, and Alaska, definitely earned King’s respect. When the dust cleared, the two had the third- and fourth-fastest times in race history.
“I love the competition in Alaska,” he said. “They have such great runners up here.”
That’s music to the ears of Seward’s Erik Johnson, who was eighth in 47:09 after taking second in 45:22 last year.
“Last year, I was like, ‘Where is everyone?’” said Johnson, who was the top runner over 40. “I shouldn’t have been second but I was happy to be.
“I’m happy to be eighth because it’s great for the community and shows how strong the race really is.”
Johnson said the depth of quality runners made for some fun racing, with lots of passing.
On the road to the finish line, Johnson was passed by Lars Arneson, a 2009 graduate of Cook Inlet Academy. Arneson finished seventh in 47:07.
After moving to Anchorage 2 1/2 years ago, Arneson felt the pull of the mountains.
“There’s a lot of really close mountains you can get to after work,” he said. “It’s been great getting out with my friends and playing in the mountains.”
He started racing last summer after a few years off, earning a Mount Marathon entry by winning the 2017 Matanuska Peak Challenge.
This summer, he trained with Adam Jensen (third), Matt Shyrock (fourth) and Peter Mamrol (17th) to get ready for the event.
In the junior races, a pair of new champions were crowned.
Kendall Kramer of Fairbanks won the girls race at 34:05, with Anchorage’s Aubrey LeClair second at 34:31 and Kenai’s Riana Boonstra leading the peninsula in eighth at 38:11.
Kramer, 16, also is the reigning cross-country champ, state Skimeister and winner of the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at state.
“Everyone who gets up and down this mountain is amazing,” Kramer said. “My goal is to get up and down the mountain without hurting myself.
“That so many people do it is amazing.”
Michael Connelly, 16, of Chugiak ran 26:56 to top runner-up Ali Papillon of Boulder. Papillon spent last summer training in Seward. Seward’s Bjorn Nilsson was 17th at 32:00 to lead the peninsula.
Connelly chalked up his victory to training, diet and proper rest. Plus, he said he received great advice from race veterans like Barney Griffith and Clint McCool.