Eagle River mountain runners have Grand season

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 - 13:33
  • Eagle River’s Christopher Kirk makes his way up Government Peak during the Government Peak Hill Climb on Saturday, June 3, 2017 near Palmer. (Photo by Todd List/Todd List Photography)
  • Eagle River’s Jennifer Aschoff leads a pack of climbers up Government Peak during the Government Peak Hill Climb on Saturday, June 3, 2017 near Palmer. (Photo by Todd List/Todd List Photography)
  • Eagle River’s Evan Steinhauser makes his way up Government Peak during the Government Peak Hill Climb on Saturday, June 3, 2017 near Palmer. (Photo by Todd List/Todd List Photography)

Eagle River’s rugged terrain is a mountaineer’s paradise, so it’s perhaps no surprise some of Alaska’s top mountain runners hail from the community. However, even some of the winners in this year’s Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix series were a bit taken aback by their success.

“It was definitely more of a surprise,” said Eagle River’s Christopher Kirk, a 20-year-old personal trainer who won the men’s Grand Prix title this season.

Both Kirk and winner women’s co-winner Jennifer Aschoff are from Eagle River, as is this year’s “Most In-Spurr-ational” award winner, Evan Steinhauser.

“We kind of have our own community out here,” Kirk said of the local mountain running scene.

The Grand Prix is as much a test of consistency as competitiveness. Although he’s one of the state’s rising mountain running talents, Kirk isn’t yet at the top of the mountain, so to speak. But he did compete in enough races to earn the overall title, which awards points based on how runners fared in any four of five races this season, including the Crazy Lazy on Lazy Mountain, the Knoya Ridge Run, the Government Peak Climb, Mount Marathon and the Matanuska Peak Challenge.

Kirk said he never set out to win the award.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Kirk, whose best finish of the season was fourth at the Crazy Lazy race this spring on Lazy Mountain.

Neither did Aschoff, a first-year competitor who got into mountain running because it was a natural fit for our outdoorsy lifestyle.

“I have a good friend, a backcountry ski buddy, we were in Girdwood at Chair 5 and she said, ‘You need to start doing these races,’” recalled Aschoff, who competed in the 30-39 age group this season.

Although she’d hardly classify herself a runner, it turns out Aschoff is pretty good at getting up mountains quickly. She placed in the top 10 at four different Grand Prix races this season, which was good enough to tie her with Anchorage’s Najeeby Quinn for the overall title.

Aschoff said it was a bit humbling to see her name alongside that of Quinn, one of the state’s top mountain runners.

“I just feel like I’m not really a runner so I don’t belong there,” she said.

Aschoff said her strength is going uphill, a skill she’s perfected over years of “skinning” up mountains to go backcountry skiing.

“Skiing a lot conditions my muscles so I can go uphill,” she said. “On the uphills it’s a lot like skinning so I was able to cruise by people on pretty steep terrain because I’m more accustomed to going uphill on skis.”

The third member of the local contingent honored by the Alaska Mountain Runners was Evan Steinhauser, who this year completed a 13th consecutive “Run the Gamut,” meaning he participated in every Grand Prix race of the season.

Alaska Mountain Runners board member Matias Saari said Steinhauser is one of the most consistent and positive runners in the large, tight-knit community of mountain racers.

“I’ve been voting for Evan for years,” Saari said. “I think it’s long overdue.”

The three locals took different paths to their success, but the one common thread is a love of the mountain. Kirk — who also had four top-10 finishes this year and was 24th at Mount Marathon — said he hopes to pursue mountain running at its highest levels (he recently placed 23rd at the “Run the Rut” vertical kilometer in Utah), while Aschoff said she’s just in the sport for fun. And Steinhauser will likely be toeing the line at the first race of the season next spring.

Aschoff said it’s a love of the mountains that keeps them coming back.

“It’s just a fun way to spend the day, really,” she said.

Unlike other sports, she said mountain running seems to have a uniquely non-competitive feel — even among the top racers.

“I’ve been really impressed with the mountain running community overall,” she said.

She also said she likes the Grand Prix format, which allows racers to compete without having to be the absolute king of the hill every time out.

“All I really did is show up and did okay in each of the races,” she said. “But you can show up and even though you’re not winning and you do okay you actually do pretty well in the overall Grant Prix.”

All three mountain runners train extensively in the Eagle River area, and Kirk said he can be found many days on Mount Baldy — which, conveniently, is right behind his home on Skyline Drive.

“It’s got a special place in my heart,” he said of the iconic Eagle River peak.

Both Aschoff and Kirk said they love the competitive aspect of mountain running, but winning awards pales in comparison to the real reason they continue to climb.

“It’s something unique and challenging, and I absolutely love the mountains,” Kirk said.

Aschoff couldn’t agree more.

“It’s just fun.”

To learn more about the Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix or other mountain running events, visit alaskamountainrunners.org.

Contact Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]

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