Mt. Marathon one amazing race
Correction: In my June 27 column I mentioned dinosaurs roaming around northern Alaska during the last ice age — the Pleistocene. That was too late for dinosaurs by about 65 million years, one observant reader was nice enough to point out. I apologize for the error.
The Annual Mt. Marathon Race in Seward continues to amaze us nearly a century after it began as a barroom bet in 1915. In this year’s 86th race, Bill Spencer’s longstanding course record of 43 minutes, 21 seconds, set back in 1981, was shattered by Eric Strabel, of Anchorage, who powered up and down the 3 1/2 mile course in an amazing 42 minutes, 55 seconds. Close on his heels was Ricky Gates, a first-time runner from San Francisco, who clocked in at 43 minutes, 4 seconds, also besting Spencer’s coveted record.
After crossing the finish line, Spencer hugged and congratulated Strabel.
Strabel reached the top of the mountain in just over 32 minutes and made the descent in 10 minutes flat. While both times seem unbelievable, it’s the uphill time that to me is most impressive. For a lot of mountain climbers I know, ascending 1,000 feet per hour is a good average. To reach the top of Mt. Marathon in 32 minutes, one is ascending at better than 1,000 feet every 10 minutes.
I can somewhat understand the fast pace of the downhill portion — the “controlled fall” as it’s been described. As kids we rambled down the mountain’s loose shale and graywacke on many occasions, feeling our ears pop with the rapid change in atmospheric pressure. None of us ever went from top to bottom in under 15 minutes, however. But our efforts made the descents of superb athletes like Bill Spencer, Barney Griffith, Brad Precosky, Matthew Novakovich and now Eric Strabel seem somewhat comprehensible. However, I’ve never been able to figure out how it is humanly possible climb to the top in about half an hour.
In the case of Strabel, I guess part of the answer can be found in the fact he did the 26-mile Crow Pass Crossing in three hours.
Plenty of action: But aside from the new course record and generally fast times during this year’s Mt. Marathon race, there was plenty of action to keep spectator’s attention, despite the chilly, drizzly weather. Chugiak’s Lauren Fritz, for example, came in 4th in the Women’s Race with a time of 57:57. Eagle River’s Sheryl Loan came in 7th with 1:1:12. Todd Lowery, also of Eagle River, finished 31st among the men with a time of 52:48.
As usual, Eagle River and Chugiak were well represented at the race, which had 762 finishers. In the Men’s Division, 29 locals completed the race; and in the Women’s Division, 27 crossed the finish line. In the Junior Division, 26 entrants completed the race. Among the Juniors, Chugiak’s David McPhetres finished 6th overall, with a time of 32:26. Hannah Booher finished fourth among the girls with 39:06; and Annie Connelly finished 5th among the girls with 39:25.
Great achievements: Mt. Marathon statistics can grind on forever, but there are some that I find fascinating. For example, the winning time of 44:25 set back in 1968 by U.S. Army Biathlon athlete Jonathan Chaffee is still quite competitive with the times of today’s elite runners. Chaffee’s time is faster than this year’s 4th place finisher, Matias Saari, with 44:53. It almost tells me that changes in the course over time, caused mostly by natural erosion and some human impacts, have not changed it enough to affect times.
Other incredible factoids:
• Seward’s Fred Moore, now at 73, has run the race for 40 consecutive years
• The oldest runner of the race, Corky Corthell, last ran the race in 2011 at age 82
• Two women have run the race 30 consecutive years: Ellyn Brown of Anchorage and Patty Foldager, of Seward
• Six men have run the race for 30 consecutive years: Braun Kopsack, Tim Neele, Flip Foldager, Al Lamberson, Billy Carroll and Everett Billingslea, the latter of whom is from Seattle.
• According to some geologists, the Pacific tectonic plate that is subducting beneath southern Alaska, is causing a Kenai Mountain uplift of about one millimeter per year, which is a conservative estimate considering the dramatic effects of the 1964 earthquake. At only a millimeter per year, Mt. Marathon has increased in height about 3.8 inches since the race began in 1915.
In one million years, geologists estimate the mountain will rise about 3,280 feet. Adding to its current 3,033 feet, it will then top out at 6,313 feet — a much tougher race if there are competitors that far into the future.
Here’s a statistic you don’t hear often. The record for the most consecutive Mt. Marathon wins (six) in the Men’s Division belongs to Sven Johanson, from 1954-59. The most overall consecutive wins (eight), however, belongs to Nina Kemppel, of Anchorage, from 1996-2003, in the Women’s Division.
This was the first year in a long time that I didn’t watch the race from the top. I’d planned to combine the trip with a climb of Mt. Marathon proper (4,603 feet) to the west of Race Point, but weather just didn’t cooperate. But considering the fast times, cool temperatures seem to have favored this year’s competitors.
Soon after the race, I emailed congratulations to my favorite Mt. Marathon runner, Dr. John Frost, of Anchorage, who at age 67 finished the race in 1:54. He has run the race for many years and has been an inspiration for me, in that his knees are also not in tip-top shape. Because of his expertise as a knee doctor, I am able to climb up there most years and cheer him on!
But then, as I’ve said before in this space, all of the runners — those who finish in 42 minutes and those who just plain finish — are an inspiration to me. That’s why I’ll probably go to the top next year to watch the race, even if it rains. Mountains energize me, but those intrepid Mt. Marathoners offer a major supercharge.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. Email him at [email protected].