Not far from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus lies a notorious climb – 2,000 feet in five kilometers – and every year, the college’s cross country and nordic ski team members test themselves on its terrain.
For the last three years, Matt Dunlap, the assistant coach for both, clocked his athletes from the side of the steep trail as they forged ahead. A week after this year’s fall time trial, he found himself racing up the same hill on Sept. 17.
A newcomer to the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Dunlap harnessed his familiarity with the out-and-back, 26.2-mile course that started and ended outside the university’s ski room. He hit the long incline around mile nine and eventually overtook the race leader with two others.
After climbing some 2,300 feet to the turnaround, the 25-year-old Dunlap accelerated on the downhill, leaving his competitors behind and winning the marathon in 2:51.22.
“It’s completely different than any other race I’ve ever done,” he said, noting its 800-foot descent over half a mile.
“The majority of it is on trails … two-way single track, which is kind of neat,” he said. “For the most part, there’s probably four miles of it that are on tar.”
Dunlap had been told to add about 10-15 minutes to his road marathon time to estimate his Equinox finish. He had done two marathons before – one in 2008 in Portland, Maine, where we was second in 2:36.43, and the Boston Marathon in 2009.
He had also heard the Fairbanks race was the second hardest trail marathon in the U.S. after Colorado’s Pikes Peak Marathon at some 12,000 feet above sea level.
Considering all of that, the 5-foot-6, 135-pound Dunlap figured he did well.
“I’ve heard about people going out too hard and dying,” he said. “I just didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Originally from Farmington, Maine, Dunlap ran his first half marathon in August. At the Santa Claus Half in North Pole, Alaska, he finished second to his good friend Chris Eversman, who was third in this year’s Equinox.
With that race behind him, Dunlap knew he could compete in the marathon a month later. He received bib No. 4 and anticipated finishing third or fourth.
“Going into it, I knew it was a very competitive men’s field,” Dunlap said.
Five to seven men aimed to finish in less than three hours. The second-place man, Stian Stensland of Norway, was last year’s runner up. Dunlap beat him by more than four minutes.
“So it was a good day,” he said.
A 2008 graduate of Bates College, Dunlap was a senior captain on his cross country and nordic ski teams, and also competed in track and field. Before moving to Alaska, he helped coach cross country at Greely High School in Maine and was head coach of North Yarmouth Academy ski team for a season.
When he heard about an opening for an assistant coach at UAF, Dunlap was eager to apply.
“I really wanted to coach and I didn’t know if I wanted to coach running or skiing,” he said. “I knew if I came here I’d have the opportunity to coach both.”
As the assistant coach of the men’s and women’s cross country and nordic ski teams, he said it was a smooth transition, and he continued to balance his training with the teams’ needs.
“I think there’s days when it’s good to be on the sidelines and there’s days that its good to jump on the track,” Dunlap said. “I was happy I was able to fit in the training for the marathon and get that in, and now I can focus on a good season with the team.”
As for future race goals, Dunlap said he had nothing specific in mind, but would likely opt for marathons or shorter.
“Right now, 26.2 is long enough for me,” he said.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.