Holly Brooks on Winning the ‘Olympics of Alaska’

Alex KochonJuly 6, 2012
U.S. Ski Team member Holly Brooks after winning her first Mount Marathon title on Wednesday. She also set a top-10 time in the hill climb’s 85-year history in 51:53. (Photo by Rob Whitney)

In Anchorage, getting on the front page of the Alaska Daily News is a big deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympian and U.S. Ski Team member; Holly Brooks was still pumped to be featured in Thursday’s paper.

The 30-year-old Alaska Pacific University skier did so by winning Mount Marathon, one of Alaska’s biggest athletic events and Fourth of July traditions.

Brooks near the bottom of Wednesday’s grueling Mount Marathon trail run in Seward, Alaska. (Photo by Rob Whitney)

Brooks ascended the 3,022-foot mountain, which averages a 38-percent incline, and completed the out-and-back course in Seward, Alaska, in a record time of 51:53. She not only won the race, she set one of the top-10 women’s times in the race’s 85-year history. And she wasn’t even wearing a watch.

A three-time runner up, Brooks had finally sealed her first Mount Marathon win. Engaged the day before the 2008 race, in which she came in second, she had a special history with the event.

She led it back in 2009 — a week before her wedding — until dehydration and heat exhaustion pulled her out and into the emergency room. She returned in 2010, where she was beaten by seconds by seven-time Mount Marathon champion Cedar Bourgeois. Last year, U.S. Ski Team veteran and APU teammate Kikkan Randall edged Brooks by 19 seconds for the win.

“The Birkie and Mount Marathon have driven me crazy,’’ Brooks told the Daily News, referring to her photo-finish loss in the American Birkebeiner ski marathon in 2009. She redeemed the former by winning the 50 k skate race in February.

“No one lets you forget it. ‘You gonna win this year?’ I no longer have to answer that question, because I did it,” Brooks said. “I can put the demons to rest.’’

While Brooks did plenty of interviews on Wednesday, she shared some afterthoughts with FasterSkier via email on Friday.

Brooks on her way up Mount Marathon on Wednesday. (Photo by Rob Whitney)

FasterSkier: What was the race like this year? How did it compare to years past?

Holly Brooks: The race had a different kind of pressure this year… while I knew that Kikkan wasn’t running, I didn’t know who else would be out there to race against. I came into the race just days after my biggest week of training ever – 30 plus hours of glacier skiing [with the North American Women’s Training Alliance on Eagle Glacier] and I had no idea how my body would react to a race effort. I’ve been really close to winning this race so many times that I really wanted to come away with a victory this year!

I went out hard from the line and tried to establish a gap on the uphill such that I didn’t have to take any big risks on the decent. I had some friends that gave my splits 1/4 and 1/2 up the mtn. I knew I had a decent margin going into the downhill… it’s certainly different just racing by yourself out there – as compared to last year when Kikkan and I were two inches away from each other the entire race!

I purposely didn’t wear a watch because it was wet and trail was slippery. I knew I was tired and didn’t think I would be capable of putting in a good time. I was shocked when I finally saw the race clock near the finish line – I ran faster this year than we ran last year! Had I known my splits I certainly could have run faster – but, it was really fun to enjoy the race instead of going for every second. Usually main street is extremely stressful – the race has come down to a couple of sprints for me – but this time I had a HUGE grin the entire way …. I stopped to pick up an American flag from one of the spectators, too! It was awesome and I was really able to savor the moment. Main street was so loud and everyone was cheering – it was fabulous!

Mt Marathon is the Birkie of Alaska, that’s for sure! I’m totally psyched that I was able to cross both of those off my list this year. I got two gorillas off my back!

FS: How did you approach it mentally?

HB: The race was really hard to prepare for – in fact, I did virtually no preparation seeing that the NAWTA camp ended right before it. I drove down to Seward the day before and hiked up past the halfway point. It’s really important to inspect “the gut” (the down trail) for safety reasons… you basically run down a waterfall with snow bridges. It’s important to see it before race day. I didn’t want to expend the energy to run to the top of the mtn and it was tough not knowing what to expect when I encountered it in the race. There was a big snow patch and a huge glissade chute.

Brooks bearing the American flag she ran with across the finish line to win the Mount Marathon trail run. She also earned a champagne shower. (Photo by Rob Whitney)

It’s difficult when everyone tells you that it’s “your race to loose”… everyone expected me to win and I didn’t want to disappoint. I also didn’t want to be over confident. You can’t take anything for granted in this race. In 2009 I lead almost the entire race before passing out right in front of the emergency room four blocks from the finish line.

I did my best to relax going into the race, and remember that it was “all for fun.” But, it was hard to avoid the pressure! Mt. Marathon is certainly the “Olympics of Alaska” and I can’t go anywhere in town without people asking me about the race.

FS: How does it stack up against other races you’ve done?

HB:  The visibility of the race in AK is much more so than any other races I compete in – the story made front page news July 5th and leading up to the race there were articles in the paper everyday. There is also a certain element of danger and risk in the race which makes for an additional level of stress. There is one man still MISSING from the race – two days after the event. My fingers are crossed for him but time is running out as race day was 50 degrees and raining. I really hope he turns up, alive. Ironically, the finisher race t-shirts read, “Survivor” on the sleeve this year. I’m not sure the race organizers anticipated a potential death (in the race) when designing the t-shirts.

FS: What does it mean for you to finally win it?

HB: Well, I can sleep at night now! Actually, it feels great to finally be able to “check the box” for Mt. Marathon. This race has been really monumental is my life the past couple of years – my rookie year I came in second and got engaged the day before the race, then 2009 I passed out (ER Trip) , decided I wanted to make the Olympics, and then was married a week later… 2010 was right after the Olympics, 2011 Kikkan and I battled it out. So far, 2012 has been great in that I was finally able to take a Birkie win and a Mt. Marathon win – two really fun, big races!

Now that the race is over I can re-focus on my ski training and get ready for a second glacier trip, then our camp in Sweden!

Brooks’ husband, Rob Whitney, with Gumby at the Mount Marathon trail run on Wednesday. “Gumby” did the entire 3.5-mile race in costume, which Brooks explained was no small feat considering how technical the course is.

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Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon (alexkochon@gmail.com) is a former FasterSkier editor and roving reporter who never really lost touch with the nordic scene. A freelance writer, editor, and outdoor-loving mom of two, she lives in northeastern New York and enjoys adventuring in the Adirondacks. She shares her passion for sports and recreation as the co-founder of "Ride On! Mountain Bike Trail Guide" and a sales and content contributor at Curated.com. When she's not skiing or chasing her kids around, Alex assists authors as a production and marketing coordinator for iPub Global Connection.

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