Note: This race recap has been updated to include comments from Ann Spencer, the third woman and Alaska Winter Stars skier.
Mount Marathon isn’t one of those races you can wake up the morning before and decide you’re going to do. People spend years trying to get into the fabled Fourth of July hill climb, a 3,022-foot ascent up and terrifying trek back down to the town of Seward, Alaska.
In 86 years, the grueling 3.5-mile race has grown to selectively award 350 senior entries to senior men and women, and another 250 juniors, evenly divided by gender. If you finish 10 Mount Marathons, you’re considered a veteran, which is one way to get in. Junior races don’t count toward that. Win it the year before or make the top 10 in your age group, you’re also in. Try your luck with a lottery some people have spent more than a decade trying to get registered through, or pay at least a grand for one of 10 auctioned entries.
Two years ago, Alaska Pacific University (APU) nordic coach Eric Strabel won Mount Marathon. It was a goal he had more or less been working toward since he was 11, and in 2011, he achieved it.
Last year, he finished eighth – not what he was hoping for. APU’s university coach and elite-team assistant, Strabel decided to recommit to the race he grew up doing and spent the next 12 months getting ready for his 20th consecutive Mount Marathon.
“For the first time, I was ready to commit to 12 months of specific training for the extreme demands of the race,” Strabel, 31, wrote in an email.
He reasoned climbing was his problem and increased his uphill training while decreasing the distance covered in each workout.
“I have a higher disposition of fast twitch muscle fiber than what is ideal for mountain running so I needed to build up a monstrous aerobic engine before I started to do anything close to race pace for longer than 30 seconds,” he explained. “Looking back, one of the biggest keys of the training was having more than twenty 1 hour sustained low to mid level 3 efforts on steep grades before ever letting myself push my heart rate over 90% of max. … Sustained assertive steep hiking and running really works wonders for building hip and leg strength and endurance for skiing!”
Sounds pretty technical for a guy who placed third in this year’s 50-kilometer Tour of Anchorage ski marathon without doing much ski training beyond coaching, or someone trying to break the Mount Marathon course record without a watch.
“Wearing a watch distracts me. And it should be unnecessary,” Strabel explained. “I should already know by race day what I need to be doing and how I should be moving to have my best speed. Nevertheless, I did ask a couple people how the time was looking at landmarks to know what was possible.”
Strabel’s speed came from within on July 4 in the 86th annual Mount Marathon Race – and with the help of a commentator’s words before the start. The announcer said the morning rain and lack of snow (for traction) would make for slower conditions, ultimately eliminating a shot at the 32-year-old course record (43 minutes, 21 seconds) set by Olympic nordic skier Bill Spencer.
“[That] gave me kind of a chip on my shoulder and added more fuel to the fire,” Strabel wrote. “The record has been such a legend, that even the thought of breaking it has been presumptuous, but with the growing level of competition and preparation, a handful of us were starting to believe it was possible over the last couple of years.”
Last Thursday, amid drier conditions than the previous women’s race, Strabel did it, pushing himself to win it 42:55. Nine seconds later, runner-up Rickey Gates, a multiple-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, crossed the line in record time as well.
Both saw their times on the big clock, but neither wore a watch to confirm nor thought it was possible.
“When I got to the finish line and saw the 42 minutes and change, I thought what Eric Strabel thought, that something went wrong with the timing,” Gates, 32, said on the phone Saturday after flying home to San Francisco.
“For a few minutes after the race it felt like after a serious accident, everyone’s kind of quiet and a little bit confused, and you’re kind of piecing together information but you’re not quite sure what to believe,” he said. “It felt like that, but when we finally got information that the clock was right, then it finally settled in. Eric gave me a huge hug; he’s really a gentleman and a gracious competitor and said it wouldn’t have happened without the two of us battling it out like that.
“I certainly wouldn’t have run that fast without him either,” Gates continued. “It’s one of those second-place finishes that I can imagine going any better.”
This is coming from a man, albeit a Mount Marathon newcomer, who’s won trail races around the world, including one in Antarctica and the Canadian Death Race, and is headed to Europe for the 65 k Ice Trail race in Val d’Isère, France, on Sunday. After that, Gates will compete in back-to-back 32 k races in Italy and Switzerland, then return to his home state of Colorado in late September for the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) 100 k in Vail.
Six weeks ago, Gates rode his 2002 BMW F650 Dakar motorcycle from San Francisco to Alaska, flying to Colorado for a wedding before settling back in around Seward (he’s getting a friend to drive his bike back). There, Gates trained with local high-school runners on the slopes of Mount Marathon, getting to know the terrain and how locals tackle it.
“It was cool to see a high school cross-country team out there on the course actually dialing in little five-five foot drops and maneuvering cliffs,” Gates said. “Of course they’re high schoolers and they don’t think anything of it.”
Less than a week before the race, Gates did a time trial up the agonizing climb. He clocked in around 51 minutes. “Muscles hurt on me that have never hurt before,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. He later told FasterSkier it’s one of the shortest yet hardest races he’s ever done.
On Thursday, Gates didn’t worry about time, just about winning – or coming as close to doing so as possible. His mother, Trish Gates (formerly Schultz), finished second in the 1969 Mount Marathon, but was quick to point out there were only two women in the race. She had been working at a fish-packing plant at the time, had a week off and decided to give it a go.
“It’s the only race that she’s ever run, she never run one before then and she’s never done one since then,” Gates said of his mom, who flew to Alaska to watch him last week. “Being a traveling hippy, they were offering free meals to whoever did the race. The salmon weren’t running yet so she had a week.”
Knowing she did the race was cool, but when he heard how technical and gut-wrenching it was, Gates started to respect her even more. He spent the last five years dreaming of racing Mount Marathon, and tweaked his schedule to make it happen this year.
Jetting toward the top of the three-thousand-foot peak, Gates was the first to the turnaround point just over 1 ½ miles in. The third man to the halfway mark (behind Wylie Mangelsdorf, a Principia College senior, in second), Strabel passed both Mangelsdorf and Gates on the descent.
“I’m not the strongest downhiller,” Gates said. “I ran 11 minutes down that thing, which isn’t bad, but I knew I wasn’t going to run 10 minutes down it which Eric did.”
At the base of the mountain before a half-mile stretch along a road to the finish, Gates in second place looked up to see where Strabel was. Then, he crashed, dislocating his shoulder and spending several seconds on the ground.
“I just caught my foot on something or nothing at all and just went down really hard in front of 10,000 people,” Gates said. He stood up, popped it back in, and proceeded to cut an estimated 20-second deficit to finish 9 seconds behind Strabel.
“There’s a lot to be said about adrenaline,” Gates said. “If I’d had not fallen I still don’t think I would’ve gotten him.”
According to Strabel, catching Gates, which he did about two-thirds of the way down, wasn’t easy. He strategically attacked the final cliff section before the road, thinking Gates would be less familiar with it and thus not as fast.
“As it turned out, a lot of the cushion that I built by the base of the mountain was due to Rickey stumbling, catching himself and dislocating a problem shoulder, and quickly resetting it himself,” Strabel explained. “I did look back twice early on the road to know that he was making up serious ground so I had to gather a sprint over the last 90 seconds whether my body was capable of it or not.
“I was incredibly relieved at the finish,” he continued. “The only other thought I had over the final seconds of the race was of the large display clock that came into focus. I had completely set aside thoughts of a record for most of the race. I recall seeing it ticking through the 42:30’s and remember struggling to think if a time in the 42’s was faster than 43:21. That was how far down Rickey had pushed my brain function.”
That night, Strabel, Gates and other finishers celebrated with a night out on the town, where Gates lost his rental-car keys. All in all, the trip went as well as Gates could’ve imagined, he said, except for a couple blips.
“I’d appreciate it if my shoulder didn’t really hurt really bad right now and if I didn’t lose my rental-car keys at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Gates said.
Other Top Skiers
Longtime APU skier Brent Knight, 29, placed fifth in the men’s race – four years after he led the 2009 Mount Marathon then collapsed near the finish from dehydration. He was hospitalized in Seward, where he received five liters of IV fluid.
Knight returned to the race in 2010 and took fourth, was second to Strabel in 2011, and placed sixth behind winner Matt Novakovich in 2012.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you are surrounded by 30,000 people in what could be the gnarliest sub hour race out there,” Knight wrote in an email.
The first time he watched the race as a kid, the air was hazy from nearby fires. Knight watched as the men’s leader turned the corner at the top of a long hill before the finish.
“The sun combined with smoky haze created a dull orange backdrop to a lean mountain runner covered in blood and mud,” he wrote. “Eye of the Tiger was playing over the loud speakers and I think that memory of the whole scene was etched in as one of the most awesome events I’ve ever witnessed. Now years later and multiple Mt. Marathon finishes later, I still get this overwhelming feeling like I’ve just saved the world from devastation or something. The roar of the spectators makes you feel like you’re a gladiator in the ancient [Coliseum].”
That’s why he calls the race “addicting.” This year, Knight lost some ground at the leaders along the ascent, and by the top, he realized how fast they were going.
“I didn’t think it was record fast, but I thought it might be close,” he wrote. “Matias [Saari, who placed third] closed in and passed me a 1/4 way down the mountain and I decided to put comfort aside (if there was any) to hang on him.”
Knight lost about 15 seconds to Saari after the “gut,” which he described as an extremely technical creek bed with multiple cliffs before the bottom of the mountain, but made up about 10 seconds on the road.
“It’s hard to cover ground that fast when it feels like you’ve been run through a meat grinder,” Knight wrote. “Had I run a minute faster, I would have been competing for 3rd in a time that would have easily been a winning time any of the past 32 years. This race, this year, was the toughest field I’ve ever competed against.
“I’m a skier that loves to be a mountain runner,” he added. “I’ll find my way to the front … Perhaps next year or the year after that or the next. Strabel set a new mark to fight for this year.”
In the women’s race, Christy Marvin, a 32-year-old mother of three, won in 53:20. A race newcomer but well-known local runner, she was the first rookie to win since Toby Schwoerer took the men’s title in 2004.
Allison Barnwell placed second just under two minutes later, and 18-year-old Ann Spencer of the Alaska Winter Stars placed third (56:15) in her first year as a senior.
In an email, she explained it was her fourth Mount Marathon (after three junior races), but first time racing the whole mountain.
“I was definitely not expecting to do so well,” Spencer wrote. “I was aiming for a top 20 finish with a time under 1:05. Hill climbs are definitely my strength.”
Accepted at the University of Vermont, Spencer planned to defer a year to continue skiing and training in Anchorage to better prepare herself for college racing.
Fresh off a training camp on Eagle Glacier, APU Elite Team skier Lauren Fritz, 25, placed fourth (57:57) among the senior women. Last year, she was second in Mount Marathon to teammate and 2010 Olympian Holly Books.
“There was a lot of pressure going into this year’s race … which is tough because there isn’t a lot of room for improvement and a lot of room for disappointment,” Fritz wrote in an email. “I really wanted to win, of course, and I had as good of a shot as any, with Holly and Kikkan [Randall] both skipping this year’s race. There are always top contenders though, and this year was no different.”
Meanwhile, Fritz has dealt with chronic tightness in her calf muscle for the last couple years. Skating in slush on Eagle Glacier last week didn’t help.
“I knew going into the race that it would probably bother me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it,” she explained. “I tried to warm up well but it still flared up during the race. It was raining throughout the morning, including during the race a little bit, so it was a lot muddier than I’ve ever raced it, so there was a lot of slipping and grabbing for tree branches or plant roots or whatever you could hold onto to keep from sliding backwards. Really not ideal conditions for fast times, plus the slipping put more stress on my lower legs.”
Just before tree line about halfway up, her calves got the best of her and she lost contact with Barnwell, Spencer and Sheryl Loan, who ended up seventh. Marvin led from the start, but was not too far in front of the chase pack at the top, according to Fritz.
“I rounded the turn-around rock, I thought ‘OK, here we go, I’ll be done in less than 15 minutes,’” she wrote. “Just let the legs go on autopilot. It’s impossible to describe how your legs feel as you start the descent and it’s really just best not to think about how they feel and just go.
“It is actually crazy, and unless you’ve put yourself through the torture you don’t realize how incredibly fun and satisfying it is to be able to accomplish something like this mountain,” she continued. “Still, it is an inherently dangerous race … I usually have one of the top descent times in the women’s race, but this year I did try to not let myself get too out of control on the downhill that would lead to me getting hurt. I LOVE this race, and always plan to come back, but there is a lot at stake this ski season and I recognized that. I wanted to win and I gave it my best effort, but this race isn’t the focus of my racing career right now.”
In her seventh Mount Marathon, Fritz nabbed her fifth-consecutive top 10 and posted the sixth-fastest downhill time.
“I’m still pretty happy,” she wrote. “Mt. Marathon is definitely the Olympics of Alaska and I’ll definitely be back to hunt down the coveted winner’s cup.”
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.