With the most prestigious mountain race in the state of Alaska looming this week, athletes not only across the state, but the world as well, are preparing for the arduous climb up Mt. Marathon in Seward.
The 3,022-foot race up the mountain is a tradition held every Fourth of July in the small town, which typically swells in size from a permanent population of 2,700 for the big event.
Kenai’s own Allie Ostrander is the three-time defending winner of the junior girls race, which, for runners 17 years old and younger, goes halfway up the mountain and back down again. Ostrander will be 15 years old during this year’s running.
More impressive than her three victories is the fact that she owns the top two junior girls course record times. In 2010, she smashed the old record, held by Seward’s Aubrey Smith (33 minutes, 1 second), to win in 31:15. Then, last year, she broke her own record to win in 30:32.
“I just hiked the mountain today, actually, and so far this month I’ve gone twice all the way up the mountain and three times to halfway,” Ostrander said. “I started training in late May, and in June I’ve been going up once or twice a week, and I’ve run the Skyline trail a couple times. I’ve been playing soccer, and actually I’ve been doing some swimming too, so a nice mix of different stuff.”
Ostrander surprised the competition in 2008, when she finished second to the girls winner Allison Barnwell as an 11-year-old. Ostrander recalls that she was shocked to finish that high in only her second year running the race.
“I was leading for most of the race, and that year was really the shocker to me, because my goal was to get a top 10, and I was second,” Ostrander said. “I didn’t think I would be able to do that, so the next year, I was hoping to win because that’s naturally where you would want to finish. But I never expected to win three times in a row.
“I think it was the experience I had, because the first year I did it was the first year I had seen the mountain, and the next year I had twice as much experience, and I was getting older and becoming a better athlete.”
It isn’t too outrageous to think Ostrander will break the 30-minute mark, a feat unthinkable for girls only a few years ago. But with the training she has been putting in, and the fact she only gains more experience every year, it could very well happen.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good on my training runs, so I hope to be faster on the uphill and hope to improve my time,” she said.
Now in order for that to happen, the conditions on race day will need to be near perfect. Ideal circumstances mean a cool, breezy and dry day. Sunny conditions can lead to runners suffering from the heat (such was the case in 2009), while wet, rainy conditions lead to a slick, muddy uphill trail and slower times as well.
“The conditions are a little harder this year, and the snow makes it a little slower because there are snow caves right where I usually go down through the creek bed,” she said. “It’s a little more technical this year, but I hope that won’t slow me down too much because it was a lot better today when I was coming down. There’s hard-packed snow under the shale, and it’s hard to tell when that’s coming, and that could make you slip and fall and it’s harder to run on.
“I think I could still beat my time, and it depends on race-day conditions. I mean, the snow could all melt.”
Ostrander’s time isn’t all spent on training. She participates in the Caring for the Kenai project that most freshmen students from Kenai Central high school participate in, in which they are challenged on what they can do to improve the environment on the Kenai Peninsula.
Ostrander’s idea is to host a series of five-kilometer races to be held every Wednesday night this summer, starting July 11 at 6 p.m. on the Tsalteshi Trails. The money that is raised in those races will be donated to the Kenai Watershed Forum to help combat reed canary grass, which is an invasive species that clogs salmon streams and makes spawning difficult and can change the texture of the riverbed and the habitat.
“It’s called the Salmon Run Series, and it’s kind of based off of the Tuesday Night running series in Anchorage, because we don’t have anything like that in Kenai, and we have an avid running community,” she said.
Miles Knotek from Seward is the defending race winner of the junior boys, winning last year in a time of 26:18, which is, according to available records, is the second-fastest time in history. Knotek will be back to defend his victory.
Eric Strabel, a perennial competitor in the famed race, finally conquered the mountain last year en route to winning it with a time of 44:40. Strabel finished third in the uphill-only Bird Ridge run two weeks ago, but will be facing stiff competition in a usually stacked men’s field from Matt Novakovich, who has won both Bird Ridge and the earlier Government Peak Climb in Palmer this summer.
Holly Brooks, the women’s winner at Bird Ridge, will be looking to score a victory that has eluded her the last three years. In 2009, Brooks led eventual winner Cedar Bourgeois to the summit, only to succumb to the heat and overexertion on her own behalf. Brooks led Bourgeois to the bottom of the mountain in 2010, but was passed mere blocks from the finish line, and the same scene played out last year, as Brooks was dogged by Kikkan Randall the entire race, only to lose out on the street portion.