The annual slog up the monster known as Mount Marathon in Seward will once again be at the forefront of statewide Fourth of July celebrations this year, and there are no shortage of storylines to follow.
After last year’s somber events following the race — when 65-year-old race rookie Michael LeMaitre disappeared and 41-year-old Matthew Kenney was badly hurt in a fall — a few steps in safety have been taken.
In 2012, LeMaitre was never seen finishing the race, in which he was running in last place, and has since then been declared deceased. Kenney took a tumble on the slick rocks at the cliffs at the bottom of the mountain and suffered serious leg and head injuries, which left him recovering for months in a Colorado hospital.
This year, organizers have offered race safety tours, which have been led by race veterans the past two Saturdays. The tours take inexperienced runners up the bottom third of the mountain.
In addition, orange fencing and signage has been set up just above the cliff area at the bottom of the mountain’s “gut,” which will hopefully help guide racers down the ideal route, based on their ability level.
Lastly, a one-hour time limit has been established at the halfway point — the junior turnaround point — to ensure no struggling racers face the same fate as LeMaitre. If a runner fails to make the halfway point in under an hour, he or she will be turned around early. As a side note, many of the 350 or so senior runners in both the men’s and women’s races usually do meet that mark.
With these steps taken, the hope is that everyone will enjoy a safe and successful holiday.
The event itself has seen increasing popularity over the past few decades, and course times have been getting faster and faster.
Last year, men’s winner Matt Novakovich of Anchorage earned the victory in a time of 44 minutes, 7 seconds, while Holly Brooks claimed her overdue maiden win in the women’s race in a time of 51:53.
While the course record for the men’s race hasn’t been broken since Bill Spencer delivered a blistering 43:21 performance in 1981, and Nancy Pease put up a 50:30 in 1990 in the women’s race, the past few years, when averaged together, have seen some sizzling times in both the senior and junior races.
As far as Peninsula athletes are concerned, the top prospect this year is once again Allie Ostrander from Kenai, a Mount Marathon phenom.
Ostrander will be gunning for a record fifth-straight victory Thursday in the junior race, which goes halfway up and down the 3,022-foot behemoth, and will be trying to eclipse her own course record, which she set in 2011 by running an eye-popping 30:32.
“I hope (to win), I’ve been trying to prepare as much as I can,” Ostrander said in a recent interview.
Should Ostrander win her final two years in the junior race (which only allows runners ages 17 and younger), she will succeed in becoming the only six-time winner in the category. No other junior athlete has won it more than four times.
A year ago, Ostrander missed her course record by 2:18, which can be attributed to course conditions.
“Last year was slippery and muddy and a completely different race from two years ago,” she said. “For my record time, there were perfect conditions, and it wasn’t too hot or anything.”
Usually, the 16-year-old spends the month of June summitting mountains as a part of her training, but Ostrander has spent the last two weeks at a basketball training camp.
“We were playing four to six games a day, so it was really tiring,” Ostrander said. “Before I left, I ran the mountain four times.”
But none since June 12, according to the Kenai Central junior, which could keep her from breaking the 30-minute barrier.
Ostrander said she plans on running the mountain today in Seward, which will help her in planning a race strategy based off the current conditions.
“It’s all about mental toughness on the up trail. It’s about your pain threshold,” she said. “If the snow melted and shale’s defrosted since then, it could be much different.
“Usually on the junior trail, there’s not a lot of snow to worry about, and the less snow on the down trail equates to faster downhill times,” she said. “Last year there were snow caves in the gully, and you had to go around the outside of them.”
This year, there are no such snow caves to navigate, due to the recent trend of warm weather in Southcentral Alaska.
After the race is done and the Seward festivities die down for the year, Ostrander will be focusing her attention on her racing series.
Beginning last summer, Ostrander organized a series of five-kilometer races at the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna, which benefited the Kenai Watershed Forum, and also took care of her “Caring for the Kenai” project in which area high school students partake.
This year, Ostrander decided to use the money that is raised to create a scholarship that will enable kids to attend the KWF summer camp. The races will be held on Wednesday evenings at 6 p.m., starting on July 10 and continuing until August 7.
On the boys side, Seward resident Miles Knotek has aged out into the senior men’s race, having won the final two junior races of his Mount Marathon career, including setting the second-fastest junior boys time of 26:18 in 2011. Thursday’s race will see just what Knotek can accomplish alongside the more experienced veteran men’s runners.