By Joe Yelverton
2019 marks the 92nd year of one of the craziest running races in North America. On July 4, mountain runners will compete in Seward on Mt. Marathon, ascending 3,000 vertical feet of loose rock and steep dirt, a course that appeals to elite athletes as much as those simply wanting to test their mettle.
Designed with a limited entry to reduce environmental impacts, the race roster includes everyone from recreational to Olympic caliber athletes, yet only a handful are contenders for first place.
Two favorites for the title
Denali Strabel appreciates the rich tradition of the race, as she grew up at the foot of the mountain and has climbed it numerous times since she was five years old. The daughter of Flip and Patti Foldager, a couple long associated with the race, Denali learned at a young age the importance of honoring the mountain.
Last year, the 29-year-old athlete had her best race ever, placing second behind another Anchorage based athlete, Jessica Yeaton (a Nordic ski racer from Alaska Pacific University).
“The mountain has been in my life for so long that I always train for it,” says Strabel. “This year in particular, I want to get closer to feeling better about my climbing ability.”
She describes her competition as “Vertical munching ascenders.”
“There’s something about Nordic ski racers,” says Strabel, “it’s no wonder they do so well in the mountains.”
“And mothers who race,” emphasizing, “that Momma strength!”
Strabel is known as a fast descender with abundant leg speed. Last year she was in fifth place at the mountaintop turn-around but she was able to pass everyone on the downhill, except Jessica Yeaton.
Will 2019 be the year of redemption for Denali Strabel?
Making his Alaskan debut last year was Max King, a professional runner from Oregon. King placed second behind local favorite and Olympian David Norris.
Asked what brought him to Alaska, King says, “I’ve known about it for a long time. Rickey Gates and Killian Jornet sparked my interest. But it’s been on my bucket list for a while.”
Jornet, from Spain, was the previous men’s record-holder before David Norris reclaimed it for Alaska in 2016. Gates is another visiting runner with a history of top five finishes.
King describes the event as, “a classic race with a long history and a special aura,” adding, “there’s a mystique about it. It’s not well known except among the most hard core runners.”
“It’s a pure Alaskan mountain race,” he says.
Describing the anticipation of last years race, he says, “I knew going in there were a lot of strong Alaskans.”
“Second place was awesome,” says King.
“This race is right up there in terms of how special it is to me. I’ve been to other amazing races around the world. But in Seward the crowds are amazing.”
When asked about a non-Alaskan winning the race, King says, “You have to prove yourself as worthy of the title. Alaskans don’t want someone to win who isn’t going to respect it.”
“You have to have some Alaskan spirit in you to win it, and to be accepted if you win it,” he added.
“You feel that when you’re there,” he says. “If you come in from the outside you need to understand that. It wouldn’t be just another win. Winning would be very special,” says King.
Two Alaskan Racers who Honor the Tradition
Wendy Sailors is a 50-year-old Alaskan who first did the race in 1993. This will be her 26th year competing on Mt. Marathon.
“The mountains are a place where life make sense,” says Sailors. “Getting out of the city into thinner air where the views and air give perspective.”
Sailors personal best time is 1:00:26. Twenty six seconds from breaking the one hour barrier, something she says she will achieve some day.
Darin Marin is a 59 year old Alaskan who first did the race in 1989. This will be his 30th year competing on Mt. Marathon.
“Still the same race but the race course has changed,” says Marin. When asked why he does the race, Marin says, “There’s no reason NOT to do it! It gives me a sense of purpose. It’s fun and it’s a rush.”
Marin’s personal best time is 56:13.
The rumor is last years winner, Jessica Yeaton, is injured and unable to defend her title.
Christy Marvin was third last year, having to relinquish what might have felt like a solid second place when Denali Strabel passed her on the descent, holding a very slim, four second lead all the way to the finish line.
Last year, Rosie Frankowski was 1st to the turnaround, but fell to 92nd on the descent, leaving her with 7th place overall. A formidable climber, if Rosie learns to descend she will be a formidable contender.
Top Pick—Denali Strabel
Denali Strabel was second last year, thirty seconds out of first place. A former “Seward Girl,” this year Strabel will ascend more aggressively and focus on limiting mistakes on the descent, making her the top pick for first place.
Hayden Hawks, an outsider and successful ultramarathoner, will make his debut racing in Seward this year. But Mt. Marathon requires technical prowess as much as having a big engine.
Max King, as fit and fast as he is, will not only be battling David Norris but a crowd numbering in the thousands, all cheering for an Alaskan to win.
Top Pick—David Norris
A target on his back, David Norris will aggressively defend his record and last year’s result.