They had each slogged up a fog-shrouded, snow-covered mountain pass near Girdwood, dropped over the top and rocketed down snow and rocky glacial remains into Eagle River Valley.
They had splashed through Clear Creek, endured wet, twisting trails hidden by tall grass and forded the swift, numbing and near-waist-level currents of Eagle River.
They had negotiated the undulating travails of the rhythm-busting, energy-sucking section known as the Chutes and Ladders, and danced through the stumble-bum section of rocks and tree roots that, deep into this marathon-length backcountry run, taunt tired runners like some cruel joke.
Even so, after racing apart for about 23 miles of the Crow Pass Crossing on Saturday morning, Eric Strabel and Patrick Stinson found themselves running so close together that each could hear the other's breathing.
Then, in a flash, Strabel was gone.
Strabel blitzed past Stinson on a flat section of open trail about one-half mile from the finish line at the Eagle River Nature Center and seized the 25th edition of a race that draws some of the state's fastest, toughest, most adventuresome runners.
Strabel, 26, clocked 3 hours, 9 minutes, 2 seconds, to win Crow Pass for the second time in three years. The 2006 champ, who bagged a course-record 3:05:18 that year, on Saturday recorded the eighth-fastest time in race history for his second championship.
Stinson, 28, arrived in 3:09:37, the ninth-fastest time in race history and a remarkable improvement of more than 23 minutes over his sixth-place time (3:32:48) in 2007.
And to hear both men tell it, there was nothing subtle about the decisive move from Strabel. His days as a cross-country runner for UAA and Colony High taught him that a bold, emphatic pass demoralizes the runner left behind.
"He caught me and Strabel-ized me,'' Stinson said. "It was a perfect cross-country pass. He crushed me, and left me.''
Said Strabel: "If you have to pass a guy, you have to leave an impression. It was no time for half-measures.''
There had been a moment just a couple miles earlier when Strabel was uncertain if he could secure his second title. After Strabel caught Stinson near The Perch, a mound overlooking Eagle River about four miles from the finish, Stinson managed to regain his lead and put a gap of 20-25 seconds on Strabel.
As Stinson carried his lead into the rocky portion of the trail called the Rock Garden, he thought perhaps he would win the race he had pinpointed as his summer goal.
"I was pretty sure I had it, which is probably what you shouldn't think,'' Stinson said.
Strabel said the gap Stinson established nearly broke him.
"It was real tempting to ease in and just be happy for him,'' Strabel said. "He'd trained hard and done his homework (scouting the course). (But) I've got to show respect to the race and Patrick, and give him my best.
"There were just enough instances, where I could see him, to know he was in reach. I was pretty confident in my leg speed. The nail wasn't in the coffin yet.''
And at least both men knew where they stood in a race in which twisting trails and the cover of nature can leave runners flummoxed about positioning. Earlier, for instance, Stinson had assumed he was running fourth.
He arrived at the crossing of Eagle River fifth, trailing Strabel, defending champion Geoff Roes, Max Treinen, and Matias Saari. Yet Stinson's pre-race scouting of the trail prompted him to take at least a couple of different trails than the rest of that group, and he passed all of them without realizing it.
Particularly in the second half of the race, runners are occasionally faced with a choice of trails, and can take the path of their choosing.
Shortly before Strabel caught Stinson, he quizzed spectators on the trail and discovered he was running second. He delivered the news to Stinson, who was incredulous.
"I never saw Max, I never saw Geoff,' Stinson said of his journey in the second half of the race. "I never saw Matias, except from a distance before the river. I never saw Eric until he caught me right about Icicle Creek.
"He said, 'If we keep this up, we've got 'em.' I said, 'No, man, Matias is ahead of us.' Guess he wasn't.''
That Strabel was even racing was a stroke of good fortune. He and about four other runners missed the mandatory pre-race meeting and bib pick-up at UAA's Wells Fargo Sports Complex on Friday afternoon.
Like the others, Strabel read incorrect information in the Alaska Runner's Calendar that reported the meeting time as 6:30 p.m. It was actually at 5 p.m., as the race entry form declared.
Strabel said he answered a call from race director Michael Friess, the UAA running coach who guided his college career, on his cell phone as he pulled into the Sports Complex parking lot about 6:30 p.m. Friess customarily employs a strict policy: Runners who miss the pre-race meeting forfeit their place in the race.
"Mike gives me a call and says, 'Eric, how you feeling?' and said the meeting was at 5,'' Strabel said. "My heart just sank. If he wouldn't have let me race, I wouldn't have had any sympathy for myself.''
Strabel said he read the race entry form, but clearly read right past the sentence about the pre-race meeting time. Still, Friess gave him a pass, as he did several other runners who gleaned incorrect information in the Runner's Calendar. Honest mistake, Friess said.
Treinen, 19, who will ski at UAA next season, hung tough with the leaders early in the second half of the race and enjoyed his third-place finish much more than his 2007 debut. Though Treinen finished 13th last year in 3:39:38, he missed a bridge early in that race, which cost him a chunk of time. He also fell and suffered a cut on his chin that took a dozen stitches to repair.
Saturday, he clocked 3:13:15 to slash 26:23 off his personal best at Crow Pass.
"I was so happy to be able to run with people,'' Treinen said. "I figured those guys are older and so much more experienced. I thought, 'I'll just try to run with them and see what happens.' ''
Roes, 32, who last year ran the third-fastest time in race history (3:07:48), finished fourth in 3:17:53. That was particularly impressive, considering he had run very little in the last two months. He was coming off a mountain biking endurance race in the Lower 48 late last month in which he covered about 1,400 miles in 10 days before scratching.
"It was a lot more fun than I thought,'' Roes said of his race Saturday. "If you'd told me I'd run 3:17, I'd have thought I'd be laying in the ditch over there somewhere. So, that (race) was pleasing.''
Saari, last year's champ at the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, took a hard fall early in Saturday's race. He banged up his shoulder and after the race sported a red welt behind his right ear. Even so, he finished fifth in 3:22:14.
And Hugh Gren, coming off three consecutive 10th-place finishes at Crow Pass, soared to sixth Saturday in a personal-best 3:26:02, which was 6:40 quicker than his previous fastest clocking.
Mike Hinckley won the men's Rookie of the Year award, clocking 3:37:34 to finish 11th.
Find Doyle Woody's blog online at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
25th Crow Pass Crossing
From Crow Pass Trailhead to Eagle River Nature Center
1) Eric Strabel 3:09:02.5; 2) Patrick Stinson 3:09:37.7; 3) Max Treinen 3:13:15; 4) Geoff Roes 3:17:53.1; 5) Matias Saari 3:22:14; 6) Hugh Gren 3:26:02.8; 7) Tony Slatonbarker 3:34:49.7; 8) Steve Humpal 3:34:50.1; 9) Matt Green 3:35:33.1; 10) Lance Kopsack 3:36:25.7; 11 Mike Hinckley 3:37:34 (Rookie of the Year); 12) Patrick Conway 3:44:27.3; 13) Mark Brady 3:46:42.3; 14) Mike Heatwole 3:48:18.6; 15) Alan Stoll 3:48:46.3; 16) David Johnston 3:49:59; 17) John Weddleton 3:50:52.8; 18) Braun Kopsack 3:52:50; 19) Dave Pfeiffer 3:54:01; 20) Joe Magellan 3:54:55.2; 21) Matt Crow 3:55:56.7; 22) Benjamin Rolfs 3:57:18.9; 23) Thomas Burton 3:59:25; 24) Michael Montague 4:00:18.6; 25) Brian Pekar 4:01:20.7; 26) John Pekar 4:01:21.2; 27) James Zwiefel 4:05:13.7; 28) Tom Bronga 4:05:21.5; 29) Brian Pautzke 4:06:53.6; 30) Paul Pletnikott 4:07:18.8; 31) Fred Thomas 4:07:57; 32) Bryan Hitchcock 4:08:27.8; 33) Greg Veltkamp 4:08:52.7; 34) Mark Lindberg 4:11:02.5; 35) Jedediah Smith 4:11:47.5; 36) John Dibari 4:13:14.3; 37) Matthew Schell 4:13:46.2; 38) Jim Potts 4:14:32.6; 39) Chris Wood 4:16:42.8; 40) Benjamin Logsdon 4:18:27.6; 41) Jeff Arms 4:18:29.3; 42) Kimball Forrest 4:18:51.2; 43) Michael Vander Lugt 4:19:20.2; 44) Donovan Neal 4:19:23; 45) Josh Niva 4:19:30.4; 46) Brian Broderick 4:20:59.8; 47) Ray Robinson 4:21:25.7; 48) Travis Peltier 4:22:38.9; 49) Jason Popek 4:23:17.9; 50) Kevin Taylor 4:25:40.2.
51) Steven Young 4:26:37.1; 52) Mike Edwards 4:26:46.4; 53) Marc Petersen 4:29:04.9; 54) Douglas Ketterer 4:31:59.3; 55) Jason Croft 4:33:45.8; 56) Karl Swanson 4:36:10.4; 57) Stephen Rideout 4:36:43.8; 58) Michael Logsdon 4:37:11.4; 59) Josh Dvorak 4:37:47.6; 60) Brad Benter 4:44:43.1; 61) Jeff Bool 4:46:50.6 ; 62) Jim McDonough 4:48:03.7; 63) Lloyd Melone 4:52:38.0; 64) William English 4:54:38.4 ; 65) Mark Elfstrom 4:55:24.5; 66) Thomas Elliott 5:02:55.5; 67) Howard Earl 5:10:08.1; 68) Jeremy Hinshaw 5:10:44.6; 69) Peter Sperry 5:11:17.0; 70) Dan Harrell 5:11:18.8 ; 71) Aaron Christie 5:11:47.4; 72) Evan Steinhauser 5:13:59.2 ; 73) Kurt Stenehjem 5:14:25.8; 74) Mark Malagodi 5:17:36.3; 75) James Sprott 5:20:58.2; 76) Ira Edwards 5:26:17.1; 77) Joel Cusick 5:27:42.4; 78) Peter Adams 5:30:14.1; 79) Thomas Brown 5:30:27.9; 80) Michael Mosley 5:32:07.5; 81) Geoffrey Alvarez 5:32:30.6; 82) Nathan Zeigler 5:34:47.2; 83) Alec Kay 5:34:56.2; 84) Kevin Wallace 5:34:56.5; 85) Eric Johnson 5:36:55.4; 86) Gregory Ross 5:39:37.6; 87) Stephen Brecht 5:42:22.1; 88) Christopher Brecht 5:42:24.6; 89) Matt Smith 5:46:13.5; 90) Brian Anderson 5:51:36.3; 91) Gary Lyon 5:54:01.8.