Dropped jaws and wide eyes were the order of the day Saturday at the finish line of the Crow Pass Crossing.
One of the biggest barriers in Alaska sports came crashing down as not one but two racers broke the three-hour mark in the grueling marathon-length wilderness run, something that once seemed improbable if not impossible.
Geoff Roes of Juneau and Eric Strabel of Anchorage set the bar sky-high for future racers. Roes, 33, won in 2 hours, 57 minutes, 11.7 seconds and Strabel, 27, placed second in 2:58:30.2.
Both men shattered the record of 3:05:18 set by Strabel in 2006, but the buzz at the Eagle River Nature Center wasn't just about a new record being set. It was about the three-hour barrier getting busted, an achievement that for Alaska mountain and trail runners ranks up there with Roger Bannister's four-minute mile.
"Holy mackerel," women's winner Laura Brosius said.
"Unbelievable," fifth-place Patrick Stinson said.
"Impressive," race director Michael Friess said, before quickly tossing out a new challenge to runners. "2:50. That's the next barrier."
Some may laugh at such a notion, but not Strabel.
He had barely recovered from the tricky and often torturous 24-mile journey over a mountain pass, through a river and across rocks, roots, snow and scree when he started thinking about making another assault on the record book.
"We showed this year that breaking three hours is the new standard," he said. "What I'm really interested in now is getting the record back."
After winning last year in 3:09:02, Strabel set the three-hour mark as his goal and spent the winter training specifically for Crow Pass, which starts at the end of Crow Mine Road near Girdwood and finishes at the Eagle River Nature Center.
He and Roes talked about a sub-3:00 time in emails, and as summer arrived, word was out that Strabel was looking fit and focused enough to do it.
When Roes, who often races Outside, got wind of it, he changed his competition schedule to accommodate a return to Crow Pass. The battle was on.
Roes led most of the way, but at least once he backtracked to Strabel for help.
"Back in the brush I lost the trail and I ran back to Eric and said 'There's no trail!' '' he said.
That was about the only thing that impeded Roes, the 2007 champ who is a noted endurance runner. Strabel led for a few miles after the Eagle River crossing before Roes again assumed command and pulled away. A small but appreciative crowd whooped in astonishment when he emerged from the woods.
Strabel crossed the finish line with a red streak on his nose, a cut suffered when he took a tumble. "Yeah!" he said with a fist pump.
It was the kind of reaction you'd expect from a winner, not a runnerup, but getting the sub-3:00 he wanted made Strabel happy.
"It's always more exhilarating to cross the finish line first," he said. "But a sub-three, you can always put that in your pocket."
Shirtless and dusty, he smiled as he congratulated Roes.
"You did it! You did it!" he said.
"So did you!" Roes replied. "You pulled me through the roughest part of that."
Crow Pass serves up plenty of rough parts, but this year's conditions were practically perfect for a record run.
A cool mist filled Eagle River valley, the sun stayed behind clouds most of the morning, the river wasn't too deep -- thigh-high for many men, waist-high for most women -- and someone cut back the brush for about two miles of a four-mile stretch of dense vegetation.
"It was certainly a lot less woodsy than it used to be," Friess said.
The weed-whacked portion of the trail lent itself to fast running, Roes said -- which was good for setting a record, but not so good in other ways.
"It was nice, but it forces you to run faster," he said. "Usually the grass is a blessing in disguise because it allows you to recover."
Roes' performance puts his name in a record book that has seen little change over the years.
Bill Spencer's revered 1989 record of 3:05:25 stood unchallenged for years -- before Strabel broke it in 2006, no one had ever come within two minutes of it. Toby Schwoerer briefly owned a faster time -- 3:02:58 clocked in his 2004 victory -- but the record was rescinded when it was determined he crossed Eagle River in the wrong place.
With Roes and Strabel chasing goals and each other, the new record might not last nearly as long.
Roes, whose attention is now on September's 100-mile Wasatch 100 in Utah, said he's ready to take a break from Crow Pass.
"This may be my last for awhile," he said.
Strabel said that was going to be his plan if he'd gotten the record.
"I told myself if I won and broke three hours, I would step back," he said. "But I'm pretty motivated to come back now."
Hearing that, Roes had second thoughts.
"If it's just another year at Crow Pass without a carrot, I'm more likely to do a race down south instead of this," he said. "But if I know he's out here running in top shape, it'll be hard not to be here."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.
2009 Crow Pass Crossing
Approximately 24 miles
1) Geoff Roes 2:57:11.7, 2) Eric Strabel 2:58:30.2, 3) Adam Reimer 3:16:05.3, 4) Hugh Gren 3:23:46.2, 5) Patrick Stinson 3:26:28.8, 6) Andrew Lee 3:27:59.2, 7) Tony Slatonbarker 3:31:00.3, 8) Matt Green 3:37:48.7, 9) 1Willie Stoll 3:38:15.5, 10) Ben Ward 3:38:16.7, 11) Evan Hone 3:39:21.0, 12) James Zwiefel 3:41:12.1, 13) Mark Brady 3:42:08.6, 14) Robert Whitney 3:43:38.1, 15) Lance Kopsack 3:44:28.0, 16) Bryan Hitchcock 3:45:42.5, 17) Erik Johnson 3:49:29.1, 18) Joe Magellan 3:50:17.0, 19) Thomas Burton 3:51:11.6, 20) Levi Younger 3:51:30.8, 21) Alex Alonso 3:52:12.5,22) Erik Mundahl 3:53:38.1, 23) Braun Kopsack 3:53:56.3, 24) David Apperson 3:57:00.0, 25) Mark Carr 4:01:08.4, 26) Brian Broderick 4:02:57.3, 27) Jeff Jessen 4:03:28.0, 28) Mark Stevens 4:04:41.1, 29) Paul Pletnikoff 4:04:54.5, 30) Kevin Taylor 4:05:22.0, 31) Tyler Rhodes 4:06:26.3, 32) Alexander Babos 4:07:58.7, 33) Brad Benter 4:08:33.9, 34) Kimball Forrest 4:12:21.9, 35) Jim McDonough 4:12:41.9, 36) Andrew Stavich 4:13:29.9, 37) Douglas Ketterer 4:14:13.6, 38) Brian Pautzke 4:14:19.7, 39) Joe Thomas 4:14:42.0, 40) Brian Pekar 4:15:56.5, 41) John Pekar 4:15:57.6, 42) Michael Vanderlugt 4:15:59.6, 43) Chester Gilmore 4:16:25.2, 44) Chris Wood 4:16:35.4, 45) Dave Pfeiffer 4:17:42.8, 46) Jason Smith 4:18:14.3, 47) Chris McGee 4:20:04.1, 48) Steve Rideout 4:21:52.7, 49) Ed Soto 4:25:23.9, 50) Brian Stone 4:28:11, 51) Tom Hepler 4:28:26.4, 52) James Dietzmann 4:28:59.4, 53) Dan Harrell 4:29:45.2, 54) Ty Hampton 4:38:45.2, 55) Noah Zogas 4:40:28.5, 56) Marc Johnson 4:40:32.0, 57) Tobin Munn 4:41:07.7, 58) Joey Klecka 4:42:55.2, 59) Valdis Kirsis 4:47:38.7, 60) Karl Swanson 4:49:21.7, 61) Andrew Haas 4:49:29.3, 62) Josh Allely 4:51:23.1, 63) Colin Daugherty 4:51:33.7, 64) Jeff Arms 4:53:04.3, 65) Paul Gutzler 4:59:26.3, 66) Nathan Zeigler 5:01:45.5, 67) Christopher Ruff 5:02:58.4, 68) Aaron Christie 5:04:13.2, 69) Sam Skime 5:05:31.7, 70) Jake Williams 5:06:41.3, 71) Nelson Priddy 5:09:09.6, 72) Jeremy Hinshaw 5:15:05.2, 73) Bernard Sturgulewski 5:26:51.4, 74) John Burick 5:31:33.3, 75) Evan Steinhauser 5:38:13.2, 76) Matt Smith 5:40:40.8, 77) Doyle Woody 5:40:51.3, 78) Michael Hogan 5:44:51.2, 79) Marc Peterson 5:46:47.4, 80) Julius Brecht 5:51:07.0, 81) Christopher Brecht 5:56:26.7.