After decade of contention Strabel finally wins

July 4, 2011 

SEWARD -- When perennial contender Eric Strabel crossed the finish line Monday to win his first Mount Marathon title in 12 attempts, he let loose the scream of a madman.

"AAGH!" he hollered. Then again, and again.

"That's the sound of about 10 years of frustration," said Strabel, 29, a four-time runner-up in the arduous race up and down the 3,022-foot peak that stands guard over Resurrection Bay.

"I've been trying to win this thing," Strabel said, "and I've dreamt of winning it so much, I was starting to think maybe it was just a dream."

This time it was for real.

When Strabel wakes up today, he will do so as the ninth-fastest finisher in the history of Mount Marathon, which began in 1915 and has been contested 84 times.

A wickedly fast descent vaulted Strabel from fourth place to first and carried him to a time of 44 minutes, 40 seconds.

Though well off Bill Spencer's 1981 record of 43:23, it's one of just 13 sub-45:00 times in history and shares ninth place on the all-time list with the 44:10 recorded last year by winner Trond Flagstad.

Brent Knight, who held a slim lead over Mark Iverson halfway down the mountain when Stabel blew past them, also joined the sub-45 club. He placed second in 44:58, finishing second in 44:58. Iverson placed third in 45:18. All three men are from Anchorage.

Conditions were nearly perfect -- overcast with temperatures in the 60s -- and racers took advantage.

Four of the top five finishers racked up personal bests. The only one who didn't was Iverson, who established an impressive PR in his first running of the race.

Strabel shaved 62 seconds off the PR he ran last year; Knight took 64 seconds off his previous best, set in 2006; 2009 champion Matias Saari of Anchorage claimed fourth place in 46:04, six seconds off his previous best; and fifth-place Matt Novakovich of Anchorage cracked the 47-minute mark for the first time, clocking 46:44.

All shared handshakes and atta-boys at the finish line, as is the custom at mountain races, where the camaraderie is obvious.

And all marveled at the burst of downhill speed Strabel displayed to take control of the race.

"Strabel came by me so fast -- holy cow!" Iverson said.

Strabel said that's exactly what he hoped the frontrunners would think.

"A third of the way down the mountain, I was able to gauge how far ahead Brent and Mark were, and I could see I'd made up a significant gap," he said. "It was no time for half-measures. I had to make a statement -- a nudge to your competitor -- that you're going to have to work to get me."

A former star runner and skier for Colony High and an NCAA All-American skier for UAA, Strabel became the rare junior boys champion who manages to attain victory at the senior level too. Since the 1970s, only three have done it -- Bill Spencer, Jim Renkert and now Strabel.

His ability and achievements -- and his repeated top-5 finishes -- left many wondering when and if he'd ever claim a senior title.

"I was really getting tired of the questions -- 'Are you gonna win today?' I must've heard that a hundred times over the last 10 years," Strabel said. "This race was about getting the gorilla off my back."

Knight, 27, has a gorilla of his own that he might be able to shed now too.

Knight owns two third-place finishes, a fourth-place finish and Monday's runner-up showing, and he hopes that maybe now people will associate him with those top Mount Marathon finishes -- and not his famous Mount Marathon collapse.

In the 2009 race, Knight had a substantial lead as he ran down Fourth Street to the finish line. Then, with 200 meters to go, he collapsed into unconsciousness and was hospitalized with severe heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Two years later, people still ask him about.

"That's one of the drawbacks of working in a running store," joked Knight, who works for Skinny Raven, where many customers are familiar with his story.

"I'm afraid I'm gonna be infamous for this race, as much as I don't want to be."

A victory would turn infamy to instant fame, which is why Knight -- like so many Mount Marathon runners -- plans to be back back next year.

"It took Strabel 12 years," Knight said. "I've only been doing it six."


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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