Olympic teammates duel on Mount Marathon

July 4, 2011 

SEWARD -- Looking gritty in pink, Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks staged one of the most stirring duels in Mount Marathon history Monday, running neck-and-neck almost the entire way in the 84th edition of Alaska's most famous footrace.

In the end, it was Randall who emerged a first-time winner after pulling away from Brooks in the final few hundred yards of the 3 1/2-mile run up and down the 3,022-foot peak.

Brooks, 29, wearing a neon pink headband, had rounded the flagpole at the top of the mountain one or two strides ahead of Randall, 28, who was wearing a neon pink shirt to match her signature pink-streaked hair. Teammates on the U.S. Olympic and Alaska Pacific University cross-country ski teams, the two were so close on the steep, rocky mountain that Brooks said it would have been easy for one to step on the other's foot.

Randall took the lead from Brooks, who led most of the way, as the two left the mountain and hit the pavement for the last quarter-mile. It wasn't until the final two blocks on Fourth Street, the finish line in sight, that Randall put a serious gap on Brooks.

"Just before the fire station, I decided, 'OK, let's make this exciting for the fans,' and I put on a surge," Randall said. "I kept waiting to see a pink headband next to me."

She never did. The hard-luck Brooks, who now has three consecutive near-misses at Mount Marathon, didn't have an answer. Randall triumphed in 52 minutes, 3 seconds and Brooks clocked 52:22; both times rank in the top 12 all-time fastest women's times.

By winning, Randall -- whose packed athletic resume includes three Winter Olympic appearances and more World Cup nordic skiing victories than any American woman in history -- finally lived up to the family name when it comes to Mount Marathon.

A four-time runner-up, Randall's win will serve to silence mom Debbie and aunt Betsy, both former Mount Marathon champs who no longer get to rib Randall about her lack of a victory in Seward.

"It comes up a lot," Randall said with a grin. "It's great to join the club, but it was a fun carrot to have out there."

It was a sizeable carrot, given her family history -- Randall's mom won the 1975 women's race (her name was Debbie Haines then) and her aunt, Betsy Haines, won three in a row from 1979-81. Despite her status as one of the world's top sprint skiers, Randall was hungry to wear the Mount Marathon crown.

"It's such a great Alaska tradition," she said. "All the history behind it, all the family history in it."

Now Monday's race becomes part of the race lore. With both women wearing their game faces -- intent, unwavering focus even as they passed thousands of cheering fans -- Randall and Brooks turned the women's race into a thriller from start to finish.

"We were three inches apart the whole time," Brooks said. "That's a racing tactic, to be in someone's shadow. I led 90 percent of the way. I pulled her around and she led for a bit.

"I like it when I can build a gap. I tried (to surge) a couple of times, but she was able to come with me."

Staying with Brooks on the ascent was key to Randall's win. Brooks is a powerful climber, and since she began racing Mount Marathon in 2008, few have kept up with her when the race heads uphill. "I was psyched to be with Holly at the top," Randall said.

Both women are world-class athletes. Though Randall has been with the U.S. Ski Team for more than a decade, Brooks emerged as an Olympic-caliber athlete three winters ago.

Around the same time, she began a frustrating relationship with Mount Marathon that continued Monday.

In both the 2009 and 2010 races, Brooks appeared to be poised for victory. Two years ago, she held a significant lead over Cedar Bourgeois coming off the mountain only to collapse from heat exhaustion and dehydration. A friend stopped her as she stumbled along Jefferson Street, less than half a mile from the finish line, and steered her to the nearby hospital. She finished more than an hour later, revived by IV fluids. Last year, she again led Bourgeois off the mountain only to get passed 200 meters from the finish line.

"Obviously there's a fair amount of disappointment, but that's how racing goes," Brooks said. "The second you cross the finish line you say, 'OK, I've got another 364 days 'til I get to try this again.' I'd love to train the downhill, but that's not good for ski training.

"Mount Marathon's a great event and a great race, but it's one day. Both Kikkan and I are first and foremost ski racers."

Skiing, in fact, is their livelihood. Randall makes her living ski racing and Brooks is both a ski coach and ski racer for APU. Randall was the World Cup sprint leader for part of last season before finishing third in the final standings, capping a season that produced multiple World Cup podium finishes -- a rarity in American skiing.

Randall said she thought of her career when one of her calves cramped going up the mountain.

"It weighs heavily on my mind," she said. "When I felt my calf cramp, I thought, 'Do I risk tearing my calf just to hang in there?' It released just in time. That half a banana before the race must've kept it in there."

Randall's time of 52:03 ranks as the eighth fastest women's time in race history and was a huge personal best, beating her previous best of 53:29, recorded last year. Brooks' time of 52:22 is the 12th fastest in history and was 24 seconds off the PR of 51:58 she ran last year.

"It's not my fastest, but I wasn't pushing for every second," said Brooks, who now owns two of the 12 all-time fastest times in the race (her 51:58 a year ago ranks seventh). "When you're neck and neck, you're going for the (win), you're not going for the time."

More than seven minutes behind Randall was third-place Kate Fitzgerald of Palmer, who clocked 59:09 and was one of five women to finish in less than an hour. Leslie Varys of Wasilla was fourth in 59:34, and Lauren Fritz of Chugiak was fifth in 59:40. Only 87 sub-hour times have been posted by women in the history of the race.

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

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