SEWARD — Holly Brooks understood people were simply interested or making conversation, and they no doubt meant well. Yet even to someone with her bounty of good cheer, the curious became to seem a curse and the inquisitive sometimes felt like an inquisition.
Time and again, the same question came: Is this the year the three-time Mount Marathon runner-up wins?
Funny — folks asked the same about the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner ski race after she lost the 2009 race in a photo finish.
In February, Brooks won the Birkie to put that question to rest.
And Wednesday — finally, at long last — she rendered the Mount Marathon inquiry obsolete.
Brooks, 30, an Olympic nordic skier from Anchorage, owned the Mount Marathon women’s race from the outset, clocking a personal-best 51 minutes, 53 seconds, to seize the race of more than three miles from downtown, up and down the 3,022-foot peak that looms over this town, and back.
Equal parts excited and blessedly relieved, and wrapped in an American flag handed to her from the crowd about 25 yards before the finish line, Brooks accepted a hug and kiss from her husband, Rob Whitney, and a champagne shower from her friend, Merritt Olson.
“The Birkie and Mount Marathon have driven me crazy,’’ Brooks said. “No one lets you forget it. ‘You gonna win this year?’ I no longer have to answer that question, because I did it.
“I can put the demons to rest.’’
And then she unleashed her bright smile, threw her head back and laughed.
In its own way, this was Holly Brooks’ Independence Day.
Not only did she bag her first Mount Marathon victory — “She doesn’t even look tired,’’ Whitney marveled — but she also did it in a time five seconds faster than her previous best. And her performance came in a race that has been such a marker in her life recently.
She and Whitney were engaged the day before the 2008 race. The 2009 edition, in which she led late in the race before a detour to the emergency room with heat exhaustion and dehydration, came the week before her wedding.
The 2010 race came the year of her Olympic debut, and in that Mount Marathon she was beaten on the final stretch along Fourth Avenue by seven-time champion Cedar Bourgeois’ stirring rally. And last year, she dueled with three-time Olympic skier Kikkan Randall, her U.S. Ski Team and Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center teammate, before Randall proved too strong in the final stretch.
Now she is the reigning queen of Mount Marathon, crowned on an overcast day that featured a slightly wet trail — it had dried some since the junior race in the morning — and a massive snowfield, the remnant of a winter of frequent, deep snow, near the peak of the mountain.
Brooks became royalty on a day she ran her fastest time on the course, yet was unaware of her speed because she purposely did not wear a watch. With recent rain and mist making the uphill trail slippery, and with more than 30 hours of skiing in her legs from last week’s training on Eagle Glacier, Brooks did not want to be burdened by time.
Plus, with an eye on the 2014 Olympics, she negotiated the downhill with caution, lest she fall victim to injury — Randall skipped the race over injury concerns.
“I definitely could have run a little faster,’’ Brooks said. “I took time to enjoy and savor the moment. That’s worth more than five, 10, 15, whatever seconds.’’
As Brooks ran down Fourth Avenue, which was lined three- and four-deep with raucous spectators, she smiled with each stride.
“It’s just a tunnel of noise, and it felt absolutely wonderful,’’ she said. “People told me I had a lead, but just for my sanity I had to look over my shoulder twice.’’
Behind her was nothing, save a wall of spectators and an empty street.
Even so, her competition delighted in her win — it was like a Holly Brooks Hugathon in the finish chute — and also in their performances.
Lauren Fritz, 24, of Chugiak, and Brooks’ APU teammate who likewise endured heavy training last week on Eagle Glacier, finished second, three spots higher than her previous best, last year. She also clocked 54:47, which slashed an astounding 4:53 of her previous PR.
“I was really nervous and anxious before this race,’’ Fritz said. “I just put a lot of pressure on myself because of how I did last year. I’m so excited by what I did.’’
Laura Brosius, 27, of Fairbanks, took third place in a PR of 55:04, one place and 14 seconds better than her 2010 debut at Mount Marathon. The three-time champion of the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks and former winner of the Crow Pass Crossing backcountry marathon passed two women on the descent of a mountain that averages 38 degrees.
“I have a bit of a reckless streak when it comes to the downhill,’’ Brosius said.
The PRs just kept coming.
Fourth-place finisher Allison Barnwell, 20, the former junior Mount Marathon champion, crossed in 55:08, a remarkable 6:51 faster than her previous best. That marked her as the fastest Seward runner in a town that cherishes hometown athletes.
Rachel Dow, 33, of Seward, earned fifth place in 58:31. Denali Foldager, 22, of Seward, a three-time junior champ and daughter of two-time women’s winner Patti Foldager, took sixth in a PR of 59:07 – that was an improvement of 2:19 over her previous best.
And Sheryl Loan, 53, of Eagle River, obliterated the 50-59 age-group record.
Loan, an eight-time winner of the Tour of Anchorage bicycle race, entered with two goals: A top-10 finish and a sub-hour time. She checked both off her list, taking seventh place in 59:23, which lopped 2:05 off the 1996 age-group standard (1:01:28) of four-time women’s champion Carmen Young-Dunham.
In eighth place came Abby Jahn, 19, of Wasilla, whose improved massively over her 52nd-place debut last year and posted a 1:01:05 that whacked a jaw-dropping 10:17 off her debut time.
Still the day belonged to Brooks, whose friend Olson, visiting from Oregon, copped to being a good-luck charm.
“Luckily, I was able to deliver,’’ Brooks said.
She did it with equal parts fitness and finesse — Brooks built a big uphill lead so she could be careful on the descent — and no small amount of toughness.
This is a woman who checked out of the emergency room in 2009 so she could finish the race officially (212th). This is the woman who last holiday season slipped while jogging and broke her left wrist four days before the brutal Tour de Ski (nine races in 11 days), yet completed that tortuous stage race. This is the woman who was coming off the most exhausting training week of her ski career.
This is the woman who possesses what she calls “the Mount Marathon, Alaskan mentality.’’
As she stood in the finish area Wednesday, sweaty, yet still all smiles after all those miles, a dirtied Brooks looked the part of champion.
“Who doesn’t love being covered in dirt and grime, and mud and blood?’’ she asked.
Finally, the woman who so often faced the big question in this race, countered with the only question still relevant for her.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.