SEWARD -- Even as he sprinted to the finish line and spied the electronic clock overhead that reported he was shortly to shatter one of the most storied and oldest records in Alaska sports, Eric Strabel did not believe the digits.
He thought there must be some timing mistake.
There was not.
Strabel, 31, of Anchorage not only won the men's race at Mount Marathon for the second time in three years, but he wiped out the course record that had stood since 1981 and sometimes seemed nearly unbreakable.
Strabel made the 3.5-mile journey of pain up and down the steep, unforgiving 3,022-foot mountain and back into town in 42 minutes, 55 seconds to eclipse the long-standing record (43:21) of eight-time men's champion Bill Spencer.
For a few moments in the finish chute, Strabel was unaware the record was his. He assumed there was a timing error. He received an incorrect report of his time at the top of the mountain -- he was third to the peak, in 32:19, 36 seconds faster than someone told him -- and felt he was running slower downhill than his blistering descent in 10:08 a year ago. And he did not wear a watch when he raced.
When the news of his breakthrough was relayed to him, Strabel was incredulous.
"Oh, my God," he said. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God.''
There was a lot of that going around.
"Un-freaking-believable,'' said Ben Ward, the 14th-place finisher.
"Holy s---," quoth 2009 champion Matias Saari, who crossed in fourth place Thursday.
Fifth-place finisher Brent Knight did not even speak -- he simply mouthed, "Wow," his eyes wide, his jaw dropped.
And when Spencer, 57, came across the line more than 26 minutes after Strabel, he wrapped the new record-holder in his arms. From atop the mountain, Spencer had seen the police car that escorts the lead runner back into town, glanced at his watch and knew his record was history.
"Hey, great job, buddy," Spencer said.
"Thanks for raising the bar so high," Strabel responded.
Strabel led a flurry of four finishers who cracked the 45-minute barrier. In 85 editions of Mount Marathon before Thursday, only 15 times had the 45-minute mark been eclipsed, and only on two previous occasions (2012 and 2011) had as many as two runners gone under 45 minutes in the same race.
This was a day so fast among top finishers that race rookie Rickey Gates, 32, of San Francisco finished runner-up despite dislocating his left shoulder in a wicked fall at the base of the mountain and yet clocked 43:04, the second-fastest time in race history.
Race rookie Wylie Mangelsdorf, 21, of Palmer earned third place in 44:09, the seventh-fastest time in race history. Saari, 42, of Anchorage slashed 20 seconds from his personal best in the race to take fourth in 44:53. Brent Knight, 29, of Anchorage took fifth in 45:05, just seven seconds off his personal best.
And Thomas Coolidge, 62, of Anchorage finished in 59:14 to chop 52 seconds off his previous record (2011) in the 60-69 age group.
Barney Griffith, 55, of Anchorage matched his 10th-place finish of a year ago, and his 48:15 was just six seconds off the 50-59 age-group record he ran last year.
Defending champion Matt Novakovich, 39, of Anchorage cramped early in the race and finished 11th in 48:24. "No excuses," he said.
Gates, the former member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team who led the field to the peak in 31:48, was gaining on Strabel as they sprinted to the finish line on Fourth Avenue. With Strabel uncertain a record loomed before him, he said he was more concerned about what was going on behind him.
"When I saw the time" -- 42 minutes and change -- "I thought, 'The clock's not right,' " Strabel said. "To be honest, I was more concerned with Rickey catching me."
On an overcast day that began with light rain that greased the course for the junior race and women's race, both the wind and the traffic from the earlier races helped quicken the course for the men.
Nor did it hurt that the top men pushed one another to the limit. Novakovich set the early pace. Strabel took a turn in the lead. Gates next pushed to the front. Mangelsdorf took off in pursuit, pulling Strabel with him.
"You've got to do that to get the record," Mangelsdorf said. "You've got to work together."
Rounding the rock that marks the race's turnaround point, Gates led the charge in 31:48. Mangelsdorf followed nine seconds later and Strabel another 22 seconds after Mangelsdorf.
But Strabel is both experienced on Mount Marathon -- he first won the men's race in 2011 and won the junior race in 1999 -- and an exceptional and daring downhiller. He caught Gates about halfway down the mountain and never trailed again in whacking 45 seconds off his previous best time. Strabel's downhill time of 10:36 was the fastest in the field by 40 seconds, topping Gates' descent of 11:16.
Gates' wipeout at the base of the mountain, which left his left thigh scraped and bloody, was not the first time he has endured a dislocated shoulder.
"It is the first time I've had to pop my shoulder back in, on the run, in a race," he said.
Like Mangelsdorf, Gates applauded the racers who pushed one another to new standards.
"It happens when you have really good competition," Gates said. "You race to the level of your competition. I knew a win wasn't going to be handed to me -- there's such quality runners up here."
Gates' second-place finish matched that of his mother, Trish, in the 1969 Mount Marathon.
"I didn't want to break from family tradition," Gates joked. "I didn't want to humiliate her."
Strabel's ascension was no joke, and was years in the making. Veteran racer Harlow Robinson was mindful that Strabel shattered the race record last summer in the Matanuska Peak Challenge, a 14-miler that includes more than 9,000 feet of vertical gain and an equal amount of descent. And Strabel's victory at the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks last fall came courtesy of the fastest time in the race's past 26 years.
Having diligently logged workouts on an incline treadmill that can duplicate the pitch of Mount Marathon, the slope of which averages 38 degrees, Strabel was well trained. He also sought redemption for his eighth-place finish a year ago. And while he conceded a stab at the record had more than crossed his mind, recent rains had dimmed that notion.
"Weeks ago, I thought it was possible," Strabel said. "I kind of gave up on that two or three days ago. Then I heard the announcer before the race say it didn't look like a day for a record.
"I was like, 'Argh. I hope I can prove that wrong.' There are things you think about and dream about when you train, and that's one of them. You never know if it will happen. I never held my breath over it."
No one was more delighted about Strabel's record run than Spencer.
"I think it's awesome," said Spencer, who owned the record since 1974, having broken his own mark in 1981. "I have carried that thing a long time. If I had a nickel for every time a conversation got started because of that record, or a person recognized me because of it, or the doors it opened for me ...
"I hope Eric gets as much out of it as I did."
Long after Strabel finished, his brother Mark tracked him down in the finish area.
"How was it?" Mark asked.
"Crazy," Eric said. "It went by pretty quickly."