The time trials Rachel Dow of Seward clocked on Mount Marathon in preparation for her race debut last year furnished an inkling she could separate herself from the masses and make an impact in Alaska's most storied race.
Still, time trials are practice. Race day is the real deal, the only measurement that counts.
Yet, as Dow climbed the 3,022-foot peak during the race in her hometown last Fourth of July, with former high school teammate and title contender Aubrey Smith in sight, her potential channeled into a powerful performance.
"I thought, 'There's no one around me, I'm in the top 10,' " Dow recalled. " 'What's going on?' It was tripping me out.''
What transpired proved a dynamic, delightful debut -- Dow, a personal trainer who does not possess the elite running or nordic skiing background of many Mount Marathon stalwarts, bagged fifth place in 1 hour, 1 minute, 14 seconds.
And in Seward, where the citizens hold their local Mount Marathon heroes dear, her success was celebrated. Folks from the local senior center, where she conducts classes, smothered her in hugs. Relatives cried a river. No less than an authority than two-time Mount Marathon winner Patti Foldager of Seward called Dow's performance "a big deal.''
Talking about it a year later, leading up to the 83rd running of Mount Marathon on Sunday, Dow sounded giddy.
"I just don't know if I'll ever have another day like that, just shocking everybody,'' said Dow, 31. "I had friends and family coming up to me bawling.
"I surprised a lot of people in my town. They said, 'We had no idea.' Neither did I.''
That included her husband, Kyler.
"It was a big surprise,'' he said. "I knew she was strong, but I didn't know that would happen.''
The path that led Dow to race up and down Mount Marathon in 2009 began the previous winter. She turned 30 and decided to do something she never had. She grew up in Seward and spent plenty of her youth on the mountain. She watched family and friends run the race year after year.
Emboldened, Dow, who had basically been a summer runner until then, ran through the winter. Come spring, she began training on the mountain. She elicited advice from veteran racers like Patti and Flip Foldager, the unofficial first couple of Mount Marathon.
And because Mount Marathon features a limited field and gaining entry can be difficult for a first-timer, she wrote a letter to the race committee asking for a special exemption. The committee granted Dow's request -- "If you grew up in Seward, you have more of an in,'' she said.
Then came her time trials. The results, she told her husband, left her exhilarated, but anxious.
"I told him, 'Kyler, I'm freaking out because my times are so fast. I could get in the top 10,' '' Dow recalled. "It surprised me, but it also made me nervous.
Kyler said he advised his wife to be sure to also train specifically for the few minutes of paved running that takes runners to the base of the mountain. That way, he reasoned, she wouldn't get stuck behind slower climbers once she began her ascent. All the pointers Dow received helped her on a blistering hot race day that left runners feeling like they were competing in a sauna.
Dow stood in sixth place halfway up the mountain and still in sixth place when she hit the summit in 45:31. Her downhill time of 15:43 likewise ranked sixth, and after Holly Brooks, the first runner to summit, succumbed to heat exhaustion late in the race, Dow claimed fifth place at the finish.
Her contribution helped give Seward six runners in the top 10 women -- six-time champion Cedar Bourgeois, third-place finisher Smith, Dow, Karol Fink (seventh), Tekla Seavey (eighth) and Dow's cousin Kristen Sieminski (10th).
This year, Dow has been getting more tips from Flip Foldager, the 30-year race veteran who calls himself "the old guy advising her and kind of living vicariously through her.''
Flip Foldager said Dow is still tapping her potential in a race where course knowledge and experience deliver a decided edge.
"What I really enjoy about helping her out is she's so appreciative -- she's like a sponge who can't soak up enough,'' Foldager said. "I don't think she fully realizes what she is, or what she can become.
"She's just got this immense, raw talent, and the determination to do anything she wants.''
Both Foldagers like Dow's chances of breaking the one-hour barrier Sunday if conditions allow.
No matter what happens, though, Rachel Dow will always own the joy of her stunning Mount Marathon debut.
"She was surprised and happy, and had a huge grin on her face coming down the street (to the finish), and it never stopped,'' her husband said. "I took her shoes off and her feet were bloody, and she was still smiling.
"She didn't stop smiling for days, probably.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.Interactive map: Mount Marathon
By DOYLE WOODY