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37 years later, Spencer still king of Mount Marathon

Beth Bragg
Bill Spencer descends the lower half of Mount Marathon during the 1991 race in Seward.
Daily News archive 1991
Bill Spencer is on his way to setting the Junior Mount Marathon record in this 1973 photo.
Photo courtesy of Alaska Mountain Runners

After a trip to Seward late last week to check out conditions on Mount Marathon -- the famous peak that is the Mount Olympus of Alaska, the place where our toughest and studliest athletes achieve almost godlike status -- race legend Bill Spencer pronounced the mountain fit for Monday's 84th edition of the race.

"The mountain's in good shape. Me, I'm not so sure," he said. "I hope to go up the mountain and come back. I'm trying to finish in the top three of the over-70 division."

At age 55, Alaska's king of the hill is as humble as ever, even though he still looms large over the annual Fourth of July race that ranks among the state's biggest and most jaw-dropping sporting events.

If there was a Mount Rushmore of Mount Marathon heroes, Spencer's face would be front and center. For 37 years, Spencer has owned the record for the fastest time in the 3.5-mile race, held mostly on the 3,022-foot mountain that stands guard over Resurrection Bay.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Spencer's 1981 record time of 43 minutes, 23 seconds. Only one runner since has broken the 44-minute barrier -- Toby Schwoerer, who won in 43:39 in 2005. In 2008, Trond Flagstad, the defending champion, recorded the third-fastest time in race history, a 44:03.

Spencer's epic run, which included an astonishing 10-minute descent according to a newspaper account from 1981, took 48 seconds off the previous record. And the previous mark also happened to belong to Spencer. In 1974, fresh out of high school, he clocked 44:11 to claim the record from Jonathan Chaffee, who ran 44:25 in 1968.

"It's something I've carried with me for most of my adult life; it's time for somebody else to have it," Spencer said. "I'm ready for someone else to hold that notoriety for awhile."

Which leads to the obvious question: Can Spencer's record be broken?

"Ha. It's not gonna happen by me. I haven't even been within three minutes of it," said Matias Saari, the 2009 champion, who is among the favorites this year. "It takes an extremely fast course, which means a lot of snow, great competition -- guys pushing each other -- and someone that's really motivated and really fit and has a phenomenal day."

Jim Renkert, the 1987 champ who placed second to Spencer in 1981, thinks the record will fall some day but maybe not anytime soon.

"I do not think the record will last another 30 years but don't be surprised if it lasts another 10," he said. "I don't think it will last another 30 because we've had Toby coming close and some other talented runners who if they'd been younger could've done it. ... Some of these guys who have won, like (Todd) Boonstra and Trond, have all run very fast times and could have potentially gotten that record but none were necessarily in their prime. Boonstra and Trond were in their mid- to late 30s. Whoever beats it will be between 20 and 33."

Spencer was a scrawny 18-year-old when he set the record the first time, the summer after he graduated from Service High.

"My Selective Service card shows I weighed 95 pounds when I graduated from high school," he said. "I was a really small, light, focused little guy."

As young and slight as he was, Spencer wasn't an unknown. The year before, he set the junior record of 24:34 -- a time that still stands and that many believe is more impressive and more enduring than his senior record. No other junior has even cracked 26 minutes in the race, which goes about halfway up Mount Marathon.

Buoyed by his performance in the junior race, Spencer made his senior debut with Chaffee's record on his mind.

"In 1974 I thought there was a chance I could break that record," he said. "I was a senior in high school and I finally found something I was good at, so I was keying into that. There were no Internet chat rooms then. I used to race bikes in the spring, and I'd race bikes all May and then run mountains for the month of June. I think the bike racing kind of helped."

So did nordic skiing, another thing Spencer was good at -- he raced in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Between 1974 and 1981, his ski training increased and his body matured. By 1981, he was several inches taller and at least 60 pounds heavier.

"I was quite a bit taller and it paid off coming down. I came down in a pretty speedy time," Spencer said. "The other thing that changed that I remember, those first years I always had a really bad side ache. I hit the street (after descending the mountain) and just about doubled over and limped down the street but it didn't matter because no one was with me. When I raced in '81 I hit the bottom and had been doing more running so I was a better road runner and I made really good time going into town. I think I cut a minute off right there."

By the time Spencer came off the mountain and headed for the downtown finish line, maybe half a mile away, he didn't need foot speed to secure victory. Renkert, his nearest pursuer, finished in 46:48 -- 3:25 after Spencer, who grabbed a big lead early.

"Once we got to the top of cliffs and into the woods, Bill was gone," Renkert said. "Once I broke out of the trees I saw him again but he was way out in front. (Former champion) Tom Besh was sitting at midway and he said to me, 'I think he's tiring,' and we both laughed. He knew and I knew.

"The reality was I was never gonna catch this guy. When he focused on Mount Marathon, no one was going to touch him."

Spencer said he enjoyed the days when he ruled Mount Marathon, which attracts 10,000 spectators, maybe more, in a town of about 3,000.

"It was sort of my yearly ego boost," he said with a chuckle. "I could go down there and run and feel good about myself for a day or two. It's opened a lot of doors and started a lot of conversations over my lifetime."

But as for his record, he said, "it's certainly time for somebody else to break it."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.