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Saari makes big, wild push

Beth Bragg
Moose's Tooth Marathon winner Matias Saari sprints to the finish line during the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on Sixth Avenue in downtown Anchorage Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Moose's Tooth Marathon winner Matias Saari at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Davya Flaharty was the first women finisher of the Moose's Tooth Marathon during the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Davya Flaharty was the first women finisher in the Moose's Tooth Marathon during the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Skinny Raven Half Marathon competitors at the finish of the Big Wild Life Runs on 6th Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Poor Sam Tilly.

Because some friend of Matias Saari's is getting married next spring on the East Coast, Saari entered the Moose's Tooth marathon at the last minute so he could qualify for the Boston Marathon, which happens around the same time as his buddy's wedding.

And because Saari learned 20 miles into Sunday's 26.2-mile race that Tilly, the race leader, was slowing down and just 4 1/2 minutes ahead of him, Saari stopped thinking about qualifying for Boston and started thinking about winning the race.

With a quarter-mile left, Saari passed Tilly to claim victory. Saari, a 40-year-old from Anchorage, beat Tilly, a 25-year-old from Indian, by less than eight seconds with a time of 2 hours, 43 minutes, 43.4 seconds. Tilly clocked 2:43:50.7.

"I had no idea till I saw him," Tilly said. "I was almost at mile 26 and kind of hobbling by then."

A record field of 2,797 runners swarmed downtown streets and portions of the Chester Creek and Coastal trails for the Big Wild Life Runs, which offered a marathon, half-marathon and 5-kilometer race. The crowd beat last year's field of 2,378.

Among that record field was record-setter David Kiplagat. A former NCAA All-America runner for UAA, Kiplagat put down an eye-popping time of 1:07:35.2 to win the Skinny Raven half-marathon. The time was a course record and was less than 20 seconds off the state record of 1:07:16, set in 1989 by Michael Friess, Kiplagat's coach at UAA.

In other races:

• Davya Flaharty of Fairbanks claimed the women's title in 3:04:49, shaving five minutes off the time that earned her second place last year;

• Jane LeBlond of Anchorage won the women's half-marathon (1:26:04.3);

• Max Romey of Anchorage, the runnerup Saturday in the Bartlett Invitational cross country meet for high school runners, won the Snow City Cafe 5-kilometer men's race (17:11.5);

• Ashley Mortenson, 27, beat 15-year-old Kaitlyn Mondl by one second to win the women's 5-K.

For Tilly, the race came during his first summer of marathon racing. Sunday's was just the third time he's raced 26.2 miles, and his participation was in doubt in the days leading up to the race because of an ankle injury suffered three weeks ago in the Resurrection Pass 50-mile race.

"I took a whole week off and wasn't sure if I would be able to run today," he said.

For Saari, the race marked the latest triumph in his marathon summer.

In the last five weeks, he has won three marathon or marathon- equivalents -- the Yukon River Trail Marathon in Whitehorse, the 14-mile Matanuska Challenge near Palmer (a race with 9,100 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of descent) and the Moose's Tooth -- and finished third in the 24-mile Crow Pass Crossing wilderness race.

"It's sort of an experiment to race this much," he said. "This was totally unplanned. I got word that a buddy was getting married on the East Coast next April and thought it would be a shame to go there and not run Boston. The catch was I needed a qualifier and by luck there was a certified qualifier a week away in Anchorage, so I signed up.

"I was thinking I would just qualify and call it good. But my competitive juices got flowing and I got a little lucky."

Saari needed a 3:12 to qualify for Boston; his PR is 2:39 and he's never been fitter or faster than he is this summer. He said he spent most of Sunday running at a leisurely pace -- at least for him -- alongside Dave Johnston of Wasilla (third in 2:50:42.4).

"It was just a really relaxed, conversational, pretty mellow pace. I was not racing whatsoever. I got to mile 20 like that and got word that Sam Tilly was slowing down and not looking that great and I just made the decision to go after him.

"It was like flipping a switch. I went from training mode to full-out racing mode."

Saari had been running 6:20 miles up to that point. Once he got a whiff of victory, he started running 5:30 miles. He said he didn't spot Tilly until he was half a mile from the finish line. He didn't pass him until the final quarter-mile.

"Normally I'm really good at finishing," Tilly said. "I'm a good kicker, but this time I didn't have anything."

Tilly said his ankle was sore after the race. He hopes it isn't a stress fracture, because he plans to run the Equinox Marathon next month in Fairbanks, where he'll get another shot at Saari, who has won the Equinox two years in a row and three of the last four years.

Saari said his legs felt fine after chasing down Tilly, despite all the miles he has raced recently -- and despite the fact he is a trail and mountain runner.

"I haven't run 25 miles on pavement all summer," Saari said. "I was sort of a freak who was running on the dirt path as much as I could. I was weaving around like a drunk, trying to find dirt."

And at the end, he found pay dirt.

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

Big Wild Life Runs

Top 5 finishers

Moose's Tooth marathon

Men -- 1) Matias Saari 2:43:43.4; 2) Sam Tilly 2:43:50.7; 3) David Johnston 2:50:42.4; 4) Jose Garza 2:53:10.8; 5) Tom Bronga 2:57:21.5.

Women -- 1) Davya Flaharty 3:04:49.6; 2) Shawn McTaggart 3:21:53.9; 3) Jamie Freeman 3:22:12.4; 4) Kimberly Beaman 3:29:27.5; 5) Rachel Baird 3:29:47.2.

Skinny Raven half-marathon

Men -- 1) David Kiplagat 1:07:35, 2) Steve Chu 1:15:54.7; 3) Jacob Moe 1:16:46.6; 4) Ryan Davis 1:17:17.7; 5) Bart Dengel 1:19:28.

Women -- 1) Jane LeBlond 1:26:04.3; 2) Emma Bohman 1:27:35.1; 3) April Nelson 1:29:41.8; 4) Erin West 1:30:05.3; 5) Kirsten Kolb (1:33:38.5).

Snow City 5-kilometer

Men -- 1) Max Romey 17:11.5; 2) Greg Schroll 17:58.3; 3) Mike Wahlig 18:42.9; 4) Gillean Szweda-Mittelstadt 18:43.8; 5) Steve Gibson 19:47.8.

Women -- 1) Ashley Mortenson 19:46; 2) Kaitlyn Mondl 19.46.1; 3) Jane Senaga 19:55; 4) Joanna Lende 20:03.1; 5) Alexandra Hyland 20:04.6.

Bear Tooth Grill marathon relay winners

Mixed -- 1) Mandy Vincent-Lang, Willie Stoll, Brad Benter, Mike Bourdukofsky, 2:48:06.8. Men -- 1) Graham Stewart, Eric Otto, John McGregor, Robert Jackson, 3:14:49.4. Women -- Britta Hamre, Tazlina Mannix, Jasmine Hatton, Rachel Saul, 3:26:59.2.


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com