Ladies, start your engines: Loaded women's field ready for Mt. Marathon

Beth Bragg

Don't be fooled by Christy Marvin's choice of words when you hear her prerace analysis of what could be one of the most epic women's races in Mount Marathon history.

Three women, including defending champion Marvin, rate as co-favorites and another half-dozen or so could challenge for supremacy in the race that is among the most extreme sporting endeavors you can pursue in Alaska, especially if you are in it to win it.

Marvin sees Friday's race in Seward going something like this:

"I just want to hike up with all of the women," she said. "Hopefully we can work together, trade leads and share that burden so we can all get to the top fast, and then it's kind of every lady for herself on the way down."

There's nothing lady-like about the way Marvin and the other frontrunners will attack Mount Marathon, Seward's 3,022-foot slab of suffering. They will bleed, they will sweat, they will stumble, they may even break a nail or, just as likely, a bone. They will send chills down your spine as they charge full speed ahead down an incline that averages 38 degrees.

And this year, they believe, they may produce a show to remember.

"The race is always focused on the men, and all the hype is on the men's race," said Najeeby Quinn, one of the prerace favorites along with Marvin and 2012 champion Holly Brooks. "I think this is the first time in a long time where more than two standout females are in the race. Sometimes it's only one. The competitors are more excited about it, and the crowd I think will be more excited about it."

Quinn, 34, is a Mount Marathon rookie who has proven herself in numerous other mountain races. Marvin, 33, was undefeated in mountain races last summer and has won every race she has entered this summer. Brooks, 32, is one of only four women in history who have run Mount Marathon in less than 52 minutes and is the only member of that group who is running this year.

"With so many high-level competitors in the women's field, we'll all be pushing each other to go fast, so who knows, maybe we'll see some records fall," Brooks said.

The race is five kilometers long, but less than a mile of it is on pavement -- the rest happens on the mountain. The record, set in 1990 by Nancy Pease, is 50 minutes, 30 seconds.

Brooks won the 2012 race in 51:53, which ranks as the seventh-fastest women's time, and placed second to Cedar Bourgeois in 2010 with a time of 51:58, the eighth-fastest time in history. Marvin dominated last year in 53:20, nearly two minutes ahead of anyone else. Because Quinn is a Mount Marathon rookie she is a bit of an unknown, but Marvin demonstrated last year that a rookie can win the race.

Others to watch include a pair of Seward runners -- Denali Foldager, whose last name is all but synonymous with the race (parents Flip and Patti Foldager have been running the race for more than 30 years), and Allison Barnwell, last year's runnerup. Ann Spencer of Anchorage is back after placing third last year in her debut in the senior division, and Tasha Folsom is the wildcard, a rookie who once held the record in Sitka's seven-mile, uphill Alpine Adventure Run.

About the only way the field could be tougher would be if 2011 champion Kikkan Randall was running. The four-time Olympic skier and three-time World Cup sprint champion decided to skip the race to rather than risk injury as she heads into next week's U.S. Ski Team training camp at Eagle Glacier.

"The race tends to fry you a little bit physically," said Brooks, a two-time Olympic skier who will also attend the Eagle Glacier camp. "It's hard to have the most productive training camp afterwards. My plan is to try to get down the mountain as fast and as safe as I possibly can."

Because of the torturous nature of Mount Marathon, where a first-aid tent is part of the finish-line landscape and a multi-week recovery period is often required, some runners avoid the race. Quinn always thought she was one of those runners.

"This is a race I said I'd never do," she said. "Hell no. Why would anybody do that? I hiked up eight years ago with Kikkan and said no. No. People ask me every year: Do you do Mount Marathon? And I say no, and it's a big letdown."

This year Quinn received an invitation to run from the race committee, which offers such invitations yearly to top mountain runners. She accepted, and has since made a few trips to Seward to scout the mountain, including one with Brooks. At other times this summer, Quinn and Marvin have trained together.

Quinn thinks the race will be decided on the downhill, because the field includes a number of powerful climbers. "The uphill isn't the race," Quinn said. "We all can hang."

But Brooks said Mount Marathon is too unpredictable to know how the race will unfold.

"Mount Marathon is a different beast," she said. "You never know with the uphill, the downhill and the road. Anything can happen, a fall or an injury or just someone have an off day. That's one of the reasons the race is so exciting."

Yet Marvin remains the woman to beat, if only because no one has managed to beat her the last two summers. She said she worked on improving her uphill speed this summer, in part because she anticipated a tougher field at Mount Marathon and wanted to be ready for climbing machines like Brooks.

It's Marvin's prowess on descents that is perhaps unparalleled. She's a demon when it comes to going downhill.

"I started doing mountain running mainly because I started doing it with my dad and he showed me how to run down mountains," said Marvin, who grew up in Glennallen and lives in Palmer with her husband and three children. "Where the thrill of mountain running comes for me is the downhill. The uphill tends to be boring, especially for the spectators. For me the downhill is definitely the exhilarating portion where you actually feel fast, and feeling fast is fun."

Marvin's dad is Dan Virgin, who taught his daughter to not hold back when running down a mountain.

"He taught me more than anything to let 'er rip," Marvin said. "Not being afraid, letting the mountain take you down rather than fighting it. Often people sit back on their heels and try to fight the mountain all the way down instead of leaning into the mountain and attacking it."

Marvin will be in full attack mode Friday, as will those who hope to dethrone her.

May the best lady win.

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Mount Marathon

Friday's race schedule

9:30 a.m. -- Junior race (runners under 18)

11:15 a.m. -- Women's race

3 p.m. -- Men's race