For years, Eric Strabel carried the heavy load of expectation with him on his toilsome ascents and dangerous descents of Mount Marathon, the mountain race that doubles as a coronation for some of Alaska's greatest athletes.
It was as if he bore the weight of the world on his sturdy shoulders -- he was one of Alaska's strongest mountain runners and the 2011 Mount Marathon champion, but somehow that wasn't enough.
Then came last year, and this Alaskan Atlas shrugged off his burden. Strabel crushed Bill Spencer's venerated course record that had stood since 1981. He completed the 3.5-mile race -- held nearly entirely on the 3,022-foot mountain that stands guard over the city of Seward -- in 42 minutes, 55 seconds, shattering Spencer's mark of 43:21.
A year later, Strabel, 32, said he feels confident and almost carefree as he heads into Friday's race. And that could mean trouble for the considerable pack of contenders who hope to steal his crown.
"Before I'd always come out of the Fourth of July with something a little bit more to prove," Strabel said. "Last year I accomplished anything I wanted to accomplish and it felt like all that pressure was lifted off my shoulders and finally I could relax. I took some time off. I had been preparing very hard for the race, and I was able to take a step back and not worry about the race at all and relax.
"Last fall I got the itch to get back into shape, not just for Mount Marathon but for the lifestyle. Even as successful as last year's race was, I still believe that, from my notes from three days after the race, I had reasons XYZ that I can go 30 seconds faster on the uphill and 30 seconds faster on the downhill."
A minute faster than 42:55? What's next, a sub-40 time in a race born more than a century ago when a couple of sourdoughs bet on whether a one-hour ascent and descent of the mountain was possible?
Never say never. As Mount Marathon's reputation grows as a unique test of speed, power and nerve, the course record could come under continued attack.
The race attracts most of Alaska's elite runners and nordic skiers, and it's gaining a national reputation too. Rickey Gates, a world-class mountain runner from San Francisco, is back after placing second last year in 43:04, the second-fastest time in history.
"For me, it's certainly the funnest, most exciting race that I've run, certainly in the States and possibly in the world," said Gates, who has raced on all seven continents and owns records on some of them. "There's really no other race like that out there, with the exception of a couple of similar races in Europe.
"For lack of a better description, it's kind of the danger aspect of it. We live in a world governed more or less by a lot of court battles and stuff like that, and it's just very rare to be able to find a race where you can actually risk so much. I think you can see it in everybody's face coming up that mountain and you can see it in everybody's race coming down that mountain.
Strabel and Gates, 33, are the frontrunners going into the men's race, which begins at 3 p.m. in downtown Seward. Before that, the juniors will race halfway up the mountain at 9:30 a.m., and the women will race at 11:15 a.m.
Plenty of worthy contenders hope to deny Strabel and Gates, including 2012 champion Matt Novakovich, the three runners who completed last year's top five -- Wylie Mangelsdorf, 2009 champion Matias Saari and perennial contender Brent Knight -- and wildcard Jim Shine. Shine, a mountain-running newcomer who has impressed in early races this summer, needs to win a spot in the race at Thursday night's bib auction; if he does, he's expected to make an impact.
The biggest name missing is two-time champion Trond Flagstad, who is skipping the race because of injuries. "I'm bummed to miss the competitive field, especially racing against Rickey Gates, but there will be another year," Flagstad said.
Not only is the field competitive -- "Everyone who raced last year is back, and arguably in better fitness," Strabel said -- the mountain is reportedly in excellent shape.
All of the snow melted early, allowing for a decent path to be beaten into the scree and the gut that racers encounter on their descent.
"The downhill in my estimation is gonna be rocket-fast," Saari said a week ago. "There's just a real nice route there, you can trust it and let it go. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a sub-10-minute downhill this year. I'm hoping to go faster than I've ever gone."
Strabel flew down the mountain in 10 minutes flat last year, the fastest time since split times have been kept. (Those times include 3,022 feet of downhill running plus about three-quarters of a mile on the streets leading from the mountain to Fourth Avenue, where the race begins and ends). The rapid descent allowed Strabel to catch Gates and Mangelsdorf, the only runners who beat Strabel to the top of the mountain.
Strabel, a nordic ski coach for Alaska Pacific University who recently launched a career in a real estate, said he's a better climber this year. A victory at the all-uphill Government Peak Climb earlier this year demonstrated that.
"This year I have been able to climb much better, even an order of magnitude better," he said. "Last year my planning was, 'Can I hang on to be close enough at the top to maybe do something on the downhill?' Now I know I can hang with anybody on the uphill."
As for the downhill, the question is whether anyone can hang with Strabel, who clocked 10:08 in 2012 and 10 flat last year. Once the race becomes a descent, Strabel is in his element.
"My biggest strategy for the downhill is to make the transition and start moving as swiftly as possible, feel the rhythm and follow my instincts," he said. "It's not about trying any harder or doing anything special."
Instead, the secret is experience, he said.
"Like any alpine skier, what matters is the time on those skis and learning the coordination," Strabel said. "It's simply a skill, not a bigger fitness. Alpine skiers don't have to do the same run again and again and again, they need to have the right mindset and know the mountain enough to follow their instinct and detach from each little detail. They can go on autopilot."
Gates, who made it to the top in 32:24, 31 seconds ahead of Strabel, said he hopes he can get to the top even faster this year, because he anticipates another fast downhill from the defending champ.
"It's a little nerve-wracking thinking I could take anymore time off the downhill," he said.
Last year, Gates had safely reached the bottom of the mountain when he looked at the huge crowd of cheering spectators and allowed himself a celebratory fist pump. He tripped and fell down hard, dislocating his shoulder, an injury he has suffered numerous times and knows how to deal with. Within six seconds he was back on his feet and his shoulder was back in place.
He said the fall "absolutely" did not cost him the race. Strabel was already several seconds ahead of him by then, "and obviously it cost me a second or two, but it also gave me a big boost of adrenaline and I reminded myself I still had one little chance, because this race isn't done yet," Gates said.
But there was no catching Strabel, who on Friday will return to the mountain feeling confident and eager. He will enjoy the activities before his race begins, including the women's race, where fiancee Denali Foldager is among the contenders. He won't spend the hours before his race stressing and strategizing.
"One of the bright sides to getting older is you learn what contributes to success and what doesn't," Strabel said. "I used to despise the whole buildup. Now I don't mind. It's all part of the day.
"Since I have had success, I know that I can be more relaxed. I don't have to worry about certain things. I know what I need to do, and as long as I get those things done, I can enjoy the ride."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or call her at 257-4335.
Overall: Eric Strabel, 2013, 42:55
18-29: Bill Spencer, 1981, 43:23
30-39: Eric Strabel, 2013, 42:55
40-49: Trond Flagstad, 2012, 44:26
50-59: Barney Griffith, 2012, 48:09
60-69: Thomas Coolidge, 2013, 59:14
70-79: Fred Moore, 2010, 1:07:09
80-89: Corky Corthell, 2009, 1:52:59
Overall: Nancy Pease, 1990, 50:30
18-29: Nancy Pease, 1990, 50:30
30-39: Carmen Young, 1986, 50:54
40-49: Teresa Brady, 2007, 58:42
50-59: Sheryl Loan, 2012, 59:23
60-69: Ellyn Brown, 2013, 1:08:58
70-79: Mary Hensel, 2008, 1:57:02
Overall: Bill Spencer, 1973, 24:30
Overall: Allie Ostrander, 2011, 30:32Mount Marathon course records
Top 10 fastest men's times
Rank Runner Year Time Place
1) Eric Strabel 2013 42:55 1st
2) Rickey Gates 2013 43:04 2nd
3) Bill Spencer 1981 43:21 1st
4) Toby Schwoerer 2004 43:39 1st
5) Trond Flagstad 2008 44:03 1st
6) Matt Novakovich 2012 44:07 1st
7) Wylie Mangelsdorf 2013 44:09 3rd
8) Bill Spencer 1974 44:11 1st
9) Jonathan Chaffee 1968 44:25 1st
10) Bill Spencer 1976 44:25 1st
Top 10 fastest women's times
Rank Runner Year Time Place
1) Nancy Pease 1990 50:30 1st
2) Carmen Young 1986 50:54 1st
3) Nancy Pease 1989 51:13 1st
4) Nancy Pease 1992 51:14 1st
5) Cedar Bourgeois 2005 51:44 1st
6) Cedar Bourgeois 2010 51:48 1st
7) Holly Brooks 2012 51:53 1st
8) Holly Brooks 2010 51:58 1st
9) Kikkan Randall 2011 52:03 1st
10) Cedar Bourgeois 2008 52:11 1st
1) Bill Spencer, 8
2) Brad Precosky, 6
2) Sven Johanson, 6
2) Ralph Hatch, 6
5) Todd Boonstra, 4
1) Nina Kemppel, 9
2) Cedar Bourgeois, 7
3) Nancy Pease, 6
4) Carmen Young, 4
5) Betsy Haines, 3
1) Shawn Erchinger, 4
2) Rory Egelus, 3
3) 9 tied with 2
1) Allie Ostrander, 5
2) Aubrey Smith, 4
2) Emily Ransom, 4
4) Denali Foldager, 3
4) Kikkan Randall, 3
By BETH BRAGG