SEWARD -- A gasping, collapsing Holly Brooks earned her second Mount Marathon championship Friday, holding off a hard-charging Christy Marvin by a couple of seconds.
"Oh, my God. I can hardly stand," a still-wobbly Brooks said after spending several minutes sitting on an overturned bucket in the finish chute, catching her breath and cooling off with a water hose.
"This is the hardest I've pushed in a long time," she said.
That's saying something, because for the last several years the Anchorage woman has been one of the country's elite nordic skiers, a two-time Olympian whose job requires vigorous training and puts her in high-pressure races in which she battles the best in the world.
Brooks won in 52 minutes, 48.16 seconds, less than three seconds ahead of defending champion Marvin, a Palmer woman who clocked 52:50.51. Race rookie Najeeby Quinn of Anchorage finished a distant third in 56:16.50.
The centerpiece of Seward's massive Fourth of July party, the race is about five kilometers long, with only about two kilometers of it on the road. The rest is spent going up and down 3,022-foot Mount Marathon, the peak that provides a stunning backdrop to the town that hugs the shore of Resurrection Bay.
Brooks, 32, won by virtue of her climbing prowess, a strength acquired at least in part from her skiing background. She was the first to reach the top of the mountain and at one point led Marvin by more than two minutes.
Marvin, 33, made it close by virtue of her fearless downhill running, which carried her to an undefeated mountain- running season last summer and to victories in the first three mountain races this year. Her awesome descent -- Marvin thinks she made the trip from the top of the mountain to the finish line in about 12 minutes -- was almost enough to catch Brooks in the final few meters.
"She had a lead of 2:05 at the top," Marvin said. "I made up two minutes and two seconds of that."
Brooks, who labored her way down Fourth Avenue to the finish line, stole a few glances over her shoulder to see how close Marvin was as the finish line neared. What she saw was daunting. Marvin was closing in, and fast.
Brooks collapsed as soon as she made it across the finish line and was helped to an area where she could sit.
"I don't care if I collapse as long as it's after the finish line," she said.
Marvin crossed looking as fresh as possible in such an arduous, unforgiving race. She sprayed some dirt off her legs and then went to congratulate Brooks, who spent the first minute or two after the race gasping audibly.
"People were saying 'Holly's dying, you can get her!' I didn't believe them. And I'm dying too," Marvin said. "I got down to the road and I could see Holly and I said, OK, you need strength now.
"Earlier I had seen my 2-year-old and he said, 'Dig, mama, dig' and I was digging with everything I had. All the way I just said 'Dig, mama, dig.' I put it all out there. No regrets. Props to Holly for having a great climb."
It was a hot, bluebird day -- heavenly for spectators, hellish for racers.
"I dunked in the river ahead of the race and had tons of friends on the course with water and feeds for me," Brooks said. The night before the race, she ate three margarita-flavored Clif Bars in an effort to load up on sodium.
Brooks had reason to take precautions. The last time Mount Marathon was held on a hot, sunny day was 2009, and that year a disoriented and severely dehydrated Brooks was led from the bottom of the mountain to the hospital, which is located conveniently near the mountain. She checked out long enough to hobble across the finish line and went back to the hospital.
In 2010 and 2011, Brooks placed second after leading the way to the top of the mountain but losing the lead in the late going.
"I have a history in this last stretch," she said as she recalled the two times that she was narrowly defeated. "There's nothing that feels worse.
"I had a couple mantras. One of them was 'you can, you can, you can.' I kept saying that till I understood was probably wasting energy saying that, so I just thought it."
Later, Brooks said that if the race had lasted five more feet, Marvin would have caught her.
Marvin wasn't playing what-ifs though. She said she didn't have her best uphill climb, but she gave it everything, had fun and was happy with her effort.
"I want to accept defeat with as much grace as I accept a win," she said.
But racers should be forewarned: Marvin's first loss as a mountain runner could very well make her a better mountain runner.
"Winning fuels you with excitement," she said. "But sometimes getting beat fuels you with raw determination."